By Jeff Burger
John Lennon spent only about thirteen years in the public spotlight—from 1963 until mid-1975 and, following a period of seclusion, during the fall of 1980—and he has been gone for nearly three times as long. Yet he remains omnipresent more than thirty-five years after his death. Rarely does a day go by when I don’t hear one of his songs, read an item about him in a newspaper or magazine, see his image on a T-shirt, or hear his influence in the work of other artists. We’ll likely be listening to and talking about this man for many years to come.
His music is only one of several reasons why he remains fascinating. He developed during his years of prominence into a highly opinionated and controversial figure with a commanding personality and quick wit. And for many of the years after he achieved fame, he made a point of living his adventurous life as openly as possible. Whether he was experimenting with LSD, Transcendental Meditation, primal therapy, macrobiotic diets, or recording techniques, the public was on board every step of the way. He spoke candidly about his intense, sometimes tumultuous relationship with Yoko Ono, his split with the Beatles, his squabbles with Paul McCartney, and just about everything else, baring his emotional ups and downs for all to see. He even literally bared himself, on the jacket of his Two Virgins LP and in the iconic photograph of him and Ono that Annie Leibovitz took just hours before he died.
Like the Beatles—who covered the vast distance between “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” in an astonishing three years—Lennon transformed himself during his years in the public eye. He struggles to find words during much of this book’s first interview, which he gave to a New Zealand radio station on June 21, 1964. But he seems increasingly well spoken—and often outspoken—in subsequent Beatles interviews; and, by the late 1960s, he evidences not only a keen sense of humor but also strong views on a wide range of issues.
By the time he granted this book’s, and his, final interview—on December 8, 1980, only hours before his death—he had become one of the most famous people on the planet and an articulate commentator on politics, human relations, and world peace. The once tongue-tied young man had evolved into someone whose words and music affected millions around the world.
Lennon pushed the limits at every turn, whether he was performing “Woman Is the Nigger of the World” on The Dick Cavett Show, talking left-wing politics on the mainstream Mike Douglas Show, conducting interviews with Ono from their bed, or holding a press conference with his head covered by a bag. (The couple called this “bagism” and claimed that it promoted “total communication.”)
“You may say I’m a dreamer,” Lennon sang in his anthemic 1971 hit “Imagine,” and he certainly was that. Some of his dreams, opinions, and other pronouncements now sound ahead of their time, or even ahead of ours; others today seem dated, naive, or even ridiculous. During a 1971 conversation with New York radio personality Howard Smith, he appeared to plead poverty, saying, “Most of it [the money] never got to us [the Beatles]. . . . We ain’t got any millions in the bank, I’ll tell ya that.” At another point, asked to reconcile his penchant for healthy foods with his cigarette smoking, he told Smith, “Smoking doesn’t harm you as much as all the chemical crap you eat every morning. . . . I think in the old days the government used to keep you down by not educating you. Now they keep you down by poisoning you.”
To borrow an album title from the late rock great Lou Reed, Lennon was “growing up in public,” which may help to explain why we witnessed such dramatic shifts in his views over time. In 1971 he dismissed his Beatles years in a conversation with left-wing activist Tariq Ali, saying, “It was complete oppression. I mean, we had to go through humiliation upon humiliation with the middle classes. . . . I found I was having continually to please the sort of people I’d always hated when I was a child.” But a few years later, he was looking back fondly on the Beatles era and speaking critically of Ali and other political activists.
“That radicalism was phony, really, because it was out of guilt,” he told Newsweek’s Barbara Graustark a few months before his death. “Being a chameleon, I became whoever I was with. When you stop and think, what the hell was I doing fighting the American government just because [Yippie leader] Jerry Rubin couldn’t get what he always wanted—a nice cushy job?”
While Lennon changed over the years and sometimes mixed silliness with wisdom, he always sounded sincere. And he was never, ever boring. There’s no question in my mind that the world is better off for having dreamers like Lennon, imperfect as they may be. Besides, he was prescient regarding the women’s movement and right about a lot of other things, including the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon, and maybe even Ono’s music, which was widely derided in earlier years but is today cited as a major influence by more than a few artists.
As for the Lennon quotes that now sound puerile, pointless, or anachronistic, well, consider his comment in 1968 that some of his published statements simply “said how I felt that day. But do I have to stand by that for the rest of me life just because it’s in print?” Or, as he told TV talk-show host Dick Cavett in 1971: “If . . . you’re in a certain mood, you’ll say certain things to them [reporters]. And then people bring it back five years later: ‘So you said this, did ya?’ But you’ve forgotten all about it. You’ve changed your mood, it’s a different day, it’s a different year, you know, and you’re feeling entirely different. . . . If everybody’s words were recorded as they were saying it, there’s lots of things you say that either turn out to be silly or you didn’t mean it or it’s spur-of-the-moment or you meant it or you had foresight or didn’t.”
