John Lennon: The Rolling Stone Interview

The Beatle opens up about his songwriting process, Bob Dylan, India, and that infamous "Two Virgins" cover

November 23, 1968
John Lennon
John Lennon and Yoko Ono on the cover of Rolling Stone
John Lennon

The interview took place at John Lennon's and Yoko Ono's temporary basement flat in London – a flat where Jimi Hendrix, Ringo Starr, and William Burroughs, among others, have stayed. But the flat seemed as much John's and Yoko's as the Indian incense which took over the living room. The walls were covered with photos of John, of Yoko, a giant Sgt. Pepper ensign, Richard Chamberlain's poster collage of news clippings of the Stones bust, the Time magazine cover of the Beatles.

We arrived at five on the afternoon of September 17, said hello to Robert Fraser, who arranged the interview, to John and Yoko, sitting together, looking "tres bien ensemble." We sat down around a simple wooden table, covered with magazines, newspapers, sketch paper, boxes, drawings, a beaded necklace shaped in the form of a pentangle.

John said he had to be at a recording session in a half hour, so we talked for a while about John's show at the Fraser gallery. John wrote some reminders to himself in the wonderfully intense and absorbed way that a kid has painting the sun for the first time. As a philosopher once remarked: "Were art to redeem man, it could do so only by saving him from the seriousness of life and restoring him to an unexpected boyishness."

When we arrived the next afternoon, Sept. 18, John was walking around the room, humming what sounded like "Hold Me Tight"– just singing the song to the air. Old '50's forty-fives were scattered about the floor, and John played Rosie and the Originals' version of "Give Me Love." We talked about the lyrics of Gene Vincent's "Woman Love." In spite of having slept only two hours, John asked us to sit down on the floor and begin the interview.

Any suspicions that John would be ornery, mean, cruel, or brutish – feelings attributed to him and imagined by press reports and various paranoic personalities – never arose even for the purpose of being pressed down. As John said simply about the interview: "There's nothing more fun than talking about your own songs and your own records. I mean you can't help it, it's your bit, really. We talk about them together. Remember that."

It's impossible to recapture in print John's inflections and pronunciations of words like "ahppens," for example. Wish you had been there.

–Jonathan Cott

I've listed a group of songs that I associate with you, in terms of what you are or what you were, songs that struck me as embodying you a little bit: "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," "Strawberry Fields," "It's Only Love," "She Said She Said," "Lucy in the Sky," "I'm Only Sleeping," "Run for Your Life," "I Am the Walrus," "All You Need Is Love," "Rain," "Girl."
Ah, yeh! I agree with some of them, you see. Things like "Hide Your Love Away," right, I'd just discovered Dylan really. "It's Only Love" – I was always ashamed of that 'cause of the abominable lyrics you know – they're probably all right. George just came and talked about it last night. He said, remember we always used to cringe when the guitar bit came on, when we did that blamm blam blam-blam-blam, we liked it but there was something wrong.

And "She Said She Said" – yeh, I dug that cause I was going through a bad time writing then and so I couldn't hear it, but then I heard it and so I dug it. "Lucy in the Sky," all right. "Sleeping," it's like that. "Run for Your Life" I always hated, you know. "Walrus," yeah, "Girl," yeah, "All You Need Is Love" – hah, you know that's sort of natural.

The ones that really meant something to me – look, I don't know about "Hide Your Love Away," that's so long ago – probably "Strawberry Fields," "She Said," "Walrus," "Rain," "Girl," there are just one or two others, "Day Tripper," "Paperback Writer," even. "Ticket to Ride" was one more, I remember that. It was a definite sort of change . . . "Norwegian Wood" – that was the sitar bit. Definitely, I consider them moods or moments.

I feel you in these songs more than in a song like "Michelle," for example.
Yeh, right, they're me touch. Well the thing is, I don't know how they'd work out if I recorded them with other people, it would be entirely different. But it's my music with my band when it's me singing it, and it's Paul's music with his band. Sometimes it's halvey-halvey you know. When we write them together, they're together. But I'm not proud of all of my songs. "Walrus," "Strawberry Fields," you know – I'll sort of stick my name on them, the others are a bit . . . I think they're more powerful.

I heard that "Strawberry Fields" was written when you were sitting on a beach alone.
Yeh, in Spain, filming How I Won the War. I was going through a big scene about song writing again you know – I seem to go through it now and then, and it took me a long time to write it. See, I was writing all bits and bits. I wanted the lyrics to be like conversation. It didn't work, that one verse was sort of ludicrous really, I just wanted it to be like [John sing-talks] "we're talking and I just happen to be singing" – like that. And it was very quiet. But it was written in this big Spanish house, part of it, and then finished on the beach. It was really romantic – singing it too – I don't know who was there.

500 Greatest Songs of All Time: The Beatles, 'Strawberry Fields Forever'

Don't you find something special about the song?
Oh yes, definitely yes. It was a big scene, like I'd say "Ticket to Ride" was a big scene, "Rain" was, not so much, but because of the backwards, you know. That was the time I discovered backwards accidentally.

It was the first time I discovered it. On the end of "Rain" you hear me singing it backwards. We'd done the main thing at EMI and the habit was then to take the songs home and see what you thought a little extra gimmick or what the guitar piece would be.

So I got home about five in the morning, stoned out of me head, I staggered up to me tape recorder and I put it on, but it came out backwards, and I was in a trance in the earphones, what is it – what is it? It's too much, you know, and I really wanted the whole song backwards almost, and that was it. So we tagged it on the end. I just happened to have the tape the wrong way round, it just came out backwards, it just blew me mind. The voice sounds like old Indian.

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