By David Sheff / September 8-28, 1980
PLAYBOY: What's an example of a lyric you and Paul worked on together?
LENNON: In "We Can Work It Out," Paul did the first half, I did the middle eight. But you've got Paul writing, "We can work it out/We can work it out" -- real optimistic, y' know, and me, impatient: "Life is very short and there's no time/For fussing and fighting, my friend...."
PLAYBOY: Paul tells the story and John philosophizes.
LENNON: Sure. Well, I was always like that, you know. I was like that before the Beatles and after the Beatles. I always asked why people did things and why society was like it was. I didn't just accept it for what it was apparently doing. I always looked below the surface.
PLAYBOY: When you talk about working together on a single lyric like "We Can Work It Out," it suggests that you and Paul worked a lot more closely than you've admitted in the past. Haven't you said that you wrote most of your songs separately, despite putting both of your names on them?
LENNON: Yeah, I was lying. [Laughs] It was when I felt resentful, so I felt that we did everything apart. But, actually, a lot of the songs we did eyeball to eyeball.
PLAYBOY: But many of them were done apart, weren't they?
LENNON: Yeah. "Sgt. Pepper" was Paul's idea, and I remember he worked on it a lot and suddenly called me to go into the studio, said it was time to write some songs. On "Pepper," under the pressure of only ten days, I managed to come up with "Lucy in the Sky" and "Day in the Life." We weren't communicating enough, you see. And later on, that's why I got resentful about all that stuff. But now I understand that it was just the same competitive game going on.
PLAYBOY: But the competitive game was good for you, wasn't it?
LENNON: In the early days. We'd make a record in 12 hours or something; they would want a single every three months and we'd have to write it in a hotel room or in a van. So the cooperation was functional as well as musical.
PLAYBOY: Don't you think that cooperation, that magic between you, is something you've missed in your work since?
LENNON: I never actually felt a loss. I don't want it to sound negative, like I didn't need Paul, because when he was there, obviously, it worked. But I can't -- it's easier to say what I gave to him than what he gave to me. And he'd say the same.
PLAYBOY: Just a quick aside, but while we're on the subject of lyrics and your resentment of Paul, what made you write "How Do You Sleep?," which contains lyrics such as "Those freaks was right when they said you was dead" and "The only thing you done was yesterday/And since you've gone, you're just another day"?
LENNON: [Smiles] You know, I wasn't really feeling that vicious at the time. But I was using my resentment toward Paul to create a song, let's put it that way. He saw that it pointedly refers to him, and people kept hounding him about it. But, you know, there were a few digs on his album before mine. He's so obscure other people didn't notice them, but I heard them. I thought, Well, I'm not obscure, I just get right down to the nitty-gritty. So he'd done it his way and I did it mine. But as to the line you quoted, yeah, I think Paul died creatively, in a way.
PLAYBOY: That's what we were getting at: You say that what you've done since the Beatles stands up well, but isn't it possible that with all of you, it's been a case of the creative whole being greater than the parts?
LENNON: I don't know whether this will gel for you: When the Beatles played in America for the first time, they played pure craftsmanship. Meaning they were already old hands. The jism had gone out of the performances a long time ago. In the same respect, the songwriting creativity had left Paul and me in the mid-Sixties. When we wrote together in the early days, it was like the beginning of a relationship. Lots of energy. In the "Sgt. Pepper"- "Abbey Road" period, the relationship had matured. Maybe had we gone on together, more interesting things would have come, but it couldn't have been the same.
PLAYBOY: Let's move on to Ringo. What's your opinion of him musically?
LENNON: Ringo was a star in his own right in Liverpool before we even met. He was a professional drummer who sang and performed and had Ringo Star-time and he was in one of the top groups in Britain but especially in Liverpool before we even had a drummer. So Ringo's talent would have come out one way or the other as something or other. I don't know what he would have ended up as, but whatever that spark is in Ringo that we all know but can't put our finger on -- whether it is acting, drumming or singing I don't know -- there is something in him that is projectable and he would have surfaced with or without the Beatles. Ringo is a damn good drummer. He is not technically good, but I think Ringo's drumming is underrated the same way Paul's bass playing is underrated. Paul was one of the most innovative bass players ever. And half the stuff that is going on now is directly ripped off from his Beatles period. He is an egomaniac about everything else about himself, but his bass playing he was always a bit coy about. I think Paul and Ringo stand up with any of the rock musicians. Not technically great -- none of us are technical musicians. None of us could read music. None of us can write it. But as pure musicians, as inspired humans to make the noise, they are as good as anybody.
