It was one of the few times in Lennon’s life, according to Yoko, that he didn’t purposely go out and make waves. “You must understand,” she said, “we had a very difficult time with immigration. But when John finally got his green card, he thought, well, he has a son, he has his green card. Maybe this is not the time to be too dangerous.” Then came the summer of 1980. Against the political backdrop of fifty-two Americans still being held hostage in Iran, which greatly diminished the chances of Jimmy Carter’s reelection bid and made Reagan look more and more like the next president of the United States, Lennon traveled with a five-man crew to Bermuda. His intention was to rent a house on the island and simply while away his time swimming and sailing. But something else happened on Bermuda, and it turned out to be a burst of creative energy that saw him writing more than a dozen songs in three weeks.
He knew Yoko also had been writing songs in New York, and they would spend days on the phone singing their latest compositions to each other. It was clear to both of them that they would start recording a new album as soon he got back.
“He was so excited on the phone,” recalled Yoko. “He said, ‘I wrote two songs.’
“And I said, ‘I have two songs. Let’s make an EP.’
“And then the next day, he said, ‘Now I have two more.’ “And I said, ‘Well, maybe now it should be an album.’ That’s how it started. We decided to work on a theme, and he was very excited about that. He just kept thanking me and thanking me.”
On Tuesday, August 5, John and Yoko entered the Hit Factory, on West 48th Street in New York, to begin recording the album, Double Fantasy. Producer Jack Douglas was at the controls, and photographer Bob Gruen was given almost free reign to document the sessions with candid pictures.
“I visited the studio on and off from late summer through the end of the backing track sessions,” said Gruen. “I was there a number of times while they recorded. We really had no set appointments. I just did things as the situation came up. John was extremely positive about the music he was making, and excited to be back in the studio. He was coming from a position of real strength in his life. He had spent five years out of the limelight, and he had taken time to raise his son and learn about parenting and about living.
“The album was to be about the relationship between a man and a woman,” said Gruen. “And in that regard it was very much a John and Yoko project, not just John Lennon. A track of his would follow a track of hers, and then they’d stop to talk about their feelings and deal with the relationship. To me, he appeared so grounded.”
“I had been in a hundred recording studios with different artists, and I’d been with John in various studios, as well,” said Mintz. “The recording of Double Fantasy was unique because in many ways it was a metaphor for the way John’s life was coming to completion. All these recording studios-the Hit Factory, where John and Yoko recorded the album, or the Record Plant, where it was mixed-have closed-circuit cameras at the front door. They have this so an engineer can see who is ringing the buzzer. A lot of sessions sometimes go on into the middle of the night. The studio may not be in the best neighborhood. So they need these cameras for security reasons. One of the things I remember about the Double Fantasy sessions was John and Yoko pinning a large photograph of Sean to the face of the TV monitor above the recording console. You couldn’t see who was outside, but for John and Yoko it was more important to see Sean staring down at the console.
“Yoko also created this small anteroom just off of the control room, a white room, twenty by fifteen,” said Mintz, “that she made to look like a mini version of their living room at the Dakota. The lighting in this room was lowered, and it was filled with candles and incense. A Japanese woman named Toshi served tea. It was a room John and Yoko would go to when there was a lull in the session. I remember going with them into the room. John was wearing slacks and a jacket and a shirt that was open at the collar. In that room, he spoke about the project softly, tentatively, and rhapsodically. It was a quiet room, unlike any room I’d ever seen at a rock and roll recording session. None of the other musicians or technical people ever entered that room. It was mostly a room where John and Yoko could relax.”
On Thursday, October 9, a skywriting plane flew over Central Park and spelled out the smoky message “Happy Birthday John & Sean. Love Yoko.” Below the message was a dual birthday party that Yoko threw at Warner LeRoy’s famed Central Park restaurant, Tavern on the Green. “Mainly we concentrated on Sean,” said Yoko. “He had a great time at the party. It was mostly his friends at the party, kids from school, a few parents, Sean’s best friend, Max LeRoy, and his parents, Warner and Kay LeRoy. It was John’s birthday and Sean’s birthday, but John wanted it to be a day for Sean.”
