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The Night John Lennon Died

Celebrities remember the Beatles legend 40 years after his death

spinner image yoko ono and john lennon in new york city
John Lennon and Yoko Ono in front of the Dakota in New York a few weeks before his death.
Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images

Imagine John Lennon at 80. The smart Beatle, the funny one, the Liverpool lad whom young guys wanted to be and moms worried about. Forty years after his death at age 40, we mark the date and celebrate the musical genius who gave peace a chance.

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Alice Cooper

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Illustrations by Joe Ciardiello

I remember painting a house when I was 15 years old and the radio was always on. We were used to the Four Seasons and the Beach Boys, and all of a sudden we hear, “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah!” and, “I wanna hold your ha-a-a-and.” These Beatles songs were different than anything we'd ever heard. I'm not kidding when I say it changed our whole direction in life. My three best friends and I instantly said, we need to start a band! John, Paul, George and Ringo — they basically started every band you hear today.

John and I became great friends later on, even though we were polar opposites. He was outspoken and loved politics. I loved horror and comedy and thought music should be an escape from current events. But what fun we had. We were like two midnight vampires at clubs like Max's Kansas City in New York and the Rainbow in L.A. Harry Nilsson would be there, too, and Micky Dolenz from the Monkees, and Bernie Taupin, but John was the most electric, the most fascinating, the James Dean of rock. The one unwritten rule we had tells you what an interesting musician John was: We never talked about music!

The day he died I had the house at the top of Benedict Canyon in L.A. My next-door neighbor was Elton John. I had one of those early big-screen TVs, and some guys from my band were writing a song with me when the news came on. John Lennon is dead. I swear, there was like a vacuum in the room. Everybody just got up and left and didn't say a word. Honestly it was like your parents dying. Like, “Hey, your mom and dad just got killed in a plane crash.” You couldn't digest it.

The next day, almost every musician I knew started carrying a piece. I had a little .22-caliber Walther PPK, and everybody had some sort of weapon just in case. We didn't know if John's death was part of a conspiracy or what. Because, gosh, if they could get John Lennon, the high priest of rock ‘n’ roll, they could get any of us. Our innocence was gone. The loss was irreplaceable. That was the day the music died.

Jane Pauley

spinner image Illustration of Jane Pauley

If you look on YouTube you'll find the NBC special on John Lennon I anchored that week. Professional Jane was really trying to hold it together, but the girl inside me was losing it. I remember on the Today show the morning after John died, Tom Brokaw and I ended with an extended montage under the song “Imagine.” The second we wrapped, I started sobbing. An AP photographer captured the moment — me with my head in my hands, Tom looking like he didn't know what to do when a woman is crying.

I was in eighth grade when I saw the Beatles at the Indiana Fairgrounds Coliseum, though I couldn't actually see or hear them. I was in the back of the rafters and the screaming was nonstop. The day John died, I felt my youth had been put in a box and that box was closed. The generational attachment was that profound.

That night in 1980 feels so long ago now. But the memory is so precious. My husband, Garry [Trudeau, the “Doonesbury” creator], and I agreed recently that the closest thing we have to “our song” is John Lennon's “Woman.” I can't drive by the Dakota to this day without thinking about it.

Jann Wenner

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I always thought of the Beatles as one person in four parts, and John was the brains, the political heart, the conscience of a generation that wanted peace and love. He shaped pretty much everything for me. His picture was on the very first cover of Rolling Stone, and he became the guiding spirit not just for the magazine but for the entire era. That whole attitude of freedom and having fun and excitement and joy; his sardonic quality and his take on life about how square and stupid so much of our culture was — he embodied what was going on in society.

In the ‘70s John was such a towering figure that it was almost like hanging out with a god. I was a lowly magazine publisher. He was a Beatle. When you'd spend time with him, you had to be on top of your game and quick-witted. He was so sharp, so smart, so funny. His energy could be scary. After an evening with him, I'd walk away and think, My God, did that just happen?

We were doing a photo shoot with John and Yoko that whole week [leading up to his death] for the release of Double Fantasy. Annie Leibovitz was in their apartment that day when she took that powerful, iconic image of John wrapped around Yoko. I think it was John's idea to do that, and it was so representative of their relationship, of birth, of life, of death.

I heard about his death on the news. The feeling went from sad to horrifying to tragic. I cried a lot. The next morning I came into the Rolling Stone office late and closed my door. People knew I was upset, but we knew we wanted to record the moment with an issue that paid homage to this great man of our time. He combined all the elements of a superman for people my age: humor, wisdom, ambition, strength, talent. And he was a great rock ‘n’ roller.

It's hard to imagine him now. Would he be the same old eccentric, curmudgeonly man? Maybe. Creative? Wiser? Who knows? He still lives inside my head with his lyrics. There are so many great lines but the ones that surface, as I get older myself, are from “Help!"

"When I was younger, so much younger than today / I never needed anybody's help in any way. / But now these days are gone, I'm not so self-assured. / Now I find I've changed my mind and opened up the doors."

