Lennon’s death: I was there

By Tom Brook BBC News, New York

John Lennon

Tom Brook was the first British journalist to report live from the scene of John Lennon’s murder outside the former Beatle’s home in New York on 8 December 1980. Here, he gives his personal recollections of what it was like to cover the shooting, and its aftermath for BBC News.

On the evening of 8 December 1980 I was a young inexperienced journalist living in New York who’d recently arrived from London. I was totally unprepared for the drama that would unfold.

It began with a late night phone call from pop impresario Jonathan King, who was then a columnist for BBC Radio 1 living in New York. He told me he’d heard reports of a shooting outside the Dakota, Lennon’s home, and that the former Beatle was possibly the victim.

Before long I was racing up 8th Avenue in a taxi and I arrived at the Dakota sometime after 11.00 pm bearing a tape recorder and notepaper.

There was an eerie silence – the street had been cordoned off – there were a couple of police cars outside the entrance to the Dakota – a few people had begun to gather.

Tom Brook Tom Brook returned this week to the scene of the tragedy

Minutes before I arrived at the building, Lennon had been rushed to nearby Roosevelt Hospital – hauled over the shoulder of a policeman. Dr Stephan Lynn and his team at the emergency room worked frantically to try to bring him back to life.

A few days ago Dr Lynn told me exactly what was going on inside the resuscitation room. As he recalled: “He had no signs of life, no blood pressure, no pulse. He was unresponsive. We opened his left chest, I did it, with a scalpel. We made an incision.

“I actually held his heart in my hand as the nurses rapidly transfused blood. I tried to massage the heart as we put blood into his body. We knew that there was no way that we could restore circulation, there was no way that we could repair the massive injury to all of the blood vessels in the body.”

Outside the Dakota I was trying to get in touch with my colleagues in Broadcasting House in London where it was before dawn.

There was no breakfast television in those days, radio ruled the morning airwaves but international communications were far from instantaneous. There was no internet, no email, no texting, no mobile phones, in many instances no direct dialling to London.

From a public phone booth not far from the Dakota I managed to get through to Today – the night editor told me to get whatever I could but to make sure I got back in touch by 6.30 am when the programme went on the air.

Overcoming emotion

I returned to the crowd which was now growing rapidly. I recorded people’s comments. Among the tearful and grieving was a young woman from Britain who said “I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach”. Those words summed up exactly how everyone felt.

I persuaded the night duty clerk in a building opposite the Dakota to let me use his telephone so I could feed the taped comments to London. Sending audio to London in those days was cumbersome.

Tom Brook's notes and recordings Tom Brook has kept notes from the night, which took place in an age without modern, easy forms of communication

You had to unscrew the mouthpiece from a telephone handset and then attach a special lead with crocodile clips – the other end of this lead connected to the output of the tape recorder. It was a precarious and tricky operation – but it worked that night.

The clerk wouldn’t take any money for the gigantic phone bill I must have clocked up. He told me he didn’t want any payment because he loved John Lennon and his music.

Pretty soon I was broadcasting live. I’d always been a big John Lennon fan. His music and lyrics had really engaged me.

On the air, the late Brian Redhead, who was co-presenting Today, pressed me for some detail and I remember finishing off his question with the words: “…..and now he’s dead.” I was pretty composed – but the finality of that statement got to me. I thought I might lose it.

I’ve kept some of the notepaper I used from that night. I had to file for the Radio 4 bulletins. Every time I’d write out a rough script the facts would change so there are all kinds of corrections.

There’s a lot of scrawl – it began to get messy. It was stressful and the story was very emotional.

The crowd was expanding exponentially. Soon it was several hundred strong. People arrived at the Dakota in tears, bearing candles, they sang Lennon songs, it became an all-night vigil.

Family pain

A few days ago I learned that for one of Lennon’s famous acquaintances – American singer-songwriter James Taylor – the violence of that night came very close to home: “It seems amazing to me now, but I lived in the building one up from the Dakota and I heard him shot – five, just as quick as you could pull the trigger, about five explosions. And his assassin had button-holed me in the tube station, the subway stop, right in front of 72nd Street the day before.

Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon Sean Lennon says it’s always difficult when the anniversary comes round and he tries to look out for mother Yoko Ono

“The guy had sort of pinned me to the wall and was glistening with maniacal sweat and talking some freak speak about what he was going to do and his stuff with how John was interested, and he was going to get in touch with John Lennon. And it was surreal to actually have contact with the guy 24 hours before he shot John.”

It took Yoko Ono some time before she began to talk publicly about the night. I interviewed her just before the second anniversary of Lennon’s death in 1982.

To her it seemed like her famous husband was still among the living. In a composed voice she told me: “He’s still alive, he’s still with us, his spirit will go on. You can’t kill a person that easily, that’s the way I feel about it.”

Sean Ono Lennon, Yoko Ono’s son by John Lennon, was only five when his father was killed. He was at home in the Dakota when it happened.

To him it’s a difficult anniversary: “It has been 30 years since he passed away, and this time of year I tend to just sort of look out for my mum and make sure that she’s alright. That’s basically it, I just want to make sure that she’s ok.”

Tom Brook's notes on the star's murder

The anniversary of Lennon’s death has brought forth an outpouring of unadulterated admiration from both his fans and some of the biggest names in the music business.

U2’s front man Bono, who was passing through New York at the time of the shooting, says: “I just know I wouldn’t be standing without him, and my whole life as an artist was kind of shaped by him and I can’t exaggerate enough the effect his music had on me.”

Lennon probably wouldn’t be happy with all this retrospective praise.

In one of his last major print interviews published in Playboy he said: “I don’t have any romanticism about any part of my past. I don’t believe in yesterday. I’m only interested in what I’m doing now.”

John Lennon may not have wanted to dwell on his past but judging from all anniversary tributes, millions of us remain, 30 years after his death, intensely interested in him and his music.

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