Let Me Take You Down: New York 1980

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.

The last vinyl album I ever bought, and the last one that John Lennon made. Double Fantasy. £2.99, what a bargain.

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 signs Double Fantasy for his killer

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.

Mendips, Woolton, Liverpool. Picture courtesy wikipedia

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.

Sources:

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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Personal Encounters with George Best

I can’t say I have ever been interested in football. As a matter of fact I’d go as far as saying I not only hate football but I can’t even stand the sound of a ball being kicked anywhere near me. Strange then, you must be thinking, for me to be writing a football post. Then again, I’m a Manchester lad, a town that boasts two Premier League football teams and a town that looks at George Best as both an adopted son and as one its icons.

George Best. Picture courtesy Wikipedia

Back in the late sixties and early seventies, George Best was Manchester’s very own celebrity sports superstar. In fact, George was a superstar before the word was even coined.

George came from Northern Ireland and arrived at old Trafford having been signed up by the club in 1961. He lasted only a matter of days before homesickness drove him back to Ireland. Later he came back for another try and this time he stayed. He made his debut for United’s first team in 1963 and scored his first goal for the team in only his second appearance.

Despite all I have said above about hating football I did visit Manchester United’s ground many times in the early seventies. My old friend Mark was a great United fan and we used to travel up to Old Trafford on the train and watch the game from the Stretford End. Later, Mark’s dad used to pick us up and drop me off at home. On the 24th October, 1973, Mark and I went to see Tony Dunne’s testimonial game and although Best wasn’t at his peak, he lit up the pitch with his talent.

He was dribbling the ball, flicking it back and forth and through peoples’ legs, changing direction and making the other players look like amateurs. At one point he seemed to run out of steam and become tired like an ordinary person and not the super fit athlete he should have been but his incredible ability and ball control was there for all to see.

On another occasion my friends and I travelled into Manchester by bus to hang about Best’s Boutique near to Deansgate. We never saw the man in person although what we would have done if we had, I don’t know. Ask for an autograph perhaps? I don’t know but at that time George Best had a kind of fame that was on a par with a film star, The newspapers even dubbed him the fifth Beatle in the sixties because of his Beatle like haircut and his undeniable charisma.

Amazingly, despite his celebrity status in the late sixties, he lived in digs in the Manchester suburb of Chorlton with his landlady Mary Fullaway; digs that had been arranged by his football club, Manchester United. Hardly the place for a footballer of Best’s status to rest his head, so in 1969 Best asked architect Frazer Crane to design him a new house. His only demands were apparently a sunken bath and a snooker room. Crane designed a modern building with a white-tiled exterior with full length floor to ceiling windows and electronically operated curtains.

There was an underground car park for Best’s Jaguar E Type and the house had all the latest gadgets such as under-floor heating and a TV that would retract into the chimney stack. The finished house was the ultimate bachelor pad for a man already famous for chasing the young ladies.

picture courtesy Daily Mail

When I did a search on the Internet the house is described as being in Bramhall, that posh suburb and home to Manchester’s very rich before they started gravitating towards Hale. Actually, I remember the house as being in Cheadle Hulme, a very smart area of private houses just prior to Bramhall.

When Best moved into the house, my friends and I piled into someone’s battered old banger car and drove up to take a look. The newspapers had reported that the house looked rather like a public toilet which was a little unfair. It looked rather nice to me, very modern and worth every penny of the £35,000 it reportedly cost. The day my friends and I visited, there seemed to be crowds of people around, in fact, I even remember a coach parked up there. People had come from miles around to get a closer look at the number one footballer of the day and his new house. My friends and I chatted for a while, supped a couple of cans of coke and then went on our way.

Years later I was saddened to learn that Best would arrive home to find the same traffic jam on his doorstep and even had to ask people to move so he could gain access to the property. He might have been tired after a day’s training and perhaps fancied a quiet cuppa and some TV viewing, but the crowds gawping at him from outside made him want to turn the whole house around so he could escape the commotion outside his full length windows, a commotion that I was part of. The house should have represented a sort of freedom to the young footballer. Instead, it became a sort of prison and Best soon afterwards moved back to his Chorlton digs.

Years afterwards when I became a bus conductor and later a driver, the shift work seemed to spur my colleagues and me to seek out more and more social events. After an early shift we would spend afternoons at snooker and pool clubs and after a late shift we would go to late night bars and clubs that overlooked our bus uniforms. Sometimes we would take a nice shirt to put on in order to enter a smarter class of establishment. One night we went into a small place in Chorlton. I don’t remember the name but it was near to the old bus station. You had to climb up a set of stairs, knock on the door and a small hatch would open and a face would scrutinise you for a while. If you were known or looked not too thuggish, the door would open and the doorman would bid you to enter.

