A Day After Story: John Lennon’s Gone. Stand By Me.
I had to work December 9, 1980 at a Mall bookstore in Texas the day after most of us heard about John Lennon. It was also an exhausting week for final projects soon to screen in film school, semester five. Each night project partners would rotate within a sweaty encampment, sometimes all night, to hang onto a manual film editing station in the dingy “Fishbowl.” This included hours of counting frames, aligning “mag” sound reels to picture, and splicing each independently. We also fought classmates for a precious thing called a “split reel”, of which there were far too few to go around and which none of us could afford to own. This was a state university. Magical.
On the 8th news came late from Roosevelt Hospital. Much of the world heard about it on Tuesday. I can tell you that few film students would have been watching the Dolphins game when Cosell broke rank from the play-by-play and called out the wretched truth. On the 9th, and the day after, a local radio station kept playing his music back to back, no commercials, just a legal air check whenever required by the FCC. Locals will know the call letters –KLBJ. The mall was very slow well into my evening shift and I rotated from the main store to to a slender second floor news stand until closing. This was a lawless, manager-free nook in the wall, a long rack of periodicals with a roll up garage door and stool for the cashier.
We had an old school AM/FM radio and permission to use it at low volume to relieve the tedious intervals without visitors. The signal came in clear if I aimed the antenna, just right, toward the Hallmark store. I tuned into Radio Free Lennon and set the loudspeaker toward the outside so everyone could hear. I turned it to about 50% or plenty loud for the gargantuan reverberant hall that was most of Highland Mall and to carry into store thresholds. I swear it shook the crimson tinseled snowflake mobile suspended above the food court. Who has ever seen red and green snowflakes? Not even Alexander Calder would devise such a thing. And there, in this otherwise untroubled, late mid-century arcade, bellowed a pre-Streaming era flow of song cues: “Imagine,” “#9 Dream,” “A Day in the Life.” Damn it: “Stand By Me”. John’s reedy voice echoed from the second floor atrium and I’m sure bounced from the wrapping paper striped concrete columns inside JC Penney to reach the sole, terminally bored dispenser operator at the Orange Julius. I didn’t care. Make a complaint. This isn’t my dream. I’m going to be the next Truffaut, anyway, and you will read about me in Film Comment. “By the way, folks, the November-December issue is just to my left –Raging Bull, De Niro’s narrowly lit eyes lurking behind black gloves shielding his face on the cover. Someday, I’ll master Eye Lights,” I thought. “But you came in for Architectural Digest or Le Monde, didn’t you? Anyway, John’s gone. So, grow a heart and let the music play.”
A mall security officer approached. He had a few years on me, but still in his twenties I’d say. I feared the worse. He turned to me and asked my name “Vince,” I offered, in what was probably not much more than an mumble. “Well, Vince. Can you maybe turn it up a little?”
With the reinforcement offered by an underpaid, junior security officer, I did. The music was now echoing like E. Power Biggs vamping on the festival organ at Canterbury. “Working Man’s Hero,” “Julia,” “Strawberry Fields Forever.” “Starting Over.” Damn it. Damn it. “Starting Over,” we’d just heard the story of the 40 year old, apartment-bound, musical show-biz retiree, emerging as a self-proclaimed house husband to raise a toddler more closely than he had is other son.
The guard stuck around a short while, browsing Motor Trend and Car & Driver magazines. When no one showed from the nearby Dillard’s to give me what for, the officer-vandal-in-arms vanished to his rounds. No one ever did raise a stink for the three hours the music was blaring. I don’t remember seeing the guard again after my weeks off for winter break. Maybe he was a holiday worker.
A month later, I’d stock the shelves with the January Rolling Stone. This was the one with the cover that broke everyone’s hearts all over again. Lennon lying in profile in his all-together and enraptured with Yoko. I made sure it was front and center and on every endcap, too.