John Lennon: Long Night’s Journey into Day
“The time has come,”
The Walrus said,
“To talk of many things . . . “
Here is John Lennon: thin bare arms, a rumpled T-shirt, bare feet, delicate fingers curled around a brown-papered cigarette, reaching for a cup of steaming coffee. A pale winter sun streams into the seventh-floor apartment in the Dakota, an expensive apartment house that stands like a pile of 19th century memories on the corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West. Earlier, the Irish doorman had expressed surprise when I asked for John, because this is where Yoko Ono had lived alone for a year. The building, with its gargoyles and vaulted stone turrets, has seen a lot, and has housed everyone from Lauren Bacall and Rex Reed to Rosemary’s baby. There is certainly room for Dr. Winston O’Boogie.
And now John Lennon is talking in a soft, becalmed voice, the old jagged angers gone for now, while the drilling jangle of the New York streets drifts into the room. He has been back with Yoko for three days, after a wild, painful year away, and there is a gray morning feel of hangover in the clean bright room. Against a wall, a white piano stands like an invitation to begin again; a tree is framed by one window, a plant by another, both in an attitude of Zen-like simplicity, full of spaces. I think of Harold Pinter’s words: “When true silence falls we are still left with echo but are nearer nakedness.” There is, of course, always echo when you are with John Lennon, an echo of the loudest, grandest, gaudiest noise made in our time. But John Lennon is more than simply a Beatle, retired or in exile, more than just an echo. At 34, he is moving into full maturity as a man and an artist and seems less afraid than ever before of nakedness.
On that first morning, and later, we talked only briefly about the Beatles. For the moment at least, talk of a reunion is only a perhaps. “What we did was what we did,” he said in 1970, “but what we are is something different.” The 20 Beatles albums are there; the voices are forever young. John Lennon, the young man with the guitar who went to Hamburg and played the eight-hour gigs with the others, popping pills to stay up, drawing on some tough maniac energy. “You see,” he explained later, “we wanted to be bigger than Elvis. . . . ”
Bigger than Elvis. Bigger than Sinatra. Bigger than God. John told everybody how the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ and for a couple of weeks that summer most of the Western world seemed to go into an uproar. Was the world really that innocent so short a time ago? No. It was just that John Lennon was explaining that the world had changed and the newspapers had to catch up; we were not going to have any more aw-shucks heroes. So we could all run in the endless emptiness of the rugby field in A Hard Day’s Night, rising and falling, in slow motion or fast, but sooner or later we would have to grow up. The Beatles were custodians of childhood. They could not last.
And yet . . . and yet, it seemed when it was finally over, when they had all gone their separate ways, when Brian Epstein lay dead and Apple was some terrible mess and the lawyers and the agents and the money men had come in to paw the remains, it often seemed that John was the only one whose heart was truly broken. Cynthia Lennon said it best, when all of them were still together: “They seem to need you less than you need them.” From some corner of his broken heart, John gave the most bitter interviews, full of hurt and resentment, covered over with the language of violence. In some way, he had been the engine of the group, the artistic armature driving the machine beyond its own limits, restless, easily bored, in love with speed the way Picasso was in love with speed, and possessed of a hoodlum’s fanatic heart. Part of him was Pinkie from Brighton Rock; another was Christopher Marlowe dying in a barroom brawl at 29. John provided the Teddy Boy darkness behind the smiling face of the early Beatles; it is why they were not the Beach Boys. I remember going up to the Ad Lib in London with Al Aronowitz in ’64, and the Beatles were there drinking hard with the Rolling Stones, the music deafening, the floor sagging under the weight of what seemed like half a thousand dancers. Paul McCartney was talking easily; Ringo was kidding and nice; George, as the stereotype told us, was quiet. But John Lennon was a son of a bitch. I felt an anger in him that was even fiercer than my own. We came close to violence, the words reduced to Irish immigrant code as anger bumped against anger, and Aronowitz had to move in and smother the anger with his easy kindness. Later I was ashamed of myself, and the memory of that night has stayed with me through all the years since as I watched John from a distance, engaged in his reckless dance with tragedy.
“One comes back again and again to the criminal,” wrote Joyce Carol Oates, “who is the most important person because he alone of all people acts; he alone, by causing others to suffer and by passing through suffering himself, makes happiness possible.” She wrote about Dostoevsky, but the words have always reminded me of John Lennon. We only know a small part of what really has happened to him in the years since he met Yoko Ono in 1966 at the Indica Gallery in London. The details belong to John Lennon alone. But we know how the other Beatles stood in judgment (“like a jury”) on Yoko. We know how viciously the press in England sneered at them and attacked them. Yoko saw the artist in him: “John is like a frail wind. . . .” But reviewers were already saying that Yoko had ruined his art.
Christ! You know it ain’t easy
You know how hard it can be
The way things are going,
They’re going to crucify me.
