40 years ago today John Winston Lennon was shot and killed outside the Dakota building in New York. The day, I’ve always felt, should be declared a public holiday in the UK, though there’s no sign it ever will be. After all, the US has Martin Luther King Day and Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ is surely just as important a cultural object as MLK’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
The day has a special significance for me because, in December 1980, I was living in New York with my Swedish partner, who was completing her PhD on children’s outdoor play in the relatively new field of environmental psychology. We were renting a room in the Long Island City brownstone of Pia’s supervisor, Professor Roger Hart at CUNY, a fellow Englishman, from Nottingham. Shortly after Christmas 1980 we moved to Berkeley, California, for the second half of Pia’s doctoral study-year, where we were joined by her 5-year-old son Mattias (born, coincidentally, one day after Sean Lennon and now a diplomat at the UN in New York).
On the night in question Pia and I had been to watch The Elephant Man in Manhattan. Returning home, we opened the front door to see Roger coming down the stairs and informing us, ashen-faced, that a report had just come on the radio announcing that Lennon had been shot by (according to the radio report) ‘a local screwball’. At that time, immediately after the assassination, it was uncertain whether Lennon would survive or not. It soon became clear that he would not. In a state of shock we switched on the TV and followed the news coverage showing the Dakota building and the vigil that was already beginning to assemble. We could have joined the vigil but chose not to, preferring to grieve in private.
Throughout the previous month Lennon’s songs from Double Fantasy had been on the New York radio with almost monotonous regularity. ‘Woman’, ‘Beautiful Boy’, ‘Watching the Wheels’, ‘Starting Over’: Lennon seemed to be genuinely happy for the first time in his life and entering upon a newly creative phase after 5 years of house-husbandry. He’d turned 40 on October 9 — the same birthday as Sean — and on that day Elton John gave a free concert in Central Park, which Pia and I attended. During the performance a small plane flew over the stage trailing a banner bearing the words ‘Happy Birthday John & Sean’. The greeting, it transpired, was arranged by Yoko and, as the Dakota building overlooked Central Park, I imagined the three of them watching the stage show and seeing the banner from their apartment window. Who could have predicted that, just two months later, this tight, bright family unit would be so cruelly ripped apart?
40 years on, Lennon’s legacy remains. Surely it’s time his life was celebrated and his death commemorated by some public acknowledgement of that legacy.