*From the December 20, 1980 issue of New York Magazine.
1. I READ THE NEWS TODAY (OH BOY)
Well nobody came to bug us,
Hustle us or shove us
So we decided to make it our home
If the Man wants to shove us out
We gonna jump and shout
The Statue of Liberty said, “Come!”
New York City … New York City …
New York City …
Que pasa, New York?
Que pasa, New York?
—John Lennon, 1972*
The news arrived like fragment of some forgotten ritual. First a flash on television, interrupting the tail end of a football game. Then the telephones ringing, back and forth across the city, and then another bulletin, with more details, and then more phone calls from around the country, from friends, from kids with stunned voices, and then the dials being flipped from channel to channel while WINS played on the radio. And yes: It was true. Yes: Somebody had murdered John Lennon.
And because it was John Lennon, and because it was a man with a gun, we fell back into the ritual. If you were there for the sixties, the ritual was part of your life. You went through it for John F. Kennedy and for Martin Luther King, for Malcolm X and for Robert Kennedy. The earth shook, and then grief was slowly handled by plunging into newspapers and television shows. We knew there would be days of cliché-ridden expressions of shock from the politicians; tearful shots of mourning crowds; obscene invasions of the privacy of The Widow; calls for gun control; apocalyptic declarations about the sickness of America; and then, finally, the orgy over, everybody would go on with their lives.
Except … this time there was a difference. Somebody murdered John Lennon. Not a politician. Not a man whose abstract ideas could send people to wars, or bring them home; not someone who could marshal millions of human beings in the name of justice; not some actor on the stage of history. This time, someone had crawled out of a dark place, lifted a gun, and killed an artist. This was something new. The ritual was the same, the liturgy as stale as ever, but the object of attack was a man who had made art. This time the ruined body belonged to someone who had made us laugh, who had taught young people how to feel, who had helped change and shape an entire generation, from inside out. This time someone had murdered a song.
And it had happened in a city to which that artist had come in order to be private, in order to be safe. It had happened in New York.
¿Qué pasa, New York?
2. IMAGINE ALL THE PEOPLE
If you had the luck of the Irish,
You’d be sorry and wish you were dead… .
—Lennon and Ono, 1972
So we all went to the Dakota. We had nowhere else to go. Yes: If you’ve been trained as a reporter, you’re supposed to go places with a cold eye. But I’m sorry; even as the flood tide of rage receded, the cold eye wasn’t possible. Not for John Lennon. Our lives had intersected at critical moments since the winter of 1963, that bitter season after Dallas when people my age realized that they would never again be young. We met in London, in an upstairs joint called the Ad Lib. I was with Al Aronowitz. Ringo and Paul were there too, and later the Stones came in, and we were all at a big table, with music pounding, and girls crowding around, and Brian Jones all blond and small getting drunk on whiskey in a pool of solitude. John Lennon came in after a while with Brian Epstein and sat down next to me. Aronowitz was telling them they had to listen to Dylan, and McCartney was nodding, agreeing with Aronowitz, while Mick Jagger got up to dance with a young blonde wearing too much makeup.
“To hell with Dylan,” Lennon said. “We play rock ’n’ roll.”
“No, John, listen to him,” Aronowitz said. “He’s rock ’n’ roll too. He’s where rock ’n’ roll’s gonna go. Listen.”
Lennon’s mouth became a tight slit, “Dylan, Dylan. Give me Chuck Berry, Give me Little Richard. Don’t give me fancy crap. Crap, American folky intellectual crap. It’s crap.”
He was snarling and bitter and hard. He didn’t want to talk about music. He didn’t want to talk about writing. He looked down the table at Keith Richard. “What the hell are the Yanks here for?” he said, Richard smiled and shrugged. McCartney reached over and touched John’s hand. “Ach, come off it, John,” he said. Lennon pulled his hand away and turned to me.
“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.”
He had just come through a difficult personal time during which he had questioned everything about his life and his work and his celebrity.
“What is it I’m doing?” he said, dragging on the cigarette, explaining the questions he had asked himself. “What am I doing? Meanwhile, I was still putting out the work. But in the back of my head it was that: What do you want to be? What are you looking for? And that’s about it. I’m a freakin’ artist, man, not a f - - - - - ’ racehorse.”
