The artist’s joyous, inspiring and subversive conversation with Rolling Stone three days before his death
This story is from the December 23, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.
On the evening of Friday, December 5th, 1980, John Lennon spoke to Rolling Stone editor Jonathan Cott for more than nine hours at his apartment on New York’s Upper West Side and at the Record Plant recording studio. Three nights later, Lennon would be murdered as he was returning home from a mixing session. The interview had originally been scheduled to run as the cover story of the first issue of 1981, but after Lennon’s killing, Cott instead wrote an obituary for Lennon and ended up using very little from their conversations. In fact, he never even fully transcribed his tape. On the 30th anniversary of Lennon’s death, we present, for the first time, the full text of Lennon’s last major print interview: the joyous, outrageously funny, inspiring, fearless and subversive conversation Lennon shared with us that night, as he was preparing to jump back into the limelight after five years of private life with Yoko and their young son, Sean.
“Welcome to the inner sanctum!” said John Lennon, as he greeted me with high-spirited, mock ceremoniousness in Yoko Ono’s beautiful cloud-ceilinged office in their Dakota apartment. It was December 5th, 1980. I sat down on a couch next to Yoko, and she began telling me how their collaborative new album, Double Fantasy, came about: The previous spring, John and their son, Sean, were vacationing for three weeks in Bermuda while Yoko stayed home “sorting out business,” as she put it. While in Bermuda, John phoned her to say that he had taken Sean to the botanical gardens and had come across a flower called a Double Fantasy. “It’s a type of freesia,” John would later say, “but what it means to us is that if two people picture the same image at the same time, that is the secret.”
“I was at a dance club one night in Bermuda,” John interrupted as he sat down on the couch, and Yoko got up to bring coffee. “Upstairs, they were playing disco, and downstairs I suddenly heard ‘Rock Lobster’ by the B-52’s for the first time. Do you know it? It sounds just like Yoko’s music, so I said to meself, ‘It’s time to get out the old ax and wake the wife up!’” She and John spoke on the phone every day and sang each other the songs they had composed in between calls.
“I’ve heard,” I said to John, “that you’ve had a guitar hanging on the wall behind your bed for the past five or six years, and that you only recently took it down to play on Double Fantasy.”
“I bought this beautiful electric guitar, round about the period I got back with Yoko and had the baby,” John said. “It’s not a normal guitar; it doesn’t have a body. It’s just an arm and this tubelike, toboggan-looking thing, and you can lengthen the top for the balance of it if you’re sitting or standing up. I played it a little, then just hung it up behind the bed, but I’d look at it every now and then, because it had never done a professional thing, it had never really been played. I didn’t want to hide it the way one would hide an instrument because it was too painful to look at – like, Artie Shaw went through a big thing and never played his clarinet again. But I used to look at it and think, ‘Will I ever pull it down?’
“Next to it on the wall I’d placed a wooden number nine and a dagger Yoko had given me – a dagger made out of a bread knife from the American Civil War, to cut away the bad vibes, to cut away the past symbolically. It was just like a picture that hangs there but you never really see, and then recently I realized, ‘Oh, goody! I can finally find out what this guitar is all about,’ and I took it down and used it in making Double Fantasy.”
“I’ve been playing Double Fantasy over and over,” I said, getting ready to ply him with another question. John looked at me with a time-and interview-stopping smile. “How are you?” he asked. “It’s been like a reunion for us these last few weeks. We’ve seen Ethan Russell, who’s doing a videotape of a couple of the new songs, and Annie Leibovitz was here. She took my first Rolling Stone cover photo. It’s been fun seeing everyone we used to know and doing it all again – we’ve all survived. When did we first meet?”
“I met you and Yoko on September 17th, 1968,” I said, remembering the first of many future encounters. I was just a lucky guy, at the right place at the right time. John had decided to become more “public” and to demystify his Beatles persona. He and Yoko, whom he’d met in November 1966, were preparing for the Amsterdam and Montreal bed-ins for peace, and were soon to release Two Virgins, the first of their experimental record collaborations with its Shakespearean “noises, sounds and sweet airs.” The album cover – the infamous nude portrait of them – was to grace the pages of Rolling Stone’s first-anniversary issue. John had just discovered the then-impoverished San Francisco-based magazine, and he’d agreed to give Rolling Stone the first of his “coming-out” interviews. As “European editor,” I was asked to visit John and Yoko and to take along a photographer (Ethan Russell, who later took the photos for the Let It Be book that accompanied the album). So, nervous and excited, we met John and Yoko at their temporary basement flat in London.
First impressions are usually the most accurate, and John was graceful, charming, exuberant, direct and playful; I remember noticing how he wrote little reminders to himself in the wonderfully absorbed way that a child paints the sun. He was due at a recording session in a half-hour to work on the White Album, so we had agreed to meet the next day to do the interview, but John and Yoko instead invited Ethan and me to attend that day’s session for “Birthday” and “Glass Onion” at Abbey Road Studios. (I remember making myself scarce behind one of the giant studio speakers in order not to raise the hackles of the other visibly disconcerted three Beatles.)
