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Checking In On John Lennon’s Friends, Family…And Assassin, 30 Years On

Stop The Presses!

There are three collective-memory questions almost every baby boomer can quickly answer: Where were you when you heard JFK got shot? Where were you when you heard that planes hit the twin towers on 9/11? And, representing a mid-point between those two tragedies: Where you were when you heard John Lennon got killed?

Three decades on from December 8, 1980, here's a snapshot of some of the key players in Lennon's life (and death), and how they've dealt with some of the thornier issues surrounding his legacy over time.


Lennon's former partner Paul McCartney received considerable scorn when, shortly after Lennon's killing, he responded to a query on the street with the understatement, "It's a drag, isn't it?" But, as if in perpetual apology mode for that remark, McCartney has gone out of his way to pay affectionate homage since, starting with the 1982 ballad "Here Today," about which he explained, "I'm talking to John in my head. It's a conversation we didn't have." He continued to play the song on tour, and even covered the John-&-Yoko favorite "Give Peace A Chance" at concerts throughout 2009-10.

[Related: Fans remember John Lennon 30 years after his death]

McCartney and Yoko Ono have often traded digs in the decades following Lennon's death. Paul asked permission to change the order of the Lennon-McCartney writing credit to McCartney-Lennon on songs he'd written without any assistance from John, and Yoko balked at "rewriting history." Some of the spats went public. In 2005, Ono made comments that seemed to imply Paul favored "June-with-spoon" rhymes over John's greater sophistication, or was Salieri to Lennon's Mozart. In return, McCartney said, "Her life is dedicated to putting me down." But the two have subsequently been chummy upon coming together at the Las Vegas premiere of Love and other events.

[Photos: A Look Back: John Lennon's Life]

George Harrison recorded his own tribute to Lennon, "All Those Years Ago," featuring McCartney on backup vocals and Ringo Starr on drums. The surviving threesome had a more formal reunion when they expanded upon Lennon's demos of "Free As A Bird" and "Real Love" in 1995 and released them as the only "new" Beatles recordings after their 1970 split, as part of the Anthology series of vintage outtakes.

A hits collection titled 1s, with no previously unreleased material, became an unexpected worldwide blockbuster upon its release in 2000, and ended up being the bestselling album of the subsequent decade, both nationally (certified 15-times platinum) and internationally. In contrast, the 2006 Love album of remixed and sometimes mashed-up material, while beloved by critics and hardcore fans, was a surprisingly slower seller, and was just certified double-platinum in 2010. The Cirque du Soleil show it was conceived to accompany still runs in Las Vegas. In 2009, gamers got to play and sing along with an animated John in Rock Band: The Beatles, released at roughly the same time as remastered CDs of the band's work. Lennon and his mates are currently all over billboards everywhere—in their heavily bearded "Hey Jude"-era visages—in a promotional campaign for iTunes, now that the Fabs' catalogue is finally available for legal download. 

[Video: Lennon: Forever young 30 years after death]


Lennon's first wife, whom he divorced in 1968, released a memoir in 2006, titled simply John (a followup to her earlier book, A Twist Of Lennon, written before his death). In it, she recalls getting the news about her ex-husband's death in a middle-of-the-night phone call from Ringo. Curiously, she released a little-publicized single in 1995—a cover of "Those Were The Days," the 1968 song by Mary Hopkins that was the first big non-Beatles hit on the band's Apple label. Though Lennon has lived with her fourth husband in Spain for many years, she came over to the U.S. for the opening night of Love in Vegas. That 2006 occasion, which she described as "really lovely," was her first in-person encounter with her ex-husband's surviving bandmates (or, presumably, Yoko) since the divorce 38 years earlier.


Lennon's elder son, whose mother was Cynthia, seemed to be the odd lad out during much of his father's life. That didn't change after the murder, with Julian even stating that he'd been much closer to McCartney, and had only gotten close to his dad when he was estranged from Ono and hooking up with May Pang in the mid-'70s. As a singer-songwriter, he had a breakout hit with his debut album in 1984, even getting a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist, but subsequent success in that realm has been elusive. Once publicly bitter over his estrangement from his father and lack of relationship with Ono, Julian has mellowed in his public statements over time. After a 12-year time out since 1998's Photograph Smile, Lennon (now 47) has a new album, Everything Changes, set to come out next year. On October 9, on the occasion of what would have been John Lennon's 70th birthday, Julian and Cynthia Lennon traveled to Liverpool to help publicize a John Lennon Peace Monument.


