I watched a BBC documentary on John Lennon, his music, his relationship with Yoko Ono, and the man who shot him, Mark Chapman. Lennon was destined for fame he didn’t have the strength of character to deal with, and Chapman for an obscurity that pushed him to kill Lennon because he needed to be noticed. Two men on such different trajectories heading for collision.
As a whole, the documentary was sobering. It presented Lennon and the Beatles, and the reaction the world had to them, in a different light to the one that’s so frequently portrayed. Usually we only see their fame and screaming fans and how wonderful it all was tra la la.
That life wasn’t wonderful at all. Lennon’s life reads as a litany of violent emotion, aggression, drug abuse, resentments between McCartney and Lennon, broken relationships, as the band got carried on a tidal wave of world hysteria that overwhelmed their personal lives. Still, despite all that, Lennon was driven by a desire for peace deep within himself and was always trying to find his way through the tumultuous terrain of his own psyche to that place where his life could have meaning.
The documentary showed him as reaching a point of awareness that his life was out of control, round about the time that his second son was born. He stopped playing music completely and, in the words of a close friend, he grew up and devoted his time to being a family man.
He was a changed man, no longer swayed by the vicissitudes of hysterical masses, no longer fighting himself or the world. When he did come back to music it was very different. To me it looked as if his life was just beginning. He was in his mid 30’s. That he was able to not only survive that mad period but to emerge a bigger, better and wiser man, says a lot about him and his spirit.
Mark Chapman was 15 years younger than Lennon. He had an abusive father and by the age of 14 he was abusing marijuana, cocaine, LSD, heroin, mescaline and barbiturates. He got off drugs, though, and turned to Christianity when he was 16. He achieved a degree of notoriety within a Christian organization, the YMCA, working at a resettlement camp for Vietnamese refugees as area coordinator and a key aide to the program director who later said Chapman worked hard and cared deeply for the children.
But when he went to university, his life fell apart. From that point on it spiraled downwards and he became smaller and smaller in his own eyes. He became obsessed with the book Catcher in the Rye, identifying with the protagonist Holden Caulfield to the point of totally losing touch with reality.
On December the 6th Chapman went to New York, planning to kill John Lennon. Why? Because, according to the documentary, he wanted to be noticed, to be famous. On December 8th he actually managed to get Lennon to sign an album. There’s a photo of them together. Lennon had no sense that he was that close to death. Later that day Chapman waited for him again, and pulled a gun on him and shot him.
He got his fame – and a 20 year sentence in Attica, where he is now. He’s had 6 appeals for early release all of which have been opposed rigorously by Yoko Ono. His fame didn’t bring him what he was looking for. I don’t know whether he learned anything from what he did. I suppose that time is yet to come for him – whether it’s in this life or the next.
The world mourned Lennon, and to this day it still does. His music, even through the crazy times, was beautiful and what I came away with was that you can kill a man’s body but you can’t kill his spirit.