“We’re either going to live or we’re going to die. I consider that my work won’t be finished until I’m dead and buried – and I hope that’s a long time.”
These words would be chilling at the best of times, were they not uttered by John Lennon in his last ever interview prior to his murder.
Thirty five years ago today the Beatle was gunned down outside the Dakota building where he lived with his wife Yoko Ono and son Sean, then just five-years-old.
It will be of little comfort to anyone who knew and loved his music but John Lennon had been doing much of what he loved most on the day he died.
Rising early, Lennon awaited Yoko doing likewise before the pair breakfasted at a nearby diner, enjoying Eggs Benedict and a cappuccino. He then briefly had his hair cut before a day of media and music.
He and Yoko were photographed for Rolling Stone magazine by Annie Leibovitz before he sat down with David Sholin, a San Francisco radio producer to whom he made the infamous remarks.
The rest of the day saw Lennon in the recording studio, where he and Yoko spent four-and-half-hours working on the song Walking on Thin Ice.
The session, at the famous Record Factory studio, was a happy one with Lennon telling his wife she had just completed her first No1 single at the culmination of recording. The atmosphere was further buoyed by the arrival of record company boss David Geffen to pass on the good tidings that Lennon’s latest album Double Fantasy had turned gold.
With it now dark and time to go home, Lennon told the studio staff to “be here bright and early” the next day before he and Yoko travelled in their limousine back to their home.
Lennon and Yoko briefly toyed with going out to eat as it was, by this stage, gone 10pm but resolved instead to return to the Dakota as Lennon wanted to say good night to Sean before he went to sleep.
Waiting for him there was Mark David Chapman, a drifter who had been suffering from paranoid delusions and who had been conspiring to murder Lennon for weeks.
The malcontent had spent most of the day there, even getting Lennon to sign a copy of his latest album as he departed earlier, a momentous moment captured on camera by an unknowing fan.
As Lennon exited the car Chapman emerged from the shadows and fired five bullets at him from a revolver, four of which hit the Beatle.
Lennon collapsed on the stairs of the building, apparently exclaiming “I’m shot” more than once before falling.
The Dakota’s doorman, Jose Perdomo, wrestled the gun from Chapman’s hand before the murderer calmly removed his hat and coat before sitting on the kerb and flicking through a copy of The Catcher in the Rye, a book he had become obsessed with and which he would later claim was “his statement” regarding the murder.
At this point an incensed Perdomo shouted at Chapman “Do you know what you have just done?!” to which he replied very calmly “Yes, I have just shot John Lennon.” Officers arrived moments later and he was arrested, making no attempt to flee or resist.
Other officers arriving at the scene assessed Lennon’s condition and saw that the situation was grim. Rather than wait on an ambulance officers Herb Frauenberger and Tony Palma bundled the dying Beatle into the back of a squad car whereupon he was rushed to hospital.
The shooting had severed Lennon’s aortic arch and he had lost approximately 80 per cent of his blood. Upon arrival at hospital it was clear that Lennon’s pulse had stopped and that he had stopped breathing. Staff worked on him for approximately 20 minutes before he was pronounced dead at 11.15pm.
When Yoko was informed of the news she broke down crying: “Oh no, no, no, no ... tell me it’s not true!”
Knowing that it would not be long before the news leaked to media she implored staff to not tell anyone until she herself had the chance to speak to Sean herself, rather than have him hear about it on the television.
The death of one of the world’s most famous individuals, and particularly the violent nature of his passing, prompted an outpouring of grief worldwide on an almost unprecedented scale. Fans were driven to the brink of despair and there were suicide attempts. Nearly a quarter of a million people converged on Central Park for a vigil. Thousands gathered in his home city of Liverpool, with one mourner remarking that fans should not seek vengeance against Chapman as “it is not what John would have wanted”.
The remaining Beatles’ reaction inevitably came under much scrutiny. Paul McCartney, when approached by camera men and reporters was still in a state of shock and could only muster a “it’s a drag isn’t it”, a remark which drew heavy criticism for its lack of emotion. George Harrison immediately asked musician friends to join him in a jam session so he could keep himself busy and not become overwhelmed by the loss of his friend. He would tell band mates “all I ever wanted to do was play guitar in a rock and roll band, and look what happened.”
Chapman pled guilty to the murder charge and was imprisoned for life. He has been denied parole eight times and remains behind bars. His life in prison is largely confined to working in the facility’s library. The killer has repeatedly expressed contrition for his actions and claims to have found peace through religion.
The impact remains vivid even 35 years later. Lennon’s early-death effectively canonised him and he remains one of the most revered, respected and loved musicians in history. Yoko never remarried and his death has haunted much of her life ever since.
Even for someone like myself his death remains a source of raw emotion. I have loved the Beatles since I can remember and who was only a few weeks old when he was murdered. When, years later, my mother explained to me that he had been murdered I was full of bewilderment and incomprehension as to why someone could carry out such a heinous act. I still am.