It’s easy to remember the date, especially this year with all of the mainstream media trying to cash in on the date. December 8, 1980. I was sitting at a friend’s house in Berkeley, California listening to music and talking. Another fellow was in the house kitchen talking with his parents who lived in North Carolina. Somewhere in the house a television was broadcasting Monday Night Football. It was just another Monday night when a shriek came first from the kitchen and then from the room with the television. The nature of the shriek caused the conversation I was having to stop as we went to investigate.
“John Lennon is dead! Someone fuckin’ murdered him!”
The house was suddenly silent. Not knowing what else to do, I went to the record collection and found the house’s copy of John’s first solo album, Plastic Ono Band, and put “Working Class Hero” on the turntable. We listened to that song and then I headed out the door, wondering what was happening at my place of residence. When I arrived there, at least a dozen friends were sitting in the common room listening to Beatles records and drinking beer and wine. A wake was in progress. It continued for days in Berkeley and around the world. What follows is a slightly enhanced account of one in Berkeley. Names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent.
Goo Goo Ga Joob
Sure do wish I’d get a ride, thought Creamcheese as she crossed 28th Street where it intersected Telegraph Ave. near downtown Oakland. Nothing but loudmouths driving their road monsters — the orange glow of the sunset reflecting off the windshields — and shouting hey baby I’ll give you a ride but what’ll you give me? Assholes I ain’t riding with that’s for sure. She reached 41st and went into a liquor store directly across from the Doggie Diner where she bought her third quart of malt liquor for the day. Beatles’ music played there, too. The Lebanese guy behind the counter whistled the tune as he rang up her purchase. Everywhere you went since Monday, all you heard was Beatles or John Lennon music since that asshole killed John. Everybody seemed kind of estranged from each other and the world, too. More than usual, even. Hopefully, the public wake would clear some of the wierdness from the air. That’s why she was going. Even if she had to walk the whole five miles. She slung her leather jacket over her shoulder, tucked the quart bottle under her arm, and continued north on Telegraph.
I stood at the bus stop on San Pablo Ave., reading a handbill I’d found in the street on the walk from my house on Vallejo Street.
JOHN LENNON WAKE
Singing and meditation
1st Unitarian Church
Bring instruments and refreshments
Underneath was a picture of John Lennon. It was the one from the white album, where his hair is pretty long but he doesn’t have a beard. I had heard about this thing on Tuesday, but this was the first time I’d seen any of the details. I pocketed the leaflet, noticed the bus was one stop away, and dug in my pocket for the fare. It stopped in front of me and I boarded the bus and sat down. Silently singing the words to “Nowhere Man,” I looked blankly out the window at the traffic and other human activity on the street. By the time I got to the second chorus, it was time to disembark. I pulled the bell cord, and when the bus stopped, left through the rear door, walked to the corner of the block, and turned left, the setting sun at my back.
Hurrying past the first two apartment buildings on Channing Way, I turned left into the third driveway, walked up the front steps of the house and knocked. Somebody inside opened the door a crack, saw that it was me, and let me in.
“Hi, Z,” I said. “What’s up?”
“Hey, Ron,” said Z, his huge beard sudsy from drinking beer. “How ya’ doin’? Got any smoke? We’re just sitting around watching the tube.”
“Oh, yeh?” I closed the door behind him and pulled a cigarette-sized joint from my jacket pocket. “What’s on?”
“Some special on John Lennon,” replied Z, taking the joint and lighting it with a cigarette. “See, there’s some footage from that Live/Peace in Toronto concert. In fact, there’s ol’ what’s his name on lead.”
“Eric Clapton.” I responded.
“Yeh, right. He sure looks different.” agreed Z, handing the joint to some girl sitting behind him on the floor.
“Shit, they all do. Man, I love Klaus Voorman’s bass playing at this show.”
“Thanks for the tokes, man,” said Z. “You got any for sale?”
“Yeh, sure. How much you want?” I asked.
“Thirty bucks worth?”
“No problem,” I pulled a bag from another pocket and handed it to Z, saying, “Yeh, you can owe me.” I knew he was broke. Most of us usually were.
“Cool. let’s twist up another.”
Z sat down on the floor and rolled another joint. When he was finished, he stuck it between his lips and lit it. After a long draw, he handed it to me, just as I remembered the handbill in my pocket and handed it to Z.
Z read it and looked up. “You goin’?” he asked.
“Maybe I’ll see ya’ there.”
“All right.” I turned towards the door. “Well, I’ve gotta go get something to eat somewhere and get to that wake all on the same transfer. Ciao.”
“I’ll see ya’ there,” yawned Z. “Hopefully it won’t be as depressing as the Hat House got the other night when we first heard about the murder.” The Hat House was a house in North Oakland inhabited by a rock band and Ricci and Gwen. The musicians were from the Black Mountains of North Carolina and fresh out of high school. In addition, they were hard core Beatles fans. One of their number — the drummer — had recently died of colon cancer.
“I hear you.”
“I couldn’t believe how quickly the mood changed there. I mean like there was laughing and partying in every room and then nothing. It was like they heard the world was gonna end or something.”
“Yeh. I guess those guys are pretty freaked by death,” I said. “Of course, they have seen more than their share in the past few months. First, Jimmie’s dad and then Winston from that cancer.”
“Yeh, I guess so,” said Z. He flashed on the war and his time there. “At least as far as people one’s close to. Over in Nam I never really got close to anyone ’cause I figured one of us would get killed.”
“Yeh . . . well, I’d probably better get going. Let me have another toke.” I opened the door and drifted into the evening — a trail of smoke behind me.
