The Day the Music Died

On Dec. 8, 1980, Mark David Chapman, a deranged former security guard, shot and killed ex-Beatle John Lennon—musician, social gadfly, pop icon, cosmic comedian—as he walked into the Dakota, the New York City apartment building where he lived. A decade after his death at 40, in new and exclusive interviews, Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, their only child, Sean, plus close friends of the musician and people who played a part in that fateful day, recall Lennon’s tragic murder and the enduring power of his music and mystique.

Sean Lennon, 15, John and Yoko’s only child, was 5 when his father was killed. He now attends an exclusive private school in Europe. “I guess my favorite memories are of having a father. I have a whole five years of memories. I remember when Alice the cat died and my father was crying; I remember watching TV with him; wrestling and jumping up and down with him in my room; going to Central Park and riding in the horse carriage together. We did a lot of drawing. He would scribble in circles and squiggles on a piece of paper, and I would have to turn it into whatever I saw in them. We took turns doing it to see who could make more things out of the squiggles. That was a game I loved to play. With him, every day was an adventure. It was like my dad and I were buddies, and there was no real sorrow then.”

Yoko Ono, 57, singer and performance artist who became Mrs. John Lennon in 1969, now lives part-time in Europe and concentrates on her artwork. “John once said, “They say that the gods are jealous of lovers and would try to split them.” But they couldn’t do that to us, we wouldn’t let them. When we were walking outside, we always held hands as if we were afraid of being separated. If we were separated by a lamppost, he would quickly say “bread and butter” and make me say it too. John explained that it was an “old English thing.””

“At one point in our marriage, I was convinced that the world was probably right, that we shouldn’t be together. I had tried to push John away from me, and we had lived apart for a while. John kept saying, “This is crazy, we mustn’t be apart. We’re wasting our lives being apart.” So we came back. And then we became a family. I think that’s the happiest memory I have—when Sean was growing and we were together as a family.”

“It’s still hard to accept John’s death. I don’t think that will ever stop for me. And it’s not easy for me to think about that day. It was Monday, an ordinary, busy day. I woke up to find John listening to the rough mix of my song “Walking on Thin Ice.” We had a session with [Rolling Stone] photographer Annie Leibovitz and a radio interview, which became the last interview of John Lennon. The radio interview took more time than we thought it would, and we were late for our reserved time at the recording studio. After doing a few things at the office, we rushed out of the Dakota building to get in the car. I saw a man asking John for an autograph. Later, I learned that John had given his last autograph to the man who would kill him later that day.”

David Geffen, 47, music-biz mogul and dose friend of John and Yoko’s, was at the studio the afternoon of Lennon’s final recording session. “John’s spirits were high at the studio. He thought “Walking on Thin Ice” would be the record that would push Yoko over the top. He was also anxious for Double Fantasy [the LP released the previous month] to go to No. 1 in England. The sad thing was, as soon as he died, the album did go to No. 1.”

Yoko Ono: In the car on our way home, I suggested that we go to a restaurant and have dinner first. John thought about it and said, “Let’s go home. I want to be with Sean.”

Paul Goresh, 31, a longtime Beatles fan, was waiting at the Dakota to meet and photograph Lennon if he appeared. “I got there about 12 o’clock, and [Mark David] Chapman was there. He was standing right in the middle of the archway, holding a copy of Double Fantasy like a billboard. At about 5 P.M. it was almost dark, and the Christmas lights started to come on on 72nd Street. John and Yoko came out with a bunch of people. John saw me and said, “Paul, have you been here long?” As we were talking, Chapman came up. He leaned forward and held the album out. John just looked at him and said, “You want that signed?” Chapman nodded. Later, Chapman went to a little ledge and slid the album onto it and said to Jose the doorman, “Do me a favor and remember where I put that, because you’ll want to know.” When I was getting ready to leave at about 8 P.M., Chapman said, “I wouldn’t leave if I were you. You never know, something may happen, and you’ll never see him again.” I said, “What are you talking about?” And he caught himself, and he said, “Well, you never know, he may go to Spain or something, and you’ll never see him again.””

William Joseph Gamble, 44, now a New York City detective, was one of the officers who responded to the call for backup help after the shooting at 10:50 P.M. “When I pulled up at the Dakota, they had the fellow, Chapman, in handcuffs, and the other police were looking for the weapon, which had been kicked down a grating. My first concern was Lennon. He had been shot in the chest, had lost so much blood that he was unrecognizable. He was still pumping blood, and I decided to use the radio car to get him to the hospital. Three of us carried him to the car and laid him across the backseat. On the way, my partner, Jim Moran, said to me, “Who is this? Is it really John Lennon?” Before I answered, Lennon muttered something, but we couldn’t understand him. He might have answered yes, or he might have said, “I need help.” It was the last sound he ever made.”

