Today (December 8th) marks the 33rd anniversary of John Lennon's death. As is the custom every year, several hundred fans are expected to stand vigil for Lennon across the street from the Dakota building in Central Park's Strawberry Fields. The triangular patch of land was designated by the city of New York in 1984 to celebrate the former Beatle's life and work.
In 1980, the 40-year-old Lennon had re-entered public life that fall, after a self-imposed five-year hiatus to spend time with his young son Sean, travel and recharge his creative batteries. On November 17th, 1980, Lennon and wife Yoko Ono had released their "comeback" album Double Fantasy, which included such future Lennon standards as "Woman," "Beautiful Boy," "Watching The Wheels," and the album's lead track and single "(Just Like) Starting Over."
On the night of December 8th, 1980 -- with "(Just Like) Starting Over" sitting at Number Six on the singles charts -- Lennon and Yoko returned home to their apartment building, the Dakota on Manhattan's Central Park West. They had spent the evening at the Record Plant East recording studio mixing a tune of Yoko's called "Walking On Thin Ice." Mark David Chapman, who had been stalking Lennon for several days and had received an autograph from Lennon earlier that evening, lay in wait for his return. Chapman, who was living in Honolulu at the time, had made an unsuccessful trip to New York the previous October with the intent of killing Lennon, but couldn't find him.
Lennon and Yoko returned from the studio at around 10:50 p.m., with their limousine dropping them off in front of the building on 72nd Street, rather than pulling into the building's courtyard as usual. As the couple walked in, they passed Chapman who called out "Mr. Lennon?" and fired five shots from a .38 caliber handgun, with four bullets entering Lennon's neck and back. Officers were quick on the scene, arresting Chapman and rushing Lennon in a squad car to nearby Roosevelt Hospital, where doctors worked on reviving the musician, who died from the severity of his wounds.
The news of Lennon's death was broken by a reporter for New York's WABC-TV, who by coincidence was in the same emergency room after a motorcycle accident. The news was first reported by Howard Cosell during the Monday Night Football telecast.
Yoko returned home and called "the three people John would have wanted to know" -- his aunt Mimi Smith, who raised him; his 17-year-old son Julian, from his first marriage; and Paul McCartney. Within hours of the news, thousands of fans had flocked to the Dakota to stand vigil for Lennon.
Radio executive Andy Denemark recalled getting the news of Lennon being shot: "On the night of the 8th of December, I was at home, I was in bed, I wasn't interested in the Monday Night Football game that night, and my phone rang -- it feels like it was 11 o'clock, 11:30 at night, something like that. And it was a friend of mine who was a huge Beatle fan, and I could hear her shaking over the phone, that the news story had just broke that John Lennon had been shot. And it felt so surreal when she uttered those words to me that I kind of calmed her down and said, 'Don't worry, I'm sure it'll be fine,' and 'don't sweat it,' and 'I'm sure it's just a crazy rumor.' It just didn't feel real at all."
Denemark recalls how limited fans' options were in getting accurate news about Lennon's condition: "Radio was the only immediate medium. I did what I think everybody else did at that time, was you turn to the radio. Because any news source -- CBS, NBC, all the big networks at the time -- and don't forget, 1980 was pre-MTV, pre-the expansion of a lot of cable, so you would turn to the radio because that's where you would get news about rock bands."
Julian Lennon and Ringo Starr made immediate plans to head to New York, with George Harrison issuing a statement saying, "After all we went through, I had and still have great love and respect for him. I am shocked and stunned. To rob life is the ultimate robbery." McCartney also issued a statement, saying, "I can't take it at the moment. John was a great man who'll be remembered for his great contributions to art, music and peace. He is going to be missed by the whole world."
During his 2008 appearance on ABC's The View, McCartney spoke frankly about Lennon's murder: "It was. . . horrific. It was, yeah. 'Cause suddenly, your best friend's snatched away, and then as you say, it's kind of scary, y'know, just the personal security thing. I think -- it wasn't just me, it was the other guys in the group -- everyone in entertainment suddenly thought 'Wait a minute, we better get security.' Which I think all of us did. I think I did it for about a week, it was like 'I can't live like this, just forget it."
Photo Courtesy of Capitol/EMI