I used to worry a lot about death when I was a kid. Now the fear of it
means less and less to me. You know, when we were all the rage, we
all used round-the-clock bodyguards because we genuinely feared for
our lives. Now that we've been disbanded for so long it's a great relief
that the terror has finally disappeared from our lives.
— John Lennon, 1980 —
We, ourselves, were each other's best friends. There were moments
we touched each other's soul.
— Paul McCartney, 1988 —
The Murder of John Lennon
Alone, in the dimly lit bedroom she had shared with John Lennon for the previous seven years, Yoko Ono walked soundlessly across the plush white carpet to a large mahogany bureau at the far end of the room. There, carefully turning through the pages of John's old, oversized address book, she stopped, finally, at an entry scrawled haphazardly across the journal's tatty inside back cover. Picking up the telephone she wondered if the number would still be any good. So much time had passed. So many heartaches. And now, the cruelest blow of all.
"Hello." It was a child's voice, faraway, on the other end of the wobbly transatlantic line.
"Who's calling, please?"
"Oh, hi." She struggled to find her normal speaking voice. "Is your daddy at home? It's Yoko."
A few, muffled, anxious moments later, Paul McCartney picked up the line.
"Yoko?" he said, his voice already full of surprise and obvious concern. "What's the matter?"
"It's John." She replied, attempting to control herself. "He's dead. Someone shot him. Can you believe it?"
A world away, standing in the cluttered kitchen of his tiny circular farmhouse in rural Sussex, McCartney looked helplessly towards his wife, Linda, who, minutes before had been busily preparing breakfast for her two youngest children.
"I don't know what to say," he finally answered. "Why? It can't be." And then simply, "No... my God."
Two hours later, just after noon on Tuesday, December.9, 1980, McCartney emerged from his home enroute to a Wings recording session at George Martin's AIR Studios in London, commenting only briefly to reporters assembled outside that he was far too shocked and upset to properly "take it in" at the moment and that John was a great man who would be remembered for his unique contributions to art, music, and peace. With that he drove off with Linda in their silver Volvo station wagon, silently lost in his thoughts for the two-hour-plus drive to London.
His current musical collaborator, Denny Laine, was also shaken by the news. He had arrived early for the session and was quietly remembering his rowdy Moody Blues days hanging out with Lennon when Paul and Linda arrived. McCartney put a call through to Yoko in New York. In the course of their conversation she told him just how fond her husband had been of him despite the many verbal barbs the often caustic Lennon had unleashed upon his former partner in recent years concerning their tempestuous, twenty-four-year relationship. Underneath it all, she said, John had been secretly proud of McCartney's astounding solo success, and had often remarked that, as an amateur talent scout, he really hadn't done too badly in discovering someone of Paul's superlative abilities. Besides, the occasionally crusty Lennon would argue, it's one thing for families to row, quite another to allow anyone else to have a go. To John's mind, anyway, said Yoko, he and McCartney had always remained brothers. Brawling brothers maybe, but family nonetheless.
Although he appreciated her kind words, especially considering the horrific pain she was herself experiencing, McCartney wasn't easily comforted and sought some measure of solace in his work in the studio. Session musician Paddy Mahoney was on board that afternoon and recalls what he perceived to be a get-on-with-the-job attitude among McCartney and the rest of Wings. "There was a kind of unspoken sadness," he later commented, "like when you lose an old soccer mate. It was subtle and there wasn't any crying or moping about. I don't think it had really sunk in yet."
Outside, the parasitic media were swarming all over each other, frantically trying to capture every drop of emotion they could squeeze out of their unwilling and very vulnerable prey. No Beatle or close family member was immune to their unwelcome scrutiny. With no confirmed sightings of McCartney for several hours straight, the circling British tabloid vultures began ritually feeding off themselves, rushing to phone boxes to call in reports of some of their colleagues' over-zealous efforts to get a peak at his private pain by scaling the wrought-iron fire escape system that clung to the exterior of the four-storey-high private studios. Wisely taking no chances with McCartney's personal safety, his office in Soho Square retained an elite corps of specially trained anti-terrorist bodyguards to help ease back the rapidly swelling crowds, attracted by all the fuss outside AIR and by the creeping awareness that Len-non's death was very much history in the making, one final blaze of publicity in a career filled with wild and outrageous acts.