Within months of that interview, the man who had said he didn’t really have much to do with children learned that he was going to be a father. And soon he disappeared, making no public music for half a decade, dropping out of the visible world to give his son, Sean, a childhood. Once, during that period, I dropped him a casual note, telling him that if he felt like talking, he should call. I got a form letter back.
John Lennon had silenced himself, perhaps for good. Then, last summer, the news broke that he was back in the studio. I was in London, and the session was over by the time I got home. I’m sorry about that. I wanted to see him one more time, and thank him for showing up. He wasn’t just another racehorse.
3. HELTER SKELTER
In case of accidents he always took his mom.
He’s the all American bullet-headed saxon mother’s son.
All the children sing
Hey, Bungalow Bill
What did you kill
—Lennon and McCartney
John Lennon was dead by the time Patrolmen James Moran and Bill Gamble got him to Roosevelt Hospital, but the doctors tried anyway. They opened him up. They massaged his heart. There was blood everywhere, but they tried. And while they worked, the scene outside turned into an obscene festival. The paparazzi, thieves of the mojo, arrived by the dozens, waiting to steal the spirit of anyone left alive; legitimate reporters and photographers were there too, and a lot of cops, and then, slowly, as the word spread, a few fans. Some of the reporters fought for the two telephones in the emergency room, while the usual assortment of damaged human beings—older black people, too many children, a Hare Krishna couple—waited to be helped. A woman TV reporter marched in with a crew and tried to walk through the doors to the room where the doctors had been working on John Lennon. She was stopped, of course, but tried to make common decency into a First Amendment issue by ordering the crew to turn on the lights and videotape the refusal of the hospital assistant to allow her to photograph the holes in John Lennon’s chest.
“You want me to tell you what happened, man?” an orderly said, standing outside on an overhang, looking at the crowd. A few fans had lit candles now. “Where’s $20? Come on. Why should I be doing anything for you for nothing?”
Another said, “They did more for Lennon than we normally do for anybody. They cracked his chest open and then tried internal cardiac massage. But nothing helped. He just bled to death.”
Somebody asked whether Yoko Ono was crying as she waited inside with record producer David Geffen and others for the inevitable to happen. “No, she wasn’t crying,” an attendant said. “She’s got $30 million coming to her. Do you blame her for being so cool?”
Inside, Stephan Lynn, the director of emergency services, finally gave up. The official moment of death was recorded as 11:15 P.M.
The body was wrapped and taken to the morgue wagon. When a police car came out of the basement drive, its lights twirling in the signal of distress, and the photographers saw the morgue wagon behind the squad car, there was another scramble. The photographers followed the wagon up the block and then stopped as it pushed out into the city. Yoko wasn’t in it. Got to get Yoko. Yoko’s grief. They did and then left. The parking lot seemed desolate. A man named Eduardo was among those left behind. He was well dressed, middle-aged, and someone asked him why he was there.
“If the Jews had a Christ, the Christians had John Lennon and the Beatles,” he said. “I’m proud to have belonged to the sixties.”
At the morgue, the entrance was sealed shut with a lock and chain. Attendants with green mortuary masks moved around in dumb show, their words inaudible, or typed out forms on grim civil-service typewriters. Behind them, in a refrigerator, lay the sixties.
4. THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD
The long and winding road that leads to your door,
Will never disappear, I’ve seen that road before
It always leads me here, lead me to your door.
—Lennon and McCartney
His name was Mark David Chapman. The pictures show us a suety little man, with a small nose, porky jowls, lank hair flopped forward. Those pictures, drawn on the run while Mark David Chapman was being arraigned for homicide, don’t tell us what was teeming around in his brain. Neither do the details of his life.
“He was a people person,” said Paul Tharp, community-relations director of the Harold Castle Memorial Hospital, in whose printshop Chapman had worked for two years. “He was a man who liked to be with people, and got along well with co-workers. He was a good worker and a go-getter. He was an all-around good guy.”
