I didn't know 'cause he always looked so wiped out. I didn't know what it was. I was always treatin' him like a doctor, gettin' him to bed at night and tellin' him, you know, don't drink, don't smoke, etcetera, etcetera. Don't do any stuff, man. Not only have you got no voice but they're gonna blame me. Which they did. I think it was psychosomatic. I think he was nervous 'cause I was producing him. You know, he was an old Beatle fan when he was in the bank or something. But I was committed to the thing, the band was there and the guy had no voice, so we made the best of it. So they say, oh, he's tryin' to sound like you. The poor guy couldn't get a note out and we were lucky to get anything out of it.
Richard Perry has described you as a superb producer but maybe in too much of a hurry.
That's true. (laughs)
But supposedly, when making the Beatles records, you were painstaking and slow.
No, I was never painstaking and slow. I produced "I Am the Walrus" at the same speed I produced "Whatever Gets You thru the Night." I would be painstaking on some things, as I am now. If there's a quality that occasionally gets in the way of my talent, it's that I get bored quick unless it's done quick. But "I Am the Walrus" sounds like a wonderful production. "Strawberry Fields" sounds like a big production. But I do them as quick as I possibly can, without losing (a) the feel and (b) where I'm going. The longest track I personally spent time on was "Revolution Number Nine" which was an abstract track where I used a lot of tape loops and things like that. I still did it in one session. But I accept that criticism and I have it of myself. But I don't want to make myself so painstaking that it's boring. But I should (pause) maybe t'ink a little more. Maybe. But on the other hand I think my criticism of somebody like Richard Perry would be that he's great but he's too painstaking. It gets too slick and somewhere in between that is where I'd like to go. I've only produced two albums of me own, actually, completely on me own. And I find something out each time. I'm a learner at production, although I've been at this business so long and I used to produce my own tracks with the help of George Martin and Paul McCartney and George Harrison and everybody else. I would be in charge of me own tracks. But really to produce a thing all on me own – I've done very little. I keep finding out all the time – what I'm missing that I want to get out of it.
Is there anybody that you'd like to produce? For example, Dylan?
Dylan would be interesting because I think he made a great album in Blood on the Tracks but I'm still not keen on the backings. I think I could produce him great. And Presley. I'd like to resurrect Elvis. But I'd be so scared of him I don't know whether I could do it. But I'd like to do it. Dylan I could do, but Presley would make me nervous. But Dylan or Presley, somebody up there . . . I know what I'd do with Presley. Make a rock & roll album. Dylan doesn't need material. I'd just make him some good backings. So if you're reading this Bob, you know. . . .
Elton John has revived "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and David Bowie has recorded "Across the Universe." How do you feel about both artists?
I like and respect them both. I'm closer to Elton because I've known him longer and I've spent more time with him. Elton sort of popped in on the session for Walls and Bridges and sort of zapped in and played the piano and ended up singing "Whatever Gets You thru the Night" with me. Which was a great shot in the arm. I'd done three-quarters of it, and it was, "Now what do we do?" Should we put a camel on it or a xylophone? That sort of thing. And he came in and said, "Hey, ah'll play some piano!" Then I heard he was doing "Lucy" and I heard from a friend – 'cause he was shy – would I be there when he cut "Lucy"? Maybe play on it but just be there? So I went along. And I sang in the chorus and contributed the reggae in the middle. And then, again through a mutual friend, he asked if it got to be Number One, would I appear onstage with him, and I said sure, not thinkin' in a million years it was gonna get to Number One. Al Coury or no Al Coury, the promotion man at Capitol. And there I was. Onstage.
I read somewhere that you were very moved by the whole thing.
I was moved by it, but everybody else was in tears. I felt guilty 'cause I wasn't in tears. I just went up and did a few numbers. But the emotional thing was me and Elton together. Elton had been working in Dick James's office when we used to send our demos in and there's a long sort of relationship musically with Elton that people don't really know about. He has this sort of Beatle thing from way back. He'd take the demos home and play them and . . . well, it meant a lot to me and it meant a hell of a lot to Elton, and he was in tears. It was a great high night, a really high night and . . . Yoko and I met backstage. And somebody said, "Well, there's two people in love." That was before we got back together. But that's probably when we felt something. It was very weird. She came backstage and I didn't know she was there, 'cause if I'd known she was there I'd've been too nervous to go on, you know, I would have been terrified. She was backstage afterward, and there was just that moment when we saw each other and like, it's like in the movies, you know, when time stands still? And there was silence, everything went silent, y'know, and we were just sort of lookin' at each other and . . . oh, hello. I knew she'd sent Elton and I a flower each, and we were wearin' them onstage, but I didn't know she was there and then everybody was around us and flash flash flash. But there was that moment of silence. And somebody observed it and told me later on, after we were back together again, and said, "A friend of mine saw you backstage and thought if ever there was two in love, it's those two." And I thought, well, it's weird somebody noticed it . . . So it was a great night . . . And David just seems to be livin' in New York now, and I've got to know him a bit and we've had some good nights and he just said, "I'm gonna cut 'Across the Universe' – will you come down?" And I said okay, and went down and played the guitar. That was it. No big deal.