May Pang

I was John and Yoko's personal assistant for a few years in the early 1970s, and we had a relationship when he and Yoko separated in 1973 for a couple years. I got to show John the everyday life that he didn't get a chance to experience. You want to see the city? Let's go out to an Indian restaurant. Or to get a Whopper. Or, hey, let's hop on a city bus! John was up for anything. Can you imagine seeing a Beatle riding a bus down Lexington Avenue? We did it. We went from the West 80s all the way downtown. It was a weekend and pretty quiet at first, but we started hearing the whispers. “That's John Lennon?” “I think it is!” Somewhere around 14th Street, he looked at me and said, “It's the nose. It's unmistakable.” The whisperings kept getting louder and John eventually said, “OK, then. Time to get off."

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John's spirit for life shaped my world. I imagine his voice now. I can almost hear him looking around this year during coronavirus, with all the different factions, with people fighting about wearing or not wearing masks or the nonsense coming out of Washington, and him going, “Are you kidding me? What is this?” I miss that. He made me question authority. I think he made everybody question authority.

I was out with friends on December 8, 1980, and when I got back to my apartment, the phones were ringing. People were telling me the news. Ringo's executive assistant, Joan, had heard about the shooting and rang me from England. She hoped John might still be alive. I said, “Hey, it's over.” I got off and called David Bowie's assistant. I said, “Coco, you better tell David.” She said, “David's out on a date. You shouldn't be alone. Come down here.” I got there and David came in and the three of us stayed up all night, watching the news and crying, and saying, “I just don't understand. How could somebody do something like this?”

Roberta Flack

I was next-door neighbors with John at the Dakota. I heard music through the walls. We were friends. Yoko and I are lifelong friends, and Sean is like a godson to me. But long before all that, John was simply an inspiration.

When I was young, my ambition was to be a classical concert pianist and perform at Carnegie Hall. I got there, but by singing popular music. In 1971, my encore for that concert was the Beatles’ “Here, There and Everywhere.” I was so young and so sensitive and felt the feelings of those songs so deeply. I recorded an entire album of Beatles music in 2012. Their legacy has touched every one of us and will reach far into the future, inspiring people to create and to love each other honestly.

If John were here today, he'd be writing songs about making the world a better place, because that was his goal. He'd be collaborating and encouraging creative expression. He'd be a passionate husband and loving father, and he and I would still be caring friends.

James Taylor

I lived between 73rd and 74th on Central Park West, and the Dakota was the next building down. The day before John was murdered, I stood right in front of the Dakota and a guy attached himself to me in a manic and alarming way. He just started talking a mile a minute at me. Eventually I just sort of scraped him off. I got out of the conversation as soon as possible and made it past my doorman into the safety of my building. But in fact, that was Mark David Chapman, the guy who killed John.

The next night, I'm talking on the phone, sitting in a window that looks out onto the back of the Dakota, when I heard five shots. The shots just reverberated through that courtyard. Booming shots, like from a large caliber weapon, like a .38. I thought to myself, “That's a police shooting right there.” I told my friend on the phone, “You think things are crazy in Los Angeles, I just heard the cops shoot somebody down on the street.”

We signed off, said goodbye. Twenty minutes later she called me back and said, “That wasn't a police shooting, James. That was John Lennon.”

Alexis Denny Kaufmann

I was the first woman hired as a producer on Monday Night Football, and, at 19, I was also the youngest. We had these index cards with information we'd pass to the hosts, say, if a player looked injured or a VIP was in the stands. That night in Miami, the Dolphins were playing New England — big rivalry — and I was in the booth when the producer gave me the news through my headset. Someone shot John Lennon. John Lennon is dead.

It was out of the blue. You're at a football game. You're not thinking about the Beatles. I didn't know what it all meant. The Dakota apartments? And a peacenik like John Lennon? How senseless! But I wrote it down and waited for the exact second to hand off the card. Frank Gifford was doing the play-by-play, but in big moments, you always went to Howard Cosell, because Howard had the voice. Howard had the gravity. Howard always told us sports wasn't life and death. It's just a game. But this was different. In those days, with only three networks, we had more than half the country tuned in. Howard would be the messenger.

"Remember this is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses,” he said. “An unspeakable tragedy confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City …"

It was like Walter Cronkite telling us about JFK. In an instant, everyone everywhere knew. Communal communication. If you got the news from Howard that night, you probably still know where you were.

Jamie Lee Curtis

I had the unfortunate legacy of hosting Saturday Night Live that week. John died on a Monday night and the next morning, going into 30 Rock to prepare for Saturday's show, the offices were silent. Normally it's raucous with people playing music and laughing. The only sound I remember were sobs from behind closed doors. We talked about canceling and probably should have. The show had no energy.

You could say I was a Paul girl. Then probably George, then Ringo, then John. I wasn't a rule breaker. And I was only 21. I barely had any life experience. I was a girl from L.A., and New York scared me. Because I was sheltered, I didn't know anyone who had died, and I wasn't in touch with mortality yet. Everyone around me was devastated, but I just couldn't feel it fully. Sometimes you have the experience but miss the meaning.

