Monday, November 02, 2009

Corn Flakes with John Lennon and Other Tales from a Rock 'n' Roll Life

by Robert Hilburn
Introduction by Bono

Robert Hilburn’s storied career as a rock critic has allowed him a behind-the-scenes look at the lives of some of the most iconic figures of our time. He was the only music critic to visit Folsom Prison with Johnny Cash. He met John Lennon during his lost weekend period in Los Angeles and they became friends. Bob Dylan granted him his only interviews during his "born-again" period and the occasion of his 50th birthday. Michael Jackson invited Hilburn to watch cartoons with him in his bedroom. When Springsteen took to playing only old hits, Hilburn scolded him for turning his legendary concerts into oldies revues, and Springsteen changed his set list.

In this totally unique account of the symbiotic relationship between critic and musical artist, Hilburn reflects on the ways in which he has changed and been changed by the subjects he’s covered; Bono weighs in with an introduction about how Hilburn’s criticism influenced and altered his own development as a musician.

Corn Flakes with John Lennon is more than about one man’s adventures in rock and roll: It’s the gripping and untold story of how popular music reshapes the way we think about the world and helps to define the modern American character.

"[Hilburn] was always looking for subject matter that was fresh and patiently observed, what Van Morrison described as ‘the inarticulate speech of the heart.’ U2 was shambolic and erratic, but he seemed to see the ‘what might be’ in the ‘what was.’ Bob’s role as a critic was to encourage the suspension of disbelief not just in the audience, but in the artist as well. That is an environment in which music grows. He made us better."

"So many great memories came flooding back to me when I read Corn Flakes With John Lennon. A must read for genuine music lovers."
--Elton John

"It’s impossible to read this book and not encounter passages that surprise, sadden and hearten. It¹s also impossible to read Corn Flakes With John Lennon and not recognize Robert Hilburn as the greatest interviewer in rock & roll history."
--Mikal Gilmore, author of Shot in the Heart and Night Beat: A Shadow History of Rock and Roll

"Hilburn's amazing resilience and commitment for music shines through his decades of reportage and reviews of music. On behalf of the musicians of the 60's on, I thank you for having been the communicator of our music with love."
--yoko ono, summer of 2009

"Beautifully written, and passionately told, this book captures the very essence of what it means to be someone who loves music."
-- Charles R. Cross, author of Heavier Than Heaven and Room Full of Mirrors.

"I never gave a damn for rock criticism until I read Robert Hilburn."
--Bernie Taupin


John Lennon raced into Yoko Ono's home office in the mammoth old Dakota building with a copy of Donna Summer's new single, "The Wanderer." "Listen!" he shouted as he put the 45 on the record player. "She's doing Elvis!" I didn't know what he was talking about at first. The arrangement felt more like rock than the singer's usual electro-disco approach, but the opening vocal sure sounded like Donna Summer to me. Midway through the song, however, her voice shifted into the playful, hiccuping style Elvis had used on so many of his early recordings.

"See! See!" John said, pointing at the speakers.

The record was John's way of saying hello again after five years. I had spent time with him in Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, during the period he later referred to as his "lost weekend"--months when he was estranged from Yoko and spent many a night in notorious drinking bouts with his buddies Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr. John got so boisterous one night that he was thrown out of the Troubadour, one of the city's landmark music clubs. He invited me to dinner a few times, and I later found out it was when he had an important business meeting the next morning and didn't want to wake up with a hangover. I got the nod over Harry and Ringo because I didn't drink anything stronger than Diet Coke. We would eat at a chic Chinese restaurant and then return to his suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Those hours would race by because we loved talking about our favorite rock hero, Elvis, which brings us back to "The Wanderer."

I've experienced hundreds of memorable concert and interview moments, so it's hard to rank them in any favorite order, but my final hours with John in New York are certainly on the short list. It was just weeks before his death in December of 1980, and his playing the Summer record was an endearing greeting--and one that was typical of John. Of the hundreds of musicians I've met, John was among the most down-to-earth.

