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When word got out about the incident, there was grieving everywhere, especially near the crime scene, where thousands gathered for days, and in his hometown of Liverpool as well as the band’s old stomping ground of Hamburg, among other places.
At that time, I was a 15-year-old high school student in Northern Jersey and a huge Beatles fan, collecting every album and piece of memorabilia that my allowance would permit me. I got on the school bus the day after it happened and my friend was sitting in the back, looking gloomier than I’d ever seen him. He broke the news to me but I couldn’t believe it. When I got to school and listened to the radio to confirm it, I started crying as if a family member had just died. I wanted to go to New York to join the crowds outside the Dakota but it was too much for me.
The circumstances of Lennon’s death also had an impact on other musicians and peers. Old drinking buddy Harry Nilsson sobered up and went on a gun control crusade, inspired by his old friend’s murder. David Crosby was busted for gun possession two years after Lennon’s death, only invoking the Beatle’s name as the reason why he was packing heat.
All of the principal players around Lennon also found themselves immediately transformed. For years, Yoko been damned as the one who broke up the Beatles (which conveniently left John and Paul, the real culprits, off the hook). Now, she became a grieving widow and keeper of Lennon’s legacy, gaining sympathy from at least some of her naysayers. In Peter Doggett’s recent book You Never Give Me Your Money, he describes the emotional toll on the other Beatles. Both McCartney and Harrison had plans for recording sessions and worked through their grieving process by getting back to work. Cornered by the press on his way to the studio, Macca’s off-the-cuff reaction (“Drag, isn’t it?”) was seen as coldly insensitive until you consider how much shock he was in about his old friend and partner. Harrison was also said to have made rare public appearances though he was attacked at his home in 1999 by another maniac who stabbed him several times. Ringo flew to New York to comfort Yoko, who was already finding it hard to rest or sleep with hundreds of fans outside singing her late husband’s songs.
Part of what they were mourning wasn’t just the death of one of their heroes but also, no doubt, the end of an possibility of a full Beatles reunion. While the other three did re-convene in 1994 to ‘complete’ Lennon’s demo of “Free As a Bird” and release it as a Beatles single, it just wasn’t the same without Lennon’s full input, though it was nice to see the three of them together in various footage surrounding the Anthology documentary (see this clip of them jamming on “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and an impromptu singalong of “Ain’t She Sweet”).
Ultimately, one of the biggest impacts of Lennon’s death was the usual sales bump, usually seen when a major artist is gone. When Double Fantasy came out in November though, the reviews weren’t always positive (according to Rolling Stone, a number of these thumb’s-down were withdrawn after December) but after Lennon’s death, the record zoomed up the charts along with his back catalog.
His death also had the ‘halo effect’, immortalizing Lennon and making him out to be something of a saint where his peccadilloes (which weren’t that bad unless you count his mid ‘70s albums) were swept aside to have him remembered as a rock immortal, which he remains today despite Albert Goldman’s slimy smearing 1988 bio.
Much of the credit for holding up his mantle has to go to Ono; she’s has done an admirable job of keeping JL’s memory, including his spirit and his songs, alive through reissues, films and concerts. Both of his sons took up their dad’s vocation, with Sean touring with Ono in a recently reformed Plastic Ono Band. Fans still gather at Strawberry Fields, an area of Central Park near the Dakotas dedicated in honor of Lennon, every December 8th to mourn him too. Bob Gruen’s famous pictures of Lennon with the “New York City” T-shirt and standing in front of the Statue of Liberty flashing a peace sign are still best-selling images in Gotham, firming his ties to his last residence and becoming a touchstone of the city itself.
Recently, Keith Elliot Greenberg weighed in with his book, December 8, 1980: The Day John Lennon Died. It’s an OK tome but doesn’t quite focus on the incident and day itself so much as the rest of Lennon’s history leading up to it, which leaves Ray Coleman’s somewhat fawning Lennon- The Definitive Biography (1992) and Philip Norman’s excellent, exhaustive John Lennon: The Life (2009) as the fullest accounts of the man’s life.
Of course, mulling over the details of Lennon’s death doesn’t really soften the impact of it. The facts are still the same and we still miss him dearly and maybe wonder in all sorts of fancy parlor games what could have been if he had survived. Generation X/Y/Z may have a blunted response since they were born afterwards, though they still hear his songs and influence and know the pain of losing a musical/cultural hero when Kurt Cobain offed himself. Ultimately though, the untimely, senseless, brutal ending of Lennon’s life leaves pop fans with a gapping hole, an open wound, a sad memory. It’s not just that he left too soon but that he was forced out in the worst way. We listen to and internalize his songs, honor his moral crusade (not just the peace stance but also the blunt honesty) and cherish his memory. But we also grieve. Somewhere his spirit is watching us, exasperated now, demanding that we get over it and get on with our lives. But somehow, we still can’t.