He Said, She Said: An Interview With John Lennon
Editor’s note: This exclusive, in-depth interview, conducted in 1975, first appeared in our October 1988 issue. We’ve re-posted it to celebrate what would’ve been John Lennon’s 79th birthday. Read through and experience Lennon talking about his marriage, his finances, the Beatles’ legacy, meeting Elvis, and much, much more.
Lately everyone has had something to say about John Lennon. But he always said it best himself. In this exclusive unpublished interview, the last word, appropriately, is Lennon’s.
In the early spring of 1975, when this interview was conducted, John Lennon had moved back to the apartment he shared with Yoko after an 18-month binge of drinking and carousing with friends in Los Angeles. He was embroiled in deportation proceedings with the U.S. government, and in financial proceedings with his former manager Allen Klein. He had just had a No.1 hit “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night,” with Elton John, but his own career had reached a plateau, and he looked forward to a period of introspection.
Having put the drinking behind him, he was about to begin a five-year period of withdrawal from the public eye.
Why do you think the immigration people are making it so difficult for you to stay here?
I am trying to think of his name, so I can give him credit for his quotes … He put it this way: “It keeps all the conservatives happy that they are doing something about me and what I represent. And it keeps the liberals happy that I am not thrown out.” So, everybody is happy but me. I am still being harassed. Liberals don’t feel too bad because I am still here.
It seems to me that they really use you?
Yeah. It keeps all the other pop stars in line. In case they get any ideas about reality. Keep them in their place. They also hassle Paul, George, Mick Jagger … obviously Keith Richard.
What does Elton John do — he is here most of the time? David Bowie?
Elton John has a clean image. David’s image … they probably haven’t realized what it is yet; it takes them a bit of time. Bowie, they probably just think he’s something from the circus. He’s never been busted and he didn’t get mashed up with lunatics like Jerry Rubin. And Abby my boy Hoffman.
Are you still friends with them?
I never see them. They vanished in the woodwork … Jerry has been nothing but trouble and a pain in the neck since I met him. I decided, as he didn’t lead the revolution, I decided to quit answering the phone.
Why do you want to live in New York now? Why in the U.S.?
Because it’s more fun here. Some of the nasties think I’m here for tax reasons. But it’s hardly worth explaining to people. I only decided to live here after I’d moved here. I didn’t leave England with the intention … I left everything in England. I didn’t even bring any clothes. I just came for a visit and stayed. If I had wanted to do it for tax I should have informed the British Government; I would have gotten an amazing tax-refund for one year. But I forgot to — so I just ended up paying taxes anyway, here and there. If I’d only thought of it, I would have made a million pounds or something. In America, they should stop saying I do it for the tax. I like it here! Is anywhere better?
Do the English get upset when you say that?
The English tend to get a little “…you’ve left us!” They never say it, but you can tell it by the way they write about you. But, it’s too bad. The Liverpool people were the same when I left Liverpool. Or when the Beatles left Liverpool. It was all, “You’ve let us down!” You know, “You should stay here forever and rot … ” I’m not really interested. I like people to like me. But I am not going to ruin my life to please anybody.
What kind of life do you live in New York? It doesn’t seem like the kind you’d expect a star to live.
Pretty normal. I don’t know what a star lives like.
Some live it up. It seems you don’t.
I don’t live it down. I’ve lived it down, played it both ways. Especially when you first get money — you live it up. I had all the biggest cars in the world … and I don’t even like cars. I bought everything that I could buy. The only thing that I never got into is yachts. So, I went through that period. There is nothing else to do once you do it. I just live however makes me most comfortable.
What makes you most comfortable right now?
Peace and quiet, and a piano. It’s all basically that. And occasionally spurting out to some event. Just to prove I’m still alive.
You said once on radio that your separation from Yoko was just a failure. What did you mean?
