Rolling Stone Interview
With John Lennon
December 5, 1980
Published January 22, 1981
Other Rolling Stone Interviews
With John Lennon
Rolling Stone Interview
With John Lennon
by Pete Hamill
Rolling Stone Interview
With John Lennon
by Jonathan Cott
to the inner sanctum!" says John Lennon,
greeting me with high-spirited, mock ceremoniousness
in Yoko Ono's beautiful cloud-ceilinged office
in their Dakota apartment. It's Friday evening,
December 5, and Yoko has been telling me how their
collaborative new album, Double Fantasy, came
about: Last spring, John and their son, Sean,
were vacationing in Bermuda while Yoko stayed
home "sorting out business," as she
puts it. She and John spoke on the phone every
day and sang each other the songs they had composed
in between calls.
was at a dance club one night in Bermuda,"
John interrupts as he sits down on a couch and
Yoko gets up to bring coffee. "Upstairs,
they were playing disco, and downstairs, I suddenly
heard 'Rock Lobster' by the B-52's for the first
time. Do you know it? It sounds just like Yoko's
music, so I said to meself, 'It's time to get
out the old axe and wake the wife up!' We wrote
about twenty-five songs during those three weeks,
and we've recorded enough for another album."
been playing side two of Double Fantasy over and
over," I say, getting ready to ply him with
a question. John looks at me with a time and interview-stopping
smile. "How are you?" he asks. "It's
been like a reunion for us these last few weeks.
We've seen Ethan Russell, who's doing a videotape
of a couple of the new songs, and Annie Leibovitz
was here. She took my first Rolling Stone cover
photo. It's been fun seeing everyone we used to
know and doing it all again - we've all survived.
When did we first meet?"
met you and Yoko on September 17, 1968,"
I say, remembering the first of our several meetings.
I was just a lucky guy, at the right place at
the right time. John had decided to become more
"public" and to demystify his Beatles
persona. He and Yoko, whom he'd met in November
1966, were preparing for the Amsterdam and Montreal
bed-ins for peace and were soon to release Two
Virgins, the first of their experimental record
collaborations. The album cover - the infamous
frontal nude portrait of them - was to grace the
pages of Rolling Stone's first anniversary issue.
John had just discovered the then-impoverished,
San Francisco-based magazine, and he'd agreed
to give Rolling Stone the first of his "coming-out"
interviews. As "European editor," I
was asked to visit John and Yoko and to take along
a photographer (Ethan Russell, who later took
the photos for the Let It Be book that accompanied
the album). So, nervous and excited, we met John
and Yoko at their temporary basement flat in London.
impressions are usually the most accurate, and
John was graceful, gracious, charming, exuberant,
direct, witty and playful; I remember noticing
how he wrote little reminders to himself in the
wonderfully absorbed way that a child paints the
sun. He was due at a recording session in a half-hour
to work on the White Album, so we agreed to meet
the next day to do the interview, after which
John and Yoko invited Ethan and me to attend the
session for "Back in the U.S.S.R." at
Abbey Road Studios. Only a performance of Shakespeare
at the Globe Theatre might have made me feel as
ecstatic and fortunate as I did at that moment.
new encounter with John brought a new perspective.
Once, I ran into John and Yoko in 1971. A friend
and I had gone to see Carnal Knowledge, and afterward
we bumped into the Lennons in the lobby. Accompanied
by Jerry Rubin and a friend of his, they invited
us to drive down with them to Ratner's delicatessen
in the East Village for blintzes, whereupon a
beatific, long-haired young man approached our
table and wordlessly handed John a card inscribed
with a pithy saying of the inscrutable Meher Baba.
Rubin drew a swastika on the back of the card,
got up and gave it back to the man. When he returned,
John admonished him gently, saying that that wasn't
the way to change someone's consciousness. Acerbic
and skeptical as he could often be, John Lennon
never lost his sense of compassion.
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?
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."
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."
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."
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."
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,
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
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?"
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
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.
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
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.
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."
remember years ago," I say, "when you
and Yoko appeared in bags at a Vienna press conference."
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."
'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
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
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."
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."
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
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.'
