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Lennon Remembers, Part Two

In part two of a raw and remarkably candid interview, Lennon tells the stories behind some of the Beatles’ biggest songs, goes in depth about the ongoing legal slog with his former bandmates and explains why he “[doesn’t] believe in the Beatles myth.”

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John Lennon and Yoko Ono on the cover of 'Rolling Stone.'

Annie Leibovitz

Would you take it all back?      

Being a Beatle?
If I could be a fuckin’ fisherman I would. If I had the capabilities of being something other than I am, I would. It’s no fun being an artist. You know what it’s like, writing, it’s torture. I read about Van Gogh, Beethoven, any of the fuckers. If they had psychiatrists, we wouldn’t have had Gauguin’s great pictures. These bastards are just sucking us to death; that’s about all that we can do, is do it like circus animals.

I resent being an artist, in that respect, I resent performing for fucking idiots who don’t know anything. They can’t feel. I’m the one that’s feeling, because I’m the one that is expressing. They live vicariously through me and other artists, and we are the ones . . . even with the boxers – when Oscar comes in the ring, they’re booing the shit out of him, he only hits Clay once and they’re all cheering him. I’d sooner be in the audience, really, but I’m not capable of it.

One of my big things is that I wish to be a fisherman. I know it sounds silly – and I’d sooner be rich than poor, and all the rest of that shit – but I wish the pain was ignorance or bliss or something. If you don’t know, man, then there’s no pain; that’s how I express it.

What do you think the effect was of the Beatles on the history of Britain?
I don’t know about the “history”; the people who are in control and in power, and the class system and the whole bullshit bourgeoisie is exactly the same, except there is a lot of fag middle class kids with long, long hair walking around London in trendy clothes, and Kenneth Tynan is making a fortune out of the word “fuck.” Apart from that, nothing happened. We all dressed up, the same bastards are in control, the same people are runnin’ everything. It is exactly the same.

We’ve grown up a little, all of us, there has been a change and we’re all a bit freer and all that, but it’s the same game. Shit, they’re doing exactly the same thing, selling arms to South Africa, killing blacks on the street, people are living in fucking poverty, with rats crawling over them. It just makes you puke, and I woke up to that too.

The dream is over. It’s just the same, only I’m thirty, and a lot of people have got long hair. That’s what it is, man, nothing happened except that we grew up, we did our thing – just like they were telling us. You kids – most of the so called “now generation” are getting a job. We’re a minority, you know, people like us always were, but maybe we are a slightly larger minority because of maybe something or other.

Why do you think the impact of the Beatles was so much bigger in America than it was in England?
The same reason that American stars are so much bigger in England: the grass is greener. We were really professional by the time we got to the States; we had learned the whole game. When we arrived here we knew how to handle the press; the British press were the toughest in the world and we could handle anything. We were all right.

On the plane over, I was thinking “Oh, we won’t make it,” or I said it on a film or something, but that’s that side of me. We knew we would wipe you out if we could just get a grip on you. We were new.

And when we got here, you were all walking around in fuckin’ bermuda shorts, with Boston crew cuts and stuff on your teeth. Now they’re telling us, they’re all saying, “Beatles are passé and this is like that, man.” The chicks looked like fuckin’ 1940 horses. There was no conception of dress or any of that jazz. We just thought “what an ugly race,” it looked just disgusting. We thought how hip we were, but, of course, we weren’t. It was just the five of us, us and the Stones were really the hip ones; the rest of England were just the same as they ever were.

You tend to get nationalistic, and we would really laugh at America, except for its music. It was the black music we dug, and over here even the blacks were laughing at people like Chuck Berry and the blues singers; the blacks thought it wasn’t sharp to dig the really funky music, and the whites only listened to Jan and Dean and all that. We felt that we had the message which was “listen to this music.” It was the same in Liverpool, we felt very exclusive and underground in Liverpool, listening to Richie Barret and Barrett Strong, and all those old-time records. Nobody was listening to any of them except Eric Burdon in Newcastle and Mick Jagger in London. It was that lonely, it was fantastic. When we came over here and it was the same – nobody was listening to rock and roll or to black music in America – we felt as though we were coming to the land of its origin but nobody wanted to know about it.

What part did you ever play in the songs that are heavily identified with Paul, like “Yesterday”?
“Yesterday,” I had nothing to do with.

“Eleanor Rigby”?
“Eleanor Rigby” I wrote a good half of the lyrics or more.

