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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Pettit

You May Say I'm a Dreamer (redux)

41 years ago, on Monday, December 8, 1980, John Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, left their residence at the Dakota on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to await a ride to the Record Plant studios in midtown to work on a new record, "Walking on Thin Ice." It was 4:30pm, already dark outside, on a day that reached a high of 64 degrees, the mildest day of the month.

Holding a copy of Lennon’s recently released Double Fantasy album was an awkward man in his 20’s, standing where fans of Lennon often gathered. The man approached John and extended the album towards him. “Do you want me to sign it?” John asked.

The man nodded sheepishly and Lennon obliged him; the moment being captured in a photo by another fan and Lennon acquaintance Paul Goresh. Later, Goresh would say about the man, “He was such a nuisance all that day that I was trying to squeeze him out of the picture.”

John Lennon signing autographs outside the Dakota
John Always Signed Autographs for Fans

Al Oerter, like many of his generation and those to follow, first heard about John Lennon when he was a member of the Beatles. Later, Al would come to admire and respect him, for he felt Lennon was a special genius of thought, courage and voice.

Al believed that he strove for better things beyond the status quo, with a clear vision for positive, sustainable change. It wasn’t that John Lennon was Oerter’s hero. It was more that they saw the world through the same lens. Perhaps, in a sense, in a way most people cannot comprehend.

Upon examination, it is a bit startling to find that the ebbs and flows of each of their lives did have a connection in terms of time and space. They were both very close to their mothers, who died when each boy was just a teenager.

John’s mother, Julia, bought him his first guitar and urged him to pursue music. Of his mother, Mary, Al remembered, “Were it not for her and her nurturing through those sixteen years, I would not have accomplished anything.”

In 1956, Al Oerter earned his first gold medal at the Melbourne Olympics. That same year, John Lennon founded his band, the Quarrymen, which would become The Beatles, in 1960, when Al won his second gold medal in Rome. In 1964, the Beatles came to America and made their iconic debut on the Ed Sullivan Show. Later that year, Oerter would overcome severe physical injury and searing pain to win his third gold medal in Tokyo.

After Al’s fourth gold medal in ’68, and retiring from competition soon after, John Lennon began a solo career and the Beatles recorded their last album a year later. In 1971, Lennon would release “Imagine,” the best-selling single of his “non-Beatle” career. The final mix for the song was done at the Record Plant studios in New York City.

John Lennon's Gold Record for "Imagine"
Lennon's Gold Disc for "Imagine"

In “Imagine,” Lennon asked people to consider a world at peace without the divisions caused by religion, nationality and material possessions. There was much criticism voiced globally to such notions, but even greater numbers embraced the message.

In 1975, John retired from the music industry and devoted himself to the raising of his infant son, Sean, who he shared a birthday with. At that same time, since his retirement from competition, Al Oerter was now primarily focused on the raising of his teenage daughters as a single parent.

By 1980, Oerter was 4 years into a comeback in the discus. He had set a personal best at age 43, far exceeding the distances of his prior 4 Olympic medals. With the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games, he was denied the opportunity to achieve a fifth gold.

It should be noted that Oerter supported the boycott and urged peace in Afghanistan and a pullout of Soviet forces; the medal be damned.

4-Time Olympic Champion in the Discus, Al Oerter
Al Oerter During His Comeback Years

The same year, John Lennon forged a comeback of his own with the November release of Double Fantasy, which would be his final studio album.

At about 10:50pm, John and Yoko arrived back at the Dakota from the recording studio. After departing the limo, Lennon, holding several audio cassettes, made eye contact with that same bumbling young man he encountered earlier, observing that he was still holding the signed record album.

As John passed by, the man removed a .38 caliber revolver from his coat pocket and fired five hollow point bullets, hitting him four times in the back and shoulder. The composer of Imagine staggered forward, somehow managing to make it up the five steps to the front vestibule of the Dakota.

His last words were, “I’m shot! I’m shot!” before collapsing on the floor, the cassettes scattering around him.

