Assassination Of John Lennon
scene outside New York's spooky old Dakota apartment
building on the evening of December 8, 1980, was
as surreal as it was horrifying. John Lennon,
probably the world's most famous rock star, lay
semiconscious, hemorrhaging from four flat-tipped
bullets blasted into his back. His wife Yoko Ono
held his head in her arms and screamed (just like
on her early albums).
few yards away a pudgy young man stood eerily
still, peering down into a paperback book. Moments
earlier he had dropped into a military firing
stance - legs spread for maximum balance, two
hands gripping his .38 revolver to steady his
aim - and blown away the very best Beatle. Now
he leafed lazily through the pages of the one
novel even the most chronically stoned and voided-out
ninth grader will actually read, J. D. Salinger's
Catcher in the Rye.
Dakota doorman shouted at the shooter, Mark David
Chapman, "Do you know what you've done?"
just shot John Lennon," Chapman replied,
was a tragedy of Kerkegaardian pointlessness.
There was only one apparent way to squeeze any
sense from it; write it off as random violence
by a "wacko."
walked past me and then I heard in my head, 'Do
it, do it, do it,' over and over again, saying
'Do it, do it, do it,' like that," Chapman,
preternaturally serene, recalled in a BBC documentary
several years after going to prison. "I don't
remember aiming. I must have done, but I don't
remember drawing a bead or whatever you call it.
And I just pulled the trigger steady five times."
described his feeling at the time of the shooting
as "no emotion, no anger dead silence in
unnatural tone sounded all-too-familiar. British
lawyer/journalist Fenton Bresler took it as a
tip-off. Chapman was a brainwashed hit man carrying
out someone else's contract.
David Chapman," writes Bresler, "is
in many ways as much the victim of those who wanted
to kill John Lennon as Lennon himself."
as a loss for motive, opted for the cliché:
Chapman did it for the attention- the troublesome
American preoccupation with grabbing that elusive
fifteen minutes of propels many a daily-newspaper-journalist-cum-pop-sociologist
into raptures of sanctimony. But Arthur O'Connor,
the detective who spent more time with Chapman
immediately following the murder than anyone else,
saw it another way.
is definitely illogical to say that Mark Committed
the murder to make himself famous. He did not
want to talk to the press from the very start.
It's possible Mark could have been used by somebody.
I saw him the night of the murder. I studied him
intensely. He looked as if he could have been
was speaking to Bresler, and publicly for the
first time. Bresler's book Who Killed John Lennon?
Offers the most cogent argument that Lennon's
murder was not the work of yet another "lone
theories abounded after the Lennon assassination,
many rather cruelly fingering Yoko as the mastermind.
Another focused on Paul who, by this line of reasoning,
blamed Yoko for engineering his arrest in Japan
on reefer charges. The Lennon conspiracy turns
up on radio talk shows with some frequency, where
hosts fend off callers with the "Why bother
to kill that guy?" defense.
Bresler's thesis, that Chapman was a mind-controlled
assassin manipulated by some right-wing element
possibly connected to the newly elected (and not
even inaugurated) Reagan apparatus of reaction,
transcends the confines of pure speculation, extending
into the realm of actual investigation.
so, Bresler's book a little too often substitutes
rhetorical questions ("What does that steady
repetition of a voice saying 'Do it, do it, do
it,' over and over again in Mark's head sound
like to you?") for evidentiary argument.
We can forgive him for that failing. Bresler tracked
the case for eight years, conducted unprecedented
interviews, and extracted a ream of previously
unreleased government documents. But unlike researchers
into the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin
Luther King, he did not have volumes of evidence
gathered by any official investigation, even a
flawed one, to fall back on. The New York police
had their man, the case was closed the very night
of the murder - and, anyway, what political reason
could possibly exist for gunning down the composer
of "I Am the Walrus"?
building his case, Bresler established some key
points that put the lie to any "Who would
want to kill an aging rock star?" brush-off.
Nixon, his administration and other right-wing
politicians (including ultraconservative ancient
Senator Strom Thurmond, who personally memoed
Attorney Gerneral John Mitcell on the matter)
were fixated on what they saw as the Lennon problem.
To them, the politically outspoken singer-songwriter
was an insidious subversive of the worst kind,
the famous and beloved kind.
Edgar Hoover shared their concerns. One page of
Lennon's FBI file bears the handwritten, block-lettered,
under lined words, ALL EXTREMISTS SHOULD BE CONSIDERED
DANGEROUS. The government went all-out to deny
Lennon his longed-for permanent U.S. residency,
and more than that, to deport him altogether (that
was the subject of Thurmond's memo).
FBI file - at nearly three hundred pages as chubby
as Hoover himself - reveals that he was under
"constant surveillance." Nor did the
G-men keep a particularly low profile around the
ex-Beatle, apparently attempting to harass him
into silence or at least drive him nuts, similar
to the tactic they had used on Martin Luther King,
Jr., a few short but eventful years earlier.
late 1972, when the "surveillance" was
at its peak, Lennon told humorist Paul Krassner,
"Listen, if anything happens to Yoko and
me, it was not an accident."
