December 8, 2007

The Day We Killed John Lennon

You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one.
Photograph ©, 2006 by Ethan Russell @

We'd finished filming John and Yoko for the video a day or so before he was shot to death. It was their last video, but of course we didn't know it at the time. There was film of them holding hands and walking in Central Park in the place that would later become "Strawberry Fields." We'd filmed them rolling naked in bed together in a Soho Art Gallery where she looked healthy and ample and he looked small, slight and with skin that was almost transluscent. I remember being slightly surprised by the fact that Lennon's need for Ono was so constant and palpable. He was almost never more than two feet away from her side and had the disconcerting habit of calling her "Mommy" whenever they spoke.

My role was as "executive producer" which really meant that I was to stand around with a roll of hundred dollar bills and pay-off the teamsters and solve other problems with copious applications of money. It was an odd job in more ways than one, but I was grateful to have it at the time.

We'd sent the last of the film to the lab, and the director, Ethan Russell, had gone back to Los Angeles to begin editing. The crew had dispersed and I'd taken to my bed racked with pain. The job, this time, had been so tough and high stress that my neck had gone out. I could barely turn my head without feeling as if a sledge was hammering a hot-needle into the cervical vertebrae. I was lying carefully propped on the bed eating Bufferin as if they were Tic-Tacs and trying not to move. My neck was held in one of those tight foam collars. Not moving was the best thing to do at the time and I was doing it with all my might.

It was a small one-bedroom apartment on the East Side of Manhattan. My first wife and I were there after three years of living in London, Paris, the Algarve and other European locations. She was eight months pregnant with my daughter and looked as if she was trying to smuggle a basketball across state lines for immoral purposes. Her mood, never really cheerful, was not improved by her situation.

The apartment was on loan from her uncle's girlfriend. I was down to my last few thousand dollars and was looking for a job. The film gig had been a gift from my old friend Ethan, and I'd been glad to get it. But it was over and, with a baby banging on the door of the world, things were not looking up. At the time, the only thing looking up was me since my neck required me to lie flat and gaze at the ceiling. It had been a rough two weeks but I thought things would certainly improve.

And of course, that's when things got worse. It got worse in the way most things do, the phone rang and my wife called out, "It's for you."

Some New York wag once said, "Age fourteen is the last time in your life when you're glad the phone is for you."

I groped blindly to the side of the bed and picked up the extension. It was Ethan calling from an editing room in Los Angeles. "John's been shot. He's dead."

I think my reaction then was my reaction now when I wrote out the phrase above. I just stopped doing and thinking whatever I was doing or thinking and stared at the rough plaster ceiling above and blinked slowly in the silence.

Then I said whatever I said. I'm sure I expressed shock, disbelief, and something about how alive he'd been at the filming session the day before, or two days before... whatever it may have been. But Ethan, ever the professional, brought the call back to the reason for it.

"Here's what has to be done and done now. The footage we shot in the park is now the last footage ever taken of John. It is sitting in a film lab in Manhattan. We've got to get control of it, all of it, and secure it until everything is sorted out. There can't be a bootleg copy floating around for the tabloids and the television shows. It's probably the property of Yoko but we'll sort that out later. For now, you've got to get it out and safe."

The call ended and I stood up. Slowly. Dressed even more slowly and watched, as I dressed, the unfolding of the end of Lennon's life as reported, beat by beat, by all the television stations on the dial.

The next 24 hours are a blur. I remember sitting rigidly in the back of a limo learning to hate the potholes of the New York streets with a passion as each one slammed another heated needle deep into my neck. I somehow got the film out of the lab and took it to a midtown bank and placed it in a safe-deposit box. There were lawyers and paperwork to deal with, phonecalls and more instructions.

In the end, I took the keys to the safe-deposit box and the paperwork to the Dakota apartment of John Lennon to turn them over to Yoko's assistants.

The street in front of the Dakota was packed with people along both sidewalks and the crowd spilled into the street. The police were keeping it moving in a quiet way. Small seas of flowers flowed across the sidewalk and up the walls and gates of the Dakota. Pictures and scrawled messages of love and loss were taped to the walls and flung into the flowers. Widening puddles of melted wax where hundreds of candles burned lapped at the edges of the flowers. Some people held each other, others walked and wept openly. Some stood to the side and sobbed quietly. A path through the offerings had been cleared at the entrance to the Dakota and to get in you had to wade through the grief.

