By ANTHONY DeCURTIS
Published: May 16, 2009
As cutbacks loom in every sector of New York City's economic life,
the specter of the 1970s, with all of its deprivations and
depredations, seems increasingly near as well. This being New York,
of course, those days of near bankruptcy, graffiti-scarred subway
cars, escalating crime rates and a dwindling population as the faint
of heart fled to easier climes, evoke a fond nostalgia for some.
In the June issue of Vanity Fair, for example, the critic James
Wolcott, who is working on a memoir of the decade, gleefully recalls
a time when real New Yorkers could walk the streets with bravado
while "the tourists looked scared. Getting back to their hotel alive
was one of the main items on their checklists."
Interestingly, that shell-shocked town is where John Lennon chose to
make his home with his wife, Yoko Ono, in August 1971, as "John
Lennon: The New York City Years," an exhibition at the Rock and Roll
Hall of Fame Annex in SoHo, documents. "New York is the greatest
place on earth," Lennon insisted with the enthusiasm of an
out-of-towner who has just unhinged his jaw to chomp his first deli
sandwich. For all his worldliness as an artist, Lennon had led a
sheltered life as a member of the Beatles, shuttling from hotels to
concert halls to airplanes when the band was on tour, and living
isolated in the suburban "stockbroker belt" outside London when in England.
So he embraced the heady freedom New York offered, leaving his
mop-top past behind like a new arrival from a small town, eager to
become who he wanted to be. New Yorkers, in turn, saw the city anew
through his wide, endlessly appreciative eyes. Sadly, such
open-heartedness would prove his undoing in a town that proved
tougher than he ever imagined it could be.
In a way that would be unthinkable now for one of the most famous men
in the world, Lennon and Ono rented a two-room apartment on Bank
Street in the West Village when they settled here, and bought
bicycles to get around town. As a student at Sarah Lawrence and an
avant-garde artist in New York in the 1950s and '60s, Ono was
intimately familiar with the city. "She made me walk around the
streets and parks and squares and examine every nook and cranny,"
Lennon said. "In fact you could say I fell in love with New York on a
His proximity to the docks and the meatpacking district reminded
Lennon of his hometown port city of Liverpool, as did the
characteristic gruffness of New Yorkers. "I like New Yorkers because
they have no time for the niceties of life," he said. "They're like
me in this. They're naturally aggressive, they don't believe in wasting time."
When the Nixon administration used a minor drug conviction in England
as a pretext for kicking the politically outspoken Lennon out of the
country, the city rallied behind him. The Hall of Fame exhibition
includes a letter from Mayor John V. Lindsay to the Immigration and
Naturalization Service recounting Lennon's charitable and artistic
contributions to New York and requesting that he be permitted to stay.
Lennon and Ono broke up for a time in 1973, after which he mostly
lived in Los Angeles. In 1975, after the couple had reunited, the
government dropped its case and Lennon got his green card (also on
display in the exhibition). And after three miscarriages, Ono gave
birth to their son, Sean, that year. "I feel higher than the Empire
State Building," Lennon declared.
By this time, the family was living in the Dakota on 72nd Street and
Central Park West, a step up from Bank Street but hardly as posh then
as it would eventually become. As the city struggled to recover from
its economic crisis, Lennon established a domestic life. He stopped
making albums, turned over his business affairs to Ono, and famously
baked bread and cared for Sean.
By the time the couple began working on the album "Double Fantasy" in
1980, life in New York seemed to be on firmer and safer footing,
though it was still raw enough that in 1979 Lennon and Ono donated
$1,000 to purchase bullet-proof vests for the city's police force.
Lennon was eager to return to public life, and he was still singing
the praises of his adopted city. "I can go right out this door now
and go in a restaurant," he told a BBC reporter on Dec. 6, 1980, in
an interview to promote the album's release. "You want to know how
great that is?"
Two days later, Lennon was shot to death outside the Dakota. He was
40 years old. He had just returned home from a recording session with
Ono and, rather than have their car pull directly into the Dakota's
driveway, he got out at the curb so that he could greet the fans
waiting outside. It was an emotionally generous gesture, maybe even a
naïve one: trusting the city too much, underestimating its dangers.
Mick Jagger, a far more jaded New York transplant, couldn't believe
his friend used to take cabs, which is "probably to be avoided if
you've got more than $10," as he said years later.
In the nearly three decades since Lennon's death, New York has often
seemed like two cities: one where the famous and wealthy played in a
luxurious bubble, and the other grittier world where everybody else
lived. During his time in the city, John Lennon tried to act as if
those worlds could be bridged. New York is safer now, statistics say.
But underestimating the dangers ahead may still prove a fatal mistake.