Twenty-two years ago, on December 8, 1980, a married couple had their picture taken.
Now, that fact in itself isn’t particularly noteworthy, but the picture itself was somewhat unusual. It was taken by Annie Liebowitz, and her subjects were John Lennon and Yoko Ono. And John wasn’t wearing any clothes.
You’ve probably seen the picture, which ended up on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, many times, but maybe you’ve never really looked closely at it. What is the photo saying?
Let’s start with John—who’s not only naked, he’s in the fetal position. Basically, he’s depicted as a child. Then there’s Yoko, who appears cold, distant, and unfeeling. John’s kissing her, and she’s looking away. So, if he’s the innocent “child” in the picture, then she’s the jaded “adult.”
This “reading” of the picture is reinforced by several John Lennon songs. Let’s take “Help,” a song Lennon and McCartney wrote in 1965, when the Beatles were at the height of their popularity. They were the biggest band in the history of music. (Remember the “more popular than Jesus” line?) And yet, at this moment of extraordinary success, Lennon writes this song asking, quite blatantly, for “help.” He’s feeling down, he’s not so self-assured. To bring it back to the Liebowitz picture, you could say his call for help is almost child-like.
Next, there’s “Imagine,” which definitely reveals a child-like view of the world. He talks about how the “world can live as one,” in one global “brotherhood,” and how we need to get rid of the things that divide us (“no religion” and “no possessions.”) You may say John’s a dreamer, sure, but he’s offering up an innocent and idealistic vision of the way the world could be.
Back to the Liebowitz picture. So we have the innocent man-child John juxtaposed with the jaded adult Yoko. So far, so good. But how is your reading of the picture affected by the fact that this picture was taken the very day Lennon was assassinated?
It’s true: Annie Liebowitz took this picture after lunch on December 8, 1980. Later than night, at about 10:50, Lennon was shot in front of his apartment, the Dakota, by a pudgy, baby-faced, 25-year-old former security guard named Mark David Chapman.
Chapman actually got Lennon’s autograph earlier that day. Then he waited outside Lennon’s apartment for him to come home.
After he shot Lennon five times (twice in the back, twice in the shoulder, one bullet missed), Chapman allegedly sat down on the sidewalk, took out a book, and started reading a book. And that book was, of course, Catcher in the Rye.
Mark David Chapman, who first read Catcher when he was 18, has claimed that the book eventually inspired him to kill John Lennon. But why? What is it about the book that made him do it? Personally, I think it has to do with “phonies.” After all, Salinger’s Holden Caulfield hates “phonies,” and maybe Chapman did as well. Maybe he saw Lennon—a $150 million businessman who sang about “no possessions,” a man who preached peace but was prone to fits of rage—as one of these “phonies.” Perhaps the crazed, delusional Chapman felt Lennon was such a phony that he needed to be removed from the world.
Of course, this is all conjecture. All we know is that inside the front cover of the copy of Catcher that Chapman had with him on December 8, 1980, were these four words: “This is my statement.”
The assassination tragically links Liebowitz’s photo and Salinger’s novel. The photo, after all, shows innocence, one that is odds with adulthood. The novel explores the same idea: Holden Caulfield wants, quite literally, to prevent kids from falling from innocence into experience. And yet, the fact that Annie Liebowitz took her picture the exact same day that Lennon was assassinated suggests that the innocence embodied by John cannot last.
The Chapman/ Salinger connection shows the powerful effect stories can have on people—though not just the bad effects. After all, both Lennon and Salinger brought joy to millions of people with their words. In fact, Catcher has a lot to do with the fact that I now teach high school English. In the summer before my junior in high school, I read Catcher for the first time, and I remember thinking it was unlike any other book I had ever read up until that point. And I think the initial inspiration that I could teach literature for a living started there.
Both John Lennon and J.D. Salinger are dead. But somewhere out there, some child is discovering the Beatles for the first time, or some teen is getting hooked on Catcher in the Rye. And when that happens, innocence lives again. Maybe just for a moment, but it still lives.
R.I.P. John Lennon (9 October 1940 – 8 December 1980)