John Lennon, 1965. © Corbis
Today John lennon would have turned 69 years old, had he not been so brutally taken away back in 1980. It doesn’t seem possible that he’s been gone nearly 30 years, anymore than it seems possible that, had he lived, the Beatles’ founding member would be flirting with 70. I put it down to the timelessness of the music and the message—the music only gets younger the more years fly by (if you’ve heard the remasters you’ll know what I mean) and the message only becomes more relevant (if you’ve read the news today oh boy, you’ll definitely know what I mean).
The LA Times former rock music critic, Rob Hilbrun, has a book coming out next week called Corn Flakes with John Lennon (and Other Tales From a Rock ‘n’ Roll Life). Fittingly, today the Times published an excerpt from the book online providing an intriguing glimpse at the man that Hilbrun came to know as his friend, John Lennon:
“As soon as I started working at the Los Angeles Times, people warned me not to get too close to artists because it could make it difficult to review their work and you can never really tell if the “friendship” is genuine. Even so, I felt there was much value in getting to know some of the most important artists beyond what you can glean in the hour or so you have to interview them. The relationship with Lennon — and it never approached anything like a daily or even weekly tie — came about naturally. I liked him and enjoyed his company.
John at the Peppermint Lounge, 1964, with Ringo and wife Cynthia. © Corbis
John came to town in late 1973 to record an oldies album with Phil Spector and to promote his new solo album, “Mind Games,” which he had produced himself. I interviewed him at the Bel-Air home of record producer Lou Adler, a chief force behind the Monterey Pop festival. May Pang, who introduced herself as John’s personal assistant, answered the door and took me to the patio where John was waiting. He was wearing jeans and a sweater vest over his shirt and he walked toward me enthusiastically. “Well, hello at last,” he said with a warm smile.
“Phil tells me you’re a big Elvis fan,” he said.
We ended up spending so much time talking about Elvis and other favorites from the 1950s that I was afraid we weren’t going to get to the Beatles and his solo career. I was particularly interested in his thoughts on his “Plastic Ono Band” album (from 1970); the songs struck me as being so personal.
“I always took the songs personally, whether it was ‘In My Life’ or ‘Help,’ ” he said. “To me, I always wrote about myself. Very few of the completely Lennon songs weren’t in the first person. I’m a first-person journalist. I find it hard, though I occasionally do it, to write about, you know, ‘Freddie went up the mountain and Freddie came back.’ And even that is really about you.”
John said he actually preferred “Plastic Ono Band” to its follow-up, “Imagine,” even though the latter sold more copies and got generally better reviews. “I was a bit surprised by the reaction to ‘Mother,’ ” he said, referring to “Plastic Ono Band” by his own title for it. “I thought, ‘Can’t they see how nice it is?’ ” So, John said, he went back into the studio and wrote new songs about many of the same themes, only this time he put on some strings and other production touches that made the message more accessible. That’s why, he said, he privately called the “Imagine” album “Mother With Chocolate.”
John and his Epiphone casino, 1965
The interview didn’t run in The Times until the album “Mind Games” was actually in the stores several weeks later. In the meantime, Phil invited me to one of the sessions for the oldies project. They had been going on for some weeks and the word was that they were pretty raucous, even drunken affairs. On the night I stopped by the studio, the liquor flowed freely. John, a gob of cake in his hand, chased Phil around the control booth while those around them danced to John’s just-recorded version of an early Elvis recording, “Just Because.”
But John wasn’t all playfulness. He had sharp words for one of the studio employees and insulted a record company guest. This wild John was a lot different from the charming guy I had met at Adler’s house, and I hoped the rude, drunken behavior was an aberration. But I kept hearing reports, including one about Phil firing a pistol one night and others about a tipsy John out on the town with his buddies and how he sometimes drank as much as a bottle of vodka a day. The first time I saw him this way away from the studio was at the Troubadour, where I was reviewing the opening of R&B singer Ann Peebles, who had a hit single, “I Can’t Stand the Rain.”
I didn’t know John was in the club until he was in the middle of a big commotion. He was so drunk that he had wrapped a Kotex sanitary napkin around his head. When one of the waitresses tried to quiet him, he shouted, “Don’t you know who I am?” Her answer was repeated the next day in all the record company offices and later in lots of magazine articles: “To me, you’re just some ass — with a Kotex on his head.” A bouncer escorted John and his party out onto Santa Monica Boulevard.