Yeah—and the details of his life tell us other things. That he was born May 10, 1955, in Fort Worth, Texas; that his father was named David Curtis Chapman, originally of Connecticut, then an air-force sergeant stationed at Carswell Air Force Base; that his mother was Diane Elizabeth Pease Chapman, from Massachusetts; that he was brought up in Decatur, Georgia; that his father left the air force to work for an oil company, then a bank in Atlanta, and that along the way he had taught his son how to play a box guitar.
The details tell you all of that, and how young Mark David Chapman collected Beatles records, graduated from Columbia High School in Decatur, Georgia, where he briefly played guitar in a rock band, went to work for the YMCA, and in 1975 traveled to Beirut at his own expense to work in the YMCA’s International Camp Counselor program, was caught in the Lebanese civil war, escaped death, and returned to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, to help process refugees from Vietnam.
“The staff was pretty close,” said Gregg Lyman, who worked at Fort Chaffee with Chapman and now lives in Oak Park, Illinois. “We talked a lot about music, rock ’n’ roll. Mark came to my apartment and looked at my record collection and picked up an Allman Brothers album. I guess you can’t live in Georgia without being an Allman Brothers fan. But I can’t really recall any specific comments about the Beatles or John Lennon. Mark really wasn’t into the Beatles that deep.”
Chapman apparently used a lot of drugs in high school, but, according to Lyman, that phase was over by the time he got to Fort Chaffee. “He was the straight member of the group. I knew he had Christian convictions. We’d all be having drinks, and he’d be sitting there with a Coke.” Rod Riemersma, who was also at Chaffee and is now executive director of the Lamar YMCA branch, in Baton Rouge, agreed. “He was more straitlaced than we were,” he said. “If I told an off-color joke, he’d give me a little smile, and I’d lay off out of respect for his feelings.” Chapman had become deeply involved with Christianity in the last two years in high school, carrying around his own personal Bible and making entries in a “Jesus notebook.” Riemersma said that he and Chapman stayed in touch for a couple of years after the Fort Chaffee project, “and he concluded his letters to me with a quote from the Bible or a music lyric.”
Lyman said that Chapman grew very close with a young Vietnamese kid at camp. “The child would do what he could to help Mark,” he said, “sweep out his room, that sort of thing. Mark would sit him on his lap and talk with him, even though the child couldn’t understand what he was saying. Mark was very sad about the departure of that child. We let him lean on us that week.”
Chapman confessed some deeper troubles to another staffer named David Moore, now the 40-year-old executive director of the Duncan YMCA, in Chicago. They shared a room at Fort Chaffee.
“He was in the drug scene and had done some barbiturates and amphetamines and maybe even heroin,” Moore said. “But then he met this woman who changed his life. He was madly in love with Jessica, and she kind of straightened him around. She made him a Christian.” Under her influence, he enrolled in Covenant College, in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee. But he couldn’t hack it, either at college, where he flunked out after a semester, or with the girl, who soon left him. “He was a real bright kid who just didn’t have the discipline,” Moore said. “And he was in love with this woman. But he became unglued when he couldn’t cut it in school, and the girl told him to pack off.” Then he added, “He blamed it on himself, the breakup. He tended to blame himself for everything that went wrong. In clinical terms, he had a very low self-image. The girl was very nice: young, cute, a devout Christian. She is going through hell now more than anyone.”
Failure attaches itself to some people like an odor, and finally Mark David Chapman carried his failure with him to the sunny reaches of Hawaii. We know that in May 1977 he applied for a Hawaii driver’s license, describing himself as five-foot-eleven, 170 pounds, with brown hair and blue eyes. The 1980 Chapman is at least 30 pounds heavier. He was living then in Kaneohe, a bedroom community on the windward side of Oahu, about eight miles from Honolulu. Here the details blur: He appears to have checked himself into the Harold Castle Memorial Hospital, a small Seventh-Day Adventist institution nestled in a banana grove at the foot of the Koolau Mountains. The hospital has a catchall “human relations” unit to handle a wide range of psychiatric disorders, and there are some reports that Chapman came there because he was suicidal. (Moore saw him in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1978, and he told Moore that he had suffered a nervous breakdown.) By August 1977, Chapman was working at Castle Memorial as a maintenance man, mopping floors, tending the grounds, and then, after Paul Tharp discovered that the young man had a talent for art, he was transferred to the printshop. Most of the work was routine printing of hospital forms, but he also designed some posters. Sometimes, during lunch breaks, he would show his slides, proud of his travels.
