Robert Hilburn Recalls the Death of John Lennon

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Robert Hilburn Recalls the Death of John Lennon

Reprinted from Cornflakes With John Lennon by Robert Hilburn© 2009 by Robert Hilburn. Permission granted by Rodale Inc.

I ended the appreciation with what had been my last question to John. I had wanted a feel-good quote to end that earlier story, so I asked him if this was a good time for him. His answer: “The best.” As I finished the appreciation, I noticed that some people from the paper were gathered outside my office. One copy messenger, a girl of nineteen, was seated at a desk, sobbing.

My first thought was “Why is she crying? John was my friend.” At the same time, it felt audacious to even think that John had been my friend. I had only spent a few days with him over a period of seven years, and maybe John’s openness and charm had made everyone feel close to him. Ultimately, it didn’t matter. I would later read some dark accounts of his behavior during the Beatles days and afterward, but I was lucky to have known him when he was at peace with himself
and the world. Now, he was gone, and I felt the loss deeply. Six hours later, I was on a plane to New York.

I spent most of the flight writing down thoughts about John and going through the notes from my various interviews with him. In the final interview, we had talked about Elvis, which led to John talking about the concept of death. At the Dakota, he had pointed out all the Elvis records on the jukebox.

“Everybody tried to contact me when he died, but I was still doing my Greta Garbo disappearing act,” he said. “I nearly opened my mouth and said something, but I was in the mountains in Japan and that helped me maintain my distance. It’s hard for me to speak about death. I have had so much death around me. My mother was killed in an auto accident, Stuart Sutcliffe [a musician and close friend in the early days of the Beatles] died of a brain tumor. So did Len Gray, another guy in one of our groups. Buddy Holly died when I was in art school. They all affected me, but I can’t find a way to put the feeling into words. It’s like you lose a piece of yourself each time it happens.”

Looking at those notes, I thought about how Memphis had mourned so visibly following Elvis’s death. I hoped that New York, which often struck me as a cold, anonymous place, would also show some sentiment. I checked into my usual hotel near Central Park and phoned Elliot Mintz, John’s friend, who normally stayed across the street at the Plaza. He wasn’t in, so I left a message that I was in town and wanted him to tell Yoko that my prayers were with her. Then I put down the phone, laid on the bed, and waited. Finally, Elliot called. “I gave Yoko your message and she would like to see you at the Dakota.”

What did that mean? Did she want to see me as a friend or as a journalist who could relay her feelings to John’s fans? I picked up my wallet and notebook, but I left the tape recorder on the bed. I didn’t want to send Yoko the wrong signal.

I took a cab to the Dakota, where there was a large crowd of fans in the street singing John’s songs and staring up at Yoko’s window. Elliot was waiting at the entrance to escort me past the security guards. I wanted most of all to hug Yoko and tell her how much I missed John and about how people, including those in my office, were so deeply touched by his music. But I knew how strong Yoko is—it was one of the things John so liked about her, needed from her—and I vowed to stay calm. Elliot led me into the living room and said he’d see if Yoko was ready to see me. Sean, who was five, was in the apartment with Julian, John’s son from his first marriage.

When Elliot returned, he led me to Yoko’s room. The curtains were drawn and Yoko was sitting up in bed, a cigarette in her hand and the covers pulled up around her. I could see the tear stains on her cheeks. I could also hear the fans below singing, but the words were indistinguishable. It just sounded like mournful tribal chanting.

I didn’t know what to say, so I just sat on the bed and reached out and hugged her. I fought hard not to cry myself. Elliot stood next to the bed as Yoko started talking. She told about how hard it was to accept that John wasn’t here with us and she said some sweet things about John’s feelings for me. Then, she recounted the evening. “It was so sudden . . . so sudden,” she said. “We had planned to go out to eat after leaving the recording studio, but we decided to go straight home instead. We were walking to the entrance of the building when I heard the shot. I didn’t realize at first that John had been hit. He kept walking. Then, he fell and I saw the blood.”