Every new encounter with John brought a new perspective. Once, in 1971, I ran into John and Yoko in New York. A friend and I had gone to see the film Carnal Knowledge, and afterward we bumped into the Lennons in the lobby. Accompanied by the yippie activist Jerry Rubin and a friend of his, they invited us to drive down with them to Ratner’s restaurant on the Lower East Side for blintzes, whereupon a beatific, long-haired young man approached our table and wordlessly handed John a card inscribed with a pithy saying of the yogi Meher Baba. Rubin drew a swastika on the back of the card, got up, and gave it back to the man. When he returned, John admonished him gently, saying that that wasn’t the way to change someone’s consciousness. Acerbic and skeptical as he could often be, John Lennon never lost his sense of compassion.
Almost 10 years later, I was again talking to John, and he was as gracious and witty as the first time I met him. “I guess I should describe to the readers what you’re wearing, John,” I said. “Let me help you out,” he offered, then intoned wryly, “You can see the glasses he’s wearing. They’re normal, plastic, blue-frameglasses. Nothing like the famous wire-rimmed Lennon glasses that he stopped using in 1973. He’s wearing needle-cord pants, the same black cowboy boots he’d had made in Nudie’s in 1973, a Calvin Klein sweater and a torn Mick Jagger T-shirt that he got when the Stones toured in 1970 or so. And around his neck is a small, three-part diamond heart necklace that he bought as a makeup present after an argument with Yoko many years ago and that she later gave back to him in a kind of ritual. Will that do?
“But I know you’ve got a Monday deadline, so let’s get boogieing!”
* * * * *
Double Fantasy is the first recording you’ve made in five years, and, to quote from your song “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” “It’s good to have the both of you back.”
But the illusion that I was cut off from society is a joke. I was just the same as any of the rest of you; I was working from nine to five – baking bread and changing some nappies and dealing with the baby. People keep asking, “Why did you go underground, why were you hiding?” But I wasn’t hiding. I went to Singapore, South Africa, Hong Kong, Bermuda. I’ve been everywhere in the bloody universe. And I did fairly average things, I went to the movies.
But you weren’t writing a lot of songs during those years.
I didn’t write a damn thing… You know, it was a big event for us to have a baby – people might forget how hard we tried to have one and how many miscarriages we had and near-death scenes for Yoko… and we actually had a stillborn child and a lot of problems with drugs, a lot of personal and public problems brought on by ourselves and with help from our friends. But, whatever. We put ourselves in situations that were stressful, but we managed to have the child that we tried to have for 10 years, and, my God, we weren’t going to blow it. We didn’t move for a year, and I took up yoga with the gray-haired lady on TV You can’t really win. People criticized you for not writing and recording, but it’s sometimes forgotten that your three previous albums – Some Time in New York City, Walls and Bridges and Rock ‘N’ Roll – weren’t universally praised… especially the agitprop Some Time in New York City, which included songs like “Attica State,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Woman Is the Nigger of the World.”
Yeah, that was the one that really upset everyone. Yoko calls it “Bertolt Brecht,” but, as usual, I didn’t know who he was until she took me to see Richard Foreman’s production of The Threepenny Opera four years ago, and then I saw the album in that light. I was always irritated by the rushness of sound on it, but I was consciously doing it like a newspaper where you get the misprints, the times and the facts aren’t quite right, and there’s that you’ve-got-to-get-it-out-by-Friday attitude.
But I’ve been attacked many, many times… and right from the beginning: “From Me to You” was “below-par Beatles,” don’t forget that. That was the review in the NME [New Musical Express]. Jesus Christ, I’m sorry. Maybe it wasn’t as good as “Please Please Me,” I don’t know, but “below par”? I’ll never forget that one. And you know how bad the reviews were of our Plastic Ono albums? They shredded us! “Self-indulgent, simplistic whining” – that was the main gist. Because those albums were about ourselves, you see, and not about Ziggy Stardust or Tommy… And Mind Games, they hated it.
But it’s not just me. Take Mick, for instance. Mick’s put out consistently good work for 20 years, and will they give him a break? Will they ever say, “Look at him, he’s number one, he’s 37 and he has a beautiful song, ‘Emotional Rescue,’ it’s up there”? I enjoyed it, a lot of people enjoyed it. And God help Bruce Springsteen when they decide he’s no longer God. I haven’t seen him, but I’ve heard such good things about him. Right now his fans are happy. He’s told them about being drunk and chasing girls and cars and everything, and that’s about the level they enjoy. But when he gets down to facing his own success and growing older and having to produce it again and again, they’ll turn on him, and I hope he survives it. All he has to do is look at me or at Mick. So it goes up and down, up and down – of course it does, but what are we, machines? What do they want from the guy? Do they want him to kill himself onstage? Do they want me and Yoko to fuck onstage or kill ourselves onstage? But when they criticized “From Me to You” as below-par Beatles, that’s when I first realized you’ve got to keep it up, there’s some sort of system where you get on the wheel and you’ve got to keep going around.
Watching the wheels. What are those wheels?
The whole universe is a wheel, right? Wheels going round and round. They’re my own wheels, mainly, but, you know, watching meself is like watching everybody else. And I watch meself through my child too.
The thing about the child is… it’s still hard. I’m not the greatest dad on Earth, I’m doing me best. But I’m a very irritable guy, and I get depressed. I’m up and down, up and down, and he’s had to deal with that too – withdrawing from him and then giving, and withdrawing and giving. I don’t know how much it will affect him in later life, but I’ve been physically there.