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."
the way through your work, John, there's this
incredibly strong notion about inspiring people
to be themselves and to come together and try
to change things. I'm thinking here, obviously,
of songs like 'Give Peace a Chance,' 'Power to
the People' and 'Happy Xmas (War Is Over).' "
still there," John replies. "If you
look on the vinyl around the new album's [the
twelve-inch single "(Just Like) Starting
Over"] logo - which all the kids have done
already all over the world from Brazil to Australia
to Poland, anywhere that gets the record - inside
is written: ONE WORLD, ONE PEOPLE. So we continue.
get truly affected by letters from Brazil or Poland
or Austria - places I'm not conscious of all the
time - just to know somebody is there, listening.
One kid living up in Yorkshire wrote this heartfelt
letter about being both Oriental and English and
identifying with John and Yoko. The odd kid in
the class. There are a lot of those kids who identify
with us. They don't need the history of rock &
roll. They identify with us as a couple, a biracial
couple, who stand for love, peace, feminism and
the positive things of the world.
know, give peace a chance, not shoot people for
peace. All we need is love. I believe it. It's
damn hard, but I absolutely believe it. We're
not the first to say, 'Imagine no countries' or
'Give peace a chance,' but we're carrying that
torch, like the Olympic torch, passing it from
hand to hand, to each other, to each country,
to each generation. That's our job. We have to
conceive of an idea before we can do it.
never claimed divinity. I've never claimed purity
of soul. I've never claimed to have the answer
to life. I only put out songs and answer questions
as honestly as I can, but only as honestly as
I can - no more, no less. I cannot live up to
other people's expectations of me because they're
illusionary. And the people who want more than
I am, or than Bob Dylan is, or than Mick Jagger
is. . . .
Mick, for instance. Mick's put out consistently
good work for twenty years, and will they give
him a break? Will they ever say, 'Look at him,
he's Number One, he's thirty-six and he's put
out a beautiful song, "Emotional Rescue,"
it's up there.' I enjoyed it, lots of people enjoyed
it. So it goes up and down, up and down. God help
Bruce Springsteen when they decide he's no longer
God. I haven't seen him - I'm not a great 'in'-person
watcher - but I've heard such good things about
him. Right now, his fans are happy. He's told
them about being drunk and chasing girls and cars
and everything, and that's about the level they
enjoy. But when he gets down to facing his own
success and growing older and having to produce
it again and again, they'll turn on him, and I
hope he survives it. All he has to do is look
at me and Mick. . . . I cannot be a punk in Hamburg
and Liverpool anymore. I'm older now. I see the
world through different eyes. I still believe
in love, peace and understanding, as Elvis Costello
said, and what's so funny about love, peace and
another aspect of your work, which has to do with
the way you continuously question what's real
and what's illusory, such as in 'Look at Me,'
your beautiful new 'Watching the Wheels' - what
are those wheels, by the way? - and, of course,
'Strawberry Fields Forever,' in which you sing:
'Nothing is real.' "
the wheels?" John asks. "The whole universe
is a wheel, right? Wheels go round and round.
They're my own wheels, mainly. But, you know,
watching meself is like watching everybody else.
And I watch meself through my child, too. Then,
in a way, nothing is real, if you break the word
down. As the Hindus or Buddhists say, it's an
illusion, meaning all matter is floating atoms,
right? It's Rashomon. We all see it, but the agreed-upon
illusion is what we live in. And the hardest thing
is facing yourself. It's easier to shout 'Revolution'
and 'Power to the people' than it is to look at
yourself and try to find out what's real inside
you and what isn't, when you're pulling the wool
over your own eyes. That's the hardest one.
used to think that the world was doing it to me
and that the world owed me something, and that
either the conservatives or the socialists or
the fascists or the communists or the Christians
or the Jews were doing something to me; and when
you're a teenybopper, that's what you think. I'm
forty now. I don't think that anymore, 'cause
I found out it doesn't fucking work! The thing
goes on anyway, and all you're doing is jacking
off, screaming about what your mommy or daddy
or society did, but one has to go through that.
