Remembering Dec. 8, 1980

Robert Altman, Lucianne Goldberg, Roger Ebert, Larry Flynt, T.C. Boyle, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michael Douglas and others recall how they felt when they heard the news of John Lennon's death.

Published December 8, 2000 3:43PM (EST)

Nearly everyone of a certain age remembers where they were on Dec. 8, 1980, when they learned of John Lennon's murder. That's hardly surprising. Whether or not you were a fan of the Beatles, of Lennon or of his bare-assed antiwar antics, his murder at the hands of a pathetic, deranged nebbish motivated by, of all things, J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye," marked the beginning of a long, bitter winter of liberal discontent in America. Ronald Reagan had just been elected, and the '70s were most certainly over. Lennon's demise at the age of 40 seemed to augur the death of all those hopes based on the premise that "love is the answer." No wonder it knocked the wind out of so many.

Adding to the pain and anger was the irony that Lennon had only recently emerged from several years of withdrawal to produce a new album, "Double Fantasy," the initial track of which was titled "(Just Like) Starting Over." The record contained a number of superlative songs, such as "Woman," "Watching the Wheels" and "Beautiful Boy." Lennon was still involved in a media blitz on its behalf when he was shot by Mark David Chapman at the entrance to New York's Dakota Building at 1 W. 72nd St., where he was living with his wife, Yoko Ono, and their son, Sean.

Friday is the 20th anniversary of Lennon's death. I asked a number of people to recall their memories of the event. Not all are Lennon fans, but their recollections reveal the significance of the former Beatle's death as one of those mental milestones by which we measure our lives.

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Robert Altman, film director

"Nashville" was sort of a harbinger of it. When John Lennon got assassinated, I got a call from a reporter at the Washington Post, and he asked, "Do you feel responsible for this?" I said, "How do you mean?" He said, "Well because in your film 'Nashville' you did an assassination of a celebrity." I told him, "That's what the film is all about -- do you feel responsible for not heeding my warning?"

Lucianne Goldberg, syndicated talk show host and publisher of

I live a few blocks from the Dakota on the Upper West Side. I first heard that John Lennon had been shot while I was sitting in a taxi. It was on the radio. The taxi was less than a block from the Dakota at the time. My first thought was, "Why would anyone want to kill John Lennon? He's just a West Side househusband." Yoko, I could have understood -- her music was awful. But John, then, was just the druggie Beatle who sat around a West Side pediatrician's office with his baby son and could be seen pushing a stroller in the park or schlumping out of the deli at West 72nd Street and Columbus Avenue. I can remember being more curious about who could have wanted to shoot him.

On the way back across town a couple of hours later, the people were lined up in the dark on both sides of West 72nd Street. They all had candles and were trying to sing "Give Peace a Chance." I thought that was an odd thing to sing at a murder scene. I rolled down the window and smelled a lot of pot in the air. I wondered what in the world was going to happen to his kid.

Larry Flynt, publisher, Larry Flynt Publications Inc.

I was in Los Angeles, and I was shocked in the same way that I was when John Kennedy got shot. I thought, "Here's a young man who has made such a substantial contribution to our culture, and he has been taken from us in such a senseless way." I was pretty much numb to respond beyond that.

Catherine Zeta-Jones, actress

I was 11 years old. I was actually in London, in a musical, and I remember all the grown-up people in the cast running through the corridors, shouting, "John Lennon's dead." It's funny because our apartment in New York is two buildings away from the Dakota Building and right opposite Strawberry Fields. It always chills me when I see tourists pointing their cameras up to Yoko's apartment or photographing the gate.

Michael and I actually went there the other day for a dinner party. We were waiting for the elevator to go up to our friend's apartment, and Michael said, "Right here." He was standing at the elevator once, going up to see a friend, and John Lennon walked out. He said, "I know you," in his Liverpudlian accent, and they had a quick conversation. That was the last time Michael saw him. It's kind of eerie when you live so close. I've met Yoko a few times. But it always gives me a chill when I see people photographing the Dakota -- it makes my stomach turn a bit.

Michael Douglas, actor

I was one block away, where my apartment was. And I was actually there at the scene soon after the tragedy. I was right there. That actually was what motivated me to begin my work in handgun control -- that incident.

