Today was the day I finally remembered to buy a digital copy of “Empty Garden” by Elton John. He and lyricist Bernie Taupin wrote it in tribute to John Lennon. I’ve seldom heard this song on the radio, and when I do, it tends to happen in scenarios plagued by poor radio reception, like waiting for a stop light to change between two semi trucks. I’m surprised that I haven’t had a dream that I’ve been airdropped in wilds of Alaska with a transistor radio tuned a station a thousand miles distant, and I can barely pick out that song through the fuzz. In the dream, I’d have the volume turned all the way up just to hear Elton John, but some moldly oldy like “Precious and Few” by Climax would break in from a closer station and temporarily deafen me with its sweetness.
I didn’t pick “Precious and Few” at random. Something like that did happen to me about 30 years ago when I was travelling across Wyoming. I was thrilled to hear “Sometimes When We Touch” by Dan Hill, another song that used to elude me on the radio, and I had the sudden, impossibly loud interruption of “Precious and Few”. Since my ears were too shocked to listen to much, I talked one of my travel companions into singing “Precious and Few” with me for the next 20 miles, an annoying feat which we repeated in the absence of radio reception several times over that cross-country trip. How we knew the lyrics and key change is a mystery to me. Perhaps we knit this knowledge from various K-Tel album commercials.
I’ve lingered too long on the foregoing tangent, so I will return to the Elton John’s song that I remembered to buy today. Hearing the song more clearly has lessened a bit of its mystique for me. It kind of reminds me of when I was a student at Duke and first saw Christian Laettner in person. Since writing and mailing letters was still common in those days, I wrote a letter to a friend letting her know that Laettner wasn’t as attractive in person as he appeared on television. Her reply to my claim was memorable: “Don’t f*ck with the fantasy.”
Thus in buying the song I’ve accidentally diminished the production quality of a daydream I harbored in the early 80s. In that waking dream of my eight-year-old self, I wondered how the world might be different had the fates of two famous victims of gun violence been reversed. What if Lennon survived and Reagan perished? Their shootings happened very close in time, less than four months apart, and these stories loomed large in my grade-school world.
Now that I listened to “Empty Garden” several times today, I realize that question still intrigues me. How would the world be different if the fates of Lennon and Reagan had been reversed? Would George Bush the Elder have continued Reagan’s agenda so early in the regime? Would Lennon have gracefully landed in the realm of Has-Beens? Would labor unions be in such decline in the U.S. had Reagan not been around to quash the air traffic controller’s strike that happened later in 1981?
I suppose there’s not much point to exploring such veins of alternate history. The best scenario of all would be if neither shooting had happened. It’s possible John Lennon could have created his best work in protest of the Reagan era.