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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

Looking at those notes, I thought about how Memphis had mourned so visibly following Elvis' death. I hoped that New York, which often struck me as a cold, anonymous place, would also show some sentiment. I checked into my usual hotel near Central Park and phoned Elliot Mintz, John's friend, who normally stayed across the street at the Plaza. He wasn't in, so I left a message that I was in town and wanted him to tell Yoko that my prayers were with her. Then I put down the phone, lay on the bed, and waited. Finally, Elliot called. "I gave Yoko your message and she would like to see you at the Dakota."

What did that mean? Did she want to see me as a friend or as a journalist who could relay her feelings to John's fans? I picked up my wallet and notebook, but I left the tape recorder on the bed. I didn't want to send Yoko the wrong signal.

I took a cab to the Dakota, where there was a large crowd of fans in the street singing John's songs and staring up at Yoko's window. Elliot was waiting at the entrance to escort me past the security guards. I wanted most of all to hug Yoko and tell her how much I missed John and about how people, including those in my office, were so deeply touched by his music. But I knew how strong Yoko is -- it was one of the things John so liked about her, needed from her -- and I vowed to stay calm. Elliot led me into the living room and said he'd see if Yoko was ready to see me. Sean, who was 5, was in the apartment with Julian, John's son from his first marriage.

When Elliot returned, he led me to Yoko's room. The curtains were drawn and Yoko was sitting up in bed, a cigarette in her hand and the covers pulled up around her. I could see the tear stains on her cheeks. I could also hear the fans below singing, but the words were indistinguishable. It just sounded like mournful tribal chanting.

I didn't know what to say, so I just sat on the bed and reached out and hugged her. I fought hard not to cry myself. Elliot stood next to the bed as Yoko started talking. She told about how hard it was to accept that John wasn't here with us and she said some sweet things about John's feelings for me. Then, she recounted the evening. "It was so sudden . . . so sudden," she said. "We had planned to go out to eat after leaving the recording studio, but we decided to go straight home instead. We were walking to the entrance of the building when I heard the shot. I didn't realize at first that John had been hit. He kept walking. Then, he fell and I saw the blood."

She sighed and leaned back. Finally, she looked over at the drapes and said how sweet the music sounded, how nice the fans were to come by. She said she wished she could speak to them all, but she knew that would be crazy. But I had the feeling that what she said next was what she would have said to them: "The future is still ours to make. The '80s will blossom if only people accept peace and love in their hearts. It would just add to the tragedy if people turned away from the message in John's music."

I asked her if she would like me to put that quote in the paper -- the idea of not giving up -- and she said that would be nice. She also said she hoped that people wouldn't blame New York City for John's murder. "People say that there is something wrong with New York, that it's sick, but John loved New York. He'd be the first one to say it wasn't New York's fault. There can be one crank anywhere."

By now, I had my notebook out. Yoko paused, and I could imagine her trying to think of what else John would have wanted her to say. After a slight pause, she said, "We had planned on so much together." She was now crying. "We had talked about living until we were 80. We even drew up lists of all the things we could do together for all those years. Then, it was over. But that doesn't mean the message should be over. The music will live on."

I was in the room for probably 10 minutes, but it felt like an hour. I took a cab back to the hotel, where I borrowed a typewriter in the manager's office and wrote the story for the next day's paper. I was so concerned that everything be true to Yoko's feelings that I requested that a copy editor read me the headline before the paper went to print, something writers rarely do because the headline choice belongs to the copy desk. But the copy editor understood the sensitivity involved and read me the headline that would appear on Page 1: "A Time for Love, Not Hate: Yoko Hopes the World Will Let It Be, Let It Be." I was so stressed that I didn't even think about "Let It Be" being a Paul McCartney song. The spirit felt right, so I said the headline was fine.

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