John Lennon: The Rolling Stone Interview

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There have been a lot of philosophical analyses written about your songs, "Strawberry Fields" in particular . . .
Well, they can take them apart. They can take anything apart. I mean I hit it on all levels, you know. We write lyrics, and I write lyrics that you don't realize what they mean till after. Especially some of the better songs or some of the more flowing ones, like "Walrus." The whole first verse was written without any knowledge. And "Tomorrow Never Knows" – I didn't know what I was saying, and you just find out later, that's why these people are good on them. I know that when there are some lyrics I dig I know that somewhere people will be looking at them, and with the rest of the songs it doesn't matter cause they work on all levels. Anything. I don't mind what they do. And I dig the people that notice that I have a sort of strange rhythm scene, because I've never been able to keep rhythm on the stage. I always used to get lost. It's me double off-beats.

In "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," what about an image like "newspaper taxis"?
That was a Paul line, I think. In a lot of them you'll get so far. You've lumbered yourself with a set of images and it's an effort to keep it up.

Pop analysts are often trying to read something into songs that isn't there.
It is there. It's like abstract art really. It's just the same really. It's just that when you have to think about it to write it, it just means that you labored at it. But when you just say it, man, you know you're saying it, it's a continuous flow. The same as when you're recording or just playing, you come out of a thing and you know "I've been there" and it was nothing, it was just pure, and that's what we're looking for all the time, really.

What is Strawberry Fields?
It's a name, it's a nice name. When I was writing "In My Life" – I was trying "Penny Lane" at that time – we were trying to write about Liverpool, and I just listed all the nice sounding names just arbitrarily. Strawberry Fields was a place near us that happened to be a Salvation Army home. But Strawberry Fields – I mean I have visions of Strawberry Fields. And there was Penny Lane, the Cast Iron Shore which I've just got in some song now, and they were just good names, just groovy names. Just good sounding. Because Strawberry Fields is anywhere you want to go. Actually I've just written a song which goes "I told you about Strawberry Fields/And you heard about the Walrus and me/Told you about the Fool on the Hill . . . ," it's amazing.

How much do you think the songs go towards building up a myth of a state of mind?
I don't know. I mean we got a bit pretentious. Like everybody we had our phase and now it's a little change over to trying to be more natural, less "newspaper taxis," say. I mean we're just changing. I don't know what we're doing at all, I just write them. Really, I just like rock and roll. I mean these [pointing to a pile of '50's records] are the records I dug then, I dig them now and I'm still trying to reproduce "Some Other Guy" sometimes or "Be-Bop-A-Lula," whatever it is, it's the same bit for me, it's really just the sound.

What's the flip side of "Angel Baby" called – the song you played before we started the interview?
"Give Me Love" by Rosie and the Originals. An amazing record. It's one of the greatest strange records, it's all just out of beat and everybody misses it – they knocked off the B side in ten minutes. I talk Yoko's leg off telling her this is it, this is what it's all about. There's just one line in this Miracles' record – "I've Been Good to You" – where it goes "You got me Cry-y-y-yeying" – no breath, a beautiful little piece, I always love to hear it. I think he's [Smokey Robinson] got the most perfect voice, you know, I just think the group's got into such a samey groove that it spoils it really.

In "Penny Lane," you have the lines: "A pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray/And though she thinks she's in a play/She is anyway." Aside from the little kid's quality of these lines, isn't this what you've been saying recently?
Paul had the main bit of that, but I remember working on those lines. It's always been a bit of "She's in a play, she is anyway heh heh" because you're saying that again and again, it's a game, man, it's a game, but because you mean it, it's all right, it's ok. There's all that in it. To us it's just Penny Lane cause we lived there.

The Beatles seem to be one of the only groups who ever made a distinction between friends and lovers. For instance, there's the "baby" who can drive your car. But when it comes to "We Can Work it Out," you talk about "my friend." In most other groups' songs, calling someone "baby" is a bit demeaning compared to your distinction.
Yeh, I don't know why. It's Paul's bit that – "Buy you a diamond ring, my friend" – it's an alternative to baby. You can take it logically the way you took it. See, I don't know really. Yours is as true a way of looking at it as any other way. In "Baby, Your'e a Rich Man" the point was, stop moaning, you're a rich man and we're all rich men, heh heh, baby!

It's a bit of a mocking song, then?
Well they all get like that a bit, cause there is all that in it, that's the point. As we write them or as we sing them that happens you know. And in different takes just the inclination of your voice will change the meaning of the lyrics, and that's why it's after we've done them that we really see what they are. By that time the weight's on it.