Eventually, John returned to New York with May and spent weeks trying unsuccessfully to get Phil to give him the sessions’ master tapes so he could finish the album himself. By then, I was beginning to hear reports about a strain between John and Yoko Ono and the suggestion that his relationship with May was more than simply professional. John was in a terrific mood when he returned from New York a few months later. He was only supposed to be in town for a few days, but the trip was extended and May phoned one day to say that John would like me to join him for dinner. When I got to the hotel, I figured he’d have a limo waiting downstairs. But John, wearing blue jeans and a black T-shirt, suggested that I drive, and we were soon off to a nearby Chinese restaurant, where we spent a couple of hours talking about Elvis, naturally.
Back at the hotel, Around 11:30, John turned on Johnny Carson’s TV show and ordered corn flakes and cream from room service. He turned the sound down on the TV and stirred the corn flakes and cream with his spoon in an almost ritualistic fashion before taking a bite.
In the studio during Sgt. Pepper, 1967
I didn’t think much of it until the same thing happened the next time we returned to the hotel after dinner. This time I asked what was up with the corn flakes.
As a child in Liverpool during World War II, he explained, you could never get cream, so it was a special treat. He took another bite and gave an exaggerated sigh to underscore just how sweet it tasted.
The mention of Liverpool made John nostalgic. I already knew a little about John’s early days, but it was fascinating hearing him tell the story. John was born in 1940 — a year after me — and he was raised by his Aunt Mimi after his parents broke up when he was about 5. His mother, Julia, started seeing another man who had children of his own and didn’t want another one around. John loved Mimi dearly, but he also longed for his mother, who lived only a few miles away.
During his teens, just around the time he had formed the Quarrymen skiffle group, he said he had begun seeing more of his mother and had gotten the feeling she was trying to make up for all the years of her absence from his life. She was especially excited about the band, and John treasured their time together. But his mother was hit and killed by a motorist while walking to a bus stop. His mother had been taken from him twice. He was 17.
John in 1964-- a prisoner of his own fame.
John had thought that rock ‘n’ roll fame would make everything right in his life, but even after his success he continued to search for someone or something to make his world seem complete. That was the theme of the “Plastic Ono Band” album. The very first song, “Mother,” started with him screaming, “Mother, you had me, but I never had you / I wanted you, but you didn’t want me.” It continued, “Father, you left me, but I never left you / I needed you, but you didn’t need me.”
He found that missing foundation in Yoko, which is why she became more important to him than even the Beatles. In “God,” a later song on the record, he again screams, “I don’t believe in Elvis. I don’t believe in Zimmerman [ Bob Dylan]. I don’t believe in Beatles. I just believe in me. Yoko and me. That’s reality.”
As he spoke, I could understand why John felt so adrift. Until that night, I had assumed he had separated from Yoko and was involved in a new relationship with May, but he said that Yoko had pretty much demanded a break in their relationship. He was clearly still in love with her. Without her, he had no shield against the pressures of the rock ‘n’ roll world and his own depression.
John & Yoko
In the fall of 1980, John and Yoko were finishing up their new album, “Double Fantasy,” and I headed to New York for John’s first newspaper interview in five years. This was when John raced into Yoko’s office at the Dakota with a copy of Donna Summer’s “The Wanderer.”
He had returned to New York after the “lost weekend” period and spent the next five years rebuilding his life with Yoko and helping to raise their son, Sean. On this day, he looked nice and trim in jeans, a jean jacket and a white T-shirt. He was maybe 25 pounds slimmer than the last time I’d seen him. “It’s Mother’s macrobiotic diet,” he said later about his weight, employing his nickname for Yoko. “She makes sure I stay on it.”
By the time we headed to the recording studio, it was nearly dark. As the limo pulled up to the studio’s dimly lit entrance, I could see the outlines of a couple dozen fans in the shadows. They raced toward the car as soon as the driver opened John’s door. Flashbulbs went off with blinding speed. Without a bodyguard, John was helpless, and I later asked if he didn’t worry about his safety. “They don’t mean any harm,” he replied. “Besides, what can you do? You can’t spend all your life hiding from people. You’ve got to get out and live some, don’t you?”