Thirty years ago this week, on December 8th, 1980, John Lennon was murdered in New York. He was emerging from five years of seclusion after the release of Double Fantasy, the masterpiece he had just finished recording with his wife, Yoko Ono. In my lifetime, the only comparable event was the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Lennon’s death hit particularly hard at Rolling Stone. John had shared many of his final hours with us as we were preparing a cover story to celebrate his return to public life. Three days earlier, our reporter, Jonathan Cott, the only person besides me whose name has appeared on the masthead since our first issue in 1967, had interviewed John for more than nine hours. When Jonathan, who had known John and Yoko for years, showed up at their apartment in the Dakota that evening, John seemed nervous. “Don’t worry, it’s just Jonathan,” Yoko told John. “It’s OK.” And with that, they began.
This article appears in the December 23, 2010 – January 6, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available now on newsstands and in the online archive.
The conversation was a wide-ranging journey through John’s thoughts and dreams. As the talk extended deep into the night, John invited Jonathan to join him and Yoko at the Record Plant to hear some of the new music they were creating.
“He was the same guy he was before,” Cott recalls. “A joyous, vibrant, subversive, acerbic, funny, always inspiring, fearless guy. He hadn’t lost it or become bitter or cynical. He never gave up.” John’s last words to Jonathan, as he escorted him to the elevator at 4 a.m., said it all: “I love her and we’re together.”
Two days later, Annie Leibovitz, our chief photographer at the time, made her trek to the Dakota to shoot the cover. She created one of the 20th century’s most unforgettable images: a naked Lennon embracing a clothed Ono — named in 2005 by the American Society of Magazine Editors as the greatest cover of the past 40 years. When John and Yoko saw the photo, they told her, “You’ve captured our relationship exactly.” What you saw in the photo was the real John — open, daring, vulnerable, warmhearted. Nobody could have guessed it would be our final glimpse of him, or that his long conversation with Rolling Stone would turn out to be his goodbye to the world. Although John did a radio interview on the day of his murder, his talk with Jonathan constituted the last time he spoke in-depth to a reporter before the tragedy.
When John was killed, our plans for a celebratory profile of a reinvigorated artist turned into a mournful tribute. Jonathan listened to his two interview tapes, pulled out a few quotes for his story, and stashed the tapes in a closet, where they sat for nearly three decades — until he discovered them, held together by a decaying rubber band, earlier this year. It seemed appropriate on the 30th anniversary of John’s death to present the interview in full, along with a portfolio of photographs from Annie’s sessions. Some appear here in print for the first time, among them a more intense shot of John and Yoko embracing.
We also asked Yoko to tell us about the final hours of John’s life. Her reminiscence, “John’s Last Days,” is the first time she has written about that period, discussing everything from the making of Double Fantasy to their final intimate moments together. Both pieces remind us of how much John left behind, from his groundbreaking music to his and Yoko’s ongoing dedication to the cause of world peace. His life continues to transform the world and make it a better place in ways that none of us, not even John, could have imagined. But then, that is exactly what John spent his life trying to tell us: Imagine.