This spontaneous shrine was a harbinger, as so many things in John's life and death were. The same motif of flowers, pictures, candles, weeping and grief would be repeated on a vast scale across the entire city and country some 21 years later on 9/11, but that sort of thing could not have been imagined in December of 1980. This was the largest grief that could then be conceived by us - the killing of one of the Gods of music. "Our music." Which the "Man can't bust," but, as had just been proven by one of our lunatics, we could kill.

Taken large, this was the death of the music in the death of a man in whom we'd invested the music. Taken larger it was the death of the 60s and all that we once "imagined" it meant. And all of it happening in a way that would be echoed in later years as the 60s died again and again - and always a death at the hands of those that lived it. I might have seen it then, if then I could see clearly, as a portent of so much that sprung from those fertile blindingly optimistic years that would go wrong and twisted in the years ahead, but "I am no prophet and here's no great matter."

On that day, I didn't see anything clearly -- nor would I for decades. I just walked into the courtyard of the Dakota, took the elevator up to the apartment, said some words to the small and aging Asian woman in the white room, dropped off legal papers and keys and went down the elevator, out to the car and had it drive me back to bed across the park.

That's what I did on that day. Just another walk-on part in the war.

Some days later there was a memorial service for John in Central Park. I went with an old friend from Berkeley, Jon Cott, who'd interviewed Lennon once or twice over the years for Rolling Stone. I don't remember much about the service. I'm sure "Imagine," that anthem of dubious distinction, was sung by all of us, and that there were more flowers and candles and crying as is the way of these things.

When it was over, I walked out of Central Park with Cott, one of my amigos from those diamond sky nights in Berkeley, the Haight, "swinging" London, and all the other scenes we'd flowed through in the 60s. I walked East out of the park towards what would soon become not just my first wife, but my family for 12 years -- a whole new life containing all the seeds, good and bad, of the now old dead life.

I said goodbye to Jon Cott at the entrance to the subway that would take him downtown to the Village where he'd put aside writing about rock and roll and was now writing a book about children's fairy tales. Cott was always just ahead of the curve. I watched from the street as he went down under the ground.

I'd never see him again. But then I'd never see the 60s again either. On that day, it all went down under the ground.

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Posted by Vanderleun at December 8, 2007 12:30 PM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.


This was the most well written thing I've read all day.

Thank you.

Posted by: chris at December 8, 2004 12:12 PM

"Ed Moltzen @ Late Final notes that today is December 8, 2004 and remembers John Lennon (Dec. 3, 1938-Dec. 8, 1980) was shot to death on this date and then asks: "Where were you when you found out he had died?" "

**Huh? John Lennon was born October 9, 1940. Where in the world does Dec. 3, 1938 come from?

Posted by: Brad at December 8, 2004 1:12 PM

You are correct. I should have checked rather than cut and pasted. Corrected now. Thanks.

Posted by: Gerard Van der Leun at December 8, 2004 1:21 PM
There was a lot of paperwork coming in by fax and more instructions

Fax machines in 1980?

Posted by: keggin at December 8, 2004 2:31 PM

Humm, you know you may have a point. I know there were fax machines around and that there were lawyers offices and documents and phone calls, but I really may have conflated technoeras in my memory. The 80s *were* the decade of faxing and ZapMail but 1980 is very early.

I'll take it as a mistake and correct it. Thanks

Posted by: Gerard Van der Leun at December 8, 2004 3:43 PM

By telex then?

Posted by: Stephen B at December 8, 2004 6:05 PM

As Tonto famously asked the Lone Ranger, "What you mean, WE"?

What do you mean, Gerard? Do you think you're culpable? Do you think I am? As best I know that SOB, Mark Chapman murdered John Lennon -- all by himself.

Well written piece, but poor lede.

Posted by: Norman Rogers at December 9, 2004 8:20 AM

What can I say? Do I think you and you and you and you and I did this up close and personal? No, no, no, no, and no...

But "permit me voyage" to say that certain times and certain mindsets and certain clusters of belief create a certain atmosphere in which lunacy can emerge in the shape of one individual who feels compelled and empowered in his strange way to act by the forces of his time and generation.