We’re all selfish, but I think so-called artists are completely selfish: To put Yoko or Sean or the cat or anybody in mind other than meself – me and my ups and downs and my little tiddly problems – is a strain. Of course, there’s a reward and a joy, but still…
So you fight against your natural selfish instincts.
Yeah, the same as taking drugs or eating bad food or not doing exercise. It’s as hard as that to give to a child, it’s not natural at all. Maybe it’s the way we were all brought up, but it’s very hard to think about somebody else, even your own child, to really think about him.
But you’re thinking about him in a song like “Beautiful Boy.”
Yeah, but that’s easy… it’s painting. Gauguin was stuck in fucking Tahiti, painting a big picture for his daughter – if the movie version I saw was true, right? So he’s in fucking Tahiti painting a picture for her, she dies in Denmark, she didn’t see him for 20 years, he has VD and is going out of his mind in Tahiti – he dies and the painting gets burned anyway, so nobody ever sees the masterpiece of his fucking life. And I’m always thinking things like that. So I write a song about the child, but it would have done better for me to spend the time I wrote the fucking song actually playing ball with him. The hardest thing for me to do is play… I can do everything else.
You can’t play?
Play, I can’t. I try and invent things. I can draw, I can watch TV with him. I’m great at that – I can watch any garbage, as long as I don’t have to move around, and I can talk and read to him and go out and take him with me for a coffee and things like that.
That’s weird, because your drawings and so many of the songs you’ve written are really playful.
That probably came from Paul more than from me.
What about “Good Morning Good Morning”? That’s one of yours. It’s a great song – an older guy roaming aimlessly around town after work, who doesn’t want to go home and has nothing to say, but it’s OK.
Oh, that was just an exercise. I only had about a week to write songs for Pepper. “Good Morning Good Morning” was a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes ad at the time – that’s how desperate I was for a song.
What I realized when I read “Lennon Remembers” [John’s legendary 1970 interview with Jann Wenner] or the new Playboy interview [conducted by David Sheff September 8th-28th, 1980] was that I’m always complaining about how hard it is to write or how much I suffer when I’m writing – that almost every song I’ve ever written has been absolute torture.
Most of them were torture?
Absolutely. I always think there’s nothing there, it’s shit, it’s no good, it’s not coming out, this is garbage… and even if it does come out, I think, “What the hell is it anyway?”
That sounds a bit constipated, in a way.
It’s just stupid. I just think, “That was tough. Jesus, I was in a bad way then” [laughs]… except for the 10 or so songs the gods give you and that come out of nowhere.
Did the songs you wrote for Double Fantasy come easier?
Not really. It actually took me five years for them to come out. Constipated for five years, and then diarrhea for three weeks [laughs]! The physical writing was within a three-week period. There’s a Zen story that Yoko once told me – and I think I might have told it in “Lennon Remembers” or “Playboy Forgets”: A king sent his messenger to an artist to request a painting, he paid the artist the money, and the painter said, “OK, come back.” So a year goes by, and the messenger comes back and tells him, “The king’s waiting for his painting,” and the painter says, “Oh, hold on,” and whips it off right in front of him and says, “Here.” And the messenger says, “What’s this? The king paid you 20,000 bucks for this shit, and you knock it off in five minutes?” And the painter replies, “Yeah, but I spent 10 years thinking about it.” And there’s no way I could have written the Double Fantasy songs without those five years.
At this point, Yoko comes into the room to announce that someone who says he’s George Harrison just telephoned and wanted to come over. “Of course it’s not George,” John mutters. “He was probably on acid,” says Yoko. “I said to him, ‘Can I ask you some questions?’ ‘No,’ the guy said, ‘I can’t be bothered with all that, Yoko.’ So I hung up and made a call to George’s number and found out that George was, in fact, sleeping.” I start to laugh, and John says, “We laugh at it too, you know. Jesus Christ. If it wasn’t a laugh, we’d go crazy, wouldn’t we?”
Yoko takes this opportunity to hand John a recent copy of Japanese Playboy that features an article about them. “It’s nice of them to show just the back of the baby,” John remarks about one of the photos. “I don’t want pictures of Sean going around. Most stars, as soon as they have a baby, put it on the front page: ‘I’ve just had a baby!’ I’m not interested in that. It’s dangerous. You know, we make no pretense of being average Tom, Dicks or Harry – we make no pretense of living in a small cottage or of trying to make our child into an average child. I tried that game with my son Julian, sending him to a comprehensive working-class school, mixing with the people, but the people spat and shit on him because he was famous, as people are wont to do. So his mother had to finally turn around and tell me to piss off: ‘I’m sending him to a private school, the kid is suffering here.’”
John now thumbs through Playboy. “Take a look at these Japanese tits in the front half of the magazine,” he says, as he generously shares the issue with me. “They’re beautiful. They’re not allowed to show pussy, only breasts. Before the Christians got there, the Japanese were absolutely free sexually, like the Tahitians – not in an immoral way; it was natural to them. “And it’s the Christians that changed that?” I asked. “Yeah,” John replied, “the Christians don’t let you have cock and balls. It’s the Judeo-Christians, just to get you in it too.” “You’re right,” I confess, “it’s all my fault!” “Never mind, never mind,” John says, patting me on the shoulder. “But we’d better get on with this. Ask away!”