Sean’s father kept mostly to himself in the cavernous multiroom restaurant, watching the party as though he were there as an observer and not a celebrant. There was, after all, much to reflect on. He was now forty.
“I don’t think he felt forty was necessarily a milestone age for him,” said Yoko, looking back at the day. “I mean, he wrote the song, ‘Life Begins at Forty,’ which was a serious song when he first wrote it. Then he listened to his own lyrics, and he said, ‘I can’t do this. I have to make it funny.’ So he wound up creating a comic song about turning forty. That’s how he wanted to look at it, especially that day. I think he wanted to play down his age and focus on Sean.”
Mintz made one other trip to New York in early November, specifically to hear John and Yoko’s new album. “The engineer would prepare cassettes for John, and he would take them back to the Dakota and play them on the little stereo in his bedroom,” said Mintz. “He had none of the fancy equipment at home. He always believed music should be listened to the way it comes out on a car radio.”
Mintz went back to the Dakota with John and Yoko that night, into what was called the “old bedroom,” facing West Seventy-second Street. John’s primitive hi-fi system was on one side of the bed. At the foot of the bed was a television, a large-screen TV that John had purchased a few years before in Tokyo. Mintz was with him in Japan when he bought the TV.
“He was one of the first people to import a large-screen TV from Japan,” said Mintz. “But he really needed a large screen, because without his eyeglasses on he couldn’t see more than four or five feet in front of him.”
Behind the bed was a brick wall, and in front of it, up against the foot, was the large-screen TV. On either side of the television were these two large old-fashioned dental cabinets, the kind that you might see in a Norman Rockwell painting from the 1930s, with twenty or thirty sliding drawers, basically for clothing and John’s ties.
“The whole look was simple, and it just worked,” said Mintz. “And the room, of course, was either lit by candles or so dimly lit that you could hardly see a thing. And that’s how I first heard Double Fantasy, in that setting. John put the cassette on and he kicked back in bed. He was in his pajamas, Yoko was in her nightgown, and I sat in a white wicker rocking chair on Yoko’s side of the bed. The music just wafted throughout the open room. And the two of them were very stiff and quiet. The TV was on, with the sound off. John didn’t have his glasses on, so to him everything was completely out of focus. He referred to the TV as his electronic fireplace.”
When the music was over, Mintz and Lennon talked into the night. Yoko fell asleep. “She usually went to sleep when John and I spoke,” said Mintz. “Yoko does not sleep the way most people sleep. She takes a series of catnaps during every twenty-four-hour period. She’ll go down for two or three hours, come up, do what she has to do, and when she gets tired she goes to sleep again. She can sleep at the drop of a dime. She had heard thousands of hours of the John and Elliot dialogue. And with my kind of late-night FM voice, and John mostly talking about things Yoko already knew about, I would expect her to fall asleep. And that night she did.
“John was enthusiastic about everything that night, not only about the record coming out, but also about what the record symbolized, and where he was with his family,” said Mintz. “A few weeks prior to this he had prepared his first loaf of bread that he baked in his oven. He sent me a Polaroid picture of the loaf of bread, which to him was a symbol of pride that he could do such a thing as create a loaf of bread. I still have the Polaroid of the loaf of bread. I know there’s the impression that his life was very frenetic, very busy, but in fact it was Yoko who was generating a lot of the business stuff and taking the phone calls. John just seemed content with where he was, and completely at peace in terms of his relationship with Sean. Each night before he slept, he would put Sean to sleep by cradling him in his arms and whispering into his ears the various things that the two of them did that day.
“I asked him about going out on the road and performing live, assuming the record was a success, and he was affirmative about all of it,” said Mintz. “He basically said, ‘Whatever Mother thinks we should do.’ In fact, Yoko had already laid the groundwork for a mini-tour, not something that would take them around the world on a jet plane, like Mick Jagger does with the Rolling Stones. It was just going to be some key locations in key cities.”
There came a point in the middle of the night when Lennon was finally through talking. He wasn’t bashful about kicking Mintz out. He just simply said, “Okay, I think I’m going to close my eyes now.” “He said, ‘Let me walk you to the door.’