There was no literal crucifixion, but John moved through everything else: Bed-Ins, peace posters, a phony drug arrest, the acorns planted in the plastic pots in the Coventry Cathedral. He followed Yoko into the rare air of the avant-garde, banging up against Cage and Bartok, undergoing a re-barbarization of his music as if running to some older, purer vision he had of himself, created in the loneliness of the Liverpool art school when he was convinced he was a genius. Bagism, Shagism, Rubin and Hoffman, acid and anger; the marriage in Gibraltar, 17 stitches in a car crash in Scotland, the MBE handed back to the Queen, the Plastic Ono Band, his hair long, his hair short, the neat, precise features wearing a series of masks, his life with Yoko a series of public events. Working Class Hero. Some Time in New York City. Power to the People. And ever deeper into America: into its crazed, filthy Nixonian heart and the immigration case, and that form of the Higher Paranoia that comes because you are a victim in a time when all the other victims have proof and you have none.
“All we are saying . . .”
It was a long way from Chuck Berry.
Until finally people started to write him off. His records were selling but it wasn’t like the Beatles, it wasn’t even like the other ex-Beatles. John was the one Who Had Gone Too Far.
A year ago, he and Yoko split up and some people cheered. We live in strange times.
And then, as if from nowhere, came Walls and Bridges. John had a big hit single with “Whatever Gets You thru the Night.” And the music was wonderful: full of invention, tenderness, remorse, more personal than anything he had written before; the music clearly showing the effects of his time with Yoko. More than anything else, though, the songs were essays in autobiography, the words and music of a man trying to understand a huge part of his life. “I’ve been across to the other side/I’ve shown you everything, I’ve got nothing to hide. . . .”
What follows is the result of two long talks with John Lennon at the end of a difficult year. As an interview, it is far from definitive, but nothing will ever be definitive in John Lennon’s life: He is the sort of artist, like the aforementioned Picasso, who is always in the process of becoming. I think of this as a kind of interim report from one of the bravest human beings I know. Oh yes: He looked happy.
What’s your life like right now?
Well . . . Life: It’s ’75 now, isn’t it? Well, I’ve just settled the Beatles settlement. It must’ve happened in the last month, took three years. (pause) And on this day that you’ve come here, I seem to have moved back in here. In the last three days. By the time this goes out, I don’t know . . . That’s a big change. Maybe that’s why I’m sleeping funny. As a friend says, I went out for coffee and some papers and I didn’t come back. (chuckles) Or vice versa: It’s always written that way, y’know. All of us. You know, the guy walked. It’s never that simple.
What did happen with you and Yoko? Who broke it up and how did you end up back together again?
Well, it’s not a matter of who broke it up. It broke up. And why did we end up back together? (pompous voice) We ended up together again because it was diplomatically viable . . . come on. We got back together because we love each other.
I loved your line: “The separation didn’t work out.”
That’s it. It didn’t work out. And the reaction to the breakup was all that madness. I was like a chicken without a head.
What was the final Beatles settlement?
In a nutshell, what was arranged was that everybody get their own individual monies. Even up till this year – till the settlement was signed – all the monies were going into one pot. All individual records, mine, Ringo’s, Paul’s – all into one big pot. It had to go through this big machinery and then come out to us, eventually. So now, even on the old Beatle royalties, everything goes into four separate accounts instead of one big pot all the time. That’s that. The rest of it was ground rules. Everybody said the Beatles’ve signed this paper, that means they’re no longer tied in any way. That’s bullshit. We still own this thing called Apple. Which, you can explain, is a bank. A bank the money goes into. But there’s still the entity itself known as Beatles. The product, the name, the likeness, the Apple thing itself, which still exists, and we still have to communicate on it and make decisions on it and decide who’s to run Apple and who’s to do what. It’s not as cut and dried as the papers said.
Do the old Beatles records still go in a pot?
No one of us can say to EMI, “Here’s a new package of Beatle material.” We still have to okay everything together, you know, ’cause that’s the way we want it anyway.
There’s still a good feeling among the guys?
Yeah, yeah. I talked to Ringo and George yesterday. I didn’t talk to Paul ’cause he was asleep. George and Paul are talkin’ to each other in L.A. now. There’s nothin’ going down between us. It’s all in people’s heads.
You went to one of George’s concerts; what are your thoughts on his tour?
It wasn’t the greatest thing in history. The guy went through some kind of mill. It was probably his turn to get smacked. When we were all together there was periods when the Beatles were in, the Beatles were out, no matter what we were doing. Now it’s always the Beatles were great or the Beatles weren’t great, whatever opinion people hold. There’s a sort of illusion about it. But the actual fact was the Beatles were in for eight months, the Beatles were out for eight months. The public, including the media, are sometimes a bit sheeplike and if the ball starts rolling, well, it’s just that somebody’s in, somebody’s out. George is out for the moment. And I think it didn’t matter what he did on tour.