Well, it’s a joke. They always say, “Their marriage was a failure,” at every divorce. Ours was the other way around; our separation was a failure. We knew we would get together one day, but it could have been 10 years. Like Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner — we could have gone that long. It was fate, or our decision, or whatever. I don’t know how it worked. We knew we’d get back together one way or another, but had no idea when. We probably would never bother getting a divorce. I mean, if you’re living apart you are as divorced as can be.
What if you wanted to marry again?
I don’t think I’d ever bother. If this one didn’t work out, then it ain’t worth bothering about.
How is your relationship with May Pang now? I’m surprised she is still working for you.
I just didn’t wanna “OK — quit!”
How does she handle it now?
She’s handling it alright. It’s hard to know, because I’m hardly spending any time with her. Any time at all, actually. I don’t know … But what can I do about it? She knew what the scene was from the start. There was no question … neither Yoko nor I left each other for another person. We just sort of blew up. Blew apart. And then sort of filled in … so as not to be alone at night. I don’t wanna put May down. She is a nice girl. But she knew what the scene was. I was always talking to Yoko on the phone. I never went anywhere without telling her. “I’m going to L.A.” And she said, “Good luck to you.”
So, we were still good friends. We just blew apart. We didn’t even plan to get back together. I was just going to visit her. And I visited her many times before. And I just walked in and thought, “I live here; this is my home. Here is Yoko, and here is me …” The other time I visited we’ve been a little … we’ve spent hours together, but I haven’t been relaxed. The last time I went I just never left. It was the same … I physically left Yoko in the apartment, but I didn’t leave her. And she didn’t leave me.
Would you mind telling me how you live? How big … ?
It is a big apartment, and it’s beautiful, but it doesn’t have grounds … you know, it’s secure. And people can’t get in and say, “I’m Jesus from Toronto,” and all that. That still happens. Which was happening in the other apartment. You just couldn’t go out the front door, because there would be something weird at the door.
Why did you live in L.A. for a little while?
The separation was physical as well as mental. Our only communication was really on the phone. I just went there to get out of New York for a bit. Trying to do something down there. But I spent most of the time drunk on the floor … with Harry Nilsson and Ringo and people like that. And ending up in the papers … that went on for about nine months. It was just one big hangover. It was hell. But that’s why I was there.
Rolling Stone mentioned John Lennon “playing second fiddle …”
That’s garbage. What second fiddle? I’m not playing second fiddle to Ringo when I play rhythm guitar. It’s all right for me to play rhythm guitar in back of Ringo’s record, but if I play rhythm guitar in back of Elton’s record, or in back of David Bowie’s somehow I’m lowering myself … I think they are good artists. And they are friends of mine, and they asked me to go and play. It’s like in the old days. Like Brian Jones is on a track of the Beatles years ago. And he played saxophone. In those days you weren’t allowed to say, the record companies wouldn’t allow it. So it was never mentioned. Everybody used to play on each other’s sessions, but nobody ever said anything.
Nowadays it’s always said. And Elton asked me to play on “Lucy.” He said, “I’m gonna do this song. I’d love it if you came and played.” He was too shy to ask me. He got a friend that we both have to ask me … And I said, “Sure I’ll come.” So I went to play and sang chorus or some garbage. Why is it not belittling for Mick Jagger to sing in back of Carly Simon? Why am I some kind of God that isn’t allowed to do anything?? It’s bullshit.
How do you feel about people doing covers of all those old Beatle songs?
I love it. I was thrilled he [Elton] was doing it. People are afraid of Beatle music. They are still afraid of my songs. Because they got that big image thing: You can’t do a Beatle number … You can’t touch a Lennon song; only Lennon can do it… It’s garbage!Anybody can do anything. A few people in the past have done Beatle songs. But in general they feel you can’t touch them. And there are so many good singles that the Beatles wrote that were never released. Why don’t people do them? It’s good for me; it’s good for Paul. It’s good for all of us. And Elton would have had a No. 1 record without me; he didn’t need me. And anyway, I was only Dr. Winston O. Boogie on it … ’cause they weren’t sure; and we didn’t have time to get real permission …
What about going on tour?
