John Lennon – “(Just Like) Starting Over”
From December 5 to 7, 1980, I had what was to that point probably the best weekend of my young life. The following day, December 8, John Lennon was murdered. The two events, of course, had nothing to do with each other (as far as I know, anyway), but their temporal relationship has always meant that I don’t think of one without the other.
Let’s start with Lennon. The Beatles were my first band, so I naturally loved John. But he was barely on my listening radar in the late 1970s while Paul McCartney still churned out hit after hit, so I by default fell on the Paul side of that particular dispute. John hadn’t had a hit single in over half a decade when “(Just Like) Starting Over” was released in late October 1980, and while it was doing well in the United States, it seemed like his recent fallow stretch was going to continue north of the 49th parallel: the song wasn’t even on RPM’s national chart when it came out on December 6. That quickly changed: it debuted at number 28 a week later, then hit number 1 on December 20. That momentum continued into the new year, and it ended up as the biggest song in Canada for 1981.
So, what was I up to that was so great that first weekend of December?
A regular part of my childhood Saturday evenings was watching “Reach for the Top”, a national quiz show that matched teams of four high schoolers in a battle to prove who knew the most stuff. I had always loved trivia – I was an incessant dabbler in “The World Almanac” with its lists of highest mountains and Olympic gold medalists, and by 1980 owned the first two editions of both “The Book of Lists” and the endlessly fascinating “The People’s Almanac” (which I still have, their condition evidence of heavy use) – so getting onto my high school’s “Reach” team was a life goal. Schools in Nova Scotia only competed every second year, so my Grade 11 year of 1980-81 was my one shot, and I made it. We had a magnificent and balanced team, with Sandy Nicholson, Nelson Rice and Doug Campbell joining me, and it could be intimidating to be around such smart people. I was beginning to understand that maybe this was my tribe.
The fun started on the night of December 5 when, after getting set up in our hotel following a long drive to Halifax, my uncle picked me up and brought me back to his apartment, where I ate pizza, played with his infant daughter, watched American sitcoms on channels I didn’t have access to at home and, yeah, after his wife arrived and said child was put to bed, smoked black hash out of a bong he made using a toilet paper core and some tinfoil. Good times.
Anyway, even with my less than stellar contribution, on December 6 we won our first two games (including a particularly satisfying defeat of a private school in their matching outfits whose number included a boy who less than two years later was in a New Jersey jail for his role in the murder of a classmate’s parents), and our teacher chaperones, two lovely women named Pat, got permission from our principal to take us out for a fancy celebratory dinner at a Mexican restaurant called Zapata’s. I doubt said permission included alcohol, but a pitcher of sangria was ordered, and, in a misjudgment that could have had disastrous consequences with a less law-abiding group of boys, we cajoled them into ordering a second. Left to our own devices the rest of the evening, we retired to the poolroom, where we would alternate between heating up in the sauna then racing to dive into the pool before our body temperatures dropped. Another school who had lost earlier that day were in the same hotel, and we hung out with them a bit, failing to make any headway with two pretty girls that were in their number. After the pool closed, we watched “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” in one of our rooms, then crashed, getting up the next morning to take care of business and earn our spot in the final round. Somewhere along the way, I bought Kurt Vonnegut’s “Player Piano”. A magnificent weekend.
Two days later, I was among the tens of millions watching tribute after tribute to Lennon on television, where it seemed to own every channel the night of December 9. And “(Just Like) Starting Over”, a song that I already liked but hadn’t given a heck of a lot of thought to, was soon everywhere, the tragedy a grimly ironic thumb in the eye to Lennon’s positivity about new beginnings.
It is a song out of time, more at home in the 1950s than 1980, which may explain the rather muted response initially: post-punk and post-disco, music was trying to look ahead to the next big thing, and not to a relic from the 1960s drawing inspiration from a decade before that. Light taps on a triangle, gently strummed guitar, then a heavenly chorus of “ooooo” and “aaaah”, followed by a vocal that I’ve always thought of as John’s attempt to resurrect Elvis Presley, as, again, a 1950s piano bangs away while a stubbornly subtle bass line rolls along underneath, with drums that sound at times like handclaps. The lyrics are a mature declaration of love to a partner who has been with him through much, and the hope of more to come. It’s far more honest and romantic than the more traditional dreck of “Woman” that followed later on the same album, and whatever you think of Yoko Ono (as time passes, I am more and more impressed by her), you can’t deny John’s love for her. The song is blissfully sunny without being Pollyannaish, and not many of those can get you on the dance floor, too. Pretty damned impressive.
Our return trip to Halifax for the final round a few months later was far less fun – the Pats had learned better. And, as it turned out, having four really smart guys was not enough against the buzzsaw that was Hans Budgey, who ran the table in the rapid-fire last two minutes of the title game to turn a close match into a blowout. Hans and company went on to win the national championship, and no one will ever convince me (and I defy them to try) that we weren’t the true national runners up. I still love trivia (yes, I did try to get on “Jeopardy”, which is a good way to learn that maybe you don’t know nearly as much as you think you do), and, over the last year or so, I’ve listened to a lot more of John Lennon’s music. Two days ago, I heard “(Just Like) Starting Over” in a grocery store, and for all the nostalgia in its sound, it remains a fresh and invigorating piece of pop music. I still think Paul won the 1970s, but John was definitely gearing up to take a run at him in the 1980s, which leaves us with one of the great “what if”s of pop music.