One of the photos from Annie Leibovitz' photo session with John Lennon and Yoko Ono on December 8, 1980 (above). The photo is one of the few John allowed taken without his sunglasses - or at least his glasses.
The last day of John Lennon’s life is probably one of the most documented days of his life. Where he went, who he saw, have pretty much been covered with photos and audio. Yet there are things that even a Lennophile like I discover 29 years after that unusually warm December night in New York City. I knew that Lennon and Yoko Ono had a lengthy photo session with now-famed photographer Annie Leibovitz on December 8th. The photos Leibovitz took that day have become some of the most-often utilized images of John through the years. The photos show a very thin, but otherwise healthy-looking John, in rare photos without his glasses. That very morning – specifically for Leibovitz’ photo shoot - John had his hair cut and styled in the mode of a ‘Teddy-Boy’ from the 1950s. The fact that the last images of him would look uncannily like photos of him in Hamburg in 1960, with the leather jacket and Teddy-Boy cut, provided a strange, macabre “circle-of-life” quality to them. He would die looking much like he had 20 years earlier.
The morning started with breakfast at La Fortuna, on Columbus Avenue, in New York City. After the haircut, John and Yoko returned to the Dakota, where Leibovitz soon arrived. The photos were to be for an upcoming Rolling Stone piece. Leibovitz had promised John that a photo of both of them – John and Yoko – would make the cover. John became suspicious, however, when Leibovitz initially tried to get a picture with just John alone. John’s intuition was right: Leibovitz would later recall that "nobody wanted [Ono] on the cover". John agreed to some solo shots but made Leibovitz promise that it would John and Yoko on the cover.
Toward the end of the photo shoot, Yoko left the apartment to head downstairs for a scheduled interview she and John had with the RKO Network. John stayed behind to allow Leibovitz to have her solo photos.
By this time, Mark Chapman had secured his ‘usual’ place in front of the Dakota. He had been there the entire previous weekend. Chapman had with him a gun, and he intended to shoot John the moment he saw him. Recently, I learned that Chapman and Lennon had already had an encounter - on December 7th. While there were always ‘Dakota Groupies’ waiting for John, there was also an unspoken rule that the fans gave John his space. What made Chapman stand out that day in Yoko’s mind – after the murder – was that Chapman came very close, almost face-to-face and began taking photographs “John got angry and ran after him to try to take the camera, though I shouted to him not to do it,” Yoko told author Philip Norman. “[John] didn’t get the camera, and when he came back he said, ‘If anyone gets me, it’s going to be a fan.’”
That would be the first of three encounters with Chapman. The second occurred around 5:30 pm on December 8th, as John and Yoko left the Dakota for a recording session. Chapman was waiting for them, his revolver resting in his left-hand pocket. He had intended to kill Lennon there and then. But when John graciously signed Chapman’s copy of Double Fantasy and then asked him if there was anything else he [Chapman] wanted signed, Chapman was too taken aback to pull out the gun. Over the next six hours, Chapman would not stray far from that spot, waiting for John to return from the session.
I also recently learned that Chapman had actually flown from Hawaii to New York to kill Lennon on November 1, 1980. He had purchased a gun in Hawaii but, for some reason, no ammunition. He had spent much of the previous three months behaving even more oddly than usual. His wife would watch him every evening as he turned out the lights, lit candles and played Beatles records endlessly, chanting “John Lennon must die”. When he got to New York City in early November, Chapman found that he could not buy ammunition because he did not have a license to carry in the state of New York. Frustrated, Chapman got in contact with an old friend- now a gun collector - from his days growing up in Georgia. Chapman flew there, spent a few days with his friend “catching up”. Chapman then asked to borrow some bullets. He told his friend he wanted hollow-point bullets – the kind that explode on impact – and told the friend he was headed back to New York and needed them for protection. His friend handed him the bullets that would end John Lennon’s life.
