He was a callow 23 when I first met him in a hotel room in San Francisco in August l964. But even then, he was a total original. John Lennon would have turned 70 this month had he not been senselessly gunned down outside his New York apartment 30 years ago this December.
Lennon was the real, eccentric genius of the Beatles, the true architect of the group’s anarchic wit and seditious spirit. Back then, they were the raw newcomers from “Liddypool” (as John liked to refer to Liverpool, England, where he was born ) embarking on their first North American tour. I was assigned by my London editor to cover their entire trip in the summer of ’64.
Introductions were made and impressions quickly established. Ringo was unformed, the kid in the candy store, overwhelmed by the madness and the Beatlemania. George was distant, surly even, cautious about all the glad-handing and uncomfortable in the presence of strangers. Paul was already displaying early signs of “Stepford Wife”-ism, a superfriendly, accommodating, silky schmoozer who remembered your name and made you feel that you were really important to him — and that was even before I saw him operating with women, where he was the master of the art of the Lothario.
But John, well, he was an oddity from the outset. He never strove to please anyone — he shot from the hip, and damn the consequences; and he had a bizarre, cockeyed sense of humor.
Of the four, I got to know him best — mainly because I sensed that he was by far the most complicated and therefore most interesting. He was already an unmerciful cynic and the most mercurial of the lot, with a twisted Monty Pythonesque sense of the ridiculous, long before the Python group was ever heard of. He was constantly battling with the group’s uptight manager, Brian Epstein, with whom he had a strange, love-hate relationship.
John had a hard time buttoning his lip, so when he sounded off publicly, Epstein went regularly into shock. “Too many kanipshin [sic] fits,” was how Epstein described to me the effect of Lennon’s behavior on him, using an old Yiddish expression.
During our 32 shows in 25 cities in the five-week odyssey, in the Beatles chartered jet, in guarded hotel rooms — there was John, “ciggie” and rum and coke in hand, often fortified with an assortment of pills to keep him running, playing Monopoly into the wee hours of the morning with a handful of us media types. He’d often call us late at night and invite us up for a game. He displayed surprisingly capitalistic tendencies as he ferociously wheeled and dealed, snapping up properties in games that often went till dawn.
Yet, unlike the other three Beatles, at least at that time, he had a strongly developed social conscience. He frequently sounded off about America’s gun obsession, particularly on our Dallas stopover a year after John Kennedy was assassinated. Even back then, he poked fun at the U.S political system, the armed and macho American cops, and unlike many rock and rollers, he paid close attention to the news.
He was angry after seeing reports of police hosing blacks during the Philadelphia race riots, which occurred that September during the tour. It was he who insisted that Epstein get a commitment from the local promoter that audiences at their Gator Bowl concerts in Jacksonville, Fla., would be integrated.
"Watch it," John told Epstein, "they may try to stick a few Negroes in the corner and say it’s integrated."
One of the most memorable times for me was the night we were supposed to go to Jacksonville. Hurricane Dora was raging and, mid-storm, our plane was bucking and bouncing. It was the most nerve wracking flight of the whole trip What made things worse was the pronouncement from popular psychic Jeane Dixon — who had supposedly foretold the Kennedy assassination — that the Beatles’ plane would crash.
So we detoured to Key West, and the Beatles suddenly found themselves with a rare day off. Next day, we sat in John’s room, eating, gossiping and playing Monopoly while, on the TV in the background, Fidel Castro railed on endlessly in Spanish about the evils of American capitalism.
John had been popping Preludin, which he kept in a little black bag tucked away in the bathroom. He and all the Beatles swallowed the “Prellies,” as they called the uppers, like jelly beans. The stimulants had become part of their daily routine in Hamburg, helping them to sustain eight-hour, seven-day-a-week club sessions. They had also brought along a plentiful supply of tiny blue heart-shaped tablets called Drinamyls, the combined stimulant and antidepressant known in England as "mother’s little helpers," which became the subject of a Rolling Stones song.
John made no excuses for any of it. Admittedly, he’d been pill popping since he was 17, and during the Southern California leg of the trip he’d taken LSD. He liked the hallucinogenic drug, but said in England that his first acid trip was crazy: His dentist had invited him to dinner and then, without warning, had slipped the drug into his dessert.