George told Rolling Stone that if you wanted the Beatles, go listen to Wings. It seemed a bit of a putdown.
I didn’t see what George said so I really don’t have any comment. (pause) Band on the Run is a great album. Wings is almost as conceptual a group as Plastic Ono Band. Plastic Ono was a conceptual group, meaning that whoever was playing was the band. And Wings keeps changing all the time. It’s conceptual. I mean, they’re backup men for Paul. It doesn’t matter who’s playing, you can call them Wings, but it’s Paul McCartney music. And it’s good stuff. It’s good Paul music and I don’t really see the connection.
What do you think of Richard Perry’s work with Ringo?
I think it’s great. Perry’s great, Ringo’s great, I think the combination was great and look how well they did together. There’s no complaints if you’re number one.
George said at his press conference that he could play with you again but not with Paul. How do you feel?
I could play with all of them. George is entitled to say that, and he’ll probably change his mind by Friday. You know, we’re all human, we can all change our minds. So I don t take any of my statements or any of their statements as the last word on whether we will. And if we do, the newspapers will learn about it after the fact. If we’re gonna play, we’re just gonna play.
In retrospect, what do you think of the whole ‘Lennon Remembers’ episode?
Well, the other guys, their reaction was public. Ringo made some sort of comment that was funny which I can’t remember, something like, “You’ve gone too far this time, Johnnie.” Paul said (stuffy voice), “Well, that’s his problem.” I can’t remember what George said. I mean, they don’t care, they’ve been with me for 15 or 20 years, they know damn well what I’m like. It just so happens it was in the press. I mean, they know what I’m like. I’m not ashamed of it at all. I don’t really like hurting people, but Jann Wenner questioned me when I was almost still in therapy and you can’t play games. You’re opened up. It was like he got me on an acid trip. Things come out. I got both reactions from that article. A lot of people thought it was right on. My only upset was Jann insisted on making a book out of it.
Walls and Bridges has an undertone of regret to it. Did you sit down consciously to make an album like that?
No, well . . . Let’s say this last year has been an extraordinary year for me personally. And I’m almost amazed that I could get anything out. But I enjoyed doing Walls and Bridges and it wasn’t hard when I had the whole thing to go into the studio and do it. I’m surprised it wasn’t just all bluuuuuuggggghhhhh. (pause) I had the most peculiar year. And . . . I’m just glad that something came out. It’s describing the year, in a way, but it’s not as sort of schizophrenic as the year really was. I think I got such a shock during that year that the impact hasn’t come through. It isn’t all on Walls and Bridges though. There’s a hint of it there. It has to do with age and God knows what else. But only the surface has been touched on Walls and Bridges, you know?
What was it about the year? Do you want to try talking about it?
Well, you can’t put your finger on it. It started, somehow, at the end of ’73, goin’ to do this Rock ‘n’ Roll album [with Phil Spector]. It had quite a lot to do with Yoko and I, whether I knew it or not, and then suddenly I was out on me own. Next thing I’d be waking up drunk in strange places, or reading about meself in the paper, doin’ extraordinary things, half of which I’d done and half of which I hadn’t done. But you know the game anyway. And find meself sort of in a mad dream for a year. I’d been in many mad dreams, but this . . . It was pretty wild. And then I tried to recover from that. And (long pause) meanwhile life was going on, the Beatles settlement was going on, other things, life was still going on and it wouldn’t let you sit with your hangover, in whatever form that took. It was like something – probably meself – kept hitting me while I was trying to do something. I was still trying to carry on a normal life and the whip never let up – for eight months. So … that’s what was going on. Incidents: You can put it down to which night with which bottle or which night in which town. It was just sort of a mad year like that. . . . And it was just probably fear, and being out on me own, and gettin’ old, and are ye gonna make it in the charts? Are ye not gonna make it? All that crap, y’know. All the garbage that y’really know is not the be-all and end-all of your life, but if other things are goin’ funny, that’s gonna hit you. If you’re gonna feel sorry for yourself, you’re gonna feel sorry for everything. What it’s really to do with is probably the same thing that it’s always been to do with all your life: whatever your own personal problems really are, you know? So it was a year that manifested itself (switches to deep actor’s voice) in most peculiar fashion. But I’m through it and it’s ’75 now and I feel better and I’m sittin’ here and not lyin’ in some weird place with a hangover.
Why do you feel better?
Because I feel like I’ve been on Sinbad’s voyage, you know, and I’ve battled all those monsters and I’ve got back. (long pause) Weird.
Tell me about the Rock ‘n’ Roll album.
It started in ’73 with Phil and fell apart. I ended up as part of mad drunk scenes in Los Angeles and I finally finished it off on me own. And there was still problems with it up to the minute it came out. I can’t begin to say, it’s just barmy, there’s a jinx on that album. And I’ve just started writing a new one. Got maybe half of it written. . . .