* * * * *
It’s interesting that no rock & roll star I can think of has made an album with his wife or whomever and given her 50 percent of the disc.
It’s the first time we’ve done it this way. I know we’ve made albums together before, like Live Peace in Toronto 1969 where I had one side and Yoko had the other. But Double Fantasy is a dialogue, and we have resurrected ourselves, in a way, as John and Yoko – not as John ex-Beatle and Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band. It’s just the two of us, and our position was that, if the record didn’t sell, it meant people didn’t want to know about John and Yoko – either they didn’t want John anymore or they didn’t want John with Yoko or maybe they just wanted Yoko, or whatever. But if they didn’t want the two of us, we weren’t interested. Throughout my career, I’ve selected to work with – for more than a one-night stand, say, with David Bowie or Elton John – only two people: Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono. I brought Paul into the original group, the Quarrymen, he brought George in, and George brought Ringo in. And the second person who interested me as an artist and somebody I could work with was Yoko Ono. That ain’t bad picking.
Right now, the public is our only criterion: You can aim for a small public, a medium public, but for meself, I like a large public. And I made my decision in art school, if I’m going to be an artist of whatever description, I want the maximum exposure, not just paint-your-little-pictures-in-the-attic-and-don’t-show-them-to-anybody.
When I arrived in art school, there were lots of artsy-fartsy guys and girls, mainly guys, going round with paint on their jeans and looking just like artists. And they all had lots to talk about and knew all about every damn paintbrush, and they talked about aesthetics, but they all ended up being art teachers or Sunday painters. I got nothing from art school except for a lot of women, a lot of drink and the freedom to be at college and have fun. I enjoyed it like hell, but for art, I never learned a damn thing.
You’ve always had a unique, playful drawing style – just think of your book “In His Own Write” or the album cover and inner sleeve of “Walls and Bridges” or your immediately identifiable “Lennonesque” cartoons.
I did the Walls and Bridges drawings when I was 10 or 11. But I found at art school that they tried to knock it out of me. They tried to stop me from drawing how I draw naturally, which I wouldn’t let them do. But I never developed it further than cartoons. Somebody once said that cartoonists are people with a good creative gift who are scared of failure as painters, so they make it comedic. My cartoons, to me, are like Japanese brush paintings – if you can’t get it in one line, rip it up. Yoko got me into that notion a little when we met, and when she saw that I drew, she’d say, “That’s how they do it in Japan, you don’t have to make changes… This is it!”
Yoko and I come from different kinds of backgrounds, but basically, we both need this communication. I’m not interested in small, elite groups following or kowtowing to me. I’m interested in communicating whatever it is I want to say or produce in the maximum possible way, and rock & roll is it, as far as I’m concerned. It’s like that image of watching a giraffe going by the window. People are always just seeing little bits of it, but I try and see the whole, not just in my own life, but the whole universe, the whole game. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? So whether I’m working with Paul or Yoko, it’s all toward the same end, whatever that is – self-expression, communication or just being like a tree, flowering and withering and flowering and withering
On Yoko’s song “Hard Times Are Over,” there seems to be what sounds like a gospel group singing behind Yoko’s voice.
There is a gospel group [the Benny Cummings Singers and the Kings Temple Choir] singing on it. They were beautiful. Just before the take, they suddenly all took each other’s hands, and Yoko was really crying, and I was emotional because it’s right up our alley – whether it’s Jesus or Buddha, for us it’s all right, either one will do, any of them are all right by us. So there they were, holding hands before the take, and they were singing “Thank you, Jesus, thank you, Lord,” and I was like, “Put the tape on! Are you getting this?” And that’s what you hear, exactly as it happened – “Thank you, Jesus, thank you, Lord” – and then they go right into singing the song.
At the end of the session, they thanked God, they thanked our co-producer Jack Douglas, they thanked us for bringing them the work, and we thanked them. And it was the nearest I’ve ever been to a gospel church service – Phil Spector used to tell me about them – and I always wanted to go and experience it, but I was too scared to go. And that was the nearest I’ve ever been, and it was just beautiful.
It was a great working day, with the pressure on – get in the studio and get out – and all the children were there, kids and food and cookies and singing and “Praise the Lord.” It was glorious. Putting the gospel choir on that song was a highlight of the session.
On Double Fantasy, I noticed a mysterious and magical little sound collage that segues between your song “Watching the Wheels” and Yoko’s charming, Thirties-like “Yes, I’m Your Angel.” One hears what seem to be a hawker’s voice, the sounds of a horse-driven carriage, then a door slamming and a few musical phrases played by a piano and violin in a restaurant.
I’ll tell you what it is. One of the voices is me going, “God bless you, man, thank you, man, cross my palm with silver, you’ve got a lucky face,” which is what the English guys who beg or want a tip say, and that’s what you hear me mumbling. And then we re-created the sounds of what Yoko and I call the Strawberries and Violin Room – the Palm Court at the Plaza hotel. We like to sit there occasionally and listen to the old violin and have a cup of tea and some strawberries. It’s romantic. And so the picture is, there’s this kind of street prophet, Hyde Park-corner-type guy who just watches the wheels going around. And people are throwing money in the hat. We faked that in the studio. We had friends of ours walking up and down, dropping coins in a hat. And he’s saying, “Thank you, thank you,” and then you get in the horse carriage and you go around New York and go into the hotel and the violins are playing and then this woman comes on and sings about being an angel.
