It was August 29, 1974, midday, and John Lennon, nearly 34 at the time, was up on the roof of his rented East 52nd Street penthouse. He had been at the Record Plant all week, mixing Walls and Bridges, his fifth solo album, and generally struggling to correct course after his first commercial failure (1972’s collection of mostly protest songs, Some Time in New York City). He was also recovering from his year and a half of carousing, most notoriously in Hollywood, while estranged from his wife, Yoko Ono.
“It was kind of the Sunday night after Lennon’s ‘Lost Weekend,’ ” remembers photographer Bob Gruen, then 29. “John was back in New York, sobering up, cleaning his life up. He loved it when people treated him like a normal person rather than a Beatle, and that could happen here.”
Lennon needed a cover image and press photos for the new album, but he also wanted to get back to the studio. He’d worked with Gruen and knew he would shoot fast. “It was a beautiful, sunny day,” says May Pang, Lennon’s companion at the time. “John smoked his French Gauloises and drank lots of strong coffee.”
Gruen asked Lennon to put on a T-shirt he’d bought on the sidewalk for $5—white with NEW YORK CITY in bold black type, the black sleeves cut off with a buck knife for a tougher effect. It seemed right: “John had been in the city awhile,” says Gruen. “He was becoming a New Yorker.” One of the shots captures Lennon pale and unsmiling, his arms folded across his stomach. “That was his street stance,” says Pang. “John was self-conscious about the cutoff sleeves, but I assured him it was fine.”
In October, Gruen took Lennon—still a target of FBI surveillance and in the midst of a prolonged immigration battle—to the base of the Statue of Liberty, where the former Beatle flashed a V-for-victory sign. “The government was trying to put Lennon out,” says Gruen. “I thought that was a more important photo, but …”
The iconic image was instead one of the T-shirt shots taken on that sunny rooftop in 1974. On December 8, 1980, Lennon was assassinated by Mark David Chapman. In the days following his death, Ono was looking for a way for millions of fans to grieve. Promoter Ron Delsener was drafted to organize a vigil in Central Park, and it was he who asked Gruen to choose a centerpiece image. Gruen picked the now famous shot, which suddenly had “a poignancy no one could have imagined,” says Pang. “Because John had fought to stay here and had been killed here. He was very vocal about his love for New York. And New York loved him back.” From that day on, the photo became “so popular there was no way to stop it,” says Gruen.
The shirt Lennon wore (“a little yellow now”) has toured the world, and a day rarely goes by when Gruen doesn’t spot someone walking around in a T-shirt with his photo on it. “You see a cockiness in their style, like, ‘Yeah, I’m John Lennon. I’m from New York!’ ”