John Lennon 40 Years On
By Ray Connelly
London Sunday Times
Sun, 06 Sep 2009
ohn Lennon did many brilliant things in his life, but arguably one of his most inspired acts was his deliberate destruction of the Beatles in 1969 -- just 40 years ago this month. It didn't seem that way then, not to tens of millions of devastated Beatles fans around the world, and not to Paul McCartney, who, feeling abandoned, went off to his farm in Scotland and into a deep depression.
But if Lennon, who'd started the group that evolved into the Beatles, hadn't murdered his creation at that moment, if the band had somehow struggled on through their rows into the 1970s,
I doubt that you'd be reading this article today.
By killing the Beatles before they could disappoint us, as they inevitably would have done when music fashions changed and the band's later albums didn't quite live up to the ones we still love, Lennon froze them for ever at their peak.
At the time of their break-up in 1969, I was an interviewer on London's Evening Standard with the special task of covering rock music. Today, journalists are kept at arm's length from stars by legions of publicists, but it was different then, for me anyway. Only now, looking back, do I fully appreciate the astonishing access to the Beatles I had, from 1967, that Sgt Pepper high water of their careers, until 1972, when their dissolution was making its way through the High Court.
So I was at the Abbey Road studios in October 1968 to hear Yoko Ono be happily indiscreet about her affairs during her first two marriages, before ending the evening being given a personal concert by McCartney at the piano as he worked on a new song called "Let It Be" -- while from down the corridor I could hear John Lennon and the producer George Martin mixing "Cry Baby Cry" for the "White Album."
Almost every conversation I had during those final febrile Beatle days ended up in my new little Sony recorder, where intimacies and opinions were caught on cassettes, and then stored away, forgotten and uncatalogued in an old Pickfords packing case. And it's those tapes, unplayed in decades (if ever, in some cases), that I recently unearthed -- recordings that in some cases challenge views of the Lennon-McCartney relationship that have been held for 40 years.
Not all the interviews have survived. Cassettes were expensive then, and I'm mortified to admit that I have one on which the names McCartney, Jagger and Hendrix have each been successively crossed out as the interviews were recorded over. Nor was everything that was recorded published. Much was off the record. Time heals. Now it doesn't matter that I write some of it here.
By 1969 there were rumours of strife in the Beatles camp, but on the surface it still seemed jolly enough. Then, while I was hanging around their Apple headquarters in Mayfair one day in September, I realised something was seriously wrong. There was a Beatles meeting in the boardroom that suddenly ended in a row, followed by much running up and down the stairs. But nobody was saying what it was about.
A few weeks later I got a call from John telling me he'd just sent his MBE back to the Queen. He was in a giddy mood, I reflected, as I typed out my story. But he was also acting so separately from the other Beatles that two days later I wrote a piece headlined "The Day the Beatles Died."
At the time I was half-afraid I'd overstated my case, because to the outside world they were still very much alive. But no sooner was the article published than a white rose wrapped in Cellophane was delivered to my desk with the message "To Ray with love from John and Yoko."
From then on, when it came to covering Beatles affairs, my tape recorder and I would have the best possible source. And, just before Christmas that year, I would listen in astonishment (and some despair) as John, who'd flown me out to join him and Yoko in Toronto, gleefully let me in on the secret of how he'd destroyed the band.
"At the meeting Paul just kept mithering on about what we were going to do, so in the end I just said, 'I think you're daft. I want a divorce.'"
He hadn't planned to say that, but once spoken, and although news of the split wasn't going to be announced until the Let It Be album came out the following May, the words were never withdrawn.
Of course, there are McCartney interviews on tape, too. While John was busy pulling the walls of the Beatles temple down around him, Paul eventually recovered from the setback enough to make his first solo album, McCartney. Usually astute with publicity, at this point he slipped up, putting out an ambiguous press statement along with his record in April 1970 that was interpreted as saying that he'd broken up the band. Headlines of blame ran around the world. "How could he?" distressed fans wanted to know. "It was all a misunderstanding," he told me a few days later. "I thought, 'Christ, what have I done now?' and my stomach started churning up.
I never intended the statement to mean 'Paul McCartney quits Beatles.'"
It was ironic. The Beatle who had most wanted the group to stay together, the biggest Beatles fan of all, was being blamed for its dissolution.
"Why didn't you write it when I told you in Canada?" John demanded when he realised that Paul had accidentally got the dubious honour of ending the world's favourite group. As he'd started it, he thought he should be the one to end it. "You asked me not to," I said. He was scornful. "You're the journalist, Connolly, not me," he snapped.
What strikes me most, though, listening again to the tapes, is how prescient John was, how closely his ear was tuned to the changing mood of the times. As once he'd instinctively known which songs to write and what pithy comments would grab a headline, somehow, while in the middle of the whirlpool that was the Beatles, he'd seen the end approaching.