Lennon's younger son, now 35, was just 5 when his father was shot. (Reportedly, John's assassin, Mark David Chapman, shook the boy's hand outside the Dakota hours before killing his father.) Closely protected by his mother, Sean stayed out of the public eye until gradually becoming involved in the music world in the mid-'90s, first as a bass player for the group Cibo Matto. His first solo album, 1998's Into The Sun, was followed by his participation in some artier side projects before he finally produced an official sophomore effort eight years later with Friendly Fire. But, perhaps in part because of the focus his name puts on his lineage, or just a shyer, less up-front spirit, he's retreated back into a band again—now co-leading an outfit called the Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger with his girlfriend, musician and model Charlotte Kemp Muhl. Comparing his relationship with Muhl with that of his famous parents, Lennon told Rolling Stone last month that John and Yoko "were unified as a message and a movement, but she didn't want to write songs with my dad," whereas he and his girlfriend "love to collaborate."


While not neglecting her own career, Lennon's widow has striven tirelessly to protect her late husband's legacy and promote him as a symbol of peace and idealism, even as pesky biographers remind the world of his darker side. Some Ono-approved projects have been a wash, like the ghastly 2005 Broadway bio-musical Lennon, which was panned by critics and closed just six weeks after opening. But Ono has been behind some better-received projects, too—like Strawberry Fields, the Central Park memorial that opened in 1985 near the scene of the crime.

[Related: Interesting facts about John Lennon and Yoko Ono]

She continues to cast an equal vote in Beatles-related business dealings along with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and George's widow Olivia Harrison. Her own artistic endeavors have slowed down, though she took a time-out from paying tribute to John to enjoy some tributes of her own, with Lady Gaga recently headlining a night of Ono covers in Los angeles. To this day, Ono continues to polarize Lennon fans, who think of her either as (a) the busybody who couldn't stop breaking up the Beatles, even after the Beatles were broken up, or (b) the greatest posthumous protector any major artist ever had.


Chapman, 55, was sentenced to a 20-years-to-life term after rejecting an insanity defense and pleading guilty to the murder. That's effectively "life," given the political implications that would follow if anyone ever let him out of prison. In September, Lennon's killer was turned down for parole for the sixth time, in an every-other-year denial familiar to anyone who ever followed the token hearings for similarly loathed figures like Charles Manson. 

[Photos: Fans remember Lennon in Central Park]

Chapman has been increasingly penitent over time, after initially using his sentencing to self-defensively read from the novel Catcher In The Rye, presumably because he still considered Lennon one of the "phonies" that that novel's protagonist rails against. At the time, psychiatrists who examined Chapman considered him delusional but not necessarily psychotic or unfit for trial, and if anything, Chapman's lack of obvious "craziness" and apologies only makes him more aggravating to Lennon fans. He's given sometimes conflicting interviews over the years, sometimes talking of hearing voices and arguing with imaginary figures, other times offering prosaic explanations having to do with envy or fame. At his 2000 parole hearing, he said he had "felt like nothing, and I felt if I shot him, I would become something." Chapman is still married to his longtime wife, Gloria, and gets conjugal visits at Attica. 

Although none of Chapman's statements have ultimately been particularly revealing or interesting, that didn't stop artistic provocateurs from making no fewer than two movies about Chapman, The Killing Of John Lennon and Chapter 27, the latter starring Jared Ledo as the pudgy killer. One of the latter film's few quasi-defenders, a Los Angeles Times critic, called it "a rather sly portrait in bland dementia," and those last two words may say everything that needs to be said about Chapman, in the end. 

Almost as inflammatory as the movie projects has been repeated sales or auctions of the Double Fantasy LP that Chapman got Lennon to autograph outside the Dakota hours before gunning him down. A New York autograph dealer calls the jacket-which bears Chapman's forensically enhanced fingerprints-"the most extraordinary document in rock 'n' roll history," and he's trying to get $850,000 for it. 


In honor of his 70th birthday, Lennon's solo catalog got its own set of remasters and reissues this year, though these seemed surprisingly underpublicized. The final John & Yoko release, 1980's Double Fantasy, was mixed down to its bare bones for an alternate release titled Double Fantasy Stripped Down. Simultaneously issued this fall were an all-inclusive 11-CD boxed set, a themetically demarcated four-CD set, and for neophytes, yet another single-disc best-of collection.

Naturally, biographical pieces that have come along in book or film form tend to be dismissed either as hagiographies or hit pieces. But The U.S. vs. John Lennon, an account of his struggles with American immigration officials in the early '70s, got good reviews. And Philip Norman's 864-page biography, 2008's John Lennon: The Life, was acclaimed for striking a decent balance between the muckraking of previous biographers like the reviled Albert Goldman and the saintliness that overrides most Yoko-approved accounts. An arthouse biopic about Lennon's early years, Nowhere Boy, also hit theaters this fall, with Kick-Ass star Aaron Johnson as young John.

Thirty years gone from this mortal coil now, John Lennon is still an Everywhere Man.  

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