A Day In the Life – Al Hillier recalls the death of John Lennon

A Day In A Life

As we head toward the 31st Anniversary of the murder of John Winston Lennon, Al Hillier takes a look back at a day that shook the world and explores a strange connection with Lennon and Yoko Ono; North London’s Halligan band centre and the notorious 1960’s ”ËœBlack House’

“I pulled the trigger five times in succession”….. Mark Chapman

My mum shook me gently, and then she shook me again.
Still standing in front of me as my bleary eyes tried to focus on her, she lowered a mug of steaming tea.

Mornings never really existed for me around this time. I was always dead to the fucking world in those days, a 22 year old kid who continued to love rock and roll and late nights, wherever it could be found and whoever it was with. I was playing regularly and when I wasn’t playing I was rehearsing.

I was fucked from a rehearsal on the Monday night that didn’t finish till past 4am on Tuesday morning. We had been locked into Studio 1, a ‘cell’ of soundproof electric anonymity at the Halligan Band Centre in Holloway Road and John Lennon had been shot dead around 3.50 am UK time just as our session was coming to an end. We were booked in for a full week of solid rehearsals and were looking forward to more of the same the following day and thereafter throughout the week.
These rehearsals were always so much, much more than that, always packed to the gunnels with Finchley Boys and various waifs and strays. The atmosphere was always incredible and to those that could be there, it was always the place to be.

Now, as I think back, there was a particular intensity to that night, with lots of recreational stuff on offer and other ”Ëœdiversions’ available and although the ambiance was mellow ”Ëœsomething’ was bugging me and I felt ”Ëœwired’ right from the off.
Everything wound up quite quickly that morning for some reason and it was always great not to have to pack all the gear away in the van so I was away out into the blackness, coldness and relative stillness and silence of the night by about 4.30 am.

I slid my LT 31 down the Holloway Rd and took a left at the traffic lights at the junction of the East End Rd and Fortis Green”¦”¦another left and a right and I bumped the van up on to the pavement in a haphazard style. I really couldn’t give a fuck; I’d had enough and just left it where it was. I kicked at the ”Ëœsticky’ front door of my old man’s gaff, trudged up the stairs and was deeply asleep within seconds.

“Alan…..Alaaaaan…..John Lennon’s dead” said my dear old mum in her softest voice. I shook my head and asked
“He’s dead; he’s been shot dead in America”.

I’ll never forget those words, delivered with such gentleness, yet the message was chilling, unbelievable and in these circumstances almost ethereal.
Dragged unwillingly from another world where I would have willingly stayed, I was now awake; my head still ”Ëœbuzzing’ from the electricity that now seemed permanently absorbed into my blood stream.
My mum and I bundled down the stairs and sat sipping tea in silence at the kitchen table; it seemed unreal, like one of the family had passed away suddenly in the night.

“I remember saying in my mind, ‘What if I killed him?’,” reveals Chapman. “I remember thinking perhaps my identity would be found in the killing of John Lennon.” Mark Chapman

That was the start of a very, very strange day that saw me and my band and the other bands booked in on that day standing in and around the Halligan Band centre in as yet, unquantified, unconfirmed shock.

Halligan Rehearsal Studio’s and Tony Halligan

Tony Halligan was simply unforgettable and if anyone reading this has ever met him then you will know exactly what I mean, he was a complete one off and at that time was the eccentric yet oddly charismatic and likable sole proprietor of this seedy warren of dungeonesque rehearsal spaces.
Tony was a quietly spoken yet somehow larger than life Irishman, with a heart of gold, scruffy, unkempt ginger hair matted upon his head and rotting teeth scattered about his mouth behind his thin lips like ramshackle tombstones in an ancient abandoned graveyard, and although a man of few words he was the absolute master of the laconic one liner. He was almost early Victorian in his appearance and demeanor, a classic Dickens character.
He never seemed to give a fuck about anything, not even getting paid. He would delegate just about everything to anybody and I remember a guy called Keith who was his long suffering, part time assistant who earlier on in that same year would hang around our
sessions and bang on relentlessly about this band who also rehearsed there, eccentrically (we all thought) called Spandau Ballet, who, according to Keith, were going to be massive.

A Day In the Life – Al Hillier recalls the death of John Lennon
Spandau Ballet - Studio 1 - 1980

We knew most of the bands that came and went by default, bumping into each other whilst lugging in (or out) our gear and memorable ones for me at that time were Tenpole Tudor and Madness, but for one reason or another we never bumped into Spandau.

