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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

20 Years Later, This Sad Song Is Still Not Better

October 11, 2000|MIKE DOWNEY

At exactly 8:23 p.m. on Dec. 8 of this year--it's a Friday--a group of unknown size is expected to gather on the sidewalk near the really cool-looking Capitol Records building in Hollywood.

There they will commemorate, not celebrate, John Lennon's 20th. Not his 60th birthday, but the anniversary of his death day.

Capitol's reps want everyone to know well in advance that there's going to be scaffolding and construction debris near 1750 N. Vine that night, because their really cool-looking building will be getting a face lift.

Otherwise, it's OK with them if Lennon's idolaters want to come by, bring some flowers, hold a candle, sing a few songs, get a little help from their friends.

Keep the street neat--this is a public walkway, not Jim Morrison's grave--but by all means, come pay respects at our own version of Lennon's tomb, his personal little chunk of L.A., his Hollywood star.

After all, they'll be doing much the same thing at 11:23 p.m. Eastern time in New York. That's when and where John, 20 years earlier, was pronounced dead.


Monday night, a hundred or so people dropped by the Hollywood square of the assassinated Beatle, in tribute to his being born on Oct. 9, 1940.

It was a sweet gesture. So was the birthday cake that Capitol Records sent over, with Lennon's picture atop the frosting.

But an equally fitting gesture would be to come observe his last day on Earth, to show that we not only remember that Lennon died, but how.

"Did you see what was right beside your story about John's 60th birthday in today's paper?" asks Jerry Rubin, the local Alliance for Survival activist who organized Monday's birthday salute.

"A story about a 10-year-old girl killed by a drive-by shooter."

The world hasn't changed much, is his point. Or changed enough, anyway.

Handguns still seem as handy as pocket change, and zealots still demand the means to defend themselves. A gun in Lennon's red shirt and jeans couldn't have saved him Dec. 8, 1980, when Mark David Chapman walked up and pulled the trigger. A gun couldn't have saved fifth-grader Stephanie Raygoza when she got hit by a bullet's ricochet Sunday while playing in front of her house in Boyle Heights.

It was Lennon who wrote a beautiful melody called "Beautiful Boy," with a lyric that went: "Before you cross the street, take my hand. Life is what happens to you, while you're busy making other plans."

Applies to beautiful girls too.

Sean Lennon, son of John, also had a birthday Monday. He turned 25, having grown up without a father. John Lennon hardly knew his own father, who deserted the family when John was a child.

For years, millions have been able to recall with JFK-esque clarity where they were on the night Lennon got shot.

Jerry Rubin for one remembers, "I was on a date, in Marina del Rey, going to a movie. We went inside an ice cream shop next to a Wherehouse record store. The woman behind the counter told us somebody'd shot Lennon."

He recalled every detail except the flavor of the ice cream.

Certain sketchy information was based on whatever was first available after the shooting. The next day's New York Daily News reported that Lennon was pronounced DOA at 11:07 p.m., not 11:23. On the front page was a photo of Yoko Ono, being comforted at the hospital by David Geffen, the music industry mogul.

Police had responded to a 10:50 radio call: "Man shot, 1 W. 72nd St." The columnist Jimmy Breslin wrote that a couple of cops put the body inside the patrol car of a 45-year-old officer named Jim Moran, who didn't know whose it was until he overheard onlookers crying out: "That's John Lennon."

Moran had stood guard outside the Beatles' hotel when they made their first visit to New York in 1964.


Near the site of his murder sits the Strawberry Fields monument, where at 11:23 p.m. on Dec. 8 the public is being invited to light a "peace flame" candle and sing Lennon's favorite songs like hymns.

Simultaneously, a flame-lighting will be held at 8:23 here, outside the 12-story Capitol tower that architect Welton David Becket designed in 1954. It is a structure that resembles what record-spinning deejays once called "stacks of wax."

It'll be 20 years ago that day that Sgt. Pepper stopped playing.

On his birthday Monday, we were able to remember how he lived. That night in December, we'll be able to think more about the way he died.


Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to: Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail:

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