On Claudio, the Man Who Sought Out John Lennon to Ask if His Songs Were About Him

Ryan H. Walsh
41 min readDec 13, 2021


NOTE: I began this piece in December of 2020. When I conducted the interview with Ernie, he had, at the time, never gone on record with a journalist before and the story was still largely a mystery, only partially referenced in stray comments on several websites, none of which verified the information. Meanwhile, I had to focus on several other projects with tangible deadlines and this story went on the back burner. In the interim, a documentary about Claudio was announced. It was apparent they were far deeper into the story than I had gotten, and I applaud them and can’t wait to see it. This piece ended up being about more than just the story of Claudio, and since it’s now been 50 years since his meeting with Lennon, I figured there’s some value in sharing it here. The footnotes are at the bottom of the piece, but it might be easier to click each one in a new tab for quickest/easiest toggling back and forth.

I remember when I first realized that songs could be dangerous.

At the time, in 1997, I had a part-time job at a video store, so during an intense, teenage Beatles-binge, all of the Fab Four content on the shelves started coming home with me after my shifts. It wasn’t long before I popped in a VHS of the 1988 Imagine documentary one night and there it was: the scene where a dirty, Kurt Cobain-looking young man sneaks onto the property of John Lennon’s home, won’t leave, and is eventually granted an audience with the Beatles singer. If you’ve ever seen the doc, you’ll no doubt easily recall all of these details; it’s the most memorable thing in the whole film. Janet Maslin kicked off her New York Times review of the movie with an encapsulation of the moment:

This dazed-looking young man … wants to talk about Beatles songs. He thinks that when Lennon sang the line “Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight/Carry that weight a long time,” he himself was the ‘’Boy’’ the singer had in mind.

‘’That’s Paul sang that,’’ Lennon says wearily. But the fan remains convinced that Lennon’s songwriting is directed specifically at him.

In the original doc, the entire ordeal ends happily enough as John kindly asks if he’s hungry and they take Claudio, as many would eventually come to know him, inside to give him something to eat. Yes, the moment had resolved itself fairly happily in the movie, but I myself now had a problem. I could tell that this young man was deeply troubled. I could tell that he was experiencing something unusual that was impossible to ignore inside his brain. But also, I identified with him.

That overwhelming, intense connection to songs — specifically lyrics — was something I had felt ever since I owned a pair of headphones. On the right day, at the right moment, with the right song in my ears, it felt overwhelmingly obvious to me that this song was created to help me understand this moment — an actual, organic soundtrack to life — where suddenly I could see how each lyric perfectly applied to something right in front of me. Certain phrases and melodies made my entire body tingle and light up.[1] Sometimes, hearing songs that I loved, both happy and sad, instantly reduced me to tears regardless of my overall mood or present situation. Outside of a handful of peak moments, these ideas mostly lived within the realm of daydreams or thought experiments for me. I was never on the verge of setting out to sit on some songwriter’s property, for instance, but still, I knew that easily grasping and understanding Claudio’s POV was probably, on some level, worrisome.

The Claudio scene stuck with me. Soon, I started writing my own songs and, after learning how they worked — how these writer/listener connections were formed, both purposely and accidentally — I picked up lots of insights into the reasons a listener might have thoughts like Claudio’s now and then. The truth is, feeling some semblance of what he was experiencing means the songwriter is doing their job really well.[2] It was the absolute certainty and follow through that set him apart from everyone else who ever fell in deeply love with a song. Others would describe it as becoming completely unhinged from reality. Take your pick.

Then in November 2019, a little over twenty years since first watching Imagine, something peculiar happened that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. My band had just released our seventh album, and there in the third paragraph of a positive, intuitive review of the record was a comparison of the lyrics I had written to the Claudio scene in Imagine. I couldn’t fucking believe it. After quoting the chorus of the title track, “Don’t freak out / I’m you,” music writer Jake Brown wrote:

That warning is not unwarranted. It can be really easy to let yourself slide into a wormhole of reading too much into something and convincing yourself that someone is singing directly to you. Do you remember the scene in Imagine where John Lennon talks to the homeless dude who is freaking out and believes that the songs were written about him? “It all fits,” the guy insists. John shoots down his theory but invites him in for tea. Don’t freak out.

Ironically, I freaked out a little when I first read this. What were the odds? I mean, it’s by no means an obvious thing to reference in an album review. How had I written lyrics that prompted a complete stranger to reference the exact thing that first made me aware of the power, and the potential dangerous power, of over identifying with a song’s lyrics or — on the flip side — authoring lines that might cause people to think you were delivering messages or instructions specifically to them. After all, I thought, it didn’t always work out as peacefully as it did with Claudio; I mean, the other two famous instances of people hearing personalized, secret messages in Beatles songs are horror stories: one is Charles Manson and the other is the guy who ended up murdering John Lennon. We all know how their lives ended up, but as far as I could tell, no one had kept tabs on what happened to Claudio.

The whole thing got me thinking about him again: the power of the scene, my strong initial reaction to seeing it, how it foreshadowed Lennon’s death. I wondered if anyone had ever approached Claudio in the same manner that he had once approached John Lennon? I decided to try to find him, or at least find what happened to him, and see how he had fared carrying that weight in the decades since his meeting with a Beatle.

— -

In the early months of 2020, if you searched online for information about Claudio, here is what you would first learn:

1) The John Lennon estate believed he was a Vietnam vet. Yoko plainly states it in the 2018 Above Us Only Sky documentary. Dan Richter — John and Yoko’s assistant at the time of Claudio’s visit — repeats the claim in the 2018 Imagine John Yoko book, noting “Apparently Claudio was a shell-shocked veteran who was due to be released from the hospital.” Richter recalls tracing one of Claudio’s telegrams back to a veterans’ hospital in San Francisco. Even the official John Lennon Facebook page had published a post in 2016 asking if anyone knew what happened to Claudio, “the confused, vulnerable Vietnam veteran.”