Tony would ”Ëœoccasionally’ be there to get you set up (Not that anyone needed him particularly) and then he would disappear in a flash, if needed he could always be found (Well. almost always) propping up the bar at the Herbert Chapman Pub on the corner of Jacksons Rd, normally in the company of Arthur Mullard, which always seemed surreal to me and they appeared the unlikeliest of cohorts, but so it was.
(Note”¦”¦”¦To those that have never heard of Arthur Mullard”¦”¦.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Mullard)

Tony was a trusting soul, but he was nobody’s mug, but he knew that we were decent enough lads and would treat his place with respect and on that basis he basically let us do exactly what we wanted. Our all night sessions were somewhat rare with other bands but Tony knew that I would always square him up for the studio time (even if I had to find him to do so) so when the doors were locked, we just did what the fuck we liked, for as long as we liked and those ”ËœAll nighters’ live large and long in my mind to this very day.

The Black House

On that bleak Tuesday morning December 9th 1980, nobody was saying much at Halligans and what was being said was in hushed tones and an air of general disbelief prevailed.
Like most of his generation Tony Halligan had drank in the power of The Beatles, savored and devoured their unique creations as a 20 something himself, he was their generation, he wanted to be like them, dress like them. The explosion they had created was cataclysmic, the big bang had taken place and like so many, many others it was the inspiration and motivation for him to take part in a musical revolution that changed the world and was, for the most part, the reason why he was here and why he was doing what he loved to do.
As he ambled along the Holloway Rd looking for all the world like a bag of dirty laundry I noticed an unfamiliar look upon his face. The normally cheery, chirpy demeanor had gone and in it’s place the saddest expression that I had ever seen on the face of this eccentric, charming man. As he approached I asked him if he had heard the news, he replied in a yet unheard McCartneyesque way and simply said “Bummer”, opened the doors and went inside.

(Note. On that same morning Paul McCartney was interviewed briefly as he emerged from an Oxford Street recording studio and ended the short conversation, having been asked for his reaction to the news that Lennon had been shot dead, with the words “ It’s a drag isn’t it”)

With a few exceptions, John Lennon was revered amongst most people I knew at that time, especially amongst the musical fraternity. Apart from the obvious he had crafted a ”Ëœnew’ solo career following a five year self imposed hiatus and was on a new crest of a wave with the release in October that year of the single “(Just like) Starting over (which went to no 1 on both sides of the Atlantic) and the (in parts) immaculate album ”ËœDouble Fantasy’ released in the following November. It must be said that not everyone was in awe of this album and it received much criticism mainly, to my mind, because of Lennon’s propensity to allow Yoko Ono a free rein and far too much creative input into proceedings, but be that as it may, it undoubtedly produced three ”Ëœclassic’ Lennon songs that stand the test of time and in short, Lennon was back and everyone wanted a piece of him.

Love him or hate him Lennon was a maverick and an out an out rebel and he maintained his passion throughout his life for railing against injustices perpetrated against societies throughout the whole world, launching a powerful and bitter sustained assaults through his music and interviews against the bourgeois social system and in the most part, aimed at the powers that be. His stance against the Vietnam War, support for women’s rights, race relations and his disdain for Britain’s role in Northern Ireland were legendary, you name it, where there was a ”Ëœjust’ cause, there was John Lennon.

True to form, in 1969 Lennon and Ono pledged their support, morally and financially by backing the creation of the ‘Black House’ a Black cultural establishment toward the end of Holloway Rd which aimed to provide an advice centre and a place to hang out for the still relatively small and frequently discriminated against West Indian community. At the forefront of this ”Ëœorganisation’ and its undoubted leader was a man called, variously, Michael X (Michael Defreitas, aka Michael Abdul Malik)
With genuine altruistic intentions Lennon and Ono had been major financial contributors to the project and had fallen hook line and sinker for the firebrand rhetoric of this radical character, but not everything was as it seemed.

A Day In the Life – Al Hillier recalls the death of John Lennon
Michael X, Yoko Ono, and John Lennon @ Black House

Michael Defreitas had immigrated to London in 1957 and almost immediately became a henchman and chief ”Ëœenforcer’ of the notorious ”Ëœslum’ landlord Peter Rachman. Growing in stature as a result of his heavy handed tactics he quickly honed a reputation within his own community and by the mid sixties was now referring to himself as Michael X, a self styled exponent of Black power and at the cutting edge of all things radical he boosted his profile by association with John ”ËœHoppy’ Hopkins a Cambridge graduate and legendary 6o’s revolutionary toff, most famous for his photographic work with the Beatles the Stones, Malcolm X and Alan Ginsburg amongst others and was also founder of Tottenham Ct Rd’s UFO Club.

A Day In the Life – Al Hillier recalls the death of John Lennon

With such associations Michael X was moving in illustrious circles which significantly raised the profile and support for his projects and attracted the great and good, including John and Yoko.

John Lennon and Yoko visited the Black House on many occasions
and in January 1970 they cut off most of their hair which they intended to auction off at Sotheby’s as a fund raiser for the Black House. They eventually traded their hair for a pair of Muhammad Ali’s boxing trunks and auctioned them off instead.

