When the call came I was in my home in the Hollywood Hills. It was Holly the editor working on the filmed footage I had directed less than two weeks earlier of John and Yoko walking together in Central Park and lying naked in bed in a downtown gallery. I had last seen them twelve days before on my 35th birthday.
“Have you heard?” said Holly.
“Heard what?” I thought something had gone wrong with the production. People get tired and emotional.
“They’ve shot John.”
“They shot John.”
“Is he all right?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know.” There was silence.
Over the phone line I could hear her radio, and out the window the never-ending sound of New York horns blaring, and ambulances. Outside my house it was dark and quiet in the hills.
“It’s on the radio . . . They’re saying something. Oh, no! Oh, God! He’s dead.” Then Holly started sobbing.
John Lennon 1968 by Ethan Russell © 2009 Yoko Ono.
If you’ve worked with the famous and the very famous, as I have, who they are can seem defined by the moments when they’ve touched your life, and it’s easy to lose perspective that, really, you only have a tiny glimpse of them.
But I’m grateful to have known, photographed, and filmed John Lennon at times that were pivotal for him: when he was falling in love with Yoko, during the last days with the Beatles filming and recording Let It Be, and then in New York City in 1980.
My story with John begins when I walked into a flat on Montague Square in London in 1968 and took my first pictures of him. I was barely a photographer, and that I was there was unlikely beyond measure. But I was already - like it seemed all of my generation - entirely under the influence of music, which at this time was the music of the Beatles and the Stones. (My particular immersion into rock ‘n’ roll began with Elvis and Chuck Berry. Later I would learn this was the identical experience of John Lennon and Keith Richards. But as I stood on John Lennon’s doorstep, Elvis had been pushed so far back into the shadows as to be invisible.)
John Lennon with “Dali Eye” by Ethan Russell © 2009 Yoko Ono.
Also by this time it was crystal clear to all of us that music was changing - and would continue to change — the world. To have denied it would have required a suspension of your sense and senses. It was everywhere one turned.
I stepped inside and took pictures. You can see some of them here. I was blessed with an ability to frame and capture. I had only a modicum of craft.
The story to relate though is what happened after I took the photographs. I thought they were unusable. The negatives were thin, and that terrified me. I called John. (How did I even have his number?!), and he invited me back, saying simply, “We’ll shoot again.” And I did. I brought pictures with me of Yoko that I had taken later in the same day of my “failed” session. John grabbed them and immediately pinned them on his wall.
Yoko Ono 1968 by Ethan Russell © 2009 Yoko Ono.
As I knelt in front of John taking the second set of pictures, the Beatles were, as I’ve suggested, already bigger than God. Yet the man in front of me, John Lennon, had invited this unknown kid in, just me and him, to help me fix a mistake I’d made. There’s a humanity there.
Years later - after shooting all of Let It Be, the Beatles’ last concert on the roof, their last photo session ever (at John’s home in Tittenhurst Park) and the filming in Central Park in New York - I published my first book Dear Mr. Fantasy*. It is the story, my story, of a young man wrapped in our age of music. As the story unfolds it includes quite an array of characters: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, The Who, Jerry Lee Lewis, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, on and on. Somehow, though, among them all John Lennon always seemed to emerge.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono “Kiss” 1968 by Ethan Russell © 2009 Yoko Ono.
As I wrote the book, heroes fell to the wayside. Dylan retreated temporarily into obscurity, Altamont clobbered The Dream. Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin..... died. Against that backdrop, the figure of John Lennon shone through, not always like a beacon: drunken escapades in LA, angry and yelling, “Don’t give me no more brother, brother.” But to me the transcending value was John always telling it like it really was, a quality now so elusive among the famous it’s seemingly not even an option to consider.
Or so things appeared to me as I wrote Dear Mr. Fantasy.* Lennon just was The One. He didn’t get reclusive and increasingly eccentric like Dylan, and he didn’t wave good-bye with a neat minimization: “It’s only rock n roll, but I like it.” People who knew him better than me - I’m thinking here of Neil Aspinall - could get crabby about the canonization of Lennon, alluding to his sometimes violent history, his verbal attacks, which could be cruel. McCartney didn’t deserve all he got. But I didn’t know of these things then and, even knowing them now, they don’t really defeat my point. What Lennon continued to provide (sometimes through music, sometimes through the examples in his life) was an ongoing window into his personal struggles, his challenges with everything that were central to so many of us: the promises we believed in, spirituality, and simple humanity. “Just give me some truth,” he sang. Mostly, he gave his to us.
John Lennon 1968 by Ethan Russell © 2009 Yoko Ono.
In the years since, I have become increasingly interested in history. I was inspired in part by David McCullough’s remarkable work on the life of John Adams, a book that made completely real for me the time, the place, and the boldness of the struggle for American independence. He makes the unlikeliness of success so palpable that it would have been hard for a rational person to take it seriously. And I recall thinking as I read it (like the cornball commercial of the Indian with a tear rolling down his cheek ) how we have squandered this extraordinary, unlikely revolution, and the miracle the Founding Fathers wrought.
There have been a number of hopeful revolutions since. But how did we do? Musicians were thrust into the role of philosopher kings, and we circled around. But why, with such promise, such lackluster results? What happened to all the political leaders who might have been responsible for weaving whatever our revolution was about into something perhaps more prosaic yet tangible? They were shot. It is all history now.
John Lennon, Yoko Ono and cat by Ethan Russell © 2009 Yoko Ono.
And then on December 8th, 1980 Holly called.
A month earlier I had gone into the offices of the record executive in charge of giving me John’s new music so I could prepare for our filming. He put the tape cassette into the machine. Over the loudspeakers came the sound of three chimes, followed by a slow introduction, and then John’s voice: “Our life together / Is so precious together . . . “ and then the tempo shifted and broke into a loping cadence and John, singing... “Just Like Starting Over.”
Starting over is not what happened, and we will never know what the rest of John’s life might have looked like.
This year I turned 65, and John would have been 70. On December 8th, which marks the 30th anniversary of John’s senseless and tragic death, I am partnering with PAX, a gun-violence-prevention organization I became involved with through my friend Rosanne Cash. I am donating 75 signed, limited edition prints of John (and John and Yoko), with 75% of the receipts from their sale going to PAX in support of their efforts to identify and end gun violence as one of our country’s primary public health hazards.
The thought that is the title of this piece didn’t occur on the day of Holly’s call. But music for me had been so thoroughly intermixed with our promises, and, as I’ve written, John Lennon (feet of clay notwithstanding) seemed to me to uniquely hold onto those promises. And so the title.
Like many losses, the loss of John still lingers. I may never have seen him again, who knows? He belonged to the world. But except for that day and that gun, John Lennon might still be with us. Imagine.
John Lennon by Ethan Russell © 2009 Yoko Ono.
To see the photographs of John Lennon that are part of the promotion with PAX go here.
To visit PAX go here.
* Dear Mr Fantasy the eBook: The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who and many many others. Click here to be notified when it’s released (soon).