PLAYBOY: How about George's solo music?
LENNON: I think "All Things Must Pass" was all right. It just went on too long.
PLAYBOY: How did you feel about the lawsuit George lost that claimed the music to "My Sweet Lord" is a rip-off of the Shirelles' hit "He's So Fine?"
LENNON: Well, he walked right into it. He knew what he was doing.
PLAYBOY: Are you saying he consciously plagiarized the song?
LENNON: He must have known, you know. He's smarter than that. It's irrelevant, actually -- only on a monetary level does it matter. He could have changed a couple of bars in that song and nobody could ever have touched him, but he just let it go and paid the price. Maybe he thought God would just sort of let him off. [At presstime, the court has found Harrison guilty of "subconscious" plagiarism but has not yet ruled on damages.]
PLAYBOY: You actually haven't mentioned George much in this interview.
LENNON: Well, I was hurt by George's book, "I, Me, Mine" -- so this message will go to him. He put a book out privately on his life that, by glaring omission, says that my influence on his life is absolutely zilch and nil. In his book, which is purportedly this clarity of vision of his influence on each song he wrote, he remembers every two-bit sax player or guitarist he met in subsequent years. I'm not in the book.
LENNON: Because George's relationship with me was one of young follower and older guy. He's three or four years younger than me. It's a love- hate relationship and I think George still bears resentment toward me for being a daddy who left home. He would not agree with this, but that's my feeling about it. I was just hurt. I was just left out, as if I didn't exist. I don't want to be that egomaniacal, but he was like a disciple of mine when we started. I was already an art student when Paul and George were still in grammar school [equivalent to high school in the U.S.]. There is a vast difference between being in high school and being in college and I was already in college and already had sexual relationships, already drank and did a lot of things like that. When George was a kid, he used to follow me and my first girlfriend, Cynthia -- who became my wife -- around. We'd come out of art school and he'd be hovering around like those kids at the gate of the Dakota now. I remember the day he called to ask for help on "Taxman," one of his bigger songs. I threw in a few one-liners to help the song along, because that's what he asked for. He came to me because he couldn't go to Paul, because Paul wouldn't have helped him at that period. I didn't want to do it. I thought, Oh, no, don't tell me I have to work on George's stuff. It's enough doing my own and Paul's. But because I loved him and I didn't want to hurt him when he called me that afternoon and said, "Will you help me with this song?" I just sort of bit my tongue and said OK. It had been John and Paul so long, he'd been left out because he hadn't been a songwriter up until then. As a singer, we allowed him only one track on each album. If you listen to the Beatles' first albums, the English versions, he gets a single track. The songs he and Ringo sang at first were the songs that used to be part of my repertoire in the dance halls. I used to pick songs for them from my repertoire -- the easier ones to sing. So I am slightly resentful of George's book. But don't get me wrong. I still love those guys. The Beatles are over, but John, Paul, George and Ringo go on.
PLAYBOY: Didn't all four Beatles work on a song you wrote for Ringo in 1973?
LENNON: "I'm the Greatest." It was the Muhammad Ali line, of course. It was perfect for Ringo to sing. If I said, "I'm the greatest," they'd all take it so seriously. No one would get upset with Ringo singing it.
PLAYBOY: Did you enjoy playing with George and Ringo again?
LENNON: Yeah, except when George and Billy Preston started saying, "Let's form a group. Let's form a group." I was embarrassed when George kept asking me. He was just enjoying the session and the spirit was very good, but I was with Yoko, you know. We took time out from what we were doing. The very fact that they would imagine I would form a male group without Yoko! It was still in their minds. . . .
PLAYBOY: Just to finish your favorite subject, what about the suggestion that the four of you put aside your personal feelings and regroup to give a mammoth concert for charity, some sort of giant benefit?