Lennon talked often with the media, frequently at great length, and a complete collection of his hundreds of print and broadcast interviews would fill many volumes. In fact, entire books have been devoted to single interviews, most notably Lennon Remembers, a 1970 conversation with Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, and The Playboy Interviews with John Lennon & Yoko Ono, which resulted from about twenty hours of talk with journalist David Sheff in September 1980. There is also so much material online that I initially questioned the necessity of this book.
But as I explored Lennon’s conversations and tracked down information—a task complicated by the fact that many of the interviewers have long since died, as have many of the media outlets—I became convinced that this project made sense. The most engrossing discussions were not in one place and many had never appeared in print or even been transcribed. Some—including conversations that represent more than a third of the material anthologized here—have long been difficult or impossible to find in any form. As for the Q&As that have previously been obtainable, I found countless instances of poorly or incompletely transcribed conversations, inaccurately listed dates and places, misspelled names, and incorrectly attributed comments.
Here, then, is an annotated, fact-checked, chronologically arranged anthology of some of Lennon’s most illuminating and representative interviews. Interspersed throughout the book, also, are key quotes from dozens of additional Q&As. Together, this material paints a revealing picture of the artist in his own words. It also suggests some of the directions his life might have taken if it hadn’t been cut short. And it offers a window into the late 1960s and ’70s, which, as these interviews make clear, was a very different time in America and the world.
This is my third book for Chicago Review Press’s Musicians in Their Own Words series, following volumes on Bruce Springsteen and Leonard Cohen. Most of the response to those collections was gratifyingly positive, but one occasional criticism concerned repetition. There was some of that in the earlier books, and there’s a little of it here, because it’s inherent in the format. Interviewers do sometimes ask similar questions, and interviewees do sometimes recycle responses.
As in the earlier books, I have attempted to select interviews that largely cover territory not explored elsewhere, but there are only two ways I could have avoided all repetition. One would have been to exclude pieces that introduced any redundancy, which would have eliminated many conversations that contain important commentary not found in other Q&As. Another would have been to edit out portions of interviews that touch on subjects addressed similarly elsewhere.
I suspect most fans will prefer unadulterated conversations to ones that have been expunged of all repetition, so I’ve opted to present full interviews. (The one exception is a lengthy Q&A with Maurice Hindle and his companions, which for several reasons is excerpted from the even longer original.) Besides, I kind of like the occasional return to previously covered turf. It suggests that a subject was particularly important to Lennon and/or to his questioners, and when the same subject or idea is addressed in two or more discussions, the varying statements often shed additional light.
A word about style. Most of the chapters in this book resulted from my transcriptions of audio and video recordings. I have edited them slightly for readability and have formatted them to conform to the guidelines in the Chicago Manual of Style. The three pieces here that have previously been published in print have not been altered to fit that style, however; those appear as they originally ran.
Many of these conversations involve more than Lennon and an interviewer. During the Beatles’ years together, he rarely spoke to the press without his bandmates in tow, and the group often tried to deal with incessant requests for interviews by talking to multiple reporters at once in press conferences. Because Lennon and Yoko Ono remained inseparable during most of the years they knew each other, there’s also lots of her in these pages. And you’ll find an assortment of other characters here as well—everyone from the aforementioned Jerry Rubin and LSD advocate Timothy Leary to actresses Shirley MacLaine and Tallulah Bankhead, all of whom add color to already colorful conversations.
As you’ll see, some of these discussions don’t even feel like interviews. Lennon did do his share of formal Q&As. But he was just as likely to be found lying on his bed with Ono and journalist Howard Smith, eating tempura shrimp, listening to the radio, and chatting for hours—all while a tape recorder ran. In another case, he passed the better part of an afternoon talking and nibbling macrobiotic bread with a trio of college students, again with the tape rolling. On other occasions—including this book’s encounter with New York radio personality Dennis Elsas—he took on the role of DJ, playing records, reporting the latest weather, and even reading commercials.
One thing you won’t discover here are any lengthy conversations from the early and mid-1960s or anything from 1976 through 1979. I have included a few pieces from the former period, but Lennon didn’t give many in-depth interviews during that time. His comments to the press in that era tended to be limited to clever one-liners, often during group press conferences.
Fortunately, he opened up much more beginning around 1968, but then, seven years later, he closed the door to the media and opted for a private life as a househusband and father to his son Sean, who was born in October 1975. The following January, when Melody Maker’s Chris Charlesworth telegrammed the singer to request an interview, Lennon replied with a postcard that read, “No comment . . . am invisible.”
And indeed he was, until the fall of 1980. That’s when he and Ono again began granting interviews, to promote Double Fantasy, their first new album in five years, which appeared less than a month before Lennon was killed outside his Upper West Side New York apartment.
Copyright © 2017 by Jeff Burger. All rights reserved.