I was in New York to spend three days with John and Yoko while they finished Double Fantasy, John's first collection of new material since the mostly forgettable Walls and Bridges six years earlier. He returned to New York after the "lost weekend" period and spent the next five years rebuilding his life with Yoko and helping to raise their son, Sean. On this day, he looked nice and trim in jeans, a jean jacket, and a white T-shirt. He was maybe twenty-five pounds slimmer than the last time I'd seen him. "It's Mother's macrobiotic diet," he said later, and employing his nickname for Yoko. "She makes sure I stay on it."

By the time we headed to the recording studio, it was nearly dark. As the limo pulled up to the studio's dimly lit entrance, I could see the outlines of a couple dozen fans in the shadows. They raced toward the car as soon as the driver opened John's door. Flashbulbs went off with blinding speed. Without a bodyguard, John was helpless, and I later asked if he didn't worry about his safety. "They don't mean any harm," he replied. "Besides, what can you do? You can't spend all your life hiding from people. You've got to get out and live some, don't you?"

Inside the studio, I heard several tracks from Double Fantasy, which was John's most revealing album since Imagine. Some critics branded the gentle, relaxed tone of the collection too soft. They missed the old Lennon bite. To me, however, the collection was a marvelous reflection of John's mood, and Grammy voters were right when they named it album of the year.

I spent hours at the apartment and the studio talking to John about the changes since Los Angeles. He felt at peace for one of the few times in his life. He was deeply in love with Yoko and thrilled to be a father again. He also spoke with affection about the Beatles days and how much he still looked forward to seeing Paul. That surprised me because of the sarcastic barbs he'd launched in interviews and the biting lyrics he'd written about Paul since the breakup of the band. "Aw, don't believe all that," he said, smiling. "Paul is like a brother. We've gotten way past all that." He also spoke fondly of Ringo, but more distantly of George. He felt slighted by some things in George's autobiography, I, Me, Mine, especially George's failure to give John credit for helping him learn guitar techniques.

Mostly, we talked about the "house husband" period that was just ending, a time of emotional drying out, a chance to reset priorities. He may have declared "I don't believe in Beatles" in "God" on his 1970 album, Plastic Ono Band, but it took the five-year sabbatical that followed the "lost weekend" for him to break away from the suffocating pressures of being an ex-Beatle, including the need to mirror in his music and in his life the image of the witty, sarcastic John. During his time away, he learned that there was personal joy and fulfillment away from the rock 'n' roll merry-go-round. For Double Fantasy, he even wrote a tender song about his newfound outlook and freedom, "Watching the Wheels."

On that November night, the studio atmosphere was so relaxed that John invited me to contribute to the album's sound effects. Yoko and I took turns dropping coins in a tin bowl to duplicate the sound of someone giving change to a beggar. We had to do it several times before the noise level was just right. For most of the evening, I just watched John and Yoko at work--and took advantage of breaks to ask them questions. The studio tape must have been running much of the time, because years later a bootleg of that interview surfaced in Japan.

One thing troubled me during the all-night recording sessions: the way John would slip from time to time into an adjoining lounge. The first thing that came to mind was drugs, because I was so used to seeing musicians pass around bowls of cocaine with the casualness of M&Ms. John had had drug problems earlier in his life, and I feared he had relapsed--despite all his talk about feeling healthier than ever. Maybe the pressure of being back in the studio was greater than he was letting on. At one point, I happened into the lounge and saw John at the far end of the narrow room. He was reaching for something on a cabinet shelf, and my first instinct was to go back into the studio so I wouldn't violate his privacy. But he spotted me and called me over, putting his finger up to his lips in a signal to be quiet. When I was next to him, he reached into the cabinet again and pulled out something wrapped in a towel.

"Want some?" he asked. "Just don't tell Mother," he said with a conspiratorial look. "She doesn't want me doing this anymore."

As he opened the towel, I had to laugh.

John Lennon's private stash turned out to be a giant-size Hershey bar. He broke off a chunk for me and one for himself. Holding his piece in a toast, John smiled and said, "Good to see you again."

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