Former Beatle John Lennon was happy living in New York City after moving there with wife Yoko Ono in 1971. “John loved New York with the affection one could only associate with home,” according to author and native New Yorker Keith Elliot Greenberg. “It was a place, John said, where ‘there is no harassment.’ A place where the former Beatle and his family felt safe.”
Lennon felt safe in Manhattan until the cold night of Dec. 8, 1980, when he was shot dead outside his apartment building, the legendary Dakota, by a mentally ill young man named Mark David Chapman. A devout Christian convert born in Ft. Worth, Texas, Chapman first idolized Lennon, then turned against him for, among other reasons, the rock star’s rejection of traditional religion.
The 30th anniversary of the shooting is attracting a lot of attention. Lennon would have celebrated his 70th birthday this year. It’s been 40 years since the Beatles’ break-up. And the group’s music is now on iTunes, attracting new listeners.
Greenberg examines Lennon’s shooting and its aftermath in his book, December 8, 1980: The Day John Lennon Died (Backbeat Books). Greenberg describes the events of the day leading up to the moment when Chapman fired his .38 revolver five times, putting four bullets into Lennon’s body. The book, a mix of new interviews and extensive research, follows Lennon, Ono and, of course, Chapman through that final day, as well as the other former Beatles. Greenberg also introduces us to numerous other players in this sad drama, including the cops called to the scene and a TV newsman who was in the emergency room when a dying Lennon arrived. He describes the memorial held in Central Park. And he works in mini-biographies of Lennon, Ono, Chapman and the other Beatles.
Greenberg’s book intrigued me because I wanted to perform my own act of reconstruction, to plumb my memories, and those of my friends, regarding that awful Monday night. I was a student at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa at the time, as were the people I talked to for this report, some of whom now live in Birmingham. What did Lennon’s shooting mean to us? What did it mean, if anything, in the larger social and political context of 1980, a transformative year in American history?
The night of the shooting, the 21-year-old Greenberg—a long-time Beatles fan—was with his friend, the late Dave Becker, at Becker’s apartment. Becker turned on the TV news at 11 p.m., and the men saw the first report that Lennon had been shot. “At the time, I didn’t think it was that serious,” Greenberg says. “I thought it was one of those John Lennon stories that people would tell.”
Was Greenberg in denial? “Oh, maybe a little,” he says. “I had not had anybody close to me die yet. All four of my grandparents were still alive, and none of my friends had died. I didn’t believe that a Beatle—and I thought of them almost like family members—would die on me.”
December 8 was a cold night in Tuscaloosa. It was finals week. Instead of studying, I was watching Monday Night Football at my next door neighbor’s apartment and got the news about Lennon from Howard Cosell. As I recall, the New England Patriots missed a field goal, and Cosell said something like, “But it’s only a football game. On the streets of New York tonight, an unspeakable tragedy…” I was stunned. And I’ll never forget the look of disbelief on my neighbor’s face.
Ironically, it had been just in the previous few months that I had been turned on to the best of Lennon’s work, including his first solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, with songs like “Mother” and “Working Class Hero.” I had my new best friend in Tuscaloosa, David Jones, to thank for that. Jones was, and is, a man with great taste and a huge music collection, from the Rolling Stones to Art Tatum, from Charles Ives to John Coltrane.
I had grown up with the Beatles but, for some reason, associated them mainly with slick pop. I was into darker, edgier stuff—the Clash, Patti Smith, Television and Lou Reed. So I was surprised by the raw emotion I heard on that Lennon solo record. It gave me a new respect for him. This was reinforced when Jones played me choice Lennon cuts from the Beatles records—like “Tomorrow Never Knows” from Revolver.
Jones also heard the news from Howard Cosell. “Perhaps the hippest member of the previous generation dies, and I get the word from the un-hippest member,” he says in an email. “It took a minute to process. Lennon shot? Political figures were assassinated, but rock and rollers died from drug overdoses. But then Lennon was also a political figure. Still... I remember flipping channels, trying to get more information. It didn’t make sense. There had to be a mistake. I remember when JFK, MLK, and Bobby Kennedy were shot, and each time I went through the cycle of shock, anger, and sadness. But with Lennon it was more personal somehow. He was an artist who transcended his medium. Why would anyone kill an artist?”
David Case, now a college English teacher in Florida, was an English major at the University at the time of the shooting. He heard the news while walking back to Mallet Assembly, the men's honors dorm on campus. "I was extremely shocked and started crying, especially because I had just written a bad review of [Lennon's new album] Double Fantasy," Case tells me in a phone interview.
One of my Tuscaloosa buddies throughout the 1980s was Bill Wilson, now an Anniston Star photographer. Wilson was listening to the radio. “I was half asleep when an announcer broke in with the news of Lennon’s death,” he says in a Facebook message. “At first I thought I had dreamed it, but reality set in, and my first thought was there could never be a Beatles reunion. A selfish thought, I know, but my mind did not know how to put this untimely tragedy into context. My other roommates took the news the same as a local traffic update. I just had to get out of the apartment.” Wilson later went back to his apartment, pondered what he calls “the ‘why’ question” and listened to the Lennon Imagine LP he got for his 12th birthday.
Birmingham photographer Genie McElroy, a psychology major at the University, was deeply affected by the shooting. She felt, she says in an email, as if “the ground right under my feet suddenly collapsed. I felt like Jesus had died all over again. Horrified, shocked, helpless, and physically weak, as if all the blood was suddenly drained from my body. I thought, ‘Why in the HELL would ANYONE kill John Lennon, who bestowed so many gifts upon us over the years through his music, love, and peace?’”