By Christmas 1977, he was living in an apartment at 112 Puwa Place in a development called Aikahi Gardens, in Kaneohe, overlooking the Marine Corps Air Station, with a view of the Pacific beyond. The units had Mexican tile floors and, overhead, ceiling fans, and Chapman rented one with three bedrooms and then went around introducing himself as Mark from Fort Worth, Texas. His neighbors were mainly new arrivals, what Hawaiians call malihinis, or transients from the marines. Most were like Chapman in other ways; rootless, on the move, always searching for the one perfect place.
Meanwhile, other events were crowding in on Mark David Chapman. Nearly three years ago, his parents had divorced; he was reported to have been very upset by the news. His mother soon arrived in Honolulu; she was never to leave. During the same period, he met a young Japanese-American woman named Gloria Abe. She had graduated from Kailua High School in 1978 and gone to work in the Waters World travel agency in Honolulu. Chapman met her there. She was then a pretty, gentle girl who weighed about 90 pounds, and was described by a friend as “one of the world’s nicest people.”
They were married on June 2, 1979, at the Kailua United Methodist Church in a ceremony whose details were supervised by Chapman himself. One of the wedding guests remembered. “One funny thing we noticed was that he wouldn’t allow any chairs. He wouldn’t allow anyone sitting. Another thing that really kind of got me was that although it was a formal wedding his mother came in sports clothes. Mark and his mother seemed very close.”
After the marriage, Mark kept Gloria away from her old friends, then got her to quit her job at the travel agency, where she had risen to assistant manager. She took a job in the accounting department at Castle Hospital. In November 1979, Chapman decided to quit his hospital job, and the following month went to work as a $4-an-hour security man at 444 Nahua Street, a palm-encircled condominium between Waikiki Beach and the Ala Wai Canal.
In April, the couple moved to Apartment D2107 on the twenty-first floor of the Diamond Head tower of the Kukui Plaza condominium. They paid $425 a month for one bedroom. Each day Chapman went to work on the 7 A.M.–to–4 P.M. shift at Nahua Street. One of the people he worked for was a man named Joe Bustamante, who said later what everybody else said about Mark David Chapman. It’s what people always say when you knock on their doors after a homicide: “He was quiet. He never did anything unusual to make you think he would do something like that. You never had any trouble with him. I would have hired him again.” He thought for a moment. “He was a normal, regular guy. Everybody liked him.”
One day in October, Chapman told Bustamante he wanted to quit because he had to make a trip to London. He worked his last shift on October 23, breaking in his replacement, a tall, russet-haired man named Mike Bird. That day he walked through his rounds with another name on a piece of paper taped over his brown-and-white plastic name tag. He also signed that name into the building’s logbook, in high, angular letters that appeared to have been crossed out. The name was 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 …
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.”
The Liverpool side of the story is now part of pop myth. John Lennon, in some crucial ways, was the center of the myth. He was the leader of the Beatles for most of their time together; he was the driving force, the hard guy who helped shove Paul McCartney, and to a lesser degree George and Ringo, past the adolescent stereotypes into a kind of music that dragged all other pop music along behind it. Lennon was the first to admit that he wasn’t a very good technical musician; he never did learn to read, and his guitar playing was as elemental as that of his early rock-’n’-roll heroes. He might agree that the Beatles were not ever the greatest rock-’n’-roll band of the era; reluctantly he might admit that such an honor probably belongs to the Rolling Stones. But the Beatles were something bigger than pop music, and John Lennon knew that better than anybody else. And it didn’t make him happy.
“We just wanted to play rock ’n’ roll,” he said to me once. “At least I did. I wanted to write something as simple and elegant as ‘Rip It Up.’ I loved it at the beginning. The Star Club in Hamburg was the best, eight hours a night, all you could drink and screw. It was bloody paradise, if you came out of Liverpool, the Liverpool Irish. We dressed like thugs, hair all grease, leather jackets; we fought with the drunks, or we went on in our drawers. And the drunks’d yell for ‘what I say,’ and we’d play it again and get pissed on this cheap German champagne. It was a good old time. Better than later. We were playin’ rock ’n’ roll.”