2) Many people thought Claudio popped up in John and Yoko’s life once again during a 1971 appearance on the Dick Cavett show in which a young man in the audience who looks quite a bit like Claudio asks Lennon whether he’s for a peaceful or violent revolution. Despite the visual resemblance, this man has a voice and accent nothing like Claudio’s. Additionally, when you looked at the dates between the events, the Cavett show was just a little over three months after the day Lennon and Claudio spoke, so surely one of them would have referenced that during their television exchange. “Didn’t I just bring you into my mansion for tea and bread?” etc. The connection appears to have originated in the book Eight Arms to Hold You: The Solo Beatles Compendium, published in 2000, and further spread via the most popular video upload of the Claudio scene from Imagine which prominently notes the potential connection in the description of the video.

3) He was very likely dead.

In the comments sections of extremely niche Beatles fan sites, varying stories could be found claiming to know the truth about Claudio, but all of them seemed to agree he was deceased. In a discussion on the Steve Hoffman Music Forums, users even built cases making the claim that Claudio had been a plant from Team Lennon, set up to generate an engrossing scene for the documentary. “I bet he was a member of John’s entourage or at the very least a hired hand who worked on the grounds at the mansion,” wrote username Louisville in 2008, “Give the guy a script and John’s interacting with an everyman on film.”

Whoever he was, it stood to reason, if he was still alive there would be a very good chance he would have stepped forward to claim his memorable cultural moment by now. I mean, we even know who the man standing off in the distance behind the Beatles on the cover of Abbey Road is for cripes sake; His name is Paul Cole, a Florida man who was vacationing in England with his wife. The only reason he was in the right spot at the right time was because he didn’t want to visit any more museums with his spouse. In interviews, he exclusively refers to the band as “kooks.”[3]

Some of the more detailed-laden Claudio comments I came across online were written by a man named Ernie who claimed he was Claudio’s brother. Without any other leads, I eventually focused on contacting Ernie. Initial emails and Facebook messages went unanswered for months, but in December 2020 he finally replied, agreeing to be interviewed.

When we began talking, I quickly learned that most of the available information about Claudio was completely incorrect. It was wild to unlearn all this within the span of a minute: Claudio was actually his last name, he went by Curt, he was not a Vietnam vet, that’s definitely not him in the Dick Cavett clip, and, sadly he died in 1981.

“He had charm, he was good looking, and he had a sense of innocence about him,” Ernie offered as the reasons why so many people found Curt’s brief appearance in the Imagine film so compelling. “And nothing really ever came out about him,” he said, “and so the mystery started.”

Curt Claudio as a young boy, photos courtesy of Ernie Claudio

From there, Ernie began dismantling the mystery for me piece by piece: Cesare Curtis Claudio was born on August 28th 1948 in California to parents Cesare & Martha. Both were musicians, Cesare being a cellist, Martha a pianist — both classically trained. They raised Curt and his siblings in Fremont, CA as devout Catholics. Ernie recalls Curt being a straight A student, popular with girls, and a huge Beatles fan. In high school he learned how to play the trumpet. His grades and intelligence earned him a scholarship to University of California, Davis which he began in the fall of 1966. This is where Curt first encountered psychedelic drugs — “he used to take LSD like candy,” Ernie says — after which his Beatle fandom began to transform into something different: now when he listened to their music he got the distinct sense that the Beatles were calling out to him. They wanted him to join them in the U.K.

So, why John? According to his brother, Curt’s vision and fixation extended to all four band members, but he was only able to ascertain John’s location with certainty (possibly achieved by calling Rolling Stone magazine and pretending he was a music journalist). He began to send correspondence to Lennon indicating that he was coming from the United States to meet him.

Ernie recalls that his brother’s first attempt to get to England had failed. “He didn’t have a lot of money. He was going to hitchhike across the United States with a friend and fly Icelandic Air from the east coast.” When the two men reached Nevada, they camped out in the desert one night wherein the friend offered Curt a “handful of blue pills.” Ernie believes they contained Belladonna, which brought on a series of intense hallucinations for Curt. “My mother gets a call the next morning from the Sheriff’s Department saying, ‘we found your son talking to a tree.’ He ended up coming back home from the desert looking pretty rough, still barefoot, and his feet were all swollen up.”

Curt convalesced at his mother’s house. At this point, he continued to send telegrams, audio recordings, and letters to the Tittenhurst estate in Ascot. Lennon recalled them as saying things like, “I’m coming. I’m coming and then I’ll only have to look in your eyes and I’ll know.” Diana Robertson, John and Yoko’s assistant, recalled that the letters indicated that “some of the time he thought he was John, but he also desperately wanted to meet him.” In the late winter of 1971, one of the last telegrams to arrive read, “Somebody tell John I’ll be at Gatwick the 18th wearing a three quarter brown sheepskin coat +++ Reply immediately before. Should I come and wait or not? +++ I can’t make the trip over unless I know you’ll be there +++ You say you want to help but I won’t come there until you wire back +++”

As soon as Curt had fully recovered, he set out for England once again, and this time he succeeded.

From the book ‘Imagine John Yoko’ (Thames & Hudson)

— -

On the morning of August 8th, 1969, The Beatles walked across Abbey Road in Westminster, London as photographer Iain Macmillan captured the photograph that graced the cover of the band’s final album and was soon to become one of the most iconic rock n roll images ever created. On that same calendar date, late in the evening, on another continent, four members of the Charles Manson family pulled up to 10050 Cielo Drive in Los Angeles, broke into the house, and murdered the five people inside.

The date wouldn’t be the only connection[4]; in the subsequent investigation and trial of the murders, it was revealed that frustrated musician turned cult leader Charles Manson had heard secret messages in The Beatles’ “White Album,” created an entire race war scenario he preached to his followers he called “Helter Skelter,” and that the Tate killers had even referenced the band’s lyrics at the crime scene, written in blood on the walls. By the time police raided the family’s Spahn Ranch dwelling in November of 1969, Abbey Road had been released, and they discovered a door with “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, all good children (go to heaven?)” — as heard in the song, “You Never Give Me Your Money” — scrawled upon it, further gluing the two gigantic, opposite cultural Titanics together, forever.