"The whole thing died in my mind long before all the rumpus started," he said in 1971 when I was spending a few days with him and Yoko in New York. "We used to believe the Beatles myth just as much as the public, and we were in love with them in just the same way. But basically we were four individuals who eventually recovered our own individualities after being submerged in a myth.
"I know a lot of people were upset when we finished, but every circus has to come to an end. The Beatles were a monument that had to be either changed or scrapped. As it happens, it was scrapped. The Beatles were supposed to be this and supposed to be that, but really all we were was a band that got very big.
"Actually, our best days were before we got that big, when we used to play for hours in clubs. My favourite number was always Elvis's 'Baby Let's Play House.' We'd make it last about 10 minutes, singing the same verse over and over. I pinched one of the lines from it later to put in one of my own songs called 'Run for Your Life' -- something about 'I'd rather see you dead, little girl, than to see you with another man.'
"Mick Jagger said we weren't a good band as performers. But he never saw us at our best in Liverpool and Hamburg. We were the best bloody band there was. I know all the early rock songs much better than most of those I've written myself."
During most of that time, however, John was in iconoclastic mode. It was as though, having made his decision, he couldn't smash his Beatle persona quickly, or outrageously, enough. He didn't want to be "one of four gods on the stage," he told me, so instead he invited the world's press to his honeymoon bedside for a week "in aid of world peace." Then, not minding that he was being widely ridiculed, not to mention chastised by his formidable Aunt Mimi for "making an exhibition of himself", he appeared naked with Yoko on an album of electronic music called Two Virgins, before really chasing controversy with a series of erotic lithographs featuring Yoko, and sometimes himself too.
"Why do you draw so much cunnilingus?" I asked him during the trip to Canada, as I passed the lithographs for him to sign. "Because I like it," the one-time moptop grinned merrily. London's Metropolitan Police would later close down his exhibition in a West End gallery. They didn't like it.
At the time, Yoko was much publicly blamed for the Beatles' demise, and she certainly might have played her part more tactfully. But she was only one of several catalysts. And John, as I've been hearing again on my tapes, was absolutely besotted by her, this sexy, mysterious artist who matched the zany dottiness in him.
"It was Yoko that changed me," he teases her during one conversation in 1970. "She forced me to become avant-garde and take me clothes off when all I wanted to do was become Tom Jones. And now look at me! Did you know avant-garde is French for bullshit?" Then, referring to how she'd begun to join him on stage, he goes on: "We've only got to play four bars and she grabs the microphone and she's off... Aggghhh! Take her anywhere and she does her number for you." In the background, Yoko giggles. She was his pal.
The John Lennon I recorded was a very funny man who liked to paint himself ironically as the indignant butt of his own stories. "Did you see that Time magazine is saying that George is a philosopher?" he asked me one day. "And there's an article in The Times, that I've actually thought about sending to Pseuds Corner [in Private Eye] -- anonymously, of course -- saying how Paul is this great musician. One a philosopher, another a great musician. Where does that leave me?"
"The nutter?" I hear myself suggest.
"Yes. I'm the nutter. F*** 'em all."
Today he would have been a star as a stand-up comedian with a line in self-mockery. And, having returned from a session of primal therapy in California in 1970, he was more loquacious than ever. He could have done a whole act on the subject of what made people like him want to become famous. "There you are up on the stage like an Aunt Sally waiting to have things thrown at you. It's like always putting yourself on trial to see if you're good enough for Mummy and Daddy. You know, 'Now will you love me if I stand on my head and fart and play guitar and dance and blow balloons and get an MBE and sing 'She Loves You' -- now will you love me?'" It was a typical Lennon rant, but he was smiling all the time.
On another occasion, talking about his song "Not a Second Time" from the Beatles' second LP, in a conversation devoted to his music, he says: "That was the one where that f***ing idiot Thomas Mann (he meant William Mann, the Times music critic) talked about the aeolian cadence at the end being like Mahler's 'Song of the Earth.' They were just chords like any other chords. It was the first intellectual bullshit written about us." Then the knowing pause. "Still, I know it helps to have bullshit written about you."
Later, saying how a favourite of his songs, "You Can't Do That," was his attempt at being Wilson Pickett, he becomes mock-anguished when admitting it was "a flip side because 'Can't Buy Me Love' [Paul's song] was so f***ing good."
He was competitive with Paul, yes, and, when relations between the two were really bad, vituperative, as evidenced in a line in a song about his former partner on his Imagine album: "The sound you make is Muzak to my ears."
Paul had to have been hurt, and a few months later in New York even John would admit slightly ruefully: "I suppose it was a bit hard on him..." But, as he would so often say, "They were just the words that came out of my mouth at the time."
In truth, he always knew how good Paul was, without necessarily liking everything he did.
"I only ever asked two people to work with me as a partner," he would boast of his talent-spotting abilities. "One was Paul McCartney and the other Yoko Ono. That's not bad, is it?" Indeed, I recall a writer from an underground magazine being snide about Paul's song Let It Be, presumably assuming John would agree. He didn't.