Lydia Lunch, writer and spoken-word artist

Look, I'm lucky if I remember what I did last week, much less 20 years ago. But the murder of John Lennon defined a turning point in American history. No longer could we deny our monomania with celebrities, our ghoulish fascination with their life and the haunting, harassing and stalking of them unto and even beyond death. Everyone becomes more popular postmortem. More heroic. Mythical. Dead men always sell more records, more newspapers. How typically American that some sicko would take it upon himself to wipe out the messenger whose mantra was "Imagine" and "Give Peace a Chance." We were forced to finally evaluate, because of his death, how truly radical Lennon was.

Roger Ebert, film critic

At the time the news was reported, I was on the air with the 10 p.m. Monday night newscast on Channel 5 in Chicago. We finished the newscast at 10:29 p.m., and then were startled to hear the voice of the station's booth announcer reading the Associated Press bulletin. The show's producer had made a judgment call that there was not time to get the bulletin to the news studio before the show ended.

I felt as if a chapter of history had been closed. I drove over to the Sun-Times and wrote a column for Tuesday's paper. The vigil had begun in Central Park.

T. Coraghessan Boyle, novelist

I was in Los Angeles and I was writing my novel "Water Music." And since I had been a witness -- not an eyewitness but a witness -- to many such traumatic events of the, let's say, 12 years that preceded that, it didn't rock me too much. It almost seemed expected in some way.

What's his legacy? He is a pure rocker, absolutely the pure rocker, whose gut-wrenching vocals on songs like "Money" are still ringing in my head and helped form my own appreciation of rock 'n' roll and my own vocal style -- him to a degree, but also people like Van Morrison and Muddy Waters and all sorts of great singers. But he was one of them. Many people will say as a composer he's most important, but for me it's just those gut-wrenching vocals he could do.

Cary Tennis, copy chief, Salon

I was living in a tent in rural Virginia, helping my mom build a house. My mom was living in a tent, too, a bigger tent. I had had a dream the night before of Yoko Ono yelling at John, "Oh, no! Oh, no!" You know, Yoko Oh No. Then I was riding on the back of a truck with a bunch of lumber and I was listening to the radio in the afternoon and the radio said that John Lennon had been shot. And then I remarked on my dream to my mother and we agreed it was an exceedingly curious dream.

Isaac Hayes, songwriter/musician

I was at the house of a friend of mine, Perlie Biles in Atlanta, when we heard the news on the radio of John Lennon's death. What a waste. What a loss. You know, he lives through his music. That's the good thing.

King Kaufman, associate managing editor, Salon

The day before John Lennon got shot, I got arrested. I was sitting in the back of a car in the parking lot of a mall in Brea, Calif., smoking marijuana with two buddies before a midnight movie showing of ... I forget what. So we spent several hours of Sunday morning getting processed at the local police station and waiting for our bitterly disappointed parents to come pick us up.

On Monday, as I served the first day of my grounded-for-LIFE! sentence, Lennon was killed. My friend Stacy Flanders called me up and said, "Kind of a shitter of a week so far, huh?"

Tuesday I got called out of class by the newspaper advisor, who was really the cheerleader advisor (this was post-Prop. 13 California), who wanted me to write a tearful essay about the tragic loss of John Lennon. I did write some dumb thing, but only after having spent most of the day goofing around in the library with Ellen, who a few years later wrote me that in her job as a London call girl she'd had sex with Moammar Gadhafi.

But that's another story.

Karen Finley, performance artist and author

I was crossing the Bay Bridge leaving San Francisco, going to Oakland, as I heard the news on the radio. I was just approaching the bridge. All I thought was that tragedy affects everyone. And in time it does affect everyone. Several years later, as a waitress, I would wait on Yoko with her dark glasses and serve her espresso. All I thought of was that both Jackie Kennedy and Yoko Ono wore dark black glasses after the death of our heroes.

Mamie Van Doren, actress and blond bombshell

I was in Florida, and I was working on a musical comedy called "Making Whoopee." I was staying at a hotel, and I turned the TV on and saw that Lennon had been killed. I remember I left the hotel and went to a place to eat by myself. It was very cold out, and very depressing. It made me very sad.

China Forbes, lead singer, Pink Martini

I don't remember where I was when John Lennon was shot. My sister tells me I was "in the living room with Dad." Since I was only 10 years old, it didn't have the effect on me that it had years later when I realized how tragic it was that he wasn't around anymore. Before his death, I remember dancing around our apartment with my sister, blasting my dad's LPs in the living room and acting out various characters in the songs on "Sgt. Pepper's": Lucy, Rita, Mr. Kite, the Hendersons. When "Double Fantasy" came out, we were mostly obsessed with Yoko's unusual singing style. But I really didn't feel the impact of what had happened on Dec. 8, 1980, until I grew up with all the great footage and all of his great songs. And now I feel gypped.