In “Yes, I’m Your Angel,” Yoko sings, “I’m in your pocket/You’re in my locket/And we’re so lucky in every way.” And then what follows is your beautiful song, “Woman,” which sounds a bit like a troubadour poem written to a medieval lady.
“Woman” came about because, one sunny afternoon in Bermuda, it suddenly hit me what women do for us. Not just what my Yoko does for me, although I was thinking in those personal terms… but any truth is universal. What dawned on me was everything I was taking for granted. Women really are the other half of the sky, as I whisper at the beginning of the song. It’s a “we” or it ain’t anything. The song reminds me of a Beatles track, though I wasn’t trying to make it sound like a Beatles track. I did it as I did “Girl” many years ago – it just sort of hit me like a flood, and it came out like that. “Woman” is the grown-up version of “Girl.”
I know that Yoko is deeply interested in ancient Egyptian art and antiques, and that you have a small collection of it in your home. Regarding “the other half of the sky,” it’s interesting that in ancient Egyptian mythology, the Sky was personified as a goddess – she wasn’t Mother Earth – and the Earth was personified as a god.
But I do call Yoko “Mother,” like our president-elect [Ronald Reagan] calls his wife “Mommy.” And for those childless people who find that peculiar, it’s because, in general, when you have a child around the house, you tend to refer to each other that way. Yoko calls me “Daddy” – it could be Freudian, but it could also mean that Sean refers to me as “Daddy.” Occasionally I call her “Mother,” because I used to call her “Mother Superior” – if you check your Beatles Fab Four fucking records, “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.” She is Mother Superior, she’s Mother Earth, she’s the mother of my child, she’s my mother, she’s my daughter… The relationship goes through many levels, like most relationships. But it doesn’t have any deep-seated strangeness about it.
People are always judging or criticizing you, or focusing on what you’re trying to say on one little album, on one little song, but to me it’s a lifetime’s work. From the boyhood paintings and poetry to when I die – it’s all part of one big production. And I don’t have to announce that this album is part of a larger work: If it isn’t obvious, then forget it. But I did put a little clue on the beginning of Double Fantasy – the bells on “(Just Like) Starting Over.” The head of the album is a wishing bell of Yoko’s. And it’s like the beginning of “Mother” on the Plastic Ono album, which had a very slow death bell. So it’s taken a long time to get from a slow church death bell to this sweet little wishing bell. And that’s the connection. To me, my work is one piece.
In “Woman,” you also sing, “Woman, I will try to express/My inner feelings and thankfulness/For showing me the meaning of success.”
I’m not saying success as a famous artist and star is no good, and I’m not saying it’s great. The thing about the “Working Class Hero” song that nobody ever got right was that it was supposed to be sardonic – it had nothing to do with socialism, it had to do with “If you want to go through that trip, you’ll get up to where I am, and this is what you’ll be.” Because I’ve been successful as an artist, and have been happy and unhappy, and I’ve been unknown in Liverpool or Hamburg and been happy and unhappy. But what Yoko’s taught me is what the real success is – the success of my personality, the success of my relationship with her and the child, my relationship with the world… and to be happy when I wake up. It has nothing to do with rock machinery or not rock machinery.
What am I supposed to be, some kind of martyr that’s not supposed to be rich? Some asshole recently wrote a cover story about me in Esquire. [Journalist Laurence Shames’ virulent article, “John Lennon, Where Are You?” appeared in the November 1980 issue of the magazine. In it, Shames wrote, “I was looking for the Lennon who had always shot his mouth off, who had offended everyone without having to try. My Lennon was a bitter clown, a man of extravagant error and vast resilience, a big baby, an often pathetic truth-seeker whose pained, goofy, earnest and paranoid visage was the emblem and conscience of his age… The Lennon I would have found is a 40-year-old businessman who watches a lot of television, who’s got $150 million, a son he dotes on and a wife who intercepts his phone calls… Is it true, John? Have you really given up?”] This guy spent 20 months looking at deeds and cows, and I’m making a record, and that asshole’s looking at cows. For fuck’s sake, man, what are they talking about? What should I have bought – slaves? Hookers? [Laughs] They’ve got minds like fucking sewers to sell magazines, to sell products that people can’t afford to buy, that they don’t need and have to replace every three months… and they’re accusing me of what? 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.
These critics with the illusions they’ve created about artists – it’s like idol worship. Like those little kids in Liverpool who only liked us when we were in Liverpool – a lot of them dropped us because we got big in Manchester, right? They thought we’d sold out. Then the English got upset because we got big in… what the hell is it? They only like people when they’re on the way up, and when they’re up there, they’ve got nothing else to do but shit on them. I cannot be on the way up again. What they want is dead heroes, like Sid Vicious and James Dean. I’m not interested in being a dead fucking hero… So forget ‘em, forget ‘em.