She sighed and leaned back. Finally, she looked over at the drapes and said how sweet the music sounded, how nice the fans were to come by. She said she wished she could speak to them all, but she knew that would be crazy. But I had the feeling that what she said next was what she would have said to them: “The future is still ours to make. The ’80s will blossom if only people accept peace and love in their hearts. It would just add to the tragedy if people turned away from the message
in John’s music.”

I asked her if she would like me to put that quote in the paper— the idea of not giving up—and she said that would be nice. She also said she hoped that people wouldn’t blame New York City for John’s murder.

“People say that there is something wrong with New York, that it’s sick, but John loved New York. He’d be the first one to say it wasn’t New York’s fault. There can be one crank anywhere.” By now, I had my notebook out. Yoko paused, and I could imagine her trying to think of what else John would have wanted her to say. After a slight pause, she said, “We had planned on so much together.” She was now crying. “We had talked about living until we were eighty. We even drew up lists of all the things we could do together for all those years. Then, it was over. But that doesn’t mean the message should be over. The music will live on.”

I was in the room for probably ten minutes, but it felt like an hour. I walked out with Elliot and asked him to go into the hall with me, where I went over the rapidly scribbled quotes in my notebook, making sure I filled in a couple of blanks with what he had heard. Then I took a cab back to the hotel, where I borrowed a typewriter in the manager’s office and wrote the story for the next day’s paper. I was so concerned that everything be true to Yoko’s feelings that I requested that a copy editor read me the headline before the paper went to print, something writers rarely do because the headline choice belongs to the copy desk. But the copy editor understood the sensitivity involved and read me the headline that would appear on page one: “A Time for Love, Not Hate: Yoko Hopes the World Will Let It Be, Let It Be.” I was so stressed that I didn’t even think about “Let It Be” being a Paul McCartney song. The spirit felt right, so I said the headline was fine.

The next morning I took a cab to the Los Angeles Times’ New York office so I could see a copy of the paper. I read quickly through the piece to make sure there were no typos, then picked up the phone to call Elliot. He wasn’t at the hotel, so I left a message. Then, I saw a copy of the New York Post, which subscribed to the Los Angeles Times/Washington Post News Service. My Yoko story was splashed across the cover of the tabloid, and I was horrified to see that it was accompanied by a photo of John’s coffin. I thought about how terrible Yoko would feel upon seeing that photo, and I was afraid she would think I had betrayed her.

When Elliot returned my call, I mentioned the Post photo and asked him to explain to Yoko that I had had nothing to do with it. Elliot was great. He said he knew how some papers work. There was no reason for me to feel guilty. He had called to say Yoko had decided there would be no public service for John. She wanted to avoid the circuslike atmosphere that had surrounded Elvis’s funeral. She asked that people join in a silent, ten-minute prayer vigil Sunday, “wherever you are.” But New York mayor Ed Koch felt there should be a public tribute, so he invited fans to join Sunday near the band shell in Central Park. I decided to stay and cover the Sunday memorial— and was touched by how the city was moved by John’s death. Wherever I walked, I felt the impact. The tabloids ran six to twelve pages a day on John, while every local TV news program opened with more expressions of sorrow and disbelief. There were also conversations everywhere—in the subways, coffee shops, hotel lobbies. The words I heard most often were “sad” and “why?” John’s death knocked the wind out of New York City as much as Elvis’s had Memphis.

On the day of the prayer vigil, visitors in the heart of Manhattan didn’t need to ask for directions, they just followed the crowd. Unlike the hysterical weeping that I’d seen in Memphis in 1977, the audience on Sunday was more subdued, listening to Lennon songs over a loudspeaker. Some held signs, offering messages like “Just Give Peace a Chance” and, inevitably, “We Love You, John.” At 2:00 p.m., the crowd began its silent prayer. This was the day’s most emotional moment. Midway through the silence, a photographer in the roped-off press area stopped taking photos of weeping mourners and retreated behind a parked truck to cry himself.

One thing troubled me on the flight back to Los Angeles. Had I been honorable in contacting Yoko? I had wanted to express my feelings to her about her and John, but I also hoped deep in my heart that she had wanted me to write a story. I remained anxious until the day a card arrived from Yoko. It read “Thank you,” and was signed “With love.”