The Final Days of John Lennon
In the final days of his life, John Lennon was feeling like a survivor. After a half-decade away from the limelight, the most outspoken and controversial former Beatle was heading into the ’80s with clear-headed optimism and a terrific new album, Double Fantasy—a joint effort with his wife and creative soulmate, Yoko Ono. The man who’d made “peace” a mantra for his generation seemed to have finally found the inner peace that had eluded him for so long.
December 8, 1980
Lennon was dreaming of more albums and maybe a tour—none of which would come to pass. Shortly before 11 p.m. on Monday, December 8, 1980, the 40-year-old rock icon was gunned down in front of his New York City apartment building, the Dakota. The man behind the trigger was Mark David Chapman, an obsessed fan from Hawaii who’d been hanging around the entrance to the Dakota all day. Lennon had even signed Chapman’s copy of Double Fantasy hours earlier.
Police rushed Lennon to Roosevelt Hospital, where doctors were unable to repair the damage done by Chapman’s four bullets. Lennon was pronounced dead on arrival. By coincidence, local WABC-TV news producer Alan Weiss had suffered a motorcycle accident earlier in the evening, and he was on a gurney at Roosevelt awaiting treatment when Lennon was brought into surgery. Weiss relayed word of Lennon’s death to his bosses, and by 11:50 p.m., famed sportscaster Howard Cosell was breaking the news during Monday Night Football.
“Yes we have to say it, remember this is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses,” Cosell said. “An unspeakable tragedy confirmed to us by ABC News ... John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the west side of New York City, the most famous perhaps of all The Beatles, shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital. Dead on arrival. Hard to go back to the game after that news.”
"What They Want is Dead Heroes"
Just hours earlier, Lennon had been at New York City’s Hit Factory recording studio, where he and Ono were putting the finishing touches on her song “Walking On Thin Ice,” a chilly art-disco thumper that would be released in February 1981. Ono takes the lead vocal, delivering lyrics that feel eerily prescient in hindsight: “I may cry someday / But the tears will dry whichever way / And when our hearts return to ashes / It’ll be just a story.”
In 2010, Ono—writing for Rolling Stone—wondered whether she’d somehow known something terrible was going to happen. How else to explain those lyrics? “I hadn’t realized that it said ‘I may cry someday,’ not ‘YOU may cry someday’ or ‘WE may cry someday,’” Ono wrote. “What was I thinking?”
Earlier on December 8, before the Hit Factory session, Lennon recorded an interview with Dave Sholin and Laurie Kaye for the RKO Radio Network. The conversation came just two days after Lennon had sat down with Andy Peebles of the BBC and three days after he spent 9 hours with Jonathan Cott of Rolling Stone. Like “Walking On Thin Ice,” all three of Lennon’s final interviews contain moments that feel extra poignant in light of what would transpire in the hours and days that followed.
At one point in the Rolling Stone conversation, Lennon began talking about how fans back home in England were all too ready to tear him down after The Beatles achieved their unprecedented global success in the ’60s. “What they want is dead heroes, like Sid Vicious and James Dean,” Lennon said. “I’m not interested in being a dead f***king hero ... So forget ’em, forget ’em.”
Give Peace A Chance
Speaking with the BBC on December 6, Lennon covered the entirety of his career, touching on everything from his days with the Fab Four to the New Wave bands he was finally catching up on (Madness, the B-52’s, Pretenders). It had been five years since Lennon’s previous album, and he’d spent the interim being a house husband, caring for his young son Sean. Lennon was out of the public eye, but he was hardly a recluse. In fact, he could regularly be seen walking around in New York City, where he seldom worried about being hounded by fans.
“I’ve been walking the streets for the last seven years,” Lennon said. “I can go right out this door now and go in a restaurant. Do you want to know how great that is? Or go to the movies? People will come up and ask for autographs or say ‘hi,’ but they won’t bug you.”
The RKO crew recorded Lennon’s final interview inside the Dakota on the afternoon of December 8, hours after photographer Annie Leibovitz had visited the apartment to snap now-legendary photos of the couple for Rolling Stone. Lennon was upbeat and happy to discuss the album he and Ono had released weeks earlier. The title Double Fantasy was inspired by a flower he came across while vacationing in Bermuda with Sean. It was during that same trip that John and Ono, who had remained in New York, began writing the songs that would make up the LP. They sang them over the phone to each other, creating a kind of dialogue between a husband and wife.
The album alternates between Lennon’s straight-ahead rock tunes and Ono’s more experimental tracks. There are hopeful songs, like “Just Like Starting Over” and “Woman,” as well as honest admissions of marital discord, like “I’m Losing You” and “Moving On.” The couple was only about 5 years beyond Lennon’s “lost weekend,” an 18-month period in the mid-1970s marked by substance abuse and infidelity.
It wasn’t the first time Lennon had acted out in ways seemingly antithetical to his peacenik image: In a 1980 interview with Playboy, the man who wrote “All You Need Is Love” and “Give Peace a Chance” admitted that: "All that ‘I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved’ was me. I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically ... any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women. That is why I am always on about peace, you see. It is the most violent people who go for love and peace. Everything’s the opposite. But I sincerely believe in love and peace. I am a violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence. I will have to be a lot older before I can face in public how I treated women as a youngster.”
