The murder of John Lennon was more than just the end of the Beatles. It was the end of a specific segment of pop culture.
Even decades after the fact, music fans still wince about the saddest, most tragic part of John Lennon's life -- his murder on 8 December 1980. As he was reporting a story on celebrations honoring Lennon on his birthday this year, anchor Brian Williams on the NBC Nightly News felt obliged to immediately bring it up. A few months after the killing, normally snarky Creem magazine angrily denounced an announcement about a band called the Dead Lennons that were performing on April Fool's Day. When we talk about Lennon's death, it's always with sadness but we quickly run away from the subject because it's still so painful to think of. But if we really want to consider everything about him, we have to find the courage to dive into this touchy subject.
Death haunted the Beatles for a long time before that though. Original bassist Stu Sutcliffe died of a brain hemorrhage at age 21, shortly after quitting the band in 1961. On Revolver's “She Said, She Said", Lennon sings "I know what it's like to be dead" (referring to an acid trip). Manager Brian Epstein died in 1967 at age 32 of an accidental overdose. On The Beatles (aka The White Album), McCartney's “Helter Skelter" and Harrison's “Piggies" would have the unfortunate distinction of helping to fuel Charles Manson's cult on a murderous rampage. In 1969, "Paul Is Dead" rumors would flourish, with fans scouring lyrics and album covers for 'clues' about what happened to him. And while Lennon sang sweetly of his late mother on The While Album ("Julia"), he more blatantly proclaimed “My Mummy's Dead" on 1970's Plastic Ono Band, reliving an old psychic wound.
And then came that fateful, awful day. Mark David Chapman came to New York with one purpose in mind. He previously stalked Lennon outside the Dakota building along with other Beatles fans waiting for a glimpse of him. When he returned, they finally came face to face on December 8th in the late afternoon. Lennon autographed Chapman's copy of Double Fantasy (as seen in the photo to the right), even asking Chapman afterwards "Is that all you want?" It was, at least for the moment. Lennon and Ono then went to a studio session, mixing Ono's single "Walking on Thin Ice". Deciding against a late dinner, Lennon wanted to return home to say goodnight to Sean. They were driven back to the Dakota but instead of asking for the car to enter the safety of the courtyard, they pulled up to the curb in front of the building where Chapman was there again, waiting for him.
It was about 10:50 PM. Lennon walked past and Chapman pulled out a .38 Special and fired five shots; the first shot missed Lennon but the other four went into his shoulder and back, hitting an aorta and causing him to heavily bleed. The concierge covered Lennon's body with his coat while the doorman demanded to know if Chapman realized what he'd done. "Yes, I just shot John Lennon," he replied. Chapman then retrieved his talismanic copy of The Catcher in the Rye and calmly read it until the police arrived to arrest him, with his murder weapon and his autographed copy of Double Fantasy nearby (that copy of the album gruesomely went up for auction in 2003 for $500,000). Meanwhile, Lennon was rushed to nearby Roosevelt Hospital where doctors opened up his chest, desperately trying to manually revive his heart. Since Chapman used hollow-point bullets, which expand when they hit their target, the wounds were too severe, making Lennon lose most of his blood after the shooting. He was pronounced dead at 11:15 PM that evening (his death certificate can be seen here).
Because Lennon's killing happened in New York, a major media hub where the TV networks have their headquarters, the scene and reaction of fans was easily to report on and transmit to the rest of the world. And while the term 'assassination' is usually used for political figures, Lennon's death sometimes falls under this semantic category, in a nod to the enormity of the event.
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The murder carved itself out as a huge psychic wound in the collective conscious because of all of the enormity of the circumstances around it taken together. First off, there was Lennon as still-beloved pop icon. Even though it had been over 15 years since the Fabs landed on the JFK airport tarmac, the legend of the band still engulfed the '70s. Two greatest hits compilations (the Red and Blue albums) tore up the charts in 1973 while four years later, the pre-jukebox musical “Beatlemania" would have a hugely successful three-year run of over 1000 performances. That's not even mentioning the hundreds of cover versions that were done after the group dissolved or the tours that McCartney and Harrison did where they dug through their back catalog of Fab tunes. Even though the Clash sang about 'phony Beatlemania' in late '79, the whole phenomenon was still in full swing by the end of the decade.
