Robert Hilburn's memoir: John Lennon remaking himself, then gone
A reporter remembers the news of a legend's death and the quiet, tearful moments with Yoko Ono afterward.
NIGHTFALL: Yoko Ono is aided by a policeman and record producer David Geffen, right, as she leaves New York's Roosevelt Hospital after John Lennon's murder on Dec. 8, 1980. (Associated Press)
In 1980, after 10 years at The Times, I was at a crossroads in my personal life. I loved my family, but I was also so obsessive about my work that I found myself devoting more and more time to it. I wanted to be everywhere there was a good story, and that meant I had to choose between that and being with the family on important days. I saw how Bruce Springsteen gave all of himself to his work and I bought into it. Finally, my wife and I separated.
To get away, I flew to Memphis for a week's vacation and spent the whole time working on some stories I had long wanted to do. I pored over local newspaper articles from the 1950s at the library, for a story about the social and cultural mood of the city when Elvis emerged with his first recording in 1954. I also interviewed soul singer Al Green and stayed up until almost dawn one night interviewing one of my heroes, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips.
I was exhausted on a flight home and happy to find a row with three vacant seats, which allowed me to stretch out and sleep. I didn't wake up until the wheels were touching the runway in Los Angeles. I was still rubbing my eyes when a stewardess said I was supposed to phone the city desk at The Times as soon as I got to the terminal. I assumed there must be some fast-breaking news, perhaps even an accident at the airport. I went to the pay phones and called the paper. A voice said gently, "John Lennon was shot to death in New York, apparently by some crazy fan outside his apartment building."
I was stunned, but not in the same way I had been when I'd learned of Elvis' death. I'd been at home when that news came on television and I'd felt like a part of me died. This time, I thought about how hard John had fought not to end up another rock 'n' roll tragedy. I recalled those lines from the Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem. But there wasn't time to dwell on it. The editor wanted me to write an appreciation of John for the next day's paper and then go to New York to cover the funeral. So I rushed straight to the office. Normally, I try to outline a story before actually writing it, but this time I just started writing. I wanted the appreciation to be straight from my heart. I wrote about how we were accustomed to tragic deaths in rock -- Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Keith Moon -- but that John's death didn't fit the pattern. He wasn't a victim of rock excesses.
I continued with something John had said just two weeks before by phone. He was excited that the new single "(Just Like) Starting Over" was already in the Top 10. "It's still a thrill to hear your record on the radio," he said. "It sort of finally makes the music real to me even though I've heard the song a million times by now in the studio." John was also touched by the way disc jockeys were responding to his return. "When they play the song, the DJs don't have to say anything, but they've been saying all sorts of wonderful things. That makes me feel like they really like it. Yoko and I are so excited that we're going right back in the studio to begin working on the next album. I feel just like a kid again."
I ended the appreciation with what had been my last question to John. I had wanted a feel-good quote to end that earlier story, so I asked him if this was a good time for him. His answer: "The best."
Six hours later, I was on a plane to New York.
I spent most of the flight writing down thoughts about John and going through the notes from my various interviews with him. In the final interview, we had talked about Elvis, which led to John talking about the concept of death. At the Dakota, he had pointed out all the Elvis records on the jukebox. "Everybody tried to contact me when he died, but I was still doing my Greta Garbo disappearing act," he said. "I nearly opened my mouth and said something, but I was in the mountains in Japan and that helped me maintain my distance. It's hard for me to speak about death. I have had so much death around me. My mother was killed in an auto accident; Stuart Sutcliffe [a musician and close friend in the early days of the Beatles] died of a brain tumor. So did Len Gray, another guy in one of our groups. Buddy Holly died when I was in art school. They all affected me, but I can't find a way to put the feeling into words. It's like you lose a piece of yourself each time it happens."
Looking at those notes, I thought about how Memphis had mourned so visibly following Elvis' death. I hoped that New York, which often struck me as a cold, anonymous place, would also show some sentiment. I checked into my usual hotel near Central Park and phoned Elliot Mintz, John's friend, who normally stayed across the street at the Plaza. He wasn't in, so I left a message that I was in town and wanted him to tell Yoko that my prayers were with her. Then I put down the phone, lay on the bed, and waited. Finally, Elliot called. "I gave Yoko your message and she would like to see you at the Dakota."
What did that mean? Did she want to see me as a friend or as a journalist who could relay her feelings to John's fans? I picked up my wallet and notebook, but I left the tape recorder on the bed. I didn't want to send Yoko the wrong signal.