It was important for Lennon and Ono to portray both sides of their relationship on Double Fantasy. “We’re not selling ourselves as the perfect couple,” Lennon told RKO. “We have our problems. We’ve had our problems. No doubt, we’ll have problems. But, you know, we’re trying. We wanna stay together. We wanna be a family.”
Lennon said throughout the Double Fantasy press cycle that he intended the album not for teenyboppers, but for people of his generation—the children of the ’60s who’d survived Vietnam and Watergate and were now settling into family life, trying to figure out what comes next.
“I’m really talking to the people who grew up with me and saying, ‘Here I am now. How are you? How’s your relationship going? Did you get through it all?’” Lennon said. “‘Wasn’t the ’70s a drag, you know? Here we are, well let’s try to make the ’80s good, you know?’ ’Cause it’s still up to us to make what we can of it. It’s not out of our control. I still believe in love, peace; I still believe in positive thinking—when I can do it. I’m not always positive, but when I am, I try to project it.”
The interview proved a life-changing event for RKO reporter Laurie Kaye, who details her conversation with Lennon—and much more—in her new book Confessions of a Rock ’n’ Roll Name-Dropper. “John was incredibly happy to have been what he called a ‘house husband’ while raising his 5-year-old son, Sean, and totally enjoying his relationship with his wonderful wife, who was also working nonstop running their long-time business,” Kaye tells Mental Floss. “John wanted to keep recording music and talked about touring as well—he was looking forward to a lifetime full of happiness and creativity with the love of his life.”
After the interview, Lennon and Ono left the Dakota with Sholin and the RKO team, who were heading to the airport to fly back to San Francisco. For some reason, the car Lennon ordered to take him and Ono to the Hit Factory didn’t show up, so Lennon asked if the RKO crew would give him a lift. Before they got in the limo, a silent fan wearing an overcoat approached Lennon with a copy of Double Fantasy. “Would you like your album signed?” Lennon asked. The man nodded, and as Lennon autographed the record, another fan named Paul Goresh took a photo. Goresh snapped one more shot as Lennon got in the limousine. The ex-Beatle apparently smiled and waved as the car pulled away.
The Shots Heard 'Round the World
These would be the final photographs of Lennon alive. The man in the overcoat was Mark David Chapman, who continued to loiter around the Dakota while Lennon and Ono finished “Walking On Thin Ice.” After the session, the couple decided to grab dinner, but Lennon wanted to see Sean before the youngster went to bed. So they stopped back at the Dakota, where Chapman was waiting with his .38 Special. As Lennon walked toward the building, Chapman fired the shots that would be heard around the world.
Lennon’s murder felt more like a political assassination than it did a celebrity death. Sholin from RKO learned of the tragedy the next morning after arriving home in San Francisco. He pulled his car over, praying it was a bad dream. How could the charming, generous man he had interviewed hours earlier be gone? “Never take a day for granted—I’ll tell you that,” Sholin said years later. “Because on a dime, life can change.”
Kaye got the awful news before Sholin, since she stuck around New York City that evening and had dinner with a friend. As soon as she heard a radio report about the shooting, Kaye raced to Roosevelt Hospital and saw Yoko “crying like crazy while holding onto a friend.” Kaye spent the night giving quotes to other journalists, and was later booked on the Today show. As she discusses at length in her new book, Kaye has always felt “strangely guilty” about the events of December 8, 1980, which she considers both the best and worst day of her life. This is partially because she encountered Chapman—a man whose name she still refuses to speak or even type—when she left Lennon’s building after the interview.
“Not only did I think if we hadn’t scheduled our RKO interview that day John might not have been shot, but I’d also been forced to come in contact with the bastard who killed him as I left the Dakota,” says Kaye. “That creep kept coming up to me and asking ‘Did you talk to him? Did you get his autograph?’ over and over and over. I still can’t help but blame myself for not letting the security guards at the Dakota know there was an offensive pain in the ass hanging out outside the apartment building. If only I had mentioned it to them.”
In the days that followed, stunned fans held vigils. Ono asked that mourners honor her husband’s memory with 10 minutes of silence on Sunday, December 14. Some 20,000 people gathered at St. George’s Hall in Lennon’s hometown of Liverpool, England, while an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 congregated outside the Dakota and in nearby Central Park. According to New York City news reports, the only sound heard during those 10 minutes was the whirring of helicopter blades.
Reporters from WNBC asked fans in Central Park what they thought about during those 10 minutes. One man said he hoped the slaying would lead to stronger gun control, so that Lennon’s murder wouldn’t be in vain. A young boy said he thought Lennon would’ve been happy with the silence. A woman with the faintest hint of a smile seemed to capture best what people took from Lennon’s life and music.
“He believed in peace, you know?” she said. “And what can I say? Just look around you. It tells it all.”
A version of this story ran in 2020; it has been updated for 2021.