By Jonathan Cott / December 5, 1980
Almost ten years later, I am again talking to John, and he is as gracious and witty as the first time I met him. "I guess I should describe to the readers what you're wearing, John," I say. "Let me help you out," he offers, then intones wryly: "You can see the glasses he's wearing. They're normal plastic blue-frame glasses. Nothing like the famous wire-rimmed Lennon glasses that he stopped using in 1973. He's wearing needle-cord pants, the same black cowboy boots he'd had made in Nudie's in 1973, a Calvin Klein sweater and a torn Mick Jagger T-shirt that he got when the Stones toured in 1970 or so. And around his neck is a small, three-part diamond heart necklace that he bought as a make-up present after an argument with Yoko many years ago and that she later gave back to him in a kind of ritual. Will that do?
"I know you've got a Monday deadline," he adds," he adds, "but Yoko and I have to go to the Record Plant now to remix a few of Yoko's songs for a possible disco record. So why don't you come along and we'll talk in the studio."
"You're not putting any of your songs on this record?" I ask as we get into the waiting car. "No, because I don't make that stuff." He laughs and we drive off. "I've heard that in England some people are appreciating Yoko's songs on the new album and are asking why I was doing that 'straight old Beatles stuff,' and I didn't know about punk and what's going on - 'You were great then; "Walrus" was hip, but this isn't hip, John!' I'm really pleased for Yoko. She deserves the praise. It's been a long haul. I'd love her to have the A side of a hit record and me the B side. I'd settle for it any day."
"It's interesting," I say, "that no rock & roll star I can think of has made a record with his wife or whomever and given her fifty percent of the disc."
"It's the first time we've done it this way," John says. "It's a dialogue, and we have resurrected ourselves, in a way, as John and Yoko - not as John ex-Beatle and Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band. It's just the two of us, and our position was that, if the record didn't sell, it meant people didn't want to know about John and Yoko - either they didn't want John anymore or they didn't want John with Yoko or maybe they just wanted Yoko, whatever. But if they didn't want the two of us, we weren't interested. Throughout my career, I've selected to work with - for more than a one-night stand, say, with David Bowie or Elton John - only two people: Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono. I brought Paul into the original group, the Quarrymen; he brought George in and George brought Ringo in. And the second person who interested me as an artist and somebody I could work with was Yoko Ono. That ain't bad picking."
When we arrive at the studio, the engineers being playing tapes of Yoko's "Kiss Kiss Kiss," "Every Man Has a Woman Who Loves Him" (both from Double Fantasy) and a powerful new disco song (not on the album) called "Walking on Thin Ice," which features a growling guitar lick by Lennon, based on Sanford Clark's 1956 song, "The Fool."
Which way could I come back into this game?" John asks as we settle down. "I came back from the place I know best - as unpretentiously as possible - not to prove anything but just to enjoy it."
"I've heard that you've had a guitar on the wall behind your bed for the past five or six years, and that you've only taken it down and played it for Double Fantasy. Is that true?"
"I bought this beautiful electric guitar, round about the period I got back with Yoko and had the baby," John explains. "It's not a normal guitar; it doesn't have a body; it's just an arm and this tubelike, toboggan-looking thing, and you can lengthen the top for the balance of it if you're sitting or standing up. I played it a little, then just hung it up behind the bed, but I'd look at it every now and then, because it had never done a professional thing, it had never really been played. I didn't want to hide it the way one would hide an instrument because it was too painful to look at - like, Artie Shaw went through a big thing and never played again. But I used to look at it and think, 'Will I ever pull it down?'
"Next to it on the wall I'd placed the number 9 and a dagger Yoko had given me - a dagger made out of a bread knife from the American Civil War to cut away the bad vibes, to cut away the past symbolically. It was just like a picture that hangs there but you never really see, and then recently I realized, 'Oh, goody! I can finally find out what this guitar is all about,' and I took it down and used it in making Double Fantasy.
"All through the taping of 'Starting Over,' I was calling what I was doing 'Elvis Orbison': 'I want you I need only the lonely.' I'm a born-again rocker, I feel that refreshed, and I'm going right back to my roots. It's like Dylan doing Nashville Skyline, except I don't have any Nashville, you know, being from Liverpool. So I go back to the records I know - Elvis and Roy Orbison and Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis. I occasionally get ripped off into 'Walruses' or 'Revolution 9,' but my far-out side has been completely encompassed by Yoko.
"The first show we did together was at Cambridge University in 1968 or '69, when she had been booked to do a concert with some jazz musicians. That was the first time I had appeared un-Beatled. I just hung around and played feedback, and people got very upset because they recognized me: 'What's he doing here?' It's always: 'Stay in your bag.' So, when she tried to rock, they said, 'What's she doing here?' And when I went with her and tried to be the instrument and not project - to just be her band, like a sort of like Turner to her Tina, only her Tina was a different, avant-garde Tina - well, even some of the jazz guys got upset.