Hamburg was in 1960. John Lennon was only twenty years old, but he was already carrying around those things that, in Auden’s phrase about Yeats, hurt him into art. His father was a seaman named Fred Lennon who once worked on the Queen Mary but who abandoned young John shortly after his birth, while Liverpool was being bombed by the Nazis. The father later did time in jail for desertion, but when he came out, John’s mother, Julia, had already found a new man. John was sent to live with Julia’s married sister, Mimi Smith, whose husband was in the milk-delivery business.
“She just couldn’t deal with life,” Lennon said of his mother in an interview in the current Playboy. His mother lived nearby, at once a presence, a shadow, a badge of rejection. And slowly Lennon began to emerge from the loneliness and the Liverpool streets. He became a leader of a street gang, shoplifting, hitching rides on trolley cars. But he also began to draw, writing books at the age of eight, embracing Lewis Carroll; it was as if art helped him express his sense of absurdity about a world whose movies and pop songs spoke of perfect love while fathers took off for sea and mothers surrendered their children. By the time he was thirteen—in his second year at the Quarry Bank school—his report card said, “Hopeless. Rather a clown in class. He is just wasting other pupils’ time.”
Lennon himself was already feeling detached from most of the lives around him. “I felt different,” he said to me once. “I always felt different from the rest. But I didn’t know what the hell to do about it.”
Julia Lennon showed him the way. The year that he was thirteen, she arrived one day at her sister’s house with a gift for her son John. It was a guitar. She had learned a few chords on a banjo and taught him how to play them. The rage in England then was skiffle music, a casual, shuffling music that used one-string basses and washboards. Lennon began playing skiffle, but at the same time, coming across the Atlantic was Elvis Presley. Rock ’n’ roll soon entered the port of Liverpool and changed John Lennon’s life.
“Rock ’n’ roll was a place to put everything,” he told me in 1975. “You could have pictures in your head and make pictures into words, and the music would carry the words along, like a big bloody boat. And that’s what everybody started to do.”
In early 1956, John Lennon rounded up some classmates and formed his first group. They were called the Quarrymen. One night as they played a gig at the Woolton Parish Church, a left-handed guitar player showed up, looking for girls. He lived in council housing and dressed like a teddy boy.
That year, his mother had died of cancer. After the performance he introduced himself. His name was Paul McCartney.
“I showed them how to play ‘Twenty Flight Rock’ and told them the words,” McCartney told writer Hunter Davies. “I remember this berry old man getting nearer and breathing down my neck as I was playing. ‘What’s this old drunk doing?’ I thought. Then he said ‘Twenty Flight Rock’ was one of his favorites. So I knew he was a connoisseur.”
A week later, John asked Paul to join the Quarrymen. Within a month, the most successful songwriting team in pop-music history had begun to work together. John had taught himself to pick his way all the way through Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day,” and their first songs were rehashed Holly. But they had begun. A year later, McCartney brought around a younger friend named George Harrison. He was only fifteen, a student at McCartney’s school, but he could play. As John Lennon entered the Liverpool Art College, Harrison joined the group. The Beatles were three-quarters there.
The Quarrymen became Johnny and the Moondogs; one of John’s fellow art students, Stuart Sutcliffe, sold a painting for $60, was talked into buying a bass guitar, and immediately joined the band, although he didn’t know how to play. They began to perform in a coffee bar called the Jacaranda Club in 1958, using a man named Tommy Moore on drums; then, changing their name to the Silver Beatles, they played their first tour outside Liverpool, wandering through Scotland. The tour was not a success; they worked in a strip joint; Moore went off to be a forklift operator. Then they picked up Pete Best on the drums, mainly because his mother ran a coffee bar called the Casbah and put them to work. Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe were with the band when it traveled to play the Kaiserkeller in Hamburg in the fall of 1960. That gig made them into the Beatles. Sutcliffe fell in love with a woman named Astrid Kirchherr and stayed behind in Hamburg when the job ended, and Ringo Starr later replaced Best. But the craziness had begun. Cynthia Lennon, John’s first wife, remembered it as a wild time.