I once heard a twelve year old girl singing along with "All You Need Is Love," and she substituted the word "hate" for "love" as she sang.
Could be right, you know. Well, it's like the old Peter Sellers gag – "If only I had the Latin" – meaning, if I had the breaks, you know, all you need is love. I just meant it, I felt it, that's what you needed. Of course when I'm down it doesn't work at all, but I believe it in the songs. That's the thing about writing the songs – you say, well, all you need is love, there you go, and it's a bit of a statement, but you've got to do it. You can't live up to it, that's the thing.

I've felt your other mood recently: "Here I stand head in hand" in "Hide Your Love Away" and "When I was a boy, everything was right" in "She Said She said."
Yeh, right. That was pure. That was what I meant alright. You see when I wrote that I had the "She said she said," but it was just meaning nothing, it was just vaguely to do with someone that had said something like he knew what it was like to be dead and then it was just a sound. And then I wanted a middle-eight. The beginning had been around for days and days and so I wrote the first thing that came into my head and it was "When I was a boy," in a different beat, but it was real because it just happened.

It's funny, because while we're recording we're all aware and listening to our old records and we say, we'll do one like "The Word" – make it like that – it never does turn out like that, but we're always comparing and talking about the old albums – just checking up, what is it? like swatting up for the exam – just listening to everything.

Yet people think that you're trying to get away from the old records.
But I'd like to make a record like "Some Other Guy." I haven't done one that satisfies me as much as that satisfied me. Or "Be-Bop-A-Lula" or "Heartbreak Hotel" or "Good Golly, Miss Molly" or "Whole Lot of Shakin." I'm not being modest. I mean we're still trying it. We sit there in the studio and we say, how did it go, how did it go? come on, let's do that. Like what Fats Domino has done with "Lady Madonna" – "See how they ruhhnnn."

Are there any other versions of your songs you like?
Well, Ray Charles' version of "Yesterday"– that's beautiful. And "Eleanor Rigby" is a groove. I just dig the strings on that. Like Thirties strings. Jose Feliciano does great things to "Help" and "Day Tripper."

"Got to Get You Into My Life" – sure, we were doing our Tamla Motown bit. You see we're influenced by whatever's going. Even if we're not influenced, we're all going that way at a certain time. If we played a Stones record now – and a Beatles record – and we've been way apart – you'd find a lot of similarities. We're all heavy. Just heavy. How did we ever do anything light? We did country music early because that was Ringo's bit. His song on the new album just happens to be country and we got this old fiddler in. But we weren't aware of the country kick coming in. But there we go, so it's all right. On the new album we've done a blues.

What we're trying to do is rock and roll, with less of your philosorock is what we're saying to ourselves and get on with rocking because rockers is what we really are. You can give me a guitar, stand me up in front of a few people. Even in the studio if I'm getting into it I'm just doing my old bit, you know, not quite doing Elvis Legs, but doing my equivalent – it's just natural. Everybody says we must do this and that, but our thing is just rocking – you know, the usual gig. That's what this new record is about. Definitely rocking. What we were doing on Pepper was rocking – and not rocking.

"A Day in the Life Of" – that was something. I dug it. It was a good piece of work between Paul and me. I had the "I read the news today" bit, and it turned Paul on, because now and then we really turn each other on with a bit of song, and he just said "yeah" – bang bang, like that. It just sort of happened beautifully, and we arranged it and rehearsed it, which we don't often do, the afternoon before. So we all knew what we were playing, we all got into it. It was a real groove, the whole scene on that one. Paul sang half of it and I sang half. I needed a middle-eight for it, but that would have been forcing it, all the rest had come out smooth, flowing, no trouble, and to write a middle-eight would have been to write a middle-eight, but instead Paul already had one there. It's a bit of a 2001, you know.

A critic has written about "A Day in the Life Of" as a kind of miniature "Waste Land."
Miniature what? 

Eliot's "The Waste Land."
I don't know that. Not very hip on me culture you know.

So you don't see that song as a peak?
No, I don't. I think whatever we're doing now is past what we were doing then. Even if there is no song comparable to it, say. It's just not the scene now. It was only a song and it turned out well and it was a groove – it did do all that – but there's plenty more.

Songs like "Good Morning, Good Morning" and "Penny Lane" convey a child's feeling of the world.
We write about our past. "Good Morning, Good Morning" I was never proud of it. I just knocked it off to do a song. But it was writing about my past so it does get the kids because it was me at school, my whole bit. The same with "Penny Lane." We really got into the groove of imagining Penny Lane – the bank as there, and that was where the tram sheds were and people waiting and the inspector stood there, the fire engines were down there. It was just re-living childhood.

You really had a place where you grew up.
Oh, yeah. Didn't you?

Well, Manhattan isn't Liverpool.
Well, you could write about your local bus station.

In Manhattan?
Sure, why not? Everywhere is somewhere.