On this occasion my colleague, who was apparently a regular, vouched for me; we entered and went in search of the bar. The place as I remember was a series of small rooms. We ordered our drinks and went to take a look around, perhaps to see who was in; any friends or other bus colleagues. As we were about to enter one small room the landlady stopped us and said ‘George has had a bad day at training today so don’t go mythering him.’ I looked through the open door and there was George Best himself. He was sitting with a small group of friends or acquaintances and was chatting and drinking something that looked like lemonade but could easily have been a vodka.

That was my last personal encounter with George Best. Like many I watched his decline with increasing sadness. He was sacked by Manchester United and when Sir Matt Busby retired, a number of subsequent managers tried to wrestle Best back into the United fold but with only limited success. ‘Best misses Training’ seemed to be a regular headline in the Manchester Evening News and finally George played his last game for United. The incredible gaze of the media made life so very hard for George. I can’t think of any other footballer of the time whose life was under such an intense media spotlight. Once, when he had missed training, the press tracked him down to actress Sinead Cusack’s London flat and numerous bulletins were broadcast from outside the building. Best must have watched the TV news with horror.

Perhaps experiences like that drove him to drink. Perhaps he just liked the night life too much. Perhaps the descent into alcoholism was something George never even noticed, a gradual slide that saw heavy drinking become something else. There is a scene in ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ that I’ve always found very telling. Chief Bromden, an apparently deaf and dumb native American Indian tells the story of his father’s drinking.

The last time I seen my father, he was blind and diseased from drinking. And every time he put the bottle to his mouth, he didn’t suck out of it, it sucked out of him until he shrunk so wrinkled and yellow even the dogs didn’t know him.’

George moved to the USA and played for a number of teams over there when ‘soccer’ as the Americans call it was gaining popularity. He battled with his problems for a long time after marrying his wife Angie and having a son but the booze would always be in the background. I watched a BBC documentary a while ago where Angie recounted a story about when she was taking her son to hospital in heavy rain. She drove past a man, drenched to the skin walking home drunk. She realised two things. One, the man was George, Two, she was finished with him.

George Best died of multiple organ failure after a kidney infection in 2005.


If you liked this post you can read more about Manchester in the 1970’s in my book Floating in Space. Click the links at the top of the page to find out more or watch the video below.

Elvis, Charlie Chaplin, and Justin Beiber.

Elvis, Charlie Chaplinand Justin BeiberAs I’ve mentioned many times before, I write because I’m a writer. That’s what I do, I write and I’ve been writing since I was a school kid. Something else that comes hand in hand with writing is the idea that one day; one fine distant day, I might just get somewhere and get my book published and actually become an actual fully fledged, bona fide writer. Of course, when that happens it will bring a degree of fame which I can imagine being pretty nice. You know what I mean, going into a restaurant and the staff know me and say stuff like ‘the manager would like you to have this bottle of expensive wine on the house’, and ‘could you sign this menu’ and people asking you for an autograph and maybe being interviewed on TV about my latest book (whoa, steady on there!) Anyway, stuff like that.

Of course fame in some ways can be something of a prison. I don’t think life was that great for Elvis Presley for instance. Elvis turned his whole life upside down to escape the pressures of fame. He slept all day and came awake at night. He would hire a whole cinema to run the latest movie for him and his friends. He hired bowling alleys and fairgrounds to open up, during the night, just so he could enjoy life away from the attention of his fans.

picture from flickr

picture from flickr

Another famous man and probably the most famous man there ever was, was Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin had a fame almost a hundred years ago that perhaps no one will ever realise again because Chaplin’s movies went all around the globe. People anywhere could understand Chaplin because his movies were silent. All you needed to understand them was the universal language of laughter. People in Russia, Japan, China, the Ukraine and countless places across the globe laughed and cried with Charlie, as well as moviegoers from the USA and Europe.

Chaplin became a rich man and he hung on to his riches by building his own studio and producing and directing all his films. He did one other thing as well. In an age when a movie had a shelf life of a few months at the most, when no one thought about saving or preserving films for another age of moviegoers, Charlie did just that, he secured the rights to the negatives of all his movies and ensured they lived on into the age of TV, video, DVD, and the modern digital age.

I do love the Golden age of Hollywood and do think sometimes about visiting America to see Chasens’, Romanovs, The Brown Derby, Schwab’s drugstore, Pickfair, The Goldwyn Studios, and even Chaplin’s old studio that he built for himself on the corner of La Brea and Sunset in Hollywood in 1917.

The thing is, out of the above list only one remains. Chaplin’s studios, now owned by Jim Henson and complete with a statue of Kermit the frog on the front gate, in Chaplin’s tramp costume of course.

Who today has the fame that Chaplin enjoyed? Well, out of interest I did a quick search on google and the results were these; Number 1 is Michael Jackson even though he is no longer with us, followed by Lady Gaga, Justin Beiber and Jennifer Aniston. Completing the top ten are Eminem, Johnny Depp, Will Smith, Katy Perry, Beyoncé and Leonardo DiCaprio. Not a completely inspiring list is it? I wonder which of those celebrities, if any, will be fondly remembered in 2114?


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