The song was only six years old, but might just as well have been 60.
Walking out of a college dormitory after visiting a friend one December night 25 years ago, I heard John Lennon’s sweet song of longing, “.9 Dream,” wafting out from an open door. It sounded wonderful. It sounded odd.
Why would a radio station or stereo be playing that? So much had happened since. Disco. Punk rock. Lennon had reconciled with Yoko Ono after a separation and was only then beginning to publicly emerge from a period where he concentrated on home life more than music. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard the song.
I walked home. Then, when I saw a cluster of friends quietly gathered around a television set, the reason became sickeningly apparent.
It was Dec. 8, 1980. A mentally disturbed fan who had collected Lennon’s autograph earlier in the day waited outside of the Manhattan apartment building called the Dakota for the singer to return from a recording session. Mark David Chapman opened fire. Lennon didn’t survive the trip to the hospital.
The musical hero of a generation was dead, and anyone who had ever sang along to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or chanted “give peace a chance” also remembers where they were when they heard the news.
In his typically blunt manner, Lennon had told Beatles fans a decade earlier that “the dream is over.”
Now it really was.
McCartney: ‘I still miss him massively’Twenty-five years later, the day stands as a cultural black hole. Lennon became an instant legend, even more so than before, but it was hardly worth the price.
Millions of people who never met him felt they knew him, felt they knew all the Beatles. His music often felt like personal letters; on “Watching the Wheels” he explained why he needed to step off the merry-go-round of stardom. A friend was gone.
“I still miss him massively,” former songwriting partner Paul McCartney told The Associated Press. “It was a horrific day for all of us.”
That night, an ambitious young woman who had just moved to New York to make it as a singer or dancer was out walking a few blocks from Lennon’s home on the Upper West Side. She heard the sirens, saw a crowd beginning to gather. A curious Madonna joined them outside the Dakota.
“I remember walking up and going ‘What’s going on? What’s going on?”’ she recalled. “And they said John Lennon was shot. It was so weird.”
Madonna was a toddler during the feverish days of Beatlemania. But she later recorded Lennon’s utopian vision of a peaceful world, “Imagine,” which has matured into an anthem and, 25 years from now, will likely be Lennon’s best-remembered song.
Another version of “Imagine,” by country singer Dolly Parton, is in music stores now. In her own tribute, Parton shot part of a video for the song in Strawberry Fields, the Central Park memorial for Lennon. Sharp-eyed viewers will spot the Dakota in the background.
Parton had been on a plane from Nashville to Los Angeles the night Lennon was shot. She was supposed to go out with friends, but instead they all went to her house to watch the news and talk about it. “Everyone was so heartbroken,” she said.
“Like all young teenage girls back then, I fell in love with the Beatles,” she said. “Back there in the Smoky Mountains, it was like something had been dropped from outer space.”
Also in California, rock singer John Fogerty felt the loss of a kindred spirit. In 1969, Fogerty’s band Creedence Clearwater Revival had sold more records than the Beatles, then an astonishing accomplishment. But both men spent the latter half of the 1970s publicly silent; Fogerty because of a business dispute, Lennon because he was “watching the wheels.”
“I thought about him every day because he was that important to me,” he said. “I was still a recluse but I was working on music in some fashion every day, and I would say to myself, ‘I wonder what John Lennon is doing?’ For several years we didn’t hear from him and I would always think about that fact.”
From Neil Diamond to Fall Out BoySinger Neil Diamond had been in New York that December night for the premiere of his movie “The Jazz Singer.”
Diamond had been a struggling songwriter when the Beatles hit. No one was interested in hearing him sing. No one was particularly interested in his creativity, either: They just wanted him to churn out songs that sounded like current hits. The Beatles made it standard for musicians to interpret their own songs, and to experiment.
“Aside from being broken-hearted about the loss of this man, I felt I owed him something,” he said. “My life would not have been the same without the Beatles.”
Lennon’s music has even touched artists who weren’t alive when he was, like 21-year-old singer Patrick Stump of the hit pop-punk band Fall Out Boy.
