1980 Rolling Stone Interview With John Lennon
by Jonathan Cott, December 5, 1980. Published January 22, 1981.
Article ©1980 Rolling Stone
“Welcome 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.
“I 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.”
“I’ve 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?”
“I 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.
First 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.
Every 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.
Almost 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?
“I 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.”
“You’re 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.”
“It’s 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.”
“It’s 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.”
When 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, “The Fool.”
Which 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 it.”
“I’ve 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?”
“I 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 down?’
“Next 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.
“All 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 Yoko.
“The 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.
“Everybody 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.”
“I remember years ago,” I say, “when you and Yoko appeared in bags at a Vienna press conference.”
“Right. 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.”
“In ‘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 afraid.’ “
“Yes, 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 side.
“I’m 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.”
“Carl 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.”
“I 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 were dead.”
“On 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.’
“People 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.”
“All 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).’ “
“It’s 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.
“I 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.
“You 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.
“I’ve 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. . . .
“Take 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 understanding?”
“There’s 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.’ “
“Watching 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.
“I 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.
“The 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?’
“It 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.
“Sometimes 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.”
Jack 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.”
“After 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.
In 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 together.