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John Lennon: Long Night's Journey into Day

After a turbulent year apart from Yoko, a mellower Lennon says he's better for the journey and insists there's no bad blood between him and his old bandmates

June 5, 1975
john lennon yoko
John Lennon and Yoko Ono attend the Grammy Awards in New York.
Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage

 "The time has come,"
The Walrus said,
"To talk of many things . . . "
–Lewis Carroll

Here is John Lennon: thin bare arms, a rumpled T-shirt, bare feet, delicate fingers curled around a brown-papered cigarette, reaching for a cup of steaming coffee. A pale winter sun streams into the seventh-floor apartment in the Dakota, an expensive apartment house that stands like a pile of 19th century memories on the corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West. Earlier, the Irish doorman had expressed surprise when I asked for John, because this is where Yoko Ono had lived alone for a year. The building, with its gargoyles and vaulted stone turrets, has seen a lot, and has housed everyone from Lauren Bacall and Rex Reed to Rosemary's baby. There is certainly room for Dr. Winston O'Boogie.

And now John Lennon is talking in a soft, becalmed voice, the old jagged angers gone for now, while the drilling jangle of the New York streets drifts into the room. He has been back with Yoko for three days, after a wild, painful year away, and there is a gray morning feel of hangover in the clean bright room. Against a wall, a white piano stands like an invitation to begin again; a tree is framed by one window, a plant by another, both in an attitude of Zen-like simplicity, full of spaces. I think of Harold Pinter's words: "When true silence falls we are still left with echo but are nearer nakedness." There is, of course, always echo when you are with John Lennon, an echo of the loudest, grandest, gaudiest noise made in our time. But John Lennon is more than simply a Beatle, retired or in exile, more than just an echo. At 34, he is moving into full maturity as a man and an artist and seems less afraid than ever before of nakedness.

On that first morning, and later, we talked only briefly about the Beatles. For the moment at least, talk of a reunion is only a perhaps. "What we did was what we did," he said in 1970, "but what we are is something different." The 20 Beatles albums are there; the voices are forever young. John Lennon, the young man with the guitar who went to Hamburg and played the eight-hour gigs with the others, popping pills to stay up, drawing on some tough maniac energy. "You see," he explained later, "we wanted to be bigger than Elvis. . . . "

Bigger than Elvis. Bigger than Sinatra. Bigger than God. John told everybody how the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ and for a couple of weeks that summer most of the Western world seemed to go into an uproar. Was the world really that innocent so short a time ago? No. It was just that John Lennon was explaining that the world had changed and the newspapers had to catch up; we were not going to have any more aw-shucks heroes. So we could all run in the endless emptiness of the rugby field in A Hard Day's Night, rising and falling, in slow motion or fast, but sooner or later we would have to grow up. The Beatles were custodians of childhood. They could not last.

And yet . . . and yet, it seemed when it was finally over, when they had all gone their separate ways, when Brian Epstein lay dead and Apple was some terrible mess and the lawyers and the agents and the money men had come in to paw the remains, it often seemed that John was the only one whose heart was truly broken. Cynthia Lennon said it best, when all of them were still together: "They seem to need you less than you need them." From some corner of his broken heart, John gave the most bitter interviews, full of hurt and resentment, covered over with the language of violence. In some way, he had been the engine of the group, the artistic armature driving the machine beyond its own limits, restless, easily bored, in love with speed the way Picasso was in love with speed, and possessed of a hoodlum's fanatic heart. Part of him was Pinkie from Brighton Rock; another was Christopher Marlowe dying in a barroom brawl at 29. John provided the Teddy Boy darkness behind the smiling face of the early Beatles; it is why they were not the Beach Boys. I remember going up to the Ad Lib in London with Al Aronowitz in '64, and the Beatles were there drinking hard with the Rolling Stones, the music deafening, the floor sagging under the weight of what seemed like half a thousand dancers. Paul McCartney was talking easily; Ringo was kidding and nice; George, as the stereotype told us, was quiet. But John Lennon was a son of a bitch. I felt an anger in him that was even fiercer than my own. We came close to violence, the words reduced to Irish immigrant code as anger bumped against anger, and Aronowitz had to move in and smother the anger with his easy kindness. Later I was ashamed of myself, and the memory of that night has stayed with me through all the years since as I watched John from a distance, engaged in his reckless dance with tragedy.