In October of 1970, the Manson defense team announced they wanted John Lennon to testify at the trial. “We feel he may want to explain the lyrics,” they told AP News. In prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s book about the case, he writes that he found himself saying unusual things in court, like, “[The Defense] will tell you that the interpretation of the Beatles’ songs by Manson was normal.” As far as I can tell, this was the first time that recorded music and published lyrics were introduced as evidence at a murder trial. “Why blame it on me?” Manson said, “I didn’t write the music. I am not the person who projected it into your social consciousness.” Lennon never testified, after all, “Helter Skelter” was Paul’s composition, but in January of 1971, the jury privately listened to the Beatles’ “White Album” during deliberation.[5]

“I’m a peace-loving man,” Lennon told a reporter, “If I were a praying man, I’d pray to be delivered from people like Charles Manson who claim to know better than I do what my songs are supposed to mean.” Lennon also expressed a wish that Manson had heard his call for non-violence in the song “Revolution,” noting it “clearly states my position on violence.” The problem was, the song was purposely ambiguous, expressing Lennon’s uncertainty about the issue, “When you talk about destruction / don’t you know that you can count me out (in).” He wasn’t sure, so he sang both. Lennon also played it both ways when it came to their responsibility for the messages contained in their songs, telling Rolling Stone in 1970, the band would share a laugh when “some intellectual would read us, some symbolic youth generation wants to see something in it. We also took seriously some parts of the role, but I don’t know what ‘Helter Skelter’ has to do with knifing somebody.” While the both-sides lyric and the simultaneous shirking and acknowledgement of their responsibility as artists of tremendous influence is unfortunate, also, can you really blame them for being overwhelmed and confused? At the time there was literally four people on the planet who knew what it was like to be that famous, that loved (and reviled), that analyzed, and they were all members of the Beatles. To say that their experiences and challenges were unprecedented would be an understatement, and John, Paul, George, and Ringo had to reconcile with all of it all before any of them would even turn thirty years old. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that their existence and output had quickly become a new myth, larger than any of them, and at a certain point, there is no controlling how a culture interprets and recontextualizes a myth.[6]

If the skeletal structure of any myth is sturdy, complex, and big enough, you can drape just about anything on top of it and make it look correct, purposeful, and as if it’s an intended interpretation of that myth. This is why Beatles fans were able to create so many seemingly accurate clues in the “Paul is Dead” hoax that arose in 1967, repurposing details from lyrics and album covers to bolster their hypothesis. “That was bullshit,” Lennon told Jann Wenner in1970, “the whole thing was made up.”

Parsing the content of the “White Album” for proof that the band provided instructions for Manson to carry out his gruesome murders is a ridiculous and fruitless task. The missing subtext in the whole proposition was that the Beatles’ music had become a ridiculously powerful element in the culture, a kind of tool to be yielded and used, and in the wrong hands — like the psychotic hands of the Manson family — it could produce dark, disastrous results. Remember, you can both build a house and kill someone with a hammer.

— -

This is all to say, John Lennon had plenty of reason to be hyper-wary of any Beatles fanatic who was claiming to be able to decode the messages in their music. He even went so far to compare Manson to these kinds of fans: “He’s barmy, like any other Beatle-kind of fan who reads mysticism into it.” This makes what happened on May 26, 1971 all the more noteworthy and unlikely. But it wouldn’t be the first time, nor the last, that Lennon’s over-the-top openness and vulnerability resulted in making himself available for an honest interaction and conversation with a fan. During the Beatles’ 1964 Australian tour, a young man named Peter scaled up a drainpipe and eight floors of balconies to knock on the window of Lennon’s hotel room. “I gave him a drink because he deserved one,” Lennon said, “and then I took him around to see the others, who were quite amazed.” Critic Lester Bangs zeroed in on this quality of Lennon in his 1974 Creem review[7] of the Mind Games LP, writing, “He places himself out there, makes himself vulnerable with each embarrassing song; in fact, it’s their very embarrassingness that makes them so relatable.”

As promised in his telegram, Claudio arrived at Tittenhurst wearing a brown sheepskin coat sometime around the 20th of May 1971. “Our assistants told us that there was this strange guy that was staying in our garden almost every night,” Yoko Ono recalled, “John always felt responsible for these people because they were the result of his songs. That’s how he felt.” Assistant Diana Robertson remembers Claudio as an extended presence on the property before John finally agreed to meet him. “[He] would just appear out of a hedge sometimes. He looked rough but also incredibly beautiful, there was something about him that was amazing. I think he was harmless really, but to begin with, people didn’t want to have anything to do with him and didn’t want him around.” Finally, Dan Richter[8] and Peter Bendrey began to escort Claudio out through the main gate when John appeared at the front door saying, “Hey, bring him in. I want to know what’s going on in his head.”

While the footage of the interaction was shot in May of 1971, it would not be publicly seen until 1988’s theatrical release of the Imagine documentary, which is not to be confused with the 1972 TV special titled Imagine, which utilized much of the same footage of the ’88 film, but was far more abstract — a series of music videos essentially — created to promote both Lennon’s Imagine and Ono’s Fly albums. The Claudio scene lasts about two minutes in the ’88 film. It wouldn’t be until 2018’s Above Us Only Sky documentary that we’d see the full extent of what was captured, which is about a minute of additional footage. “We put in every single frame we could of it,” Above Us Only Sky director Michael Epstein said of the Claudio exchange.

If you’ve never seen the full scene before, a complete transcript and video clip is available here on the official John Lennon website.[9]

“He gave Curt the truth,” Ernie tells me of his assessment of his brother’s interaction with Lennon, “The brutal truth. and he didn’t sugar coat anything.” It’s true. You can see how uninterested Lennon is with affirming any of the magical, mystical qualities Curt Claudio has found in his music. In what might be the conversation’s only overreach, Lennon tells the young man that his lyrics aren’t much more than mundane reports of his own life, like, “I had a good shit this morning.” There is however the sense that perhaps at earlier points in his life, Lennon would have been more willing to buy into this kind of notion, particularly at the height of his LSD use which found him declaring that he was Jesus (something he unknowingly shared in common with Curt Claudio, as a matter of fact).[10] “That last album [Plastic Ono Band] was me coming out of my dream,” he tells Curt, indicating that he was once trapped inside a dream just as he believes Curt as is currently trapped inside one. “You can last you whole life on that dream, and then it’s over.”

