John Lennon’s new Yohji Yamamoto jacket was gorgeous. So much so that he wanted to be photographed in his luxurious garment — with gold Asian characters running down the left arm, roughly translating to “The truth of the universe is in your heart and in your mind.” He called his friend, rock ’n’ roll photographer Bob Gruen, and invited him to the Record Plant studio in Midtown Manhattan. Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, were working on a new song there, called “Walking on Thin Ice.”
Gruen had shot the iconic photo of Lennon wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “New York City,” and they had established a friendship where the singer would regularly ask Gruen to photograph him.
It was Friday afternoon, Dec. 5, 1980, when Gruen arrived at the Record Plant for what would be their final session together. Three days later, on Dec. 8, the former Beatle and hero to millions would be gunned down by an obsessed fan, Mark David Chapman, in front of The Dakota, where Lennon lived with his family.
Gruen recalled that Lennon, 40, was in an upbeat state of mind. He looked forward to seeing the pictures, which the photographer developed in his darkroom two days later. He was hoping to have them done in time to drop by the Record Plant studio and catch Lennon and Ono there.
“But,” said Gruen, “I was running late. A friend from California called with the news about John. I sunk to the floor.” Emerging details brought a troubling thought: “Had I gotten to the studio, I might have changed things. I would have encouraged them to go out to eat. I had a feeling that my being there may have made things different. I felt guilty about that for a long time.”
Lennon was in a good place at the time of his death — a world away from his so-called “lost weekend,” actually a period from 1973 until 1975, during which he partied hard in Los Angeles and embarked on an affair with his former assistant May Pang. According to the BBC’s Andy Peebles, the subject of “Lennon’s Last Weekend” who interviewed the singer on Saturday, Dec. 6, 1980, singer Harry Nilsson once dared Lennon to jump out of a speeding car on an LA freeway. Lennon obliged, later telling Peebles, “I was so high on drugs that I didn’t think twice.”
But since 1975, he had been in New York City with his family. He kept a photo of his son Sean, 5, in the studio. “John embraced the joy of being in a family,” said Gruen. “He was going to carry that message on a tour of the world.”
Lennon and Ono’s album, “Double Fantasy,” had been released in October 1980 and was climbing the charts. Lennon loved seeing his wife’s music being embraced. He did not mind that his new tunes were being written off as “middle of the road.” Remembered Gruen: “John said, ‘That’s OK. We’re going down the middle of the road to the bank.’
Dec. 8 began early for Lennon and Ono. They ate breakfast at their usual table in their favorite neighborhood restaurant, Café La Fortuna. It was a modest spot, known for Italian pastries and opera. After John’s death, the table was placed in the window as a memento mori.
Morning meal completed, Lennon slipped out for a haircut. Enjoying the city, he strolled without a bodyguard. Some argue that the freedom he loved may have done him in.
James Patterson, co-author of “The Last Days of John Lennon” (Little, Brown and Company), out Monday, told The Post that photographer Harry Benson — who snapped the Beatles during the band’s first US tour and remained friendly with Lennon — had concerns. “He said that if John hadn’t been killed, something tragic would have happened to him [anyway],” said Patterson. “He felt that John would take one too many chances and somehow expose himself.”
But Lennon was having too much enjoyment for grim thoughts. “John was very funny,” said Gruen, remembering strolling past a schoolyard with him. “Kids were playing basketball and one of them yelled, ‘Hey, John, when are you going to get the Beatles back together?’ John replied, ‘When are you going back to high school?’ ”
On the day of the singer’s assassination, he returned home with his locks styled in the combed-back manner of a Teddy boy, throwing back to his 1950s youth in Liverpool. Annie Leibovitz, Rolling Stone’s chief photographer, arrived for a cover shoot.
Publisher Jann Wenner wanted Lennon alone. But during an interview with writer Jonathan Cott, according to the book “Sticky Fingers,” Lennon had said, “If they don’t want the two of us, we’re not interested.”
Leibovitz pressed for the wishes of her boss, but Lennon remained unrelenting. Then she showed him a nude drawing for inspiration. Lennon stripped down immediately. Ono demurred. He coiled around his wife, tenderly kissing her cheek. Leibovitz showed him a Polaroid. He loved it. The ex-Beatle is said to have proclaimed, “That is it. This is our relationship.”
