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Robert Hilburn's memoir: John Lennon remaking himself, then gone

A reporter remembers the news of a legend's death and the quiet, tearful moments with Yoko Ono afterward.

October 12, 2009|By Robert Hilburn
  • NIGHTFALL: Yoko Ono is aided by a policeman and record producer David Geffen, right, as she leaves New York's Roosevelt Hospital after John Lennon's murder on Dec. 8, 1980.
NIGHTFALL: Yoko Ono is aided by a policeman and record producer David Geffen,… (Associated Press )

Hilburn, former pop music critic for the Los Angeles Times, is author of "Corn Flakes With John Lennon (and Other Tales From a Rock 'n' Roll Life)." An excerpt in Sunday Calendar recalled his relationship with Lennon after the Beatles' breakup. In today's abridged excerpt, he writes about Lennon's murder.


In 1980, after 10 years at The Times, I was at a crossroads in my personal life. I loved my family, but I was also so obsessive about my work that I found myself devoting more and more time to it. I wanted to be everywhere there was a good story, and that meant I had to choose between that and being with the family on important days. I saw how Bruce Springsteen gave all of himself to his work and I bought into it. Finally, my wife and I separated.

To get away, I flew to Memphis for a week's vacation and spent the whole time working on some stories I had long wanted to do. I pored over local newspaper articles from the 1950s at the library, for a story about the social and cultural mood of the city when Elvis emerged with his first recording in 1954. I also interviewed soul singer Al Green and stayed up until almost dawn one night interviewing one of my heroes, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips.

I was exhausted on a flight home and happy to find a row with three vacant seats, which allowed me to stretch out and sleep. I didn't wake up until the wheels were touching the runway in Los Angeles. I was still rubbing my eyes when a stewardess said I was supposed to phone the city desk at The Times as soon as I got to the terminal. I assumed there must be some fast-breaking news, perhaps even an accident at the airport. I went to the pay phones and called the paper. A voice said gently, "John Lennon was shot to death in New York, apparently by some crazy fan outside his apartment building."

I was stunned, but not in the same way I had been when I'd learned of Elvis' death. I'd been at home when that news came on television and I'd felt like a part of me died. This time, I thought about how hard John had fought not to end up another rock 'n' roll tragedy. I recalled those lines from the Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem. But there wasn't time to dwell on it. The editor wanted me to write an appreciation of John for the next day's paper and then go to New York to cover the funeral. So I rushed straight to the office. Normally, I try to outline a story before actually writing it, but this time I just started writing. I wanted the appreciation to be straight from my heart. I wrote about how we were accustomed to tragic deaths in rock -- Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Keith Moon -- but that John's death didn't fit the pattern. He wasn't a victim of rock excesses.

I continued with something John had said just two weeks before by phone. He was excited that the new single "(Just Like) Starting Over" was already in the Top 10. "It's still a thrill to hear your record on the radio," he said. "It sort of finally makes the music real to me even though I've heard the song a million times by now in the studio." John was also touched by the way disc jockeys were responding to his return. "When they play the song, the DJs don't have to say anything, but they've been saying all sorts of wonderful things. That makes me feel like they really like it. Yoko and I are so excited that we're going right back in the studio to begin working on the next album. I feel just like a kid again."

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."

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."

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