On Dec. 9, 1980, I got a frantic call from my editor at 6 a.m. John Lennon had been fatally shot, she said, and I needed to go right away to his apartment building, the Dakota, to write about the scene outside.
I thought there might be a small crowd outside, the kind that gathers on a street corner to gawk at a minor car accident. But there were so many more people than that; as I got closer, I could see that the police had blocked off West 72nd Street and part of Central Park West. They kept the crowd across the street from the Dakota, afraid of the crush that would develop much closer. More and more people arrived every minute. Soon the crowd stretched across Central Park West into the Park itself.
Most of the people in the crowd were sobbing. Some held candles; others had posters with Lennons picture or the peace sign. They sang Lennon songs. But what shocked me about people there was their age. By far, the majority seemed to be in their late teens or early twenties. Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles groundbreaking album, was released in 1967, thirteen years ago, and Lennon had only recently come back on the musical scene. These mourners were thirteen, at most, when Sergeant Pepper came out, and many of them were younger than that. How many kids at that age listen to music that comes from another generation?
As I inched my way into the crush to get some comments, I found out why. Beyond the sheer magic of the music the mourners loved what Lennon stood for: love, peace and a perpetually anti-establishment attitude He preached peace, said one. He told the truth, said another. They also loved Imagine, Lennons utopan ballad that wished for a better world where there would be no possessions and the world would be as one. I admired them for their refusal to be cynical. In light of relatively recent events, including the resignation of President Richard Nixon, as well as our humiliating withdrawal from Vietnam, it would have been very easy to be cynical. Of course, the love-and-peace view of Lennon was a pretty selective one, and I mean no disrespect by saying that. Yes, he was for peace and love; he wrote the mesmerizing song Give Peace a Chance. He and Yoko Ono staged a bed-in for peace; they simply stayed in a bed in Toronto hoping that the Vietnam war would end. It was good theater if nothing else. But in his personal life, Lennon wasnt all about love and peace; he never had been, really. As a younger guy, he had beaten the woman who would become his first wife, because she danced with someone else. Cynthia Lennon wrote later that shed been subjected to years of verbal abuse as well. He made fun of rock legend Elvis Presley to his face. And anyone whos ever seen clips of him at the Toronto bed-in, or arguing on The Dick Cavett Show, knows that he was one of the angriest peace advocates around.
That doesnt negate the songs he did the touching Beautiful Boy, about his son Sean, the melancholy Watching the Wheels Go Round, about his years-long absence from the music business, and so many others. But I hope Lennon is remembered in all his dimensions the good father to his son Sean, the caustic idealist, the brilliant songwriter. People are complicated; they have a lot of different, conflicting elements. One things for sure: John Lennon died a horrifying death that broke his wifes spirit for years and left untold numbers of people desolate. Thats a sad but imposing legacy. Anne Callaghan is a freelance writer in New York City.