“And I said, ‘John, I know my way to the door.’ But he was insistent,” said Mintz. “So he got up, in his pajamas, and he led me to the door. There was a chain of bells hanging on the doorknob, on the inside of their front door. They were Tibetan or Buddhist bells, on a small chain not much thicker than a woman’s large necklace. They rang with a high-pitched tone, not loud, not like gongs. And as we got to the door, he turned the knob and opened it, and the bells started ringing. And for no particular reason that I could discern, he smiled at me, and said, ‘It’s our alarm system.’”
Thanksgiving at the Lennon apartment, just a week after the release of Double Fantasy, turned out to be a simple celebration, with only three people in attendance that night: John, Yoko, and Sean. “It seemed like we were the only family we had then,” said Yoko. “Thanksgiving is about collecting your family, and mine was in Japan, and John’s was in England. John was an only child, his parents were both gone, and Thanksgiving is not an English holiday. So who were we going to invite? I mean, I could have called Japan, and said, ‘Come to Thanksgiving at our house.’ And they would have said, ‘What?’ “I didn’t cook,” said Yoko. “We had turkey brought in. But we were very into the idea of Thanksgiving. This whole idea of a pilgrimage, and the white people learning from the Indians, that was an important concept for Sean to learn. He was born an American, and Thanksgiving is an American thing. And we were feeling very American at that time, especially since John had just gotten his green card. We felt like we were starting over as an American family.”
It is no coincidence that the song “(Just Like) Starting Over” became the album’s first single. “It was not written until very late in the process,” said Yoko. “It was like it suddenly came from left field. But we were starting over in a big way. We had the child we never thought we’d have. We tried so many times, and I was always having a miscarriage or something. So this was a big, important thing to us.”
And it became a big disappointment when the single did not do as well in England as the Lennons had expected. “When the single hit Britain, we thought it would go to number one. When it got stuck at eight, I felt very responsible,” said Yoko. “I felt I had to make sure that this whole project was good for John. And now the record stopped in England. I went to John, and I said, ‘Look, I’m sorry. It’s eight.’ “He knew exactly what I meant,” she said. “It was eight, and it was not going to go up any further. He just looked at me, and he said, ‘Hey, you know, I still have my family.’ But he also knew that a lot of what we did over the years was not popular. He had pride in what he was doing, and he was doing something he believed in. He was an avant-garde artist in that way. You do something not because you think it will be popular. You do it because you believe in it.”
Back in California, Mintz continued his regular phone dialogue with the Lennons, speaking to Yoko daily, and to John maybe three, four times a week. “With the album still relatively new,” said Mintz, “he talked to me about what I thought the public reaction to his reemergence might be, after all that time away. And I recall asking him, ‘Do you care? Does it matter?’ “He snickered,” said Mintz. “He said for years he was always concerned when he saw any of the pop stars in the magazines because he was never one who enjoyed going to places like Studio 54 and having his picture taken. Because he had been out of the loop for so long, he wondered whether or not he would even be remembered, and whether or not the music would still be relevant or significant. I believe his questions to me on the phone were more rhetorical than anything else. He did say that none of his contemporaries had ever put their women on the same level as he did with Yoko. That’s why Double Fantasy was so special to him, because it was not a reemergence of Beatle John coming back to say hello again, but a statement of where he was in his life.
“By this time he had also given up any kind of drug use,” said Mintz. “He was very clear, very in-tune. He would divide his conversations between what was going on with the music, what was going on at the house, and what was going on in the political world. Whatever occurred on the news he would want me to pay attention. He also told me he didn’t feel tired anymore. There was a long period of time that he complained of lethargy and weariness. But in these few conversations he was all upbeat.”
On Thursday night, December 4, Bob Gruen met Lennon at the Record Plant, on West Forty-fourth Street, where he was mixing Yoko’s single “Walking on Thin Ice.” The song had been hastily recorded after Double Fantasy was completed.