Going through the motions of another rocking workday up at AIR, McCartney wasn't really fooling anybody, least of all Denny Laine, who at the time was perhaps his closest and most trusted friend. Laine remembers:
The really strange thing was that I went to work that morning somehow knowing Paul would ultimately show up — despite what had happened. Of course, from the point of view of his Liverpool upbringing, the best way to deal with something like that is to keep right on doing what you'd normally do. It helps to take your mind off it — being with friends, I suppose, even though it did occur to me that he might have just as easily rung up and cancelled the session. I remember the first thing he said to me was, "I just don't know what to think." He was obviously physically shaken, and even at the best of times wasn't really too articulate when it came to expressing how he felt about things. After one of the takes Paul and I were just hanging out, leaning up against AIR's huge floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Oxford Circus, when I happened to notice this dark green truck going by that said LENNON FURNISHINGS or something like that. "Oh God, look at that," I said, and he just sort of broke down, you know? "I'll tell you one thing, man," he said, "I'll never fall out with anyone again in my life for that amount of time and face the possibility of them dying before I get a chance to square it with them."
After that I never consciously mentioned anything about it. If he wanted to talk about it he did, and if he didn't, well, he didn't. Everybody in the world was very hurt by John's death, but especially Paul McCartney.
Making his way to the car following the seven-hour session, McCartney was momentarily cornered by the now deadline-frantic media who later quoted him as saying he hoped that everyone would "rally round Yoko." When pressed by one particularly aggressive microphone to comment on how he felt about Lennon's assassination, he grimaced slightly and, hanging precariously on the edge of tears, tossed off, "It's a drag, man," as he dove into the back of the waiting car. They were four words he would live to regret.
Within twenty-four hours headlines around the world proclaimed the lie that McCartney had remained callously unmoved by his former partner's death, and when questioned, actually came off as being quite flip and even casual about the tragedy. For those who don't yet know it, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Denny Laine recalls: "I don't really understand what it was the media thought they'd got on him, I mean, it was a drag! What else do you say? What do you do, write a bloody book there and then? He might have burst into tears had he gone on, who knows? Of course the real fuckin' drag was having to face some asshole sticking a mike in your face, harassing you for a quote at a time like that. Of course it happens every day on the telly — 'Excuse me Mrs. Blootch, you've just lost your entire family to an escaped loony with a chainsaw. What's running through your mind?' I mean really, you tell me who's being callous? The public's 'right to know' doesn't give anyone license to badger people." In part, to try to quell the uproar set spinning by this avalanche of nasty publicity, McCartney attempted to set the record straight once and for all by issuing the following "official" statement to the world's press:
I have hidden myself in my work today. But it keeps flashing into my mind. I feel shattered, angry, and very sad. It's just ridiculous. He was pretty rude about me sometimes, but I secretly admired him for it, and I always managed to stay in touch with him. There was no question that we weren't friends — I really loved the guy. I think that what has happened will in years to come make people realize that John was an international statesman. He often looked a loony to many people. He made enemies, but he was fantastic. He was a warm man who cared a lot and with the record "Give Peace a Chance" he helped stop the Vietnam War. He made a lot of sense.
If this heartfelt statement wasn't enough to curb the media's demand for atonement, McCartney later dedicated an entire issue of MPL's (McCartney Productions Limited) fan club publication, Club Sandwich, to Lennon's memory. It included a beautiful full-color portfolio of Linda's touching photographs of him. There was also, of course, McCartney's soulful panegyric to Lennon, "Here Today," on his masterful, Tug of War album of 1982, as well as the appearance of the McCartneys and Denny Laine on George Harrison's tuneful tribute "All Those Years Ago."
For McCartney the specter of untimely death was nothing new. Throughout his turbulent life he has had to endure the unnatural passing of not only his mother, Mary, but also Beatles bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, Brian Epstein, Wings guitarist Jimmy McCulloch, as well as his close friend, Keith Moon. Although deeply moved, he was generally quite stoic. Ironically, it took the tragic death of a stranger to emotionally uncork the naturally reserved McCartney and force him to begin to come to terms with the tenuous nature of his own life journey. It occurred in October of 1980 in the tiny village of Tenterden, in Kent. Wings had been rehearsing in a manor house rented from prominent London publisher Martin Miller when they heard the terrible sounds of a car crash outside the main gates. Laine recalls: "Apparently, this young Japanese au pair girl who worked for the Millers was taking their infant daughter, Cara, for a walk in her pram when this supposedly drunken driver tried to overtake another car and knocked them both down. The baby flew up into the air and landed unhurt by a hedgerow, but the poor au pair was very badly injured."
Dashing outside, McCartney and Laine instructed Wings' road manager Trevor Jones to get the van and drive the little girl and her hysterical mother to a nearby hospital while they did what they could for the semi-conscious young woman until the summoned medical help arrived.
I was actually the first to reach her, but Paul dove right in and started nursing her, trying to do what he could. I mean he certainly wasn't frightened of blood. It was obvious to both of us she had suffered very severe internal injuries and that unless there was some kind of miracle she probably wouldn't make it. I remember there was blood pouring out of her ears, and her eyes were rolled way back in her head. It was just terrible.