LENNON: I don't want to have anything to do with benefits. I have been benefited to death.
LENNON: Because they're always rip-offs. I haven't performed for personal gain since 1966, when the Beatles last performed. Every concert since then, Yoko and I did for specific charities, except for a Toronto thing that was a rock- 'n'-roll revival. Every one of them was a mess or a rip-off. So now we give money to who we want. You've heard of tithing?
PLAYBOY: That's when you give away a fixed percentage of your income.
LENNON: Right. I am just going to do it privately. I am not going to get locked into that business of saving the world on stage. The show is always a mess and the artist always comes off badly.
PLAYBOY: What about the Bangladesh concert, in which George and other people such as Dylan performed?
LENNON: Bangladesh was caca.
PLAYBOY: You mean because of all the questions that were raised about where the money went?
LENNON: Yeah, right. I can't even talk about it, because it's still a problem. You'll have to check with Mother [Yoko], because she knows the ins and outs of it, I don't. But it's all a rip-off. So forget about it. All of you who are reading this, don't bother sending me all that garbage about, "Just come and save the Indians, come and save the blacks, come and save the war veterans," Anybody I want to save will be helped through our tithing, which is ten percent of whatever we earn.
PLAYBOY: But that doesn't compare with what one promoter, Sid Bernstein, said you could raise by giving a world-wide televised concert -- playing separately, as individuals, or together, as the Beatles. He estimated you could raise over $200,000,000 in one day.
LENNON: That was a commercial for Sid Bernstein written with Jewish schmaltz and showbiz and tears, dropping on one knee. It was Al Jolson. OK. So I don't buy that. OK.
PLAYBOY: But the fact is, $200,000,000 to a poverty- stricken country in South America----
LENNON: Where do people get off saying the Beatles should give $200,000,000 to South America? You know, America has poured billions into places like that. It doesn't mean a damn thing. After they've eaten that meal, then what? It lasts for only a day. After the $200,000,000 is gone, then what? It goes round and round in circles. You can pour money in forever. After Peru, then Harlem, then Britain. There is no one concert. We would have to dedicate the rest of our lives to one world concert tour, and I'm not ready for it. Not in this lifetime, anyway.
[Ono rejoins the conversation.]
PLAYBOY: On the subject of your own wealth, the New York Post recently said you admitted to being worth over $150,000,000 and----
LENNON: We never admitted anything.
PLAYBOY: The Post said you had.
LENNON: What the Post says -- OK, so we are rich; so what?
PLAYBOY: The question is, How does that jibe with your political philosophies? You're supposed to be socialists, aren't you?
LENNON: In England, there are only two things to be, basically: You are either for the labor movement or for the capitalist movement. Either you become a right-wing Archie Bunker if you are in the class I am in, or you become an instinctive socialist, which I was. That meant I think people should get their false teeth and their health looked after, all the rest of it. But apart from that, I worked for money and I wanted to be rich. So what the hell -- if that's a paradox, then I'm a socialist. But I am not anything. What I used to be is guilty about money. That's why I lost it, either by giving it away or by allowing myself to be screwed by so-called managers.
PLAYBOY: Whatever your politics, you've played the capitalist game very well, parlaying your Beatles royalties into real estate, livestock----
ONO: There is no denying that we are still living in the capitalist world. I think that in order to survive and to change the world, you have to take care of yourself first. You have to survive yourself. I used to say to myself, I am the only socialist living here. [Laughs] I don't have a penny. It is all John's, so I'm clean. But I was using his money and I had to face that hypocrisy. I used to think that money was obscene, that the artists didn't have to think about money. But to change society, there are two ways to go: through violence or the power of money within the system. A lot of people in the Sixties went underground and were involved in bombings and other violence. But that is not the way, definitely not for me. So to change the system -- even if you are going to become a mayor or something -- you need money.
PLAYBOY: To what extent do you play the game without getting caught up in it -- money for the sake of money, in other words?
ONO: There is a limit. It would probably be parallel to our level of security. Do you know what I mean? I mean the emotional-security level as well.
PLAYBOY: Has it reached that level yet?
ONO: No, not yet. I don't know. It might have.