You know what Eugene O’Neill said about critics? “I love every bone in their head.” You see, the only way to deal with critics is to go over their heads direct to the public. That’s what we did with the bed-ins and with our Two Virgins and Plastic Ono albums, and that’s what we’re doing now. And we hear from all kinds of people. One kid living up in Yorkshire wrote this heartfelt letter about being both Oriental and English and identifying with John and Yoko. The odd kid in the class. There are a lot of those kids who identify with us – as a couple, a biracial couple, who stand for love, peace, feminism and the positive things of the world. But the press are always looking at the neck of the giraffe as it goes past the window – that’s how the game goes. So there’s absolutely no way they can ever keep up.
Most of the petty resentment is mainly from Sixties rock critics who are reaching that age where the beer belly is getting larger, and they haven’t got the guts of someone like Jon Landau [music critic, record producer and Bruce Springsteen’s manager] to get out there and do it. I admire Lester Bangs, who’s a musician as well as a critic, and I’m sure there’s many times he shit all over me, and I’m sure Landau must have, in his time, both praised and hated me. I’ve had it both ways from all the major critics. But at least some of them do it. And as I said in “Lennon Remembers,” and as I said in art school, I’m a doer, not a voyeur… And I’ve got nothing to hide. Remember the song
“Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey.” It’s one of my favorites: “Your inside is out, and your outside is in/Your outside is in, and your inside is out.”
Right, but what did the critics say? “A bit simplistic, no imagery in it.” Perhaps I should have said, “Your inside is like a whale juice dripping from the fermented foam of the teeny-boppers’ VD in Times Square as I injected my white clown face with heroin and performed in red-leather knickers.” Maybe then they’d like it, right?
That’s great, that sounds like Allen Ginsberg.
Right, we can all do Ginsberg – and I like Ginsberg. But try shaving it all off and getting down to the nitty-gritty – that’s what I always tried to write… except for the occasional “Walrus” bit. I’m not interested in describing a fucking tree. I’m interested in climbing it or being under it.
All the way through your work, there’s this incredibly strong notion about inspiring people to be themselves and to come together to try to change things. I’m thinking here, obviously, of songs like “Give Peace a Chance,” “Power to the People” and “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).”
It’s still there. If you look on the vinyl around the new record’s logo [on the 12-inch single “(Just Like) Starting Over”] – which all the kids have done already all over the world from Brazil to Australia to Poland – inside is written ONE WORLD, ONE PEOPLE. So we continue. “Give Peace a Chance,” not “Shoot People for Peace.” “All You Need is Love”: It’s damn hard, but I absolutely believe it.
We’re not the first to say “Imagine No Countries” or “Give Peace a Chance,” but we’re carrying that torch, like the Olympic torch, passing it hand to hand, to each other, to each country, to each generation… and that’s our job. Not to live according to somebody else’s idea of how we should live – rich, poor, happy, not happy, smiling, not smiling, wearing the right jeans, not wearing the right jeans.
I’m not claiming divinity. I’ve never claimed purity of soul. I’ve never claimed to have the answers to life. I only put out songs and answer questions as honestly as I can, but only as honestly as I can – no more, no less. I cannot live up to other people’s expectations of me because they’re illusionary. I cannot be a punk in Hamburg and Liverpool, because I’m older now. I see the world through different eyes now. But I still believe in peace, love and understanding. As Elvis Costello said, What’s so fucking funny about peace, love and understanding? It’s fashionable to be a go-getter and slash thy neighbor with a cross, but we’re not one to follow the fashion.
It’s like your song “The Word…”
Yes, the word was “love.”
“Why in the world are we here?/Surely not to live in pain and fear” – that’s from “Instant Karma.” And that’s an idea in all of your and Yoko’s work… as when she sings in her new song “Beautiful Boys”: “Please never be afraid to cry… Don’t ever be afraid to fly… Don’t be afraid to be afraid.” I found that beautiful.
That is beautiful. I’m often afraid, but I’m not afraid to be afraid, otherwise it’s all scary. But it’s more painful to try not to be yourself. People spend a lot of time trying to be somebody else, and I think it leads to terrible diseases. Maybe you get cancer or something. A lot of tough guys die of cancer, have you noticed? John Wayne, Steve McQueen. I think it has something to do – I don’t know, I’m no expert – with constantly living or getting trapped in an image or an illusion of themselves, suppressing some part of themselves, whether it’s the feminine side or the fearful side.
I’m well aware of that because I come from the macho school of pretense. I was never really a street kid or a tough guy. I used to dress like a Teddy boy and identify with Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley, but I never really was in real street fights or real down-home gangs. I was just a suburban kid, imitating the rockers. But it was a big part of one’s life to look tough. I spent the whole of my childhood with shoulders up around the top of me head and me glasses off because glasses were sissy, and walking in complete fear, but with the toughest-looking face you’ve ever seen. I’d get into trouble just because of the way I looked. I wanted to be this tough James Dean all the time. It took a lot of wrestling to stop doing that, even though I still fall into it when I get insecure and nervous. I still drop into that I’m-a-street-kid stance, but I have to keep remembering that I never really was one.