“It is like the Bible,” he said. “You can’t cite it without sounding cliched, but here’s the thing, there’s a reason why it’s so citable like that. His body of work was so interesting and had so many valid points.”
What has the world missed in 25 years without John Lennon?
Yoko Ono has grown old without a husband; she still lives in the Dakota and is the caretaker of the work he left behind. Sean Lennon grew up without a dad. He’s tried music, too.
John’s legacy remains frozen in time and, like James Dean’s or Kurt Cobain’s, burnished by sudden death far too young. Lennon didn’t grow old in the spotlight, didn’t have to contend with tired “steel wheelchairs” jokes like his peers in the Rolling Stones. He didn’t have to watch his talent fade, his instincts betray him or hear the whispers that he’d lost it. McCartney could tell him a few things about that.
It’s impossible to predict from his catalogue where his muse would have taken him.
Truth be told, his track record as a solo artist was wildly uneven in style and quality. The brutal confessional of “The Plastic Ono Band” was followed by the perfectly polished “Imagine.” There’s the leftist screeds in “Some Time in New York City,” the tired wistfulness on “Walls and Bridges” and the domesticated work he made at the end.
Even during the Beatles’ intense creative period, author Bob Spitz in this fall’s new “The Beatles: The Biography” portrays Lennon as tormented by personal demons and drug abuse. Would it have crippled him as he got older?
“The level of engagement wouldn’t have gone away,” said music journalist Alan Light. “If he was going to be an activist, he would have been all the way an activist. If he was going to be a father, he would have been all the way a father.”
Lennon clearly had courage as an artist. He wasn’t afraid to mess up, or to speak up. Lennon mocked Bob Dylan with a song, “Serve Yourself,” when he didn’t like “Gotta Serve Somebody.” It’s not too hard to envision him making his own cracks about the Stones during their dreary years. Few others today have the stature or nature to speak up with a contrarian word, and know they’ll be listened to.
By moving to New York and walking the streets, Lennon always seemed more accessible, more human than his peers, Light said. No one had more reason to fear the warped effect of fandom than the four men who lived through the hysteria of Beatlemania. Living outside of a bubble made Lennon a target.
Chapman remains in New York’s Attica state prison, where his third request for parole was denied in October. Ono wrote to the parole board urging he not be released. Chapman won’t be eligible for parole again for two years.
A legacy of Lennon’s death is a lingering uncertainty among musicians about being in public. Tom Araya, lead singer of Slayer, admitted that he’s “a little more cautious, conscious of his surroundings” than he might have been otherwise.
Losing the partner to whom he’s wedded in history has been difficult for McCartney, in ways he could and could not control. With Lennon lionized, McCartney’s reputation shrank in comparison. For a while, it became LENNON-McCartney.
It was unfair, and has since been corrected, but not before breeding an unwarranted insecurity. McCartney has spent years seemingly saying, “Hey, I was cool, too.” Light was struck by how McCartney opens his current concert tour with a video reminding fans of his Beatles exploits, when the music can speak for itself.
“He just digs himself deeper into a hole no matter when he does it,” Light said.
If Lennon had lived, McCartney said he believes they would have written songs together again. It all depended on the state of their relationship, badly frayed in the Beatles’ fracture, but improving at the time of Lennon’s death.
“We were having long telephone conversations about his cats and baking bread,” McCartney said. “Ordinary things, which I think easily could have led us into being mates again.”
After seven years of studying the Beatles, author Spitz said he doubted it. Lennon had left the Beatles behind and hadn’t gone back before he died. The closest the world got was when McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr transformed Lennon leftovers “Free As a Bird” and “Real Love” into “Beatles” songs.
“I always assumed I would meet him,” Fogerty said. “And when they are gone from you, you’re almost overcome with the sense that you never got to say goodbye. I never got to touch base from my heart to his heart and I’m sure that millions of us felt the same way.”
Lennon’s words from “.9 Dream” still echo.
“So long ago. Was it in a dream? Was it just a dream?”