PLAYBOY: You mean with $150,000,000? Is that an accurate estimate?
ONO: I don't know what we have. It becomes so complex that you need to have ten accountants working for two years to find out what you have. But let's say that we feel more comfortable now.
PLAYBOY: How have you chosen to invest your money?
ONO: To make money, you have to spend money. But if you are going to make money, you have to make it with love. I love Egyptian art. I make sure to get all the Egyptian things, not for their value but for their magic power. Each piece has a certain magic power. Also with houses. I just buy ones we love, not the ones that people say are good investments.
PLAYBOY: The papers have made it sound like you are buying up the Atlantic Seaboard.
ONO: If you saw the houses, you would understand. They have become a good investment, but they are not an investment unless you sell them. We don't intend to sell. Each house is like a historic landmark and they're very beautiful.
PLAYBOY: Do you actually use all the properties?
ONO: Most people have the park to go to and run in -- the park is a huge place -- but John and I were never able to go to the park together. So we have to create our own parks, you know.
PLAYBOY: We heard that you own $60,000,000 worth of dairy cows. Can that be true?
ONO: I don't know. I'm not a calculator. I'm not going by figures. I'm going by excellence of things.
LENNON: Sean and I were away for a weekend and Yoko came over to sell this cow and I was joking about it. We hadn't seen her for days; she spent all her time on it. But then I read the paper that said she sold it for a quarter of a million dollars. Only Yoko could sell a cow for that much.
PLAYBOY: For an artist, your business sense seems remarkable.
ONO: I was doing it just as a chess game. I love chess. I do everything like it's a chess game. Not on a Monopoly level -- that's a bit more realistic. Chess is more conceptual.
PLAYBOY: John, do you really need all those houses around the country?
LENNON: They're good business.
PLAYBOY: Why does anyone need $150,000,000? Couldn't you be perfectly content with $100,000,000? Or $1,000,000?
LENNON: What would you suggest I do? Give everything away and walk the streets? The Buddhist says, "Get rid of the possessions of the mind." Walking away from all the money would not accomplish that. It's like the Beatles. I couldn't walk away from the Beatles. That's one possession that's still tagging along, right? If I walk away from one house or 400 houses, I'm not gonna escape it.
PLAYBOY: How do you escape it?
LENNON: It takes time to get rid of all this garbage that I've been carrying around that was influencing the way I thought and the way I lived. It had a lot to do with Yoko, showing me that I was still possessed. I left physically when I fell in love with Yoko, but mentally it took the last ten years of struggling. I learned everything from her.
PLAYBOY: You make it sound like a teacher-pupil relationship.
LENNON: It is a teacher-pupil relationship. That's what people don't understand. She's the teacher and I'm the pupil. I'm the famous one, the one who's supposed to know everything, but she's my teacher. She's taught me everything I fucking know. She was there when I was nowhere, when I was the nowhere man. She's my Don Juan [a reference to Carlos Castaneda's Yaqui Indian teacher]. That's what people don't understand. I'm married to fucking Don Juan, that's the hardship of it. Don Juan doesn't have to laugh; Don Juan doesn't have to be charming; Don Juan just is. And what goes on around Don Juan is irrelevant to Don Juan.
PLAYBOY: Yoko, how do you feel about being John's teacher?
ONO: Well, he had a lot of experience before he met me, the kind of experience I never had, so I learned a lot from him, too. It's both ways. Maybe it's that I have strength, a feminine strength. Because women develop it -- in a relationship, I think women really have the inner wisdom and they're carrying that while men have sort of the wisdom to cope with society, since they created it. Men never developed the inner wisdom; they didn't have time. So most men do rely on women's inner wisdom, whether they express that or not.
PLAYBOY: Is Yoko John's guru?
LENNON: No, a Don Juan doesn't have a following. A Don Juan isn't in the newspaper and doesn't have disciples and doesn't proselytize.
PLAYBOY: How has she taught you?
LENNON: When Don Juan said -- when Don Ono said, "Get out! Because you're not getting it," well, it was like being sent into the desert. And the reason she wouldn't let me back in was because I wasn't ready to come back in. I had to settle things within myself. When I was ready to come back in, she let me back in. And that's what I'm living with.
