Gary James' Interview With The Author Of
December 8, 1980: The Day John Lennon Died
Keith Elliot Greenberg
We are fast approaching the 30th anniversary of John Lennon's murder. John Lennon was gunned down in New York City on December 8th, 1980. He was 40 years old. In a new book titled December 8, 1980: The Day John Lennon Died (Backbeat Books), author Keith Elliot Greenberg chronicles John Lennon's life with a special emphasis on the events leading up to John Lennon's assassination.
Mr. Greenberg talked with us about his book.
Q - There are some people who think about John Lennon each year on the anniversary of his death and then there are people like me who think about John Lennon every day. Now, what category do you fall into?
A - Well, I would say that John Lennon would be a back drop to much of my life. I first saw John Lennon on The Ed Sullivan Show when I was five years old and certainly feeling even as a child very alienated. He was the Beatle I most related to. I wouldn't say that I'm possessed by the spirit of John Lennon, but I certainly relate to the spirit of John Lennon.
Q - You were how old when John Lennon was assassinated? Twenty-one?
A - I was twenty-one.
Q - You were living in New York City at that time?
A - Indeed I was. I was living in Queens. I felt very much a part of that day and that week, just like I did three years earlier during the Summer Of Sam. There was something that affected the City a great deal. Now during the Summer Of Sam there was a great deal of fear. I think after the John Lennon tragedy it was a great deal of sadness and disappointment because he had chose to live in our city. He could've lived anywhere in the world and had become a legitimate New Yorker, not a blow-in. The testament to that is the fact that Yoko and Sean remained in New York City and he'd become one of us and he was gunned down by somebody who came in from the outside specifically to hurt him.
Q - Did you ever in your travels see John Lennon walking down the street?
A - You know, I never saw John Lennon personally. I had friends who claimed to have seen him. I would go into stores that there would be photos of John Lennon in the restaurant or in the shop. He was very much a part of New York City. He was part of the texture of New York City. I was very much aware of that.
Q - What do you think you would've felt had you seen him in person? What would you have done?
A - I think I would have felt excitement. I hope that I would've been able to control myself to stay away from him and just let him enjoy the day with his family. Now I'm a middle-aged man and I can relate to that more, how much he valued his family time. Most likely in my teens I would've shouted his name out loud and felt extremely titillated and gratified if I'd gotten a look or even a wave.
Q - I have this theory that the fascination with John Lennon stems from the fact that he was constantly changing his looks and his music and no matter what he did, he was always cool.
A - I would say that's so. But I do understand why a guy like Mark David Chapman, who felt very out of sync with the rest of society, would relate to John Lennon and then invest a disproportionate hope in John Lennon because John Lennon also knew what it was like to be estranged from society at large and not feel normal. Of course John Lennon couldn't save Mark David Chapman. He'd say don't worship false idols. He was very much against the cult of celebrity and probably for this very reason. If you put that much on one person, you're bound to get disappointed. They can't deliver it for you.
Q - I don't think the world knew all that much about John Lennon leading up to his death in 1980. Sure, there were a few books written, but we didn't know the pain he was in and the hard life he'd had.
A - I guess so, yeah. You're right about that.
Q - We know a whole lot more today than we did thirty years ago.
A - Certainly, yes. With the passing of time you could say either his legend has been distorted or we know more. People may have gotten older and mellower and more comfortable revealing information or as time has gone on, people may have invented some tales in their minds that we're now hearing about.
Q - Prior to John's death, Yoko was giving interviews where she was revealing too many details about the day to day life of John and herself. Why did she do that? Did you get a chance to speak with her?
A - I did not have the opportunity to interview her. I just relied on the wealth of material dedicated to that period of time, including the newspaper reports in the days and weeks following the assassination. She was probably trusting. They had lived in New York for awhile. They had been embraced by and large by the people of New York. They were raising a family. They weren't ashamed to just be out in the world running into their fans. They really liked their fans. They didn't mind the fans knowing their schedule. They were happy to see them. That's why John Lennon was killed. He could have driven through the gates of The Dakota and been whisked right into the building, but he chose to get out at the curb and walk on the sidewalk 'cause he liked seeing his fans and greeting them.
Q - Chapman bought this gun in Hawaii?
A - I'd have to look at my book again. I think he bought it in Hawaii and purchased the bullets in either North Carolina or Georgia. I have that in my book.
Q - He got the bullets from a policeman or ex-policeman?
A - That's right, and he did carry the gun back and forth on the plane, which is remarkable when you think about the rules now.
Q - How did he do that?
A - He had it in his luggage. I'm not even sure if there were metal detectors back then on airplanes for luggage. Maybe when you went through a metal detector, but you could pretty much put anything in your luggage.
Q - As I recall, the two police officers who responded to the shooting at the Dakota said as they were lifting John into their police car, "This is John Lennon?" He was unusually thin. I don't see any reference to that remark in your book.
A - No, and I didn't hear that from the police officer who was at the scene. First of all, there was no time to pause and discuss whether this was or was not John Lennon. A man was losing his life and this is how the first officer on the scene explained it to me: they needed to get him to the hospital right away and that was what their emphasis was. There wasn't an ambulance there. They just said "Let's get him in the car, take him to Roosevelt Hospital and try to get this guy saved."
Q - How was John's health prior to December 8th, 1980? Did you say it was good?
A - Yeah. I mean, despite the fact that he smoked cigarettes, he was eating healthy. He felt great. He said that in every interview. He was making music, writing music. He wasn't doing serious drugs anymore. I think John Lennon had a lot of years ahead of him.
Q - So, where will you be on the evening of December 8th, 2010? Are they going to have some kind of ceremonies outside the Dakota?
A - Yeah, and I will be at Strawberry Fields. I was at Strawberry Fields last year. I was at Strawberry Fields October 9th on John Lennon's birthday. Of course now that this book is out, people want to interview me in Strawberry Fields, but I've been at Strawberry Fields several times on December 8th in the past.