A Day In the Life – Al Hillier recalls the death of John Lennon
Lennon with Ali's shorts

What was not obvious to those who supported this character was his propensity for contradictory violent reaction to demonstrate his obsession with his cause.
In a famous case labeled “The slave collar affair” Jewish businessman Marvin Brown was lured into the Black house and savagely beaten and made to wear a spiked slave collar as Michael X and others threatened him with extortion. This seemed to be the beginning of the end for this seedy venture and the Black House eventually closed in the autumn of 1970 as 2 of those accused of assaulting Brown were sent to prison for 18 months.

A mysterious fire at the centre shortly after the sentencing saw Michael X and four others charged with extortion but John Lennon jumped in and paid the bail for Mr. X who promptly fled the country the following month and headed back to his native Trinidad where he once again set about various projects to deliver his message. One of these was an agricultural commune also called the Black House and it was here that Michael X, murdered British model, socialite and daughter of Tory MP Leonard Plugge. Michael X was finally captured and eventually executed in Trinidad on December 29th 1975.

Back inside the warmth of studio 1 at Halligans on that fateful Tuesday nobody had the faintest idea of the connection. John Lennon was dead and that was it.
Nobody knew or cared at that time about the history of Halligans, it was just there, your feet stuck to the carpets, the mike stands were held together with gaffer tape and it had it’s own peculiar smell, a cross between sweat, stale cigarettes and vintage marijuana, the smell was in the walls, on the ceiling, in the amps, in the mikes, but it was cheap, it was local and it was loose and quirky.

Had we known on that day that The Black House had become Halligans just a few short years after Lennon’s connection with it and had been the venue for those events perhaps we might have whispered a small prayer, but we didn’t. But even though we never knew of the history of the place there was intensity about those rehearsals on that day and for the rest of the week that we really didn’t completely understand.

That whole day; the day John Lennon died; a day in my life, was a bit of a blur and the evening news back at home that night gave all the unbelievable details. This was Tuesday and by Thursday all the weekly music papers were full of it, as I’m sure some of you could imagine and those that were there will remember all too well. The whole world was talking about the murder of John Lennon.

I recently found a copy of the Record Mirror from that week with a full size picture of the man himself on the front page. This rag had been sitting in a small case that I kept old my jack plugs, broken cables and bits and pieces in …..It had been there in the dark for 30 years.

“I have this incredible feeling. And John Lennon’s car pulled up. I heard a voice in my head saying, ‘Do it ! Do it ! Do it !’. and as he passed me, I pulled out the gun, aimed at his back and pulled the trigger five times in succession.” Mark Chapman

A Day In the Life – Al Hillier recalls the death of John Lennon
Mark Chapman - August 2010

These days it’s difficult to imagine what 71year old ex Beatle John Lennon might be doing , but I reckon he would have still been railing against the injustices of all war, prejudice and inequality wherever it raised it’s ugly head and no doubt deliberately avoiding glad handing political leaders who, I imagine, would still be queuing up for his approval. Well”¦”¦.I’d like to think so.

The last 31 years would have provided ample fodder for this deeply humanitarian soul and our world is a much poorer place without him. There’s a genuine lack of cynicism about the global antics of our governments and there are simply not enough John Lennon’s out there to tell it how it really is.
Much misunderstood at the time with bagism and bedism and the general fun soaked pokes at the dreadful establishment, there was a very serious message being delivered with his antics and he always managed to get his point accross.But lets not dwell on that.

The Beatles had always been there and when they eventually split, John Lennon was still there, everyone thought it was just a matter of time before they would play together again, there was a comfort zone, it was something we all desperately wanted to see but now he was dead and there is always something very, very final about that…………. Rest in peace.

c Al Hillier December 5th 2011

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  1. All hail the middle class hero raised in the leafy Mendip suburbs of Liverpool, in a semi-detached house – the troublesome, spoilt brat nurtured by a fawning Aunt and allowed Art College education rather than having to work upon school leaving age.

    All hail John Winston Lennon – the self-proclaimed supporter of non-violence who financially backed Michael X, a convicted murderer, gangster, enforcer, racist and extortionist. John Winston Lennon, who was financially linked with Nor Aid, the New York based Irish Republican Activists who, under the auspices of supporting IRA prisoners were buying arms for the terrorists \’back home\’, by offering to sing at a fundraiser and assigning song royalties.

    Just another lily-livered Liberal who didn\’t have to live \’it\’ but pertains to support the views of the people who \’had to\’. The type of delusional Rock\’n\’Roll star who has no idea of the real world and does not see the effect their \’support\’ has on the victims of the self-proclaimed Freedom Fighters – who are in fact purveyors of violence, extortion and murder. The monies raised by the likes of Lennon are used to buy guns, line the pockets of the higher elite echelons of the cause and never filtering down to the people who need the support.

    He would have been better placed staying in the UK, paying his taxes, rather than lying in bed, growing his hair, or other PR stunts – at least the victims of the violence he funded would have benefited to some degree. And as for today\’s crises – what use would a 71 year-old Lennon be? He would probably have a piss in the bed-in at the Nursing Home Yoko had him incarcerated in a few years ago.

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