Once you got close to former Beatle John Lennon, and the doors were shut, and the secretaries all had been dismissed, and he could feel comfortable in his own home, the facade of zaniness vanished and the peaceful man emerged. And what you realized almost immediately was that the only thing crazy about John Lennon was the world around him. Last night, an apparent act of insanity ended John Lennon's life; he was shot dead outside his Dakota apartment in New York by a man described as a "local screwball" by police.
Nine years ago, Lennon was living in a 17th-floor suite at the St. Regis Hotel: in it, a complete 16-mm film-editing setup, an enormous stereo system, Chuck Berry albums all over the place, books by Paul Krassner and Daniel Berrigan, several unfinished paintings of skulls, two acoustic guitars, a vase full of yellow roses and, hanging on the wall, a rare copy of a withdrawn Beatles album cover of the four musicians dressed as butchers holding bloody, decapitated dolls and slabs of meat.
Yoko Ono, Lennon's wife, was sick in bed with a bad cold.Lennon assumed a lotus position at the foot of their bed and leaned over to comfort her, running his hand through her long black hair and kissing her on the cheek.
"I'm afraid you're not getting much of an interview," he said apologetically. "Maybe it's better. You're getting to see what we're really like, when we just need to be alone with each other."
The phone rang -- a reporter from Time magazine. He covered the mouthpiece and said, "They want some quotes, Yoko.Tells you where their heads are at, now, doesn't it?"
And then to me: "One of the biggest bloody problems with journalism is that they think they can reduce people to a bunch of quotes."
Nine years later, and I'm still after quotes. I had made a few inquiries about interviewing Lennon yet again, on the occasion of the first album of music he had released in half a decade. Nada. But one afternoon last month I'm sitting in the Rolling Stone offices, and there happens to be a phone number for Lennon sitting on the desk. Call it dialing for dollars.
Lennon answers after two rings. Very cordial. Recalls a few incidents.
"Remember the time we went to a movie theater in the Village," he says, "and the guy in the kiosk waved us in as a 'professional courtesy'?God, what a bloody awful film, and we left after about an hour and on the way out I said to the guy, 'So that's why it's on the house, eh?'"
Sounds like polite chatter, and then he waxes philosophical:
"Now look, we could do another interview, but that really would be a professional courtesy, wouldn't it? And which of us would walk out after an hour? I mean, we did it nine years ago. And as I recall, you were telling me then how you had been labeled a rock critic for the rest of your life, and you hated it, and I said I had been branded a rock idol for the rest of my life and I hated it. We're neither of us the same person, so why go back to where we were nine years ago?
"I've learned to bake bread and raise children, and you've learned to write about things more cataclysmic than the next album by the Who Knows Whats. Wouldn't it be better to leave it that way? Let's have tea sometime. Off-the-record or not-for-attribution -- whatever The Watergate Boys used to say."
End of conversation.
Here's John Lennon, in the December issue of Playboy:
"I had been under obligation or contract from the time I was 22 until well into my 30s. After all those years it was all I knew. I wasn't free. I was boxed in. My contract was the physical manifestation of being in prison. It was more important to face myself and face that reality than to continue a life of rock 'n' roll -- and to go up and down with the whims of either your own performance or the public's opinion of you. Rock 'n' roll was not fun anymore. I chose not to take the standard options in my business -- going to Vegas and singing your great hits, if you're lucky, or going to hell, which is where Elvis went.
"Walking away is much harder than carrying on. I've done both. On demand and on schedule. I had turned out records from 1962 to 1975. Walking away seemed like what the guys go through at 65, when suddenly they're supposed to not exist anymore and they're sent out of the office (knocks on the desk three times): 'Your life is over. Time for golf.'"
Of course, all of us who grew up on The Beatles could hardly imagine John Lennon walking away, even though it was possible to picture him on the links. Elastic he was; intractable he wasn't. Sometimes he seemed like a chameleon: ethe workingman's hero he had sung about dressed in a tuxedo and mixing with the artsy types at a Kennedy Center gala.
When he had to go to court to battle for the custody of Yoko Ono's daughter, Kyoko, or for his own right to remain in a country trying to deport him for an old British drug bust, he could put on a suit and not act too witty on the witness stand. He could come to Washington for a party and shake hands with congressmen and try to convince them that he was just as normal as they were. He did not seem like the guy who had done all that so-called pornographic art and written those bizarre books of poems and said things like, "We're more popular than Jesus, now."
Most people took it seriously -- so seriously that they wanted to mob him every minute, as they had in Syracuse at a joint art show he did with Ono back in October of 1971. Ringo Starr and Phil Spector, the record producer, showed up for a tour of the conceptual art show, and within five minutes the four of them had to hide in an office rather than risk having the clothes torn off their bodies.
"You have thousands of people who want to meet you," he said in our interview a week later, "and no time really to be with your old friends."
So he settled for as quiet a life as he could etch out for himself, raising a baby and baking bread. And then a few years ago the Lennons took out a full-page ad in The New York Times. So many fans were clamoring for a new album, and what they wrote was, "Look to the clouds for your answers."
"Like the typical sort of love-hate fan," John Lennon says in the Playboy interview, "who says, 'thank you for everthing you did for us in the Sixties -- would you just give me another shot? Just one more miracle?'"