"Everybody has pictures they want you to live up to. But that's the same as living up to your parents' expectations, or to society's expectations, or to so-called critics who are just guys with a typewriter in a little room, smoking and drinking beer and having their dreams and nightmares, too, but somehow pretending that they're living in a different, separate world. That's all right. But there are people who break out of their bags."
"I remember years ago," I say, "when you and Yoko appeared in bags at a Vienna press conference."
"Right. We sang a Japanese folk song in the bags. 'Das ist really you, John? John Lennon in zee bag?' Yeah, it's me. 'But how do we know ist you?' Because I'm telling you. 'Vy don't you come out from this bag?' Because I don't want to come out of the bag. 'Don't you realize this is the Hapsburg palace?' I thought it was a hotel. 'Vell, it is now a hotel.' They had great chocolate cake in that Viennese hotel, I remember that. Anyway, who wants to be locked in a bag? You have to break out of your bag to keep alive."
"In 'Beautiful Boys,' " I add, "Yoko sings: 'Please never be afraid to cry . . . / Don't ever be afraid to fly . . . / Don't be afraid to be afraid.' "
"Yes, it's beautiful. I'm often afraid, and I'm not afraid to be afraid, though it's always scary. But it's more painful to try not to be yourself. People spend a lot of time trying to be somebody else, and I think it leads to terrible diseases. Maybe you get cancer or something. A lot of tough guys die of cancer, have you noticed? Wayne, McQueen. I think it has something to do - I don't know, I'm not an expert - with constantly living or getting trapped in an image or an illusion of themselves, suppressing some part of themselves, whether it's the feminine side or the fearful side.
"I'm well aware of that, because I come from the macho school of pretense. I was never really a street kid or a tough guy. I used to dress like a Teddy boy and identify with Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley, but I was never really in any street fights or down-home gangs. I was just a suburban kid, imitating the rockers. But it was a big part of one's life to look tough. I spent the whole of my childhood with shoulders up around the top of me head and me glasses off because glasses were sissy, and walking in complete fear, but with the toughest-looking little face you've ever seen. I'd get into trouble just because of the way I looked; I wanted to be this tough James Dean all the time. It took a lot of wrestling to stop doing that. I still fall into it when I get insecure. I still drop into that I'm-a-street-kid stance, but I have to keep remembering that I never really was one."
"Carl Jung once suggested that people are made up of a thinking side, a feeling side, an intuitive side and a sensual side," I mention. "Most people never really develop their weaker sides and concentrate on the stronger ones, but you seem to have done the former."
"I think that's what feminism is all about," John replies. "That's what Yoko has taught me. I couldn't have done it alone; it had to be a female to teach me. That's it. Yoko has been telling me all the time, 'It's all right, it's all right.' I look at early pictures of meself, and I was torn between being Marlon Brando and being the sensitive poet - the Oscar Wilde part of me with the velvet, feminine side. I was always torn between the two, mainly opting for the macho side, because if you showed the other side, you were dead."
"On Double Fantasy," I say, "your song 'Woman' sounds a bit like a troubadour poem written to a medieval lady."
" 'Woman' came about because, one sunny afternoon in Bermuda, it suddenly hit me. I saw what women do for us. Not just what my Yoko does for me, although I was thinking in those personal terms. Any truth is universal. If we'd made our album in the third person and called it Freda and Ada or Tommy and had dressed up in clown suits with lipstick and created characters other than us, maybe a Ziggy Stardust, would it be more acceptable? It's not our style of art; our life is our art. . . . Anyway, in Bermuda, what suddenly dawned on me was everything I was taking for granted. Women really are the other half of the sky, as I whisper at the beginning of the song. And it just sort of hit me like a flood, and it came out like that. The song reminds me of a Beatles track, but I wasn't trying to make it sound like that. I did it as I did 'Girl' many years ago. So this is the grown-up version of 'Girl.'
"People are always judging you, or criticizing what you're trying to say on one little album, on one little song, but to me it's a lifetime's work. From the boyhood paintings and poetry to when I die - it's all part of one big production. And I don't have to announce that this album is part of a larger work; if it isn't obvious, then forget it. But I did put a little clue on the beginning of the record - the bells . . . the bells on 'Starting Over.' The head of the album, if anybody is interested, is a wishing bell of Yoko's. And it's like the beginning of 'Mother' on the Plastic Ono album, which had a very slow death bell. So it's taken a long time to get from a slow church death bell to this sweet little wishing bell. And that's the connection. To me, my work is one piece."