Dr. Richard Marks, 49, was the emergency room surgeon at Roosevelt Hospital who operated on Lennon. “When they brought him into the “crash room,” he had a heartbeat but no blood pressure, one step from being dead. We did an open-heart massage. We gave him massive infusions to obtain a blood pressure. The major blood vessels in his chest had been shot, and he had bled through them. He had fatal wounds, and really nothing could be done. He never regained consciousness. When I realized that he wasn’t going to make it, I just sewed him back up. I felt helpless. My most vivid memory is how small and waiflike he looked. He was such a giant. How the mighty fall.”

“Sometimes when I walk through Strawberry Fields [the Lennon memorial in Central Park], I think, “Imagine if I had been in a situation where I could have done something. Imagine if the wounds were in a different place. Imagine if only he had been savable.””

Dr. Stephen Lynn, 43, director of emergency medicine at Roosevelt Hospital, broke the news to Yoko that her husband had died. “When we realized that we were not going to be able to restore life, it was very difficult to tell Yoko Ono that her husband had died. She said something like, “It can’t possibly be true. You’re not telling me that he’s dead.” She dealt with death as most people do—unwilling to accept it. Afterward, we had to do little things like make sure the sheets that he had been cared for on were secured and would not fall into the wrong hands. Many of the staff that were leaving the hospital that night were asked by fans to sell their uniforms with the blood of John Lennon.”

Yoko Ono: The doctor came and handed me things. I still didn’t believe it. Then the doctor handed me John’s wedding ring, and I knew.

It was important that I give my permission to the hospital to announce John’s death. But I couldn’t bring myself to say yes right away. For that split second, I felt as though John would still be alive if his death was not announced.

David Geffen: When we got home, Yoko asked me to call Aunt Mimi [the singer’s aunt], Julian [his son by first wife Cynthia Powell and who is now living in L.A. and working on his fourth LP] and the other Beatles. They were calls I didn’t want to make. I reached Julian’s mother and I couldn’t reach Paul. It was a crazy time. Yoko was hysterical. We had to hire a security guard because there were so many threatening letters. The truth is people are racist, and they never liked the idea that John was married to a Japanese.

Sean Lennon: It was in the afternoon [the next day]. My nanny had told me that my mother wanted me to come to her room. She was sitting alone on the bed. She didn’t look too happy. I looked around and said, “Where’s Dad?” I didn’t know, but I knew. It was really weird. I knew he wasn’t there anymore. She said, “Sean, your father’s dead.” I said immediately, “Well, if he’s dead, he’s dead.” I repeated it. And Mom said, “I’m glad you feel that way.”

I went to my bedroom, closed the door, and I cried. I didn’t want my mom to see me crying. Even though I was 5, I understood what death meant. Then I wrote a poem about my dad: “My daddy’s dead, so I have read—I wrote it in my book.” The poem and me crying is what I remember most.

My life from 5 to 6 was crazy. I went into a reverse metamorphosis. Instead of growing and turning into something better, I sort of crawled into myself. There were all sorts of people trying to take advantage of us. People spreading rumors. Some people were against my mother. We got weird letters. Psychotic people were sitting outside our door thinking they were reincarnates of my father. There were bodyguards everywhere. I don’t know how I got through it. I guess what I did was just let time pass. I let out the anger by punching pillows and the wall. My mom helped me. We just leaned on each other in the midst of the chaos and the nightmare.

Tom Middlebrook is Mark David Chapman’s parole officer at Attica Correctional Facility. Chapman received 20 years to life for murdering Lennon and is first eligible for parole in December 2000. I think it is possible that Mark Chapman will not get out until he is a very old, gray-haired man. He could be here until he dies.

Peter Boyle, 57, the actor (Joe, Young Frankenstein), was a close friend of John’s who met him in a Los Angeles club in 1974. “I think about John a lot. What I miss most is his sense of humor. He had this spontaneous rock poetry that just poured out of him. He had a way of bending words and making connections and creating images. I remember walking down Madison Avenue and running into him. He had little Sean with him. He said, “I would like you to meet my guru.” He always called Sean his guru. He just loved walking around New York. He loved the very thing that made him vulnerable. He did not want to live as most rock stars and movie stars do, behind a wall of bodyguards. He stood out so much in people’s minds that people, especially unbalanced ones, thought they were him. It’s sympathetic magic. You kill your idol and you become him.”