I think it would be a drag. I am sure I enjoyed parts of it, but not much of it. My decision was already made on touring, long time ago. I always changed my mind about things; and then everybody got angry, and said, “… but he said …” I don’t know if I’ll ever tour again; I can’t say. But just the idea of it … it’s just … you gotta pull a group together, invent a group. And then you gotta whip them into life, make them a real group, and not a bunch of guys. Then you gotta go around all those snotty little dressing rooms — and all you get is money. That’s all you get from a tour: cash.
How about money?
I am doing alright. I am rich in England, and medium well-off in America. ‘Cause a lot of money is stuck in England.
And you can’t get it over?
‘Til 1977. And then the pound might be worth 2 pfennigs by then. So, we’ll see what happens. You might suddenly see me touring in 1977 … very enthusiastically …
Why can’t you get it in before 1977?
Because there is some mad law. The English don’t allow any money out of the country if they can help it. And they always tell me to invest in this and that.
So where do you keep the money you have?
It’s just in a bank. I never invested anything.
You can see the amount?
I never look at it. It never changes. They give you an interest now and then. The only things you can invest in are like big fascist things. Like South African gold mines. All those things that don’t … I couldn’t bother with having shares and all that. It’s quite enough to get a chance without watching the shares on Wall Street or in England. I said: Give me a list of things I can invest in that don’t involve exploiting people. And they couldn’t come up with anything. And I am not that fanatical like Joan Baez or not brave enough to pay taxes. I just pay them and I know they buy bonds with them. I just can’t deal with it. Especially in England I can’t deal with it. So, I just leave it in the bank. And it either goes up with the market or goes down with the market. And that’s it.
How about the oldies album? Why did you do all the oldies?
I started out doing these in ’73 with Phil Spector. I just came off Mind Games, which to me was like an interim record between being a manic political lunatic to back to being a musician again. And Mind Games is like the cross between them. I was really playing mind games, mind games is what it was. I had enough of this trying to be deep and think … “Why can’t I have some fun??” And my idea of fun with music was to sing. Sing anything. And whenever I sang in a studio, when I wasn’t singing my own deep and personal songs — it was singing rock’n’roll, which I started out to do.
So I thought: I know what to do. I’ll make a rock’n’roll album of all the songs I’m always singing in the studio between takes. And I don’t even wanna be the producer. I’ll do it with Phil Spector. ‘Cause I’ve worked with him before. It took me three weeks to talk him into the fact that he could produce it … and it wasn’t gonna be co-production like “Imagine” and other things, where I never let go of the control. I just said, “You’re gonna do it. I just wanna be Ronnie Spector, or the Chiffons, or whoever it is. And I’ll just sit there and sing. I’m not even gonna come in until you got it on the tape. I’m not gonna check anything — the bass drum, or the drums like I want it … It’s gonna be like you want it. And I’ll just do singing.” And it was great at first that there he was, being the Phil Spector that I never allowed him to be. In complete control of 28 guys playing live. And to me it was … for a lot of us who hadn’t been there originally it was like seeing the Spector sessions of the early ’60s, which none of us saw. And he was fantastic.