PLAYBOY: You're talking about your separation.
LENNON: Yes. We were separated in the early Seventies. She kicked me out. Suddenly, I was on a raft alone in the middle of the universe.
PLAYBOY: What happened?
LENNON: Well, at first, I thought, Whoopee, whoopee! You know, bachelor life! Whoopee! And then I woke up one day and I thought, What is this? I want to go home! But she wouldn't let me come home. That's why it was 18 months apart instead of six months. We were talking all the time on the phone and I would say, "I don't like this, I'm getting in trouble and I'd like to come home, please." And she would say, "You're not ready to come home." So what do you say? OK, back to the bottle.
PLAYBOY: What did she mean, you weren't ready?
LENNON: She has her ways. Whether they be mystical or practical. When she said it's not ready, it ain't ready.
PLAYBOY: Back to the bottle?
LENNON: I was just trying to hide what I felt in the bottle. I was just insane. It was the lost weekend that lasted 18 months. I've never drunk so much in my life. I tried to drown myself in the bottle and I was with the heaviest drinkers in the business.
PLAYBOY: Such as?
LENNON: Such as Harry Nilsson, Bobby Keyes, Keith Moon. We couldn't pull ourselves out. We were trying to kill ourselves. I think Harry might still be trying, poor bugger -- God bless you, Harry, wherever you are -- but, Jesus, you know, I had to get away from that, because somebody was going to die. Well, Keith did. It was like, who's going to die first? Unfortunately, Keith was the one.
PLAYBOY: Why the self-destruction?
LENNON: For me, it was because of being apart. I couldn't stand it. They had their own reasons, and it was, Let's all drown ourselves together. From where I was sitting, it looked like that. Let's kill ourselves but do it like Errol Flynn, you know, the macho, male way. It's embarrassing for me to think about that period, because I made a big fool of myself -- but maybe it was a good lesson for me. I wrote "Nobody Loves You When You're Down and Out" during that time. That's how I felt. It exactly expresses the whole period. For some reason, I always imagined Sinatra singing that one. I don't know why. It's kind of a Sinatraesque song, really. He would do a perfect job with it. Are you listening, Frank? You need a song that isn't a piece of nothing. Here's the one for you, the horn arrangement and everything's made for you. But don't ask me to produce it.
PLAYBOY: That must have been the time the papers came out with reports about Lennon running around town with a Tampax on his head.
LENNON: The stories were all so exaggerated, but. . . . We were all in a restaurant, drinking, not eating, as usual at those gatherings, and I happened to go take a pee and there was a brand-new fresh Kotex, not Tampax, on the toilet. You know the old trick where you put a penny on your forehead and it sticks? I was a little high and I just picked it up and slapped it on and it stayed, you see. I walked out of the bathroom and I had a Kotex on my head. Big deal. Everybody went "Ha-ha-ha" and it fell off, but the press blew it up.
PLAYBOY: Why did you kick John out, Yoko?
ONO: There were many things. I'm what I call a "moving on" kind of girl; there's a song on our new album about it. Rather than deal with problems in relationships, I've always moved on. That's why I'm one of the very few survivors as a woman, you know. Women tend to be more into men usually, but I wasn't....
LENNON: Yoko looks upon men as assistants. . . . Of varying degrees of intimacy, but basically assistants. And this one's going to take a pee.
ONO: I have no comment on that. But when I met John, women to him were basically people around who were serving him. He had to open himself up and face me -- and I had to see what he was going through. But ... I though I had to move on again, because I was suffering being with John.
ONO: The pressure from the public, being the one who broke up the Beatles and who made it impossible for them to get back together. My artwork suffered, too. I thought I wanted to be free from being Mrs. Lennon, so I thought it would be a good idea for him to go to L.A. and leave me alone for a while. I had put up with it for many years. Even early on, when John was a Beatle, we stayed in a room and John and I were in bed and the door was closed and all that, but we didn't lock the door and one of the Beatle assistants just walked in and talked to him as if I weren't there. It was mind- blowing. I was invisible. The people around John saw me as a terrible threat. I mean, I heard there were plans to kill me. Not the Beatles but the people around them.
