December 2005

Twenty-Five Years Ago Today...

...And I can still vividly recall that night, on my way home, up Broadway, past the commotion on 72nd Street, and arriving to hear the news from friends visiting from DC, "Did you hear the news?! John Lennon was shot dead tonight!" We gathered around the radio, listening to WNEW, watching the scene on TV outside the Dakota in disbelief. John Lennon had been shot four times in the back, by the deranged Mark Chapman, who had asked the former Beatle for his autograph only hours before he laid in wait and killed him.

Chapman had actually met Lennon earlier as he left for a recording studio and got his copy of Lennon's Double Fantasy autographed, the image of Lennon signing one of his last autographs was actually caught by a photographer who witnessed it. Chapman remained in the vicinity of The Dakota for most of the day as a fireworks demonstration in nearby Central Park distracted Lennon's doorman and passers-by.

Later that evening, Lennon and Ono returned to their apartment fresh from recording Ono's single "Walking on Thin Ice" for their next album. At 10.50pm, as their limousine pulled up to the entrance of the Dakota, Ono got out of the car first, followed by Lennon. Beyond the main entrance was a door which would be opened and a small set of stairs leading into the apartment complex. As Ono went in, Lennon got out of the car and glanced at Chapman, proceeding on through the entrance to the Dakota.

As Lennon walked past him, Chapman called out "Mr. Lennon." As Lennon turned, Chapman crouched into what witnesses called a "combat" stance and fired five hollowpoint bullets. One bullet missed, but four bullets entered John's back and shoulder. One of the four bullets fatally pierced his aorta. Still, Lennon managed to stagger up six steps into the concierge booth where he collapsed, gasping "I'm shot, I'm shot."

Chapman stood there, holding his .38 Charter Arms revolver, which was pulled out of his hands and kicked away by one Jose Perdomo who then asked "What have you done, what have you done?", to which Chapman replied "I just shot John Lennon." Chapman then calmly took his coat off, placed it at his feet, took out a copy of J.D. Salinger's novel, The Catcher in the Rye, and started reading. Police arrived within minutes, to find Chapman still waiting quietly outside, still reading the book.

The two officers transported Lennon to Roosevelt Hospital in the back of their squad car as they thought John was too badly hurt to take the risk of waiting for an ambulance. One of the officers asked Lennon if he knew who he was. Lennon's reply is reported to have been "Yeah" or simply a nod of the head before he passed out. Despite extensive resuscitative efforts in the Emergency Department, Lennon had lost over 80% of his blood volume and died of shock at the age of 40. A stunned nation was informed of his death by Dr. Stephen Lynn who shortly before had broken the devastating news privately to anxiously waiting Yoko.

In the days that followed, the candlelight vigils in Central Park's renamed space, "Strawberry Fields," and the Dakota, the eerily beautiful sounds of Lennon's latest album, playing round the clock on the radio were a sad reminder of a tragedy no one could believe. Yoko Ono complained that the crowd in front of the Dakota kept her awake, and they moved to en masse to Central Park.

The next night, December 9th, Bruce Springsteen played at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, and said "It's a hard night to come out and play but there's nothing else you can do," and he ended his show with a spirited performance of "Twist and Shout". A special commemorative issue of Rolling Stone magazine came out shortly after the murder, and featured on its cover, a photo taken the morning of the shooting by Annie Leibovitz showing a nude Lennon in an embryonic pose kissing a fully clothed Ono. (In 2005, this cover was voted as the number one magazine cover of all time by The American Society of Magazine Editors). Later the next year, Elton John's Jump Up! featured a hit single, "Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)," a tribute to Lennon.

Chapman ultimately pleaded guilty to gunning down Lennon, and is currently serving life in Attica prison near New York. As recently as October 2004, he failed for the third time to secure his release. He said he had, "heard voices in his head", telling him to kill Lennon. Twenty years after his death millions of fans paid tribute to Mr Lennon in his home town of Liverpool and in New York. His widow launched a campaign against gun violence in the United States to mark the anniversary.

Lennon had joked years earlier that, "I'll probably be popped off by some loony," and sadly he was correct. The murder of celebrities by fans was not new, but extremely rare, and ironically, Lennon seemed aware of the risk. I once attended an Elton John concert in 1976, at the newly built Capital Centre, sitting with my chums in about the tenth row. We had camped out for tickets weeks earlier, as we normally did in those days, guaranteeing us great seating.

Half-way during the show, Elton told the audience, "I have some great friends in the audience tonight", and with that, a brilliant spotlight shown down on my friends and I. Were we being honored for our dedication and love of Elton, we naively wondered? Suddenly I happened to look behind me and, sitting there was John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Cher, an unlikely trio to say the least! "Oh God," I heard Lennon mutter as he sheepishly waved to the stage. Before Elton could finish the next song, Lennon, Yoko and Cher were gone, clearly uncomfortable with the gazes and the attention they were getting.

There would be more tributes for Lennon, A play and concerts, but December 8th, like December 7th, will always be a day that for many of us, will "live in infamy". For me and others, it really is the day the music died.