By David Sheff / September 8-28, 1980
A candid conversation with the reclusive couple about their years together and their surprisingly frank views on life with and without the Beatles.
To describe the turbulent history of the Beatles, or the musical and cultural mileposts charted by John Lennon, would be an exercise in the obvious. Much of the world knows that Lennon was the guiding spirit of the Beatles, who were themselves among the most popular and profound influences of the Sixties, before breaking up bitterly in 1970. Some fans blamed the breakup on Yoko Ono, Lennon's Japanese-born second wife, who was said to have wielded a disproportionate influence over Lennon, and with whom he has collaborated throughout the Seventies.
In 1975, the Lennons became unavailable to the press, and though much speculation has been printed, they emerged to dispel the rumors -- and to cut a new album -- only a couple of months ago. The Lennons decided to speak with Playboy in the longest interview they have ever granted. Free-lance writer David Sheff was tapped for the assignment, and when he and a Playboy editor met with Ono to discuss ground rules, she came on strong: Responding to a reference to other notables who had been interviewed in Playboy, Ono said, "People like Carter represent only their country. John and I represent the world." But by the time the interview was concluded several weeks later, Ono had joined the project with enthusiasm. Here is Sheff's report:
"There was an excellent chance this interview would never take place. When my contacts with the Lennon-Ono organization began, one of Ono's assistants called me, asking, seriously, 'What's your sign?' The interview apparently depended on Yoko's interpretation of my horoscope, just as many of the Lennons' business decisions are reportedly guided by the stars. I could imagine explaining to my Playboy editor, 'Sorry, but my moon is in Scorpio -- the interview's off.' It was clearly out of my hands. I supplied the info: December 23, three P.M., Boston. "Thank my lucky stars. The call came in and the interview was tentatively on. And I soon found myself in New York, passing through the ominous gates and numerous security check points at the Lennons' headquarters, the famed Dakota apartment building on Central Park West, where the couple dwells and where Yoko Ono holds court beginning at eight o'clock every morning.
"Ono is one of the most misunderstood women in the public eye. Her mysterious image is based on some accurate and some warped accounts of her philosophies and her art statements, and on the fact that she never smiles. It is also based -- perhaps unfairly -- on resentment of her as the sorceress/Svengali who controls the very existence of John Lennon. That image has remained through the years since she and John met, primarily because she hasn't chosen to correct it -- nor has she chosen to smile. So as I removed my shoes before treading on her fragile carpet -- those were the instructions -- I wondered what the next test might be.
"Between interruptions from her two male assistants busy screening the constant flow of phone calls, Yoko gave me the once-over. She finally explained that the stars had, indeed, said it was right -- very right, in fact. Who was I to argue? So the next day, I found myself sitting across a couple of cups of cappuccino from John Lennon.
"Lennon, still bleary-eyed from lack of sleep and scruffy from lack of shave, waited for the coffee to take hold of a system otherwise used to operating on sushi and sashimi -- 'dead fish,' as he calls them -- French cigarettes and Hershey bars with almonds.
"Within the first hour of the interview, Lennon put every one of my preconceived ideas about him to rest. He was far more open and candid and witty than I had any right to expect. He was prepared, once Yoko had given the initial go-ahead, to frankly talk about everything. Explode was more like it. If his sessions in primal-scream therapy were his emotional and intellectual release ten years ago, this interview was his more recent vent. After a week of conversations with Lennon and Ono separately as well as together, we had apparently established some sort of rapport, which was confirmed early one morning.
"'John wants to know how fast you can meet him at the apartment,' announced the by-then-familiar voice of a Lennon-Ono assistant. It was a short cab ride away and he briefed me quickly: 'A guy's trying to serve me a subpoena and I just don't want to deal with it today. Will you help me out?' We sneaked into his limousine and streaked toward the recording studio three hours before Lennon was due to arrive. Lennon told his driver to slow to a crawl as we approached the studio and instructed me to lead the way inside, after making sure the path was safe. 'If anybody comes up with papers, knock them down,' he said. 'As long as they don't touch me, it's OK.' Before I left the car, Lennon pointed to a sleeping wino leaning against the studio wall. 'That could be him,' Lennon warned. 'They're masters of disguise.' Lennon high-tailed it into the elevator, dragging me along with him. When the elevator doors finally closed, he let out a nervous sigh and somehow the ludicrousness of the morning dawned on him. He broke out laughing. 'I feel like I'm back in "Hard Day's Night" or "Help!"' he said.
"As the interview progressed, the complicated and misunderstood relationship between Lennon and Ono emerged as the primary factor in both of their lives. 'Why don't people believe us when we say we're simply in love?' John pleaded. The enigma called Yoko Ono became accessible as the hard exterior broke down -- such as the morning when she let out a hiccup right in the middle of a heavy discourse on capitalism. Nonplused by her hiccup, Ono giggled. With that giggle, she became vulnerable and cute and shy -- not at all the creature that came from the Orient to brainwash John Lennon.
"Ono was born in 1933 in Tokyo, where her parents were bankers and socialites. In 1951, her family moved to Scarsdale, New York. She attended Sarah Lawrence College. In 1957, Yoko was married for the first time, to Toshi Ichiyanagi, a musician. They were divorced in 1964 and later that year, she married Tony Cox, who fathered her daughter, Kyoko. She and Cox were divorced in 1967, two years before she married Lennon.
"The Lennon half of the couple was born in October 1940. His father left home before John was born to become a seaman and his mother, incapable of caring for the boy, turned John over to his aunt and uncle when he was four and a half. They lived several blocks away from his mother in Liverpool, England. Lennon, who attended Liverpool private schools, met a kid named Paul McCartney in 1957 at the Woolton Parish Church Festival in Liverpool. The following year, the two formed their first band, the Nurk Twins.
"In 1958, John formed the Quarrymen, named after his high school. He asked Paul to join the band and agreed to audition a friend of Paul's, George Harrison. In 1959, the Quarrymen disbanded but later regrouped as Johnny and the Moondogs and then the Silver Beatles. They played in clubs, backing strippers, and they got their foot in the door of Liverpool's showcase Cavern Club. Pete Best was signed on as drummer and the Silver Beatles left England for Hamburg, where they played eight hours a night at the Indra Club. The Silver Beatles became the Beatles and, by 1960, when they returned to England, the band had become the talk of Liverpool.
"In 1962, John married Cynthia Powell and they had a son, Julian. John and Cynthia were divorced in 1968. Later in 1962, Richard Starkey -- or Ringo Starr -- replaced Best as the Beatles' drummer and the rest -- as Lennon often says sarcastically -- is pop history."