I know exactly where I was when I heard that John Lennon had shot dead. It was December 9th 1980. He had died late on the 8th New York time but it was already the morning of the 9th when we all heard in Ireland.
December 9th 1980 was a big morning for me. I was 19 years of age and I was about to take the Ballymena Academy School Assembly. The Christian Union were given permission to speak at it and I got the gig. I was so nervous.
I was to speak on Bob Dylan. He had come to faith in Jesus a year before and I was going to play a little snippet of Blowing In The Wind and the suggest that Jesus was Dylan finding “the answer my friend” before a snippet of Precious Angel.
I can remember walking into the school and as I made my way towards the Assembly Hall I passed a few friends who were sitting around in the locker bays. One of them, Stephen Barr, looked up and said, “End of an era eh?” I looked a little confused and he added, “John Lennon and all.” “What about John Lennon?” “He was shot dead last night.”
I was in a fervent fandom phase of Lennon at that point. I had been a Beatles’ fanatic for about 4 years and his first record in that time, Double Fantasy, had just been released. I was devastated.
I made my way to the school sound box above the Assembly Hall. I did sound and that was a privileged space. I went in and just sat there coming to terms with the news. I hadn’t experienced any family bereavements at this stage of my life and this was the first death to really impact me. I knew I had to get over it because I was due on the stage in a short while to do that Assembly.
I think the Assembly went ok. I look back now and think that that was the first time I did theo-musicology publicly. I have spent the most of my life and written books on faith and rock music. This was the beginning. Remarkably it coincided with a major day in rock music history.
If it happened today and I was Pause For Thought on Radio 2 I’d have had to have switched from Dylan to Lennon as my subject! That actually happened to me the morning after David Bowie died!
So part of my vocation was born on the morning that we heard that John Lennon had died. Even better for me was what happened after I spoke.
I was leaving the stage with the headmaster Denis Jagoe. I had been nervous speaking to my peers and teachers. He encouraged me with kind words and then added, “and you didn’t insult their intelligence.” I can hear those words just as clearly as I can hear Stephen say, “end of an era”.
Mr Jagoe believed many preachers speak down to their audience. Those words have rung in my ear for 40 years. In all the teaching I got at Theological College about preaching, none surpassed that throw away phrase. I have held those words close every time I prepare or speak in public.
The rest of the day was about John Lennon. It was in the days of only 3 TV Channels and that most of them played John Lennon documentaries all night long was a treat for this teenage fan. Through all of them, I was grieving. December 9th 1980 will always be indelibly marked in my memory.