30 years later, it's still hard to fathom Lennon's killing

By Matt Hurwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 7, 2010; 10:15 PM

Dec. 8, 1980. That's a date every Beatles fan over 40 remembers: the day John Lennon was shot and killed. We all know where we were and what we were doing when we found out. It's hard to believe it's been 30 years - harder still to believe it happened at all.

I grew up in Potomac and became a Beatles fan in 1974, when my brother, Mark, gave me my first Beatles album - "Something New" from 1964. I immediately ran out to Waxie Maxie's in Congressional Plaza and bought all four of the Beatles' then-current solo singles. I was hooked.

I bought every album and single I could, building a pretty substantial collection (which I still have). On the night of Dec. 8, 1980, I was in the architecture school studio at the University of Maryland working late. The radio was tuned to DC101. A little after 11 p.m., I heard the DJ - who apparently read the copy cold - say, "This just in: Former Beatle John Lennon was shot and killed in New York City. Oh my God!"

I couldn't believe it. Was this really happening? Somebody would shoot a Beatle? Why John? What was all this?

Stunned, I just sat there listening to the report, until someone told me I had a phone call. My roommate, Jeff, had been watching "Monday Night Football," on which, like many Americans, he heard ABC's Howard Cosell break the news about John. Jeff immediately called me, wanting to know how I was doing. It was then that I cried.

John Lennon was dead.

I graduated from Maryland and eventually moved to Los Angeles, where I still live. Having rekindled my interest in the Beatles, I took over a Beatles fanzine, Good Day Sunshine, in 1995, and ran it for about five years.

The guy who sold me the magazine was Charles F. Rosenay!!! (yes, those exclamation points are legally part of his name). He began organizing Beatles fan conventions in 1978 and was planning one for Boston in December 1980.

Like me, a little after 11 p.m. on Dec. 8, he received a call from a friend who gave him the news. "I thought he was kidding, like another 'Paul is dead' hoax," Rosenay!!! says. "I hung up on him."

But the calls kept coming. He turned on the TV and heard the reports. Cosell repeated the news. Then a call from ABC Radio, and one from another network. "All I remember from that night was, for hours, doing interviews," he recalls. "They wanted a 'spokesperson,' someone who was a Beatles fan. They wanted to know how to get ahold of people who might have known John."

Rosenay!!! decided the convention - scheduled for that weekend - would go on. "The fans needed it. It was cathartic. We needed to commiserate and share together."

It wasn't until the next Monday, after the whirlwind of news and conventions had passed, that the reality of Lennon's death finally sank in. "I was driving in the car with my mom, and 'Starting Over' came on the radio. I pulled over, and I just started crying. For 20 minutes, I just cried. He was as close to me as someone could be without me knowing them," he says.

'Real emotional moment'

Nine hundred miles south, in Decatur, Ga., Bill King had just put together a second anniversary issue of his magazine, Beatlefan - now the longest-running Beatles fanzine in the United States - which had launched in December 1978. His wife, Leslie, returned from the typesetter's a little after 11. "I greeted her at the door, smiling. She said, 'You haven't heard,' " he recalls.

King was the rock critic and music reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I called the city desk, to see if they needed anything, and dictated a bunch of background of Lennon for them." His instinctual "reporter mode" on, he hopped in his car and headed to work, listening to reports on the radio as he drove.

King and his wife decided to scrap their planned anniversary issue of Beatlefan and put out a Lennon tribute issue. "This is before the days of e-mail - we sent out mailgrams from the Postal Service to all our contributors, asking for pieces. We had the issue delivered to the printer on Christmas Eve, the first fan publication tribute to him out there."

Again, it wasn't until the dust settled, after days of being interviewed himself, that King had a chance to grieve the loss of one of his favorite humans: "Yoko, John's widow, had called for a few minutes of silence around the world a few days after his death. I was listening to it on the radio, and . . . that was a real emotional moment for me. The reporter's instinct got me through the first 24 hours without having time to grieve. But in that moment, I did."

