Varied subplots all lead to assassination

  • Article by: TOM ZELMAN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 30, 2010 - 4:27 PM

Author Keith Elliot Greenberg uses a number of devices to keep us interested in the day John Lennon died. Unfortunately, he only partially succeeds.

"The Day John Lennon Died" by Keith Elliot Greenberg

In the town where I was born, New York City, lived a man who was murdered by a mentally ill stalker. If you are of a certain age, or even if not, that story of John Lennon's assassination in 1980 is probably familiar to you. Living at the Dakota on Manhattan's Upper West Side with his wife, Yoko Ono, Lennon was gunned down by Mark David Chapman, a onetime camp counselor with a Holden Caulfield fixation. Writer Keith Elliot Greenberg's source list is familiar and his quandary in this short book -- "December 8, 1980: The Day John Lennon Died" (Backbeat Books, 233 pages, $24.99) -- is how to frame this oft-told story in new terms. To this end, he partially succeeds.

Greenberg's writing is lively and we get a vivid sense of John's daily rituals. The best parts of the book, in fact, concern John's new lifestyle in New York, his adopted city. At 40, John is an active father, a devoted husband and a world-famous musician on the verge of producing a terrific album ("Double Fantasy"). "Starting Over" appears to be not only the title of his new single, but the theme of his newfound marital and professional happiness.

The tragic events of Dec. 8 account for about 20 percent of Greenberg's work, and he recognizes that the book must be filled out with context. So, employing a History Channel-like format, he splices a number of subplots to the drama unfolding outside the Dakota. One is Lennon's career, stretching all the way back to his grandfather Alf's success with the banjo. Another is the biography of Chapman, whose adulation of John morphed into a consuming resentment of John's life of ease, of what Chapman saw as materialism and atheism. We learn once again about the career arc of the Beatles, the creativity and the jealousies, the drugs and the women. And yet another thread is a series of "what were they doing on Dec. 8" vignettes: Mayor Edward Koch, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, various journalists, DJs, fans and (no fooling) professional wrestlers.

The details of Beatle lore that Greenberg has collected are interesting. Julian Lennon supports lupus research. Fidel Castro had a bronze statue of Lennon erected in Havana in 2000. Paul McCartney and George Harrison purportedly replaced drummer Pete Best with Ringo because Best was too handsome. Yet the shuffled organization of the book wore upon me. I felt manipulated by the frequent cutting from one narrative line to another. It was like the algebraic stories of one car traveling east at 25 miles per hour while another travels west at 40. And we know, unfortunately, where these two cars will meet.

Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.

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