It Was 35 Years Ago Today: David Bowie Sings John Lennon’s Imagine

I met John Lennon in Hong Kong in 1977. He was travelling with Sean, who was about two years old, and was on his way to meet Yoko in Japan. I was with David Bowie and Coco Schwab, on our way back to Europe from Japan, after a rock tour of my stuff…

A pair of elevator doors opened, and he stood in the hotel foyer, wearing a basketball jersey that was way too big, and he gave David a very big hug and a kind of laughing, greeting smile. I was surprised to see an English industry giant exhibit such warmth. Also to see him in a basketball jersey was super-cool (pardon my fandom).

We went to dinner a couple of times, the four of us, after Sean was in bed for the night. Also to a topless bar once, and once to tea at a snooty country club. He really knew how to sound off when he wanted to, and at each of the latter two destinations he rose to his feet to half-yell, half-chortle: “Have you ever heard of The Beatles?” when service was not forthcoming. I think he enjoyed this. I know I did.

Words by Iggy Pop. Photo by Coco Schwab, Mandarin Oriental Hotel, HK, June 1977 (as featured on page 136 of the BowieStyle book by Steve Pafford & Mark Paytress)

John Lennon was killed 38 years ago today. And it’s a matter of fact who was Mark Chapman’s substitute target if he couldn’t find the ex Beatle: NYPD are said to have found evidence in Chapman’s Manhattan hotel room with the name of another British music icon ringed in black, the same person who was playing the titular role in The Elephant Man, in a theatre just off Broadway on the night of the murder, just a few blocks from the Dakota Building. This is David Bowie talking in 1999:

“I was second on his list. Chapman had a front-row ticket the next night. John and Yoko were supposed to sit front-row for that show, too. So the night after John was killed there were three empty seats in the front row. I can’t tell you how difficult that was to go on. I almost didn’t make it through the performance.”

The irony is that Fame, David Bowie’s first American chart-topper, was co-written with Lennon, who also played guitar on the track. And it was indeed their fame as rock stars which drew Mark David Chapman to stalk them, and subsequently to assassinate Lennon. On the final stop of Bowie’s record-breaking Serious Moonlight Tour, and the third anniversary of Lennon’s murder*, the Thin White Dame performed a panegyric, impromptu Imagine at the Hong Coliseum in Hung Hom. The following film captures the raw emotion of the night and, poignantly, was only made public after Bowie’s death in 2016.

I remember playing the audio of this from a scratchy bootleg during a late night brainstorming session at MOJO magazine with Paul Trynka and Mark Paytress, when I was project managing the MOJO Lennon special. Paul absolutely hated it, but then he barely had a good world to say about Bowie back then anyway. Despite Trynka’s misgivings about Bowie, and Bowie’s misgivings about me (this was just after BowieStyle had been published) we still managed to persuade the Dame to contribute his Beatle memories for the magazine. Something about a one-way ticket out of Bromley, if I remember correctly.

Steve Pafford

BONUS BEATS: George Simms, a Bowie back up singer for the tour, said:

”If I remember well, we didn’t rehearse that song. The night David did the Imagine song, none of us in the band had any idea how that song was going to come off. David told us before, at a certain point, he would cue the band to start the song instrumentally. We didn’t know what he was going to do in the beginning but he had it very carefully worked out with the lighting people. We were on stage and it was dark.

David was sitting on the stage at one particular place and, all of a sudden, a single spotlight went on David and hit him exactly where he was sitting. David started to tell something about John Lennon. During this, it went dark a few times again, but then when the spots went on again David was sitting somewhere else on the stage. David cued the band and we started the song. It was the third anniversary of Lennon’s death; it was December 8.

We all grew up listening to The Beatles and John Lennon. After we did Imagine, we all went off the stage and back into the holding area. Normally we’d be slap-happy, talking and laughing, but that night there was absolute silence because of all the emotion of doing a tribute to John Lennon—especially knowing that David was a friend of his and that David was speaking from his heart. We didn’t know how dramatic the lights’ impact was going to be. Nobody wanted to break the silence; it was like a sledgehammer into your chest.”

Apropos of nothing, an article that details the day I learned of John Lennon’s death is here

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