Last night I watched a bit of "Imagine" on cable. Interestingly enough (for me) I tuned in just at the moment when a very burned out "road hippie" had turned up at John's country estate compelled to be there through some sort of "message" he'd deciphered deep within the Lennon lyrics. He thought he was being addressed personally. Lennon was at some pains, and very gently, to inform this poor soul that his songs were written for him only and that if anybody heard anything in them personally that was, well, just the way it was but certainly not his intent. He then invited the scruffy refugee from the road in for a bit to eat.

Now, what is wrong with this picture?

First, it is on film so I think I can say with some conviction (based on other observations and first-hand accounts of John's personality and habits which I shall not go into.) that much of what we see here in this scene derives from John's knowledge that he was indeed on camera. He knew how to use a camera like soldiers know how to use hand grenades.

Second, for as much as it is done for the camera, the same is done by John out of a genuine feeling. He was a man for all that. But an *extremely* complicated one.

Third, the line concerning the songs not being intended to have any reach outside of his own noggin and life, is of course pure BS. Writers of pop songs, especially brilliant writers, know how to take their internal thoughts and make them into songs that are laced with hooks and, quite frankly, emotionally glib by intention.

The more glib the greater the hit.

The argument by John that "hey, it really is only about me" is probably more of a way of talking the guy down from his state of psychotic drug trip than anything else. Still, it helps John preserve a realm of deniability for the effects his music had on a large group of people over an extended period of time.

It was a way of being able to sing the truth and avoid the consequences. And so many consequences came John's way over the course of his life, I don't blame him for ducking them when he could.

But what you put into the ocean comes back in on the tide. John wasn't the tide, we were -- for good or evil.

But, if you insist, I hereby include you out. Anyone else who wants one also gets a pass.

Posted by: Gerard Van der Leun at December 9, 2004 10:30 AM
"But, if you insist, I hereby include you out. Anyone else who wants one also gets a pass." - Van der Leun

No offense intended, Gerard, but I'll take my pass and my out also.

I was not a fan. Not of the 60's, not of the Beatles, and definately not of Lenin or his music.

A tragic death, yes. Murder of an entire era and an Iconic figure that we all share a part in? No thanks - that's not something I'll own, nor is it something you'll sell me. Gimme me my pass.

Posted by: Ironbear at December 12, 2004 12:31 AM

ShrinkWrapped has an interesting post at his blog about what it was like to be the on-call psychiatrist who evaluated Mark Chapman prior to his admission to Bellevue.

I guess I must have been one of those weird kids who missed the '60s, even though I was in high school and college at the time-- I never found the Beatles all that interesting. It may have had something to do with taking organ lessons-- after Bach and Buxtehude, pop music just seemed shallow. Enjoyable in its own way, perhaps, but nothing to scan for personal messages or build a life on. Sometimes I think I may have been one of the lucky ones. Thank you again for your reflections-- they always give me something to chew on.

Posted by: Connecticut Yankee at December 8, 2005 4:09 PM

Interesting. I didn't really care then, and certainly don't now, I mean Lennon was old enough to be my dad when he died, so I missed all the hoopla of the 60's--All I ever saw was the debris it left behind, both in my own family and others, and the culture at large, but its always interesting to see how others saw it all.

Posted by: Eric Blair at December 9, 2005 7:25 AM

"Taken large, this was the death of the music in the death of a man in whom we'd invested the music. Taken larger it was the death of the 60s and all that we once "imagined" it meant."

Glib and ridiculous. Reads like something from a newspaper editorial.

John Lennon was a great musician and when pushed by Paul a great lyricist. "Imagine" sounds great until you think about it. Same with his Christmas song.

And, yes, I do know where I was when I heard he was shot. I hated it then and I hate that he's not around now. A quarter-century later, and one wonders what he would have done. But his death was not the end of the '60s any more than Janis Joplins, RFK, MLK, or Jerry Garcia. No one person encapsulates the '60s, and it'll all die away anyway, just as we, too, shall perish.

Posted by: Eric Blair at December 9, 2005 10:12 AM

Jeez. A lot of the comments here are worthless and uninformative. Hey folks, nobody cares if you didn't like Lennon. Living is easy with eyes closed. Go live somewhere else.