“They did all their mixing at the Record Plant,” said Gruen. “I took a number of pictures of John and Yoko around the studio that night. They posed in front of an eight-foot-tall guitar that John had fabricated for an avant-garde festival. It was too big for them to take home, so they ended up loaning it to the Record Plant for a while. I knew he had made it, so I wanted them posing in front of it.
“Then he told me about this coat he had at home, this fancy gold and red braided jacket with Japanese writing on it,” said Gruen. “He wanted me to shoot pictures of him wearing this coat, so we made another plan for me to come back the next night, and I did.” While Yoko spent most of Friday night, December 5, putting various vocal effects on her single, Gruen sat with Lennon on the floor of the Record Plant and talked.
“For a long time we talked about the future,” said Gruen. “He was very excited that he had come back, and very excited about what Yoko had managed to do on the album. He was really amused by the fact that she was getting great reviews and that her music was being called new and interesting, as opposed to his music, which some critics called a bit tamer and middle of the road. He was very excited about that because he really liked Yoko’s influence. He also talked about taking a couple of weeks off for the holidays, and then he wanted to start rehearsing with a band and record some videos by the end of January. He estimated that they’d probably be performing live by March. He even talked about the possibility of doing concerts in Japan. We both had a common interest in Japan. We were talking about places where we were going to go shopping, and restaurants where we were going to eat.”
It was dawn on Saturday, December 6, by the time Yoko finished her work in the studio. All during the night Lennon never put on the braided jacket, and now he was carrying it over his arm as he walked outside with Yoko and Gruen.
“It must have been six or seven in the morning when we got outside,” said Gruen. “I asked John if we could take the pictures right then, and Yoko said, ‘Oh, I feel tired. Let’s do it another time.’ “And John said to her, ‘Look, you’ve kept him up all night. Let’s take some pictures.’ So he put on the jacket and I took about half a roll of pictures out on the sidewalk. A car was waiting for them. John said to me, ‘See you later,’ and they left.”
That afternoon, Lennon went by himself to his favorite West Side haunt, Cafe La Fortuna, a small Italian coffee shop on West Seventy-first Street, just around the corner from the Dakota. John and Yoko were regulars at Cafe La Fortuna, right from the time it opened in 1976. They would often go in together, with or without Sean, and there were many more times that Lennon could be found there by himself, drinking cappuccino, nibbling on Italian-made chocolates, reading the newspapers, and talking with the restaurant’s owner, Vincent Urwand.
Lennon viewed La Fortuna as a safe haven, and over time he established the kind of relationship with Urwand that allowed for much teasing and playful banter. Urwand even teased him that day about Double Fantasy.”Look, you’ve had all those years of wildness and success in the Beatles,” Urwand was quoting as saying in Ray Coleman’s exhaustively researched John Lennon biography, Lennon.
“You don’t need the money,” argued Urwand. “What are you doing all this for? You’re enjoying being a husband and father!” According to Coleman’s book, Lennon responded first by laughing, and then saying to Urwand, “I swore I’d look after that boy until he was five, and he’s five and I feel like getting back to my music. The urge is there. It’s been a long time since I wrote a song, but they’re coming thick and fast now.”
Back at the Dakota that night, Lennon phoned his aunt Mimi, his mother’s sister and the woman most responsible for his upbringing, and gushed about the new album.
John and Yoko also talked that night about their planned trip to San Francisco. They discussed leaving New York on Wednesday, December 10, which would give them a few days to do nothing prior to their weekend appearance at a rally to help Asian workers gain the same kind of equal rights and equal pay as their Caucasian colleagues. “It was about Asians, and we have an Asian kid,” said Yoko. “John really was looking forward to that benefit. When he said, ‘Okay, let’s do it,’ it meant another kind of beginning for us, one where we could once again take a political stance in public.”
On Sunday night, December 7, Lennon sat down with the cassette to Yoko’s single “Walking on Thin Ice” and proceeded to listen to it over and over again. “He listened to it like crazy, all weekend long,” said Yoko. “It almost drove me crazy. There’s this room in the apartment, overlooking the park, and he was lying down on the couch, or half sitting, with his legs on the floor. And that Sunday night, he just kept listening to the song, and listening to the song. I went to sleep. And when I came back into the room early Monday morning, he was still listening. He said it was the best song I ever wrote, but there was something else going on. The song is really a very strange song. But at the same time there was something in the air that was starting to accelerate. I felt an incredible vibe around us. Not an actual noise, but a strong vibe circling us. I started talking to him over that vibration. I said, ‘John, good morning.’ And he was still listening to the song.”
