John Lennon may have proclaimed that the dream was over in 1970, but it wasn’t until 10 years later that the world finally understood. As the news emerged that the former Beatle had been shot outside his home in New York City by Mark David Chapman, millions of fans went into mourning for a man whose life and music had touched their lives.
December 8, 1980: The Day John Lennon Died is billed as chronicling the events that led up to Lennon’s murder in a “breathtaking, minute-by-minute format”. Perhaps that is what Backbeat Books commissioned from writer and television producer Keith Elliot Greenberg, but the results fall somewhat short of the aspiration.
The trouble with Greenberg’s premise is that, for the most part, 8 December 1980 was a wholly unremarkable day. Had it not culminated in the death of an icon it would scarcely have carried any significance. As a result, only a slim portion of this book is actually about the day itself.
Lennon began his final day with a haircut in Manhattan, followed by a Rolling Stone photo shoot by Annie Leibovitz. He gave a lengthy interview – one of several given in early December 1980 – to San Francisco radio presenter Dave Sholin, and then went with his wife Yoko Ono to the Record Plant East studio where they mixed her song Walking On Thin Ice.
Such a day was nothing unusual, let alone momentous. Lennon had been firmly back in the public eye since the release of his 1980 comeback album Double Fantasy three weeks earlier, granting numerous interviews and considering future releases and live appearances. And so, in order to flesh out the tale to book-length, Greenberg veers away from the brief and follows a well-trodden path, by presenting yet another biography of Lennon and The Beatles.
It begins with the courtship of Alf Lennon and Julia Stanley, and continues through the birth of their son, his acceptance into art school, The Beatles’ formation and times in Liverpool and Hamburg, the death of Stuart Sutcliffe, the record deal with EMI and subsequent worldwide success. On it goes through their troubled tours in 1966, the Summer of Love, drugs and meditation, Lennon’s relationship with Yoko Ono, the chaotic filming of Magical Mystery Tour and Let It Be, the business wranglings and breakup of the band, the Lost Weekend, the househusband years, Lennon’s reconciliation with Paul McCartney, and the birth of Sean Lennon.
You’d be forgiven for wondering what this had to do with Lennon’s final day. Surely anyone with an interest in his final hours would know about the key moments in his life already, and not need them told once again with little new insight.
Interwoven with the potted history are various non-linear accounts of other people’s lives in December 1980. As Chapman finalises his murderous plans, we hear about what Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were doing elsewhere, and also follow the activities of various bit players and walk-ons, from city politicians to a New York barman who happened to be a Beatles fan.
Their stories give a flavour of the myriad threads running through the diverse city that Lennon loved, but the result is an uneven, disjointed account presented with a frustrating lack of chronology. A television producer, Alan Weiss, is mentioned early on for two pages, then not again for more than 100. Ken Dashow is introduced as making a television advertisement for the Hilton Hotel on 8 December, then disappears from the tale as abruptly as he arrived. His presence in the story isn’t explained until the epilogue, in which he is revealed as the co-presenter of the US-syndicated radio show Breakfast With The Beatles.
Greenberg is also guilty of numerous careless mistakes. In the first chapter Lennon and Ono are described as having moved into the Dakota building a decade before his death, whereas they took up residence in 1973; the protagonist of The Catcher In The Rye is spelt both Holden and Houlden in the space of a single paragraph; Watching The Wheels is incorrectly described as the first single from Double Fantasy; and Please Please Me is “an album of thirteen songs” rather than fourteen.
It goes on: Robert Fraser is erroneously listed as the inspiration behind Doctor Robert; George Harrison is given spiritual guidance by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1966, a full year before they actually met; in Greenberg’s account, work began on Sgt Pepper before The Beatles gave up touring (it didn’t), and Strawberry Fields Forever was bumped from the album, rather than being released prior to it as a standalone single; Eric Clapton and Klaus Voormann are mentioned as performers at the Montreal recording of the Give Peace A Chance single, but instead played the song at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival festival three months later.
These may be minor errors, but cumulatively they make Greenberg’s history an unreliable one. In the acknowledgements he says this was “an easy book to write,” but the lasting impression is of a rushed volume written to cash-in on the 30th anniversary of Lennon’s death. A good editor – a better writer, even – would have spotted the mistakes, and it is disappointing that more care and pride wasn’t taken prior to publication.
Greenberg’s book comes into its own after 159 pages, when we arrive at the moment when Mark Chapman pulls the trigger and shoots Lennon four times. The initial chaos and subsequent disbelief and struggle to comprehend are rendered skilfully and sensitively, with many of the interwoven threads finally coming together.
One of the most effective moments – perhaps one of the few to have involved original research – comes when Alan Weiss, hospitalised after a motorcycle accident, realises that he is one of the few members of the public to be present as medics fight to save Lennon’s life. His brief testimony is vivid and effective, and provides a rare account of the situation inside Roosevelt Hospital on the night.
I’m looking into the room. John Lennon has no clothes on. His feet are facing me. His chest is open. It felt like I was looking into his chest, but there was blood all over, and all sorts of wires and tubes.
Such revelations are all too rare, however, and for the most part Greenberg’s book depends too heavily on recycling well-known material from second-hand sources, rather than providing new information that adds to the historical record.
Jack Jones’ 1992 book Let Me Take You Down remains the fullest account of the descent into mental illness that compelled Mark Chapman to murder Lennon. Greenberg draws much of the information of Chapman’s movements in New York City from Jones’ fascinating book, although without much of the insight or context that helps to explain the inexplicable.
December 8, 1980: The Day John Lennon Died could have been a definitive reading of Lennon’s last moments but, instead of the promised minute-by-minute exposition, the book is overburdened with filler and irrelevance. If you really want to know what happened on the day, get hold of a copy of Jack Jones’ book instead, and leave this missed opportunity on the shelves.