Curt is even willing to accept that Lennon wasn’t thinking about him, per se, but that it’s important that he was thinking about somebody when he wrote his songs. For me, this is the most interesting thing that Curt needs from John. Why does he need that? Why do fans seem to enjoy the song more when they learn that “Hey Jude” is about Paul comforting Julian Lennon after his parents divorced? Why was the subject of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” such a coveted piece of information for so many decades? I’ve got a strong suspicion it all has something to do with this: despite Lennon’s instance on the mundanity of songwriting, and despite how wrong and dangerous Claudio’s thinking is about the songs, the fact is that songs and music are some kind of magic[11] and people have an insatiable hunger to understand how magical things work. Knowing who or what inspired a song is something knowable about what often seems like a completely unknowable process. Think about how, during the recent collective debut viewing of Peter Jackson’s Get Back documentary series, so many social media users were ecstatic to see Paul McCartney summon the complete melody to “Get Back” out of thin air, in front of his band mates and a camera crew.

The songs of the Beatles had such a profound, intimate effect on Claudio that he began to think that surely the songwriter must have had him in my mind when they wrote it.[12] When Claudio flat out asks Lennon if he was thinking of him, it’s the only moment Lennon sounds exasperated by the conversation: “How could I be? How could I be thinking of you, man?” The sharp reply almost seems to snap Claudio out his spell for a moment. He sheepishly replies, “Well I don’t know. Maybe I don’t care, me, but it’s all, it’s all somebody.” This reply makes me wonder if Claudio is not having a solipsistic break from reality, but more of a realization that we are all one, all sharing one consciousness, as Hinduism teaches. Or perhaps both? “He was no dummy,” Yoko Ono later reflected. “He was a spiritual person. Claudio was communicating to John on a high level. It’s no bad thing; it was a good thing, actually.”

“Are you hungry?” John asks him. Claudio answers yes and they take him inside the house. “Let’s give him something to eat, come on.” As the scene ends, Curt Claudio enters the sprawling, complex myth of the Beatles forever.

— -

When Claudio got back to California, he was angry at John Lennon. “Claudio told us all what happened,” Ernie tells me. “Their conversation, the food, he even said he took him into another room to play some musical instruments.” Curt felt that John Lennon had let him down and sold him short, not matching the person he represented himself to be in his songs. Ernie continues: “When you listen to the music, that’s one thing, but then when you when you’re looking at the actual person itself, you’re wondering, is he walking the walk? Is he talking the talk? You might see a difference between what’s coming out in the song vs. the feelings you get when you’re looking at the real person.” It’s true, but no one should be expected to try to embody the very best of their art in every moment of their existence. If you tried, you’d be driven mad.[13]

Curt Claudio eventually got over his grudge with Lennon and continued to ponder big questions about spirituality and the purpose of life. “[One time] he wanted to go into the wilderness like Jesus did,” Ernie says. “Forty days and forty nights. He made it for 18 days.” When he returned, Ernie was stirring some soup on the stove when Curt told him, “You know, Jesus is going to come back to Earth again.”

“I know,” said Ernie.

“I’m him,” Curt replied.

Over time, these intense, peak experiences became more and more infrequent. Curt settled into a fairly happy, vagabond lifestyle. “A lot of his efforts were basically survival,” Ernie recalls, “He would find a farmer or a rancher with a barn. He would work out a deal where he could stay in the barn and do odd jobs and chores.”

One night in 1972, Curt got into a serious accident on the highway, his vehicle becoming fully airborne before crashing down. “He got a compound fracture with a bone sticking out of his arm,” Ernie says, “We used to joke that he had nine lives.”

“He was searching for the truth. He was always searching for a higher understanding. He never gave up on that. To Curt, to get a nine to five job, and a marriage, and to have kids was to be phony. And he used that word for John. He called him a phony.”

When I mention to Ernie that John Lennon’s killer also accused him, specifically, of being “phony” there is a pause on the line. “Wow…wow.”

— -

There is a towering irony to what John Lennon did a few hours after Curt Claudio left the Tittenhurst property to return back to his home. Returning to the house’s studio, Lennon recorded a song whose lyrics were specifically aimed at one person, intended to deliver a personalized message. “How Do You Sleep?” was Lennon’s angry, viscous response to Paul McCartney and the perceived slights he picked up on in various songs on Paul’s Ram album. “Those freaks was right when they said you was dead,” Lennon sneers, referencing the still lingering “Paul is Dead” hoax. That this petty, mean-spirited track shares the same album as the world-famous peace-anthem “Imagine” is such a crass contrast as to almost be hilarious. It is reported that a visiting Ringo Starr, upon hearing the track, told Lennon, “That’s enough John.”

Hours before, we saw Lennon at his most empathetic and generous, now he was seething. His assurance to Claudio that he doesn’t address specific people in his songs instantly shown to be, in a way, false. These kinds of glaring contradictions encapsulate Lennon to a T, and there were plenty more moments of hypocrisy when it came to how he hoped the public would interpret his artistic output. For instance, John would bemoan people interpreting Beatles lyrics and then turn around and sing “here’s another clue for you all, the walrus was Paul” encouraging fans to consider their discography as an elaborate puzzle to be solved. John thought the “Paul is Dead” backmasking theories were crazy, but he himself put the first backwards vocals in a pop song with 1966’s “Rain.” What are backwards vocals on a recording if not an invitation to try to reverse and decode them? Lennon loathed fanatics reading into Beatles lyrics too deeply, but also confessed he suspected Paul’s “Hey Jude” was secretly about him. In 1980, he told Playboy’s David Sheff: “If you think about it … Yoko’s just come into the picture. He’s saying, ‘Hey Jude,’ or ‘Hey, John.’ The words ‘go out and get her’ — subconsciously he was saying ‘Go ahead, leave me…I know I’m sounding like one of those fans who reads things into it.” That last comment is key: John could be pointedly hypocritical, but he was also acutely self-aware of his shortcomings and would call himself out on them, sometimes instantly.

