John Lennon’s death, 25 years on

By David Watts Barton, The Sacramento Bee, December 8, 2005 

It’s still hard to believe. Someone shot Beatle John. It happened 25 years ago today, but it still doesn’t make sense that someone – a fan – would kill a man who sang a whole generation awake.

But John Lennon was indeed shot this day in 1980, and many Sacramentans are remembering that heinous crime, some shedding fresh tears over an old wound.

They cry because Lennon, with the Beatles and without them, changed the world. Changed their world. And his murder changed it again, but not for the better. While Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and other rock stars died from their excesses, Lennon died at the hands of Mark David Chapman, a man who is still imprisoned for his deed.

Lennon’s brutal, pointless murder remains a stain on popular music and the counterculture that will never come out. Suddenly, on an ordinary winter’s Monday night, the words Lennon had sung 10 years before came true.

“The dream is over.”

Sacramento was far from the Dakota gateway where Lennon was shot and where fans gathered – and occasionally, still gather – to mourn him. But the news of Lennon’s death hit Sacramentans as hard as it hit people anywhere. Many still remember exactly where they were when they heard the news.

That is particularly true among local musicians and people in the music business, many of whom became musicians because of Lennon and the Beatles. Though they all express similar shock and sadness about that day, their memories are unique.

“I remember I was alone, and I remember the color of the rug, the brown hope chest the stereo was on, I remember everything,” says Marty DeAnda, manager of local singer- songwriters Jackie Greene and Chris Webster. “I remember turning the TV off and putting on ‘Plastic Ono Band,’ pouring a brandy and toasting the fireplace. I probably got 25 calls that night, everyone saying, ‘Are you OK?’ They knew how much I loved him.”

But DeAnda says Lennon was such an influence on him, his response was tempered. While others gathered the next evening at Plaza Park in downtown Sacramento to light candles and sing Lennon songs, DeAnda declined.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘I’m not going to do too much, because John would think I was an idiot,’ ” he recalls. “He wasn’t sentimental. I really could have played into the sympathies (of my friends), but I didn’t want to be an idiot in John’s eyes.”

Musicians, many of whom discovered music itself through the Beatles, were particularly hard hit, especially the youngest ones.

Local singer/songwriter Anton Barbeau, 38, recalls the news of Lennon’s murder as “the most devastating day of my life.

“My mother died when I was 6,” he says. “But I was too young to know what that was. But John died when I was 13, and … well, what can I say?”

Barbeau says his grief was compounded by having to go to school the next day, a middle school (Immaculate Conception) at which the Bee Gees ruled and the Beatles were largely forgotten.

“I remember thinking, ‘I had to go to school, but at least my teacher, Mr. Lopez, was a Beatles fan,’ ” Barbeau says. “And when I got there, he’d taken the day off because he couldn’t handle it.”

Jerry Perry, 41, a local concert promoter and editor and publisher of the monthly music magazine Alive and Kicking, remembers that next day at school – Cordova High in Rancho Cordova – with some chagrin. Depressed by the event, Perry says that, once at school, things took an embarrassing turn.

“I’m at my desk and I’ve got ‘Yer Blues’ in my head – “Yes, I’m lonely/Wanna die,” all that – and so I started writing the lyrics on the desktop with a pencil. I left it there and switched classes. And later in the day, I had to meet with the vice principal, and they had me sit down and said, ‘Are you OK?’ like I was suicidal. I guess it wasn’t the best song to write on the desk.”

Even musicians who didn’t know the Beatles were affected by Lennon’s murder. Mike Farrell, 37, is a guitarist in Daisy Spot, Th’ Losin’ Streaks and other local bands. He says he didn’t know the Beatles in December 1980 but nonetheless was touched by Lennon’s death.

“I was a KISS fanatic. I was 12 years old,” he says. “But when he died, it did something to me. I saved the newspaper clippings and hung them on the wall, started buying John Lennon memorabilia. His death planted the seed for me getting into the Beatles. Then I heard the song ‘A Day in the Life,’ because they played it on the radio, and I realized that there was something special about this guy.”

Charles Baty, 52, is the longtime leader of Sacramento’s blues ambassadors, Little Charlie and the Nightcats. He says he didn’t care for the Beatles when he was a teen. “They were too ‘pop’ for me,” he says. “Later on, as I got into playing music, when I heard jazz treatments of their songs, I realized how well-respected they were and how well their songs stood up against ‘Body and Soul’ or other standards. We even do an instrumental version of ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ sometimes.

“I don’t remember what I was doing the day he was killed,” Baty concedes. “But I do remember thinking, ‘What a terrible road we’ve come down when people feel the need to assassinate artists.’ ”

Brian Wheat’s reaction to Lennon’s murder has deepened over time, he says. The bassist/songwriter for Tesla remembers when he heard about Lennon’s death during “Monday Night Football.”

“I was just bummed out, and I remember thinking, ‘There’ll never be a Beatles reunion.’ Now I’m older; it’s a deeper loss.”

Since then, Wheat has become a platinum-selling recording artist and producer, and he experienced just a year ago an echo of the Lennon murder – the onstage shooting of former Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell Abbott.

“When I saw (Paul) McCartney in Vegas last month, they had metal detectors you had to go through at the show, and being around the McCartney camp for three or four days, I saw that he’s got a slew of security,” Wheat said. “You realize how vulnerable famous people are.”

There was a pain in people’s voices when they discussed Lennon’s murder. Each seems to have a sense, hard to put into words, that Lennon’s murder broke something that has yet to heal.

Despite their varied responses, these music people share a sense that the Lennon murder was, as Perry puts it, “the end of an era, just ‘Pow!’ ”

And it still hurts, says local jazz guitaristcomposer Henry Robinett, 49, of the Capital Jazz Project.

“Everyone talks about the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr.,” he says. “And Lennon is up there, in terms of remembering what you were doing when you heard. But … Lennon was a more personal thing, and it was senseless. You could rationalize someone hating King or Kennedy … but Lennon? Lennon? Why?

“When something defies logic, it keeps you stuck,” Robinett says. “It’s like …. a mass of people are stuck in this incident, and it’s made all the more profound because we’re all collectively stuck in it. And there’s no resolution.”