Sean Lennon: I remember my father used to come into my bedroom before I would go to sleep, usually after The Muppet Show. I had this little mobile of plastic planes over my head, and the ceiling was painted like the sky. Dad would turn the lights off and on to let them blink with every syllable when he said, “Good night, Sean.” I think of “my dad” and “John Lennon” as two different entities. My dad is who I remember playing with as a child. I remember his voice, his touch, his smell. John Lennon is an idealized imaginary figure who was created around the music and who happened to be my dad.

When my friends talk about their dads in the present tense, I feel a bit hurt inside. But then again there are so many kids like me whose fathers and mothers have died. I wish I did grow up in a normal family circumstance. But what I’ve been through may have made me a stronger person. I hope it did. Because otherwise I didn’t really get anything out of the sorrow.

Yoko Ono: What I miss most about John is his incredible tenderness and his belief in me. Love can sometimes be hell. You’ could abuse each other in the name of love. But the thing that worked in our relationship was that we never lost respect for each other and always made sure to express it. We loved each other like there was no tomorrow. When you think of it now, there was something so intense about it, as if we knew we didn’t have much time.

In the beginning Sean kept saying that he wanted to learn magic from the magician who had performed some tricks at his birthday party. I asked him why, and he said he would like to be a great magician so he could bring his daddy back. Sean reminds me more and more of his father: his body structure, his expressions and the kinds of things he says. Recently in New York, we were going to a photo session, and I was wearing this designer jacket. He said, “Mommy, you’re not going to wear that, are you? You’re not a middle-class housewife, you know.” It’s the kind of thing John would have thought. We went to this basement secondhand clothes shop, and he found a funny, tired-looking coat and said, “This is what you should wear.”

Harry Nilsson, 49, singer-songwriter, was Lennon’s 1970s drinking buddy. He was at Lennon’s side during the ex-Beatle’s “lost weekend,” an 18-month period of booze, drugs and separation from Yoko. “John was a chameleon. He could be anybody he wanted to be. He could walk down the street and become invisible and not be John Lennon. When he wanted to turn it on and be John Lennon, he was acerbic, sharp-witted. He had a lot of Stan Laurel in him, and a lot of Groucho Marx.”

Klaus Voorman, 52, is a musician who met Lennon in the early ’60s in Hamburg and remained a close friend. “I came to New York when Sean was born, and we would all go for walks in the park. He was happy and relaxed and showing me how to cook rice and bake bread. It was really lovely. I was so happy to see him that way because often he was so uptight and frustrated and vulnerable.”

Bob Gruen, 45, is a rock-and-roll photographer who became friends with the Lennons in 1972. “John could have done anything he wanted to do and have anyone he wanted to have; that was one of his problems. Because he had such a choice, it was hard trying to figure out what he wanted to do. I don’t think John realized when he was alive how phenomenally popular he seemed to be. How much he meant to people. He was trying to sell records. He was trying to get on the charts. He didn’t know that everybody loved him.”

Peter Boyle: I remember once, we stopped to buy a paper, and John found out the newsstand guy was from Liverpool. They had this great conversation. It was funny to see the real John. He was a working-class hero. He was a channel for the whole world. These are times without much conviction, and he had a lot. I don’t know how he would have fitted in today.

Harry Nilsson: I think John’s music is destined to live on, like Mozart’s. When he was alive, people waited with anticipation to see which way he was going to jump and they would follow. There are a lot of people who have the courage of other people’s convictions. In his case, he had convictions and a lot of power.

Yoko Ono: On the world level, I feel a lot of things that happened toward the end of the ’80s had John’s fingerprints on them, so to speak. I feel that John’s songs and statements have affected many people throughout the ’80s, when the important changes have happened. And I feel that John is still looking after us in many ways. If he could see what I am going through, he would probably know that I was doing my best. He was a person who went through a lot of hardship himself.

Sean Lennon: Musically, my father was the voice of the people. Whether he was killed for his beliefs, we don’t know. Nobody knows. Maybe some people were scared of the influence he had over people. Then again, maybe it was just some psycho who just felt like getting on the cover of a newspaper by changing the course of history.

His death was so shocking. I think it was the end of the first part of my life. But the memories do not grow fainter. It’s as if when Dad died, everything before his death, those five years, were engraved into my mind. I will never forget those days. They are the days I will hold on to.


Courtesy of People