To make matters worse, being so far out in the countryside the ambulance took well over an hour to wind its way through the area's twisting, largely unmarked, lanes. McCartney, however, never moved an inch, all the while sitting there by the side of the road, cradling her head in his lap. Laine reflects: "Paul was just saying things like, 'It'll be alright, luv, don't worry,' but we were getting no response. At one point he glanced over at me and slowly shook his head. He knew. We both knew. Still, he just sat there stroking her long black hair, talking and sometimes even singing softly as she lay there dying."
That evening, in an East Sussex hospital, twenty-one-year-old Hisako Kawahara died of her injuries. Out of respect for the privacy of the Kawahara and Miller families, McCartney ordered his London office to enforce a tight media ban on his assistance.
"I'm a bit of a cover-up," McCartney commented in October of 1986. "There are many people like me in the world who don't find it easy to have public grief. But that was one of the things that brought John and I very close together. We used to talk about it, being sixteen or seventeen. We actually used to know how people felt when they said, 'How's your mother?' and we'd say, 'Well, she's dead.' We almost had a sort of joke; we'd have to say, 'It's alright, don't worry.' We'd both lost our mothers. It was never really spoken about much; no-one really spoke about anything real. There was a famous expression: 'Don't get real on me, man.'"
Perhaps the most telling tale as regards McCartney's inability to either exhibit real emotion or open up to those around him has to do with his father's passing. Denny remembers:
We were in Paris. Wings had just done a great show so we were all in pretty high spirits. Afterwards we shuffled down to this press conference where we met up with our old pal David Cassidy. I remember Paul was struggling to answer all these typically mundane questions from the media while David did his best to crack us all up, making faces and stuff just behind the camera. Eventually this one guy pipes up and asks Paul if either of his parents are still living, to which he offhandedly replies simply, "No."
At that point Laine just about fell off his chair. The tight-lipped McCartney had never so much as mentioned a word to anyone about his father's death, which both surprised and hurt the sensitive Laine. "Over the years I'd become pretty close to old Jim," he confides, "and I was pretty upset that Paul had never bothered to let me know what was up. You see, Paul is very publicly shy in some ways but unfortunately, he's also quite privately shy as well. What can I say? It was just his personality."
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The death of John Lennon put an abrupt and unhappy end to speculation about a possible Beatles reunion. The band had almost magically metamorphosed over the years from the black-leather-clad Cavern Club rockers to the four cheeky lads with the daring hairdos and collarless jackets first seen by most North Americans on Ed Sullivan's "really big shoe" in the winter of 1964. Over the next three years they further evolved into the introspective, psychedelic lords of London, resplendent in neo-Edwardian finery, purveyors of eerie otherworldly love songs from the edge of the galaxy. In their final incarnation, as the thirtyish Picassos of recorded sound, they had become a musical collective of such staggeringly successful proportions as to eventually collapse under the weight of their own shared fame.
Finally, even the longstanding brotherly bond was strained to the limit and beyond, disintegrating amidst salvos of accusation. "It's a simple fact," said Lennon of McCartney. "He can't get his own way so he's causing havoc."
McCartney, in particular, seemed to come out of it all feeling dejected and depressed. Photographs from that period depict a downcast Paul, hands dug deep into his pockets, burly beard, big, sad eyes, and slow, round-shouldered gait. Never mind the breezy let's-look-to-the-future banter he was giving out to the media, the body language alone was undeniable. "My overwhelming feeling was I was of no use anymore, my usefulness was gone," McCartney told interviewer Bernard Goldberg in 1990. "What do I do now? What am I? You were one of the Beatles! That was the frightening bit, you once were. I thought, God, I'm not at retirement age yet. I can't just swan off to a desert island. I've got to do something."
With more than two decades of post-Beatles work behind him, McCartney has emerged as the wide-eyed Everyman of rock'n'roll, clinging to a deftly manufactured image of whimsy and inherited family normalcy. It is tempting to imagine him at home with Earth Mother Linda, sitting by the fire at night, toking a joint, tittering about the crafty way he's been having us on all these years, a hippie Dorian Gray living out his wildest fantasies at the public's expense. Or, is it possible he actually is every bit the self-effacing, good-natured Liverpool lad he's always insisted?
The rock supernova, the laid-back family man, the shepherd, the ethereal Fool of the Tarot card, effortlessly overstepping his earthly boundaries and waltzing away on thin air — the real McCartney is cleverly obscured, but partially revealed, by a facade of images. Even those who have been closest to him say that despite all the airy, Beatlesque humor, and good-natured, thumbs-up clowning, the McCartney guard is always up. With McCartney, it seems, there are no clear-cut answers, only an increasing complexity of clues.