LAST MINUTE MUSINGS: Lennon’s death might have sparked Gass’s career direction
For Beatles fans of a certain age, 40 years ago today was one of the darkest days they could imagine.
While returning to his New York City apartment building on the evening of Monday, Dec. 8, 1980, John Lennon was murdered by a deranged fan for whom he had signed an autograph earlier in the day.
Besides being perhaps the most celebrated of the Fab Four, Lennon had gone on to a distinguished career as a singer-songwriter in the decade since the Beatles’ breakup.
Lennon’s death, coming less than two months after his 40th birthday, was quite a blow to the generation who had grown up adoring him.
Greencastle native Glenn Gass was no different from his fellow fans. Then again, maybe he was a little different.
After all, Gass, known as “Doctor Rock” to generations of Indiana University students, has spent the last 40 years teaching students about the history of rock and roll, with the Beatles as his chief area of expertise.
Gass is set to share his thoughts on the musician at 8 p.m. Tuesday in a Zoom chat titled Remembering John Lennon 40 Years Later. Hosted by the IU Auditorium, the chat will be available live at iuauditorium.com or on the IU Auditorium Facebook page.
The longtime professor, who retired this spring, shared some of his remembrances of Dec. 8, 1980 and the days that came after. Ultimately, a dark time in his life probably influenced the direction he took as a professor.
Much of the country learned of the news from ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell during a broadcast of Monday Night Football.
In a very different media landscape, it was the only way people were able to learn of the news instantly.
“I seem to have been one of the few people not watching football and hearing the news from Howard Cosell,” Gass recalled. “A friend of mine called to say he heard John Lennon had been shot, followed quickly by another friend calling to say that he had died.
“Utter shock,” Gass continued. “The night continued like that. No internet, no social media, but everyone was calling everyone that night, all night long as the news sunk in.”
And the Beatles were more than just a band to Gass. He’d written fan letters to them as a young boy and his love of music had led him first to the New England Conservatory of Music for his bachelor’s degree, then back to his home state, where he was a 24-year-old grad student when Lennon died.
“My friends — especially my old Greencastle friends — were so kind and worried, since they knew how much John Lennon and the Beatles meant to me,” Gass recalled. “I remember still taking and making calls when the sun came up.”
These grieving young people didn’t know what the future held but they felt something had fundamentally changed in their world.
“People were openly sobbing on the phone,” he said. “It was so hard to grasp the enormity of what had happened and what we had lost — both John Lennon and any hope of ever having the Beatles again. It was a long, terrible night, but a bittersweet, loving one. Everyone felt very close.
“Regardless of where our paths were headed, the Beatles were one thing we all shared.”
Despite the nearly 4,000-mile distance from Liverpool to Greencastle, Gass had always felt a great connection to his hero, so the loss was likely the greatest of his young life.
“I had not yet experienced a great loss in my life, so John Lennon’s death hit me like a death in the family or the sudden loss of a best friend,” he said. “I went through the rest of the week in shock, listening to the endless Beatle and John Lennon songs on the radio. Even country stations were playing them.”
In the end, it was a bit of lighter listening from the Beatles’ early days — an old Motown Cover, in fact — that really made Gass break down.
“I held up for several days through all the Anthems — “All You Need Is Love,” “Imagine” — but finally broke down weeping in Mother Bear’s Pizza when “Please Mr. Postman” came on,” he said. “I don’t know why, except that the sound of young John’s voice was so overwhelming and so alive. I think I scared the waitress.”
Looking back on it now, Gass feels the seed of where his life was headed was planted in those tough days after the singer’s death. It was a path not even he could have fully foreseen, as a trailblazing educator who has been credited as the first professor to bring rock and roll into higher education.
“The idea of creating a Beatles class seemed like the only thing I could offer as a tribute,” he said. “So my teaching career really began that week as a final gift to and from John.”
Jared Jernagan is the editor of the Banner Graphic and a certified music nut. He came into this world on the day John Lennon was killed.