Time has done nothing to diminish the impact of the tragedy, for myself, and for countless others.
On Dec. 8, 1980, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were returning to their home at the Dakota, near Central Park, following a recording session at the Record Plant in midtown Manhattan, when Mark David Chapman stepped from the shadows and shot Lennon five times. Lennon collapsed in the vestibule of the building. He was dead before he reached the hospital.
When Lennon died, it seemed that he took what was left of the promise of the '60s with him. As a Beatle, he had helped to radicalize rock music, in the process, becoming emblematic of the era’s notions of expanded consciousness and free thinking. In the '70s, he and Ono became peace activists, and Lennon’s songwriting took on a poetic air, as best exemplified by songs like “Imagine” and “Mind Games,” both of which suggested that change in the broader world began with change in the consciousness of the individual.
That an admittedly troubled and occasionally conflicted man sought to elevate himself toward lofty heights and to spread notions of peacefulness and compassion through his music, only to become the victim of senseless violence, was an irony that seemed too much to bear for many of his fans. All these years later, it feels no less so. The fact that Chapman remains in prison, having last been denied parole in August of 2014, does little to mitigate the loss.
I was 13 at the time, and a serious Beatlemaniac. I remember reading the morning paper – the Albany Times Union – the following day, and feeling devastated. I also recall being annoyed by the reporting, as if it was seeking to belittle a man so many of us viewed as a hero.
Here’s how the original Associated Press story led:
“Former Beatle John Lennon, who catapulted to stardom with the long-haired British rock group in the 1960s, was shot to death late last night outside his luxury apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, police said.”
Note the loaded language – “catapulted,” as if it happened overnight without a lot of work; “long-haired British rock group,” “luxury apartment,” all of it suggesting that Lennon – a mere five years after finally being granted his “green card,” following a lengthy campaign by the Nixon administration and the FBI to have him deported – was still a controversial figure in the eyes of the mainstream at the time of his murder.
What made the loss all the more painful was the fact that Lennon was experiencing both an artistic rebirth and a more highly developed sense of his potential as a human being when Chapman killed him. He was, as he made plain in an interview with Rolling Stone that took place three days before his death, hopeful about the future.
In that poignant interview with then-editor Jonathan Cott, Lennon – who had spent his early years as a man very much in line with the macho attitude toward women that permeated the 1950s of his youth – suggested he had attained some enlightenment in this area.
“ ‘Woman’ (the then new song released on the ‘Double Fantasy’ album) came about because … it suddenly hit me what women do for us. Not just what my Yoko does for me, although I was thinking in those personal terms ... but any truth is universal. What dawned on me was everything I was taking for granted. Women really are the other half of the sky, as I whisper at the beginning of the song. It’s a ‘we’ or it ain’t anything.”
Lennon was ready, it seemed, to enter middle age with at least some of his ideals intact.
“We’re not the first to say ‘imagine no countries’ or ‘give peace a chance,’ but we’re carrying that torch, like the Olympic torch, passing it hand to hand, to each other, to each country, to each generation ... and that’s our job,” Lennon told Cott.
Thirty-five years after Lennon’s death, it’s still our job.