On top of that, the timing of Lennon's death was terrible, even though any time it came would have obviously still been devastating. In 1975, Lennon embarked on a self-imposed musical exile which continued for half a decade as he became a house hubby disappearing into his fancy digs in his new adopted city of Gotham while his old band mates stayed active in the pop world. And then in the summer of 1980, inspiration hit him and he started writing songs again: in August and September, he and Yoko recorded what would be his last album, Double Fantasy. As such, he seemed to come out of nowhere with this brand new album and the prospect of public appearances- he had already done a number of interviews at the time of Double Fantasy.
Even anyone put off by his new found love of domestic life still had to admit that there was a mastery to his work that seemed to disappear since the early '70s, not only blowing away all of his post-Imagine albums but also putting to shame the mid- and late '70s work of his former band mates. It was rumored around this time that not only was Lennon considering going on tour but he was also contemplating some kind of reunion with his old mates (which author Richie Unterberger casts some doubts on). So there he was, the only hold-out of the Beatles, finally back again and ready to take on the pop world again. And then, just as soon as he arrived, he was gone. He was at age 40 no less (hardly a geezer), with the drive to do more but robbed of the chance to do it.
And then there was the whole dramatic circumstance of his death -- a public execution in New York City. As Greil Marcus wrote in Rock Deathes in the 70's: A Sweepstakes (predating Lennon's own death), there were different measures for figuring on the impact and tragedy of each one. With the big ones from the late '60s and early '70s, many of them seemed like sad little episodes outside of the public eye- Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix. But Lennon's death was premeditated murder on a major city's public street with by-standers there, akin to a mob slaying. Similarly, Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shukar were also gunned down on the streets of a major city (L.A. and Vegas respectively) at an untimely age and in the middle of their careers. Like Lennon, their dramatic deaths also became an important part of their story, made worse by the fact that to this day, no one has been charged with either rapper's murder.
As if all of this wasn't bad enough, there was also a terrible irony to Lennon's death: he was a peace crusader killed by gunfire, though he joins the company of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi in this regard.
On top of that, and probably the worst thing to mull over, is that Lennon's death itself (as opposed to his enormous legacy) was utterly meaningless and senseless. You can peel through court testimony and reports about Chapman looking for clues into his psyche, including his obsession with Salinger's book and the Beatles themselves, but ultimately, it leads nowhere because insane logic is still insane. Essentially, here was a 25-year-old loser who made it into the history books for the worst reasons, just as John Wilkes Booth, James Earl Ray and Lee Harvey Oswald, except that there were no conspiracy theories to blunt the impact of what happened this time.
Because he's so hated for obvious reasons, no pop fan likes to think of Chapman for more than the fleeting second it takes to curse him but he did in fact become a significant part of Lennon's life, by ending it. Watching the 1997 movie Chapter 27, starring Jared Leto as Chapman, we only see glimpses of the inner demons that drove the killer up to the event. Instead of any sympathy or insight though, Chapman still appears as he did to us before -- a slug who committed a horrific act. The film isn't painful to watch just because we know how it'll turn out and how we're forced to watch this grosteque figure for 80 minutes but also because we ultimately don't care about him in the end except that we still hate him, probably more now.
Chapman himself went through a turbulent trail for second degree murder (“a non-premeditated killing, resulting from an assault in which death of the victim was a distinct possibility"), arguing with his attorney about submitting a guilty plea and having a slew of psychiatrics testify about his psychosis and delusions before he read through a passage of The Catcher in the Rye when asked by the judge if he had anything to say before sentencing. Again, it was totally senseless.
Ultimately, Chapman was ordered to have psychiatric treatment, with a 20 years to life prison sentence in 1981. He's remained at Attica since then, denied parole six times now (Ono had fought against it each time), including one recent request. Even though he didn't exhibit bad behavior in prison and expressed regret for his crime, the prison board still saw his release as a threat to Chapman himself (some fans have allegedly swore revenge) and the community. Also, as with Charles Manson, it's doubtful that any parole board wants to be known as the ones who set free such a despicable public figure.
So if you add everything up about the terrible circumstances of Lennon's death -- beloved pop icon just coming back into music after years out of it, murdered by a manic for no good reason -- you can see why it's all so damn painful to even think about it.
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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.