I went to school with a girl whose sister went out with Chapman before he lost his bean. Said he was a nice guy. Male schizos typically lose touch with reality in their late teens.

"But "permit me voyage" to say that certain times and certain mindsets and certain clusters of belief create a certain atmosphere in which lunacy can emerge in the shape of one individual who feels compelled and empowered in his strange way to act by the forces of his time and generation."

It's a seductive pitch. But, those who have dealt up close and personal with schizophrenics know that there really is no rhyme or reason for their actions and it is useless to try to rationalize them in terms of larger forces. It's just a random event, like a hurricane or a tax audit.

Posted by: mojo at December 9, 2005 1:47 PM

Well, Mojo, maybe you've nailed my beef with Lennonites: "Living is easy with eyes closed..." you quote, as if indicting us with blindness in comparison to Lennon's vast vision...

But in MY experience, people who over-program their experience trying to hold on to their self-chosen blindnesses with selective eye-closings, HAVE SEVERE TESTS on occasions, precisely BECAUSE they are trying to shelter a dysfunction, trying to hold to a non-working description of reality.

Reality has a habit of yelling 'Look out!' at the eye-closed among us, and if we really DO have eyes closed, we get hit with a bucket of sh*t, having closed our eyes!

Musician? Yes. Formative? Creative? Yes. Overblown and idealized by his Imagineers? That, too.

Posted by: Karridine at December 10, 2005 1:22 AM

As always a well-written and thought-provoking piece. Gerard has a personal stake in the anniversary of Lennon's murder that I do not share, so he gets a pass and an out for what seems a bit of an overreach. What is a moving and deeply touching experience for some (the lyrics to a pop song, or a remembered kiss from a hopeful date) can mean nothing to someone else. I have my own list of people and events that hold a special place in my heart as well, but each is personalized and customized to my persona.

The whole sixties swirl is a time best forgotten for many reasons, but the people who help us through turbulence are important for just that.


Posted by: Dan Patterson at December 10, 2005 8:46 AM

I'm with Eric Blair a few comments up. He was old enough to be my father. Nice pop music, but his death was no more important to me than, say, Freddie Prinze' suicide.
John Belushi's death in '82 is a better marker for the end of the 60's. Drugs like heroin & coke went from being a pretty normal experience of young adulthood to very, very bad almost overnight. 1982 was also the years that HIV was clinically identified and named.

Posted by: Terry at December 11, 2005 2:40 AM

I, too, agree with Mr. Blair and others who are somewhat nonplussed at the angst still churning away in the hearts and minds of the above commenters who actually consider the late Mr. Lennon some type of artist -- or even worse -- a prophet. Those of you who still suffer profound emotional distress at the untimely demise of Mr. Lennon will no doubt be equally distressed when -- and if -- you ever reach puberty.

Posted by: greg at December 12, 2005 9:26 AM

I have no doubt that John Lennon would be revolted by Gerard and his politics.

Posted by: Nigel at December 12, 2005 12:19 PM

I am not against being immersed in the death of Lennon as an icon of the Sixties, or something like that.
I just don't get it.
I have a fondness for the Sixties--the part I didn't get, as many have a fondness for the Christmas ideal we didn't and won't get--but Lennon...?
I was on campus in the Sixties, until I was in the Army beginning in Feb of 69. I had planned on enlisting, which set me apart from some of the other folks.
I was there but not of.
I kind of liked the early Beatles for jumping around at parties, but the Lettermen promoted close and slow dancing which was superior in every sense. An oldie station which happens to run a Lettemen song will take me back. Not the Beatles.
The later Beatles, with their trips to India and all the other New Age nonsense struck me as being over their heads or poseurs. In any event, their music was boring.

The proper breakfast for a Sixties morning was a tumbler of vodka and a dish of jalapeno peppers. I don't miss it, and wouldn't if I still had my two thyroids and competition level conditioning going for me. It was sound and fury signifying a stunning loss in the Cold War, a betrayal of allies, and claiming the bragging rights for a sexual revolution which had started a decade earlier.
Otherwise, little to praise.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at December 12, 2005 1:19 PM

Dear Greg,
That assumes you understand my politics and that Lennon would. I also assumes Lennon's politics would be the same in 2005 as they were at the time of his death.

You assume a lot.

