In late 1980, John Lennon was ready to get back in the spotlight. His new album, Double Fantasy, was his first new music out in five years, and it presented a whole new, grown-up side to the former Beatle. Now 40, his new LP was a collaboration with his wife—a story of their rekindled love, with their single Just Like Starting Over working its way up the charts.

So on the morning of December 8, 1980, Annie Liebovitz was in the home of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, guiding them through a photo-shoot for the cover of an upcoming issue of Rolling Stone. The interview had happened three days earlier, when journalist Jonathan Cott visited to discuss Lennon’s return to public life. Many thought he was in hiding, but, he told Cott, he was just taking time to relax and raise his son Sean, now five. “That I was cut off from society is a joke,” he said. “I was just the same as any of the rest of you; I was working from nine to five – baking bread and changing some nappies and dealing with the baby.” But he’d been traveling plenty, and that previous spring, a trip to a nightclub in Bermuda inspired him to start making music again. “I suddenly heard Rock Lobster by the B-52’s for the first time,” he told Cott. “Do you know it? It sounds just like Yoko’s music, so I said to meself, ‘It’s time to get out the old ax and wake the wife up!'”

Leibovitz had an idea for the shot. She’d been moved by the cover of their recent album—a simple black and white image of the couple kissing—that conveyed a kind of romance that she took to be mostly dead in 1980. So she wanted, somehow, to portray whom the real John and Yoko were to each other. “It wasn’t a stretch to imagine them with their clothes off, because they did it all the time,” she later said. “But what happened, at the last minute, was that Yoko didn’t want to take her clothes off. So, we went ahead with the picture.” She took a test shot and the three took a look. “This is it,” Lennon told Liebovitz. “This is our relationship.” It would end up becoming one of the most iconic cover images of the century.

After they wrapped, Lennon sat down with Dave Sholin from San Francisco’s RKO radio to continue the press push for his reemergence into popular culture—this time John gave the scoop that he was planning to hit the road soon. (“See you in San Francisco!,” read the autograph on a copy of Double Fantasy for Sholin to bring to his fiancée.) A couple hours later, it was time for them to head over to the Record Plant studio, but their car never arrived, so Sholin offered them a ride. As Lennon climbed into the limo, he stopped to sign a copy of Double Fantasy for a waiting fan in a trench-coat. “It had to be Mark David Chapman,” Sholin later said.

At the studio they listened to a final mix of their upcoming single, Walking on Thin Ice. John was particularly excited about this one, since it was written and performed by Yoko. Around 11 pm, they headed back home after a long day. When they pulled up, there was a car blocking the entrance. The driver double-parked and John and Yoko exited on the sidewalk, going through a crowd of fans towards the building’s gates. The fan in the trench coat pulled out a pistol and shot him four times in the back. He was rushed to Roosevelt hospital where he was pronounced dead. The world’s sadness turned to disbelief as it was revealed that Chapman had come from Hawaii intent on Lennon’s assassination. Lennon’s close friend and personal photographer Bob Gruen, for one, initially thought it must have been a mugging—it was New York, after all. “It didn’t occur to me that someone would travel across the world to shoot him on purpose,” he said. “It just didn’t. It still doesn’t make sense. It will never make sense.”

PHOTO: Gisela Giardino

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