Thirty-one years ago today, Mark David Chapman calmly fired his Charter Arms .38 Special at John Lennon, killing the rock icon and fulfilling his deranged quest for infamy. In this excerpt, New York Times bestselling author of December 8, 1980 Keith Elliot Greenberg takes us back to New York City and the world Lennon woke up to on that final fateful morning.
Below the high gables and terracotta spandrels—and the carved Lakota Indian gazing upon the yellow cabs and subway-bound commuters on Seventy-second Street—John Lennon scuttled around the Dakota, writing small notes to himself. Even with an album climbing on the charts, the former Beatle had grown to define himself as a househusband, and if he didn’t make these scribblings, certain workaday tasks just wouldn’t get done. With a five-year-old child at home, John and Yoko were awake at 8:00 A.M., planning the day and eating breakfast. At age forty, Lennon felt relatively healthy, renouncing the alcoholic tears that had characterized his youth in Liverpool and the Beatles’ early days in Hamburg, as well as the fifteen-month “Lost Weekend” that nearly broke up his marriage. Among some rock ’n’ rollers who’d grown up on the Beatles, forming a cocaine dependency ranked among the better ways to transition from the seventies to the eighties. But, having snorted his share in more thoughtless times, John now abstained.
Officially, John had also given up sugar. In the studio, though, he allowed himself to give in to arguably his most innocent of vices. John and Yoko had gone through a vegetarian phase and now aspired to be macrobiotic, eating whole grains and fish with rice. On a recent visit to the Dakota, however, an interviewer from Playboy had noticed that John still loved his Gauloises Bleues, the strong French cigarettes particularly popular in the Middle East.“Macrobiotic people don’t believe in the Big C,” Lennon told the magazine, conceding that he was more than conscious of the possibility that he was deluding himself. “Macrobiotics don’t believe that smoking is bad for you. Of course, if we die, we’re wrong.”
Mortality was an issue that came up often with Lennon. As a performer, he’d encouraged his listeners to abandon the parochial concept of earning a spot in heaven. Yet, without that secure notion to soothe him, he seemed to worry about his life ending prematurely. In virtually every interview, he broached the topic of death—even if it was to emphasize that he hoped to live a long, fulfilling life.
For more than a decade, the man who’d once smacked around insubordinate girlfriends and insolent associates had characterized himself as a pacifist. If someone challenged him to a fight, he said, he’d run away—shouting over his shoulder about peace. But Lennon pointed out that Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., had also forsaken violence—and been killed nonetheless.
In 1975, he’d removed himself from the public eye, spending the majority of his time in the warren of apartments the Lennons owned in the Dakota, the landmarked, North German Renaissance– style building on Central Park West—to live, not as a hermit, but as a civilian. The experience invigorated Lennon after years as a captive to fame. Even after the Beatles’ breakup, John had felt like he couldn’t escape his celebrity. And he’d believed that he had to hustle to maintain it—because, as much as he condemned the recording industry, he wanted to live up to the standards expected of Beatle John. During his five-year sabbatical from the business, he told one reporter, the “invisible ghost” had disappeared.
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December 8, 1980
In a breathtaking, minute-by-minute format, December 8, 1980: The Day John Lennon Died follows the events leading to the horrible moment when Mark David Chapman calmly fired his Charter Arms .38 Special into the rock icon, realizing his perverse fantasy of attaining perennial notoriety.
New York Times bestselling author Keith Elliot Greenberg takes us back to New York City and the world John Lennon woke up to. The day begins with a Rolling Stone photo session that takes on an uncomfortable tone when photographer Annie Leibowitz tries to maneuver Yoko Ono out of the shot. Later Lennon gives the last interview of his life, declaring, “I consider that my work won’t be finished until I’m dead and buried and I hope that’s a long, long time.”
We follow the other Beatles, Lennon’s family, the shooter, fans, and New York City officials through the day, and as the hours progress, the pace becomes more breathless. Once the fatal shots are fired, the clock continues to tick as Dr. Stephan Lynn walks from the emergency room after declaring the former Beatle dead, Howard Cosell announces the singer’s passing on Monday Night Football, and Paul McCartney is lambasted for muttering “Drag, isn’t it?” – his bereavement confused with indifference.
The epilogue examines the aftermath of the killing: the considerable moment when 100,000 New Yorkers stood in silence in Central Park, the posthumous reunion of the Beatles in the studio – with George, Paul, and Ringo accompanying the recordings of their old friend – the unveiling of a bronze John Lennon statue in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, and the durable legacy that persists today. Available for purchase here from Backbeat Books.