On December 8, 1980 — just hours before he was murdered by a deranged fan near the entranceway to his New York apartment building — John Lennon welcomed photographer Annie Leibowitz into the home so she could take his photo for the cover of Rolling Stone. “The session took place in a bright, sunny room overlooking the park,” Yoko Ono recalled in 2004. “We were feeling comfortable because it was Annie, whom we respected and trusted, so John seemed not to have any problem taking off his clothes.”
The image of a naked, vulnerable Lennon curled up next to a clothed Ono on their bed appeared on the January 22, 1981 cover without any text. The newsstands were flooded with Lennon tributes at this point, but this haunting image stood out above all of them, and became instantly iconic. In 2005, it was named the best magazine cover of the previous 40 years by the American Society of Magazine Editors.
The issue has become a coveted collector’s item over the past four decades and is very hard to find today in any condition, but a stack of copies was recently discovered in the Penske Media Archive. We’re auctioning one of them, signed by Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, with 100% of the net proceeds going to gun violence prevention efforts. Stored in a climate-controlled environment, the magazine has light wear and tear damage, along with a lightly bent lower left-hand corner from the original shipping back in 1981. The auction begins December 5 at 9:00 am ET and will be open for two weeks. Bids begin at $1,000. Head here for more information.
Lennon’s relationship with Rolling Stone goes all the back to the inaugural issue in 1967 when a still image of the Beatle from the set of his movie How I Won The War appeared on the cover. A year later, Lennon gave the magazine a nude photo of himself with Ono for use on the cover, creating a firestorm of controversy that helped establish Rolling Stone as the premiere rock magazine of its time.
In 1970, Lennon sat down with Rolling Stone for an epic two-part interview where he looked back at the history of the Beatles, and gave his account of the breakup for the very first time. “After Brian [Epstein] died, we collapsed,” Lennon said. “Paul took over and supposedly led us. But what is leading us, when we went round in circles? We broke up then. That was the disintegration.”
“John, more purely than anybody else at the time, symbolized rock & roll,” Wenner said in 2017. “He was the most natural heir to Elvis. Everything he and Yoko did to support Rolling Stone added a little of their luster. It gave us credibility and authority.”
When Lennon returned after a long hiatus in 1980 to release Double Fantasy, he granted an in-depth interview to Jonathan Cott. For the cover image, Leibowitz thought back to their nude photos from 1968. She asked them to disrobe again and embrace each other. “John took his clothes off in a few seconds, but Yoko was very reluctant,” Leibowitz recalled. “She said, ‘I’ll take my shirt off, but not my pants.’ I was kinda disappointed, and I said, ‘Just leave everything on.’ We took one Polaroid [of them together on the bed], and the three of us knew it was profound right away.”
Later that night, Wenner was watching Monday Night Football when Howard Cosell told the world that Lennon had been murdered. Before he could even process the news, he ran out his door to join the growing throng of mourners outside the Dakota. “I stood there trying to absorb the awesome and frightening reality that such a man, a towering man, an irreplaceable genius of my times, to whom I owed a deep personal debt, had been murdered, and that I, and perhaps all of us, were in scary, dark waters,” Wenner wrote in his memoir Like a Rolling Stone. “My mind was filled with waves of sadness for Yoko and her son. And there I stood for hours.”
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Over the next few weeks, the Rolling Stone editorial team worked around the clock to create an issue that traced Lennon’s entire life. The centerpiece was Jonathan Cott’s interview with Lennon and photos from the Leibowitz shoot. The photo team presented Wenner with a close-up image of Lennon’s head for the cover, but he saw the brilliance of the nude bed image and insisted they use it instead.
“It was unimaginably powerful, an echo of their Two Virgins photo, and now something like a foreshadowing of death and rebirth,” Wenner wrote. “It said all there was to say, and I decided there would be no headline or words. I didn’t like the idea of an advertisement on the back cover either and pulled it, replacing it with the lyrics to ‘Imagine’ in my own handwriting. Just before we went to press, I wrote a small note to John, promising to watch over Yoko and Sean; it was hidden in the binding. That was my secret, although Yoko somehow got wind of it 20 years later. John and Yoko had kept watch over Rolling Stone. Now those days were gone.”