The next day, which was cold, dreary and, I think, rainy, I sought solace at the Vinyl Solution, an independent record store owned by University graduate and former DJ George Hajidakis. The Solution opened in August 1980 and would serve as the social and cultural epicenter for Tuscaloosa's angel-headed hipsters throughout the 1980s. Hajidakis was playing John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. I stared at a large, black and white poster on the wall showing Lennon playing a big grand piano.
The day after the shooting was a tough one for those of us who were disturbed by Lennon's death, especially given the indifference of some of the people with whom we tried to discuss it. I mentioned the murder to a guy in one of my classes, and he said something like, "Shit happens" (a heartless, morally vacuous meme that opens up some sick neural pathway back into the Reagan years). I didn't say anything else, but I was thinking, literally, "Fuck you, motherfucker."
David Case was mocked for his attempt to remember Lennon. "I remember wearing my John Lennon t-shirt the next day, and a guy yelled from a window at Mallet that I had just bought the shirt to get attention," Case says. "But my friend yelled back that I had had the shirt ever since I came to school."
So what is Lennon’s legacy? “I think he was the greatest figure that rock ‘n roll produced,” Jones says. “What he did was take a lot of rough shit and professionalize it, and with a level of consistent songwriting that was unheard of in rock ‘n roll. He then evolved and broke form, like Harold Bloom says a great poet does. For about seven years, he changed popular music forever. I think he was the dominant creative force in the Beatles.”
Lennon’s death seems to represent a depressing punctuation mark for an important year in American social and political life. When I returned to school in Tuscaloosa in June 1980 after dropping out for three years, I noticed the student body had become more conservative. And there were other tea leaves to read. Neil Young released a politically right-leaning record called Hawks and Doves and began a journey that led to him endorsing Ronald Reagan for president in 1984. Bob Dylan had turned to Jesus, alienating some of his old fans. Then Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in November. And on top of all that, John Lennon got blown away.
Why did Chapman kill Lennon? Greenberg isn’t sure, even after his research. “It doesn’t make any more sense, because Mark David Chapman is mentally ill,” he says. “I can only understand it to a degree, but I don’t fully understand his mania, except in a detached, clinical way. Clearly he was very narcissistic. Chapman seems to take a relish in short-circuiting pop history. Even in his trial transcript, he expressed remorse, but he almost gleefully describes the pandemonium that ensued after he shot Lennon, and the people singing, and Yoko having to hear them. He did get the fame and infamy he wanted. It’s 30 years later and we’re still talking about him.”
I asked Greenberg and my friends to attempt to put the Lennon shooting in a broader context. “I was in London and Liverpool last week and was asked that,” Greenberg says. “I was asked, ‘Is the U.S. responsible for the death of John Lennon?’ I think our lenient gun laws may have helped Mark David Chapman travel back and forth with the gun in his bag. I am not so sure [Lennon] was killed by the time. But after he was slain, the word ‘stalker’ entered the international consciousness.” Greenberg cites, among other examples, John Hinckley Jr., who shot and wounded Reagan in 1981. “I heard a story recently about Paul [McCartney] going into a bar in London with somebody to have a beer,” he says. “I hope that’s true. But I would think [with celebrities] there’s always that caution in their heads because of what happened to John Lennon.”
Shelton Waldrep, an English professor at the University of Southern Maine, saw great significance in Lennon’s shooting. “My main memory of Lennon’s death was as a grim footnote to the Reagan and Thatcher revolution—still the most significant rearrangement of the social and political landscape in our lifetimes,” he says in an email. “It wasn’t enough that all of the progress made during the 60s and 70s was being brought to an abrupt end by an ignorant wave of reaction, but the icon of human feeling and sensitivity that was John Lennon had to be sacrificed as well. It was a horrible coda and made the bleakness of that historical moment, especially those of us who had just voted in our first national election, seem especially disorienting and depressing.”
Jones is reluctant to engage in this analysis. “A lot of things changed at that time,” he said, referring to such things as Reagan’s election. “But I do have a problem trying to wrap Lennon’s death into that, other than it was another weird moment. It was a nut case that shot him.”
Jones, however, is able to put the shooting in a personal context. “Lennon wasn’t just my favorite Beatle, he was the guy I wanted to be,” he says. “He proved to me that you can take chances as an artist, and experiment, and still be successful. John Lennon made me believe that you can have everything. On Dec. 8, 1980, I realized you can't."
Greenberg was disappointed that Lennon had been taken away and that the Beatles could never reunite, but he also learned a bitter lesson. "I was perplexed as to why somebody would do this," he says. "It enlightened me to the fact that one person who feels very marginalized can change, maybe not the world, but the course of events, with one very dramatic action."
A day or two after Lennon’s shooting, I was talking to my mom in Birmingham on the phone. She had heard that Ono wanted people to pray for Chapman. I remember being moved and saying something weepy and pathetic, like “That’s what John would have wanted.” I started crying before I could finish the sentence.
It’s almost hard for me to recognize that sweet, naïve 23-year-old who could cry like that. In some ways, my childhood ended the night Lennon was shot. It had to end, of course. And me and my friends dried our tears and moved on. After all, we had our own music and our own bohemian world in what we called the student ghetto. It was a place where we would make our own history and have our own dreams—most of which, of course, would never come true.