It wasn’t very cold, but it should have been.
It should have been because it was the second week of December in 1980 and this was Manhattan, where the winds off the East River funnel through the canyons of steel and become bone chilling arctic gales. The kind of days where walking on the street is as treacherous as walking on a glacier, compounded by not being able to see through eyes half shut from the frigid air.
Yet there I was walking over to Z’s apartment in nothing more than a standard coat. I did have my gloves in the pockets, just in case the temperature turned by the time we got out of the club.
My friend CJ Benson had asked that I come by the East Side club where she was rehearsing her cabaret act and give her some feedback. I initially demurred, saying I didn’t really know anything about cabaret acts, at least not in the way I knew theater. Nevertheless she valued my opinion and wanted my input. I suggested I bring Z along as she was a cabaret performer and could give more of an insight. CJ was hesitant. Z was a great singer, a marvelous cabaret presence, and an acerbic, withering wit who spoke her mind and let the chips fall where they may. CJ knew I could be diplomatic and give constructive criticism if I didn’t like her act. Z could not.
Nonetheless, CJ acceded to my wishes and Z was allowed to come along. Thus I found myself walking out of the subway station and down 72nd Street to pick up Z at her apartment. I’m a gentleman. You invite a woman to go somewhere with you, you don’t say meet me there. You pick her up at her house even if there is no expectation of an extended return there at evening’s end. That’s my way of saying this was a platonic relationship.
Z shared an apartment with a male musician friend (she was expert in platonic relationships with men) who had one of those musician quirks wherein you knew not to mention a particular song you had heard unless fully ready to hear a detailed and at times excruciating delve into the nuances of the song. As I knocked on her door, I hoped he wasn’t home, but could take some comfort that our schedule precluded my being forced to listen to any lecture he might have up his sleeve. Z answered the door and I think sharing my thoughts quickly bid her roommate goodnight and swept out the door.
Z was dressed in a trench coat and scarf, the scarf I thought a bit much but then again that was Z, always a bit much. It wasn’t enough to have the right clothes, she had to have the right look. A trench coat without a scarf? Unthinkable, even if the scarf was unnecessary. Nothing was ever unnecessary with Z, every item of clothing, every glance or physical movement was deliberate. It was as much a part of her personality as her wit or the withering glare she gave you when disagreeing with a point you had made.
As the club was on the East Side and we were on the west I thought it best to catch a cab. Here’s a pointer for potential New Yorkers, you increase the likelihood of catching a cab if you go to the corner of two major streets. From her apartment building the next major intersection was 72nd and Central Park West.
That particular corner is dominated by one building, the Dakota Apartments. It was at the time, and probably still is, the most famous apartment building in the city, not only for it’s inhabitants but for it’s imposing physical presence and it’s history. Even today it’s rare to find no one milling about on the sidewalk outside the building either to gawk at the architecture or to gape at who is streaking out of the limo that just pulled up to the door.
In the second week of December 1980 it was even more crowded than usual. The building’s most famous tenant, John Lennon, had just released his first new album of music in five years. While there were always Beatle fans to be found outside the building, the release of the new album, Double Fantasy, had amped up the congestion.
As we walked down 72nd Street I realized getting a cab from the Dakota side might not be the best procedure, so I grabbed Z and said “let’s go over to the other side”. Looking back to grab her arm I noticed a nebbish of a guy sitting on the ground and reading The Catcher In The Rye. Oh Christ, I thought, could you be any more stereotypical? I laughed and guided Z across the street where we were able to grab a cab.
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We made it to the club and watched CJ’s act. It was good I thought, her voice strong and her repartee solid. At the time I thought her song choices a bit hackneyed, the most standard of the Great American Songbook, but then again I was more likely to be found downtown at CBGBs than an upper East Side supper club. Now a days I’d think her choices superb. Even Z liked the act which kind of surprised me. I expected her to want more of a bite to the show, more of an edge. CJ can do edgy, but that didn’t fit in. I was about to ask her why that was when a Puerto Rican bus boy came by and said “Did you hear?”.
Hear what? We’d been in the club for the last hour watching CJ.
“John Lennon was shot and killed”.
“When, where?” I stammered the words out.
“Just about an hour ago, outside the Dakota”.
“We were just there”, Z shouted in disbelief, “that can’t be”.
The waiter pulled a transistor radio out of his pocket. 1010 WINS (“You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world”) blared out. A crowd was forming outside the Dakota. The assassin was in custody, but Lennon had basically been killed instantly. No motive as yet. Nothing more than John Lennon was dead.
Z and I hurried out of the club. We got a cab and told the driver to take us back to Z’s apartment. We figured a block or so away from the crowd was a good idea. Besides Z insisted we get candles. She always knew the appropriate accessory for every occasion. We stormed up the stairs of her building and burst through her apartment door. Her roommate was ahead of us. Candles in hand he was about to exit. We told him to go on, we’d catch up with him, as she went for some more candles. We both smoked in those days, so matches were readily available.
