"Double Fantasy" is the first recording you've made in five years, and, to quote from your song "The Ballad of John and Yoko," "It's good to have the both of you back."
But the illusion that I was cut off from society is a joke. I was just the same as any of the rest of you; I was working from nine to five – baking bread and changing some nappies and dealing with the baby. People keep asking, "Why did you go underground, why were you hiding?" But I wasn't hiding. I went to Singapore, South Africa, Hong Kong, Bermuda. I've been everywhere in the bloody universe. And I did fairly average things, I went to the movies.
But you weren't writing a lot of songs during those years.
I didn't write a damn thing. . . . You know, it was a big event for us to have a baby – people might forget how hard we tried to have one and how many miscarriages we had and near-death scenes for Yoko . . . and we actually had a stillborn child and a lot of problems with drugs, a lot of personal and public problems brought on by ourselves and with help from our friends. But, whatever. We put ourselves in situations that were stressful, but we managed to have the child that we tried to have for 10 years, and, my God, we weren't going to blow it. We didn't move for a year, and I took up yoga with the gray-haired lady on TV [laughs].
You can't really win. People criticized you for not writing and recording, but it's sometimes forgotten that your three previous albums – Some Time in New York City, Walls and Bridges and Rock 'N' Roll – weren't universally praised . . . especially the agitprop Some Time in New York City, which included songs like "Attica State," "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "Woman Is the Nigger of the World."
Yeah, that was the one that really upset everyone. Yoko calls it "Bertolt Brecht," but, as usual, I didn't know who he was until she took me to see Richard Foreman's production of The Threepenny Opera four years ago, and then I saw the album in that light. I was always irritated by the rushness of sound on it, but I was consciously doing it like a newspaper where you get the misprints, the times and the facts aren't quite right, and there's that you've-got-to-get-it-out-by-Friday attitude.
But I've been attacked many, many times . . . and right from the beginning: "From Me to You" was "below-par Beatles," don't forget that. That was the review in the NME [New Musical Express]. Jesus Christ, I'm sorry. Maybe it wasn't as good as "Please Please Me," I don't know, but "below par"? I'll never forget that one. And you know how bad the reviews were of our Plastic Ono albums? They shredded us! "Self-indulgent, simplistic whining" – that was the main gist. Because those albums were about ourselves, you see, and not about Ziggy Stardust or Tommy. . . . And Mind Games, they hated it.
But it's not just me. Take Mick, for instance. Mick's put out consistently good work for 20 years, and will they give him a break? Will they ever say, "Look at him, he's number one, he's 37 and he has a beautiful song, 'Emotional Rescue,' it's up there"? I enjoyed it, a lot of people enjoyed it. And God help Bruce Springsteen when they decide he's no longer God. I haven't seen him, but I've heard such good things about him. Right now his fans are happy. He's told them about being drunk and chasing girls and cars and everything, and that's about the level they enjoy. But when he gets down to facing his own success and growing older and having to produce it again and again, they'll turn on him, and I hope he survives it. All he has to do is look at me or at Mick. So it goes up and down, up and down – of course it does, but what are we, machines? What do they want from the guy? Do they want him to kill himself onstage? Do they want me and Yoko to fuck onstage or kill ourselves onstage? But when they criticized "From Me to You" as below-par Beatles, that's when I first realized you've got to keep it up, there's some sort of system where you get on the wheel and you've got to keep going around.
Watching the wheels. What are those wheels?
The whole universe is a wheel, right? Wheels going round and round. They're my own wheels, mainly, but, you know, watching meself is like watching everybody else. And I watch meself through my child too.
The thing about the child is . . . it's still hard. I'm not the greatest dad on Earth, I'm doing me best. But I'm a very irritable guy, and I get depressed. I'm up and down, up and down, and he's had to deal with that too – withdrawing from him and then giving, and withdrawing and giving. I don't know how much it will affect him in later life, but I've been physically there.
We're all selfish, but I think so-called artists are completely selfish: To put Yoko or Sean or the cat or anybody in mind other than meself – me and my ups and downs and my little tiddly problems – is a strain. Of course, there's a reward and a joy, but still . . .
So you fight against your natural selfish instincts.
Yeah, the same as taking drugs or eating bad food or not doing exercise. It's as hard as that to give to a child, it's not natural at all. Maybe it's the way we were all brought up, but it's very hard to think about somebody else, even your own child, to really think about him.
But you're thinking about him in a song like "Beautiful Boy."
