It was December 8, 1980, and I was sure I was going to meet John Lennon.
I had just interviewed Jack Douglas, producer of John and Yoko’s comeback album, “Double Fantasy,” for Musician magazine. The album had been released just three weeks earlier; a cover story called “Yoko Only” written by Peter Occhiogrosso, my editor at the Soho Weekly News, was on newsstands. It could only be a matter of time before I’d be introduced to my favorite ex-Beatle — not as a fan, but as a member of the Downtown community that had embraced the pair since they’d moved to New York in 1971. Obviously, that would never happen.
Just three days earlier, Occhiogrosso had been invited to the Record Plant recording studio to meet Lennon, who had been delighted by his article, which solidified Yoko’s place in the 1960s New York art scene and her music’s influence on the emerging New Wave sound, after years of derision from Beatle fans and others.
“John loved the article because it was the only favorable story about Yoko in a mainstream publication outside of the art press,” remembers Occhiogrosso, who managed to secure one of five national media spots with the duo by proposing to focus the piece solely on Ono. After Peter hung out with the pair for four hours on Friday, December 5, watching them work on “Walking on Thin Ice,” Lennon offered to walk him to 10th Avenue to catch a cab on the deserted city street.
“‘I don’t have a gun with me, so it’s every man for himself,’” Occhiogrosso remembers Lennon joking before a taxi pulled up. “I turned to shake his hand, and he was already walking back to the studio. I thought, ‘Oh, well, I’ll see him again.’”
Lennon had been a ubiquitous presence in New York in the years since he and Yoko had first moved to the city in 1971, originally living in an apartment on Bank Street in Greenwich Village before moving to the Dakota. I once spotted Lennon at a health food store on Fifth Avenue, where his presence set the entire place abuzz, although no one approached him. After years of Beatlemania and more, he seemed to enjoy being able to live his life in the open.
Richard Barone, singer-songwriter for Hoboken’s The Bongos and currently a professor for the New School of Social Research, embarked on a pilgrimage to New York in 1977, where he made it his business to meet Andy Warhol at the Factory and head to the Dakota. “I spotted him, Yoko and a nanny walking Sean in a baby carriage headed to Central Park,” he recalls. “As much as I wanted to, I just didn’t want to disturb that idyllic scene.” Barone ended up becoming very friendly with both Yoko and Sean, performing with Sean on several occasions, including a Lou Reed tribute at the 2014 SXSW festival.
Allen Kovac, manager of Motley Crue and Blondie, was just getting started in concert promotion when he ran into Lennon at a West side deli in the late ‘70s. “I wondered whether I should bug him and then I thought, Why not?” recalls Kovac. “He was the reason I was in the music business, but when I told him that, he said the record industry had not been very inspiring to him lately.”
Veteran singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw portrayed Lennon in the Broadway tribute show “Beatlemania” from 1978 through early 1980, first as an understudy, then for the West Coast company in Los Angeles (Pantages), San Francisco (Orpheum) and San Diego and finally a national tour. He released his self-titled debut album, a power-pop classic, in 1982.
After Lennon’s death, Crenshaw says, “If I’d still been in the show, I would’ve quit that very day. I had real mixed feelings about doing it anyway. I was very cranky about it for a while.”
While Crenshaw never met Lennon, he had a session for his debut album at the Record Plant on the one-year anniversary of the Beatle’s death. “We didn’t get any work done that day,” he recalls. “Nobody was in the mood to do much of anything, so I just sat and listened to their stories about John.”
Occhiogrosso recalls that shortly after Lennon’s death, Yoko summoned him to the Dakota. During their conversation, she said that she and Lennon had been planning a world tour that would take them back to Japan, with Lennon singing a solo version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to her as the encore. “She told me not to write about it because of how intimate it was,” he says.
After showing him around, she pointed to a bureau in her bedroom. “John used to be so big, and now he’s so small,” she said. Occhiogrosso didn’t realize what she was referring to until he noticed an urn on top, filled with his ashes. Yoko then opened up a drawer on the nightstand, pulled out a joint and lit it. “Would you like some?” she asked.
“Then she asked if I had ever heard ‘Two Virgins,’” he recalls, referring to the avant-garde 1968 album she and Lennon had made — and which they appeared nude on the cover of, shocking countless Beatle fans. “She took me down to the kitchen and played it,” he recalls. “She looked at me and said, ‘No wonder people thought we were crazy.’”