For the people who even bother to go through that
- most assholes just accept what is and get on
with it, right? - but for the few of us who did
question what was going on. . . . I have found
out personally - not for the whole world! - that
I am responsible for it, as well as them. I am
part of them. There's no separation; we're all
one, so in that respect, I look at it all and
think, 'Ah, well, I have to deal with me again
in that way. What is real? What is the illusion
I'm living or not living?' And I have to deal
with it every day. The layers of the onion. But
that is what it's all about.
last album I did before Double Fantasy was Rock
'n' Roll, with a cover picture of me in Hamburg
in a leather jacket. At the end of making that
record, I was finishing up a track that Phil Spector
had made me sing called 'Just Because,' which
I really didn't know - all the rest I'd done as
a teenager, so I knew them backward - and I couldn't
get the hang of it. At the end of that record
- I was mixing it just next door to this very
studio - I started spieling and saying, 'And so
we say farewell from the Record Plant,' and a
little thing in the back of my mind said, 'Are
you really saying farewell?' I hadn't thought
of it then. I was still separated from Yoko and
still hadn't had the baby, but somewhere in the
back was a voice that was saying, 'Are you saying
farewell to the whole game?'
just flashed by like that - like a premonition.
I didn't think of it until a few years later,
when I realized that I had actually stopped recording.
I came across the cover photo - the original picture
of me in my leather jacket, leaning against the
wall in Hamburg in 1962 - and I thought, 'Is this
it? Do I start where I came in, with "Be-Bop-A-Lula"?'
The day I met Paul I was singing that song for
the first time onstage. There's a photo in all
the Beatles books - a picture of me with a checked
shirt on, holding a little acoustic guitar - and
I am singing 'Be-Bop-A-Lula,' just as I did on
that album, and there's a picture in Hamburg and
I'm saying goodbye from the Record Plant.
you wonder, I mean really wonder. I know we make
our own reality and we always have a choice, but
how much is preordained? Is there always a fork
in the road and are there two preordained paths
that are equally preordained? There could be hundreds
of paths where one could go this way or that way
- there's a choice and it's very strange sometimes.
. . . And that's a good ending for our interview."
Douglas, coproducer of Double Fantasy, has arrived
and is overseeing the mix of Yoko's songs. It's
2:30 in the morning, but John and I continue to
talk until four as Yoko naps on a studio couch.
John speaks of his plans for touring with Yoko
and the band that plays on Double Fantasy; of
his enthusiasm for making more albums; of his
happiness about living in New York City, where,
unlike England or Japan, he can raise his son
without racial prejudice; of his memory of the
first rock & roll song he ever wrote (a takeoff
on the Dell Vikings' "Come Go with Me,"
in which he changed the lines to: "Come come
come come / Come and go with me / To the peni-tentiary");
of the things he has learned on his many trips
around the world during the past five years. As
he walks me to the elevator, I tell him how exhilarating
it is to see Yoko and him looking and sounding
so well. "I love her, and we're together,"
he says. "Goodbye, till next time."
all is really said and done / The two of us are
really one," John Lennon sings in "Dear
Yoko," a song inspired by Buddy Holly, who
himself knew something about true love's ways.
"People asking questions lost in confusion
/ Well I tell them there's no problem, only solutions,"
sings John in "Watching the Wheels,"
a song about getting off the merry-go-round, about
letting it go.
the tarot, the Fool is distinguished from other
cards because it is not numbered, suggesting that
the Fool is outside movement and change. And as
it has been written, the Fool and the clown play
the part of scapegoats in the ritual sacrifice
of humans. John and Yoko have never given up being
Holy Fools. In a recent Playboy interview, Yoko,
responding to a reference to other notables who
had been interviewed in that magazine, said: "People
like Carter represent only their country. John
and I represent the world." I am sure many
readers must have snickered. But three nights
after our conversation, the death of John Lennon
revealed Yoko's statement to be astonishingly
true. "Come together over me," John
had sung, and people everywhere in the world came
With John Lennon And Yoko Ono
by David Sheff
Rolling Stone Interview
With John Lennon
by Pete Hamill
Rolling Stone Interview
With John Lennon
by Jonathan Cott
of the Decade'
Interview With John Lennon