In Key West, he was in a mellow mood, critical about the tour and griping about the awful sound systems at venues when the Beatles’ feverish, nonstop concerts lasted barely 30 minutes!
As Castro bellowed on, John declared, "We’re like a bunch of fucking budgies. We’ll all end up performing like fleas in suits."
John was also fed up with the "rubbish" line of Beatle wigs and assorted souvenirs that the concert promoters were peddling. While the “boys” (as Epstein called them) got a tiny percentage of the take (they didn’t realize how tiny until much later), both John and Epstein made a big deal about the quality of the gear.
The Beatles, and particularly John, were astonished at America’s commercial chutzpah, especially when we told them that some hotel employees were cutting up the band members’ used bed sheets and sweaty towels and selling them for $2 a pop. On one stop, John said he went so far as to urinate on a hotel towel to try and foil the profiteers’ schemes.
The other thing that drove John crazy was the idea that some of the fans believed that the young rockers had magic healing powers. At almost every stop, the sick, the crippled, the maimed would be wheeled into the front three or four rows of the arena and, wherever possible, taken backstage after the show.
While trapped in his hotel room, John, looking for some kind of release, would suddenly launch into a pantomime act, contorting his body and walking around like a deformed person, mimicking the disabled. To outsiders, that may have appeared cruel, but it was really an expression of his outrage at the ridiculousness of believing they were anything other than a quartet of young artists doing their best to perform a long way from home. Sometimes, he’d strut around the hotel room in Chaplinesque-Hitlerian pose, finger below nose, mimicking the Fuhrer.
In New York, during the last few days of the tour, the Beatles were staying at the old Delmonico Hotel on Park Avenue when they first met another up-and-coming singer named Bob Dylan. John offered Dylan a Prellie. Dylan declined but pulled a stash of exotic marijuana from his road manager’s bag. The Beatles had never smoked pot and so Dylan rolled them joints and lit up. Instead of taking one puff and passing it around, John smoked the entire joint himself. Within minutes, he and the rest of the Beatles were all high.
As his fame increased, Lennon remained true to his beliefs. In l969, he became a vitriolic critic of the Vietnam War — the same year he and Yoko went to bed for peace for one week in Montreal, and followed it by unveiling the new song “Give Peace a Chance” in Toronto.
His antiwar beliefs were completely sincere. He even took an uncredited role in Richard Attenborough’s musical film about the First World War, Oh! What a Lovely War. He played an anonymous soldier opposite Laurence Olivier. This was not to be confused with the l967 Richard Lester movie How I Won the War, which highlighted the ineptitude of the military. He starred in that one.
From the very beginning, his outspoken beliefs landed him in hot water in the U.S. He was proud to be on Nixon’s enemies list. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover vowed to destroy him and launched a campaign to get him deported because of his opinions.
He was far and away the most controversial Beatle and got only more so as he grew older. He’d already become something of a pariah with his outspoken, though arguably true, comment that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, which led to fans in America burning Beatles records and vowing never to buy another ticket for a Fab Four concert. John vainly tried to explain that what he said had been taken out of context.
Were he alive today, the devoutly secular Lennon, who grew up in a city bitterly divided between Catholics and Protestants, would have had a good laugh at the news, which broke two years ago, that the Pope had finally forgiven him for his comments.
If the Beatles were revolutionaries, John was their Che Guevera — the guy who made the cannon balls for the others to fire, the one who wrote the script and broadcast it wholesale, never afraid to speak his mind, even if it might damage his career or impair his ability to earn the almighty dollar.
The older he got, the quirkier he became. In the 1970s, after making his home in New York and splitting from Yoko Ono, he showed up for an interview with me at record producer Lou Adler’s mansion opposite the Bel Air Hotel. At his side was his girlfriend May Pang, who had been Yoko’s secretary.
We met very early that afternoon, and he already had a drink in his hand. He was strangely unfocused, jittery and hyper, and while he posed for pictures at the pool, he seemed troubled. Much later, I learned it was right in the middle of Lennon’s most confused period. He was drinking heavily, taking LSD and pills — a habit that had resulted in the untimely death of Epstein several years earlier.