Geddy Lee, singer/bassist, Rush

I was at Morin Heights, a recording studio an hour north of Montreal, working on the song "Witch Hunt" for the "Moving Pictures" album the night he was shot. It was a very heavy moment, I recall.

I think we were all just stunned. I remember constantly going back and forth, from working to the TV, to try to get some news. If I remember the environment, looking around the room, my memory just shows me a lot of pale faces staring at the tube.

Bob Guccione Jr., editor and publisher, "Gear," and former editor and publisher, "Spin"

I was in New York with my then (now someone else's) wife. We had just had dinner and saw the news report on TV. We had been near the Dakota that night and I had walked past it the evening before, I think. We lived on East 67th Street then, just the other side of Central Park.

I was stunned by the news, but unmoved per se. It was simply a big news story -- I didn't know the man. I felt in the disconnected way one does at recognizing the name and life of a victim, but no more emotion than that. I loved the Beatles -- and therefore, abstractly, Lennon's contribution to my entertainment and cultural nourishment. But I've always thought that the people who get emotionally upset, even disturbed, at the death of someone they never knew are a little emotionally lacking. I mean, what happens to them when someone they knew, who knew them, dies?

Lennon didn't belong to the people (and neither did Princess Di or JFK Jr.) -- his work did. And it's still available for purchase.

My second reaction, which I insightfully imparted to my wife, was, "Well, that settles the issue of a Beatles reunion." Lennon never wanted it anyway.

Adam Parfrey, publisher, Feral House

Around that time Darby Crash, the lead singer of the Germs, died, and that was much more important to me than John Lennon's death. But when Lennon died, I was visiting my brother in L.A., and we were having a laugh about it with Michael Collins because people were boohoo-hoo-ing it so much.

Philip Kaufman, film director

I was in the basement of a house in St. Helena, Calif., in the wine country, watching television with a writer friend of mine named Bo Goldman, who won a couple of Oscars, for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Melvin and Howard." I can remember it coming over the TV, and Bo and I were sitting there drinking a bottle of wine.

It was shocking and terrifying. I remember both Kennedy assassinations. I remember Martin Luther King's. As with all of them, you felt this terror and outrage.

Virginia Vitzthum, columnist, Salon Sex

I was a sophomore in college, and it was the first public murder that mattered to me. I'd spent my adolescence buying Beatles and Dylan instead of Eagles and Frampton, wishing I'd been born 10 years earlier. Lennon's early death wrinkled time even more: New Yorkers John and Yoko moved suddenly into the history books with the Fab Four.

About 15 girls gathered in my dorm room that night. I played "I'm So Tired" and "Rain" and "I'm Only Sleeping" and "Cry Baby Cry" and "Strawberry Fields" -- all full of Lennon's dissatisfied intelligence and pain and desire for obliteration. The death wish in those songs gave a jagged comfort that night; to hear him sing "Oh Yoko" or "In My Life" or "Twist and Shout" would have been unbearable.

John Rechy, novelist

I was in L.A. when it happened, and I was, of course, appalled. I had never been a fan of the Beatles or of John Lennon particularly. But I was an admirer of what he stood for, if not of his music. It just seemed to be one more atrocity in a string of such atrocities sweeping the country, as with the killings of the Kennedys or of Martin Luther King, where individuals of a liberal orientation were assassinated.

Jeff Stark, associate editor, Salon Arts & Entertainment

I don't remember a thing. I was 8, and in terms of music, my parents considered Neil Diamond more important than John Lennon. We were probably listening to "The Jazz Singer" soundtrack at the time.

I can remember exactly when Kurt Cobain died, and that hurt, but I was really more angry at him than upset. I can't imagine how unjust, how unfairly ironic, it must have been to see Lennon go. There's really no comparison. I'd like to think that I was fortunate to be spared the hurt in 1980, but Lennon's music -- and Lennon -- has meant even more to me than sad Cobain.

At the same time, Cobain was real, and I got to watch him breathe and sweat and flail. He knew people I knew; he was a guy. Lennon has always been a ghost, just another person whose work grabbed onto me from out of the past, like Mark Rothko or Shakespeare.

I guess when you get older you learn that people die and that it's almost always unfair. And there are things that you wish you'd seen or said or even been around to witness. There wasn't enough time and there never is. But it feels weird to have shared eight years on the same earth with someone whom I admire so much and feel absolutely no connection to -- to have been essentially unaware that he even existed. I know he too was human, but he might as well not have been.