What about the stories that Spector’s working habits are a little odd? For example, that he either showed off or shot off guns in the studios?
I don’t like to tell tales out of school, y’know. But I do know there was an awful loud noise in the toilet of the Record Plant West.
What actually did happen those nights at the Troubadour when you heckled the Smothers Brothers and went walking around with a Kotex on Lennon your head asking the waitress, “Do you know who I am?”
Ah, y’want the juice. . . . If I’d said, “Do you know who I am?” I’d have said it in a joke. Because I know who I am, and I know she knew, because I musta been wearing a Kotex on me head, right? I picked up a Kotex in a restaurant, in the toilet, and it was clean and just for a gag I came back to the table with it on me head. And ’cause it stuck there with sweat, just stayed there, I didn’t have to keep it on. It just stayed there till it fell off. And the waitress said, “Yeah, you’re an asshole with a Kotex on,” and I think it’s a good remark and so what? Tommy Smothers was a completely different night and has been covered a million times. It was my first night on Brandy Alexanders and my last. (laughs) And I was with Harry Nilsson who was no help at all. (laughs)
What’s your relationship with Nilsson? Some critics say that he’s been heavily influenced, maybe even badly screwed up by you.
Oh, that’s bullshit.
. . . and that you’ve also been influenced by him.
That’s bullshit too. I haven’t been influenced by Harry, only that I had a lot of hangovers whenever I was with him. (laughs) I love him, he’s a great guy and I count him as one of me friends. He hasn’t influenced me musically. And there’s an illusion going around about my production of Harry’s album. That he was trying to imitate me on his album.
You mean that he’d gone into his primal period. . . .
That’s it. They’re so sheep-like – put this in – and childlike about trying to put a tag on what’s going on. They use these expressions like “primal” for anything that’s a scream. Brackets: Yoko was screaming before Janov was ever even heard of; that was her stint, usin’ her voice like an instrument. She was screaming when Janov was still jackin’ off to Freud. But nowadays, everything that’s got a scream in it is called primal. I know what they’re talkin’ about: the very powerful emotional pitch that Harry reaches at the end of “Many Rivers to Cross” on the album I produced for him [Pussy Cats]. It’s there, simply enough, because when you get to a certain point with your vocals, there ain’t nowhere else to go. Was Little Richard primaling before each sax solo? That’s what I want to know. Was my imitation Little Richard screams I used to put on all the Beatles records before the solo – we all used to do it, we’d go aaaaaarrrrrrrggggghhhh! Was that primaling? Right? And the other thing is about Harry becoming me on his album. That’s the other illusion that all the little rock writers wrote about. It’s bullshit. I go in to produce the guy, expecting to hear Harry Nilsson singing and the guy has no voice. We’d committed studio time and we did one track, virtually, and that’s the end of his voice. So then I’m stuck with one of the best white singers in America – with no voice at all. Harry didn’t tell me till nearly the end of the album that he was coughin’ up blood.
I didn’t know ’cause he always looked so wiped out. I didn’t know what it was. I was always treatin’ him like a doctor, gettin’ him to bed at night and tellin’ him, you know, don’t drink, don’t smoke, etcetera, etcetera. Don’t do any stuff, man. Not only have you got no voice but they’re gonna blame me. Which they did. I think it was psychosomatic. I think he was nervous ’cause I was producing him. You know, he was an old Beatle fan when he was in the bank or something. But I was committed to the thing, the band was there and the guy had no voice, so we made the best of it. So they say, oh, he’s tryin’ to sound like you. The poor guy couldn’t get a note out and we were lucky to get anything out of it.
Richard Perry has described you as a superb producer but maybe in too much of a hurry.
That’s true. (laughs)
But supposedly, when making the Beatles records, you were painstaking and slow.
No, I was never painstaking and slow. I produced “I Am the Walrus” at the same speed I produced “Whatever Gets You thru the Night.” I would be painstaking on some things, as I am now. If there’s a quality that occasionally gets in the way of my talent, it’s that I get bored quick unless it’s done quick. But “I Am the Walrus” sounds like a wonderful production. “Strawberry Fields” sounds like a big production. But I do them as quick as I possibly can, without losing (a) the feel and (b) where I’m going. The longest track I personally spent time on was “Revolution Number Nine” which was an abstract track where I used a lot of tape loops and things like that. I still did it in one session. But I accept that criticism and I have it of myself. But I don’t want to make myself so painstaking that it’s boring. But I should (pause) maybe t’ink a little more. Maybe. But on the other hand I think my criticism of somebody like Richard Perry would be that he’s great but he’s too painstaking. It gets too slick and somewhere in between that is where I’d like to go. I’ve only produced two albums of me own, actually, completely on me own. And I find something out each time. I’m a learner at production, although I’ve been at this business so long and I used to produce my own tracks with the help of George Martin and Paul McCartney and George Harrison and everybody else. I would be in charge of me own tracks. But really to produce a thing all on me own – I’ve done very little. I keep finding out all the time – what I’m missing that I want to get out of it.
