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The Death and Life of John Lennon

On October 27, Chapman went to a Honolulu gun shop named J&S Sales, Ltd., a store whose slogan is: “Buy a gun and get a bang out of life!” He bought a five-shot 38-caliber Charter Arms revolver for $169 and added special rubber grips for another $35. The process of buying the gun was simple: He needed only to fill out two forms, one at police headquarters, a block from the gun shop, the second at the gun shop itself. He needed only to produce a driver’s license. No photograph was required.

He apparently borrowed some money from his mother and went to Castle Hospital, where his wife still worked, and borrowed another $2,500 from the credit union. By last Saturday, he was in New York. He had more than $2,000 in cash with him, fourteen hours of Beatles songs on tape, his personal Bible, a copy of J. D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye, and the gun. He registerèd under his own name at the West Side YMCA, on 63rd Street, off Central Park West, and paid $16.50 for his room. Those are facts. It’s a fact that the following day he left the Y and checked into an $82-a-night room at the Sheraton Centre—the old Americana, visible from John Lennon’s living room—and said he would pay with a credit card. He went to Room 2730, high above Seventh Avenue. All facts.

But the facts don’t tell us what was in his head. Later, when it was over, psychiatrists theorized about what might have happened. They talked about a man who had been suicidal and then became confused about his identity (in this case thinking that he was John Lennon and that his own wife was Yoko Ono), a man who might, then, commit a murder that was actually a kind of suicide. They discussed a man who had suffered a loss of “ego boundaries,” with the blurring of lines between fantasy and reality that is the mark of the classic schizophrenic. They talked about a man who worshiped stars and could think of no way to become a star himself, except by uniting with a star in violence. They discussed the possibility of a man so crazed with love for John Lennon that the slightest rebuff—a curt word that afternoon, a scrawled autograph—might drive him to kill. They were all theories. Nobody knew for sure.

They did know for sure that Mark David Chapman left Room 2730 of the Sheraton Centre on that Monday, a day soft as spring, and went to 72nd Street. He had taken a long and winding road, from Texas and Alabama, through Lebanon and Arkansas, and all the way from Honolulu. But at last, that night, he arrived at the door. He was waiting there when John Lennon stepped out of his limousine. He was still waiting there when the cops arrived and John Lennon lay dying.

5. WORKING CLASS HERO


When they’ve tortured and scared you for twenty odd years
Then they expect you to pick a career
When you can’t really function you’re so full of fear . . .

—John Lennon

When it was over, when the shots had been fired and John Lennon fell out of the world, the life suddenly assumed the perfection of a novel. The novel would begin in Liverpool, a port city of Irishmen and black seamen and the music of the world, and it would end in another port, in New York, across an ocean.

“In Liverpool,” he said once, “when you stood on the edge of the water, you knew the next place was America.” And America was a specific city, as he once told Jann Wenner: “I should have been born in New York, I should have been born in the Village, that’s where I belong.”

But it was Liverpool that gave him life and shaped so much of his art and his person. “I’m a Liverpudlian,” he said to me once. “I grew up there, I knew the streets and the people. And I wanted to get out of there. I wanted to get the hell out. I knew there was a world out there and I wanted it. And I got it. That was the bloody problem.”

He was in New York when he talked about it, long after the Beatles, in some ways long after all the things that had made him unique. And still he went back in talk to Liverpool.

“Yeah, I’d sit in Liverpool and dream of America,” he said. “Who wouldn’t? America was Chuck Berry, the Leonardo of rock ’n’ roll. America was Little Richard, and ‘Johnny B. Goode’ and ‘Be-Bop-a-Lula’ and ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ and girls with big tits. Now sometimes I walk around the docks on the West Side and I think about Liverpool. The people I went to school with. Lads full of talent and hope and all that crap. And even then, when we were just all startin’ out, they decided to go to work, to go to a job, to work in some bloody office, and I would see them, and they’d be old eighteen months later. Old. Just hunched up, like, walkin’ like their fathers, or if they were women, like their mothers. They were young, like us, and then—” he clapped his hands together sharply “—then they were old. And some of them were pissed at us, because they thought they could’ve become Beatles too. And maybe they were right. But they didn’t. They decided to die early. And I saw them, and I knew that whatever the hell happened, I wasn’t plannin’ on dyin’ in a bloody office.”


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