The scene outside New York’s spooky old Dakota apartment building on the evening of December 8, 1980, was as surreal as it was horrifying. John Lennon, probably the world’s most famous rock star, lay semiconscious, hemorrhaging from four flat-tipped bullets blasted into his back. His wife Yoko O-No held his head in her arms and screamed (just like on her early albums).
A few yards away a pudgy young man stood eerily still, peering down into a paperback book. Moments earlier he had dropped into a military firing stance – legs spread for maximum balance, two hands gripping his .38 revolver to steady his aim – and blown away the very best Beatle. Now he leafed lazily through the pages of the one novel even the most chronically stoned and voided-out ninth grader will actually read, J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.
The Dakota doorman shouted at the shooter, Mark David Chapman, “Do you know what you’ve done?”
“I just shot John Lennon,” Chapman replied, accurately enough.
It was a tragedy of Kerkegaardian pointlessness. There was only one apparent way to squeeze any sense from it; write it off as random violence by a “wacko.”
“He walked past me and then I heard in my head, ‘Do it, do it, do it,’ over and over again, saying ‘Do it, do it, do it,’ like that,” Chapman, preternaturally serene, recalled in a BBC documentary several years after going to prison. “I don’t remember aiming. I must have done, but I don’t remember drawing a bead or whatever you call it. And I just pulled the trigger steady five times.”
Chapman described his feeling at the time of the shooting as “no emotion, no anger…dead silence in the brain.”
His unnatural tone sounded all-too-familiar. British lawyer/journalist Fenton Bresler took it as a tip-off. Chapman was a brainwashed hit man carrying out someone else’s contract.
“Mark David Chapman,” writes Bresler, “is in many ways as much the victim of those who wanted to kill John Lennon as Lennon himself.”
Prosecutors, as a loss for motive, opted for the cliché: Chapman did it for the attention- the troublesome American preoccupation with grabbing that elusive fifteen minutes of propels many a daily-newspaper-journalist-cum-pop-sociologist into raptures of sanctimony. But Arthur O’Connor, the detective who spent more time with Chapman immediately following the murder than anyone else, saw it another way.
“It is definitely illogical to say that Mark Committed the murder to make himself famous. He did not want to talk to the press from the very start….It’s possible Mark could have been used by somebody. I saw him the night of the murder. I studied him intensely. He looked as if he could have been programmed.”
O’Connor was speaking to Bresler, and publicly for the first time. Bresler’s book Who Killed John Lennon? Offers the most cogent argument that Lennon’s murder was not the work of yet another “lone nut.”
Conspiracy theories abounded after the Lennon assassination, many rather cruelly fingering Yoko as the mastermind. Another focused on Paul who, by this line of reasoning, blamed Yoko for engineering his arrest in Japan on reefer charges. The Lennon conspiracy turns up on radio talk shows with some frequency, where hosts fend off callers with the “Why bother to kill that guy?” defense.
Only Bresler’s thesis, that Chapman was a mind-controlled assassin manipulated by some right-wing element possibly connected to the newly elected (and not even inaugurated) Reagan apparatus of reaction, transcends the confines of pure speculation, extending into the realm of actual investigation.
Even so, Bresler’s book a little too often substitutes rhetorical questions (“What does that steady repetition of a voice saying ‘Do it, do it, do it,’ over and over again in Mark’s head sound like to you?”) for evidentiary argument. We can forgive him for that failing. Bresler tracked the case for eight years, conducted unprecedented interviews, and extracted a ream of previously unreleased government documents. But unlike researchers into the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, he did not have volumes of evidence gathered by any official investigation, even a flawed one, to fall back on. The New York police had their man, the case was closed the very night of the murder – and, anyway, what political reason could possibly exist for gunning down the composer of “I Am the Walrus”?
In building his case, Bresler established some key points that put the lie to any “Who would want to kill an aging rock star?” brush-off.
Richard Nixon, his administration and other right-wing politicians (including ultraconservative ancient Senator Strom Thurmond, who personally memoed Attorney Gerneral John Mitcell on the matter) were fixated on what they saw as the Lennon problem. To them, the politically outspoken singer-songwriter was an insidious subversive of the worst kind, the famous and beloved kind.
J. Edgar Hoover shared their concerns. One page of Lennon’s FBI file bears the handwritten, block-lettered, under lined words, ALL EXTREMISTS SHOULD BE CONSIDERED DANGEROUS.The government went all-out to deny Lennon his longed-for permanent U.S. residency, and more than that, to deport him altogether (that was the subject of Thurmond’s memo).
Lennon’s FBI file – at nearly three hundred pages as chubby as Hoover himself – reveals that he was under “constant surveillance.” Nor did the G-men keep a particularly low profile around the ex-Beatle, apparently attempting to harass him into silence or at least drive him nuts, similar to the tactic they had used on Martin Luther King, Jr., a few short but eventful years earlier.