Is there anybody that you’d like to produce? For example, Dylan?
Dylan would be interesting because I think he made a great album in Blood on the Tracks but I’m still not keen on the backings. I think I could produce him great. And Presley. I’d like to resurrect Elvis. But I’d be so scared of him I don’t know whether I could do it. But I’d like to do it. Dylan I could do, but Presley would make me nervous. But Dylan or Presley, somebody up there . . . I know what I’d do with Presley. Make a rock & roll album. Dylan doesn’t need material. I’d just make him some good backings. So if you’re reading this Bob, you know. . . .
Elton John has revived “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and David Bowie has recorded “Across the Universe.” How do you feel about both artists?
I like and respect them both. I’m closer to Elton because I’ve known him longer and I’ve spent more time with him. Elton sort of popped in on the session for Walls and Bridges and sort of zapped in and played the piano and ended up singing “Whatever Gets You thru the Night” with me. Which was a great shot in the arm. I’d done three-quarters of it, and it was, “Now what do we do?” Should we put a camel on it or a xylophone? That sort of thing. And he came in and said, “Hey, ah’ll play some piano!” Then I heard he was doing “Lucy” and I heard from a friend – ’cause he was shy – would I be there when he cut “Lucy”? Maybe play on it but just be there? So I went along. And I sang in the chorus and contributed the reggae in the middle. And then, again through a mutual friend, he asked if it got to be Number One, would I appear onstage with him, and I said sure, not thinkin’ in a million years it was gonna get to Number One. Al Coury or no Al Coury, the promotion man at Capitol. And there I was. Onstage.
I read somewhere that you were very moved by the whole thing.
I was moved by it, but everybody else was in tears. I felt guilty ’cause I wasn’t in tears. I just went up and did a few numbers. But the emotional thing was me and Elton together. Elton had been working in Dick James’s office when we used to send our demos in and there’s a long sort of relationship musically with Elton that people don’t really know about. He has this sort of Beatle thing from way back. He’d take the demos home and play them and . . . well, it meant a lot to me and it meant a hell of a lot to Elton, and he was in tears. It was a great high night, a really high night and . . . Yoko and I met backstage. And somebody said, “Well, there’s two people in love.” That was before we got back together. But that’s probably when we felt something. It was very weird. She came backstage and I didn’t know she was there, ’cause if I’d known she was there I’d’ve been too nervous to go on, you know, I would have been terrified. She was backstage afterward, and there was just that moment when we saw each other and like, it’s like in the movies, you know, when time stands still? And there was silence, everything went silent, y’know, and we were just sort of lookin’ at each other and . . . oh, hello. I knew she’d sent Elton and I a flower each, and we were wearin’ them onstage, but I didn’t know she was there and then everybody was around us and flash flash flash. But there was that moment of silence. And somebody observed it and told me later on, after we were back together again, and said, “A friend of mine saw you backstage and thought if ever there was two in love, it’s those two.” And I thought, well, it’s weird somebody noticed it . . . So it was a great night . . . And David just seems to be livin’ in New York now, and I’ve got to know him a bit and we’ve had some good nights and he just said, “I’m gonna cut ‘Across the Universe’ – will you come down?” And I said okay, and went down and played the guitar. That was it. No big deal.
There seems to be a lot of generosity among the artists now.
It was around before. It’s harder when you’re on the make, to be generous, ’cause you’re all competing. But once you’re sort of up there, wherever it is . . . The rock papers love to write about the jetsetting rock stars and they dig it and we dig it in a way. The fact is that yeah, I see Mick, I see Paul, I see Elton, they’re all my contemporaries and I’ve known the other Beatles, of course, for years, and Mick for ten years, and we’ve been hangin’ around since Rock Dreams. And suddenly it’s written up as they’re here – they’re there – they’re everywhere bit, and it looks like we’re trying to form a club. But we always were a club. We always knew each other. It just so happens that it looks more dramatic in the paper.
How do you relate to what we might call the rock stars of the Seventies? Do you think of yourself as an uncle figure, a father figure, an old gun-fighter?
It depends who they are. If it’s Mick or the Old Guard as I call them, yeah, they’re the Old Guard. Elton, David are the newies. I don’t feel like an old uncle, dear, ’cause I’m not that much older than half of ’em, hehe. But . . . yeah, I’m interested in the new people. I’m interested in new people in America but I get a kick out of the new Britons. I remember hearing Elton John’s “Your Song,” heard it in America – it was one of Elton’s first big hits – and remember thinking, “Great, that’s the first new thing that’s happened since we happened.” It was a step forward. There was something about his vocals that was an improvement on all of the English vocals until then. I was pleased with it. And I was pleased with Bowie’s thing and I hadn’t even heard him. I just got this feeling from the image and the projections that were coming out of England of him, well, you could feel it.