In "Hey, Jude," as in one of your first songs, "She Loves You," you're singing to someone else and yet, you might as well be singing to yourself. Do you find that as well?
Oh, yeah. Well when Paul first sang "Hey, Jude" to me – or played me the little tape he'd made of it – I took it very personally. Ah, it's me! I said. It's me. He says, no it's me. I said "Check, we're going through the same bit." So we all are. Whoever is going through that bit with us is going through it, that's the groove.

Was "Hey, Jude" influenced – perhaps unconsciously – by mantras?
No, it's nothing conscious – you mean the repeat at the end? I never thought of that, but it's all valid, you see. I mean we'd just come back from India. But I always related it to some early Drifters song or "You'd Better Move On" or Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home To Me" or "Send Me Some Loving" – it has that feeling.

Does "Tell Me What You See" have the same singing-to-myself feeling to you?
Not consciously, no. I can't remember, it's way back. As soon as you mention that I just remember running down the stairs at EMI and we went into the middle-eight, because there wasn't one – that's the picture I get. I'd have to hear it to get the rest of it. Otherwise it's just an image of the day I worked on it, what I went through, what I was going through at the time.

Probably paranoia.
It usually is the case – lost paranoias.

In the Magical Mystery Tour theme song you say "The Magical Mystery Tour is waiting to take you away." In "Sgt. Pepper" you sing "We'd like to take you home with us." How do you relate this embracing, come-sit-on-my-lawn feeling in the songs with your need for everyday privacy?
I take a narrower concept of it, like whoever was around at the time wanting to talk to them talked to me, but of course it does have that wider aspect to it. The concept is very good and I went through it and said, "Well, ok, let them sit on my lawn." But of course it doesn't work. People climbed in the house and smashed things up, and then you think, "That's no good, that doesn't work." So actually you're saying, "don't talk to me," really.

We're all trying to say nice things like that, but most of the time we can't make it – 90% of the time – and the odd time we do make it, when we do it, together as people. You can say it in a song: "Well, whatever I did say to you that day about getting out of the garden, part of me said that, but really in my heart of hearts I'd like to have it right and talk to you and communicate." Unfortunately we're human, you know – it doesn't seem to work.

How do you feel now about your first couple of albums?
Depends what track it is. I was listening to the very first albums a few weeks back, and it's embarrassing. It was embarrassing then because we wanted to be like this. We knew what we wanted to be, but we didn't know how to do it, in the studio. We didn't have the knowledeg or experience. But still some of the album is sweet, it's all right.

Wasn't it about the time of Rubber Soul that you moved away from the old records to something quite different?
Yes, yes, we got involved completely in ourselves then. I think it was Rubber Soul when we did all our own numbers. Something just happened. We controlled it a bit, whatever it was we were putting over, we just tried to control it a bit.

Do you feel free to put anything in a song?
Yes. In the early days I'd – well, we all did – we'd take things out for being banal, cliches, even chords we wouldn't use because we thought they were cliches. And even just this year there's been a great release for all of us, going right back to the basics, like on "Revolution" I'm playing the guitar and I haven't improved since I was last playing. But I dug it. It sounds the way I wanted it to sound.

It's a pity I can't do better – the fingering, you know – but I couldn't have done that last year, I'd have been too paranoic. I couldn't play dddddddddddd, George must play or somebody better. My playing has probably improved a little bit on this session because I've been playing a little. I was aways the rhythm guy anyway, but I always just fiddled about in the background, I didn't actually want to play rhythm. We all sort of wanted to be lead – as in most groups – but it's a groove now, and so are the cliches. We've gone past those days when we wouldn't have used words because they didn't make sense, or what we thought was sense.

But of course Dylan taught us a lot in this respect.

Another thing is, I used to write a book or stories on one hand and write songs on the other. And I'd be writing completely free form in a book or just on a bit of paper, but when I'd start to write a song I'd be thinking dee duh dee duh do doo do de do de doo. And it took Dylan and all that was going on then to say, oh, come on now, that's the same bit, I'm just singing the words.

With "I Am A Walrus," I had "I am here as you are here as we are all together." I had just these two lines on the typewriter, and then about two weeks later I ran through and wrote another two lines, and then when I saw something after about four lines I just knocked the rest of it off. Then I had the whole verse or verse and a half and then sang it. I had this idea of doing a song that was a police siren, but it didn't work in the end [sings like a siren]: "I-am-here-as-you-are-here-as . . ." You couldn't really sing the police siren.

 Do you write your music with instruments or in your head?
On piano or guitar. Most of this session has been written on guitar cause we were in India writing and only had our guitars there. They have a different feel about them. I missed the piano a bit because you just write differently. My piano playing is even worse than me guitar. I hardly know what the chords are, so it's good to have a slightly limited palette, heh heh.

