Reading December 8, 1980: The Day John Lennon Died is a bit like watching two trains heading toward each other at top speed. You know that these two machines, traveling on separate paths, will eventually collide–and there is nothing you can do to prevent it. Author Keith Elliot Greenberg recreates this experience by chronicling what John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, and even some fans were doing that fateful December day, right up until the time Lennon died. In addition, Greenberg thoroughly examines Lennon’s killer, searching for answers as to what motivated him to murder a cultural icon. Reading details of December 8 makes for a chilling and emotional experience, but Greenberg too often rehashes well-known biographical information, providing relatively few insights into how Lennon’s murder impacted the world.
The strongest elements of the book spotlight the Lennons’ neighbors in the Dakota; they reminisce about how son Sean was a happy presence in the building, and that every year Yoko would organize a Japanese feast for all the residents. Greenberg discusses the couple’s philanthropy, listing the numerous charities they supported. Although Lennon had a rebellious reputation, he and Ono donated regularly to the NYPD, purchasing bulletproof vests for officers. Although many authors have described Lennon’s “househusband” years, Greenberg paints a particularly charming picture of Lennon walking Sean to the doctor’s office, then sitting patiently in the waiting room with other parents while the doctor examined Sean. Clearly Lennon enjoyed being a father, husband, and devoted New Yorker.
Greenberg contrasts these happy anecdotes with the killer’s life story, showing a tormented man with a history of mental illness. The author does not ask the reader to excuse, forgive, or even sympathize with the murderer, but simply presents a biographical sketch that lets readers judge for themselves. The killer’s desire for fame and his tendency to describe his actions in the third person, as if some other persona committed the crime, still frustrates and provokes anger. However, his story also highlights the problems with mental illness and society. Stories told by an ex-girlfriend, as well as his own recollections, demonstrate that many red flags should have been raised. While he briefly served time in an institution, he managed to get released early, only to descend into madness once again. He slipped through society’s cracks, his odd behavior ignored, with no one intervening until it was too late. As Greenberg points out, too many stalkers have attacked the objects of their obsessions, somehow evading parents, friends, doctors, and teachers who should have stepped in before such tragedies occurred. Lennon’s murder raises a variety of issues, and Greenberg wisely lets the audience reach their own conclusions.
Certain sections produce chills, such as the fact that the killer encountered Sean and his nanny walking out of the Dakota, actually shaking the little boy’s hand and saying how cute he was. Imagine that hours later, that same man would murder his father. At times Greenberg stretches for eerie coincidences; for example, he notes that the man who issued the murderer’s gun permit had the last name of Ono. At the beginning of the book, Greenberg states that Lauren Bacall, a fellow Dakota resident, attended one of Ono’s Japanese feasts. Bacall had just finished filming The Fan, which told the story of a stalker’s deadly obsession with a celebrity. These details simply do not provide any valid insights into the event; instead, they read like conspiracy theories.
Frequently Greenberg alternates between 1980 and Lennon’s past with mixed results. The author may argue that knowing Lennon’s history is essential for putting his death into context, showing how he led a turbulent life until his newfound contentment. Describing his achievements as a Beatle and solo artist also illustrate why Lennon’s death affected the world. However, books such as Philip Norman’s John Lennon: The Life, documentaries such as Imagine: John Lennon, and endless Beatles books and films have thoroughly detailed his life, from his mother’s tragic death to his struggles with drugs; from his uneasy relationship with son Julian to his “Lost Weekend” in 1975. Longtime fans could recite these events from memory, and even casual fans know the basic details. In addition, Greenberg inserts biographical information at various points in the book with little direction; he does not explicitly connect past and present events, which can result in chronological confusion. A narrower focus would have set The Day John Lennon Died apart from other books by revealing new information or providing a fresh perspective on the event’s cultural impact.
A frustrating aspect of the book is the lack of a thorough bibliography. Greenberg lists selected books and articles, but does not specify which interviews he conducted. Detailing his sources, even in footnotes, would have strengthened his credibility and let other researchers easily look up articles and books of interest.
December 8, 1980: The Day John Lennon Died evokes painful memories of that day, and proves that it marked not only the death of an icon, but the loss of a husband and father. A deeply disturbed man’s act forever changed the lives of many family members, friends, coworkers, and fans. While thought-provoking, Greenberg’s work could have spent less time on familiar biographical details and more time providing a new perspective on history. How does Lennon’s death continue to affect society? What, if anything, can be learned from the event? Addressing such questions would have made Greenberg’s book a more intriguing, unique read.