That’s what Yoko has taught me. I couldn’t have done it alone – it had to be a female to teach me. That’s it. Yoko has been telling me all the time, “It’s all right, it’s all right.” I look at early pictures of meself, and I was torn between being Marlon Brando and being the sensitive poet – the Oscar Wilde part of me with the velvet, feminine side. I was always torn between the two, mainly opting for the macho side, because if you showed the other side, you were dead.
There’s another aspect of your work, which has to do with the way you continually question what’s real and what’s illusory, such as in “Look at Me,” your new “Watching the Wheels” and, of course, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” in which you sing, “Nothing is real.” In a way, no thing is real, if you break the word down. As the Hindus or Buddhists say, it’s an illusion. It’s Rashomon. We all see it, but the agreed-upon illusion is what we live in. And the hardest thing is facing yourself.
I used to think that the world was doing it to me and the world owed me something, and that either the conservatives or the socialists or the fascists or the communists or the Christians or the Jews were doing something to me. And when you’re a teeny-bopper, that’s what you think. But I’m 40 now, and I don’t think that anymore, because I found out it doesn’t fucking work! The thing goes on anyway, and all you’re doing is jacking off, screaming about what your mommy and your daddy did… But one has to go through that. For the people who even bother to go through that – most assholes just accept what it is anyway and get on with it, right? – but for the few of us who did question what was going on… well, I’ve found out for me personally – not for the whole world – that I am responsible for me, as well as for them. I am part of them. There’s no separation: We’re all one, so in that respect I look at it all and think, “Ah, I have to deal with me again in that way. What is real? What is the illusion I’m living or not living?” And I have to deal with it every day. The layers of the onion.
“Looking through a glass onion.”
That’s what it’s about, isn’t it?
Yoko now comes into the room to say that she and John have to leave for the Record Plant – the legendary, now-defunct recording studio on West 44th Street where albums like Electric Ladyland and Born to Run were recorded, and where, for the past couple of weeks, John and Yoko have been remixing some of Yoko’s old songs and putting finishing touches on her new single, “Walking on Thin Ice.” They’ll be working there throughout the night… and why didn’t I join them? It’s around 10 p.m. when we leave the Dakota and get into the waiting car. Arriving at the Record Plant a half-hour later, we enter the main studio and are greeted by a sonic blast: Out of the speakers comes the shattering cascade of Yoko’s inimitable, primordial voice – intersected by John’s forward and backward guitar tracks – screaming out the words “Open your box/Open your trousers/Open your thighs/Open your legs… Open your ears/Open your nose/Open, open, open, open.” And over the next six hours, as two sound engineers and producer Jack Douglas remix a number of Yoko’s songs (”Open Your Box,” “Kiss Kiss Kiss,” “Every Man Has a Woman Who Loves Him”), John and I continue our conversation till four in the morning, by which time Yoko is napping on a studio couch.
* * * * *
Is Yoko thinking of putting out a disco album?
I can’t really verify what we’re doing yet, because with Yoko, you never know until it’s done. But we did come in here to make this string of songs that might go to the rock and disco clubs.
And what about your new songs?
No, because I don’t make that stuff [laughs]. I mean, what way could I come back into this game? I came back from where I know best, as unpretentious as possible… and with no experimentation, because I was happy to be doing it as I did it before. My song “Starting Over” – I call it “Elvis-Orbison” [sings: “Only the lonely/Know why I cry/Only the lonely”].
There’s a bit of slap-back echo on your recording.
Well, the tape echo is from the Fifties. Almost every record I made had the same echo on it… all the way back to “Rock and Roll Music.” I love it. And my voice has always sounded pretty much the same. I’m going right back to the roots of my past. It’s like Dylan going to do Nashville Skyline. But I don’t have any Nashville, being from Liverpool, so I go back to the records I knew, which is Elvis and Roy Orbison and Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis. I occasionally get tripped off into a “Revolution 9,” but my far-out side has been completely encompassed by Yoko.
You know, the first show we did together was at Cambridge University in 1969. She had already been booked to do a concert with some jazz musicians. That was the first time I had appeared un-Beatled. I had an amp and played feedback, and people got very upset because they recognized me: “What’s he doing with you?” It’s always, “Stay in your bag.” So, when she tried to rock, they said, “What’s she doing here?” And when I went with her and tried to be the instrument and not project – to just be her band, like a sort of Ike Turner to her Tina, only her Tina was a different, avant-garde Tina – well, even some of the jazz guys got upset.
Everybody has pictures they want you to live up to. But that’s the same as living up to your parents’ expectations, or to society’s expectations, or to so-called critics who are just guys with a pen or typewriter in a little room, smoking and drinking beer and having their dreams and nightmares, too, but somehow pretending that they’re living in a different, separate world. That’s all right. But there are people who break out of their bags.
I remember years ago when you and Yoko appeared in bags at a Vienna press conference. Right. We sang a Japanese folk song in the bags. “Das ist really you, John? John Lennon in zee bag?” Yeah, it’s me. “But how do we know ist you?” Because I’m telling you. “Vy don’t you come out from this bag?” Because I don’t want to come out of the bag. “Don’t you realize this is the Hapsburg Palace?” I thought it was a hotel. “Vell, it is now a hotel.” They had great chocolate cake in that Vienna hotel, I remember that. Anyway, who wants to be locked in a bag? You have to break out of your bag to keep alive.