'Worst day of my life'

Mark Lapidos never needed a reminder of when Lennon's birthday was - his father's was also Oct. 9. In late 1973, the Sam Goody Records store manager decided to put together Beatlefest - now called the Fest for Beatles Fans (www.thefest.com) - a popular annual fan convention, still hugely successful, the first of which was held in New York the next September.

Six years later, on Dec. 8, the Lapidoses were about to board a plane in Los Angeles to return east, having just signed contracts for a Beatlefest at the Bonaventure Hotel for the next year. "We were at the airport, and somebody I knew paged me," he says. "That's how I found out."

Lapidos spent the red-eye flight in shock. "I asked the flight attendant to ask the crew if they could verify what I'd been told. Maybe it was misinformation - maybe it was Jack Lemmon." Upon landing in New York, the couple got into a cab for a ride home. Lapidos asked the driver, " 'Is it true?' He just answered, 'Yes.' "

Lapidos called his brother, who told him that, for the first time he'd ever seen, "people were just walking the streets of New York, openly crying." He stayed in his home for a week, sickened by the grief. "It was the worst day of my life. It still hurts, all these years later."

'It was just . . . awful'

In Liverpool, England, Jean Catharell was lying in her bed blissfully unaware of what had taken place in New York a few hours earlier. Then her husband startled her awake: "You need to get up."

Catharell can remember seeing the Beatles play in clubs and other venues around Liverpool in 1963, just before the international explosion of Beatlemania. She put on Radio Merseyside, which was playing Lennon's "Imagine" and repeating the bad news.

Eventually Catharell pulled herself together enough to go into town to Mathew Street, Liverpool's famous main thoroughfare. "When I got there, there were people wandering up and down the street, carrying candles, guitars," she says.

Opposite the Cavern, the famed hole-in-the-wall club where the Beatles' career began, a shrine of Lennon artifacts began to assemble. "There were things like the Lennon cap and T-shirts. People had given up some of their treasures just to pay homage to John," she says.

Catharell lingered outside the Cavern. "I couldn't tell how long I sat there. Hours and hours. I sat there till it was dark," she says in her lyrical Liverpool accent. "It must have been quite a long time because the candles were lighting up the street. It was just . . . it was just awful."

'He believed in peace'

In Southern California, Kristy Mundt stayed home from work the day after Lennon's murder. "It brought back all the awful memories of losing John and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King," she says. "The Beatles had come just after JFK's assassination, right at the right time, to get young people out of that rut and that depression. And now somebody had killed John."

In 1995, not long after joining the Come Together Beatles Fan Club in San Diego, Mundt heard that Lennon's killer, Mark David Chapman, who had been sentenced to 20 years to life, might, in five more years, be getting out of prison.

So Mundt began circulating petitions, gathering signatures of fans who also didn't want to see Chapman out of jail - ever. "I realized that, if nobody did anything, he might just slip through the cracks and be out and free to do whatever he wanted to do, and he should not be allowed to do that," she says.

There was another reason. "It was my opinion that, if he got out, somebody was going to kill him," she says. "And I didn't believe that was something that John would want. He didn't believe in an eye for an eye, he believed in peace."

Mundt gathered 700 signatures the weekend of the Beatle Fair and by October 2000, after circulating the petition online and to fan clubs around the world, had 35,000 signatures. So the grocery clerk from San Diego flew to Attica State Prison in Upstate New York - on her own dime - to deliver the signatures and protest Chapman's possible release outside the prison gates. (He is still in prison.)

"John's death was such a waste," Mundt says. "It was one of the stupidest things ever done. I'm 58 now - I look at what I've accomplished in the last 18 years, since I was 40," says the breast cancer survivor. "To have that time taken away, in your own life . . . it's just a waste."

Hurwitz is a freelance writer.

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