When did Paul show you “Yesterday”?
I don’t remember – I really don’t remember, it was a long time ago. I think he was . . . I really don’t remember, it just sort of appeared.

Who do you think has done the best versions of your stuff?
I can’t think of anybody.

Did you hear Ike and Tina Turner doing “Come Together”?
Yeah, I didn’t think they did too much of a job on it, I think they could have done it better. They did a better “Honky Tonk Woman.”

Ray Charles doing “Yesterday”?
That was quite nice.

And you had Otis doing “Day Tripper,” what did you think of that?
I don’t think he did a very good job on “Day Tripper.”

I never went much for the covers. It doesn’t interest me, really. I like people doing them – I’ve heard some nice versions on “In My Life,” I don’t know who it was, though. [Judy Collins], José Feliciano did “Help” quite nice once. I like people doing it, I get a kick out of it. I thought it was interesting that Nina Simone did a sort of answer to “Revolution.” That was very good – it was sort of like “Revolution,” but not quite. That I sort of enjoyed, somebody who reacted immediately to what I had said.

Who wrote “Nowhere Man”?
Me, me.

Did you write that about anybody in particular?
Probably about myself. I remember I was just going through this paranoia trying to write something and nothing would come out so I just lay down and tried to not write and then this came out, the whole thing came out in one gulp.

What songs really stick in your mind as being Lennon-McCartney songs?
“I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “From Me To You,” “She Loves You” – I’d have to have the list, there’s so many, trillions of ’em. Those are the ones. In a rock band you have to make singles, you have to keep writing them. Plenty more. We both had our fingers in each others pies.

I remember that the simplicity on the new album was evident on the Beatles double album. It was evident in “She’s So Heavy,” in fact a reviewer wrote of “She’s So Heavy”: “He seems to have lost his talent for lyrics, it’s so simple and boring.” “She’s So Heavy” was about Yoko. When it gets down to it, like she said, when you’re drowning you don’t say “I would be incredibly pleased if someone would have the foresight to notice me drowning and come and help me,” you just scream. And in “She’s So Heavy,” I just sang “I want you, I want you so bad, she’s so heavy, I want you,” like that. I started simplifying my lyrics then, on the double album.

A song from the ‘Help’ album, like “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” How did you write that? What were the circumstances? Where were you?
I was in Kenwood and I would just be songwriting. The period would be for songwriting and so every day I would attempt to write a song and it’s one of those that you sort of sing a bit sadly to yourself, “Here I stand, head in hand. . . .”

I started thinking about my own emotions – I don’t know when exactly it started like “I’m a Loser” or “Hide Your Love Away” or those kind of things – instead of projecting myself into a situation I would just try to express what I felt about myself which I’d done in me books. I think it was Dylan helped me realize that – not by any discussion or anything but just by hearing his work – I had a sort of professional songwriter’s attitude to writing pop songs; he would turn out a certain style of song for a single and we would do a certain style of thing for this and the other thing. I was already a stylized songwriter on the first album. But to express myself I would write Spaniard in the Works or In His Own Write, the personal stories which were expressive of my personal emotions. I’d have a separate song-writing John Lennon who wrote songs for the sort of meat market, and I didn’t consider them – the lyrics or anything – to have any depth at all. They were just a joke. Then I started being me about the songs, not writing them objectively, but subjectively.

What about on Rubber Soul, “Norwegian Wood”?
I was trying to write about an affair without letting me wife know I was writing about an affair, so it was very gobbledegook. I was sort of writing from my experiences, girls’ flats, things like that.

Where did you write that?
I wrote it at Kenwood.

When did you decide to put a sitar on it?
I think it was at the studio. George had just got the sitar and I said “Could you play this piece?” We went through many different sort of versions of the song, it was never right and I was getting very angry about it, it wasn’t coming out like I said. They said, “Well just do it how you want to do it” and I said, “Well I just want to do it like this.” They let me go and I did the guitar very loudly into the mike and sang it at the same time and then George had the sitar and I asked him could he play the piece that I’d written, you know, dee diddley dee diddley dee, that bit, and he was not sure whether he could play it yet because he hadn’t done much on the sitar but he was willing to have a go, as is his wont, and he learned the bit and dubbed it on after. I think we did it in sections.

You also have a song on that album “In My Life.” When did you write that?
I wrote that in Kenwood. I used to write upstairs where I had about ten Brunell tape recorders all linked up, I still have them, I’d mastered them over the period of a year or two – I could never make a rock and roll record but I could make some far out stuff on it. I wrote it upstairs, that was one where I wrote the lyrics first and then sang it. That was usually the case with things like “In My Life” and “Universe” and some of the ones that stand out a bit.

