John Lennon shot on his doorstep 40 years ago, legacy lives on

Decades after his death, his legacy continues to resurface.


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Published: Sat 5 Dec 2020, 10:38 AM

Late on a mild December evening in 1980, a young man with a revolver shot John Lennon four times in the back as the singer arrived home from a recording studio with his wife, Yoko Ono.

Police found his killer reading a book as he waited for them to arrest him outside the Dakota apartment building in midtown Manhattan.

Lennon was rushed to hospital on the back seat of a police car but “did not have the slightest chance of surviving” despite receiving several blood transfusions, a doctor told reporters.

An AFP breaking news dispatch on December 8 read: “Former Beatle John Lennon was assassinated in front of his home in New York.”

It was the start of a flood of media coverage that would rival the reach of the world-famous singer, who was just 40 years old. Mark Chapman, then 25, had travelled from Hawaii and had got Lennon to sign his copy of the British singer’s latest album, Double Fantasy, earlier that day as Lennon left the building.

“I saw the photo where he signed the autograph. It was flashed on TV again and again,” Yoko Ono would write to fans a month later in an ad she took out in major newspapers across the country. “Somehow that photo was harder for me to look at than the death photo. John was in a hurry that afternoon. He did not have to give his autograph but he did, while the man watched him, the man who was to betray John later.”

Chapman was deemed competent to stand trial and was sentenced to life in prison, where he remains. His 12th parole hearing is set for 2022. Then US president-elect Ronald Reagan — who would later survive an assassination attempt himself — called the killing a “great tragedy” as thousands of mourners gathered outside the building where Lennon had lived with Ono and their son Sean.

Ono announced there would be no public funeral. Instead she sent word to fans singing outside her window to gather at an amphitheatre in nearby Central Park that Sunday to honour her late husband. On December 14, about 200,000 people braved the New York cold to pay tribute to Lennon with all of the city’s radio stations going silent for 10 minutes.

Across the United States, tens of thousands flocked to “parks, squares, parking lots or theatres — even the natural Red Rocks amphitheatre in the heart of the Rocky mountains, where the Beatles had performed in 1964”, said the AFP report at the time. Millions more joined in around the world.

In Moscow, where Beatles albums had been banned, with their recordings circulating on the black market, tributes went on for days. Police finally moved to disperse hundreds of young people who had gathered near the university with portraits of Lennon.

There was a similar crackdown on Beatles fans in Prague. “You would have to go back to the tragic death of John Kennedy or Dr Martin Luther King Jr in the 60s to find a reaction like this in the wake of a celebrity,” said an AFP account of the events.

Emotions were equally high in Britain, especially in Lennon’s hometown of Liverpool. Some 20,000 people sang Give Peace a Chance at the end of a tribute concert. There was crying and fainting reminiscent of scenes from overwrought audiences at the height of Beatlemania, AFP reported.

“John Lennon is not dead. As long as his music lives he can’t die,” a Beatles impersonator told the Liverpool crowd.

Decades after his death, Lennon’s legacy continues to resurface as objects linked to him come up for auction. The piano he used to compose Imagine was sold in 2000 in London for 2.45 million euros, and one of his guitars went for $2 million in the United States in 2015. Other prized relics include a pair of his round sunglasses purchased for £137,500 in 2019 and a lock of his hair which sold for $35,000 in Texas in 2016.

He also lives on in the songs and attitudes of other artists.

Many sing his tunes, some mention him in their lyrics, while others question his legacy or even admit... they really prefer his songwriting partner Paul McCartney.

Perhaps the greatest tribute to Lennon in recent years came from Bob Dylan, the US folk-rock giant who was a personal acquaintance.

The closing track of Dylan's 2012 album Tempest was titled Roll On John. The seven-minute dirge recounts Lennon's murder on December 8, 1980, and early life as a touring musician, "From the Liverpool docks to the red-light Hamburg streets".

Among the countless direct cover versions of Lennon's solo and Beatles songs, Ozzy Osbourne's 2010 tribute stood out: a version of How? from Lennon's classic album Imagine.

The ex-leader of heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath strolled through New York streets in a black leather trench coat and laid a wreath at Lennon's memorial in Central Park.

For all the nostalgia, Lennon was a divisive and contradictory figure. Sceptics questioned his status as a counterculture icon and the sincerity of his positions on gender equality and capitalism.

"Lennon had a 'teddy boy' side to him," said Stan Cuesta, author of a book about The Beatles, referring to the Liverpool musician's slick-haired, working class rebel beginnings. "He once had a Rolls Royce. He was complex."

Former Animals frontman Eric Burdon has said Lennon came up with the surreal lyrics to I Am The Walrus after the two took part in an orgy in London.

"John was always the provocateur of the group," said Cuesta.

"But he only got political and started going to art galleries with Yoko Ono," the Japanese artist he married in 1969.

Even Lennon's undisputed musical legacy leaves room for discussion.

As a songwriting partnership, Lennon and McCartney changed the face of music through their harmonies, singer Sharleen Spiteri of British band Texas told AFP.

Even so, the "who's your favourite Beatle" debate is as old as the group itself.

"Lennon had a rather surreal artistic side to him. He was more political, rebellious, intellectual," said Laurent Voulzy, a French rocker of The Beatles' generation.

"But as a guitarist and bass-player myself I have always liked Paul's graceful arrangements, the sensitivity of his melodies and lyrics."

Cuesta highlights another track from the Imagine album: Jealous Guy, a wistful ballad — notably covered by Bryan Ferry with Roxy Music.

Lennon "was a natural musical genius, more intuitive than the other Beatles," Cuesta said, citing also the band's psychedelic hit Strawberry Fields.

Like Che Guevara, Lennon's face ended up on souvenir T-shirts — sometimes inscribed with the title of his song Working Class Hero.

That anthem sums up Lennon's legacy for Yves Bigot, a television executive and former rock critic and record producer.

"It tells you to think for yourself," he said.

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