No doubt about it, John Lennon was a deeply flawed, complex person with a duality you could spot from outer space. You can hear it in his music, you can find it all over his interviews, and, if you were in front of him, like Claudio was, you could see it in his eyes. This is not the type of personality that is going to deliver the same, positive fan/artist meet and greet interaction every single time he’s called on to do so. If you’re expecting anyone, famous or not, to be a one-dimensional, simple vessel for pure virtue, you are going to be sorely disappointed and let down, again and again and again.

The Imagine LP would be the final recording Lennon ever made in the U.K. Within three months of Claudio’s epic journey from the U.S. to Tittenhurst, John and Yoko moved to New York City.

— -

It took time and dedication to arrive at Tittenhurst in Ascot, but anyone could show up at One West 72nd Street in Manhattan with minimal effort. John and Yoko had moved to the Dakota building in the spring of 1973. The luxury apartment complex was constructed in the late 1800’s, housing a roster of famous residents over the decades, like Judy Garland, Roberta Flack, and Boris Karloff; the 1968 horror film Rosemary’s Baby uses the exterior of the building for the setting of its Satanic co-op nest, called The Bramford. After Lennon’s west coast “Lost Weekend” and the birth of their son Sean in 1975, he became firmly rooted in the residence, and at times fairly reclusive. The couple owned 28 rooms in the Dakota and Esquire reported that they bid on every single apartment as it became available, offering up to $30,000 over the asking price.

Yoko assured John he would find a new kind of public freedom in New York City, but it took him two years to settle into it. “I would be waiting for someone to say something or jump on me,” Lennon explained in an interview conducted two days before his death. “I can open this door now and go to a restaurant. You wanna know how great that is? I mean, people will come up and ask for your autograph or say hi, but they won’t bug you.”

From 1975 to 1980, John Lennon largely withdrew himself from the public eye and the music business. He became a stay-at-home dad, raising Sean and taking stock of his life. “Sean will be 5 and I wanted to give five solid years of being there all the time,” he told Newsweek. “I hadn’t seen my first son, Julian, grow up and now there’s a 17-year-old man on the phone talkin’ about motorbikes. I was not there for his childhood at all. I was on tour.” The critical spin of the same story was that Lennon had sold out, gotten richer, and become lazy. People are unsettled when a “voice of a generation” stops talking. Laurence Shames’ November 1980 Esquire piece captured all that “where is he?”-energy in a story that turns his inability to score an interview with Lennon into the hook of the piece, a ghost story starring ex-Beatle:

“The Lennon I would have found is a forty-year-old businessman who
watches a lot of television, who’s got $150 million, a son whom he
dotes on, and a wife who intercepts his phone calls. He’s got good
lawyers to squeeze him through tax loopholes, and he’s learned the
political advantages of silence. He doesn’t do anything ridiculous
anymore. He’s stopped making errors and he’s stopped making music.
And as I chased his shadow from estate to estate, from fortress to
fortress, as I tried to piece together his present life from chats with
realtors and clerks in health-food stores and with people who weren’t
at liberty to talk to me, all the questions I’d had in mind to ask
him reduced themselves to one quick query that could be answered with
an all-deciding yes or not: Is it true, John? Have you really given up?”

The piece was widely read, debated and discussed.[14] Lennon even responded to it directly, eerily remarking to Rolling Stone during a nine hour (!) interview that he felt that people wanted him to become a martyr: “Some asshole recently wrote a cover story about me in Esquire…That guy is the kind of person who used to be in love with you — you know, one of those people — and now hates you — a rejected lover. I don’t even know the asshole, but he spent his whole time looking for an illusion that he created of me, and then got upset because he couldn’t find it…What they want is dead heroes, like Sid Vicious and James Dean. I’m not interested in being a dead fucking hero.”

One particular person who read Shames’ Esquire cover story was a 25-year-old security guard from Honolulu named Mark David Chapman. Finishing the piece he thought to himself, “that phony.”

— -

By 1980, clusters of fans hoping for a glimpse of John Lennon gathered outside of the Dakota was a common occurrence, but his insistence that New Yorkers never wanted anything more than quick hello wasn’t exactly true. Paul Goresh, a college student from New Jersey, wanted to meet Lennon so badly, he concocted a plan in 1979 to gain admittance into the Ono/Lennon home by pretending to be a VCR repairman. The plan backfired when Lennon, unaware that Goresh and his friend were there under false pretenses, angrily assumed his secretary had made the appointment without consulting him first. In a strange twist, Lennon was actually having trouble with his VCR. Goresh was told to come back in a few days, by which time a brand new VCR had already been acquired. Lennon apologized for his anger during their first encounter and Goresh asked Lennon for his autograph and a photograph. Lennon declined the photo but signed his copy of his book, A Spaniard in the Works.

Goresh began hanging around the Dakota frequently with his camera, hoping to snap a photo of his hero. Their first encounter on the street went poorly, with Lennon rebuking his request and asking to be left alone. A month later, Lennon caught Goresh trying to get a picture without his permission. Lennon asked for the film from the camera and destroyed it in front of him. “I was disgusted,” Goresh later said, “Now he’s mad again!” A month or two later, he returned once again, this time without a camera, approaching Lennon on his way somewhere in the neighborhood. Goresh apologized profusely for causing him grief, offering to never come back if that’s what Lennon wanted. “I remember him looking me right in my eyes,” Goresh recounted, “and he said, ‘Stop looking at me as a Beatle. You’ve gotta treat me just like you would treat anyone else.’”

Paul Goresh and John Lennon in front of the Dakota.

