It's been four decades since John Lennon was shot and killed by Mark David Chapman in New York City, a tragic, defining event that shocked and horrified fans the world over. Among those still marked by that night and fascinated by the legend is Lesley-Ann Jones, an English journalist and biographer of David Bowie and Freddie Mercury. In her new book, The Search for John Lennon: The Life, Loves, and Death of a Rock Star, she takes readers on a deep dive into the enigmatic musician's psyche, interviewing many who knew him and exploring the seminal moments that shaped him from childhood.
The following is excerpted from the beginning of the book, which is less a Lennon biography than the music-loving author's subjective and colorful portrait of an icon; she calls him “the chippy, clever, quick-witted one, the outrageously talented one,” as well as “a snarl of contradictions.” This is her attempt to make sense of them, starting with the chaos of that terrible December night.
We know the ending. It happened in New York on Monday, 8 December 1980. A gusty night, otherwise uncommonly mild for the time of year. John and Yoko were driven home by limousine from an evening session at Record Plant recording studio, reaching the Dakota apartment building at around 10.50 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. They were confronted by a Texan-born itinerant clutching a Charter Arms .38-caliber pistol and a copy of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. The twenty-five-year-old, Mark Chapman, had been waiting for them, and calmly fired five bullets at John. Four hit him. He was conveyed by cops to the Roosevelt Hospital on 59th Street and Central Park, where a 29-year-old third-year general surgeon, Dr. David Halleran, held John's heart in his hands, performing cardiac massage and pleading silently for a miracle.
Doctor who? Don't previous accounts acknowledge the efforts of Stephan Lynn and Richard Marks for having operated to save John's life? Dr. Lynn has granted many interviews, his recollections ever more embellished. Lynn also claimed that Yoko lay smashing her head repeatedly on the hospital floor. But, in 2015, having listened for years to other physicians taking credit, David Halleran came forward ‘for the sake of historical accuracy.’ In an interview for a Fox TV ‘Media Spotlight Investigation,’ he said for the record that neither Lynn nor Marks had touched John's body. His statement was supported by two nurses, Dea Sato and Barbara Kammerer, who worked alongside him in Room 115 that deadly night. Yoko stepped up, too, denying hysterical head-banging. She insisted that she had remained calm throughout for the sake of their five-year-old son, Sean. She has supported Dr. Halleran's version of events.
Why didn't he pipe up sooner?
'It just seems unseemly for professionals to go out and say, “Hi, I'm Dave Halleran, I took care of John Lennon,"’ he said. ‘At the time I wanted to crawl under a rock, I just wanted to go home. I was distraught, I was upset, you feel somewhat responsible, on what you could have done different.’
Were you in America at the time? Were you one of the twenty million viewers at home watching the New England Patriots–Miami Dolphins game on ABC's Monday Night Football that commentator Howard Cosell interrupted to deliver the bombshell that John had been shot? Were you among millions more who picked up the newsflash on NBC and CBS? Might you have been one of the thousands who headed for the Upper West Side to join the vigil? Or were you stuck elsewhere in the world, tuning in during the aftermath, to watch throngs of grief-stricken fans sinking in mud in Central Park, threading flowers through the Dakota railings, wailing ‘Give peace a chance'? Did you hear that a background-music version of ‘All My Loving’ was playing out over the hospital's sound system, around the time Yoko was informed that her husband was dead? TV producer Alan Weiss heard it. He happened to be lying on a trolley in the hospital corridor at the time, awaiting treatment after a motorbike accident. Are there coincidences?
If you were born by then and were in England when it happened, you were probably sound asleep. John died at around 11 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on 8 December (reports vary with regard to the precise time of death), which equated in the UK to about 4 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time on Tuesday, 9 December. The news was buzzed across the Atlantic by New York–based BBC reporter Tom Brook, who heard it from former pop mogul and songwriter Jonathan King, at that time based there. Brook tore to the Dakota. He called Radio 4's Today programme from a sidewalk phone booth. There was no breakfast TV in those days, most people listened to morning radio. They told Tom to ring back at 6.30 a.m., when the show, co-presented that day by Brian Redhead, would be live. Brook unscrewed an office telephone receiver and wired in a lead to transmit his taped vox pops — no Internet, no email, no mobiles — and was interviewed on air by Redhead. By the time we got up for school, college, work, the dog, the unthinkable was everywhere.
The story has been written, revised and re-imagined ad nauseam. So relentlessly has John been regurgitated that certain fictions have been elevated to fact, while significant truths have become distorted and irrelevant. There are always details that could do with tweaking or ironing. Did anyone say to Sam Taylor-Wood, now-Johnson, ‘You can't make that film Nowhere Boy because it's all been done before'? The greatest stories ever told — Tyrannosaurus Rex, Tutankhamun, Caesar, Dickens, Shakespeare — can always stand retelling. No less so the greatest rock star.
It's about perspective. Time passes. We wonder, we review. There's always room for new opinion. There are encyclopaedias, libraries, university degrees, even, dedicated to the study and appreciation of the Beatles and their music, yet still the experts and historians pan for more. Memory, context and tolerance are not static. They never were.
I didn't fancy writing yet another conventional biography of John. This is not that. This is a roam of my own through John's lives, loves and deaths in honour of his big Forty-Eighty. It is a kaleidoscope, a musing, a reflection: who was he, anyway? How did he feel about this and that? It is driven by a desire to comprehend his contradictions; to find out when and why he died. Which is not gratuitous. We already know that there was more than one John, so who or what killed the original? His variations? Who was the John we came to know, and what does he represent in the twenty-first century? What might he come to mean beyond? Is it possible to envisage a time when John Lennon will no longer be listened to, discussed, debated, dissected? When we will grow tired of making pilgrimages to the places he remembered, the people and things that went before, the experiences that shaped his vision? When we can no longer be bothered with the Where It All Began?
There was obviously music, long before Lennon and McCartney collided. If that was the reason, music was always the reason. Few are blessed with the ability to create and express it. All can appreciate and be moved by it. Every life is enhanced by this most universal and accessible of art forms. Even the profoundly deaf feel the rhythms to which every heart beats.
Agonising though this is to articulate, John is now long enough gone and far enough removed to count as an historical figure. The saving grace is a sonic legacy as vital and magnificent as when he created it. I can't imagine a day when his lives, loves and deaths, his songs, his influence on music and musicians and upon billions of ordinary mortals across every earthly expanse, will no longer matter.
Tumbling blindly through broken light, I go looking for him.
Excerpted from The Search for John Lennon: The Life, Loves, and Death of a Rock Star by Lesley-Ann Jones (Pegasus Books).
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