Their brush with one another was the paradigmatic encounter between the Celebrity and the Nobody, the “have” and the “have-not” of the postmodern age, an era which hypocritically blasts endless PSAs about “equality,” “democracy,” and “self-esteem” while deriding non-celebrities as losers, wastes of space, and living beings unworthy of life.
The meeting outside of Manhattan’s Dakota building between John Winston Ono Lennon and Mark David Chapman would result in the former’s murder and the latter’s lifelong incarceration. It would provoke numerous public expressions of grief from hundreds of thousands of people who felt their own lives were somehow affected by the death of a man they’d never met.
Mark Chapman, a tormented young man fueled by delusional narcissism, had become obsessed with The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger’s classic chronicle of adolescent alienation. The novel’s narrator is Holden Caulfield, a bitterly misanthropic teenage boy on the brink of nervous collapse. Holden heatedly fulminates against the world’s “phonies,” people who pretend to be what they aren’t, who pose as righteous when they’re actually venal and selfish.
Chapman soon grew equally fixated on ex-Beatle John Lennon, his former hero, whom he now regarded as the ultimate phony. “He told us to imagine no possessions,” Chapman later put it, “and there he was, with millions of dollars and yachts and farms and country estates, laughing at people like me who had believed the lies and bought the records and built a big part of their lives around his music.”
Chapman came to view it as his mission to uphold Holden Caulfield’s spirit by slaying this vain and gluttonous rock-star monster. He bought a .38-caliber revolver and a plane ticket to New York. He purchased the recently released Double Fantasy album, planted himself in front of Lennon’s luxury apartment building with record in hand and gun in pocket, and waited for the star to ride up in his limo.
For all of his mounting madness, Chapman understood one thing well: You were nobody in the modern world if you weren’t famous. He later told Barbara Walters that by committing the murder, he felt he’d “acquire his (Lennon’s) fame.”
And he was right. Murdering a famous man gave Chapman the very fame he sought. He was no longer a nobody; he was a star.
Chapman’s aim was, in a sense, truer than that of other antihero assassins such as Oswald and Hinckley. They had merely set their targets on presidents, while Chapman focused on a rock star, an infinitely more acclaimed figure in our culture of celebrity worship.
Lennon was neither the ludicrously hateful villain of Chapman’s imagination nor the glorious love guru his followers imagine him to be. Like most of us, Lennon appears to have been an imperfect person with some admirable traits and many notable faults. He was an immensely talented songwriter and musician with a spotty personal life plagued by sexual infidelity, drug addiction, and other vices; a man prone to wretched self-indulgence, but also articulate, intelligent, and often winningly self-effacing and sincere; at times a charlatan, but undoubtedly a genius.
To Chapman, Lennon only represented the world’s execrable “phoniness,” which Chapman took as a personal affront. This simplistically negative conception didn’t do justice to Lennon’s complicated personality. But after Chapman filled him with bullets and surrendered to police on that December evening in New York, the ex-Beatle’s posthumous ascension to holy martyrdom has truly grown annoying, even obnoxious.
On this thirtieth anniversary of Lennon’s murder, we hear little but holy rubbish about this rich, besotted, pampered celebrity who met a tragic end at a young age. He was, we are now commonly informed, a “speaker of truth to power,” a “noble soul too pure for this world,” and so forth. That Lennon himself likely would have disdained this Lennonite cult of personality has little influence on his worshipers’ adulation. Unfortunately, phony delusions regarding Lennon did not die on December 8, 1980. They have exponentially multiplied, fed by the notion that this pop singer was in some sense crucified for our sins on that terrible day.
But who mourns for Mark David Chapman?
The man who acquired infamy by planting four shots into a rock star’s back and shoulder has now led the majority of his life behind bars and is unlikely ever to be paroled. That Chapman was (and is) a creepy, psychotic freak we can all agree, but wouldn’t Lennon himself, had he survived, wanted to understand his attacker rather than simply revile him? Wasn’t one of Lennon’s most likable traits his willingness to hear from people who didn’t like him without growing defensive?
It is December 8, 2010. Lennon remains dead, Chapman rots in prison, and the Earth turns as ever before. Both John and Mark have failed in their quixotic quests to change the world. There is nothing new under the sun, but some still imagine making a better world. And that, too, is nothing new. Rest in peace, John; rot in peace, Mark. God bless you both.
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