In late 1972, when the “surveillance” was at its peak, Lennon told humorist Paul Krassner, “Listen, if anything happens to Yoko and me, it was not an accident.”
The FBI and the CIA tracked Lennon at least from his “Free John Sinclair” concert in 1969 until 1976 – even though by then Lennon had won his immigration battle and dropped out of not only political activism but public life altogether into what turned out to be a five-year period of seclusion. His apartment was watched, he was followed, his phone was tapped.
Placing a person under “constant surveillance” and ordering that person executed are admittedly two different things. Nevertheless, Bresler’s point is that the government did not consider John Lennon a harmless rock ‘n’ roller whose awkward entrance into the world of political activism often carried a high cringe factor (as in his Montreal “bed-in”).
He was viewed as a dangerous radical who needed to be stopped.
And in a way that official paranoia might have been justified, because as embarrassing as Lennon and Ono’s political publicity stunts occasionally became, John Lennon was always capable of seizing the spotlight and speaking directly to millions of young people who venerated him.
With unfettered access to the media, his power was immense, at least potentially so, and recognized by more experienced radicals like Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, who linked themselves to Lennon, clinging to close that they made the rock star uncomfortable.
Lennon was killed just four years after the intense FBI/CIA surveillance ceased. In those intermittent years, Jimmy Carter was president – a Democrat who kept the two gestapo-ish agencies more or less in check.
But in December 1980, when John Lennon’s first album in half a decade was high on the charts, Carter was a lame duck chief executive, having lost his reelection bid to Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s campaign was managed by career secret agent William Casey, who under President Reagan became the CIA’s most freewheeling chief since Allen Dulles. The new far-right administration would reassemble the intelligence services and grant them a cheerful carte blanche.
The forces that tried desperately to neutralize Lennon for at least seven years lost power in 1976. Lennon’s government dossier ends in that year. In 1980, as those forces were preparing to retake control of the government, “dangerous extremist” John Lennon emerged from retirement. Within a few months he was murdered.
The paper trail that might support the conspiracy theory is a little thin, however. It doesn’t extend much beyond the airline ticket found in Chapman’s hotel room; a Hawaii-New York connection departing December 5. But Chapman had actually purchased a Hawaii-Chicago ticket to depart December 2, with no connecting flight. The ticket found after his arrest had apparently been altered. None of his friends knew that he traveled on to New York. They thought he went to Chicago for a three-day stay.
Bresler concludes that the Lennon assassination, which, as Chapman himself noted in a rare interview, “ended an era,” bears similarities to another assassination that took place twelve years earlier: the murder of Robert F. Kennedy.
RFK’s apparent lone killer, Sirhan Sirhan, and Chapman (coincidentally?) shared a defense psychiatrist. But while Dr. Bernard Diamond couldn’t skirt the obvious fact that Sirhan was under hypnosis (Diamond wrote it off as self-hypnosis), he labeled Chapman a “paranoid schizophrenic.”
The court disagreed. Chapman even now has never had more than routine psychiatric care since entering his guilty plea. He was not sent to a mental hospital, but to Attica State Prison. He was judged legally “rational.”
Bresler clears up a few widely disseminated misconceptions about Mark David Chapman:
While any mention of his name is now accompanied by the phrase “deranged fan,” Chapman was anything but. He was no more or less ardent a Beatles/Lennon fan than anyone of his generation. His real rock hero was Todd Rundgren, a cynical studio craftsman who could not be further from Lennon in artistic sensibility.Notwithstanding Chapman’s announcement months after the murder that he “killed Lennon to gain prominence to promote the reading of The Catcher in the Rye,” Chapman never exhibited strong feelings about the novel until shortly before the shooting. (Catcher, Bresler muses, may have been used as a device to trigger Chapman’s “programming.”)
After the murder, major media ran bizarre stories of Chapman’s supposed growing identification with John Lennon – at one point he even “re-baptized” himself as Lennon, according to Newsweek. These stories were all quite fascinating, but there was no evidence to back any of them up. (It is true that when Chapman quit his last job he signed out as “John Lennon,” then crossed the name out, but Bresler interprets this, reasonably, as Chapman saying, “John Lennon, I am going to kill you,” rather than “John Lennon, I am you.”
Chapman was not a “longer.” He was for most of his life a normally social individual and a camp counselor who had a special rapport with kids.
Bresler also notes that when Chapman signed up for a YMCA overseas program, he selected an odd destination: Beirut – a perfect place, says Bresler, for Chapman, a once gentle soul, to be “blooded,” that is, desensitized to violence.
A final note to the mystery of Mark David Chapman: As he was ready to go to trial and his diligent public defender was winding up six months spent assembling Chapman’s defense, the accused killer suddenly decided to change his plea to guilty. His lawyer was perplexed and more than a little perturbed. But Chapman was determined. He said he was acting on instructions from a “small male voice” that spoke to him in his cell.