Chapman flew back to New York with the intention of killing John Lennon on November 6th. That day, however, Chapman decided to take in a movie before killing John. Chapman went to a nearby theater. The film? Ordinary People. The movie – about the accidental death of the older son of an affluent family and how it effects the relationships among the bitter mother, the good-natured father, and the guilt-ridden younger son - so touched Chapman that he “snapped out” of his homicidal stupor and decided he could not kill John Lennon. He flew back to Hawaii, where he told his wife where he had been and what he had planned to do. Unbelievably, considering the behavior she had witnessed and now the fact that her husband was telling her he had gone to New York to kill John Lennon, his wife did nothing. She told no one. Worse, when Chapman told her in early December that he was heading back to New York, she did nothing. Chapman told her he’d gotten rid of the gun.
I also did not know that Mark Chapman and Gloria Hiroko Chapman are still married. Indeed, since 1992, Chapman has been receiving conjugal visits with Gloria, as part of the "Family Reunion" program at Attica State Prison, where Chapman is held. There, the Chapmans are allowed to spend nearly two consecutive days with each other in a private setting. According to prison spokesperson Erik Kriss, the goal of the program is to help strengthen relationships that may have become strained due to imprisonment. There is no such balm available for Yoko Ono, whose relationship was 'strained' permanently by Chapman. As for Gloria Chapman, how this woman has lived with the fact that she could have prevented John Lennon's murder is a testimonial to the fact that some people simply have no conscience.
In addition to the photos with Leibovitz, the other noted event in John’s last day was an interview with RKO Radio. RKO was the first commercial radio network to distribute its programming entirely by satellite. When it began operations on October 1, 1979, it was the first new full-service American radio network in 40 years. Satellite distribution allowed high-fidelity stereo programming to its affiliates, and by December 1980 it was the place to do promotional jaunts on the radio, as it would hit a nationwide audience.
I’d actually heard the interview - as it was aired on December 14, 1980 – back in 1988, when it was rebroadcast. Some of the quotes from that interview have been used innumerable times – particularly in The Beatles Anthology. It was an amazing interview, made incredibly macabre by what you know will happen a few short hours from that point. I recently discovered that the interview took place immediately before John’s autograph-signing encounter with Chapman on December 8th, which was captured by another ‘Dakota Groupie’, Paul Goresh. Indeed, the crew from RKO was right there with John as he encountered Chapman. The limousine that was due to take John and Yoko to the recording studio never showed. The RKO crew offered to take John and Yoko, in their rented limo, to the recording studio on their way to the airport to fly back to San Francisco.
The RKO interview took place in the first floor offices that John and Yoko had in the Dakota. Chapman was waiting outside, no more than 100 yards from where John and Yoko were talking. A few weeks ago, I found the entire 2 ½ hours of tape the RKO crew recorded. It was posted on YouTube and must have come from the original tape recordings the RKO crew used. As I listened to the interview again the other day, it was even more chilling, knowing not only what would happen later that day, but that the man who would kill John was virtually on the other side of the wall waiting to do it while John spoke.
Listening to the raw tapes was surreal. When the RKO crew arrived at the Dakota offices, they switched on the tape recorders and they stayed on during the pre-interview, the interview itself, and the post-interview, during which John graciously signed autographs for friends and family of the RKO crew.
It was an incredible experience to listen to the tapes. I was so affected by them that I decided I wanted to read the interview. Somewhere - it had to have been transcribed somewhere, right? Well, if it was, I haven’t been able to find it. The interview did make its way in the mid-1980s onto a bootleg double album. Someone had even written a screenplay based on the interview. But no transcript, at least not one of the entire 2 ½ hours of tape.
I decided I wanted to reproduce the transcript – word for word – here. So, the next group of posts are going to be that transcript. I have tried my best to capture all audible audio. I don’t know if you’ll find it as fascinating as I have, but ever since I heard the unedited version, it has been gnawing at me. I guess I feel that by transcribing it and putting it out there on the Internet, I am doing something for John.
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