One night in Hamburg, she wrote later, John “fell about the stage in hysterical convulsions with so much booze and so many pills inside him that he was no way in control… . That night ended with John sitting on the edge of the stage in a very unsteady manner with an ancient wooden toilet seat round his neck, his guitar in one hand and a bottle of beer in the other, completely out of his mind.”
Back in Liverpool, their playing seemed harder, more driven than anything else on the British scene. They were in the Cavern Club when Brian Epstein walked in to see their lunch-time show on November 9, 1961. Epstein was then the 27-year-old owner of the Nems Music Store; he was homosexual; he had failed as an artist and had failed during eighteen months as a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. But he became the manager of the Beatles, and his gift for promotion and packaging made them into gigantic stars. He had them clean up their act. He had them trim and shape the long, unruly haircuts, and wear those silly collarless suits (which John hated). He encouraged them to write their own songs. In one sense, John looked at Epstein and found the father he had never had.
“Brian was the only person I ever saw dominate John Lennon,” said attorney Nat Weiss, who later worked for the Beatles. He also thought that Epstein had a crush on Lennon: “I’m convinced that this was the strongest single reason for him wanting to manage the Beatles in the first place. At first, he was very attracted to John.” Later, John would say that he and Epstein never sexually consummated their relationship, but in 1971, four years after Epstein’s suicide, he still talked about him with strong feelings:
“We had complete faith in him when he was runnin’ us. To us, he was the expert. I mean, originally he had a shop. Anybody who’s got a shop must be all right. He went around smarmin’ and charmin’ everybody. He had hellish tempers and fits and lockouts, and y’know he’d vanish for days. He’d come to a crisis every now and then, and the whole business would f - - - - -’ stop ‘cause he’d be on sleepin’ pills for days on end and wouldn’t wake up. We’d never have made it without him and vice versa. Brian contributed as much as us in the early days, although we were the talent and he was the hustler. He wasn’t strong enough to overbear us. Brian could never make us do what we really didn’t want to do.”
What John Lennon wanted to do was leave Liverpool, make music, get rich and famous, and he did them all. After 1964, his name was known all over the world, and his life was increasingly lived on a public stage. “You see,” he said later, “we wanted to be bigger than Elvis.” They were, but part of John Lennon wanted something else: a purer vision, a harder art, the solitude of the creator. He could never do that as a Beatle, and as their lives careened along, as the touring stopped with the last concert (San Francisco, August 29, 1966), as first John and then the others tripped on LSD, dabbled in mysticism, made elaborate acid music in the studio, and tried to adjust to incredible wealth and fame, Lennon seemed to drift away. He met Yoko Ono, seven years older, a conceptual artist, a challenge, and eventually they all drifted away. After 1970 the Beatles were finished. And John Lennon, of course, continued to make music on his own.
“Everybody wants to blame someone for the Beatles’ breaking up,” he said to me once. “They want to blame Yoko most of all. But it was already over musically before I met her.”
Lennon worked on alone, making some good music, making some bad music, dropping out for five years, becoming a father, coming back. In some of the records with Yoko, he seemed to be pushing against the limits of the pop-music form itself. But now, writing these fragments, I somehow most clearly remember him at the One to One concert at Madison Square Garden on August 30, 1972. He came onstage with Yoko, wearing a helmet, striking a guerrilla pose. And most of the music was an attack, Yoko’s shrieks piercing the crowded arena, and John standing back, allowing her room, and then singing “Come Together” and later “Give Peace a Chance.” He was all tangled up then in radical politics, a court case, hounded by the Nixon crowd and the immigration people. But there was a moment when he did what he had always wanted to do, and I wanted him to do it all night long. He stepped forward, a small smile on his face, and he started to sing “Hound Dog.”
6. THE EGGMAN GONE
Imagine there’s no countries
it isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
and no religion too … .
In the crowd outside the Dakota on the third day after the murder, someone held up a small sign.JOHN LIVES, the sign declared.
There was, of course, nothing else to say.
*“New York City” (John Lennon)© 1972 Northern Songs, Ltd. All rights for the USA, Mexico, and the Philippines controlled by Maclen Music, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Contributing to this article were David Rosenthal, Peter Hellman, Michael Schrage, Rinker Buck, Stu Glauberman, and Hillel Levin.