But it got madder and madder, and it ended up breaking down, just falling apart … everybody was drunk, except for about two people, actually. It was just a drunken madhouse. And he ended up with the tapes. And I couldn’t get hold of them. He had them locked in his house. And I found out he’d secretly paid for the sessions, through Warner Brothers or something. I didn’t know anything about it, because all my sessions are just paid for by EMI or Capitol, and I never even think about it. And now not only the session’s collapsed, but I haven’t gotten any tapes … The having fun fell into having no fun. Then I was hanging around L.A. for months and months, waiting for him to come out of his hole. All these stories came out: He’s had an accident, he’s dying … You never know what to believe, ’cause he lives an incredibly surreal life, in his own head. You call him … or he won’t turn up for a session. And instead of saying he doesn’t feel like going he’d say something like, “The studio’s being burned down.” First I’d be accepting all this, then I started checking up … and there was nothing wrong with the studio …
Anyway, it was really bummy. So I ended up hanging around L.A., waiting for him to come out. Sometimes I got annoyed. Then I said, “I can’t be annoyed. I’m crazy, he’s crazy. He’s crazier than me, that’s all. Maybe this is the way it’s supposed to” — any rationalization. Then I got fed up. And I got fed up being drunk, and I got depressed. I never leave tapes in the studio. There is no unreleased work. It was driving me crazy. Then I decided — I was getting drunk with Harry Nilsson a lot — and one drunken morning I said, “Why don’t we do some work instead? Instead of just getting into trouble?? My name gets in the paper, you never get mentioned … and I get all the problems. I am the one with the immigration problems. So let’s do something constructive.” “Constructive” turned out to, “OK, let’s make an album of Harry. And that was fine by me. I didn’t want to make an album by me, I wasn’t in the mood. So, we ended up doing it. Halfway through I sobered up. Cause I had this idea — if we all lived together: Ringo, Harry Nilsson, Klaus Voorman — somehow Keith Moon got in on it. This is my brilliant idea, to have us all live together and work together. And we’d all be in tune. But it was a madhouse.
And halfway through I realized that we were committed, and this wasn’t my album, and somebody was paying RCA, and we’d better get on with it. And Harry, after the first session, comes to me, and he’s got no throat, no voice, whatsoever. I say, “What’s going on?” And he’s got no voice. I don’t know if it was psychological or what. It was a bit of that. There I’ve got this great singer with no voice, and a house full of drunken lunatics. So, I suddenly got sober in the middle of it. I’m responsible, I’m the producer, man! I’d better straighten out. So I straightened out. And I got to be the one that was straight, and they were all looking at me like that … I soon got to be the odd man out. I ended up locking myself in the bedroom, trying to keep away. So we finished that one, and then I went back and started Walls and Bridges. I was straight as a die by then. Just seeing other people drunk is enough to straighten out.
The day before we started Walls and Bridges some deal was made, and Phil sent me the tapes back, of the rock’n’roll stuff. We’d cut about eight tracks. In eight months!! I couldn’t deal with him then; I finished Walls and Bridges. And then I started playing the eight tracks — I didn’t even wanna hear them. Only about four of them were savable, the rest of them were … miles out of tune … just mad. You couldn’t use them, 28 guys playing out of tune!! I just salvaged what there was of them. And I was getting depressed. What can I do? Make an EP? They don’t have EPs in America. Put them out one by one? I wasn’t sure enough of their quality that they were gonna be singles. Some of them were alright, but I didn’t feel confident about them.
So I recorded 10 more in five days and stuck it all together — and that is it. It started out to be fun and ended up … it ended up to be fun. The 5-day sessions were great fun. We just did two or three a night and we didn’t get all into it. We all just rocked, relaxed. It started out fun, became hell, and ended up fun. There was so much buildup. Waiting for this great record. Of Lennon and Spector. And I nearly for the first time didn’t put it out. But then I let people hear it; people who had not been involved. And the record company who hadn’t been involved, they never heard of it. And they said, “It’s alright. We like it.” And friends liked it. They said it’s alright; it ain’t bad. Actually they liked some of it. And that’s the story, folks …
And right now, about your plans? ’75?
Stay alive in ’75. That’s my motto. I don’t know. I just feel pretty alright. ’74 was just hell. Just a drag. ’74 lasted about three years … A little bit of it tailed into ’75. But I just feel good now, I’m writing well. So I’m happy.
How do you do it? Do you write when you are in the mood? Is your mind always thinking about writing?
I’m always at it. The best stuff usually comes out on impulse. Or inspiration. And I hardly have to think about it. But I am always writing. In the back of my head, or if somebody says something, I’m storing it away — a line, or an idea. There is never a moment when I’m not writing, almost. Although I don’t think I’m writing. There’s a specific time when I just sit down and write.
Do you have a lot of songs stored away, or ready?
