The Rather Strange Last Day In The Life of John Lennon

John Lennon (left) signs an autograph for Mark David Chapman hours before Chapman fatally shot him. (files-UPI)

First, the facts as they are known

John Lennon was born in 1940 and died in 1980, 2 months after his 40th birthday. It’s fair to say that he packed a lot of living into his half-a-lifetime, and it’s also universally acknowledged that his death in New York on Monday December 8th 1980 came as a huge shock worldwide, prompting a mass outpouring of grief which seemed to be particularly strong in America, more so than in England, the place of Lennon’s birth. Inevitably, there have been rumours about whether it really was a ‘lone assassin’, as seems to be so often the case in high-profile American murder cases, or another hand, but it’s fair to say that Lennon and Yoko Ono almost certainly didn’t know that anything out of the ordinary was going to happen on that day.

What’s also strange about that day is that it seemed to play out as both a microcosm of and epilogue to Lennon’s life, as will be seen. It might be expected that on an otherwise ordinary day in the life of a rock superstar, the star himself would not be particularly visible, and we probably wouldn’t have photos of him, audio of his voice or a picture of him signing an autograph for a fan, but we have all three and more. Lennon’s movements on that day, up to the moment of truth, are now well-known . He started the day with coffee at La Fortuna, a favourite local cafe of his, and the events of the rest of the day make quite eerie reading in retrospect.

The haircut

Fairly innocuous in itself, but Lennon happened to choose this day to have a throwback 50’s-style, faux Teddy Boy haircut, as well as wearing a leather jacket throughout the day. The 50’s were his years of teenage development, the seminal period of his life, and his love for Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and the rest were some of the main reasons why ultimately The Beatles happened. He had recently taken to wearing his old school tie, and had recorded his comeback single, (Just Like) Starting Over, in a vocal style that he called ‘Elvis-Orbison’.

The photoshoot

In the late morning, John and Yoko did a photo session with well-known New York photographer Annie Liebowitz. Easily the most famous shot to emerge from this session was one of a fully-naked John Lennon in a foetal embrace with a fully-clad Yoko Ono. ‘That’s it!, that’s our relationship’ said Lennon after the photo had been posed for.

The idea of being a naked ‘artist’, both literally, artistically and spiritually, had been perhaps the second great theme of his life and work, after rock’n’roll. In the mid-60’s, after the thrill of Beatles fame had long since become more of an empty irritation than a glorious thrill, he had gone into a drug-addled period of seclusion, broken only by Beatle commitments, before he started a relationship with Yoko who, like her or hate her, did seem to bring him back to life. From then to the end of his life, he considered himself an artist, open to ideas and willing to lay himself bare, literally or otherwise, before his audience. He had of course been pictured naked before, with Yoko in a similar state, for the cover of their barely-listenable ‘concept art’ album, ‘Two Virgins’. At that time, the picture seemed to be of two people reduced to a child-like state of innocence in the glow of their new love, but 12 years later, with Lennon alone in the virginal state and having dubbed Yoko ‘mother’ some years back, the balance of power in their relationship seemed clear. John and Yoko had also recently shot a video of them naked, simulating love-making, to promote one of their latest songs.

The interview

Between 1-4pm on December 8th 1980, Dave Sholin became the recipient of John Lennon’s final interview, held in one of the vast rooms of John and Yoko’s many apartments in the Gothic Dakota building, located at West 72nd Street, New York, and formerly the setting for the film ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, made in 1968 by Roman Polanski. One year after the film, Polanski’s pregnant wife Sharon Tate was butchered by the Manson family, who wrote in Tate’s blood near her body, ‘Helter Skelter’, the name of a Beatles song from their most-recent album. Lennon was late getting back for the interview, apologising and announcing that Annie Liebowitz had wanted ‘one more shot’ before he was free to leave. Yoko had taken the floor before his arrival.

In the 3-hour Sholin interview, John Lennon, with literally hours to live, ran through a potted history of his whole life, from his troubled family history to the famous meetings with Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono to his hopes for the future of himself and mankind. Towards the end of the interview, John Lennon announced that ‘i always consider my work to be one piece, and it won’t be finished until i’m dead and buried and i hope that’s a long, long time’. Lennon seemed upbeat to all who knew him at this time, while others believe he was actually clinically depressed and addicted to very potent pharmaceuticals. His excessively thin frame was either the result of a healthy diet or heroin. At this very moment in time, a 25-year-old from Georgia, now based in Hawaii, a world away from the superstar John Lennon in terms of status and the love of others, was very close to him, standing outside the Dakota apartment chatting to other fans as well as an amateur photographer of Lennon’s acquaintance called Paul Goresh. Mark David Chapman, by his own admission, was holding a gun in his pocket in the crisp December air, waiting for one of the voices in his head, God or Satan, to step forward and help determine the course of his actions and his and Lennon’s destinies, just as Lennon spoke those last words. (john appears at around 3m30 of part 4)