Linda Hamilton, actress

I was in New York. I sort of grew up in this funny musical family who was out of touch with the rest of the world, on classical music. But I remember how huge it was for everybody around me; it was a citywide phenomenon. It sort of felt like somebody had draped a dark cloth over the entire city for days on end, like a tinge darker.

Dr. Susan Block, author and sex therapist

I'd just left New Haven, Conn., and moved to San Francisco to go to grad school part time and try to be a hippie full time. Folks kept telling me I was a decade too late, but I didn't believe them. I was living in a big beautiful Victorian house on Masonic Avenue near Haight Street, trying to restart the revolution with a bunch of other hippie wannabes.

We were having one of our big organic dinners when one of the members of the house came running downstairs, saying he'd just heard from a friend back East that John Lennon had been killed. At first, we didn't believe it. We thought it was just another Beatles rumor, like Paul being dead. Then we turned on the TV, and it was all over the news. We cried and hugged and put "The White Album" on the record player. I felt numb. I realized that maybe those folks were right: John was dead, Reagan was president, the '80s were underway and it was too late to restart the revolution -- that revolution anyway.

Benicio Del Toro, actor

I know exactly where I was. It was 1980, right? I was in Puerto Rico. My brother was a big fan of the Beatles, and I was too. That album "Double Fantasy" had just come out, with Yoko Ono. I heard in school. My brother came up to me and he said, "They killed John Lennon." I remember I cried.

Anthony York, associate editor, Salon News

I can't pretend I knew who John Lennon was in 1980, being 6 years old as I was, but I do have a vivid memory from the period of his assassination. It was Election Day 1980. I remember my baby sitter, Tom, pulling up to the house in his Renault Le Car and dragging me off with him to his polling place, in a coffee shop at Pepperdine University. He plopped me in front of the Kiss pinball machine as he raced into line to cast his vote for Ronald Reagan.

I still remember the sounds of ELO's "Don't Bring Me Down" cranking from the speakers of that university coffee shop, the wild flapping of flippers and buzzing of bells from the pinball table that lit up under my watchful eye and frenetic fingers. And 20 years later, these things taken together make sense: Reagan's triumphant sweep to office riding a crest of religious conservatism, the abnormal falsetto melody lines of ELO's cocaine synth-pop shaking the glass top of the pinball table before me, the haunting vision of an airbrushed Gene Simmons glaring back from on high, makeup caked on, lizard tongue extended. The violent static electricity of that moment could only have been revolutionary fervor. Lennon was just among the casualties of the ancien régime. And I stood like a statue, moving only my fingers, barely breathing, a 6-year-old sponge in the hills of Malibu, Calif.

Sharon Mitchell, founder, Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation, health watchdog of the adult-film industry

I remember distinctly where I was at the time of John Lennon's death. I was in a limousine, stuck in traffic on Central Park West about two blocks from the Dakota Building. I was with the band that I was currently in, called Neon Leon and the Bondage Babies, and I cried a deep sorrowful cry -- the kind that junkies seldom get to feel but at that moment I felt.

F. Murray Abraham, actor

I was in Morocco with two of my fellow actors -- Denholm Elliot was one and Tony Vogel was the other -- and Tony said, "You Americans -- that couldn't happen anywhere but America, that they would kill someone like Lennon." I remember it distinctly. I told him to drop dead. "Do you really believe there aren't crazy people in England?"

Andrew Leonard, editor, Salon Technology and Business

I was a freshman at the University of Michigan, and I was hanging out in the room across the hall, watching "Monday Night Football." To hear Howard Cosell announce Lennon's death was a true introduction to the surreal.

I had been weaned on the Beatles by a father who helped organize antiwar demonstrations and a mother who had me out on street corners selling McGovern for President buttons in 1972. In high school, my long hair and glasses made me look, said my friends, like a dead ringer for Lennon. I was a walking cliché that night -- like a million other college students, I retreated to my own room, got stoned and played "Imagine" about 100 times.

It was quite the bummer. But you know, for my daughter Tiana's third birthday, I made her a tape of Beatles tunes. She's now 6 and she has most of the songs on the tape memorized. And I've heard her singing along with John on "I Should Have Known Better": "So I should have realized a lot of things before/If this is love you've got to give me more/give me more, hey hey hey, give me more." And when I hear that same note of Lennon-esque gleeful exaltation crack in her voice on that last "more," I know Lennon's not really dead, and never will be.

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Compiled with the assistance of Eric Layton, Jeremy Rosenberg, Brent Simon and Chris Colin.

By Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Salon. He lives in Los Angeles.

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