If earth had to send a single band to some Rick and Morty-esque intergalactic music competition, who would be a better representative than the Beatles? They defined an era of popular culture, became counterculture insurgents, and then pushed music onward, forever changed and forever bettered. In just eight short years, the Fab Four gave us the most ubiquitously enjoyable, universally lauded music known to modern man.
And, aside from their repertoire, they’ll always have the intrigue of the ‘what if’ factor. What if they hadn’t called it quits in 1970? What if, just a decade later, Lennon hadn’t been murdered in cold blood by Mark Chapman? It was an assassination that brought the world to its knees, and it’s worth studying, if for no other reason than to wonder: what if? John Lennon is one of the most revered cultural figures of the 20th century—if not of all-time, so what have we missed out on?
On December 8, 1980, just before 11pm EST, Lennon and wife Yoko Ono were walking back to The Dakota Building, their posh New York City residence, when Mark David Chapman shot the musician four times in the back. Lennon, who had signed a copy of the couple’s Double Fantasy album for Chapman earlier that night, was pronounced dead when he arrived at the hospital. When police arrived at the crime scene, Chapman was waiting calmly, reading a copy of The Catcher in the Rye.
As there always is, there’s more to the story than meets the eye. The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger’s salient portrait of a teen lost in a phony world, for instance, speaks volumes. “This is my statement,” Chapman wrote in his copy of the book. And he signed it “Holden Caulfield,” the name of the novel’s unsettled protagonist. Chapman’s act of reading the book is more than a mere token of this drama; it was his symbolic gesture of the disconnect he perceived between the words that Lennon preached and the actual life that Lennon lived, a trope often forgotten in this sad tale.
Chapman was an ardent fan of both Lennon and the Beatles, and he was devastated at Lennon’s hypocrisy. “He told us to imagine no possessions, and there he was, with millions of dollars and yachts and farms and country estates, laughing at people like me who had believed the lies and bought the records and built a big part of their lives around his music,” he was quoted as saying in a Lennon biography.
That’s a bit overblown, perhaps, but it’s rooted in truth. The Dakota is one of the most highly sought after addresses in New York, and Lennon was indeed extremely wealthy. Most notoriously, however, he was emotionally and physically abusive to his wives and his son Julian—a story that, in part, inspired Paul McCartney to pen “Hey Jude.”
Religion also played a role in this tragedy. Chapman is a devout, born-again Presbyterian, and when Lennon said, in that same statement about being more popular than Jesus, that “Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me,” he took it as an affront to both his fandom and his god.
“I would listen to this music and I would get angry at him, for saying that he didn’t believe in God… and that he didn’t believe in the Beatles,” Chapman said in a 1992 biography. “I just wanted to scream out loud, ‘Who does he think he is, saying these things about God, and heaven, and the Beatles?’ Saying that he doesn’t believe in Jesus and things like that. At that point, my mind was going through a total blackness of anger and rage. So I brought the Lennon book [a book about Lennon’s lavish lifestyle in New York] home, into this The Catcher in the Rye milieu where my mindset is Holden Caulfield and anti-phoniness.”
Chapman’s radicalization of Caulfield’s mission to “save the world from the phonies” speaks volumes about his mental instability. Prior to the Lennon murder, he had struggled with depression and he’d attempted suicide more than once. And Lennon was only one of the “phonies” on his list. By Chapman’s own admission, he just happened to be the easiest to find. Johnny Carson and Marlon Brando were also listed, and the man on deck after Lennon? None other than David Bowie.
“I was second on his list,” Bowie said in an In the Studio interview. At the time, Starman was performing on Broadway in The Elephant Man. “Chapman had a front-row ticket to The Elephant Man the next night. John and Yoko were supposed to sit front-row for that show, too. So the night after John was killed there were three empty seats in the front row. I can’t tell you how difficult that was to go on. I almost didn’t make it through the performance.”
Chapman also accosted James Taylor in a subway station the day before he killed Lennon. With all of this context, it’s understandable that, when he was sentenced to prison 35 years ago yesterday, Chapman pled insanity. In the months leading up to the hearing, several experts diagnosed him with conditions of various severity, from delusional to psychotic. In the end, though, Chapman decided to revoke his insanity defense and plead guilty. He was sentenced to 20-years-to-life in prison for second-degree murder; thus far, he’s been denied six parole requests so far, and the odds are against him ever returning to the outside world.
Ultimately, John Lennon’s death is the result of a troubled guy trying to leave his mark and cope with life’s imbalance. Here was one man that was bigger than Jesus and another who’d worshipped him, lost his way, and then tried to settle the score. And in a way, he did. Though he will forever live in the world’s shame, people still remember Chapman’s name. It’s a fact worth considering because it’s not the only time we’ve heard it: even when murder is the cost of legacy, some are willing to pay the price. Chapman’s been the subject of many high profile interviews, the target of much cultural vitriol, and he’s even spawned a (small) community of Mark David Chapman apologists.
And with one abhorrent act he helped reveal the complications and incongruences of fame, legacy, and personal ideology. So, in the shadow of our sadness for Lennon’s shortened life, even as he endures as an important symbol for peace, we must now ask one more ‘what if’: “what if Lennon had lived the life he asked others to live?”
Image of Lennon Wall: MacEagon Voyce
Featured Image:Apple Records