What did you think of Dylan's "version" of "Norwegian Wood"? ("Fourth time around").
I was very paranoid about that. I remember he played it to me when he was in London. He said, what do you think? I said, I don't like it. I didn't like it. I was very paranoid. I just didn't like what I felt I was feeling – I thought it was an out and out skit, you know, but it wasn't. It was great. I mean he wasn't playing any tricks on me. I was just going through the bit.

How do you feel about his new music?
It's fine, you know. I'm just a bit bored with the backing, that's all. But he's right what he's doing because he usually is. I've only heard the "Landlord" album. I haven't heard the acetate, I keep hearing about it. That's something else, you know.

Is there anybody else you've gotten something from musically?
Oh millions. All those I mentioned before – Little Richard, Presley.

Anyone contemporary?
Are they dead? Well, nobody sustains it. I've been buzzed by the Stones and other groups, but none of them can sustain the buzz for me continually through a whole album or through three singles even.

You and Dylan are often thought of together in some way.
Yeh? Yeh, well we were for a bit, but I couldn't make it. Too paranoic. I always saw him when he was in London. He first turned us on in New York actually. He thought "I Want To Hold Your Hand" – when it goes "I can't hide" – he thought we were singing "I get high" – so he turns up with Al Aronowitz and turns us on, and we had the biggest laugh all night – forever. Fantastic. We've got a lot to thank him for.

Do you ever see him anymore?
No, cause he's living his cozy little life, doing that bit. If I was in New York, he'd be the person I'd most like to see. I've grown up enough to communicate with him. Both of us were always uptight, you know, and of course I wouldn't know whether he was uptight, because I was so uptight, and then when he wasn't uptight, I was – all that bit. But we just sat it out because we just liked being together.

What about the new desire to return to a more natural environment? Dylan's return to country music?
Dylan broke his neck and we went to India. Everybody did their bit. And now we're all just coming out, coming out of a shell, in a new way, kind of saying: remember what it was like to play.

Do you feel better now?
Yes . . . And worse.

What do you feel about India now?
I've got no regrets at all, cause it was a groove and I had some great experiences, meditating eight hours a day – some amazing things, some amazing trips – it was great. And I still meditate off and on. George is doing it regularly. And I believe implicitly in the whole bit. It's just that it's difficult to continue it. I lost the rosy glasses. And I'm like that, I'm very idealistic. So I can't really manage my exercises when I've lost that. I mean I don't want to be a boxer so much. It's just that a few things happened, or didn't happen, I don't know, but something happened. It was sort of like a [click] and we just left and I don't know what went on, it's too near – I don't really know what happened.

You just showed me what might be the front and back album photos for the record you're putting out of the music you and Yoko composed for your film Two Virgins. The photos have the simplicity of a daguerreotype . . . .
Well, that's because I took it, I'm a ham photographer, you know. It's me Nikon what I was given by a commercially minded Japanese when we were in Japan, along with me Pentax, me Canon, me boom-boom and all the others. So I just set it up and did it.

For the cover, there's a photo of you and Yoko standing naked facing the camera. And on the backside are your backsides. At your "For Yoko" show at the Fraser Gallery you just said, "You are here," showed some things that were there, and then people got the horrors. What do you think they're going to think of the cover?
Well, we've got that to come. The thing is, I started it with a pure . . . it was the truth, and it was only after I'd got into it and done it and looked at it that I'd realized what kind of scene I was going to create. And then suddenly there it was, and then suddenly you show it to people and then you know what the world's going to do to you, or try to do. But you have no knowledge of it when you conceive it or make it.

Originally, I was going to record Yoko, and I thought that the best picture of her for an album would be her naked. I was just going to record her as an artist, we were only on those kind of terms then. So after that, when we got together it just seemed natural for us, if we made an album together, for both of us to be naked.

Of course I've never seen me prick on an album or on a photo before: "Whatnearth, there's a fellow with his prick out." And that was the first time I realized me prick was out, you know. I mean you can see it on the photo itself – we're naked in front of a camera – that comes over in the eyes, just for a minute you go!! I mean you're not used to it, being naked, but it's got to come out.

How do you face the fact that people are going to mutilate you?
Well, I can take that as long as we can get the cover out. And I really don't know what the chances are of that.

You don't worry about the nuts across the street?
No, no. I know it won't be very comfortable walking around with all the lorry drivers whistling and that, but it'll all die. Next year it'll be nothing, like mini-skirts or bare tits, it isn't anything. We're all naked really. When people attack Yoko and me, we know they're paranoic, we don't worry too much. It's the ones that don't know and you know they don't know – they're just going round in a blue fuzz. The thing is, the album also says: look, lay off will you, it's two people– what have we done?

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