John Lennon is shot to death at 40, and a bright dream fades
Just a voice out of the American night. "Mr. Lennon." He started to turn around. There is no knowing whether John Lennon saw, for what would have been the second time that day, the young man in the black raincoat stepping out of the shadows. The first shot hit him that fast, through the chest. There were at least three others.
Not that night, or the next day, but a little later, after the terror ebbed and the grief could be managed, Lennon's wife, Yoko Ono, took their five-year-old son Sean to the spot in the apartment courtyard where she had seen his father murdered. She had already shown Sean a newspaper with his father's picture on the front page. She tried to do what everyone else has done since that Monday night. She tried to explain.
Like everyone else, too, the boy asked simple questions to which there would never be simple or satisfactory answers. If, as was being said, the man liked his father so much, why did he shoot him? His mother explained: "He was probably a confused person." Not good enough. Better to know, Sean Lennon said, if he was confused or really meant to kill. His mother said that was up to the courts to decide, and Sean wanted to know which courts she was talking about: tennis or basketball? Then Sean cried, and he also said, "Now Daddy is part of God. I guess when you die you become much more bigger because you're part of everything."
Sean did not really know or understand about the Beatles, or what his father was to the world. But Sean will surely know, soon enough, that his father did not have to die to become part of everything. Given the special burden and grace of his great gift, he already was. Not just for his wife or son but for more people than anyone could ever begin to number, the killing of John Lennon was a death in the family.
For all the official records, the death would be called murder. For everyone who cherished the sustaining myth of the Beatleswhich is to say, for much of an entire generation that is passing, as Lennon was, at age 40, into middle age, and coming suddenly up against its own mortalitythe murder was something else. It was an assassination, a ritual slaying of something that could hardly be named. Hope, perhaps; or idealism. Or time. Not only lost, but suddenly dislocated, fractured.
The outpouring of grief, wonder and shared devastation that followed Lennon's death had the same breadth and intensity as the reaction to the killing of a world figure: some bold and popular politician, like John or Robert Kennedy, or a spiritual leader, like Martin Luther King Jr. But Lennon was a creature of poetic political metaphor, and his spiritual consciousness was directed inward, as a way of nurturing and widening his creative force. That was what made the impact, and the differencethe shock of his imagination, the penetrating and pervasive traces of his geniusand it was the loss of all that, in so abrupt and awful a way, that was mourned last week, all over the world. The last Day in the Life, "I read the news today, oh boy ..."
Sorrow was expressed, sympathies extended by everyone from Presidents and Presidents-elect, Prime Ministers and Governors and mayors to hundreds of fans who gathered at the arched entryway to the