Today marks the 30th anniversary etched in the minds of Beatles fans around the world. John Lennon was murdered outside of his apartment building, The Dakota, overlooking Central Park.
“There was no precedent to any of this,” Veteran New York DJ Dennis Elsas reflects. “The assassination of a rock star, that was totally new.”
Elsas, six years earlier, had what many consider the definitive radio interview with Lennon. Elsas, working at the time for WNEW-FM, spoke with Lennon for two hours that Saturday afternoon. You can hear portions of that famous interview on Elsas’ website.
The legendary DJ for more than a decade has been an afternoon fixture at Fordham University’s WFUV (90.7 FM). He recalls for FishbowlNY that fateful night when the WNEW on-air staff and listeners mourned as one for the loss of the music and goodwill giant.
It was Monday night, December 8, 1980. WNEW was holding its annual holiday concert for Cerebral Palsy at Avery Fisher Hall. The entire on-air staff was part of the show, which was headlined by the Marshall Tucker Band.
After the concert, the jocks joined the party. The celebration turned solemn, though, when Scott Muni [program director] received a call from Vin Scelsa, the only DJ back at the radio station.
The first word came in that Lennon was shot and rushed to Roosevelt Hospital.
“Each of the individual disc jockeys, without discussing with one another, literally drive back to the radio station,” Elsas remembers.
By the time the announcers assembled, the unthinkable was now reality.
“That night it sort of became an on-air wake, or an on-air shiva, whatever you might call it, where we took calls, we played music,” Elsas recalls. “It basically became an all-night show where the audience could go to talk. It wasn’t set up or planned that way. That’s just how it unfolded.”
Elsas says it was as much a cathartic experience for his colleagues as it was for the listeners.
“We would all offer our various memories. … It’s just like you would do at the death of any loved one where everybody was in shock and sort of needed each other for comfort and some sense of closure.”
While everyone had their own memories of the fallen Beatle, for Elsas, the night took on special meaning.
“It was poignant. It was sad.” Elsas says. “This was six years after that interview… [It] had already taken on a certain significance, because… between 1975 and 1980 he gave no interviews.”
Despite the personal reflections, the famed jock had feelings that were shared by millions of others.
“I’m a Beatle fan,” Elsas says. “Someone has shot one of the most important figures in my childhood, in my musical education. One of my major rock and roll heroes.”