I never have a lot left over. I have some left over that I occasionally forget, and then remember them, and just use bits of them.
How do you write the lyrics?
I just scribble on a bit of paper, you know. And then leave it in a sort of pile. And when it begins to be more interesting, I venture on to the typewriter and type it out. And the typewriter adds things, too. I change it as I type it. It’s usually the third draft when I get to the typewriter. Depending on how easy it came. If it just all came it’s just like “write it and type it.” But if it’s a general song, I’ll type it a few more times. But the final version is never until we’ve recorded it. I always change a word or two, at the last minute.
You have the lyrics first, and then the music?
Usually. It’s better. I like that. The music is sort of easy. I sometimes envy Elton John. Bernie Taupin sends him a big stack of words, and he writes all the songs in five days. I could do that. But I am too egocentric to use other people’s words. That’s the problem. So it’s my own fault. I still like black music, disco music … “Shame, Shame, Shame” or “Rock Your Baby,” I’d give my eyetooth to have written that. But I never could. I am too literal to write “Rock Your Baby.” I wish I could. I’m too intellectual, even though I’m not really an intellectual. I feel as though I am a writer, really. And the music is easy. The music is just all over the place.
How about you as a father? How old is your son [Julian] now?
He is 11 now.
All I know is that you took him to Disneyworld … right?
Yeah, that was hell. Disneyland was better, the first time, in L.A., I took him there. Because I went with a gang, and there were a few of us who were flying a little. But Disneyworld — I was there on the most crowded day of the year, around Christmas or something. Seeing him is good. What we do is irrelevant. I went through a period of, “What are we gonna do?” and all that crap. It doesn’t really matter. As long as he’s around. Cause I don’t see him that often.
How is it for an 11-year-old boy to have John Lennon as a father?
It must be hell.
Does he talk about that to you?
No, because he is a Beatle fan. I mean, what do you expect?? I think he likes Paul better than me … I have the funny feeling he wishes Paul was his dad. But unfortunately he got me … It must be hard to be son of anybody. He is a bright kid and he’s into music. I didn’t encourage him, but he’s already got a band in school. But they sing rock’n’roll songs, ’cause their teacher is my age. So he teaches them “Long Tall Sally” and a couple of Beatles numbers. He likes Barry White and he likes Gilbert O’ Sullivan. He likes Queen, though I haven’t heard them yet. He turns me on to music.
I call him and he says, “Have you heard Queen?” and I say “No, what is it?” I’ve heard of them. I’ve seen the guy … the one who looks like Hitler playing a piano … Sparks? I’ve seen Sparks on American TV. So I call him and say, “Have you seen Sparks? Hitler on the piano?” and he says, “No. They are alright. But have you seen Queen?” and I say “What’s Queen?” and then he tells me. His age group is hipper to music … at 11 I was aware of music, but not too much.
How is it when you walk around in New York? I guess, you are not walking around with a bodyguard like a lot of other people?
Are you kidding? It’s not 1965, it’s ’75. People just see me. And occasionally just bother me a bit. But the most they ask for is an autograph. I don’t care, I sign an autograph. Sometimes the taxi drivers, if they are young, get a little bit … And I say, “Yes, it is me. Keep your eye on the road.” But apart from that it’s no hassle. In general I just walk around. I love it. People just say, “Oh, it’s him,” or, “It isn’t him,” but they don’t jump on me. Because I’m not in the prime of my career, or whatever they call it. I am not Elton. He can get around, but it’s pretty hard.
What about simpler days, like in Hamburg?
You know what I have written — carved — on a church in Hamburg? “John loves Cyn.” That was my first going out with her at that time. A church that overlooks … just outside the Reeperbahn. But out right in town, and it’s got a big green tower, that you can walk up in. And we all carved our names on there. You can have a look. There will be John + Cyn, Stu [Stuart Sutcliffe] + Astrid, Paul + … what the hell was the girl at that time?
Were they all English girls?