Posted by: Gerard Van Der Leun at December 13, 2005 4:19 PM

He was born October 9, not October 30. Other than that, I loved it. Beautifully written.

Posted by: Jax at October 30, 2006 3:07 PM

The generation that came of age in the 60s was in a way the soul of the daemonic in nature gone berserk. It was a culmination of forces in western civilization beginning with the existential dichotomy that was the heritage of Christianity that a reality of perfection to which he "longs" to reach exists separate from man's mundane existence. This is analogous to the Jews being "brought out" of bondage in Egypt to a land flowing with milk and honey. The drug culture promised a key to immediate passage to blissful union with absolute reality. Of course, this is all a kind of insanity because whatever perfection exists in the cosmos is with us always and it merely remains for us to recognize it. So, yes, "we" are culpable for this murder because "we" bought into, as a generation, and gladly promulgated, the lies that support the insanity that was then and is now. And this is why "we", as a society, are so inept at dealing with the current crisis that faces civilization. For Islam too participates in this same schizophrenia only more so.

Posted by: John Hinds at December 8, 2006 4:00 PM

A moving piece.

Posted by: grow-a-brain at December 9, 2006 11:30 PM

1980 was not early for a fax, considering that the basic form of the fax was invented in Scotland around 1840[sic].

Posted by: ossian at December 15, 2006 6:22 PM

Imagine - biggs

Posted by: josh at January 9, 2007 10:31 AM

I too remember the 60's. During that decade I served two tours in Vietnam. I only imagined surviving.

The enemy (then) was using live ammo and while my aircraft was hit I survived spending 5 to 7 years in the Hanoi Hilton.

Screw Lennon -- he never imagined what hell is really all about! May he be reunited with his Mommy.

Posted by: ChiefTestPilot at December 8, 2007 5:11 PM


First off; well done.

The Xerox Telecopier, AKA the "mojo wire", was mentioned by Hunter Thompson wrt to various editorial communications pertaining to his "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" series, which first appeared in Rolling Stone magazine in 1971. You certainly were corralling faxes in 1980.

Ken Kesey wrote an excellent essay regarding Lennon's assassination (which I've recorded readings of, twice) which explores a theme very similar to your sweeping indictment of generational complicity. Found in his collection entitled "Demon Box".

We -- and by this I mean the pig-in-a-python bulge of the baby boom cohort -- made Lennon a target. By his work as an artist, and his subsequent pacifist activism, he compelled our attention. Whether some of your readers shared that compulsion is rather irrelevant; the Beatles dramatically transformed the cultural consensus at a time of unprecedented ferment, and Lennon himself personified the fiercely uncompromising standard-bearer for principled personal political commitment. If someone didn't "get it", they weren't paying attention at a time when attention was becoming the most significant agent of disequilibrium in a disruptive era. I'm not particularly impressed by their cognitive ineptitude, frankly.

Not to argue that the "60s" (by which we mostly mean the 70s) were an unalloyed good. In truth, the largest generation in the history of mankind achieved its emancipation during a narrow window when pregnancy could be prevented with a pill, abortion was without legal consequence, and every known STD could be cured with antibiotics. The convulsions of that era were largely a massive temper tantrum.

A great deal of good came from it. In particular, activism in the domain of civil rights, and the strengthening of rights generally, but especially with respect to freedom of expression and personal sovereignty, were massively benignant. Of course a lot of silly self-important horseshit was contravened in the process, and we're still trying to find that pony.

So it is not surprising that when an attention-deprived psychotic took it into his damaged cortex to lash out at a society he could not participate in, he should choose Lennon as its avatar. As a generation, we'd already done the heavy lifting; all Chapman had to do was pull the trigger.

Thank you for remembering, and sharing, your window on what was inarguably an epic tragedy. He was neither a martyr nor a saint. He was one of us, warts and all, and his senseless destruction taught an important lesson to every one of us who believed that "nothin's gonna change my world". A lesson we must revisit, apparently, every few years.

Best regards,


Posted by: Alan Chamberlain at December 9, 2007 9:54 PM

Age fourteen is the last time in your life when you're glad the phone is for you.
It's also the last time in your life that you should be wasting your time listening to rock music.

Posted by: Voton at December 18, 2007 2:51 PM
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