PLAYBOY: How did that news affect you?
ONO: The society doesn't understand that the woman can be castrated, too. I felt castrated. Before, I was doing all right, thank you. My work might not have been selling much, I might have been poorer, but I had my pride. But the most humiliating thing is to be looked at as a parasite.
[Lennon rejoins the conversation.]
LENNON: When Yoko and I started doing stuff together, we would hold press conferences and announce our whatevers -- we're going to wear bags or whatever. And before this one press conference, one Beatle assistant in the upper echelon of Beatle assistants leaned over to Yoko and said, "You know, you don't have to work. You've got enough money, now that you're Mrs. Lennon." And when she complained to me about it, I couldn't understand what she was talking about. "But this guy," I'd say, "He's just good old Charley, or whatever. He's been with us 20 years...." The same kind of thing happened in the studio. She would say to an engineer, "I'd like a little more treble, a little more bass," or "There's too much of whatever you're putting on," and they'd look at me and say, "What did you say, John?" Those days I didn't even notice it myself. Now I know what she's talking about. In Japan, when I ask for a cup of tea in Japanese, they look at Yoko and ask, "He wants a cup of tea?" in Japanese.
ONO: So a good few years of that kind of thing emasculates you. I had always been more macho than most guys I was with, in a sense. I had always been the breadwinner, because I always wanted to have the freedom and the control. Suddenly, I'm with somebody I can't possibly compete with on a level of earnings. Finally, I couldn't take it -- or I decided not to take it any longer. I would have had the same difficulty even if I hadn't gotten involved with, ah----
LENNON: John -- John is the name.
ONO: With John. But John wasn't just John. He was also his group and the people around them. When I say John, it's not just John----
LENNON: That's John. J-O-H-N. From Johan, I believe.
PLAYBOY: So you made him leave?
LENNON: She don't suffer fools gladly, even if she's married to him.
PLAYBOY: How did you finally get back together?
ONO: It slowly started to dawn on me that John was not the trouble at all. John was a fine person. It was society that had become too much. We laugh about it now, but we started dating again. I wanted to be sure. I'm thankful to John's intelligence----
LENNON: Now, get that, editors -- you got that word?
ONO: That he was intelligent enough to know this was the only way that we could save our marriage, not because we didn't love each other but because it was getting too much for me. Nothing would have changed if I had come back as Mrs. Lennon again.
PLAYBOY: What did change?
ONO: It was good for me to do the business and regain my pride about what I could do. And it was good to know what he needed, the role reversal that was so good for him.
LENNON: And we learned that it's better for the family if we are both working for the family, she doing the business and me playing mother and wife. We reordered our priorities. The number-one priority is her and the family. Everything else revolves around that.
ONO: It's a hard realization. These days, the society prefers single people. The encouragements are to divorce or separate or be single or gay -- whatever. Corporations want singles -- they work harder if they don't have family ties. They don't have to worry about being home in the evenings or on the weekends. There's not much room for emotions about family or personal relationships. You know, the whole thing they say to women approaching 30 that if you don't have a baby in the next few years, you're going to be in trouble, you'll never be a mother, so you'll never be fulfilled in that way and----
LENNON: Only Yoko was 73 when she had Sean.
ONO: So instead of the society discouraging children, since they are important for society, it should encourage them. It's the responsibility of everybody. But it is hard. A woman has to deny what she has, her womb, if she wants to make it. It seems that only the privileged classes can have families. Nowadays, maybe it's only the McCartneys and the Lennons or something.
LENNON: Everybody else becomes a worker-consumer.
ONO: And then Big Brother will decide -- I hate to use the term Big Brother....
LENNON: Too late. They've got it on tape. [Laughs]
ONO: But, finally, the society----
LENNON: Big Sister -- wait till she comes!
ONO: The society will do away with the roles of men and women. Babies will be born in test tubes and incubators....
LENNON: Then it's Aldous Huxley.
ONO: But we don't have to go that way. We don't have to deny any of our organs, you know.
LENNON: Some of my best friends are organs----
ONO: The new album----
LENNON: Back to the album, very good----
ONO: The album fights these things. The messages are sort of old-fashioned -- family, relationships, children.