FOR a multitude of baby boomers, the assassination of John Lennon 30 years ago [December 8] was akin to the murder of John F. Kennedy. They remember where they were when they heard the news that an apparently crazed gunman had claimed the life of an ex-Beatle, just weeks after the latter had broken five years of silence with an album extolling the virtues of private domesticity.
Just a few hours earlier, his assassin, Mark Chapman, had solicited an autograph for his copy of the album in question, Double Fantasy. “Is that all you want?” Lennon reportedly asked the chubby young man who had flown in from Hawaii with the intention of killing him. Chapman was still there when the musician and his wife, Yoko Ono, returned to their apartment near New York’s Central Park following a recording session. He went into a combat stance and pumped four bullets into Lennon, who was dead by the time he was taken to hospital.
The killer made no attempt to get away, or to shoot anyone else. One of the first things he reportedly told the police after they took him into custody was: “I acted alone.”
It was an intriguing claim, a pre-emptive response to a question that apparently had not been put to him. That same question had, of course, in the context of previous prominent assassinations in America: in the case of JFK and his brother Robert, as well as that of Martin Luther King Jr.
It did not take very long for rumours of a possible conspiracy to surface. Was Chapman, with his semi-mysterious background, a programmed killer acting on behalf of the CIA? There were those who contended that Lennon’s return to public life after a five-year hiatus had revived the fears of those who perceived him as a subversive threat in the early 1970s.
Back then, it had taken Lennon something like five years to obtain his green card. The Nixon administration was keen to deport him, ostensibly on account of a British conviction on drug charges, but it was more than obvious that what it really feared was his political influence. Lennon had been peripherally involved in political campaigns associated with the New Left in Britain before he decided to move to New York in 1971. His opposition to the war in Vietnam was hardly a secret, and on arriving in the US he fraternized with the Yippies and the Black Panthers.
He was hounded by the FBI, and the deportation proceedings appear to have been instigated, in part, by a complaint from Senator Strom Thurmond, a right-wing extremist of the racist variety. Many culturally prominent Americans were, however, willing to sign affidavits in support of Lennon’s right to settle in the US, and support also came from across the political spectrum. Meanwhile, on the advice of his lawyers, Lennon suspended his political activities even before he stopped making music.
He made no effort to return to either field after the courts, in 1976, eventually upheld his right to reside in the US. By then, following a fraught separation, Ono had borne him a son, and Lennon was evidently happy to stay at home and bake bread and care for the baby, while his wife attended to the business side of affairs.
At least one biographer and a few acquaintances have queried the notion that this was a calm and pleasant period in the ex-Beatle’s life, but evidence to the contrary has never been entirely convincing. The same goes for the theory that he was the victim of a CIA hit.
There was, after all, no reason whatsoever to assume that Lennon’s musical resurgence would presage a return to political activism. Double Fantasy reaffirmed that one of the most distinctive voices in rock’n’roll was still perfectly intact, but it hardly bears comparison with his best post-Beatles recordings, notably Plastic Ono Band and its sugar-coated sequel, Imagine. But, 30 years on, it remains difficult, if not impossible, to dissociate Double Fantasy from the profound tragedy that followed just weeks after its release in November 1980.
Lennon had just turned 40 when he was shot, and between the 70th anniversary of his birth last October and the 30th anniversary of his indubitably premature demise today, there has been a plethora of books, articles, documentaries and dramatizations – not to mention the arguably unnecessary re-release of remastered recordings. Ono maintains tight control of his legacy, and one of the byproducts has been a tendency to sanctify an individual who was, life most of us, deeply flawed – if also, unlike most of us, prodigiously talented.
One of the recent products, a book by Phil Strongman, challenges the accepted wisdom about Lennon’s death by questioning the assumptions about Chapman and resurrecting the theory that the musician was the victim of a state-sponsored conspiracy, going to the extent of suggesting that the fatal shots may in fact have been fired by the ex-Cuban doorman, now long dead, at the Dakota building where Lennon lived. The doorman, strongman claims, was once associated with the CIA.
That’s hardly implausible, but it’s best to be wary of conspiracy theories – be it JFK, John Lennon or 9/11 – that are not substantiated up by incontrovertible evidence. Unanswered questions – and there are plenty in all three cases – are insufficient grounds for accepting alternative versions of history.
It is intriguing, and perhaps even somewhat unnerving, that sections of the criminal investigation into Lennon’s death and parts of the FBI files on him from the previous decade remain secret. In the latter case, it has been claimed that the redacted bits, if revealed, could reflect on relations with foreign nations. It can now safely be said that they would hardly do more harm than the WikiLeaks documents.
It is unlikely, though, that the untold bits of his story would add very much to the Lennon legend.
For the record, I am among those who are able to relish Lennon’s voice, wit, lyricism, pacifist ideals and intermittent endeavours for a better world without falling into the trap of worshipping Saint John.