Except for Astrid with Stu. I think Stu and Astrid is up there … but I know John + Cyn is. We stuck our names up there with whoever we were hanging on then. I didn’t go out with a German girl. I ended up with an American, I never saw her again.
Did you ever meet Elvis?
Once, yeah. It’s an interesting story. We were terrified. He is our idol. We went to meet him, all the gang this day. We went in and he was sitting in front of a TV. We were in the middle of a tour, ’65 or something. He had this TV, I remember; he had an amplifier and a bass plugged into it. And watching with no sound on the TV. And playing bass and singing, and we were sort of singing along. But we were really just watching him. I always thought of it from our point of view; I never thought of it from his. And years later I heard from a friend, who is friendly with his ex-wife, that he was terrified too: a)’cause we were the new thing and b) what was gonna happen. And that he had been prancing around for hours in preparation, thinking of what to say. And we worshipped him.
It’s a strange story … I just remember sitting there and him playing the bass. And me thinking, “It’s Elvis! It’s Elvis!!” It’s actually Elvis. He looked great then, no weight on him. He looked good. And he was shy a bit. I’d like to see him in Vegas ’cause that’s where he’s supposed to be at home. But I’d be embarrassed if they said, “And there in the audience is John Lennon.” I’d hate it. I’m dying to see him.
Tell me about your therapy with Chanuk?
Part of it was not to self-control yourself, in any way. That included anything so I would just eat and eat and eat. And it was all very well for the mind, but for the body it was terrible. But the idea was, “Well, I am an artist, not a model, so fuck it. I wonder who I try to please … ? It was me I was trying to please, I found out; too late, after I’d got about 5 million pounds. And I wore the same clothes for two years. I had two things: a jumpsuit — not a fashionable one; one you get to do the plumbing in. I had two of them. And that’s all I wore for almost two years. In the middle of the Chanuk thing I got fat as hell. I was living on chocolate and Dr. Pepper … I mean, Chanuk was an idiot, but he was not bad. His therapy was good. It was just he was a pain in the neck. So I got big, and I wore the same clothes … I got used to it. I didn’t feel terrible about it, but I didn’t enjoy it. I was a slob.
Your sex life? Did it change while you were at it? Did you get conscious of being ugly?
No, because I was in the therapy with Yoko, and we both were as fat as hell. And in the dark it feels great. We both would roll around … It’s when you wanna go somewhere else, or when someone else sees you that you are conscious of it. Sometimes I don’t like dressing up. And I don’t dress up for months, or almost a year. Just wear a T-shirt and jeans. And someday I just get an urge to get dressed. And then you can’t wear anything — nothing looks good, nothing … you always look like an asshole.
Did you go shopping?
I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t buy anything. ‘Til the weight was gone. George is a lucky one. He eats like a pig — and nothing happens. Makes me mad. Ringo gets fat as a pig. I wasn’t a fat kid. I just got fat through greed. Ringo was a fat kid, so he always had problems. I got fat when we got rich and famous. And he didn’t, he watched it.
How did you keep your sanity when you got rich and famous?
I didn’t. I was born crazy, so it wasn’t that unreal. It was just like a dream. Like being Alice in Wonderland.
Is it the same thing when you look back now?
Yeah. This is a dream, right now. I am sort of aware, but it’s sort of unreal, being here.
For me, being with you, suddenly it’s not “John Lennon,” but a person, a man …
I am a guy, yeah. That is true. But how do you know unless you see somebody? I am just some guy who did … whatever. Always see me as me. I was always me, all the way through it … I love motels ’cause there is no reception area. I like hotels too. But I like motels as well. Just invisible places where you check in with a credit card, in the middle of the night, anywhere. Some guys in taxis now, old guys, they recognize the voice is English, but they don’t recognize me. They don’t know who the hell I am. They say, “Oh, you’re English! I was over there in the war…” And they go on and on … and tell me amazing life stories … They ask, “what do you do” and I say, “I’m a musician,” and they say, “Are you doing alright?” “Yeah I am … “