“Why don’t you f - - - off,” he said. “Why don’t you just get the hell out of here.”
“Why don’t you make me?” I said.
“Hey, come on,” Aronowitz said. “Let’s just have a good time.”
“What?” Lennon said to me.
“I said you should try to make me get out of here.”
He stared at me, and I stared back. The Irish of Liverpool challenging the Irish of Brooklyn. The music pounded, and then, as if he had seen something that he recognized, he smiled and broke the stare and peered into the bottom of his glass. “Yeh, yeh, yeh,” he said quietly, and the moment of confrontation passed. John Lennon left with Brian Epstein. I left with the hatcheck girl. It was all a long time ago. That jagged London evening was part of the baggage I carried down to the Dakota, just as hundreds of others carried their own special visions of John Lennon with them to the high iron gates of 72nd Street. There was no plan, no public announcement of assembly: People just seemed to appear, as if taken through the soft night air by the tug of the past. These were not the people you see at plane crashes, or at giant fires, the injured geeks of the dangerous city. These were people who might come together to mourn the smashing of a work of art. They hugged one another, they shook their heads in sorrow, but, to be truthful, there was not much crying. As writer Peter Hellman said, “Beatle music is somehow just not made for tears.”
There was little rage either, as if the anger had been exhausted in those first shocking moments, and now there was only the need to express silent witness. By two in the morning, the crowd was singing: “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” It was the most simple statement to come out of a terrible time, and I’d heard it sung once by 500,000 people, covering the hills of Washington during one of the anti-war moratoriums, when Richard Nixon was barricaded in the White House behind a line of buses. Here at the Dakota, one woman even knew the verse:
Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism,
This-ism, That-ism, Is-m Is-m Is-m
All we are saying. . .
By morning, the gates of the Dakota looked like the wall of a Mexican church, or an instant Lourdes, covered with a collage of flowers, messages, photographs, drawings. The crowd had been brought together as if to some new Holy Place, expressing a deep primitive need to mourn. The mourners were not kids, either. I saw men in raincoats come by carrying briefcases, sealed into lives of business and marriage, the sixties part of some golden adolescence, and one at a time, they stood there on the corner, out of the vision of the TV cameras, and, unlike the people of the night before, wept openly while Beatles music played from dozens of radios. The music seemed elegiac now, all those songs that never went away and probably never will. But now one thing was absolutely certain: John Lennon was dead, and so were the Beatles. They would never come back now. They would never fill a stadium again, never journey all the way back to the years when they changed the English-speaking world and the rest of the world that didn’t know the meaning of “Yeh, yeh, yeh.”
“They were the first people I ever heard of who made me want to be a musician,” a young guitar player said to me. “I was about eight years old, and I heard them, and I knew that I wanted to do that. Maybe not that, Something like that.”
I looked up at the Dakota, its great bulk looming ominously against the rain-swollen morning sky. Up there, five years ago, I’d sat with John Lennon and talked away some hours. His feet were bare that morning, his arms thin under a rumpled T-shirt, his delicate fingers wrapped around a brown-papered cigarette. He was drinking coffee. There was a white Steinway baby-grand piano in a corner of the large living room, a drawing by de Kooning on the wall, some cactus plants; through the window we could see the Essex House, the Americana Hotel, and the spire of the Chrysler Building peeking over the top of the Pan Am Building.
“I never see myself as not an artist,” he said to me that morning. “I never let myself believe that an artist can ‘run dry.’ I’ve always had this vision of bein’ 60 and writing children’s books. I don’t know why. It’d be a strange thing for a person who doesn’t really have much to do with children. I’ve always had that feeling of giving what Wind in the Willows and Alice in Wonderland and Treasure Island gave to me at age seven and eight. Those books opened my whole being.”