Would you just record yourself and a guitar on a tape and then bring it in to the studio?
I would do that just to get an impression of what it sounded like sung and to hear it back for judging it – you never know ’til you hear the song yourself. I would double track the guitar or the voice or something on the tape. I think on “Norwegian Wood” and “In My Life” Paul helped with the middle eight, to give credit where it’s due.

From the same period, same time, I never liked “Run For Your Life,” because it was a song I just knocked off. It was inspired from – this is a very vague connection – from “Baby Let’s Play House.” There was a line on it – I used to like specific lines from songs – “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man” – so I wrote it around that but I didn’t think it was that important. “Girl” I liked because I was, in a way, trying to say something or other about Christianity which I was opposed to at the time.

Why Christianity in that song?
Because I was brought up in the church. One of the reviews of In His Own Write was that they tried to put me in this satire boom with Peter Cook and those people that came out of Cambridge, saying well he’s just satirizing the normal things like the church and the state, which is what I did in In His Own Write. Those are the things that you keep satirizing because they’re the only things. I was pretty heavy on the church in both books, but it was never picked up although it was obviously there. I was just talking about Christianity in that – a thing like you have to be tortured to attain heaven. I’m only saying that I was talking about “pain will lead to pleasure” in “Girl” and that was sort of the Catholic Christian concept – be tortured and then it’ll be alright, which seems to be a bit true but not in their concept of it. But I didn’t believe in that, that you have to be tortured to attain anything, it just so happens that you were.

Let me ask you about one on the double album, “Glass Onion.” You set out to write a little message to the audience.
Yeah, I was having a laugh because there’d been so much gobbledegook about Pepper, play it backwards and you stand on your head and all that.

Even now, I just saw Mel Torme on TV the other day saying that “Lucy” was written to promote drugs and so was “A Little Help From My Friends” and none of them were at all – “A Little Help From My Friends” only says get high in it, it’s really about a little help from my friends, it’s a sincere message. Paul had the line about “little help from my friends,” I’m not sure, he had some kind of structure for it and – we wrote it pretty well 50-50 but it was based on his original idea.

Why did you make “Revolution”?
Which one?

There’s three of them.

Starting with the single.
When George and Paul and all of them were on holiday, I made “Revolution” which is on the LP and “Revolution #9.” I wanted to put it out as a single, I had it all prepared, but they came by, and said it wasn’t good enough. And we put out what? “Hello Goodbye” or some shit like that? No, we put out “Hey Jude,” which was worth it – I’m sorry – but we could have had both.

I wanted to put what I felt about revolution; I thought it was time we fuckin’ spoke about it, the same as I thought it was about time we stopped not answering about the Vietnamese War when we were on tour with Brian Epstein and had to tell him, “We’re going to talk about the war this time and we’re not going to just waffle.” I wanted to say what I thought about revolution.

I had been thinking about it up in the hills in India. I still had this “God will save us” feeling about it, that it’s going to be all right (even now I’m saying “Hold on, John, it’s going to be all right,” otherwise, I won’t hold on) but that’s why I did it, I wanted to talk, I wanted to say my piece about revolution. I wanted to tell you, or whoever listens, to communicate, to say “What do you say? This is what I say.”

On one version I said “Count me in” about violence, in or out, because I wasn’t sure. But the version we put out said “Count me out,” because I don’t fancy a violent revolution happening all over. I don’t want to die; but I begin to think what else can happen, you know, it seems inevitable.

“Revolution #9” was an unconscious picture of what I actually think will happen when it happens; that was just like a drawing of revolution. All the thing was made with loops, I had about thirty loops going, fed them onto one basic track. I was getting classical tapes, going upstairs and chopping them up, making it backwards and things like that, to get the sound effects. One thing was an engineer’s testing tape and it would come on with a voice saying “This is EMI Test Series #9.” I just cut up whatever he said and I’d number nine it. Nine turned out to be my birthday and my lucky number and everything. I didn’t realize it; it was just so funny the voice saying “Number nine”; it was like a joke, bringing number nine into it all the time, that’s all it was.

Yoko: It also turns out to be the highest number you know, one, two, etc., up to nine.

John: There are many symbolic things about it but it just happened you know, just an engineer’s tape and I was just using all the bits to make a montage. I really wanted that released.

So that’s my feeling. The idea was don’t aggravate the pig by waving the thing that aggravates – by waving the Red flag in his face. You know, I really