It wasn’t until a few years later that I learned that Lennon’s on-the-edge, high-wire lifestyle stemmed ultimately from his unhappy and unsettled childhood.
A few years earlier, I had interviewed Dr. Arthur Janov, the originator of primal scream therapy, in whose center in Los Angeles John and Yoko had been treated, as Janov said, “to kill his childhood pain.” John had read Janov’s book The Primal Scream and invited him to England to discuss his technique.
John and Yoko then flew to Los Angeles for the radical treatment that involved John being isolated from friends and family and re-creating his actual birth while lying in a fetal position in a soundproof room. Janov, who filmed it all, said John was a neurotic mess, and claimed the exercise released him from all the scars of his childhood and enabled him to continue to create as an artist.
He was partly right; following therapy, John completed his first and most painful Plastic Ono Band (a band he launched with Yoko in 1969) solo album, which delved into his troubled childhood and abandonment by his parents.
Janov attracted many celebrity patients, including Cary Grant’s wife (the actress Dyan Cannon) and actor James Earl Jones, although some who went through the “treatment” later claimed it was a cultish movement that damaged more than it cured.
But Lennon claimed he benefited from the therapy. “It was a mirror in which to see myself,” he said. “It forced me to have done with all the God shit.”
Later, Lennon was reunited with his anchor Yoko, and when the couple’s son Sean was born in 1975, for five years, he became a high-profile Manhattan house husband. Like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Elvis and Michael Jackson, John went much too soon.
So what would he have been like at 70?
No doubt the same feisty, outspoken original he had always been. Would he, like Paul, have accepted a knighthood?
He abhorred pomp and circumstance. In l969, he sent back his MB, protesting Britain’s involvement in the Biafran war.
He was totally anti-establishment, and the idea of being Sir John would have made him laugh and given him lots of material for savage satire. But age, and the idea of making his wife Lady Yoko, might have swayed the decision.
Yoko still harbored great resentment for the British, who treated her like a leper when she first came into John’s life after his divorce from first wife Cynthia. (“Everyone hated me for being with John,” Yoko declared in an interview last month.)
But there is little doubt he would have remained a fierce critic of war, particularly the wasteful, useless conflicts of the past 10 years. And George W. Bush and Tony Blair can count themselves lucky that John, at least, was not around to add to the general tumult against them.
To celebrate his birthday, the PBS TV network on Nov. 22, as part of the American Masters series, airs the new documentary Lennon NYC. The film will have its premiere at the New York Film Festival in late September.
The movie is endorsed by his 77-year-old widow, Yoko, who continues to be the vigilant keeper of the Lennon flame.
Last month in Los Angeles, she told me how all her energies have been devoted to the Lennon legend since his death 30 years ago, and how she feels about his killer, Mark David Chapman, who frequently comes up for parole.
“Since John’s passing, I felt sort of empty, and thought, ‘What am I going to do for the rest of my life?’ ” she noted.
“I had been focusing on our relationship, and suddenly he’s gone. And then I thought, ‘OK, I can put my energy and feelings [toward] his fans because now they need me to sort of bring John back in a way.’ And that’s what I’ve been doing for 30 years.”
At first, she admits, coping with his abrupt death was traumatic. “In the beginning, it was very, very difficult and I would faint when I’d hear John’s voice. But now I’m used to listening to his songs. And so for 30 years, I’ve been putting out something of John’s every year. I loved it in a way because it was like John coming back to let me know that those are the songs that he created when we were together.”
Yoko says the new film focusing on Lennon’s life in New York is appropriate. “Even after John’s passing, when I think about New York, even when I’m in Europe, I think of John there. He loved New York so much. He used to say, ‘Well, I wish I was born here.’ New York was John’s life — and his death,” she says.
But it turns out that his passion for New York was directly related to his love of his home town. “He used to say, ‘You know, New York has docks and all that. It’s very Liverpool. And the taxi drivers don’t speak normal English — so very Liverpool.”
But on the matter of whether she feels that her husband’s killer should be paroled, she is blunt. “I don’t want him released because he can be a danger to other people, especially to us; to me, Julian and Sean. But I also think that maybe he would be a danger to other people, too — and to himself. I just don’t want to be responsible for all that.”