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John Lennon: The Last Interview

Three days before he died, John Lennon talked with 'Rolling Stone' for nine hours. For the first time, we present this extraordinary interview

December 23, 2010
rolling stone
John Lennon on the cover of 'Rolling Stone.'
Annie Leibovitz

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 tube-like, 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-frame glasses. 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!"

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