The autograph

At around 5pm, Lennon’s and Chapman’s worlds collided for the first time. John Ono Lennon, world superstar and cultural icon, a man prone to depression and mood swings, stepped out of the Dakota apartments with his wife on his way to a recording studio. Mark David Chapman, a nobody who’d previously attempted suicide and was a man prone to depression and mood swings, stood outside the same building. Suddenly, out of nowhere, there he was, the superstar, the icon, and Chapman froze. His first instinct was not to draw his gun. He simply froze, like any awed fan face-to-face with John Lennon. He’d bought Lennon’s latest album, Double Fantasy, the day before, and as Lennon approached, he wordlessly thrust the album in front of him. Lennon dutifully signed the album ‘John Lennon 1980’. Amateur photographer Goresh, an opportunist who had once posed as a delivery man in order to get into the Dakota, saw his opportunity and snapped the final pictures of John Lennon alive, signing an autograph for the man who would soon end his life. In the picture (below), Chapman’s smile/smirk could be equally interpreted as a devilish appreciation of what was to happen later or simply that of a fan, his demons temporarily set aside, happy to get his album signed by the man himself. One source has stated that Chapman asked Lennon for a job during their encounter, but this is unverified. It’s also been written that after giving the autograph, Lennon asked Chapman, ‘is that all you want?’ , and some even go further and have Lennon asking him a second time and there being a moment suspended in time, as if Lennon had some mystical (or at least vibrational) awareness of something ‘fated’.

The recording session

John Lennon went to the Hit Factory to record guitar on Yoko Ono’s ‘Walking On Thin Ice’, his final contribution to the music business.

Chapman waited with Goresh, who eventually left for the night. Many hours later, at 10.50pm, Chapman saw Lennon’s limousine approach from the distance and park by the kerb outside the Dakota. Yoko got out first, quite a way ahead of John and passed Chapman. Lennon passed him next and may or may not have acknowledged him, and at this point Chapman fired the shots heard around the world. Lennon’s painfully thin frame was no match for the hollow-point bullets of the .38 Charter Arms pistol, which ripped through him and sealed his fate. He had enough left to moan ‘i’m shot’ but was D.O.A. at nearby Roosevelt Hospital 20 minutes later. As if the day couldn’t get any stranger, Chapman, upon shooting the star, simply put the smoking gun down by his feet and started reading ‘The Catcher In The Rye’ by J.D. Salinger, a book he had become seemingly obsessed with over the previous 2 years. 

So John Lennon, sporting his vintage rock’n’roll haircut and leather jacket, having given the world a final set of pictures and a retrospective interview encompassing most of his life story, and signed an autograph for the worst kind of fan, was gone.

As a final expression of how media-dominated the world had become even then, there was one more John Lennon photo taken that day before his cremation (caution-grisly)

The world chose to remember him as a saint, something that Astrid Kirchherr, who’d befriended the young Beatles in Hamburg, thought he would have found quite amusing. 

Chapman has now served 30 years in Attica Prison, mostly in solitary confinement. Such is the nature of his crime and the person he killed, he will probably never be released. Is this right, when others have done similar things to nobodies and served far less time? It is thought that if he was released, one of those misguided Beatles fans, young or old, who really thinks that John Lennon wrote songs for them and them alone, might earn themselves a life sentence for an act of retribution. It should be remembered that in the end, however gifted, John Lennon was just a man, all too human, so perhaps this is above all a story of the power of celebrity.


As if the story needed any more bizarre twists, how about this recollection from a rock journalist interviewing David Bowie recently.

‘I’ve been rattled more than once by a revelation from a musician for which there had been no previous report , but none more sobering than the one David Bowie gave me when the recording machine was turned off : according to Bowie , New York City police discovered that his name was second on a hitlist of targets of John Lennon’s assassin , Mark David Chapman .

At the time of Lennon’s December 8 , 1980 murder outside of his Manhattan apartment , David Bowie was starring just blocks away on Broadway in the play “The Elephant Man” . “I was second on his list,” Bowie told me in the New York studio we shared near Madison Square Garden . “Chapman had a front-row ticket to ‘The Elephant Man’ the next night . John and Yoko were supposed to sit front-row for that show, too. So the night after John was killed there were three empty seats in the front row . I can’t tell you how difficult that was to go on . I almost didn’t make it through the performance .”

The irony is that David Bowie’s first #1 hit “Fame” , from the Young Americans album , was co-written with Lennon who also played guitar on the track  . And it was indeed their fame as rock stars which drew Mark David Chapman to stalk them, and subsequently, to murder Lennon.’