I was eight years old when I heard the news about John Lennon. My father had obviously not left home yet: he was still in bed with my mother; they were having their morning tea. It was customary in those days for my brother and I to bombard our parents at the crack of dawn with the thoughtless exuberance of the not yet jaded. My father was jaded though, and his response to the news was nothing out of the ordinary.
“Bloody hell,” he said. “That’s just bloody typical.”
He was not surprised; he was merely disgusted.
“John Lennon is dead,” I heard the newsreader say, his disembodied voice crackling over the airwaves. “The former Beatle was shot four times in the back at point blank range as his wife Yoko looked on…”
It was the way he said it that made me take notice.
“John Lennon is dead.”
Not “John Lennon passed away in hospital last night after being shot outside his apartment building in New York”; not “John Lennon has died at the age of forty, a victim of a crazed gunman”: No.
John Lennon Is Dead.
It sounded so final, like the lid being slammed shut on a coffin. It also sounded like this John Lennon was a man of importance; that the world had lost someone of priceless and infinite value.
“…the killer has been named as Mark David Chapman, a twenty-five year old born-again Christian and Beatles fan from Fort Worth, Texas…”
“Who’s John Lennon, Dad?”
“Who was John Lennon. He’s dead.”
“Who was he then?”
“He was one of the Beatles.”
“What are the Beatles?”
“They were a pop group. You know who the Beatles are. They always show their films over Christmas.”
“Oh, I know. There’s four of them.”
“That’s right. They sang that song ‘Help’. You know the one.”
“Help, I need somebody, help, not just…”
“Yes, that one.”
“…you like the Beatles, don’t you, Dad.”
“They were alright. Actually I much preferred Elvis Presley.”
“Oh, I thought the Beatles were much nicer,” said my mother, “in fact I think I’ve got nearly all of their records downstairs. I always thought Elvis was a bit… well, greasy. The Beatles, well, they were cleaner and just… nicer. And Trini Lopez. He was nice, too. He sang ‘If I Had a Hammer’.”
“…Chapman remained at the scene after the shooting, sitting down to read a book while he waited for the arrival of the police.”
The book was The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, in which the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, saves the children in a field of rye from straying too near to the edge of the cliff, at the bottom of which awaits adulthood, the loss of innocence, and “phoniness”. Chapman identified himself completely with the character, and saw it as his purpose to defend the world from this phoniness. A born-again Christian and megalomaniac who had largely fried his brains with mescaline, acid and smack, he decided that he needed to make an example of someone; to kill a phony.
It wasn’t too difficult for him to decide upon a target. There were other people on his list, notably David Bowie, but let’s face it: it wasn’t Bowie who had claimed in 1966 that his band were “bigger than Jesus”, was it? It wasn’t Bowie who sang “imagine no possessions” while living in a sprawling mansion (with moat) in Weybridge, was it?
No, it was that impudent Lennon; Lennon, the hero who had let him down; Lennon, who had lied to him, for fuck’s sake.
The guy clearly needed to die.
Mum didn’t have “nearly all” of the Beatles’ records downstairs (they made thirteen albums), but she did have three: “With the Beatles”, “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Rubber Soul”, and fucking ace they were, too. I’d never heard anything like it. All I’d heard up to this point were horribly bearded MOR groups like Abba and the Brotherhood of Man, who all wore spandex bodystockings and platformed shoes. I’d heard better sounding dogshit. The Beatles blew my head off. They were what I’d been waiting for.
In 1981 Chapman was convicted of second degree murder, and sentenced to a minimum of 20 years confinement at Attica State Prison, where he still resides.
“He told us to imagine no possessions, and there he was, with millions of dollars and yachts and farms and country estates, laughing at people like me who had believed the lies and bought the records and built a big part of their lives around his music.” – Mark David Chapman