Strange Days Indeed
In late-1980 as a 13-year old delivering The Daily News in the New Jersey suburbs, I didn’t enjoy having to be out of the house at 5:30 AM every morning. Like clockwork, I would head off on my bicycle, whatever the temperature.
By MICHAEL PHELAN
NOV 23, 2020 AT 10:31 PM
My late-September 1980 birthday took place only a week after my parents were divorced, an event which brought some peace to our home after years of turmoil and stress, but did create a vacancy which had not existed before. I would only see my father on a few more occasions after that month.
The anniversary of my birth resulted in a few memorable gifts, but I did receive my annual box of hand-me-downs from my older cousin. That year, in addition to the usual corduroys and sweaters, a few Beatles 45’s were included in the box. “Revolution,” backed with “Hey Jude” on a US Apple label, was one of them. The “Lennon-McCartney” credits under each song title made me curious to learn more.
Of course, I’d seen the TV commercials for Beatlemania on Broadway a few years earlier, but I knew little about the band and their influence. Ads for the Sgt. Pepper… film featuring The Bee Gees had made it clear to me that while I’d heard that The Beatles were great, this movie was clearly quite awful. Also, reruns of The Monkees would regularly play on a local TV network, and I did understand its mission to be a band created for television to provide us their version of A Hard Day’s Night in thirty minutes, with commercials! (Seriously, I have since become aware of the merits and positive influence of Nesmith, Jones, Tork, and Dolenz, as well as “The Wrecking Crew.”)
With part of the proceeds from my three paper routes, between October and December, I had purchased my first stereo/turntable (a Fisher!) and begun to buy records with my own money. Learning about these matters, which I would grow to learn the importance of as time went on, Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Springsteen’s The River had been among my first album purchases.
Still only learning about The Beatles and its members, folding and bagging the Daily News in the early suburban morning of December 9th began with its usual tedium. It would end as an extremely sad day from a human perspective, learning about how this decent man — a father and husband, however imperfect — was murdered in front of his home as his wife Yoko Ono watched, and as his little boy, Sean slept upstairs.
Fast forward to my eighth-grade classroom later that morning. Our 60-something-year-old teacher, Mrs. Rotini was in the habit of reading excerpts from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer late each morning just before sending us off for lunch. Tom Sawyer was far less interesting than the characters in the soap opera I would watch during my lunch at home, but I had little choice. That morning she stopped the reading early to offer us a speech:
“Those of you heading home for lunch will hear about a man who died last night. The rest of you will learn more about him in the next few days. He should serve as a warning to you that if you do drugs and disregard authority, you’ll eventually pay a price.”
“Wow,” I thought to myself. “Had I so drastically misunderstood what I’d read about him that morning?”
I couldn’t have picked him out of a lineup before that day, but I fell asleep that Tuesday night as the Fisher played the Classic Rock powerhouse, New York’s WNEW-FM. I listened to Lennon music and interview clips until at least 2 am, thereby beginning my education as well as my life of living on four to five hours of sleep each night.
In the next few days I’d learn that, no, I wasn’t wrong. I read everything I could get my hands on and began listening to WNEW-FM religiously. Watching Eyewitness News every evening after The 4:30 Movie and reading the “late” edition of the local newspaper, I wanted to know what was going on only a few miles away in Manhattan. That Sunday, with hundreds of thousands of others across the globe I watched the televised vigil in Central Park, paying my respects as best as I could.
Two days before — Friday of that same week — I also cut school for the first time, going to two Hackensack record shops where I bought Double Fantasy and a few Beatles albums.
This was the week where I learned to begin questioning authority and getting to the bottom of things myself, while finally attaining a father figure. It was also the week where I began to form my political and social beliefs, which have only grown more progressive as the years have passed.
I’m sure that Mrs. Rotini would be quite displeased.
December 9, 1980 Daily News with a photo of David Geffen ushering Yoko Ono out of Roosevelt Hospital late the night before.
Photo by Gene Kappock/NY Daily News Archives.