John Lennon spent the last decade of his life in New York City, finding freedom, inspiration and tragedy there before his death in 1980. Those years and his relationship with what his widow Yoko Ono calls "the city that he loved so much" are explored in LENNONYC, a new PBS documentary set to premiere November 22nd on American Masters. "It is a very strange city," Ono said Thursday. "It was his love and it was his death."
Ono appeared at a press conference in Beverly Hills to discuss the two-hour film and preview scenes from the work-in-progress, stepping onstage entirely in black, a fedora titled to the side, Sinatra-style. "I was so impressed with how good John was," she said of watching the film's previously unseen footage and recording outtakes. "I knew him as a husband. I wish I could tell him, 'Hey, you're so good.' But he is not there . . . I still think John's songs are giving power to the people."
In one clip, the raw demo of a song called "Make Love, Not War" is shown evolving into a dreamy final track called "Mind Games." And longtime friend and sideman Klaus Voorman explains on-camera the lasting impact of Lennon's songs: "John talks of his problems, of the fighting with himself. And that's what's makes it so strong and what people can relate to."
There are first-hand remembrances from label chief David Geffen and Double Fantasy producer Jack Douglas, who describes how Lennon tuned his guitar to always flatten the D-string, a habit dating back to his Beatles days so his Aunt Mimi could tell which guitar was his. And during a 1974 radio interview on WNEW-FM, Lennon reads the weather report before discussing his ongoing immigration battle: "Maybe they could just ban me from Ohio or something."
Some of Lennon's happiest years were spent living at the Dakota apartments in Manhattan after the birth of their son, Sean. "I always knew John Lennon had a very gentle side, otherwise I couldn't live with him," Ono said with a smile. "He was always very nice to me. But when Sean was born, he was a totally different person, not just nice. He was so much into bringing Sean up."
Ono said the upcoming October 4th reissues of Lennon's post-Beatles albums would focus on his best-known solo music, and not include the experimental works Two Virgins and Life With the Lions. "I want it to be known exactly what he was — he was a brilliant singer-songwriter and a rocker," she said, "and I don't want something like the avant-garde sneaking in there."