New York’s (Just Like) Starting Over

New York’s (Just Like) Starting Over

Kathleen McKitty Harris

“With Double Fantasy, I’m saying, ‘Here I am now. How are you?
How’s your relationship going? Did you get through it all? Wasn’t
the seventies a drag, you know? Well, here we are, let’s make the
eighties great because it’s up to us to make what we can of it.” — John Lennon

I was a ten-year-old kid living in Queens when John Lennon was shot and killed in New York City, gunned down in front of the Dakota where he and Yoko Ono resided. On the morning after John’s murder, I was awakened by my mother—who, as a teenager, had screamed at the first grainy, gray sight of The Beatles performing on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1963, who peeked her thirty-something head into my bedroom and asked me to pray for John’s soul.

I was born in the summer of 1970, a year after my parents’ nuptials, and a few months after The Beatles’ official breakup. I had never known life without The Beatles or their music. They were like sunlight, like water, like air—always surrounding me, always present.

By the end of the seventies, New Yorkers were long numbed to reports of knifings and shootings and muggings. But this news shook us out of our city-wide defensive stupor. We had come to understand that violence would happen to ordinary people like us, but not to someone like him.

New York City was my home, my ancestry, my epicenter. I was a fifth-generation native and I thought nothing of it because so many people in my city microcosm held the same title. New York was a place that I always expected to be from. As a child, I couldn’t comprehend that there was soil and bedrock and earth beneath paved city streets. If the asphalt was jackhammered too far, too deep, I was sure that all five boroughs would collapse into a black hole of nothingness.

As New York City prepared for the Christmas holiday season that year, the song that had the most radio airplay was the startlingly ironic “(Just Like) Starting Over,” the first single from Lennon’s newly released double LP Double Fantasy. New Yorkers, in their shame and shock, lined up in droves to buy the album, and turned up the volume all the way whenever that song played on the radio. It was an infinite loop in those days of mourning, a constant companion to our displaced, Christmas-lit grief. Shopkeepers played it behind the counter, on the AM radios they kept on high shelves and near the cash register. Kids played it on their transistor radios on buses and stoops. No one ever seemed to complain about the noise or repetition. We absorbed it as some kind of collective penance because it had happened in our city, on our streets.

Scott Muni, Dennis Elsas, and Carole Miller, our beloved New York City FM radio DJs, walked us through our stunned, collective grief by playing an endless list of Beatles songs as well as Lennon’s first post-Beatles solo hit, “Imagine.” John’s love poem to his wife Yoko, “Woman,” “Nobody Told Me” from Milk and Honey, a nodding baby-boomer anti-paean, and John and Yoko’s Vietnam-era Christmas song, “Happy Xmas (War is Over.)” It was almost too much to bear by mid-month when Christmas songs dominated the airwaves, and John and Yoko’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” was given airplay, an uppercut to our collective gut each time we heard it. Dear God, what had we done—to our city and our heroes and ourselves? Another year over, and a new one just begun.

Even now, I’m still struck by the whispered opening of their tender holiday protest song. Memories of tinseled row house windows, tired, sixties-era blow-mold-plastic carolers, and WWII-era strings of Christmas lights across shopping streets all arise at the sound of John and Yoko’s voices. My throat still tightens upon hearing it, a clutch of remembrance embedded within me, of a city and a culture tainted and lessened, and of the only home I’d ever known.

New Yorkers all seemed to walk to the beat of “(Just Like) Starting Over” in those mournful days. We recognized the sound of the clanging bell at the song’s opening, as well as the muffled PA announcement from the JFK ticket agent at its close. We played that song over and over again until the melody was imprinted on all of us. I don’t like to listen to “(Just Like) Starting Over” so much anymore because it takes me back to that sad and sorrowful winter when we had lost John to madness, and when we seemed to be losing New York City, our grand urban goddess, as well. I prefer “Watching the Wheels” instead, which is slower and gentler, less produced, more acoustic in sound. It’s still one of my favorite Lennon songs. I guess it’s how I’d rather remember him—enjoying that short span of time in being an everyday New Yorker and a doting father, no longer riding on the merry-go-round, letting it all go. The tune had captured so much of what John must have loved about his life as a stay-at-home father in NYC—baking bread for his son in the Dakota, walking the Central Park Reservoir path like a native, and living among the rest of us New Yorkers as a mere mortal.

Kathleen McKitty Harris