Now I'm 62 and I understand it completely. John was the hero of a generation. He was a husband, a father to a little boy. We all lost something when we lost him, and the tears are coming now as I think about it.

Bob Gruen (friend and photographer)

Oh, I remember the good times. John was a fantastic guy to hang out with. I always learned something. We always laughed. John was into food, so we always ate well. What I miss is the adult version of the highly perceptive, highly charismatic person he'd be today. But you can't do coulda, shoulda, woulda. We had John for 40 years, and that was the time we got for the good messages to get through.

John was so proud to live in New York. People recognized him but he could still go out, ride taxis, visit friends. We were doing a shoot one day and I gave him a shirt that said NYC on it. The picture became iconic, I think, because it shows how readily available and open he was. That's how I remember John. Especially at the end, he was in a strong place. He'd done a great deal of introspection. He took great responsibility for his family and his health.

I'd taken a series of pictures in the studio with John and Yoko that final weekend. I left the studio early Saturday morning. The sun was coming up. That Monday I was in the darkroom hoping to get to show him the photos before my 2 a.m. deadline at the Village Voice. My doorman rang my buzzer and asked if I was listening to the radio. Then my friend Toby called from California. I had all kinds of thoughts when I heard the news. The finality of it was devastating. I'm someone who likes to fix things, but this was something nobody could fix.

Elliot Mintz (spokesman and friend)

We did a phone interview. That's how we met. It was the night after John turned 31, and the subject of our conversation was old age. He imagined himself late in life living on an island off the coast of Ireland or Cornwall with Yoko, looking at their scrapbook of memories together. Would he be making music at this age? I don't know. Would he be writing op-ed pieces? Maybe. Would he be on the streets with a bullhorn? Maybe. John was a chameleon. I only wish he was still here to show us.

On December 8, 1980, I was at my house in Laurel Canyon in L.A. when I received a phone call from my mother. There was a tinge of concern in her voice and I somehow sensed something else was going on, so I booked myself on the last flight out. I didn't hear the news until I got on the plane. I landed without a plan and hailed a cab to 1 West 72nd Street. The police barricades are still indelible in my brain. I crossed over the bloodstained entranceway and went upstairs. Took a deep breath. Knocked on the door. “Yoko, it's Elliot.” No response. “I'm going to sit on the floor. Open the door when you want me to come in.” Eventually, she did. I spent the next three weeks with her.

I considered John and Yoko my best friends. We had spoken for hundreds of hours, shared birthdays and holidays together. I had gotten to know them as brother and sister. But those first few days were a fog. I remember someone handed me the phone and it was Ringo. I met him a block away, got him through the back entrance and up into the bedroom. He and his wife were the first outside guests. Ringo looked at Yoko and said, “I know exactly how you feel.” And she responded, “No, you don't, and I'm glad you're here.” There was something lost the day John died that transcends his death as well as his vision. For our generation, it was the loss of innocence and hope.

We will still be talking about John 100 years from now. He'll remain a constant presence, and he'll be cross-referenced in a zillion things having to do with music, pop culture and history. What will be absent is the sensibility. The way John made you feel. What I fall back on is not necessarily the intellect or even the musical genius but the wit. We spent most of the nine years together laughing, not pondering. As a student in college in the ‘60s, I had to interview a celebrity, and Jayne Mansfield somehow said yes. Jayne Mansfield! She was very kind, but at a certain point she cut the interview short for “an appointment.” This was 1964 in Los Angeles. It turns out she was meeting John and the boys, who were big fans. John loved Jayne, and I later teased him that I knew her first. Without missing a beat he said, “Yeah, but she left you for me."

Patrick Duffy

For me that time period was the confluence of the highest high with the lowest low. Dallas was the number one show on television at the time, with everyone asking, “Who shot J.R.?” But the stun of John Lennon's assassination was immediate and took the hubris out of our celebrity. We were filming at the time in Los Angeles, and we all realized, no matter how good things are going, terrible tragedies can happen, too.

It doesn't lessen your respect for honoring someone to say you gather yourself and continue. I lost my wife three years ago. The loss never gets better, but you get better at walking around that giant pit. That's true when monumental people like John Lennon pass, too.

Every year there is that gathering in Central Park, and the annual mourning is now really a celebration. You don't think about how John died. You think about the wonder of who he was.

I flash back to that seminal moment as a college student in southern Illinois. Me and a bunch of kids from school were out at a restaurant, and on the far side of the room was a black-and-white TV with people screaming. It was the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and I stood there, stunned. All these years later, I'd say way over half the songs I can hum and sing by heart are Beatles songs. And now, at a time of so much uncertainty and unrest around the world, John's outlook is still in me. I remember him saying that in order for there to be world peace, there has to be peace in the whole world. That means each country has to be at peace. Each village in each town, each person in each house. So, peace really starts with you and me! Give peace a chance and maybe we can all come together. Those were John's words, and they belong to all of us now.

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