How Rush, Tom Petty and Others Reacted to John Lennon’s Murder
In the pre-smartphone era, before obits instantly clogged our news feeds, it was possible to learn crushing news at a delay — and in unexpected places.
When Stevie Wonder returned onstage for his encore at the Oakland Coliseum on Dec. 8, 1980, hours after the murder of John Lennon, he made the bold choice to reveal the tragedy himself — one innovative artist saluting another.
"I want you all to understand that I'm not a person who likes to be the [bearer of] bad news," he told the confused audience, his train of thought repeatedly trailing off.
"For those of you who don't know this … it's been really hard for me to do this show tonight but [I] did it in memory of people like this man. … He was shot tonight. … I'm talking about Mr. John Lennon. … I know that you would want me to continue to express the same feelings as he has in his life."
Watch Stevie Wonder Announce John Lennon's Death
In the immediate aftermath of the murder, many artists scrambled to address the horror in some fashion — musically, verbally or through the press. Bruce Springsteen also paid tribute onstage: The following day, during a show at Philadelphia's Spectrum arena, he admitted he could mourn only through music.
"It's a hard night to come out and play tonight when so much has been lost," he said. "The first record that I ever learned [was the Beatles'] 'Twist and Shout.' If it wasn't for John Lennon, we'd all be someplace very different tonight. It's an unreasonable world that you get asked to live with a lot of things that are just unlivable. It's a hard night to come out and play, but there's just nothing else you can do."
Listen to Bruce Springsteen Talk About John Lennon
It's difficult to encapsulate that devastation in a quick soundbite or offhand remark — especially for those who knew Lennon personally.
The most famous example is the Beatle's former bandmate Paul McCartney. Ambushed on Dec. 9 by reporters after leaving a London recording studio, the songwriter looked dazed and rightly uncomfortable in the spotlight as he mourned his closest collaborator. "I was very shocked, you know," he said. "It's terrible news. … Drag, isn't it? Okay, cheers."
Watch Paul McCartney's Reaction to John Lennon's Death
McCartney was widely criticized in the media for his seemingly cold response. He soon issued an official statement, emphasizing that he "really loved the guy." But his "drag" remark followed him for years.
"I was probably more shattered than most people when John died," he told Good Morning Britain in 1985. "And I had plenty of sort of personal grief. But I'm not very good at kind of public grief. So someone thrust a microphone into my face the day it happened and said, 'What's your comment?' Now all the other pundits came out with great comments: 'Well, John will be sorely missed.' … All I could muster was, 'It's a drag.' And it was like … I couldn't say anything else but that. I just couldn't. Neither could George [Harrison], neither could Ringo [Starr]. Nobody came out with any big comments because he was too dear to us; it was just too much of a shock. But of course that got reprinted: 'McCartney, when asked what he thought of Lennon's death, said, 'It's a drag.''' It comes out like that. So you've just got to be so careful about all that stuff."
Harrison did issue a brief statement hours after learning of Lennon's death, noting that he was "shocked at stunned" at the news. "After all we went through together, I had and still have great love and respect for him," he wrote. "To rob life is the ultimate robbery in life. This perpetual encroachment on other people's space is taken to the limit with the use of a gun. It is an outrage that people can take other people's lives when they obviously haven't got their own lives in order."
And the Beatles' longtime producer George Martin said Lennon's death made him "very angry" at such pervasive violence, calling Lennon "one of the great people of our time."
"I wouldn't say he was a great musician as such, but he was certainly a great man," he commented. "His astringency lent a lot to the sweetness of Paul. The real point is that he was a true original, with a zany sense of humor that could elevate the meanest of spirits. For that alone, he'll be missed. His death points the lesson that we have to curb the pornography of violence which pollutes our world."
Starr learned of the murder while in the Bahamas, after his stepchildren phoned from Los Angeles. "They called and said, ‘John’s dead,’" the drummer told Dave Grohl in a 2019 Rolling Stone interview. "And I didn’t know what to do. And I still well up that some bastard shot him. But I just said, ‘We’ve got to get a plane.’ We got a plane to New York, and you don’t know what you can do. We went to the apartment. ‘Anything we can do?’ And [Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono] just said, ‘Well, you just play with [their son] Sean. Keep Sean busy.’ And that’s what we did. That’s what you think: ‘What do you do now?’”
Many Lennon fans chose to mourn together. On Dec. 14, a 10-minute silent vigil united 100,000 people in New York City's Central Park, where flowers, candles and photos decorated a stage. Some radio stations even observed the respite, with others playing Lennon tunes. "I saw John smiling in the sky," Ono said in a statement. "I saw sorrow changing into clarity. I saw all of us becoming one mind."
The anguish was just as real for Lennon's musical peers, many of whom precisely recalled years later the moment they learned of his death.
"I was downtown on Fifth Avenue in New York," Keith Richards told The Guardian in 2000, saying he was "stunned." "The first bit of news I got, I thought: 'He'll make it. It's just a flesh wound.' And then, later on, the news really came. ... And you think, 'God, why can't I do anything about it?' I got well drunk on it. And I had another one for John."
Tom Petty was at Hollywood's Cherokee Recording Studios, working with producer Jimmy Iovine, who knew Lennon personally. "We thought [the news of the shooting] was a gag and we kept working," he told the publication. "Then someone called and said, 'John's dead.' It just stopped the session. I went home, and on the way I could see people sitting in their cars at traffic lights just crying. It was a hard thing to believe. I still have trouble believing it."
As a tribute, Petty and the Heartbreakers had the words, "We love you, J.L." etched into the run-out groove on vinyl copies of the record they were working on at the time, Hard Promises.
Rush were recording Moving Pictures at a studio north of Montreal, Geddy Lee told Salon in 2000. "I remember constantly going back and forth, from working to the TV, to try to get some news," he said. "If I remember the environment, looking around the room, my memory just shows me a lot of pale faces staring at the tube."
Sting's band the Police had just walked offstage from a show in Miami when they were notified. "I had the reaction that everybody had — disbelief, shock, horror," the singer told The Guardian. "What happens when people like him die is that the landscape changes. You know, a mountain disappears, a river is gone. And I think his death was probably as significant as that."
Losing Lennon was that monumental — it's a dividing line in pop culture history. Just like how Beatlemania sparked an almost childlike cultural zeal in the early '60s, the senseless violence of his murder catalyzed collective mourning in the early '80s.
The most heartbreaking reaction came from a future musician: the five-year-old Sean Lennon. "Now Daddy is part of God," he reportedly mused. "I guess when you die you become much more bigger because you're part of everything."
All these years later, he still is.