Twenty-five years ago, John Lennon died. And I was a part of it.
I was sitting in the WABC newsroom, just before 11 o' clock on the night of December 8, 1980, doing my job as associate producer of the late news, when word squawked over assignment editor Neil Goldstein’s police scanner that there had been a shooting five blocks north, at West 72nd Street and Central Park West.
“S---,” we all thought, "The Dakota," home to all sorts of celebrities, including one ex-Beatle.
We sent our West Side Manhattan diva at the time, Pam Simson, straight up to check out what was happening. Minutes later we got the news: John Lennon had been shot, at that point not yet dead, but real trouble. We broke in with the news. Which meant, in those days, on a Monday night on ABC, breaking into the hallowed ground of NFL Football. We reported that Lennon had been shot. Howard Cosell (who was also still calling the plays at the time, and involving himself in social issues) heard our bulletin and told football fans across the country about it.
Lennon was rushed by police car, literally a few feet from where we were working, to Roosevelt Hospital. He was brought immediately to the emergency room where a team of doctors frantically tried to save his life.
By a stroke of macabre luck, we had a source at the hospital. Our six o’clock producer, Alan Weiss, was in a motorcycle accident that night, riding across Central Park. He was laid up in one curtained-off bed recovering from multiple wounds. But he heard the wailing of Yoko Ono at Lennon’s bedside nearby.
He dragged himself out of his bed and found out what was happening: John Lennon had died. Despite his injuries, Weiss found a phone (no cell phones in those days) and called in the news to us.
It was like a thunderclap in the newsroom. And in my mind. I drew a blank, as a matter of fact. The Beatles were my favorite group since I was 10 years old. I grew up with them. I lived with them. And John was, of course, the leader.
I traveled back in time to when I was a kid at my family’s summer place, going to the town theater and watching the movie "Hard Day’s Night" with my buddies and thinking Lennon was the coolest thing in the world.
Then next summer it was the movie "Help!" when John Lennon grew up, singing, “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.”
Then the record Rubber Soul when he grew up further and sang “…is it right that you and I should fight…every night?” in “It’s Only Love.”
Then he led the Beatles down that funky road of psychedelia with "Strawberry Fields Forever" and more.
Towering over me and breaking me out of my reverie was my producer (and later best man at my wedding, Bill Diederich). He barked at me, “Write something…he’s dead!” I replied feebly, “There’s nothing on the wires yet…” To which he replied, "Just write it!!”
So, I sat in front of the typewriter, and in five minutes knocked out the history of John Lennon and the Beatles. My buddy and tape editor Charlie Gelber was downstairs stringing together every Beatle and Lennon file tape he could find.
About 10 minutes later, our late news went on (delayed following Monday Night Football) and anchor Roseanne Scamardella read the piece. I wish I had kept the script, at least. Of course, I didn’t. But I think I can safely say that, because of our access to the news, I was probably responsible for the first John Lennon obit.
Ted Koppel and "Nightline" followed us. ABC re-ran my obit (they had nothing else ready). That began the days of mourning and remembering.
The next day we devoted our entire six o’clock news to Lennon. Giving up an entire hour to one story was unheard of then, a model for our rolling news now. I pulled myself out of the newsbeat and prepared a remembrance of what John Lennon had meant to us all, and where he was before he died.
As the soundtrack I used my favorite song from his just-released comeback album, Double Fantasy, “Watching the Wheels.” It’s all about him sitting in his bedroom in the Dakota watching the traffic on Central Park West, not really doing anything else and not caring: “I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round…I just love to watch them roll.”
In the days that followed, we all sort of just wandered around. Watching the wheels. Someone who had been a part of our lives had gone. At the time, I was living just six blocks north of where Lennon lived. Despite being a habitué of the West Side, I never ran into him. No wonder. He didn’t exactly hang out.
The following Sunday, there was a memorial service in Central Park, set to last one hour. I pushed WABC to cover it. We were the only station that did. It was one of those ad hoc things — five minutes before we were set to go on air, none of our five or six remotes were up. But Alan Weiss, back in the producer’s chair after the motorcycle accident, pulled it together. And it was great.
There was a several minute sequence of silence. And we just let it play, showing the thousands of people gathered and thinking their own thoughts about the guy, with no commentary. Again, most unusual at the time. But it played.
We got an Emmy for our coverage. But that didn’t matter. Because this one was from the heart. Politicians, athletes, and other celebrities come and go. But there are just a few people who really shape the way you look at life, that when they pass away, you want to do something to mark it — who write words and music that will stay with you for a lifetime:
“It’s only love and that is all,
How do I feel the way I do?
It’s only love and that is all,
And it’s so hard
And it’s so hard
Greg Palkot is a foreign correspondent for FOX News Channel based in Paris, France.
Fans remember where they were when they heard the tragic news of John Lennon's murder:
“My age has doubled since the passing of John Lennon, but so has my love and appreciation of his music. I am honored to live amongst a generation that was blessed with his talents.” — Roy (ID)
“I want to thank Greg Palkot for his amazing story — it brought tears to my eyes. I was just a child when Lennon was murdered, but grew up with sisters who listened to a lot of music. As an adult I have come to love the Beatles, and each member as an individual artist. In a world today, when we are either left or right, for war, or against war, a man's music can make you stop and just be human.” — Debbie (Madison, FL)
“I will never forget that night as long as I live. At the time I lived in NYC and was working overtime at 48th Street and Park Avenue, listening to WNEW (a classic rock station) when the news came over the air. At first, I thought they were just screwing around. Then, when I realized that they were not kidding, it felt like I was stabbed in the chest — as if I just heard that my own brother died. Afterwards, four co-workers and I ran out and grabbed a cab up to The Dakota. We all cried. We just stood there and stared in disbelief. Regardless of whom Don McLean sang about, to people my age, THAT was the day the music died.” — Barbara (Dallas, TX)
“I was an hour north of NYC along the Hudson studying for a social studies exam the next day. The DJ cut into a song and announced that someone had killed John Lennon. My first reaction was, 'what a sick joke.' Then reality sunk in. It was one of those 'life' moments that you NEVER forget.” — Christine
"I lost my real father in 1973, but the pain didn't really hit home until December 8, 1980. John Lennon and his music raised me as much as my real dad did, and I think he did a great job!" — Samuel
“I was watching TV when the announcement came on. Obviously, I was shocked. My thoughts were with John, wondering how he must have felt. I was so angry at his murderer. Having been a Beatles fan and then a "solo" John Lennon fan, I guess his death is something I will never understand.” — Robyn (Duncan, OK)