I Can Still Imagine

Remembering the tragic and surreal night John Lennon died

I remember everything about the terrible night John Lennon died, December 8, 1980. I was living in New York City, two blocks from the Dakota. It was a little past 11 PM and my roommate Hilarie and I were watching the news when an anchor cut in with a bulletin announcing that John Lennon had been shot four times in front of his home on West 72nd Street in Manhattan.

We grabbed our winter coats and darted out the door of our brownstone without talk or reason. We ran towards the Dakota, hoping and praying that the information was wrong, that somehow our running there could change what we had just heard.

Our generation had already lost a lot of rock stars, mostly to drug overdoses, but not by violence. Presidents and civil rights leaders had been assassinated in our lifetime, but not musicians, especially one that we had grown up with, and who had changed our lives in so many ways.

Somehow, something could make sense if only we got to the Dakota.

We arrived in front of the iron gates surrounding the Gothic luxury apartment building in what felt like no time. The sidewalk at the front of the building was eerily empty, there wasn't even a cop car in sight. For a second, we enjoyed the thought that the news was wrong—we needed it to be wrong—but then we looked through the gates to the inside door, past a small courtyard. We could see a bullet hole in the glass at about chest height. I could see a doorman standing there in slight shadow, but he never came forward to tell us what we wanted to hear. Was it true? Was he alive? Where were John and Yoko now?

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We stood for a moment while a few other people began to gather, looking for someone who could tell us what was going on. One radio newscaster showed up and began questioning me with a handheld contraption, as I was the self-proclaimed first responder. I repeated what I knew—which was nothing–only what I had heard on the news. After a few more minutes, Hilarie and I decided to head back to our apartment to try to find out what had happened.

As soon as we got home, our other roommate met us at the door and told us that they had just pronounced John Lennon dead. It was one of those moments when you're assaulted by so many emotions at once, you only feel numb. How could a man who preached a message of peace, love and harmony through his music meet such a violent end? The man who gave the world hope and purpose with the anthems "All You Need Is Love," "Give Peace a Chance" and "Imagine"? More than just a musician, he was a Beatle, who had been a part of my life ever since I saw "The Ed Sullivan Show" 16 years before. It just didn't seem real, and it didn't seem possible.

Our first response was to rush back to the Dakota. I particularly remember how we didn't speak with each other. There were just no words on that night. By the time we got there, there were already about 100 or so people gathered, many with lit candles in their hands, grief on their faces and tears in their eyes.

Within a half hour, there was a full-on vigil in front of the Dakota, with people chanting, "All we are saying is give peace a chance." We joined in with shocked fans and mourners of all ages and color as they continued to gather. We stayed for several hours, sobbing, singing, chanting and exchanging stories about how we were touched by this man—how he chose New York City as his home and how we all felt like we knew him.

Two days later, there was a vigil held in Central Park, right across the street from the Dakota. Many of our friends gathered at our place and we all headed over together. It wasn't as if there was even a choice. If you were one of us, you had to be there.

There were swarms of people in the park (more than 200,000 mourners, it was later announced), strangers holding hands with strangers, eyes meeting sadder eyes, tears freezing in the cold. We stood in silence at 3 PM for ten full minutes. That was what Yoko wanted, a global silence. Then we heard Lennon's voice singing "Imagine" over loudspeakers placed around the park, and we all sang along.

The assassin's name and face were splattered all over the news, but I remember that Canada wouldn't use his name in the press. I thought that was brilliant and I follow that example here.

Each December 8th, people gather by the thousands at Lennon's memorial in Central Park to pay tribute. I now live 3,000 miles away, but my heart is still there in Strawberry Fields and I remember and I sing.