Ray Connolly was supposed to arrive in New York City from his native England on Dec. 9, 1980 to visit his pal John Lennon for a few days at his apartment in the Dakota building.
But of course it didn't happen, because on the evening of Dec. 8 the former Beatle was shot and killed right outside his home. Connolly, today a veteran journalist and screenwriter, recently published “Being John Lennon,” a book he hopes will demystify the artist and unveil the complex man he was.
“He’s either painted as a saint, a martyr or a monster,” said Connolly. “John was neither of those things. He was just like everybody else,” the British writer told Fox News.
English pop singer David Essex (right) with writer Ray Connolly, 17th April 1973. Connolly wrote the screenplay of the film 'That'll Be the Day', which starred Essex. (Getty)
Connolly had received a phone from Lennon's wife Yoko Ono earlier on that doomed day, insisting he should visit the couple ASAP. At the time, Lennon was working on a follow-up album to “Double Fantasy," which was released that year.
“I booked my airline ticket and went to bed,” Connolly recalled. “I remember before I went to bed, I called his office to confirm. I was told, ‘John is really looking forward to seeing you. Come straight to the Dakota once you land.’ So I went to bed. And then the phone rang. A reporter from The Daily Mail said, ‘Sorry to wake you,’ but have you heard the news?’ Lennon’s been shot.’ I said, ‘No, no I’m going to see him today.’ Then I was told, ‘No, Lennon’s been shot.’ I said, ‘Is he hurt? Badly hurt?’ I went downstairs and turned on BBC radio… I was just stunned. John Lennon was dead.”
A conversation he once shared with Lennon would later flash in his mind.
John Lennon (The Associated Press)
“I remember a few years back, John joked, ‘Have you written my obituary yet?’ Of course, I never have. But then I found myself writing his obituary. It was awful… Yoko had just rung up on the day he died. I was supposed to arrive the next day, the 9th. He had gone to get his haircut and I was putting my things together. He was at the studio recording. He never got back home from the studio.”
A rep for Ono, 85, did not immediately respond to Fox News’ request for comment concerning the new biography.
Connolly was first introduced to Lennon by bandmate Paul McCartney in 1967 during the release of the "Magical Mystery Tour" album. While his initial impression of Lennon was “distant,” the two would encounter each other again in 1968 through Ono, whom he interviewed at the time.
“He was leaving The Beatles and he hadn’t told anyone,” said Connolly. “He told me, but said, ‘Don’t put it out until I tell you to.’ So I sat on it… then Paul put the story out that they had broken up. John would then tell me, ‘Why didn’t you write it when I told you? I said, ‘I thought you told me not to!’ He said, ‘You’re the journalist Connolly, not me.’ From then on, I went with him on his travels, in New York and his home in England. I guess I was very lucky that we got along so well.”
Connolly said Lennon at the time was yearning to be more of an avant grade artist who freely experiments than a rock ’n’ roll star.
Yoko Ono and John Lennon are shown in 1970. (AP)
“He was probably yearning that for quite some time, but couldn’t pursue it with millions of people screaming at him all the time,” Connolly explained. “He wanted to be more than a rock star. He was very restless. Always restless. Always reinventing himself. He always wanted to be different. Rock ’n’ roll just wasn’t enough… Nothing was ever enough for him.”
But Lennon was also haunted by memories from his childhood. As a toddler, his father Alfred was often away at sea during World War II and did not see much of his son. His mother Julia, whom Connolly described as “a wild child,” was allegedly with other suitors.
“Eventually his parents did break up,” Connolly explained. “And John was handed out to other people in the family. Finally, he ended up with his aunt Mimi at age five… He would see his mother quite regularly, but John didn’t know she lived about a couple of miles away. He was living with his aunt Mimi and his mother was around this whole time.”
Julia was reportedly living with a new partner and their two young daughters at the time when Lennon was staying with Mimi.
Headshot portrait of British musician and songwriter John Lennon (1940 -1980), of the pop group The Beatles, as a young boy in a school uniform and cap, c. 1948. (Getty)
Despite the tumultuous upbringing, Lennon reconnected with Julia during his teenage years through music. While his aunt Mimi was no-nonsense and preferred Lennon focusing on his studies, Julia introduced him to rock ’n’ roll.
“Mimi thought rock ’n’ roll was a waste of time,” explained Connolly. “She hated all of that. But… his mother would play records. With Mimi, the only thing he was allowed to hear was the Philharmonic Orchestra. Meanwhile, when he would visit his mom, she would play Chuck Berry, Elvis or Fats Domino. That was exciting to him.”
Julia also taught Lennon to play banjo and bought him his first guitar. The first song she would teach her son to play was ‘Ain’t That a Shame’ by Domino. She also encouraged him to play in a band.
But at age 17, Lennon was faced with tragedy. On July 15, 1958 Julia had left Mimi's home when she was hit by a car and died at age 44. The driver was an off-duty police officer who did not have a full driving license. Connolly said the death was a terrible blow to Lennon who became an angry young man.
“He became very violent with Cynthia, his first wife,” claimed Connolly. “He was very, very possessive. He would hit her sometimes. He had to have someone by his side at all times. And throughout his life, he always had someone by his side. He never did things on his own very much.”
Connolly added Lennon would frequently bring up his mother during conversations they shared.
“I remember so many times… he would suddenly start talking about her,” he said. “And he wrote that song ‘Mother.’ The lyrics are very sad. Then he wrote the song ‘Julia.’ She was always there in the background. He always wondered what could have been. He was absolutely devastated of losing her.”
One of Connolly’s most cherished memories is when Lennon played him the song “Imagine” in his Berkshire home before the public had the chance to hear it.
“He said, ‘Come into my bedroom, I want to play you something,’” said Connolly. “If he had a secret to tell you, it would always be in the bedroom. And so he took me with Yoko into the bedroom and played me a record called ‘Gimme Some Truth.’ He said, ‘That’s my next single.’ I thought it was OK but wondered what was on the other side. And then he played me ‘Imagine.’ … which was inspired by Ono’s book ‘Grapefruit.’ I said, ‘Surely that’s the A side.’ Ono said, ‘I like that one too.’ I realized later he was just testing me.”
On the night of Dec. 8, 1980, 40-year-old Lennon was rushed in a police car to Roosevelt Hospital, where he was pronounced dead shortly after arriving. Doctors said he suffered seven severe wounds in his chest, back and left arm. The killer, Mark David Chapman, murdered Lennon hours after asking him to autograph an album.
Chapman, 63, is currently serving a 20-years-to-life sentence at Wende Correctional Facility. He will be up for parole in August 2020.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.