Later that morning, Lennon had his hair cut at a nearby salon and then returned home to do a photo shoot with Yoko for photographer Annie Leibovitz. At 1 P.M., Lennon did a phone interview with a disc jockey from the RKO Radio Network. John and Yoko spent the remainder of the afternoon making phone calls and playing with Sean. The only real plan they had was to return to the Record Plant so they could continue tinkering with Yoko’s song.
“It was getting late,” recalled Yoko, “and we both said, ‘Oh, we better go now.’ We were getting to be like this old couple who really knew each other so well, and knew each other’s moves so well. I went out that weekend and I bought some chocolates because John loved chocolate. I had gone out to get something, I don’t remember what, and I thought, ‘Oh, I better get some chocolate for him.’ And I did. “Then I came upstairs, and before I could open the door, he opened it from the inside, and he said, ‘I knew you were coming back.’ “I said, ‘How did you know that?’ “He said, ‘I just knew.’ “I said, ‘I thought of your chocolate, and I got you some.’” Lennon graciously took the chocolate from his wife and set it down on a table, but he never took a bite.
At approximately 5 P.M. on Monday, December 8, John and Yoko came downstairs and were met outside by Paul Goresh.
John and Yoko knew they were not going to pull another allnighter at the Record Plant. Most of the work on Yoko’s song had been done, and producer Jack Douglas promised that he would have a master copy finished by 9 A.M. the following morning. The Lennons were grateful to get out of the studio at a relatively early hour. As Yoko said, “John wanted to get home early enough to say good night to Sean.” Goresh was already gone by the time John and Yoko returned to the Dakota.
As Lennon turned around, The bullets hit Lennon in the back, shoulder, and arm. He managed to stagger up the few steps to the building’s front desk before dropping to the floor and moaning, “I’m shot. I’m shot.”
The desk clerk, Jay Hastings, pressed an alarm button that was wired directly to the Twentieth Precinct, and within two minutes police were on the scene. Lennon was taken by a police car to the emergency room at Roosevelt Hospital, on West Fifty-ninth Street. A team of seven doctors worked feverishly to save Lennon’s life, but the blood loss was too great, and he died.
Mintz heard the news, called American Airlines immediately, and flew to New York that night. “I inventoried all of John’s possessions after his death,” said Mintz. “My responsibility at that point was certainly to Yoko, and she wanted me to inventory his possessions and place them away for safekeeping. It was an operation that took months. His clothing came home from the hospital in a brown paper bag. In the bag was the cassette of ‘Walking on Thin Ice,’ which suggests to me that on the final night of his life, in the final moments of his life, that may have been the last song he ever heard. I always thought there was a metaphor in the fact that ‘Thin Ice’ was in his possession when his life ended at the hands of a man who had obtained his last autograph. Those two things, taken together, must have made for a strange crossing.”
Yoko didn’t notice the chocolate she had brought in for her husband until days after his murder. It was still sitting on the table where he had left it. “I didn’t like chocolate at all,” she said. “But after John’s passing, I thought, ‘Should I throw it away? No, that would be wasteful.’ So I said to myself, ‘Well, okay, I’m going to eat the chocolate, you know. And I did.”
Mintz, who remains a fixture in Yoko’s life to this day, said that very little about her Dakota apartment has changed since Lennon’s death in 1980. “Everything looks pretty much the same, except she now has a new bedroom,” said Mintz. “She doesn’t sleep in the old bedroom. For months after John’s death she slept in their bed in the old bedroom. For a while, she got solid comfort being in that room. Now she uses it as a guestroom.
“In terms of how Yoko is doing on a day-to-day basis,” Mintz added, “if she’s not traveling, she’s in that apartment, most of the time by herself. There’s not much going on. She’s devoted her life to his memories, and she just doesn’t laugh as much anymore.”