Do you think of New York as home now?
Oh, yeah. I’ve been here, well, this is almost the fourth year. Yeah, this is the longest I’ve ever been away from England. I’ve almost lived here as long as I’ve lived in London. I was in London from, let’s see, ’64, ’65, ’66, ’67, actually in London ’cause then it was your Beatlemania bit and we all ended up like a lot of rock & rollers end up, living an hour away from London in the country, the drivin’-in-from-the-big-estate bit. ‘Cause you couldn’t live in London, ’cause people just bugged the ass off you. So I’ve lived in New York longer than I actually lived in London.
In view of the immigration case, is one reason you’ve stayed here so long because if you left, they’d pull a Charlie Chaplin on you and not let you back in?
You bet. There’s no way, they wouldn’t let me back. Not after I’ve dug in so much as it is. There’s no way. And . . . it’s worth it to me. I can last out, without leaving here, another ten years, if that’s, the way they want to play it. I’ll earn enough to keep paying them. I’m really getting blackmailed. I’m paying to stay. Paying takes, on one hand, about a half-million dollars, and I’ve hardly worked very hard for that. I mean that’s with sittin’ on me arse and I’ve paid a half-million in taxes. So I’m paying them to attack me and keep me busy and harass me, on one hand, while on the other hand I’ve got to pay me own lawyers. Some people think I’m here just to make the American dollars. But I don’t have to be here to make the dollars, I could earn American dollars just sittin’ in a recording studio in Hong Kong. Wherever I am, the money follows me. It’s gonna come out of America whether they like it or not. This is where the money comes from, in this world. It’s not that the government allows people to earn money from America, the government wants people to earn money, otherwise they wouldn’t’ve set up this damn system, right? I also give a lot of jobs to a lot of Americans.
Right. And the government doesn’t choose that John Lennon makes money. The people who buy your music do that.
The implication is that John Lennon wants to come to the land of milk and honey ’cause it’s easier to pick up the money, so I can pick it up directly instead of waiting for it to arrive in England. Or Brazil. Or wherever I decide to do it. I resent that implication, especially as I’m payin’ through the nose. I don’t mind paying taxes, either, which is strange. I never did. I don’t like ’em using it for bombs and that. But I don’t think I could do a Joan Baez. I don’t have that kind of gut. I did never complain in England either, because, well, it’s buying people teeth . . . I’m sick of gettin’ sick about taxes. Taxes is what seems to to be it and there’s nothin’ to be done about it, unless you choose to make a crusade about it. And I’m sick of being in crusades because I always get nailed up before I’m even in the crusade. They get me in the queue while I’m readin’ the pages about it: “Oh there’s a crusade on, I wonder should I . . . ” I mean, I get caught before I’ve ever even done anything about it.
You went through a period of really heavy involvement in radical causes. Lately you seem to have gone back to your art in a more direct way. What happened?
I’ll tell you what happened literally. I got off the boat, only it was an aeroplane, and landed in New York, and the first people who got in touch with me was Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. It’s as simple as that. It’s those two famous guys from America who’s callin: “Hey, yeah, what’s happenin’, what’s go-in’ on? . . . ” And the next thing you know I’m doin’ John Sinclair benefits and one thing and another. I’m pretty movable, as an artist, you know. They almost greeted me off the plane and the next minute I’m involved, you know.
How did all of this affect your work?
It almost ruined it, in a way. It became journalism and not poetry. And I basically feel that I’m a poet. Even if it does go ba-deedle, eedle, eedle, it, da-deeedle, deedle, it. I’m not a formalized poet, I have no education, so I have to write in the simplest forms usually. And I realized that over a period of time – and not just ’cause I met Jerry Rubin off the plane – but that was like a culmination. I realized that we were poets but we were really folk poets, and rock & roll was folk poetry – I’ve always felt that. Rock & roll was folk music. Then I began to take it seriously on another level, saying, “Well, I am reflecting what is going on, right?” And then I was making an effort to reflect what was going on. Well, it doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t work as pop music or what I want to do. It just doesn’t make sense. You get into that bit where you can’t talk about trees, ’cause, y’know, y’gotta talk about Corruption on 54th Street! It’s nothing to do with that. It’s a bit larger than that. It’s the usual lesson that I’ve learned in me little 34 years: As soon as you’ve clutched onto something, you think – you’re always clutchin’ at straws – this is what life is all about. I think artists are lucky because the straws are always blowin’ out of their hands. But the unfortunate thing is that most people find the straw hat and hang on to it, like your best friend that got the job at the bank when he was 15 and looked 28 before he was 20. “Oh, this is it! Now I know what I’m doing! Right? Down this road for the next hundred years” . . . and it ain’t never that. Whether it’s a religious hat or a political hat or a no-political hat: whatever hat it was, always looking for these straw hats. I think I found out it’s a waste of time. There is no hat to wear. Just keep moving around and changing clothes is the best. That’s all that goes on: change.
