Scroll down to see photographs of John Lennon's final days.
Writing a book about the final day of John Lennon's life was, alternately, sad and satisfying. New York was a different city 30 years ago, a conurbation of squeegee men and graffiti-blotched subway cars and live sex shows on 42nd Street. But the place leaped with a pulse, and Lennon loved it. Out of everywhere on earth, it was where he chose to live. He fought for it, in fact, against a government that strove to deport him for his subversive leanings. People saw him in delis and record stores and in Central Park. In every sense, John was a bona fide New Yorker, not a blow-in who flees to Short Hills or Dobb's Ferry the first time he hears a car backfire. To a Queens boy like myself, that was quite an honor.
Before I started writing "December 8, 1980: The Day John Lennon Died" (Backbeat Books), I told my editor, Mike Edison, that I wanted to take a snapshot of John Lennon's New York before the colors broke down like an old Polaroid. I'd been dragging around the John Lennon commemorative issue of the long-defunct SoHo News for the past three decades, and couldn't wait to start poring through its contents. But when I pulled open my filing cabinet drawer, the newspaper had vanished.
I later found it in a cardboard box with some Son of Sam stuff. By then, though, I'd already written so much. John Lennon had been having a great day on December 8, 1980, disrobing and twirling his body around a clothed Yoko for his friend, Annie Liebovitz' Rolling Stone cover shot, working on Yoko's single, "Walking on Thin Ice," in the studio, promoting the album, "Double Fantasy" -- John's first venture in five years, since he'd retreated into the couple's tangle of apartments in The Dakota building to be a stay-at-home father -- in a three-hour radio interview.
"I consider my work won't be finished until I'm dead and buried," he told reporter Dave Sholin, "and I hope that's a long time."
To most of us, December 8, 1980 was a watershed moment, recalled with the clarity of the JFK assassination or American Airlines Flight #11 slamming into the north tower. People came forward to tell me their experiences, and many of the anecdotes made it into the book. Dakota resident Ellen Chesler spoke of misgivings neighbors expressed over Mark David Chapman's daily vigils to the building. Peter Cullen, one of the first cops to arrive at the scene, recounted the debate over whether to wait for an ambulance, or haul a dying Lennon into the back of a squad car. Police opted for the latter, then -- upon discovering that the cruiser was boxed in -- moved John a second time.
Alan Weiss happened to be in the Roosevelt Hospital emergency room with a broken leg when Lennon was wheeled in, and was startled by the sight of the former Beatle, splayed on a gurney with his chest cracked open. Because Alan had a job at WABC Eyewitness News -- he'd ended up in the hospital after crashing one of the motorcycles the station had purchased in April to ferry around footage during the city's transit strike -- he went hopping through the hospital in search of a pay phone.
Since the book was released last month, I've heard more tales. Gordon Fol, a guy I knew from Cub Scouts, was already married with two kids and living in Rhode Island when he learned about the murder from the late Howard Cosell on Monday Night Football.
"I gotta go," he told his wife, grabbing his coat.
Three hours later, he was in front of The Dakota. With neither Twitter nor Facebook, there'd been no message to gather there. But Gordon and thousands of others just knew where they had to be. Thirty years later, I remember this scene as the most spontaneous gesture of collective mourning the city -- John's city -- ever witnessed.