John Lennon, the Stones and keeping your fire engine clean

Strange days indeed. The words are a chorus to a John Lennon song called “Nobody Told Me.” I heard the song a lot in the late 80s and even remember it being one of the songs played by United States psy ops (psychological operations) soldiers who were trying to roust Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega from his sanctuary during “Operation Just Cause” in 1989.

John Lennon reheases "Give Peace a Chance." -- Photo by Roy Kerwood courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Those were strange days indeed. So was the time around December 8, 1980, when I sat in my recliner in the shotgun shack I rented on “Tobacco Road,” studying for some test in college. I didn’t have a television back then but it seems as if I had Monday Night Football playing through my stereo receiver. Or perhaps I was just listening to the radio. I don’t know. I tend to think I was listening to Monday Night Football while studying, definitely a no-no all the experts say. But nevertheless, I heard the announcement that John Lennon had been shot and killed outside his apartment in New York. I think my friend Suzie, who worked as a dee jay back then, called afterwards. I’m not sure. But it was such a loss.

In the world of rock music, one’s taste often comes down to the choice: Beatles or Stones? Definitely the Beatles, back then at least. I had grown up, well at least into my early-to-mid 20s, listening to John, Paul, George and Ringo. Isn’t it funny you hardly ever or even never hear “Paul, John, George and Ringo” or even “George, Ringo, Paul and George?” There is a reason for that. Or you never heard Pope John Paul George and Ringo for that matter.

Sometimes a song takes you to a particular point in the time of your life. It doesn’t have to be a new song. Maybe it was just playing when something memorable took place. Such as when I was getting ready to take a taxi to the Houston airport for Chicago and boot camp. An instrumental version of “Here Comes the Sun” was playing on the TV at the induction station. Or, for another example, a chilly day staring out the port hole at the rough seas somewhere off New Zealand, sometime around Thanksgiving, as I listened to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

I never saw the Beatles. I did see the Stones, or was at least in the Superdome as they performed way, way below from where we sat in the cheap seats. Nonetheless, we got a good look on the gondola TV thing-a-majig.

"Send me dead flowers in the morning ... " The Rolling Stones 2006. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons by Charliecorgan.

Still, it was at some undefinable time later on that I became a Stones person. The words to songs with teeth grabbed me such as “Sympathy for the Devil,” or “Gimme Shelter”¬† or the early 70s, Gram Parsons influenced “Dead Flowers” much more than the often whimsical or outright nonsensical melodies of the Beatles. That isn’t to say the Beatles, and especially Lennon, lacked poignancy in their work.

But you look back, especially at the early hits of the Fab Four, and see their genius for great melody and pop tunes. I’ll play “From Me to You,” released in 1963, and hear a spectacular pop song meeting rock. You might hear it an elevator today or on a Target commercial and if you don’t know the Beatles might say: “What a pretty song. I wonder who does that?”

Really, it isn”t fair to put the Beatles and Stone up against each other. I can often identify with the “World can be a pretty hard place at times, so f**k it,” attitude of Mick, Keith and the mates. But I also need a simple pop piece such as “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or something funny like “Mean Mr. Mustard” to help lead me from the hard edge.

And John Lennon on his own was something else, literally. He was the rock n’ roller, as exemplified in his tribute to late 50s and early 60s rockers on the Phil Spector produced “Rock ‘n’ Roll.” He did justice to songs such as Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.” Lennon also made some of the most memorable of the protest songs such as “Give Peace a Chance” and “Power to the People” even though the era of anti-war protest was beginning to wane. His song “Imagine” is a wonderful, imaginative song and incredibly naive just as the young need sometime be.

Lennon’s “Double Fantasy” album, released near the time of his death was not a critical smash yet after his murder it seemed the world seemed desperate to grab one last piece of the “John” of “John, Paul, George and Ringo.”

Once again, I started to write just a bit and I end up telling whomever will listen my impression of John Lennon in life and death as well as my inability to simply answer a simple question such as “Beatles or Stones.”

Well, that answer is of course, the Stones. But then the Beatles are in a category all their own, as is John Lennon.

I don’t remember the test I took the day after Lennon was murdered. I do remember¬† working at the fire station the next day. For some reason, I had this strong inclination to go wash our fire engine. You know, Penny Lane? Likes to keep his fire engine clean, it’s a clean machine … ” Well, that’s more McCartney, but you get my drift don’t you?