Today is the fortieth anniversary of the senseless, stupid murder of former Beatle John Lennon. I was a sophomore in college when it happened, and I remember it well because December 8 was the birthday of the woman I was dating at the time. I was sitting in Heidi’s dorm room just a few minutes before midnight when her mother called to wish her a happy birthday — and dropped the bombshell, “Did you hear one of the Beatles was killed?”
The Beatles had been part of my life for as long as I could remember.
I was a 3-year-old kid watching entranced when the Beatles performed on Ed Sullivan in early 1964. I was in the third grade when I learned the devastating news that they had broken up. My teen years were spent getting to know their music better and always feeling like their solo careers could never measure up to the magic that the Fab Four created as a group. Like Bill Graham and so many others, I dreamed that some day John, Paul, George and Ringo would bury their collective hatchets and make new music, or at least launch the tour to end all tours. Can you imagine all four Beatles performing the Abbey Road medley live? It’s magic when Paul plays just the last bits of it in his solo shows. It’s magic when tribute bands or artists play it. One can only wonder how it might have been had they all reunited, even just for one glorious tour.
On December 8, 1980, all those dreams were shot dead with five point-blank bullets in John Lennon’s back.
Like so many people of my generation whose childhood and/or adolescence had the Beatles for a soundtrack, I’ve never stopped loving — or listening to — their music. I grieved nineteen years ago, when George Harrison succumbed to cancer (he was younger than I am now), and preened with pride when “my” childhood band had the best-selling album not only of the year 2001, but of the decade 2001-2010! (I’m speaking of their compilation album of number one hits, simply called “1” — if you’re one of the three people on the planet who don’t own a copy, you can get it by clicking here).
But today, on this rather unhappy anniversary, I’d like to highlight an interesting story, that I stumbled upon a few months ago.
This story involves Paul and Linda McCartney and famed rockabilly musician Carl Perkins. It’s a story with a bit of a supernatural edge to it. Coincidence? Or a hint of how love can get expressed from even beyond the grave? I’ll let you decide.
To set the stage, let’s pause again to reflect on both the tragedy and the irony of the Beatles breaking up. The most commercially and critically successful music group of the rock and roll era ended their ten-year association with a bitter court battle and incredible vitriol between various members of the band, who wrote songs and used interviews to bash one another. How could musicians who sang songs like “All You Need Is Love” and “All Together Now” end up being so mean to one another? Well, it happened — but it also wasn’t the end of the story.
In a video interview, the legendary rockabilly musician Carl Perkins told the story of helping Paul McCartney record his first album after the shocking murder of John Lennon in 1980. Perkins spent a week with the former Beatle on the Island of Montserrat, where producer George Martin had a studio. It was literally just weeks after Lennon’s murder, and both George Harrison and Ringo Starr came to spend time with their former bandmate. Apparently Carl Perkins had a wonderful time there, for the night before he was scheduled to return to America a song came to him, about the beauty of friendship. The next morning he told Paul and his wife Linda he wanted to play it for them, as a kind of “Thank you” for their time together. The song, “My Old Friend,” started off as a sweet ode to friendship but then took a melancholy turn; Perkins sang about what might happen if two friends never saw one another again on this side of life. The verse ended with a plaintive request to the old friend, to “think about me every now and then.” As he sang those words, tears streamed down Paul’s face and he abruptly left the room. Not sure what had just happened, Carl stopped playing, and Linda hugged him. She thanked him for helping Paul grieve — and said that John Lennon had spoken the same words to Paul the last time the two spoke before he was killed.
Was this a coincidence?
Or was John Lennon sending his “old friend” a message from beyond the grave?
Perhaps this is just as clear an example as any, of how love — and related virtues such as forgiveness, reconciliation, and remembrance — can extend, even into eternity.
I’m not going to pass judgment here. For all we know, this is just a big coincidence. Or maybe it’s just a testament to how sensitive a man Carl Perkins was, that he could intuitively pick up the one phrase that would not only express his affection for Paul McCartney, but also remind McCartney that, beneath the tragedy and brokenness of the Beatles’ breakup, there was genuine love there between John and Paul — a love that could not be destroyed even by a coward’s bullets.
John Lennon was only a few weeks past his 40th birthday when he died, and now four decades have passed since his tragic, untimely death. It’s mind-boggling that he’s been as gone for as long as he was here. It doesn’t seem so but that’s a testament to how timelessly classic Lennon’s music continues to be.
Today, let’s celebrate the beauty of music, and the enduring magic of love and friendship. I still grieve Lennon’s senseless passing, but I sure do celebrate the gifts he gave, literally, to the world. Like millions of people around the world, I continue to think of him every now and then.
Carl Perkin’s song about friendship can be found on his album Go Cat Go, where he’s accompanied by McCartney. Several videos on Youtube explore the spiritual meaning of the song. Here’s one.