Unbelievably, from that point on, the two men became friendly, taking short walks together and talking. Goresh even revealed his initial deception with the VCR repair ruse. “When I was with him I was in awe of him, but he made me feel so at ease, and he treated me as if I was his equal,” Goresh said. “And I was always impressed with that, because this guy would honestly rather talk about you than himself, and it was sincere.” When it was time to announce his return to music, Lennon even agreed to let Goresh take “all the pictures you want.” Although a professional photographer was hired to get new promotional shots of John and Yoko, Lennon invited Goresh to be there as well. “It was funny because in the series of photos I took,” Goresh explained, “he’s looking at me instead of the guy they were actually paying.” Here the story reaches its apex of credulity where Lennon selects Goresh’s photo over the professional’s to grace the cover of the single for “Watching the Wheels.” From duplicitously gaining access into the Lennon/Ono household, to casual friend, to artistic collaborator within the span of several months. Can you believe it?

The specific circumstances are very different, but the general beats of the Lennon/Goresh interactions are very much like an expanded version of what happened with Curt Claudio nine years earlier. This is to say, even during intense, persistent, somewhat scary interactions with fans, John Lennon came to expect that they would play out in a similar fashion. As long as he could show them he was just a regular human being, he could diffuse whatever ideas they had about him that caused them to treat him like someone to be worshipped rather than a just another guy.

At first glance, Mark David Chapman’s fascination with John Lennon didn’t appear to be all that different than Claudio’s or Goresh’s. He seemed to, at times, think he was, or role play as if he was, John Lennon — just as Claudio had in 1971. Before traveling to New York, back in Honolulu, Chapman signed into work with Lennon’s signature and covered his own name with the Beatle’s on his nametag. But unlike Claudio or Goresh, there were two pieces of popular culture guiding Chapman’s obsessive behavior: John Lennon and J.D. Salinger’s novel, The Catcher in the Rye. Chapman had become obsessed with the 1951 book, hyper-identifying with the narrator Holden Caufield and his longing to protect innocent children from the phony adult world that awaited them all. At some point in 1980, in Chapman’s mind, it became a war between Caufield, the protector of the innocent, and Lennon, the “phony” hypocrite who had sold out. Chapman began to hear voices that spelled out how this battle of good vs. evil could be resolved.[15] Later, Chapman would tell Larry King, “On December 8, 1980, Mark David Chapman was a very confused person. He was literally living inside of a paperback novel, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye…[he] struck out at something he perceived to be phony, something he was angry at, to become something he wasn’t, to become somebody.”

Goresh first spotted Chapman holding a copy of Double Fantasy outside the Dakota on the afternoon of December 8th. Chapman walked over and struck up a conversation. Learning he was from Hawaii, Goresh asked him where he was staying, which got a curt reply of, “Why do you want to know?” It was a red flag for Goresh, who proceeded to treat him dismissively for the rest of the day. When John and Yoko finally appeared outside, Goresh had a friendly interaction with Lennon as Chapman stood a few feet away, holding out his record. Lennon took it, signed it, and handed it back to Chapman. Goresh captured a photo of this moment, the two men about a foot away from each other. “And he looked at me,” Chapman recalled, “he said, is that all? Do you want anything else? And I felt then and now that he knew subconsciously that he was looking into the eyes of the person that was gonna kill him.” He would later tell police that he did not shoot Lennon at this meeting because of an internal crisis of conscience, but others argue that he simply noted there were too many people around at the time. As John and Yoko left, Goresh took the final photograph of John Lennon alive.

Paul Goresh’s photo of Lennon signing Chapman’s Double Fantasy album.

When the couple returned from the Record Plant at about 10:50 PM, Chapman was still there. Goresh had gone home, as well as the group of young women who were there in the afternoon. As Lennon and Ono walked into the building’s courtyard entrance, Chapman emerged from the shadows and fired five times, four bullets hitting their target. Doorman Jose Perdomo, incredulous, asked Chapman, “Do you know what you’ve just done?”

“I just shot John Lennon,” he replied, discarding his gun, taking off his coat, and opening his paperback copy of The Catcher in the Rye. Inside the book, he had inscribed the copy with: “To Holden Caulfield, From Holden Caulfield, This is my statement.” When the police arrived, he calmly told one officer, “I acted alone.”

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It would be wrong to argue that powerful art which seems to intimately speak directly to the listener or reader is an inherently dangerous thing. To frame The Catcher in the Rye, which would be cited by two more murderous gunmen in the 1980’s, as some kind of manual for psychopaths would require one to directly ignore the actual content of the book. Stephen Spiro, the first police officer to approach and apprehend Chapman, would later assess the novel astutely:

“What confuses me is that people follow this book like it’s the bible for achieving something in life, when this kid was a mixed-up adolescent visiting New York City and fantasizing about certain things. I don’t think J.D. Salinger ever meant for anybody to hurt somebody with his thoughts. Mark David Chapman portrays himself as the catcher in the rye to stop children from jumping over the cliff after the run through the field of rye and he’s going to stop them and be their savior. Well, I don’t see how that equates to killing people.”

It uncanny how Sprio’s reflections sound a whole lot like Lennon talking about Manson’s delusional interpretation “The White Album.”

Surprisingly, author David Shields softly presented a kind of counter argument in his 2013 biography of Salinger, noting, “The complicating factor in Salinger’s case — the deepening factor — is the extraordinary intimacy he creates between narrator and reader, and this intimacy is mixed with sublimated violence. He’s so good at creating a voice that seems to be practically caressing your inner ear. It’s as if the assassins and would-be assassins who read The Catcher in the Rye are reading the book too literally.” Even this seems much too far, to assign some kind of indirect blame to an artist for operating at the height of their talents, for not predicting and accounting for all of the potential side effects their work might produce. Is there a hyper-literal interpretation of the book that compels one to commit murder? The Catcher in the Rye has sold over 65 million copies. Three people have cited it in this way, and two of them had the option of taking a cue from the first, Chapman. In the world of risk assessment, these are inconsequential numbers, but they are weighted in such a distorted manner here because they are attached to one of the most famous pieces of modern culture, the kind of thing I referred to earlier in the piece as a “new myth.”

