Sunday, September 20, 2009

John Lennon: 1975

By Pete Hamill / June 5, 1975

There 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 nineteenth-century memories on the corner of Seventy-second 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 and a half. 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 and a half 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 thirty-four, he is moving into full maturity as a man and an artist and seems less afraid than ever before of nakedness.

We talked only briefly about the Beatles. A few years ago, 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.

We only know a small part of what really has happened to him in the years since he met Yoko Ono. 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. People started to write him off. His records were selling but it wasn't like the Beatles, it wasn't even like the other Beatles. John was the one Who Had Gone Too Far.

A year and a half 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 with ever be definitive in John Lennon's life: He is the sort of artist 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.

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