Archive for Tuesday, December 5, 2000

Lennon’s assassination still echoes

Twenty years later, Yoko Ono imagines what might have been

December 5, 2000

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— Sitting inside her office at the Dakota apartments, a stone's throw from the spot where her husband was mortally wounded two decades earlier, Yoko Ono considers the question:

Imagine John Lennon at 60?

There's a pause. A long pause.

"I think he was always innovative," she finally says. "I think he would have jumped into the Internet. Also, his music was very funky and punky the rap kind of thing."

There's a shorter pause, and her voice grows lively.

"You can almost see that John would have done that," she continues. "I'm sure he would have been the first white rapper. Or the second, maybe."

Lennon as Eminem? A bespectacled Lennon downloading MP3s from the Internet? Lennon, gray-haired and gray-bearded, dueting with Fred Durst?

It's pure speculation 20 years after a demented Beatlemaniac killed Lennon with five gunshots on Dec. 8, 1980. It's also something that Ono, who watched in horror as her dying husband collapsed, lives with every day.

"I miss the laughter, you know?" the 67-year-old widow reflects. "He made me laugh, especially at times when things were very difficult."

Voice not silenced

To the world at large, John was never the funny Beatle that title belonged to Ringo. Paul, even at 58, remains the cute Beatle, while George in his English mansion is ever the quiet Beatle.

Lennon, paradoxically, lives on as the dead Beatle fascinating but forever frozen in time: house-husband, father, reluctant rock star who spent five years watching the wheels go round with his new son, Sean.

This year, when Lennon would have turned 60, his work was ubiquitous. Nine Beatles-related books were introduced in the year 2000 from the authorized "The Beatles Anthology," to a reissue of Lennon's verse "In His Own Write," to a tome on the Beatles' dalliance with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

A compilation of the Beatles' 27 No. 1 hits, released in time for Christmas shoppers, landed atop the Billboard chart after selling nearly 600,000 copies in its first week.

Ono supervised re-releases of the first and last solo albums of his life, "Plastic Ono Band" and "Double Fantasy." There was even a book from Lennon about Lennon: a 151-page pressing of his revealing 1970 interviews with Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner. "The dream's over," Lennon warned, 10 years before his death. "And I have personally got to get down to so-called reality."

A visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame provides a stark dose of that reality. When the Cleveland facility unveiled a Lennon tribute in October, the first items in the display reinforced his violent absence:

The blood-spattered spectacles that Lennon wore on the night of his murder. And a hospital bag containing his clothes, riddled with bullet holes.

"In John's spirit, it was very important to have a strong message: 'Let's not kill each other any more,"' Ono explains. "John was always trying to send a message about world peace.

"I felt it was appropriate."

The day the music died

Even now, 20 years later, Yoko Ono cannot utter his name. She refers to him only as "that guy."

Mark David Chapman came from Hawaii to Manhattan in search of John Lennon. The chubby, deranged fan settled into a midtown hotel just a 20-block walk from the Dakota.

On the night of his death, Lennon and Ono were headed home from a Manhattan recording studio where they had worked on her "Walking on Thin Ice" single. A white limousine deposited the pair on 72nd Street off Central Park, and they moved toward the Dakota's gated entrance. It was almost 11 p.m., and Chapman was waiting.

Earlier that day, Chapman had greeted Lennon with a copy of the rocker's new "Double Fantasy" album; Lennon signed and dated it. Chapman now clutched a Charter Arms .38 caliber revolver.

Once Lennon passed by, Chapman pumped five hollow-point bullets into Lennon's back.

As Lennon lay dying on the sidewalk, Chapman dropped the gun and produced a paperback novel "The Catcher in the Rye" from his pocket. He opened the book, and waited for the police.

Nearby, Ono was shaking uncontrollably a condition that continued for hours.

John Lennon, 40 years old, was dead.

For the generation that grew up with the Beatles, it was the rock-'n'-roll equivalent of 1963's JFK assassination. As on that day in Dallas, people would remember where they heard the news about Lennon.

Over the next few days, Lennon's music blared from boom boxes outside the Dakota as his widow mourned upstairs. A 10-minute "moment of silence" turned Manhattan mute in Lennon's memory; three distraught fans committed suicide.

Lennon's death gave life to his legend. Lennon and Ono's "Double Fantasy" LP climbed to the top of the charts, and "Starting Over" became his biggest single.

Chapman pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 years to life. Jailed upstate in Attica, he became a blip on Ono's radar screen until this October, when he came up for parole.

"The parole thing really hit me, and it depressed me," she says. "Especially when that guy was coming out in public, interviewed by many" she sighs "by the press. It totally devastated me."

Ono feared for her life, for the life of her son Sean, for the life of John's older son Julian. She feared that Chapman would come after them.

"People would tell me, 'Don't worry.' But you never know," she says.

The parole board turned Chapman down; he becomes eligible again in October 2002.

Ono will spend Friday, the 20th anniversary of Lennon's death, in what has become a tradition: sitting in the Dakota, meditating.

Across Central Park West, fans will gather inside Strawberry Fields the slice of Central Park named for the Lennon hit to light candles and sing John's songs.

"Sean and I always put candles on my windowsill, and light them to tell the people, 'We're with you,"' Ono says.

Unrealized dreams

So imagine John Lennon, on the cusp of Social Security, smoking an unfiltered Gitane and sipping a cup of tea. When Rolling Stone magazine asked a cross-section of musicians what Lennon might be doing now, their answers ran the gamut.

"I think John would be doing some cutting-edge hardcore music," said rocker Lenny Kravitz.

"He would probably love the rap movement," offered Sinead O'Connor, who was just 12 when Lennon died.

Lennon, during his 1970 interview with Wenner, was asked to conjure his vision of the Liverpool kid at age 64. It included Yoko, and made no mention of Paul, George or Ringo. He was far from the craziness of Manhattan.

"I hope we're a nice old couple living off the coast of Ireland or something like that," he offered, "looking back at our scrapbooks of madness."

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