In March of 1998, Inside Edition had the gall to directly ask Yoko Ono, “Do you think [John’s] lyrics might have in some way encouraged Chapman to…?” Ono should have been given a medal for not instantly trashing the TV set and walking off. Instead, she did her best to provide some kind of answer: “I don’t know. I don’t know what offended anybody. But [John] was very up front, extremely open. I think that sometimes you have to pay a very high price for it. And he did it. He just gambled on it.”

Gamble is the operative word there. Meaning, Ono knew that Lennon knew of the risks involved but chose to continue trying to be an open, honest, vulnerable person even in instances where he felt it might put him in danger. It’s where the ethos of his art most consistently, directly intersected with his personal life. It is the action of somebody who would put “Imagine” and “How Do You Sleep?” on the same album. It is both admirable and absolutely nuts, highlighting that intense duality that makes Lennon such a compelling, complex figure and artist all these decades later.

Both Lennon’s songwriting and Salinger’s novel are in a kind of relationship with a gigantic audience that the authors could not manage or negotiate because, outside of the art itself, they were largely not in direct contact with the other half of that relationship. In that way, yes, putting anything out in the world is a risk; it’s true, you have no control what members of its audience will do with it once its more theirs than yours. In a way, they become the creation’s collaborator, an unknown co-writer who can place different meanings onto the work. It must be the most simultaneously thrilling and terrifying aspect of writing a song, or creating anything, that becomes a significant part of the popular culture.

But is there anyone — even Yoko Ono — who would make the claim that the good these artistic creations yield is not worth that built-in risk? Lennon himself addressed the topic in a 1974 interview with Howard Cosell, explaining “Words can’t kill you. People who banned books, it didn’t stop people from buying those books…We should be able to express ourselves as long as we don’t harm anybody, and I don’t believe words can harm you.”

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Much of the United States learned of Lennon’s death when Howard Cosell — doing his best with what had to be one of the most awkward segues of all time — broke the news during Monday Night Football: “Remember, this is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses. An unspeakable tragedy confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City. John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City. The most famous perhaps, of all of the Beatles, shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital. Dead on arrival.”

Spontaneous vigils popped up all over the world where mourners came together to express their grief collectively, one of the largest occurring right in front of the Dakota. Among the signs featuring pictures of John, and “Give Peace a Chance,” there were even a few that featured lyrics written by Paul — like, “the love you take is equal to the love you make” — echoing the same mistake Curt Claudio had made nine years prior.

After hearing that two fans had referenced Lennon’s death in their suicides, Yoko Ono made a public statement urging strength and perseverance: “When something like this happens, each one of us must go on. I’m just afraid that people…will think of his death as the end of something. But it was just starting, and we know that the 80’s is up to each one of us, and that should not stop.”

Curt was devastated to learn the news about Lennon. Depressed, he played Double Fantasy on repeat for days, especially “Watching the Wheels.” It’s not a stretch to wonder if Curt perhaps heard these lines as a possible reference to his 1971 interaction with Lennon: “People asking questions / Lost in confusion / Well, I tell them there’s no problem / Only solutions.” As news about Chapman slowly emerged, from initial reporting to the trial that concluded in June of 1981, you also have to wonder whether Curt saw a dark-mirror-reflection of his own fandom and pursuit of the ex-Beatle in Chapman’s ghoulish story.

Curt in the late 1970’s, photo courtesy of Ernie Claudio

Two years prior, Curt had landed a steady job at the Ford Motor Company plant in Milpitas, California. When the plant opened in 1955, it transformed the city into a thriving hub of industry, but now, decades later, Ford was struggling to keep it economically viable. “Once again we call upon Japanese auto producers to manufacture their cars and trucks in this country,” William E. Scollard, vice president of Ford explained, “to contribute jobs, payrolls and taxes in reasonable proportion to the benefit they are obtaining from the sale of their products in the U.S. market.” In 1979, Ford began rolling layoffs, offering employees severance packages upon exiting their position.

“Everyone was supposed to use their severance pay to re-educate themselves to help find a new job,” Ernie remembers. He asked his brother how he was going to use his $12,000; Curt replied, “I’m either going to buy a Harley or an ultralight airplane.” He decided on the latter, ordering a kit and assembling the aircraft himself. Outside of the shortsighted use of his severance pay and the dangerous nature of the purchase, Curt had, in many ways, settled down since the peaks of his wild, seeker seventies. The in-progress documentary What Happened To Claudio? spoke to friends of Curt’s who say had a steady girlfriend and, by most accounts, had traded in his drug use for glasses of red wine.

On December 22, 1981, Curt decided to spend much of his day up in the air; he retrieved his ultralight plane from a friend’s garage and readied it for flight. Ernie explains the story as their family came to understand it, “He would go up, do a couple of tricks, and come down to land. And then his friends would give him some booze, everybody would have a drink, and then he’d go up again.”

“So, what happened was, the plane was flying too slow and stalled out. He was so low to the ground, he bounced off a carport roof and landed in a tree.”

The first person that arrived to the crash reported that Curt’s eyes were momentarily wide open and then slowly closed. He was pronounced dead at the hospital that afternoon. It was one year and fourteen days after John Lennon’s death.

Curt’s family momentarily considered suing the manufacturer of the ultralight airplane until the autopsy revealed that he was piloting the craft well over the legal blood alcohol level limit.

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In all of Curt’s recounting of his meeting with John Lennon over the ensuing years, he never once mentioned that the entire thing was filmed. Considering his mental state at the time and the magnetic allure of Lennon, there’s a very good chance he didn’t even notice the cameras. Imagine the shock of Ernie and his younger brother Dayton, upon viewing the documentary sometime in the late 80’s, to suddenly see their deceased brother on screen, living out the story he had told them so many times. Eventually, the entire Claudio family watched the film; Ernie noted how sad it was for his parents to see the son they lost looking so confused, dirty, and desperate. It upset them.