"One comes back again and again to the criminal," wrote Joyce Carol Oates, "who is the most important person because he alone of all people acts; he alone, by causing others to suffer and by passing through suffering himself, makes happiness possible." She wrote about Dostoevsky, but the words have always reminded me of John Lennon. We only know a small part of what really has happened to him in the years since he met Yoko Ono in 1966 at the Indica Gallery in London. The details belong to John Lennon alone. But we know how the other Beatles stood in judgment ("like a jury") on Yoko. We know how viciously the press in England sneered at them and attacked them. Yoko saw the artist in him: "John is like a frail wind. . . ." But reviewers were already saying that Yoko had ruined his art.

Christ! You know it ain't easy
You know how hard it can be
The way things are going,
They're going to crucify me.

There was no literal crucifixion, but John moved through everything else: Bed-Ins, peace posters, a phony drug arrest, the acorns planted in the plastic pots in the Coventry Cathedral. He followed Yoko into the rare air of the avant-garde, banging up against Cage and Bartok, undergoing a re-barbarization of his music as if running to some older, purer vision he had of himself, created in the loneliness of the Liverpool art school when he was convinced he was a genius. Bagism, Shagism, Rubin and Hoffman, acid and anger; the marriage in Gibraltar, 17 stitches in a car crash in Scotland, the MBE handed back to the Queen, the Plastic Ono Band, his hair long, his hair short, the neat, precise features wearing a series of masks, his life with Yoko a series of public events. Working Class Hero. Some Time in New York City. Power to the People. And ever deeper into America: into its crazed, filthy Nixonian heart and the immigration case, and that form of the Higher Paranoia that comes because you are a victim in a time when all the other victims have proof and you have none.

"All we are saying . . ."

It was a long way from Chuck Berry.

Until finally people started to write him off. His records were selling but it wasn't like the Beatles, it wasn't even like the other ex-Beatles. John was the one Who Had Gone Too Far.

A year ago, he and Yoko split up and some people cheered. We live in strange times.

And then, as if from nowhere, came Walls and Bridges. John had a big hit single with "Whatever Gets You thru the Night." And the music was wonderful: full of invention, tenderness, remorse, more personal than anything he had written before; the music clearly showing the effects of his time with Yoko. More than anything else, though, the songs were essays in autobiography, the words and music of a man trying to understand a huge part of his life. "I've been across to the other side/I've shown you everything, I've got nothing to hide. . . ."

What follows is the result of two long talks with John Lennon at the end of a difficult year. As an interview, it is far from definitive, but nothing will ever be definitive in John Lennon's life: He is the sort of artist, like the aforementioned Picasso, who is always in the process of becoming. I think of this as a kind of interim report from one of the bravest human beings I know. Oh yes: He looked happy.

What's your life like right now?
Well . . . Life: It's '75 now, isn't it? Well, I've just settled the Beatles settlement. It must've happened in the last month, took three years. (pause) And on this day that you've come here, I seem to have moved back in here. In the last three days. By the time this goes out, I don't know . . . That's a big change. Maybe that's why I'm sleeping funny. As a friend says, I went out for coffee and some papers and I didn't come back. (chuckles) Or vice versa: It's always written that way, y'know. All of us. You know, the guy walked. It's never that simple.

What did happen with you and Yoko? Who broke it up and how did you end up back together again?
Well, it's not a matter of who broke it up. It broke up. And why did we end up back together? (pompous voice) We ended up together again because it was diplomatically viable . . . come on. We got back together because we love each other.

I loved your line: "The separation didn't work out."
That's it. It didn't work out. And the reaction to the breakup was all that madness. I was like a chicken without a head.

What was the final Beatles settlement?
In a nutshell, what was arranged was that everybody get their own individual monies. Even up till this year – till the settlement was signed – all the monies were going into one pot. All individual records, mine, Ringo's, Paul's – all into one big pot. It had to go through this big machinery and then come out to us, eventually. So now, even on the old Beatle royalties, everything goes into four separate accounts instead of one big pot all the time. That's that. The rest of it was ground rules. Everybody said the Beatles've signed this paper, that means they're no longer tied in any way. That's bullshit. We still own this thing called Apple. Which, you can explain, is a bank. A bank the money goes into. But there's still the entity itself known as Beatles. The product, the name, the likeness, the Apple thing itself, which still exists, and we still have to communicate on it and make decisions on it and decide who's to run Apple and who's to do what. It's not as cut and dried as the papers said.

Do the old Beatles records still go in a pot?
No one of us can say to EMI, "Here's a new package of Beatle material." We still have to okay everything together, you know, 'cause that's the way we want it anyway.

There's still a good feeling among the guys?
Yeah, yeah. I talked to Ringo and George yesterday. I didn't talk to Paul 'cause he was asleep. George and Paul are talkin' to each other in L.A. now. There's nothin' going down between us. It's all in people's heads.

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