I took a cab to the Dakota, where there was a large crowd of fans in the street singing John's songs and staring up at Yoko's window. Elliot was waiting at the entrance to escort me past the security guards. I wanted most of all to hug Yoko and tell her how much I missed John and about how people, including those in my office, were so deeply touched by his music. But I knew how strong Yoko is -- it was one of the things John so liked about her, needed from her -- and I vowed to stay calm. Elliot led me into the living room and said he'd see if Yoko was ready to see me. Sean, who was 5, was in the apartment with Julian, John's son from his first marriage.
When Elliot returned, he led me to Yoko's room. The curtains were drawn and Yoko was sitting up in bed, a cigarette in her hand and the covers pulled up around her. I could see the tear stains on her cheeks. I could also hear the fans below singing, but the words were indistinguishable. It just sounded like mournful tribal chanting.
I didn't know what to say, so I just sat on the bed and reached out and hugged her. I fought hard not to cry myself. Elliot stood next to the bed as Yoko started talking. She told about how hard it was to accept that John wasn't here with us and she said some sweet things about John's feelings for me. Then, she recounted the evening. "It was so sudden . . . so sudden," she said. "We had planned to go out to eat after leaving the recording studio, but we decided to go straight home instead. We were walking to the entrance of the building when I heard the shot. I didn't realize at first that John had been hit. He kept walking. Then, he fell and I saw the blood."
She sighed and leaned back. Finally, she looked over at the drapes and said how sweet the music sounded, how nice the fans were to come by. She said she wished she could speak to them all, but she knew that would be crazy. But I had the feeling that what she said next was what she would have said to them: "The future is still ours to make. The '80s will blossom if only people accept peace and love in their hearts. It would just add to the tragedy if people turned away from the message in John's music."
I asked her if she would like me to put that quote in the paper -- the idea of not giving up -- and she said that would be nice. She also said she hoped that people wouldn't blame New York City for John's murder. "People say that there is something wrong with New York, that it's sick, but John loved New York. He'd be the first one to say it wasn't New York's fault. There can be one crank anywhere."
By now, I had my notebook out. Yoko paused, and I could imagine her trying to think of what else John would have wanted her to say. After a slight pause, she said, "We had planned on so much together." She was now crying. "We had talked about living until we were 80. We even drew up lists of all the things we could do together for all those years. Then, it was over. But that doesn't mean the message should be over. The music will live on."
I was in the room for probably 10 minutes, but it felt like an hour. I took a cab back to the hotel, where I borrowed a typewriter in the manager's office and wrote the story for the next day's paper. I was so concerned that everything be true to Yoko's feelings that I requested that a copy editor read me the headline before the paper went to print, something writers rarely do because the headline choice belongs to the copy desk. But the copy editor understood the sensitivity involved and read me the headline that would appear on Page 1: "A Time for Love, Not Hate: Yoko Hopes the World Will Let It Be, Let It Be." I was so stressed that I didn't even think about "Let It Be" being a Paul McCartney song. The spirit felt right, so I said the headline was fine.
Yoko had decided there would be no public service for John. She wanted to avoid the circus-like atmosphere that had surrounded Elvis' funeral. She asked that people join in a silent, 10-minute prayer vigil Sunday, "wherever you are." But New York Mayor Ed Koch felt there should be a public tribute, so he invited fans to join Sunday near the band shell in Central Park. I decided to stay and cover the Sunday memorial -- and was touched by how the city was moved by John's death. Wherever I walked, I felt the impact. There were conversations everywhere -- in the subways, coffee shops, hotel lobbies. The words I heard most often were "sad" and "why?" John's death knocked the wind out of New York City as much as Elvis' had Memphis, which I would have loved to have been able to tell him because of how much he loved Elvis.
On the day of the prayer vigil, visitors in the heart of Manhattan didn't need to ask for directions, they just followed the crowd. Unlike the hysterical weeping that I'd seen in Memphis in 1977, the audience on Sunday was more subdued, listening to Lennon songs over a loudspeaker. Some held signs, offering messages like "Just Give Peace a Chance" and, inevitably, "We Love You, John." At 2 p.m., the crowd began its silent prayer. This was the day's most emotional moment. Midway through the silence, a photographer in the roped-off press area stopped taking photos of weeping mourners and retreated behind a parked truck to cry himself.
One thing troubled me on the flight back to Los Angeles. Had I been honorable in contacting Yoko? I had wanted to express my feelings to her about her and John, but I also hoped deep in my heart that she had wanted me to write a story. I remained anxious until the day a card arrived from Yoko.
It read "Thank you" and was signed "With love."
Excerpted from "Corn Flakes With John Lennon (And Other Tales From a Rock 'n' Roll Life)" by Robert Hilburn. Copyright Copyright 2009 by Robert Hilburn. Permission granted by Rodale Inc., Emmaus, Pa. 18098.