There seems to be a lot of generosity among the artists now.
It was around before. It's harder when you're on the make, to be generous, 'cause you're all competing. But once you're sort of up there, wherever it is . . . The rock papers love to write about the jetsetting rock stars and they dig it and we dig it in a way. The fact is that yeah, I see Mick, I see Paul, I see Elton, they're all my contemporaries and I've known the other Beatles, of course, for years, and Mick for ten years, and we've been hangin' around since Rock Dreams. And suddenly it's written up as they're here – they're there – they're everywhere bit, and it looks like we're trying to form a club. But we always were a club. We always knew each other. It just so happens that it looks more dramatic in the paper.
How do you relate to what we might call the rock stars of the Seventies? Do you think of yourself as an uncle figure, a father figure, an old gun-fighter?
It depends who they are. If it's Mick or the Old Guard as I call them, yeah, they're the Old Guard. Elton, David are the newies. I don't feel like an old uncle, dear, 'cause I'm not that much older than half of 'em, hehe. But . . . yeah, I'm interested in the new people. I'm interested in new people in America but I get a kick out of the new Britons. I remember hearing Elton John's "Your Song," heard it in America – it was one of Elton's first big hits – and remember thinking, "Great, that's the first new thing that's happened since we happened." It was a step forward. There was something about his vocals that was an improvement on all of the English vocals until then. I was pleased with it. And I was pleased with Bowie's thing and I hadn't even heard him. I just got this feeling from the image and the projections that were coming out of England of him, well, you could feel it.
Do you think of New York as home now?
Oh, yeah. I've been here, well, this is almost the fourth year. Yeah, this is the longest I've ever been away from England. I've almost lived here as long as I've lived in London. I was in London from, let's see, '64, '65, '66, '67, actually in London 'cause then it was your Beatlemania bit and we all ended up like a lot of rock & rollers end up, living an hour away from London in the country, the drivin'-in-from-the-big-estate bit. 'Cause you couldn't live in London, 'cause people just bugged the ass off you. So I've lived in New York longer than I actually lived in London.
In view of the immigration case, is one reason you've stayed here so long because if you left, they'd pull a Charlie Chaplin on you and not let you back in?
You bet. There's no way, they wouldn't let me back. Not after I've dug in so much as it is. There's no way. And . . . it's worth it to me. I can last out, without leaving here, another ten years, if that's, the way they want to play it. I'll earn enough to keep paying them. I'm really getting blackmailed. I'm paying to stay. Paying takes, on one hand, about a half-million dollars, and I've hardly worked very hard for that. I mean that's with sittin' on me arse and I've paid a half-million in taxes. So I'm paying them to attack me and keep me busy and harass me, on one hand, while on the other hand I've got to pay me own lawyers. Some people think I'm here just to make the American dollars. But I don't have to be here to make the dollars, I could earn American dollars just sittin' in a recording studio in Hong Kong. Wherever I am, the money follows me. It's gonna come out of America whether they like it or not. This is where the money comes from, in this world. It's not that the government allows people to earn money from America, the government wants people to earn money, otherwise they wouldn't've set up this damn system, right? I also give a lot of jobs to a lot of Americans.
Right. And the government doesn't choose that John Lennon makes money. The people who buy your music do that.
The implication is that John Lennon wants to come to the land of milk and honey 'cause it's easier to pick up the money, so I can pick it up directly instead of waiting for it to arrive in England. Or Brazil. Or wherever I decide to do it. I resent that implication, especially as I'm payin' through the nose. I don't mind paying taxes, either, which is strange. I never did. I don't like 'em using it for bombs and that. But I don't think I could do a Joan Baez. I don't have that kind of gut. I did never complain in England either, because, well, it's buying people teeth . . . I'm sick of gettin' sick about taxes. Taxes is what seems to to be it and there's nothin' to be done about it, unless you choose to make a crusade about it. And I'm sick of being in crusades because I always get nailed up before I'm even in the crusade. They get me in the queue while I'm readin' the pages about it: "Oh there's a crusade on, I wonder should I . . . " I mean, I get caught before I've ever even done anything about it.