A few years ago, a cousin of Ernie’s began to send him discussions of Curt on the internet. He was shocked, but also happy to see the memory of his brother alive via people’s curiosity. Curt Claudio is not a major player in the Beatles mythology, but his brief appearance is so unique, unlikely, and mysterious that its importance has grown over time. New myths can be tricky. As exponential technological growth collides with the creation of new mythologies, strange, surreal experiences come at us from every angle. There was no chance, for instance, that your deceased brother was going to pop up in a short scene in the myth of Prometheus. To live among and inside the active formation of new myths can bring about a disorienting, unsettling feeling, even as the majority of your day-to-day life remains largely mundane. “The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast,” Joseph Campbell wrote in 1972, “stands this afternoon on the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change.”

John Lennon’s sense of self-awareness was so heightened, he was able to spot his role in the creation of a new myth as it was happening.

First, he tried to repurpose it: “If I’m gonna get on the front page, I might as well get on the front page with the word ‘peace.’”

Then he tried to destroy it: “I don’t believe in Beatles…the dream is over.”

And finally, he tried to take a break from it.

Outside of Double Fantasy, we don’t get to find out what John Lennon would have done with it once he came back from his break, and even today, there isn’t anyone who can predict or control what the world will do with the Beatles myth next.

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[1] Much, much later this experience would receive a name, autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR for short.

[2] Think about the deeper implications of a couple saying, “this is our song,” just as one example.

[3] There is currently a delightful Twitter trend of people finding their parents in the Saville Row street footage that appears at the end of Peter Jackson’s Get Back documentary. Within the Beatles myth, there can never, ever be enough identifying and cataloging of everyone and everything who falls inside the borders of the grand saga.

[4] In the endless analysis of the decade, people often point to both the Manson murders and the end of the Beatles as the moment “the sixties ended.” It is an incredible, troubling revelation to learn that they, essentially, both happened on the same day.

[5] The next time a rock album would play such a significant role in a trial would be 1980’s Judas Priest civil suit wherein two teenage boys made a suicide pact — with one succeeding — after detecting hidden, backwards message instructing them to do so in the band’s songs. It’s an odd coincidence that in the early 80’s, Judas Priest ended up recording an album at Tittenhurst where Claudio had once confronted Lennon about secret messages in his music in 1971.

[6] For our purposes here, at its simplest definition, a myth is a “symbol that evokes and directs psychological energy” as Joseph Campbell once defined it. Myths are “public dreams” that express a culture’s fears, joys, hopes and anxieties and help us understand and place the present moment into a context we can understand.

[7] It’s a classic Bangs counterintuitive combo of absolute praise and derision, the kind that often cropped up when he wrote about Lou Reed, who is referenced several times in the review: “He’s among those increasingly rare pop squakers (Lou Reed’s another) who, no matter what else you might be able to say about. ’em, is at least SINCERE. John still believes, and is still placing himself in some measure on the line.”

[8] The man in the blue shirt visible in the majority of the footage is Dan Richter, a personal assistant of John and Yoko’s at the time whose previous job was performing the role of Moonwatcher in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Richter, a trained mime, was hired to perform the role of the main ape in the film’s opening sequence — the one that throws the bone up into the air. “I spent a lot of time at the zoo, in front of the chimp cage and the gorillas. I got all the footage of Jane Goodall’s work and watched it over and over again,” he told Vulture in 2008.

[9] Two notable omissions from the original presentation of the moment are 1) When Claudio asks about the line “Well, you can radiate everything you are” from “I Dig a Pony” and Ono interjects that she wrote that particular line, with Lennon agreeing, and then qualifying it all as “fun with words.” They cut around this moment very tightly, showing what was said right before and after it, indicating, perhaps, that there was extreme sensitivity around the idea that Yoko Ono wrote some Beatles lyrics in 1988. 2) A moment where Claudio makes Lennon laugh when he asks about the Hare Krishna line from his solo song “I Found Out.”

Claudio: Yeah. And your ‘Hare Krishna has nothing on you’?

John: [laughs] Yeah, well he don’t. I mean. You’re it.

[10] Nine years later, during Lennon’s press for he and Ono’s 1980 comeback album Double Fantasy, he was speaking in a much grander and magical way about the mechanics of his songwriting: “The real music, the music of the spheres, the music that surpasses understanding, comes to me and I’m just a channel. But in order to get that clear channel open again, I had to stop picking up every radio station in the world, in the universe.”

[11] If you’re ready to stop reading because you think I’m a deluded hippie no more rational than Claudio, hear me out and think about what music actually is and how it affects you: someone you do not know and have never met creates a series of sounds and combinations of words that, once recorded, you might eventually hear and it will bring you absolute joy, or cause your body to move wildly, or reduce to you to tears, or create an unbreakable bond between you and another person, often times achieved in about three minutes or so. If there is such a thing as magic in this world, this is a solid example of it.

[12] It’s pretty understandable on some level, I mean, remember, we have to admit: the Beatles were pretty good at their jobs.

[13] And don’t lots of John Lennon’s lyrics come off as aspirational self-talk rather than declarations of what he knows or has already achieved? Even in “Instant Karma,” with its rah rah motivational speaker-esque messages all being directed at “you,” doesn’t it feel like John is giving himself a pep talk there?

[14] The published letters in response to the piece were evenly split between “I’m sad that my hero has changed” to “This fucking writer has a lot of nerve.” Here’s a sample of the latter: “One would be hard pressed to find a finer example of a nonstory than Laurence Shames’s ‘John Lennon, Where Are You?’…Calling someone to task for being successful is a mid-Sixties cheap shot; so is asking him to live up to your artistic expectations. John Lennon has had a profound influence on me, too. But that doesn’t give me any right to point a pistol at his feet and say, ‘Create!’”

[15] There are reams of research and writing about Chapman’s possible motivations, the extent of his mental instability, and what happened each hour in New York leading up the shooting. If you are unfamiliar or want to get further into those details, all of that material awaits you elsewhere.



Ryan H. Walsh

Writer/Musician. Author of Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 (Penguin Press). Halleujah The Hills (band).