It had just turned December on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I was on my customary morning jog, heading out of Central Park toward 72nd Street. The sun was out but it was treacherous underfoot. I’d slipped on some ice and gone tumbling, to be rescued by a group of college boys.
“Are you all right, sir?” they asked, sounding concerned in a way that indicated that I might have looked frail, fragile and quite possibly old. I felt like saying, “Of course I’m all right, man, can’t you see that I am a globe-trotting rock star?” But I saw the genuine concern in the boys’ faces and thanked them, cautiously continuing my run.
As I crossed Central Park West, I noticed a woman who looked like Yoko Ono standing alone by the traffic light on the corner. It occurred to me that I had never seen her without John Lennon at her side. It was typical to see them holding hands, or with their arms around each other in a comforting way.
I had seen them on the street many times and even though I’d met him in his days as a Beatle, I had always kept a polite distance. I value my privacy and respect the privacy of others. But on this occasion I tried to make a connection. I shouted, “Hi,” as I ran past; Yoko nodded politely. I could have been anybody.
At my apartment, I picked up a Times article about John and Yoko’s new album, and how John had declared that it shouldn’t be necessary for artists to suffer. Reviews had been positive and this reassured me. “If J. L. can do it, so can I,” I thought. He had become a hit-and-miss solo performer, but that was the joy of his solo career; he was not afraid to fail. With the Beatles he’d probably got bored with having to remain safely successful.
A few days later, I had to leave for Paris for a tour with my band, the Kinks. When I arrived, I went straight into an early-morning session of interviews. One journalist wanted to play me records and have me review them. After a couple of tracks, he played me the first single from the new John Lennon-Yoko Ono album. I sat and listened, but my attention was drawn to the image of Yoko standing alone in the cold a few days before.
The track finished and the room fell silent. I said that I had heard some of the album on the radio and had not been particularly struck by anything so far, but eventually, as with all of John’s work, something would grab me and stay in my head forever. The journalist took a deep breath and announced that John had died the previous night. Shot while going into his apartment building.
I felt cheated, bitter, foolish — and ambushed by the reporter. It must have happened while I was traveling. I thought back to when I was a 17-year-old student in the recreation room at art college and heard John sing “Twist and Shout” on the record player, and how I was blown away by his directness. How his voice cut through all the nonsense and sent a message to me that said, “If I can do it then so can you, so get up off your backside and play some rock ’n’ roll,” as if to throw down a musical gauntlet.
Then I thought about Yoko standing on the street alone. That image would always stay with me. I wish I’d said more than “Hi.”
Ray Davies, a songwriter and the author of the forthcoming Americana.