You went through a period of really heavy involvement in radical causes. Lately you seem to have gone back to your art in a more direct way. What happened?
I'll tell you what happened literally. I got off the boat, only it was an aeroplane, and landed in New York, and the first people who got in touch with me was Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. It's as simple as that. It's those two famous guys from America who's callin: "Hey, yeah, what's happenin', what's go-in' on? . . . " And the next thing you know I'm doin' John Sinclair benefits and one thing and another. I'm pretty movable, as an artist, you know. They almost greeted me off the plane and the next minute I'm involved, you know.
How did all of this affect your work?
It almost ruined it, in a way. It became journalism and not poetry. And I basically feel that I'm a poet. Even if it does go ba-deedle, eedle, eedle, it, da-deeedle, deedle, it. I'm not a formalized poet, I have no education, so I have to write in the simplest forms usually. And I realized that over a period of time – and not just 'cause I met Jerry Rubin off the plane – but that was like a culmination. I realized that we were poets but we were really folk poets, and rock & roll was folk poetry – I've always felt that. Rock & roll was folk music. Then I began to take it seriously on another level, saying, "Well, I am reflecting what is going on, right?" And then I was making an effort to reflect what was going on. Well, it doesn't work like that. It doesn't work as pop music or what I want to do. It just doesn't make sense. You get into that bit where you can't talk about trees, 'cause, y'know, y'gotta talk about Corruption on 54th Street! It's nothing to do with that. It's a bit larger than that. It's the usual lesson that I've learned in me little 34 years: As soon as you've clutched onto something, you think – you're always clutchin' at straws – this is what life is all about. I think artists are lucky because the straws are always blowin' out of their hands. But the unfortunate thing is that most people find the straw hat and hang on to it, like your best friend that got the job at the bank when he was 15 and looked 28 before he was 20. "Oh, this is it! Now I know what I'm doing! Right? Down this road for the next hundred years" . . . and it ain't never that. Whether it's a religious hat or a political hat or a no-political hat: whatever hat it was, always looking for these straw hats. I think I found out it's a waste of time. There is no hat to wear. Just keep moving around and changing clothes is the best. That's all that goes on: change.
At one time I thought, well, I'm avoidin' that thing called the Age Thing, whether it hits you at 21 when you take your first job – I always keep referrin' to that because it has nothing to do, virtually, with your physical age. I mean, we all know the guys who took the jobs when we left school, the straight jobs, they all look like old guys within six weeks. You'd meet them and they'd all be lookin' like Well, I've Settled Down Now. So I never want to settle down, in that respect. I always want to be immature in that respect. But then I felt that if I keep bangin' my head on the wall it'll stop me from gettin' that kind of age in the head. By keeping creating, consciously or unconsciously, extraordinary situations which in the end you'd write about. But maybe it has nothin' to do with it. I'm still mullin' that over. Still mullin' over last year now. Maybe that was it. I was still trying to avoid somethin' but doin' it the wrong way 'round. Whether it's called age or whatever.
Is it called growing up?
I don't want to grow up but I'm sick of not growing up – that way. I'll find a different way of not growing up. There's a better way of doing it than torturing your body. And then your mind. The guilt! It's just so dumb. And it makes me furious to be dumb because I don't like dumb people. And there I am, doing the dumbest things . . . I seem to do the things that I despise the most, almost. All of that to – what? – avoid being normal.
I have this great fear of this normal thing. You know, the ones that passed their exams, the ones that went to their jobs, the ones that didn't become rock & rollers, the ones that settled for it, settled for it, settled for the deal! That's what I'm trying to avoid. But I'm sick of avoiding it with violence, you know? I've gotta do it some other way. I think I will. I think just the fact that I've realized it is a good step forward. Alive in '75 is my new motto. I've just made it up. That's the one. I've decided I want to live. I'd decided I wanted to live before, but I didn't know what it meant, really. It's taken however many years and I want to have a go at it.
Do you think much of yourself as an artist at 50 or 60?
I never see meself as not an artist. I never let meself believe that an artist can "run dry."
I've always had this vision of bein' 60 and writing children's books. I don't know why. It'd be a strange thing for a person who doesn't really have much to do with children. I've always had that feeling of giving what Wind in the Willows and Alice in Wonderland and Treasure Island gave to me at age seven and eight. The books that really opened my whole being.
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