Al Oerter was at home on Long Island when he first heard the news. He was probably watching friend Howard Cosell when the commentator interrupted the Monday Night Football broadcast with a special report. ABC had asked Cosell to break the news since Lennon had been interviewed by him on MNF in 1974.

A throng of John Lennon mourners outside The Dakota (12/09/1981)
Crowds Gathered Outside The Dakota, Dec. 9, 1980

Al, incensed by the tragedy, wrote a letter to his future wife, Cathy Carroll, who was living near Seattle at the time. The letter included a poem by Al, describing the impact of Lennon’s murder on him and on all of us:

“I just had to write you - - Some bastard shot John Lennon. Some little creep shot and killed one of our voices of conscience - - it’s tragic - - just a stupid rotten f*cking tragedy and I can’t accept it. I know I must, but not against someone so unique - - not yet.”

Yet another life is taken

Senselessly – stupidly – with anger

A special genius is stilled

Vision so clear is darkened

I fear for all of us in times like this

The 80’s have begun

Maybe it’s time to run

Why are we capable of such hate?

What lies within that hides and waits?

Only to appear against another

Protect ourselves – not our brother

They can’t get me, I’ll get them

The 80’s have begun

Maybe it’s time to run

If only we could open our hands

Strive for something more than what is

Accept our special place in our special home

See beyond

But wait – someone’s watching

The 80’s have begun

It’s time to run

Look around but not to see

Only to protect – not you – me

Strike those who differ

Or who understand what we cannot

No conscience allowed it seems

The 80’s have begun

Time to run

We’ll miss you John

Others will follow

Those of thought and courage – and voice

And mourn we will – more out of anger

It’s a time of peril

The 80’s have begun

Run –

John Lennon was born in 1940, and was only 40 years old when he died. His song, “Imagine,” which stirred so much controversy upon its release, has come to embody John’s legacy many years later.

Writer Laurie Ulster recently wrote,” It’s a call for us to imagine something that seems unimaginable in the world we live in…and has no less relevance in the uncertain world of today than it did in 1971 when it was written.”

With the Olympic Games being founded on the principles of building a peaceful and better world, “Imagine” has found its way into the Olympic lexicon. Since the 1996 Games in Atlanta, “Imagine” has been performed five times at either the opening or closing ceremonies.

In London (2012), Lennon and “Imagine” were presented with a video image of him, a movable sculpture, and accompaniment by the Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Choir.

John Lennon "Imagine" tribute, Closing Ceremony 2012 Olympic Games, London
Closing Ceremony 2012 Olympic Games, London

In 2019, the International Olympic Committee formerly opened new headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, to commemorate their 125th anniversary. IOC president, Thomas Bach said, "By bringing the entire world together in peaceful competition, the Olympic Games are a symbol of hope and peace for all humankind.” The ceremony took place on the lakeside grounds of Olympic House and included the playing of John Lennon’s song “Imagine.”

Bach cited Lennon's lyrics when he said of Pierre De Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games: "You could say, he was a dreamer. But he was not the only one. This peaceful world, which John Lennon asks us to imagine, this peaceful world is what we all are working for."

In Tokyo this past summer, drones lit up the sky as artists sang “Imagine” at the 2020 Opening Ceremony.

As Al Oerter wrote at the time, he could not accept John Lennon’s death, at least “not yet.” He eventually came to terms with it all, and about ten years before his own passing, reflected, “Over 45 years of my life, I’ve thrown the discus close to 500,000 times, and not one of those throws has ever been perfect. There was always something else I could have done to make the prior throw just a little bit better. I think if we attack life in that same manner, we can do some wonderful things on this earth.”

After his arrest, John’s killer said that his motivation for the shooting was that he was incensed by many things about Lennon, especially the lyrics to his song, “Imagine."

John Lennon never proclaimed that there was “no heaven, no religion, no countries, no need for greed or hunger; nothing to kill or die for...”

He just said, “Imagine.”

John Lennon's "Imagine," 2020 Opening Ceremony, Tokyo
Drones light up the sky: John Lennon's "Imagine," 2020 Opening Ceremony, Tokyo

© 2021 Andrew R. Pettit All Rights Reserved


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