"Paul and me were the Beatles," he would emphasise to me privately. "We wrote the songs." And on the subject of his debt to the young McCartney, he was actually generous. "I didn't write much material early on, less than Paul, because he was quite competent on guitar. Paul taught me quite a lot of guitar, really."
Those who see John as the towering greatest of the great should reflect on that: John Lennon quietly, happily admitting how much he owed to Paul McCartney. And while he could be flattering about some of Paul's songs -- he liked "For No One" particularly ("that was one of his good ones. All his semi-classical ones are best, actually") -- he was disarmingly dismissive about several of his own. "'I Am the Walrus' didn't mean anything," he says, consigning to the pointless bin the work of a generation of Beatles anoraks who'd tried to interpret its lyrics, while he always hated "Yes It Is," didn't think he sang "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" very well ("I was so nervous I couldn't sing, but I like the lyrics"), and admits that he and Paul would give the lousy songs they wrote to George and Ringo to sing.
But "It's Only Love" from the Help! album was the one that earned his greatest ire. "It's the most embarrassing song I ever wrote. Everything rhymed. Disgusting lyrics. Even then I was so ashamed of the lyrics, I could hardly sing them. That was one song I really wished I'd never written," he says. Then, after another comic pause: "Well, you can say that about quite a few." And the ones he liked? "'Across the Universe' was one of my favourites. I gave it at first to the World Wildlife Fund, but they didn't do much with it, and then we put it on the Let It Be album. It missed it as a record but maybe the lyrics will survive. And 'Strawberry Fields Forever' meant a lot. 'Come Together' is another favourite. It started off as a slogan song for Timothy Leary's wife, but I never got around to finishing it. Everyone takes it as meaning 'come together in peace,' but there's the other meaning too!" Actually, he was proud of quite a few -- "In My Life," "I'm a Loser," "Girl..."
"When I was in therapy I was asked to go through a book of all the songs I'd written, line by line. I just couldn't believe I'd written so many."
Interestingly, and it's something I've only realised listening again to the tapes, no matter how much John publicly criticised Paul, in none of my interviews with Paul did he ever criticise John. Quite the contrary. "On Abbey Road I would like to have sung harmony with John, like we used to. And I think he would have liked me to. But I was too embarrassed to ask him."
I always wished I'd been involved in the Beatles' early happier days, but my role was to cover the final act of their career, and to observe the fallout, mostly, though not totally, with John. There were some bizarre and revealing moments during those days. Visiting a Native American village in upstate New York the day after his 30th birthday, he showed that even he, in his enthusiasm, could get it wrong. "When I used to see cowboys-and-Indians films when I was a kid in Liverpool, I was always on the side of the Indians," he told the assembled group, not realising how patronising he sounded.
I'm sure when he said he wanted a divorce from the Beatles he never imagined how complicated, or expensive for all of them, it would be. But by October 1971, when he was living in New York, he was beginning to get a good idea. Asking me to be a go-between, he gave me a message to take to Paul suggesting that perhaps the two of them could solve at least one of their differences without either Allen Klein, his manager, or Lee Eastman, Paul's manager and also Linda McCartney's father, becoming involved. Back in London I delivered the message, but in the end it was inevitably lawyers who sorted out their problems.
Listening to the tapes, and hearing John's singsong voice again after all these years, has led to some poignant memories. But what has stayed with me most from all the interviews is the vitality of the man, and that straight-faced, British, tongue-in-cheek delivery he had. A very generous person, he would say: "I can't think about money. It rains in and rains out. I always wanted to be an eccentric millionaire, and now I am." John on his education made me laugh: "If I'd had a better education, I wouldn't have been me. When I was at grammar school I thought I'd go to university, but I didn't get any GCEs. Then I went to art school and thought I'd go to the Slade and become a wonder. But I never fitted in. I was always a freak, I was never lovable. I was always Lennon!"
Then there's John, as forthright as ever when I suggested he might like to write a musical. "No. No musicals. I loathe musicals. I never did have a plan for doing one. My cousin made me sit through some f***ing musical twice. I just hate them. They bore me stiff. I think they're just horrible. Even 'Hair.' And they're always lousy music." What he would have made of Cirque du Soleil's Las Vegas show "Love," an interpretation of the Beatles' records, would have been interesting to know.
John, talking about a Hare Krishna group who'd been painting a little temple in the grounds of Tittenhurst Park near Ascot, which was briefly his home, was typical. "I had to sack them. They were very nice and gentle, but they kept going around saying 'peace' all the time. It was driving me mad. I couldn't get any f***ing peace."
And finally there's John in 1970 being ominously prophetic. "I'm not going to waste my life as I have been, which was running at 20,000 miles an hour. I have to learn not to do that, because I don't want to die at 40."
He was 40 and two months when he was murdered by a mad fan in New York in 1980.
I was due to interview him for The Sunday Times the following day.