I found the Unitarian church easily. Once there, I opened the door and heard the piano. Somebody was banging out “Love Me Do” and ten or fifteen people were more or less singing it. They sounded drunk and out of tune. As I entered the meeting room, I was surprised at how few people there were but glad to see plenty of beer and wine. Maybe more people would show up later. Most people didn’t like thinking about death anyway.
By the time I finished my first beer, the place was filled with people — mourners, if you will. A couple guitarists and a woman playing flute had joined the guy playing piano. When she played, it sounded a little jazzy. Looking around after grabbing another beer from one of the ice-and-beer filled trash cans in the room, I noticed Z entering through the door. I watched him open a beer and and head towards a circle of people on the floor in the center of the room. There was a lit candle in the middle of the circle and everyone was holding hands. Oh jesus, another om-ing circle. Z and I were perpetually making fun of this kind of pseudo-spiritual stuff. I chuckled as I watched a grin appear beneath Z’s unruly facial hair, rose from my chair, and wandered across the room, slipping between and around clusters of people until I stood next to Z.
“Hi, Z. What’s up?”
“Hey, Ron. Cheers,” said Z, clanging his beer can against mine. “Or don’t you say ‘cheers’ at a wake?”
“No, you just get drunk, I think.” I deadpanned, watching the people in the circle. They were moving their joined hands in a series of motions and chanting something I couldn’t quite make out. “What are they saying?”
Z swallowed a mouthful of chips and replied, “It sounds like something from the Book of Law or some other Aleister Crowley craziness.”
“Oh yeh,” I remembered. “I forgot you know that shit. What? Are they trying to bring John back from the dead?”
Those in the circle now let go of each other’s hands and formed themselves into a pentagram. Someone blew the flame in the center out and the chanting stopped.
“I don’t know,” answered Z. “They never will though. I think he likes it there.”
“We’ll see. Couldn’t be much worse.” I agreed. “How was the rest of that TV show?”
“You saw the best part. After that, it slipped into typical TV docudrama emptiness. You got any herb? I left mine at home.”
I pulled a bag from my pocket and handed it to Z. We both sat down on the floor and Z began to roll.
Maybe that friggin’ church is on the next block, thought Creamcheese. She’d been there before during the day for some women’s meeting. Looking behind her fearfully for that white Fairlane and hoping she wouldn’t see it, she continued to run blindly towards where she thought the church was. She couldn’t believe that after being so careful about her rides she got picked up by those assholes. It must be because she got too drunk and her psychic sense short-circuited. Whatever it was . . . those assholes holding a knife on her and hitting her with their fists while that fat pig stuck his — she can’t even think about that part ’cause it makes her want to puke. She’s gotta block it out. Or she might kill the next man she sees — even though all men aren’t pigs it’s hard to remember that in times like this. Shit, where is that church? She must have run a mile by now. At least from San Pablo, she thought. It seemed like it was just a couple blocks north of University where those assholes pushed her out of the car. Near that ribs place — only on the other side of the street. It’s hard to remember the fuckin’ details when all she keeps seeing in her mind is that fat pig’s dick and that knife in her face. If they hadn’t had that hunting knife, she probably would have bit his fuckin’ thing off. Just so he could never do to anyone else what he did to her. Hell . . . she can’t remember where they took her or their license number or even their faces — just that fuckin’ knife and that, that. . . . Goddam, where is that church?
Wait, looks like there’s a lot of cars up ahead — maybe that’s the place. Whatever it was maybe she could find someone to talk to. Someone who could help her calm down at least enough to try and remember. She ran to the outer doors and pulled them open. She heard the Beatles’ music. “A Hard Day’s Night,” in fact, sung by what sounded like a bunch of drunks.
She needed to talk to someone. Someone who could help her — a woman. But she didn’t see any women she knew. There sure were a lot of people, though. Three or four hundred at least. She looked around a bit more slowly now and thought she saw Ron and Z by the coolers of beer. Well, if there wasn’t anybody else, they could help her.
“Hey, Ron,” asked Z. “Isn’t that Creamcheese?”
I looked in the direction Z was pointing and saw Creamcheese’s head above the crowd. She seemed out of it. More than that, she looked like she’d been hurt. Pretty bad. You know. Her hair all tangled. A few cuts. Dazed. Z and I watched her walk across the room. The closer she got, the worse she looked.
“Damn,” said Z. “She doesn’t look so good.”
“I mean, she looks like hell,” exclaimed Z. “Like she’s totally freaked. More than she ever did when we were together even.”
“I’ve been raped, Ron!” screamed Creamcheese, crying and trying to talk at the same time. “Some guys picked me up on Telegraph near Alcatraz and took me somewhere and held a knife on me and — oh, man, it was rude, it –“
“Creamcheese,” I said, trying to sound calm. The music had stopped completely and everyone in the room was staring at us. “Let’s go sit down. Can you do that?”
“Yeh, but raped, Ron. Those pigs. I just can’t block it out.” She grabbed Z and I as if she were afraid we might leave.
“Don’t try to right now, Creamcheese.” comforted Z. “Let’s go sit down somewhere. Maybe smoke some weed.”
“That might help,” she agreed, her grip on the two of us loosening a bit. We headed to a corner of the room, stopping by one of the trash cabs and grabbing three beers on the way.
The piano player began playing again and the singers singing and everyone else went back to what they were doing before, eager to pretend they never heard what Creamcheese said. I knew that none of them really wanted to involve themselves in someone else’s problem even if it was their problem, too. It was easier to mourn the dead. We walked over to a bench setting against the wall opposite the piano. I helped Zoe sit down while Z rolled another joint. As he rolled, the pianist and his drunken choir sang the chorus to “Nowhere Man.” You know, when John sings:
“Just sees what he wants to see . . .
Isn’t he a bit like you and me?”
Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground, just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch‘s new collection on music, art and sex: Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.