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Kid rockers come together

Nearly three decades after Lennon's murder, school band keeps Beatle's memory alive

For many baby boomers, the "where-were-you-when?" moment was the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I was a little young for that. For me, it was John Lennon's murder.

Lennon was shot and killed Dec. 8, 1980, by Mark David Chapman. I heard the news on the radio while living in a squalid student squat in Edmonton. It was on 96th Street, a rough part of town. It seemed whenever the Edmonton Sun carried a homicide story, it happened just down the street.

On that day, mishearing the radio, I thought someone had assassinated Ronald Reagan. This didn't particularly bother a left-leaning student like me. The report was repeated, and I finally caught Lennon's name. Unbelievable.

Lennon was a massively popular figure. He was the cool, edgy Beatle and an influential peace activist. Each year, the anniversary of his death is commemorated around the globe.

To be honest, I'm not a big fan of such events, which can be overblown and stilted. And (not to sound curmudgeonly) it seems arbitrary and artificial to suddenly get all sentimental one day of the year.

Nevertheless, this week I was moved by a local school concert honouring the 29th anniversary of John Lennon's death. On Tuesday, pupils at North Saanich Middle School gathered during their lunch-hour to hear the school's rock band. Led by youth counsellor Mike Demers, the group played Come Together, Helter Skelter and other tunes.

Upon arrival, principal Keray Wing led me down the hall amid a dizzying clamour. As we walked, youngsters bobbed up to him like ping-pong balls, lobbing questions and offering news.

Once we reached the concert room, Wing told me he's a lifelong music fan. He saw Otis Redding at Expo '67, Bob Marley in San Francisco and Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight Festival. Not to mention such Vancouver R&B acts as the Night Train Revue and Jason Hoover. School principals have obviously become way hipper over the years.

I told Wing it must be fun for the kids to be in a rock band.

"It's definitely not Kumbaya anymore," he said seriously.

Demers, unshaven and sporting Buddy Holly-type glasses, started the concert with a short introduction that began, "John Lennon was a Beatle ...." He and Wing then duetted on Imagine, with the cool-enough-for-school principal on electric piano. And then the school rock band, all 13 years old, started on Come Together.

I was reminded how frightening and mind-blowing it can be to perform in front of peers at this awkward, self-conscious age. Four boys -- one on bass, the others on electric guitars -- played stock-still with expressionless visages that clearly said: "Oh man, oh man ... I can't believe I'm doing this."

Helter Skelter followed. It seemed an odd choice for a Lennon commemorative concert, perhaps because of its historical link with the Manson murders. Then again, if you're a teenager today, it has no such connotation. It's just a great, rockin' tune.

The band's singer -- and the sole female member -- is Nicola Hestnes. The petite 13-year-old wore skinny black jeans and a black Beatles T-shirt. Nicola had seemed tentative on Come Together, sharing singing duties with Demers. But for Helter Skelter, singing solo, Nicola found her groove. Her body relaxed, she sang more bravely. At the end, she gamely yelled: "I've got blisters on my fingers!" -- just like the record -- and raised her right arm.

And then she smiled.

Over those brief minutes, I saw a small kernel of confidence form within Nicola Hestnes. And the boys played well, too, steadfastly maintaining their poker faces.

Surely such a humble tribute means as much as, and perhaps more than, any John Lennon commemorative event held anywhere. Driving back to the office, I was buoyed by a single, hopeful thought: Where one life ends, another begins.

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