FBI and the CIA tracked Lennon at least from his
"Free John Sinclair" concert in 1969
until 1976 - even though by then Lennon had won
his immigration battle and dropped out of not
only political activism but public life altogether
into what turned out to be a five-year period
of seclusion. His apartment was watched, he was
followed, his phone was tapped.
a person under "constant surveillance"
and ordering that person executed are admittedly
two different things. Nevertheless, Bresler's
point is that the government did not consider
John Lennon a harmless rock 'n' roller whose awkward
entrance into the world of political activism
often carried a high cringe factor (as in his
was viewed as a dangerous radical who needed to
in a way that official paranoia might have been
justified, because as embarrassing as Lennon and
Ono's political publicity stunts occasionally
became, John Lennon was always capable of seizing
the spotlight and speaking directly to millions
of young people who venerated him.
unfettered access to the media, his power was
immense, at least potentially so, and recognized
by more experienced radicals like Jerry Rubin
and Abbie Hoffman, who linked themselves to Lennon,
clinging to close that they made the rock star
was killed just four years after the intense FBI/CIA
surveillance ceased. In those intermittent years,
Jimmy Carter was president - a Democrat who kept
the two gestapo-ish agencies more or less in check.
in December 1980, when John Lennon's first album
in half a decade was high on the charts, Carter
was a lame duck chief executive, having lost his
reelection bid to Ronald Reagan. Reagan's campaign
was managed by career secret agent William Casey,
who under President Reagan became the CIA's most
freewheeling chief since Allen Dulles. The new
far-right administration would reassemble the
intelligence services and grant them a cheerful
forces that tried desperately to neutralize Lennon
for at least seven years lost power in 1976. Lennon's
government dossier ends in that year. In 1980,
as those forces were preparing to retake control
of the government, "dangerous extremist"
John Lennon emerged from retirement. Within a
few months he was murdered.
paper trail that might support the conspiracy
theory is a little thin, however. It doesn't extend
much beyond the airline ticket found in Chapman's
hotel room; a Hawaii-New York connection departing
December 5. But Chapman had actually purchased
a Hawaii-Chicago ticket to depart December 2,
with no connecting flight. The ticket found after
his arrest had apparently been altered. None of
his friends knew that he traveled on to New York.
They thought he went to Chicago for a three-day
concludes that the Lennon assassination, which,
as Chapman himself noted in a rare interview,
"ended an era," bears similarities to
another assassination that took place twelve years
earlier: the murder of Robert F. Kennedy.
apparent lone killer, Sirhan Sirhan, and Chapman
(coincidentally?) shared a defense psychiatrist.
But while Dr. Bernard Diamond couldn't skirt the
obvious fact that Sirhan was under hypnosis (Diamond
wrote it off as self-hypnosis), he labeled Chapman
a "paranoid schizophrenic."
court disagreed. Chapman even now has never had
more than routine psychiatric care since entering
his guilty plea. He was not sent to a mental hospital,
but to Attica State Prison. He was judged legally
clears up a few widely disseminated misconceptions
about Mark David Chapman:
any mention of his name is now accompanied by
the phrase "deranged fan," Chapman was
anything but. He was no more or less ardent a
Beatles/Lennon fan than anyone of his generation.
His real rock hero was Todd Rundgren, a cynical
studio craftsman who could not be further from
Lennon in artistic sensibility. Notwithstanding
Chapman's announcement months after the murder
that he "killed Lennon to gain prominence
to promote the reading of The Catcher in the Rye,"
Chapman never exhibited strong feelings about
the novel until shortly before the shooting. (Catcher,
Bresler muses, may have been used as a device
to trigger Chapman's "programming.")
the murder, major media ran bizarre stories of
Chapman's supposed growing identification with
John Lennon - at one point he even "re-baptized"
himself as Lennon, according to Newsweek. These
stories were all quite fascinating, but there
was no evidence to back any of them up. (It is
true that when Chapman quit his last job he signed
out as "John Lennon," then crossed the
name out, but Bresler interprets this, reasonably,
as Chapman saying, "John Lennon, I am going
to kill you," rather than "John Lennon,
I am you."
was not a "longer." He was for most
of his life a normally social individual and a
camp counselor who had a special rapport with
also notes that when Chapman signed up for a YMCA
overseas program, he selected an odd destination:
Beirut - a perfect place, says Bresler, for Chapman,
a once gentle soul, to be "blooded,"
that is, desensitized to violence.
final note to the mystery of Mark David Chapman:
As he was ready to go to trial and his diligent
public defender was winding up six months spent
assembling Chapman's defense, the accused killer
suddenly decided to change his plea to guilty.
His lawyer was perplexed and more than a little
perturbed. But Chapman was determined. He said
he was acting on instructions from a "small
male voice" that spoke to him in his cell.
interpreted it as the voice of God.