At one time I thought, well, I’m avoidin’ that thing called the Age Thing, whether it hits you at 21 when you take your first job – I always keep referrin’ to that because it has nothing to do, virtually, with your physical age. I mean, we all know the guys who took the jobs when we left school, the straight jobs, they all look like old guys within six weeks. You’d meet them and they’d all be lookin’ like Well, I’ve Settled Down Now. So I never want to settle down, in that respect. I always want to be immature in that respect. But then I felt that if I keep bangin’ my head on the wall it’ll stop me from gettin’ that kind of age in the head. By keeping creating, consciously or unconsciously, extraordinary situations which in the end you’d write about. But maybe it has nothin’ to do with it. I’m still mullin’ that over. Still mullin’ over last year now. Maybe that was it. I was still trying to avoid somethin’ but doin’ it the wrong way ’round. Whether it’s called age or whatever.
Is it called growing up?
I don’t want to grow up but I’m sick of not growing up – that way. I’ll find a different way of not growing up. There’s a better way of doing it than torturing your body. And then your mind. The guilt! It’s just so dumb. And it makes me furious to be dumb because I don’t like dumb people. And there I am, doing the dumbest things . . . I seem to do the things that I despise the most, almost. All of that to – what? – avoid being normal.
I have this great fear of this normal thing. You know, the ones that passed their exams, the ones that went to their jobs, the ones that didn’t become rock & rollers, the ones that settled for it, settled for it, settled for the deal! That’s what I’m trying to avoid. But I’m sick of avoiding it with violence, you know? I’ve gotta do it some other way. I think I will. I think just the fact that I’ve realized it is a good step forward. Alive in ’75 is my new motto. I’ve just made it up. That’s the one. I’ve decided I want to live. I’d decided I wanted to live before, but I didn’t know what it meant, really. It’s taken however many years and I want to have a go at it.
Do you think much of yourself as an artist at 50 or 60?
I never see meself as not an artist. I never let meself believe that an artist can “run dry.”
I’ve always had this vision of bein’ 60 and writing children’s books. I don’t know why. It’d be a strange thing for a person who doesn’t really have much to do with children. I’ve always had that feeling of giving what Wind in the Willows and Alice in Wonderland and Treasure Island gave to me at age seven and eight. The books that really opened my whole being.
Is there anything left to say about the immigration case?
I don’t know what to say anymore. It stands no different from the time Rolling Stone did it last. It’s going from court to court and I’m getting no relief, as the legal term puts it. They’re still playing that attitude that, you know, we’re treating you like this because of this law. Sure, the law exists. And so do all the Nazis here and the drug dealers that are not American born and all the killers that are allowed in here. They’re still pretending that they’re doing it on the strict letter of the law.
You know, I can resurrect it and do more press, and keep appealing to the American people. But they’re human. People get bored with hearin’ about Lennon’s immigration case. I’m bored with hearin’ about it. The only interesting thing is when I read these articles people write that were not instigated by me. I learn things I didn’t know anything about. I didn’t know about Strom Thurmond. I had no idea – I mean I knew something was going on, but I didn’t have any names. I’m just left in the position of just what am I supposed to do? There doesn’t seem to be anything I can do about it. It’s just . . . bloody crazy. Terry Southern put it in a nice sort of way. He said, “Well, look, y’keep ’em all happy, ya see? The conservatives are happy ’cause they’re doin’ somethin’ about ya and the liberals are happy ’cause they haven’t thrown you out. So everybody’s happy! [pause] Except you!” (laughter) I’m happy I’m still here. I must say that. And I ain’t going. There’s no way they’re gonna get me out. No way. They’re not gonna drag me in chains, right? So I’m just gonna have to keep paying. It’s bloody ridiculous. It’s just . . . beyond belief.
So nothing has changed with the departure of Nixon.
I’m even nervous about commenting on politics, they’ve got me that jumpy these days. But it’s a bit of an illusion to think ’cause Old Nick went that it’s all changed. If it’s changed, prove it, show me the change. In all honesty, it’s a political decision. No matter how many letters the immigration people write to newspapers saying it isn’t, it’s a political decision. Somebody’s gotta make up their mind either to let this go on or to leave me alone. It could be that it’s an embarrassing situation for the government, because they started the thing. It might just be embarrassing to them if someone just made a call to someone to pull the dogs off. What’s Lennon gonna do then? Is he gonna say, ha ha, I tole yiz? What does it entail if they give in? If they relax about it? How much constituency does Lennon have? And his friends? What does it mean to the public in general? But they also know that the public forgets.
