The old friends had lost touch since the ‘70s, but caught up again after John’s concert in Central Park in September 1980. It was the last time they’d meet before Lennon was shot dead three months later.
“The tour moved on, crossing America then heading down to Australia,” John writes in his memoir Me, which comes out on Oct. 15. “Our plane had just landed in Melbourne when a stewardess’s voice came over the [loudspeaker], saying that the Elton John party couldn’t disembark; we had to stay on board. It’s strange, the moment they said it, my heart sank; I just knew it meant someone was dead.”
On being told the news of Lennon’s death, John recalled, “I couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t just the fact of his death, it was the brutality of how it happened. Other friends of mine had died young: first Marc Bolan in 1977 and then Keith Moon in 1978. But they hadn’t died the way John had died. Marc had been killed in a car crash and Keith had basically died from an incurable case of being Keith Moon. They hadn’t been murdered, by a complete stranger. … It was inconceivable.”
John remembered staging a service in a Melbourne cathedral because he wasn’t able to attend the memorial event Ono had arranged; later, he and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin wrote the song “Empty Garden” as a tribute. “It’s one of my favorite songs, but I hardly ever play it live,” he wrote. “It’s too hard to perform, too emotional. … I really loved John, and when you love someone that much, I don’t think you ever quite get over their death.”
He went on to tell of a call he received from Ono a few years later. “She said she needed to see me, it was urgent, I had to come to New York right away,” John recalled. “So I got on a plane. … She told me she’d found a load of tapes with unfinished songs John had been working on just before he died. She asked me if I would complete them, so they could be released.”
Despite being flattered, he knew he “absolutely didn’t want to,” believing it was “too soon” after Lennon’s death. “Actually, I didn’t think the time would ever be right,” he noted. “Trying to work out how to finish songs John Lennon had started writing – I wouldn’t be so presumptuous. And the idea of putting my voice on the same record as his – I thought it was horrible. Yoko was insistent, but so was I.”
John said he felt “terrible” after the meeting: “Yoko thought she was honoring John’s legacy, trying to fulfill his wishes, and I was refusing to help,” he explained. “I knew I was right, but that didn’t make it any less depressing. In the end, she put the songs out as they were, on an album called Milk and Honey.”