[The studio engineers play a tape of Yoko’s new song “Walking on Thin Ice.”]
Listen to this, Jonathan. We were thinking that this song is so damn good that she should put her own single out, with me on the B side. I’d love to be on the B side of a hit record after all these years. I’d love to be the guitarist – I’m playing backwards guitar on this song. I’d settle for it any day. Yoko deserves it, it’s been a long haul. I wouldn’t fight about it at all.
Speaking of fighting – and this will make you laugh – Andy Warhol once wanted Yoko and me to wrestle at Madison Square Garden, and he’d film it!
You must be kidding. He wanted you two to wrestle? Maybe a sumo contest!
Anything. Just to show the great “love and peace” people having a good fight onstage – it might have been great!
Do you and Yoko have any plans now, not to fight in public, but maybe to tour together? I don’t know, maybe we will. It could be fun. Can you imagine the two of us now with these new songs… and if we did some of Yoko’s early stuff, like “Don’t Worry, Kyoko” or “Open Your Box” or “Why” from the Plastic Ono album – it’s just her voice and my guitar and one bass and drums, and I hear all those licks coming out now from some of today’s groups. So we just might do it. But there will be no smoke bombs, no lipstick, no flashing lights. It has to be just comfy. But we could have a laugh. We’re born-again rockers, and we’re starting over.
You could also have your own late-night TV show – like “The Captain & Tennille.”
Yeah, of course we could. John and Yoko might do it one day. We often talk about that. It might be fun. But there’s time, right? Plenty of time. Right now, here we are in the Record Plant, talking to Jonathan Cott again for Rolling Stone… and it will be fun to be on the cover of Rolling Stone. It will be fun, won’t it, to start 1981 like 1968?
“Look out, kid/It’s somethin’ you did/God knows when/But you’re doin’ it again.”
Right. And who’s going to be the first to go – Lennon or Rolling Stone? Who do you think’s going to be around the longest? Life, Time, Newsweek, Playboy, Look, Rolling Stone? Let’s face it, magazines come and go, record executives come and go, record companies come and go, film producers come and go. Artists come and go too. What a life!
You know, the last album I did before Double Fantasy was Rock ‘N’ Roll, with the cover picture of me in Hamburg in a leather jacket. At the end of making that record, I was finishing up a track that Phil Spector had made me sing called “Just Because,” which I didn’t really know – all the rest of the songs I’d done as a teenager, so I knew them backward – but I couldn’t really get the hang of it. At the end of that record – I was mixing it just next door – I started spieling and saying, “And so we say farewell from the Record Plant,” and a little thing in the back of my mind said, “Are you really saying farewell?” I hadn’t thought of it then. I was still separated from Yoko and still hadn’t had the baby, but somewhere in the back was a voice that was saying, “Are you saying farewell to the whole game?”
It just flashed by like that – like a premonition. I didn’t think of it until a few years later, when I realized that I had actually stopped recording. I came across the cover photo – the original picture of me in my leather jacket, leaning against the wall in Hamburg in 1961 – and I thought, “Is this it? Do I stop where I came in, with ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’?” The day I first met Paul, I was singing that song for the first time onstage. There’s a photo in all the Beatles books – a picture of me with a checked shirt on, holding a little acoustic guitar – and I’m singing “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” just as I did on that album.
It was like this little thing, and there was no consciousness in it. It was only much later, when I started thinking about it… you know, like sometimes you dream – it’s like a premonition, but this was an awake premonition. I had no plans, no intention, but I thought, “What is this, this cover photo from Hamburg, this ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula,’ this saying goodbye from the Record Plant?” And I was actually really saying goodbye since it was the last track of the Rock ‘N’ Roll album – and I was so glad to get it over with – and it was also the end of the album.
It’s like when a guy in England, an astrologer, once told me that I was going to not live in England. And I didn’t remember that until I was in the middle of my immigration fight to stay in this country, and when I thought, “What the hell am I doing here? Why the hell am I going through this?” I didn’t plan to live here, it just happened. There was no packing the bags – we left everything at our house in England, we were just coming for a short visit… but we never went back.
I was in court, and people were saying I wasn’t good enough to be here or that I was a communist or whatever the hell it was. So I thought, “What am I doing this for?” And then I remembered that astrologer in London telling me, “One day you’ll live abroad.” Not because of taxes. The story was that I left for tax reasons, but I didn’t. I got no benefit, nothing, I screwed up completely, I lost money when I left. So I had no reason to leave England. I’m not a person who looks for the sun like a lot of the English who like to get away to the South of France, or go to Malta or Spain or Portugal. George was always talking about “Let’s all go and live in the sun.”
“Here Comes the Sun.”
Right, he’s always looking for the sun because he’s still living in England… And then it clicked on me, “Jesus, that guy predicted I was going to leave England!” Though at the time he said that to me, I was thinking, “Are you kidding?”
Sometimes you wonder, I mean really wonder. I know we make our own reality, and we always have a choice, but how much is preordained? Is there always a fork in the road, and are there two preordained paths that are equally preordained? There could be hundreds of paths where one could go this way or that way – there’s a choice, and it’s very strange sometimes.
And that’s a good ending for our interview. Goodbye, till next time.