One day in December 1980 I was working as a bus driver and I was driving one of our old half cab buses into Manchester. My conductor, Bob, was kept pretty busy as we took a bus load of passengers into Manchester city centre for their jobs in shops, offices and other places. At one point Bob poked his head through the little window into the cab and told me that he had heard from a passenger that John Lennon had been shot in New York. It was shocking news and when we arrived in Piccadilly, we both ran to the news stand to read the news in the morning papers. There was nothing about Lennon in any newspaper and we wondered if it had been just a mad rumour. Later when we went back to the canteen for our break, we heard the news either on the TV or the radio. Lennon had indeed been shot and was dead.
I can’t claim to be a great fan of John Lennon. I liked him and his music and back then in 1980, I had a copy of one of his albums, Walls and Bridges and a few years later I bought Double Fantasy, his last album and also the last vinyl album I would ever buy but what did happen that day back in December, 1980?
It was a cold day in New York and a man called Mark Chapman took a .38 calibre revolver out of his pocket and calmly fired five shots at John Lennon who had just exited a limo outside his home in the Dakota building, just across from Central Park.
Chapman was born on 10th May, 1955 in a place called Decatur, in Georgia, in the USA. Chapman’s home life was difficult; his father was abusive towards his mother and Chapman apparently lived in fear of him. In his early teens Chapman was involved with drugs and even once ran away from home. In 1971 he became a born again Christian and worked as a summer camp counsellor for the YMCA. He was very popular with the children at the summer camp and even won an award for his outstanding work. Later he worked with Vietnamese refugees at a resettlement camp and once again impressed his colleagues and superiors.
After his work with the refugees finished, Mark went to college but there he began to feel depressed. He was no longer doing important work with the refugees and thought of himself as a failure. He dropped out of college to work as a security guard and then in 1977 he left home to travel to Hawaii where he intended to commit suicide. His attempt failed but he was able to gain support and help for his depression and even started to work as a volunteer at the hospital that had helped him.
Much has been written about Chapman’s love of Catcher in the Rye, a novel by JD Salinger and how the book somehow turned Chapman against Lennon and indeed inspired him to kill. I read the book many years ago and at the time I thought it rather dull and uninteresting and I remember being surprised that it could inspire anyone to do anything, let alone provoke someone to murder.
The main character, Holden Caulfield has learned he has failed all his classes at school and that he won’t be returning for the next term. He leaves and gets a train to New York where he basically wanders about feeling sorry for himself and moaning about ‘phonies’, presumably people who are false. In the December of 1980, Mark Chapman too was wandering about New York feeling sorry for himself and hating ‘phonies’. For him, the really big phoney was John Lennon.
Lennon was suffocated by the incredible fame of the Beatles, and had decided to relocate to New York in 1971. New Yorkers were not overwhelmed by his celebrity status and he found himself a large apartment in the impressive Dakota Building on the corner of Central Park West and 72nd Street. Lennon lived quietly with his wife Yoko Ono and son Sean and retired from public life during his son’s early years. His comeback album Double Fantasy was released in 1980.
Chapman had a copy of Catcher in The Rye with him when he shot Lennon on the 8th December, 1980. In his copy Chapman had signed ‘from Holden Caulfield to Holden Caulfield. This is my statement’. He had hung around the Dakota building in New York and when Lennon left for the Record Plant recording studio, he had pushed forward his copy of Double Fantasy, Lennon’s latest album, for the singer to sign.
Lennon wrote ‘John Lennon 1980’ on the record and handed it back to Chapman asking ‘Is this all you want?’ Chapman took the album back and Lennon jumped into a limo and was gone. A photographer named Paul Goresh was there and snapped a photo of Lennon signing the album. Chapman was excited about it and asked for a copy before Goresh left. Goresh promised to return the next day with a print.
Later the Lennons returned to the Dakota and Chapman was still there waiting. Yoko entered the building and Lennon was following when Mark Chapman pulled out his 38 revolver and fired five times at the ex-Beatle. Lennon staggered into the Dakota entrance saying ‘I’m shot’. Chapman dropped his gun and began reading the Catcher in the Rye until the police came and arrested him. Another Police car arrived and seeing that Lennon was losing a lot of blood carried him to the police car and took him directly to the Roosevelt Hospital. Staff there tried to revive Lennon but the wounds were too severe and he was pronounced dead at 11:15pm.
On a TV documentary for the ITV series First Tuesday which I found in my old VHS collection, one of Mark’s old girlfriends was interviewed. Judy Williams spoke about the Mark Chapman she knew as warm and gentle. ‘It just wasn’t Mark’ she said ‘He couldn’t have been in his right mind when he did it.’
So why did Chapman shoot John Lennon? Apparently, Chapman had been a fan of the Beatles and John Lennon’s solo music but felt that Lennon had become a fake, a ‘phoney’, someone who preached peace and love to the masses while his music made him a multi-millionaire. Chapman signed out of his security job as ‘John Lennon’ on his last day of work so it is even possible that he identified so much with Lennon that the other Lennon, the fake ‘Lennon’ had to die. Chapman also claimed at other times that he shot Lennon to promote Catcher in the Rye.
I’ve just finished reading Let Me Take You Down by Jack Jones and in the book the author prints pages and pages about Chapman and his disturbed ideas including the fantasy ‘little people’ who filled his imagination and tried to stop him going through with the killing. He had in fact visited New York on a different occasion to shoot Lennon but returned home without committing murder.
I can imagine Lennon in his room in the Dakota, looking down on New York and reflecting on how far he had come. Did he ever think of his home in Liverpool? I am sure he did. He corresponded regularly with his Aunt Mimi who brought him up at their home, Mendips, in Liverpool.
Years ago, when I used to work in Liverpool, I visited his childhood home. I had always imagined Lennon came from a rough council house background but his former home is in Woolton, a pleasant leafy suburb of Liverpool with semi-detached private houses and some rather nice pubs and shops. Not quite what I had expected.
After reading Let Me Take You Down I dug out my old VHS documentary which uses numerous statements by Chapman, recorded secretly by the NYPD in the hours after his arrest. I listened to his various ideas about why he had to shoot John Lennon but I’m not sure we can ever understand the workings of a disturbed mind. ‘The Beatles changed the world’ Mark says at one point, ‘and I changed them.’
I like John Lennon of course and I was interested to read this book to see what really happened to him and to find out why Mark Chapman decided to shoot him. I had always thought that Chapman was just a madman and after reading this book I can see that basically, I was right. Chapman was mad. I suppose it was foolish of me to think that there was a definitive reason behind the shooting, some tangible reason, something that perhaps if Lennon or his people had been aware of, they could have taken some action to prevent the murder. At the end of the day, I don’t think there was or even that the actions of a disturbed person can be explained in simple terms. Chapman got it into his head that he had to kill John Lennon and he did.
Mark Chapman is still alive today. He is still serving his life sentence in Wende Correctional Facility in New York and first became eligible for parole in 2000. All Chapman’s applications for parole have so far been denied.
Today in 2021, Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, still lives in the Dakota building.
The Man Who Shot John Lennon. First Tuesday UK TV documentary written and produced by Kevin Sim.
Let Me take You Down by Jack Jones.
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