Yeah, but that's easy . . . It's painting. Gauguin was stuck in fucking Tahiti, painting a big picture for his daughter – if the movie version I saw was true, right? So he's in fucking Tahiti painting a picture for her, she dies in Denmark, she didn't see him for 20 years, he has VD and is going out of his mind in Tahiti – he dies and the painting gets burned anyway, so nobody ever sees the masterpiece of his fucking life. And I'm always thinking things like that. So I write a song about the child, but it would have done better for me to spend the time I wrote the fucking song actually playing ball with him. The hardest thing for me to do is play. . . . I can do everything else.
You can't play?
Play, I can't. I try and invent things. I can draw, I can watch TV with him. I'm great at that – I can watch any garbage, as long as I don't have to move around, and I can talk and read to him and go out and take him with me for a coffee and things like that.
That's weird, because your drawings and so many of the songs you've written are really playful.
That probably came from Paul more than from me.
What about "Good Morning Good Morning"? That's one of yours. It's a great song – an older guy roaming aimlessly around town after work, who doesn't want to go home and has nothing to say, but it's OK.
Oh, that was just an exercise. I only had about a week to write songs for Pepper. "Good Morning Good Morning" was a Kellogg's Corn Flakes ad at the time – that's how desperate I was for a song.
What I realized when I read "Lennon Remembers" [John's legendary 1970 interview with Jann Wenner] or the new Playboy interview [conducted by David Sheff September 8th-28th, 1980] was that I'm always complaining about how hard it is to write or how much I suffer when I'm writing – that almost every song I've ever written has been absolute torture.
Most of them were torture?
Absolutely. I always think there's nothing there, it's shit, it's no good, it's not coming out, this is garbage ... and even if it does come out, I think, "What the hell is it anyway?"
That sounds a bit constipated, in a way.
It's just stupid. I just think, "That was tough. Jesus, I was in a bad way then" [laughs] ... except for the 10 or so songs the gods give you and that come out of nowhere.
Did the songs you wrote for Double Fantasy come easier?
Not really. It actually took me five years for them to come out. Constipated for five years, and then diarrhea for three weeks [laughs]! The physical writing was within a three-week period. There's a Zen story that Yoko once told me – and I think I might have told it in "Lennon Remembers" or "Playboy Forgets": A king sent his messenger to an artist to request a painting, he paid the artist the money, and the painter said, "OK, come back." So a year goes by, and the messenger comes back and tells him, "The king's waiting for his painting," and the painter says, "Oh, hold on," and whips it off right in front of him and says, "Here." And the messenger says, "What's this? The king paid you 20,000 bucks for this shit, and you knock it off in five minutes?" And the painter replies, "Yeah, but I spent 10 years thinking about it." And there's no way I could have written the Double Fantasy songs without those five years.
At this point, Yoko comes into the room to announce that someone who says he's George Harrison just telephoned and wanted to come over. "Of course it's not George," John mutters. "He was probably on acid," says Yoko. "I said to him, 'Can I ask you some questions?' 'No,' the guy said, 'I can't be bothered with all that, Yoko.' So I hung up and made a call to George's number and found out that George was, in fact, sleeping." I start to laugh, and John says, "We laugh at it too, you know. Jesus Christ. If it wasn't a laugh, we'd go crazy, wouldn't we?"
Yoko takes this opportunity to hand John a recent copy of Japanese Playboy that features an article about them. "It's nice of them to show just the back of the baby," John remarks about one of the photos. "I don't want pictures of Sean going around. Most stars, as soon as they have a baby, put it on the front page: 'I've just had a baby!' I'm not interested in that. It's dangerous. You know, we make no pretense of being average Tom, Dicks or Harry – we make no pretense of living in a small cottage or of trying to make our child into an average child. I tried that game with my son Julian, sending him to a comprehensive working-class school, mixing with the people, but the people spat and shit on him because he was famous, as people are wont to do. So his mother had to finally turn around and tell me to piss off: 'I'm sending him to a private school, the kid is suffering here.'"
John now thumbs through Playboy. "Take a look at these Japanese tits in the front half of the magazine," he says, as he generously shares the issue with me. "They're beautiful. They're not allowed to show pussy, only breasts. Before the Christians got there, the Japanese were absolutely free sexually, like the Tahitians – not in an immoral way; it was natural to them. "And it's the Christians that changed that?" I asked. "Yeah," John replied, "the Christians don't let you have cock and balls. It's the Judeo-Christians, just to get you in it too." "You're right," I confess, "it's all my fault!" "Never mind, never mind," John says, patting me on the shoulder. "But we'd better get on with this. Ask away!"
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