When you heard that Thurmond and these other creeps were making a guinea pig out of you in the immigration case, what was your gut reaction?
My gut reaction was ha ha ha, I told you so. And I’d like to thank Rolling Stone for their pieces on immigration. They helped bring it all out again. They were great.
Does the case get in the way of your work?
It did. It did. There’s no denying it. In ’72, it was really gettin’ to me. Not only was I physically having to appear in court cases, it just seemed like a toothache that wouldn’t go away. Now I just accept it. I just have a permanent toothache. But there was a period where I just couldn’t function, you know? I was so paranoid from them tappin’ the phone and followin’ me … How could I prove that they were tappin’ me phone? There was no way. And when they were followin’ me, I went on Dick Cavett and said they were followin’ me and they stopped followin’ me. But when they were followin’ me, they wanted me to see they were following me. I was so damned paranoid . . . And what with the Rubins, and the people I met through that school of music, and as I traveled around the country, I got more information about every one of those politicos, so that I couldn’t trust anybody. This was pre-Watergate. Even when I said it to reporters, or on the Cavett show, that people were following me, they’d look and say, “Don’t be an egomaniac, we know you’ve got a problem, but who’s gonna chase you? You’re not that important.” And I wish I wasn’t. I wish they didn’t find it such an important thing.
Give me an example of how the case has affected the work.
Well, there was a period when I was hangin’ out with a group called Elephant’s Memory. And I was ready to go on the road for pure fun. I didn’t want to go on the road for money. That was the time when I was standing up in the Apollo with a guitar at the Attica relatives’ benefit or ending up on the stage at the John Sinclair rally. I felt like going on the road and playing music. And whatever excuse – charity or whatever – would have done me. But they kept pullin’ me back into court! I had the group hangin’ ’round, but finally I had to say, “Hey, you better get on with your lives.” Now, the last thing on earth I want to do is perform. That’s a direct result of the immigration thing. In ’71, ’72, I wanted to go out and rock me balls off onstage and I just stopped.
Have you made any kind of flat decision not to ever go on the road again?
No. I’ve stopped making flat decisions. I change me mind a lot. My idea of heaven is not going on the road. And this was before George’s tour.
What groups do you listen to these days?
I’m still a record man. There’s nobody – including meself – on earth that I can sit down and listen to a whole album. Nobody. The same voice going on . . . Nobody can sustain it. Even as a rock ‘n’ roll fan of 15, there were very few albums I could sit through. Even Elvis, and I adored him, or Carl Perkins or Little Richard. There were always a couple of tracks to miss and go on to the next ones. So I don’t sit ’round and listen to artists’ albums. Unless they’re friends of mine. I like records. I like “Shame, Shame, Shame.” Shirley and the gang. Some of this disco stuff. Great. I like just individual records. One of me favorites last year was “I Can Help.” Billy Swan. A real old Elvis imitation kind of record. I like singles. I like jukebox music. That was the thing that turned me on. That’s the thing I like.
What was the Grammy show like?
It was great fun. It was chaos backstage. But I enjoyed it. I was hoping Elton would win. Nothing against Olivia. I hope it didn’t show on me face when they announced it. I opened the thing and somehow I was expecting to see Elton John, y’know, and I went . . . uh. . . and here is Olivia. . . Newton. . . John. And I thought, oh, me face has dropped, hehe.
Will you ever be free of the fact that you were once a Beatle?
I’ve got used to the fact – just about – that whatever I do is going to be compared to the other Beatles. If I took up ballet dancing, my ballet dancing would be compared with Paul’s bowling. So that I’ll have to live with. But I’ve come to learn something big this past year. I cannot let the Top Ten dominate my art. If my worth is only to be judged by whether I’m in the Top Ten or not, then I’d better give up. Because if I let the Top Ten dominate my art, then the art will die. And then whether I’m in the Top Ten is a moot point. I do think now in terms of long term. I’m an artist. I have to express myself. I can’t be dominated by gold records. As I said, I’m 34 going on 60. The art is more important than the thing and sometimes I have to remind meself of it. Because there’s a danger there, for all of us, for everyone who’s involved in whatever art they’re in, of needing that love so badly that . . . In my business, that’s manifested in the Top Ten.
So this last year, in some ways, was a year of deciding whether you wanted to be an artist or a pop star?
Yeah. What is it I’m doing? What am I doing? Meanwhile, I was still putting out the work. But in the back of me head it was that: What do you want to be? What are you lookin’ for? And that’s about it. I’m a freakin’ artist, man, not a fucking race horse.
Pete Hamill has written two novels, a journalism collection and numerous magazine pieces and is currently working on a filmscript with Billy Friedkin.
This story appeared in the June 5, 1975 issue of Rolling Stone.