Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Late Great Johnny Ace

Twenty-nine years ago today I was at a late-night poker game. A friendly penny ante game at my friend Steve's apartment. Steve lived above a garage on South Street in Clarion, PA. I lived in an apartment above a garage about a block away. We drank beer and played records and I'm sure I bitched and moaned about every card I was dealt. The game broke up about 2:30 and a half-hour later I got a call from Steve. He said his brother, who'd driven home to Fryburg after the game, called to tell him that he'd heard on the radio that John Lennon had been shot.

"He thinks he may have been killed."

This was back before the advent of 24 hour news channels. CNN had started that very year and wasn't on the cable system in that small town yet. I thought, I don't know what I thought; maybe "I hope not", and I went to bed. I woke up late the next morning and turned on the TV and on channel after channel I saw the kind of photo and film montage that can only mean that someone has died.

I was working at a small local record store and I remember being furious with the people who called to ask if their Beatles and Lennon LPs were worth a bunch of money now. One guy called one evening, not too long before I closed the store, and he just wanted to talk about it. Not about the killing, but about Lennon and about the Beatles and about our childhoods and our memories.

I remembered the very first time I'd heard the name "Beatles", sitting in my desk in class at the local Catholic grade school. The parish priest's voice boomed out of the PA system to tell us that, in no uncertain terms, would "beetle haircuts" be permitted. None of us had any idea what he was talking about and yet all of us suddenly wanted one. What we now know as "THE SIXTIES" might have started that very morning.

My favorite John Lennon memory goes a little past thirteen years before that poker game when my friend Bob and I came back from the shop across the street with the new Beatles 45; this was late-November 1967. I had a crappy record player in the basement of my parents house and we sat there, not even taking our coats off, and listened to "Hello, Goodbye", a decent enough I suppose Paul McCartney song (elevated by some fantastic drumming by Ringo) but possibly the single most undeserving A-side of a single ever, or at least so we concluded after flipping the little disc over and dropping the needle on "I Am the Walrus."

In November of 1967 I was fourteen and had only read the stories about LSD in Time, LIFE and Look magazines; now we found out what LSD sounded like. Hearing that song there in that basement was like the moment in The Wizard of Oz where everything shifts from black and white to technicolor (of course, so was hearing "Strawberry Fields Forever" for that matter).

That same year Rolling Stone Magazine appeared for the first time and Lennon graced the cover of issue #1.

Rolling Stone ceased to be relevant sometime in the mid-to-late 1970s, but I always thought that had Jann Wenner had far more class than he does he might have simply and quietly folded the magazine after their last great issue.

Of all the work the individual Beatles did after the dissolution of the band, there is only one moment that, in my opinion, manages to surpass the best of it. On John Lennon's first solo LP, the song "God." His vocal on the lines, "The dream is over... what can I say? The dream is over" is among the most sublime things I have ever heard.

There are a bunch of songs about John Lennon, but the one that I think stands by itself is Paul Simon's "Late Great Johnny Ace."

1 comment:

jim reilley said...

i was at wccb, my roomate dave gavel had a shift and i was in studio in the back making a demo reel and when the news came i pulled it off of the ap wire machine. still have the yellow piece of paper-