During my undergraduate years in Greensboro, I was repeatedly given the privilege of speaking into a live microphone in a darkened room, late at night, while I searched for threads connecting some very disparate and willfully eccentric tunes. I was a college DJ at WUAG-FM, University of North Carolina-Greensboro's student station.
Late-night shows were about giving something back. I vividly remembered the contraband of news, intelligent conversations and music I'd found as a child on many nights, long after I should have been asleep. By a thin white wire that ended in a single earbud, I'd finally connected to a world that was quite a bit larger than my own at the time. That's why I listened; it's what I was listening for. "Wednesday Evening News" with Leon Smith. Occasional AM broadcasts on clear channels from Cincinnati, New York and, one night, Montreal. Deaconlight, very new music from a college station 45 miles away in Winston-Salem. Those were my lifelines.
By college, I knew that any people who were up that late had their reasons. So did I. I stayed up with them.
It was the first week in December, and our station was planning its exam schedule. Everyone was being urged to take an extra shift. I selected 1–3 a.m., on Tuesday, Dec. 9. The year was 1980. I was on the air the night John Lennon was killed.
As it happened, I went on just over an hour after his death had been announced, between 11:40 and 11:45. During that hour, I impatiently scanned the radio dials, both AM and FM, for news. Friends materialized, wearing the gravest expressions. "Have you heard?"
I dashed across campus, talking with people. I got to the station, checking the news wire, a reel of paper feeding into a printer tied directly to United Press International. That was our CNN, our Twitter, our lifeline to the outside world.
Yellow paper spilled across the floor. The horrible story grew more horrible with each bulletin, advisory, update and correction: Seven bullets. Striking the back, arm, shoulder and head. By a man who reportedly was smirking. And who waited patiently to be arrested and taken away. Lennon was dead immediately on the scene. No, strike that—alive at Roosevelt Hospital.
I felt an irrational shock of hope as I read the words. But not for very long. As I grappled with the spilling information, Terry said he was going to close his hour with a news update from the wire. "Fine. I'll do the editorial," I said. I feverishly re-edited my copy as the top of the hour approached. At 1:02 a.m., I keyed the microphone and said what was on my mind. It was my first public critical commentary in the service of arts journalism.
That night I wanted everyone to hear a few songs by John Lennon that the syndicated stations were never going to play. I spoke my peace and cued the first selection on Turntable 1. Imagine was the album, Side B, Track 3: "How Do You Sleep?"