Keith Elliot Greenberg is the author of December 8, 1980: The Day John Lennon Died, now out in paperback from Backbeat Books.
Why did you feel compelled to write this book?
For 30 years, I’ve been carrying this story. I was five years old when the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan, and the first movie I ever asked my parents to see was A Hard Day’s Night. John Lennon never knew me, but I felt that I knew him, and he understood me. Mark David Chapman felt the same way. But because something misfired in his mind, he decided to take John Lennon away from all of us.
Some of the most moving parts of the book are the scenes of ordinary New Yorkers coming to the Dakota after the tragedy to express their sorrow and grieve with one another. Do you remember what you did that night?
The night of the murder and the aftermath is so vivid to me. I can see the John Lennon button I hung from the rearview mirror of my car. I remember the feeling of serenity, standing in silence at the vigil in Central Park. It’s strange because about a week later, I was in a diner in Queens, and ran into some people I’d seen at the vigil. We looked at each other and nodded, didn’t have to say anything, because we all were feeling the same thing.
I’m a lifetime New Yorker and, in some ways, the story of John Lennon’s death is a story of this city. When I interviewed people for this book—Mayor Ed Koch, a woman who lives in the Dakota, a guy who was in the emergency room when Lennon came in, a cop called to the scene—we all shared a very New York perspective of what occurred. This was a tragedy for the world, but it happened in our city—the city I love as much as any family member—and, for that reason, the memories seem that more intense.
What can we learn by looking closely at this one day in such detail? It’s clear from your book that there’s so much more to this story than just the shooting of a rock icon by a mentally ill man—shocking as it was. Why is it so significant?
December 8, 1980 was more than a day. It was a convergence. I tried to tell the story of John Lennon’s life—his emotional highs and lows—and how it all led to this day. Mark David Chapman’s was unraveling, going back and forth over whether he should commit this act, and then, in one moment, it all exploded. Everybody felt it. And the feeling lingers even now, 30 years later.
Some have said that Lennon’s death changed the relationship between celebrities and their fans. Do you agree with that?
Lennon’s death changed our perspective. John was nice to his fans, the people who hung out in front of the Dakota every day. No one realized that stalkers could actually be dangerous. Because of this incident, celebrities have had to build walls around themselves, cut themselves off. They’re scared. It makes you wonder about the effect this isolation has had on music. How can you write songs about regular people when you’re terrified that one of them, in Lennon’s words, is going to pop you off?
Why is it important to look at these events from the perspective of 30 years on?
Thirty years seems like such a short time. In many ways, I feel like the same person I was then. So do the people I interviewed for the book. But it’s important to take a moment like this—I don’t want to trivialize it and call it an anniversary—and take stock of what occurred 30 years ago. Think about the music we missed, think about the doors John could have opened, think about Yoko’s words to continue his dream of peace and pass it on to the next generation.
December 8, 1980: The Day John Lennon Died follows the events leading to the horrible moment when Mark David Chapman – the paunchy, mentally ill Beatles fan – calmly fired his Charter Arms .38 Special into the rock icon, realizing his perverse fantasy of attaining perennial notoriety. New York Times-best-selling author Keith Elliot Greenberg takes us back to New York City and the world John Lennon woke up to, and we follow the other Beatles, Lennon’s family, the shooter, fans, and New York City officials through the day. Once the fatal shots are fired, the pace only becomes more breathless.