One Native Life: The night John Lennon died

Richard Wagamese
News From Indian Country

I didn’t have any Native heroes when I grew up. When they took me from my people and dropped me into the non-Native world of foster homes and adoption the influence of Native people was lost in the sudden cascade of mainstream influences. I grew up in non-Native surroundings, immersed in non-Native culture and the heroes I claimed were never Indians. Life made that impossible.

Instead, the baseball players I cheered for, the musicians, poets, novelists, movie stars and artists I embraced as icons were all non-Native. But they shaped my world nonetheless, framed my intellect, defined my tastes and allowed me to become the person I am today. Heroes, after all, assume heroic proportions beyond color, caste and community. They are heroes, sublime and timeless.

In my early twenties I was a record collector. Not merely someone who bought the hits and the new and trendy for display and ego, I was one of those rabid LP buying fools who waded through the bins in thrift shops, garage sales and record stores looking for the one great lost album or collector’s edition. I read collector’s magazines, price guides and was on the hunt always for the classic album from the great artist. My shelves bulged with reggae, ska, jazz, country, blues and rock’n roll.

My down time was spent with all that music. I made a lot of mix tapes on my cassette deck and each one was a marvel of styles. Otis Redding to Bob Wills, Billie Holiday to Blondie, Miles Davis to The Doors, each one of those tapes allowed me to travel musical highways that took me away from my world and its troubles or woes. I never thought much about the racial origin of any of those musicians, only about the feel of the music and its ability to transport me.

I was a loner for the most part and music was my constant companion. Along with books there never seemed to be anywhere important to go or anyone important to see. My heroes were on my shelves and they never disappointed me or jilted me in favor of brighter more ebullient companions.

John Lennon was an old hero to me. He’d always perpetuated the whole rock and roll ethos – a revolutionary poet with soul who could either scream or cajole you into hearing his message. I’d been getting the message since 1970 when I heard Working Class Hero for the first time. It was on the album John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band and even though I hadn’t grown up in working class Britain I knew something about being pressed into the shape society wanted you in and about the pain that drove Lennon’s primal screams on that record. He was the first singer who felt like an Indian to me and I’d been a fan ever since.

It was December 8, 1978. Lennon’s album Double Fantasy had come out in November of that year and I listened to that record that night. I lazed on my couch and drifted as he sang about forsaking the rock’n roll lime light in favor of home and family, of watching the wheels go round and round and basking in the love for his son, his wife, his age. He sounded happy, settled, set and I was glad for him.

I used to listen to music in the dark. There were no distractions then and the notes and lyrics could flow over you, pull you into the very heart of the music and allow you to inhabit it. That’s what I did with Double Fantasy that night. As John sang about the hard times being over and the record ended and the music drifted off into the deep winter darkness I believed him and wished him well.

The next morning I heard that he was gone. Someone chose to remove the revolutionary poet from the world, shot him at close range just outside the home he’d come to fully appreciate, maybe for the first time. I cried for him. Then I got angry. Then I cried some more. I played Imagine over and over again and then Working Class Hero, I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier and Only People, great Lennon songs only true fans recall. I tried to fill my house and my world with the spirit that was taken away so callously, so suddenly.

On the news I saw thousands of people outside the Dakota, the apartment building in New York City where the assassination took place. They were weeping. They were holding candles up in the air trying vainly to replace the light that had just been extinguished. People of every color, of every race, every persuasion in grief over the loss of a poet who could dismantle barriers with words and deeds and music. Even in death he brought us together.

He always felt like an Indian to me. When he sang he touched me. His poetry reflected how I felt in my world and when he died I felt a chunk of me removed like those thousands of others. In the words and music of this white rock’n roller, I found the essence of the warrior way.

It’s not about being bitter or resentful. It’s not about not getting what you think you’re due. It’s not about blaming history for the condition of your life. It’s not about revenge for injustice. It’s about living a principled life despite the seeming crap of life, about living with soul, about embracing the flame of your spirit and allowing it to shine regardless. It’s about embracing the light of others too. Regardless.

John Lennon wasn’t Native but he was a tribal person and he was a hero of mine. I’m not embarrassed to say that. He stood for peace, for understanding, community, harmony, balance, family, love and respect – Indian values, the Indian way and I wish more people had listened. Imagine if they had. Imagine.

Richard Wagamese is the author of Dream Wheels, published by St. Martin’s Press. Visit his website at www.richardwagamese.com for more details.
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