John Lennon was a product of the swinging 60s. To millions of dissatisfied youth of the time, the Beatles-and John in particular-was a figurehead of the pacifist movement. It wasn’t just his music that sparked a following, but his unabashedly ideological tirades on the political spectrum of his time. He wielded such influence over the youth that he was almost certainly a marked man-a hotbed of social activism that was an attractive target for any of the institutions he went up against. The documentary The U.S. Vs. John Lennon is one such work that tackles Lennon’s entanglements with politics and social reform, and you can read a review of it called The U.S. Vs. John Lennon Tells A Compelling, Cautionary Tale. In this article, I will point out why suspicions surrounding his murder still abound and why some believe his murder was the work of the American Institutions.
December 8, 1980-More than 25 years to the day, it’s still intensely disturbing how a lone nut armed with a 0.38 revolver could extinguish a man whose calling card would’ve read “John Lennon-musical demigod, unabashed social activist”. With a copy of The Catcher In The Rye tucked in his arm and a straight, unflinching countenance, Mark David Chapman coolly walked away from the hemorrhaging rock star and into a permanent place in top-10-most-deranged-men lists thereafter and the derisive conspiracy theories of Lennon fandom. Asked what pushed him to do the grisly act, a convicted Chapman explains, “He walked past me and then I heard in my head, ‘Do it, do it, do it,’ over and over again…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.”
To the institutions of American criminal justice, the events that transpired were simply relegated to the fanatical-madman-kills-famous-artist box, case closed. Chapman was taken to prison and the rest of the world had to be content as a drearier place without the ex-Beatle. But was it really as simple as that? What sounds alarm bells is the apparent lack of any motive for murder. Chapman would later on reveal that he ‘identified’ with Lennon, and there is evidence that in his last job, he once logged out as ‘John Lennon’ before crossing it out and signing his own name. But in the vast demographic of Beatlemaniacs and Lennon loyalists, he did not particularly stand out. Legally, he could not be classified as mentally ill, since administered tests all conclusively paint the picture of a sane man. Without a motive to pin on him, prosecutors concluded that Chapman simply did it to grab his fifteen minutes of fame. On the contrary, could he have been a mere pawn, brainwashed to carry out the bidding of some provoked authority? Could he be, in the words of British journalist Fenton Bresler, “as much the victim of those who wanted to kill John Lennon as Lennon himself”?
The FBI kept meticulous files on John Lennon, revealing that he was under “constant surveillance”, to the point that he once remarked, “Listen, if anything happens to Yoko and me, it was not an accident.” His fears were not unfounded. Indeed, Lennon was a very polarizing figure, a bold, undeterred spokesman against the ongoing Vietnam War in the late 60’s and 70’s, at whose behest thousands upon thousands of adoring youth would furnish roses to bolster his message of a pacifist revolution. Consequently, he fought a nasty battle for his highly coveted permanent US residency after being deported from the country. In big, block letters somewhere along his FBI file is a handwritten clue as to how much of a threat he has become in the eyes of the US government: ALL EXTREMISTS SHOULD BE CONSIDERED DANGEROUS. Even in his years of seclusion, he was constantly watched, followed and wiretapped.
Lennon returned to the public eye after a five-year hiatus with the release of his final Grammy-winning album in the fall of 1980. At the time, Reagan was newly inaugurated into office and with the Cold War in full swing, government agenda held quite a few issues that would surely elicit opposition from Lennon. With his unfettered influence on the general public and a comeback album high on the charts, Lennon was a sizeable force to be reckoned with. Surely, his activist involvements showed no inclinations for premature retirement. Perhaps getting rid of him was the easiest way to permanently solve the problem.
The assassin himself is mired in questionable circumstances. All of a sudden, Chapman was catapulted from a normal working class life, first taking a trip to Beirut, then frequenting US army bases and going on extensive trips around the world, checking into expensive hotels from time to time. In the two years leading up to the murder, he shuffled in and out of jobs, at one point being confined to a hospital for “mental treatment”. And yet, he did not have difficulty acquiring a permit to purchase his murder weapon of choice. For an ordinary guy who used to work as a camp counselor, he seemed to lead a rather opulent lifestyle with quite an eye for collecting expensive artwork, among them an original US $7,500 Norman Rockwell lithograph. The night before the murder, Chapman checked in at the Sheraton Center Hotel in New York. He flew in from Hawaii on his second attempt to kill the former Beatle after an aborted plan barely two months earlier. In an interview with Larry King 12 years after the murder, he tries to decipher the Mark of his younger years: “On December 8, 1980 Mark David Chapman was a very confused person. He was literally living inside of a paperback novel, J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” He was vacillating between suicide, between catching the first taxi home, back to Hawaii, between killing…an icon.”
If anyone did want Lennon killed, success can only come short of the imposing legacy imprinted by the truly great men of history. What with four bullets, there were to be no more outrageous bed-ins for peace, no more talks of prospective Beatles reunions, no more coming-of-age I Am the Walrus psychedelia…But what they could not silence was the resounding voice of one man who dared us to “give peace a chance”. Still, a grieving generation asks “why?” Why did Mark David Chapman linger outside the Dakota that fateful day, poised with a plan to kill the star propagandist of the pacifist revolution? To this day, he insists that he was never brainwashed to execute the gruesome task. What he heard was a small voice inside his own, telling him to “Do it, do it, do it.” And so he did.