Back out the door we flew and down the street we went. The crowd was large, but not as large as I had been led to believe from the news reports. Like us, many held candles. Many more openly wept. We actually were able to make it close to the front door where I could see there were already flowers and quickly made tribute signs. I thought to myself where was the doorman and then realized the doorman was probably being questioned by the police. At this point the murder had occurred probably 90 minutes before.
I turned to point that out to Z, but she was now sobbing hysterically. I grabbed her and ushered her through the crowd out to the street. She said she couldn’t stand so I hoisted her up on the roof of a parked car. There she broke down completely. The candles had been lost to the crowd. I alternated watching the crowd and watching out for Z to make sure she didn’t slide off the car roof. It was then that I realized someone was tapping me on the shoulder.
I turned, expecting to see Z’s roommate. Instead I found a stranger with a couple of camera’s around his neck and a news credential dangling from his jacket. He wanted to know if I knew the woman on the car and would I tell him her name. I couldn’t really comprehend what he was asking. “I’m with the AP” he kept saying. Was I supposed to understand that? The AP? Oh yeah, the Associated Press.
“Is this really necessary? She’s really upset”.
“I see that, but I’ve already taken the picture, it’ll probably run. I’m sure she wouldn’t want to see ‘unidentified’ under her picture in the paper”. I blurted out her name, he scribbled it down and went off in search of the next picture.
It was all too much for Z so I took her home and headed back to the subway for a return trip to my Greenwich Village walkup. After all, I had to go to work the next day and I was going to have only a few hours of sleep to work with. The city was quiet. Few people were out on the streets, even fewer in the subway. When I emerged at the West Fourth Street Station the usual throng of people who were always around were no where to be found.
What was everywhere was music. The Beatles, John on his own, even a few snippets of interviews. John’s voice everywhere, John’s music surrounding me. Imagine.
And yet the next day would be even more surreal.
I awoke to hear the news that the assassin had been named. There were descriptions of him, but one detail of the crime caused me to gasp. He had come up from behind, shouted “Mr. Lennon”, pulled the trigger, then sat down, pulled out a book, and started to read.
The book he pulled out was The Catcher In The Rye.
I debated calling the cops to let them know I had seen him shortly before the murder, but, well, I was a New Yorker and if the cops had him I’d give them that information if there were any question about his guilt. There wasn’t. He was almost proud of what he had done.
Instead I went off to work.
At the time I worked for a literary agency as possibly the worst executive assistant in the history of executive assistants. My typing was crappy, my organization was minimal, and my coffee skills were limited to only making the strong brew I preferred. But my phone skills were excellent, I could effectively make people believe my boss really did want to see them but just couldn’t right then, and I enjoyed hobnobbing with more than a few literary luminaries. Alex Haley thought it amusing that a white boy from the suburbs had read The Autobiography of Malcolm X but hadn’t read, or seen, Roots.
That morning I stumbled behind my desk outside my boss’s office. He hadn’t come in yet, not surprising as the publishing world lived on regular breakfast meetings. I was trying to decide whether another cup of coffee was necessary when my phone buzzed. It was the receptionist wanting to know if my boss could take a call. I told her to just take a message.
“You might want to take this call”.
“Because it’s Paul McCartney and he’s looking for Peter Brown”.
Peter Brown had been Brian Epstein’s assistant throughout his life as manager of the Beatles. After Epstein’s death Peter effectively became the Beatles manager. He’s even mentioned in the lyrics to The Ballad Of John and Yoko. In the last year he had decided to write a book about his time with the group. It would be the first insider tell all about the Beatles. Eventually it was published as The Love You Make. We were his agents.
I picked up the phone. The crackle and hiss of 1980 trans-Atlantic communication filled my ear. Through it cut one of the most familiar voices in the world.
“This is Paul McCartney and I’m looking for Peter Brown”.
I gulped. From my very dry mouth I was able to tell him that what we knew was that Peter was due in from London later that morning and was probably in the air at that very moment. He seemed okay with that summation.
“Mr. McCartney”, I stumbled, “I just want to let you know how very sorry I am”. I wanted to tell him I had been there, had seen the assassin, but I just couldn’t get those words out.
“Yeah, it’s a bad day. Thanks.” And he hung up the phone.
I sat at my desk and for the first time in roughly twelve hours, the tears came. That night I got a call from a friend in San Francisco. The AP picture of Z had been on the front page of the San Francisco Examiner that afternoon. I was too exhausted to explain the entire story.
Tomorrow it will be 41 years ago. For me it will soon be “when I’m 64”. Last week I watched John and his mates create music for eight hours. Throughout that television event the images from that night and the following day were ever present, a constant reminder of how the past can be shaded by knowledge of the future. I couldn’t see the future that December night in 1980. But it will forever be a memory.
You may have noticed that I have not written the name of the assassin. That is on purpose. One of the many things that came out about him was that this pathetic loser thought he could gain everlasting fame by having his name associated with Lennon’s. Because of that I swore I would never say or write his name ever again.
And to this day I haven’t. I never will.