Days later, the Rolling Stone cover feature transformed into an obituary. “It was so profound,” Mary Shanahan, Rolling Stone’s art director at the time, told The Post of the now-famous photo. “Maybe a person should not show that level of vulnerability.”
In the gutter between the magazine’s front and back cover, Wenner left a secret message to John: “I love you. You’re with God. I’ll do what I said. ‘Yoko, hold on’ — I’ll make sure, I promise. ” (It remains a mystery what Wenner actually promised)
After Leibovitz left, Lennon and Ono met with radio host Dave Sholin and producer Laurie Kaye for a free-flowing interview in The Dakota apartment. They talked about the rigors of parenting. With Ono outed as the family disciplinarian, Lennon drily joked, “You’re the best father he’s ever had.”
Some 90 minutes later, they all headed downstairs. A small crowd waited outside, hoping to snag autographs. A heavyset young man in an overcoat stood among them, waving a copy of “Double Fantasy.” Accommodatingly, the singer wrote, “John Lennon, 1980.”
“Is that all?” Lennon asked. “Do you want anything else?”
The man shook his head no. In the midst of this, a photo was snapped by Paul Goresh — an amateur lenser who had his own history with Lennon: He improbably went from sneaking into the rock star’s apartment by posing as a VCR repairman, to becoming friendly enough to join him on walks around the neighborhood. The image captured Lennon inches away from his future assassin Chapman, the fan he had just met.
After that moment, Lennon and Yoko headed off in a car to the Record Plant for a final listen of their new song.
“They were so effing pumped and stable,” Steve Marcantonio, assistant engineer on the session, recalled to The Post. “John was so clean.” During a time when cocaine was as common as Coca-Cola, “he did not even have a beer or a glass of wine. John called Yoko ‘Mother’ from time to time.”
Lennon and Ono signed off on the recording. Sam Ginsberg, who had been an engineer at the Record Plant, told The Post in 2005, “John was happy that it was going to be Yoko’s single instead of his single. We just finished mixing that song and they left. The one thing that stuck in my mind was John saying, ‘I’m hungry. Should we stop at Wolf’s for a hamburger?’”
Ever the adoring dad, John opted instead to head home so they could see Sean. Their limousine pulled up to The Dakota’s front gate at around 10:50 p.m.
“The car could have gone deeper into the driveway, and they could have stepped out right where the door is,” Keith Elliot Greenberg, who authored “December 8, 1980: The Day John Lennon Died,” told The Post. “But [Lennon] chose to step onto the sidewalk, as he usually did. He liked the fans.”
Chapman was waiting. This time, he assumed a combat stance, aimed his .38 Special revolver and shot four hollow-point bullets into the singer’s torso. Lennon collapsed.
Police raced to the scene and Chapman was handcuffed. Two officers carried the dying Lennon to the back of their patrol car. Siren wailing, they roared off to the old Roosevelt Hospital at Ninth Avenue and 59th Street. Ono trailed in a second police vehicle.
Engineer Marcantonio heard the news via a TV playing in the Record Plant studio.
“I soon got a call from Lila Wassenaar, who managed the Record Plant,” he said. “She told me, ‘Get all of the [‘Thin Ice’] tapes in the vault. John had his own vault there. We didn’t want people coming in, grabbing the tapes or listening to them.”
According to Rolling Stone’s Shanahan, Leibovitz acted similarly: “She went to the lab and got the film immediately.”
Kaye, still on a high from interviewing Lennon and Ono, heard a radio report of the shooting. “I raced to hospital,” she said. “I looked through the … window and saw Yoko inside. She was crying. I knew, at that moment, that John was dead.”
Had he lived, Gruen speculates, the world would be better for it. “I assume he’d be vibrant and making great music. John had grown up by 1980 and he learned that living a sober life is really fun. I could see him putting that out into the world. Plus, John was so good with the one liners — one of my favorites from him was, ‘Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted.’ He would have been fantastic on Twitter.”