It was Dec. 8, 1980, and the Monday Night Football game featuring the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots was tied at 13. As Patriots kicker John Smith warmed up on the sideline for a game-winning field goal attempt with three seconds left on the clock, Howard Cosell broke from his job as commentator and made a stunning announcement.
“An unspeakable tragedy, confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City. John Lennon, outside his apartment on the west side of New York City, the most famous, perhaps, of all the Beatles, shot twice in the back. Rushed to Roosevelt Hospital. Dead on arrival.”
Millions of people first heard about Lennon’s murder from Cosell. In 1980 cable television was in its infancy, and there were no mediums like Twitter to broadcast news in real time. Cosell was one of the first to announce Lennon’s murder because an ABC News employee was in the emergency room seeking medical treatment when Lennon arrived.
There are few events that captured the nation in the way the Lennon’s murder did in 1980. Lennon had just emerged from a five-year hiatus with a new album that he recorded with his wife Yoko Ono, and the couple was in the midst of recording a follow up. Lennon was just 40 years old, and his return to the public eye sparked renewed interest in the possibility of a Beatles reunion.
It was tough for Cosell to make the announcement, he had interviewed Lennon twice, and Lennon admitted he was a fan of Cosell’s. Smith missed the field goal, and the game went into overtime, so Cosell wound up making the announcement twice during the game.
I received the news the following morning. I was 14 years old and usually slept through my alarm clock, which irritated my father and often resulted in him knocking on my door with a loud pronouncement that I would be late for school if I didn’t get out of bed. That morning he added, “John Lennon was killed last night,” and then he shut my bedroom door.
As I shook the cobwebs from my brain, I tried to determine if I had actually heard what my dad had told me, and turned on the radio and the station was playing a Beatles song. When the song ended, the morning disc jockey confirmed the terrible news.
Even though the Beatles had split 10 years prior, their influence on popular music still loomed large. Lennon was one of the most significant musical artists of his and subsequent generations. Music fans were accustomed to musicians dying prematurely, but in most cases, it was because of a reckless lifestyle, not at the hands of a deranged fan.
Many radio stations played nothing but Beatles songs in the days following Lennon’s death. There were reports of a few fans that committed suicide, and record stores hastily put together Beatles and Lennon album displays. Lennon’s album with Yoko, “Double Fantasy” hit the top of the charts and won a Grammy the following year.
On a personal level, even to this day when I hear a Lennon solo song I am brought back to that morning when I first heard of his death. A few years back I visited the site of the murder and the Lennon memorial in Central Park. It was a somber occasion.
Lennon’s legacy lives on through his children, Julian and Sean, who both have pursued careers in music and other artistic endeavors.
John Lennon was a singular talent, and as Cosell noted all those years ago, “perhaps” the most famous of all the Beatles. Even 40 years later.
Thom Jennings covers the local music scene for Night and Day.