“all we are saying, The Last Major Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono” by David Sheff (published by Pan Books)

Sgt. Pepper and a pinch of salt

After five years out of the public spotlight between 1975 and 1980, John Lennon’s musical muse had returned and he and his wife Yoko Ono had a joint comeback album in the making. They wanted to publicise it, and one of the writers hustling for an interview was David Sheff, representing the respected Playboy magazine. Ono asked him to provide the time and place of his birth so that she could look into his astrological numbers.
18. December 2020 14:38

Sheff, born in 1955, was just 24 years old. As an 11-year-old suffering anxiety and depression, he says his “mind was blown” in 1967 when a radio disc jockey played the new Beatles single, the hallucinatory masterpiece “Strawberry Fields Forever”, three times. This introduced Sheff to the mind of Lennon, who wrote and sang the song, and the experience caused him to switch attention to the Beatles, rather than his preference for inane pop by the Monkees, Fifth Dimension and Sonny and Cher.

Sheff says the surrealistic lyrics, particularly “No one I think is in my tree”, awakened something in him and he no longer felt like a stranger in a strange land. He realised that Lennon too, the idol of millions worldwide, suffered an inner turmoil and felt different to others. The youngster went out and bought all the Beatles records, spending his savings from doing a paper round.

After college at Berkeley, “where I wasn’t any weirder than other students”, Sheff began freelancing for local magazines. He aspired to write for “Playboy” and “Rolling Stone”, whose in-depth interviews were widely read.

He blagged his way into the Playboy orbit, calling in at its New York office without an appointment and meeting the executive editor, who asked him for interview ideas and if he had any way to reach John Lennon. “Sure,” Sheff cockily lied. After that, he pulled every string he could think of to reach the closeted Lennons, until, finally, he made contact with Ono and she asked for his numbers.

By this time the 24-year-old could give her copies of interviews he had done with Jimmy Carter, Martin Luther King, Jr, Bob Dylan, Albert Schweitzer and others. Ono was not impressed though with the importance he obviously gave to a possible interview with the Lennons; she took that for granted. But Playboy was prestigious, Sheff’s numbers aligned and, after being introduced to John for his scrutiny, the writer was approved for the important interview.

It took place over three intimate weeks inside John and Yoko’s home in the Dakota building, in cafés, limousines, West Village sushi bars, taxis, the Hit Factory recording studios and on meandering walks through the Upper West Side of Manhattan and Central Park.

The interview was completed in early September and it was scheduled to be published in mid-December, basically coinciding with the release of the “Double Fantasy” album, Lennon’s first since his cover versions LP “Rock ‘n’ Roll” in 1975. “Double Fantasy” would have tracks alternating between John and Yoko; a “heart play”, as they called it.

Sheff tells us that when the interview was concluded, Yoko was pleased with it and John was excited at the chance to set the record straight about his relationship with her, to send messages about “leaders and parking meters” (spot the reference to Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”), talk about feminism, masculinity, “that old gang of mine” (The Beatles) and “all the stuff about imagining a better world because that’s what we have to do”.

Lennon was shot dead by a misguided man outside the Dakota on December 8, 1980. The original version of this book was originally published by Playboy Press in 1981, then came a 20th anniversary edition in 2000 and now this 40th anniversary reprint with a new introduction by Sheff. December 8, 2020 was the 40th anniversary of Lennon’s slaying. Born in Liverpool, UK, on October 9, 1940, he was 40 when he died and would have been 80 on October 9, 2020.

Such an interview is a self-serving process, a two-way street. Sheff doesn’t come across as over-deferential but there is the sense he isn’t going to push too hard either if the Lennons get touchy about something. On the Lennons’ side, they have an important album to promote and various messages to put across, including their ongoing desire for world peace. They may sanitise a few things and stick to the accepted account.

John has a deserved reputation for being forthright and honest and not afraid to say what’s on his mind, but still this is a much calmer, more balanced person than the aggressive interviewee he was when he gave a similar full-on summing-up to Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner in 1970, and railed against just about everything. Later he said drugs had made him mouth off.

In 1980, Lennon hopes he is a better man but knows he is a flawed human being in some ways. At least he has the redeeming feature of confessing his faults and using the same harsh judgment on himself that he uses on others. He seems prepared to answer everything from his difficult upbringing to his lifelong mistreatment of women to fame and his role as a father.

Literally hundreds of books have been written about the Beatles, and continue to be, and a lot of the material here has become rather old hat by now: for instance, the confessions about “not being there” for first son Julian and the consequent “househusband” period raising second son Sean and baking bread over those five “missing” years up to 1980.

Ditto the way he and Yoko first met at a London art gallery, the two bed-ins, the “lost weekend” of the couple’s separation in the mid-1970s, the post-Beatles antagonism with Paul McCartney, and more. John is particularly displeased at not being mentioned in George Harrison’s “I Me Mine” autobiography. It’s all become part of the legend now.

A particularly valuable aspect of the book occurs after the Lennons also give an interview to Newsweek and Sheff was more than a little miffed at having been scooped. John was apologetic and in recompense agreed to go through virtually the whole Beatles catalogue offering comments on who wrote what, the stories behind the songs and his thoughts on them in general.

(Is it all reliable though? For “Hey Jude”, which he calls one of Paul’s “masterpieces”, he adds “I don’t think I had anything to do with it”, yet McCartney has subsequently told the story a million times of how he expressed his doubt to Lennon over the nascent line “the movement you need is on your shoulder”, saying he would replace it, but John reassured him that it was a great line, the best in the song, and to keep it. McCartney likes to say that John was right, when in fact he should recognise that it is the crap line he thought it was in the first place. Too late to change it now.)

Post-1980, Lennon’s personal assistant from 1979 asserted that the Lennons’ marriage was strained and they weren’t the Romeo and Juliet portrayed to Sheff and others. By this man’s account, Yoko had lost interest in John and exploited his emotional weakness to make him dependent on her. She controlled and manipulated him and was living a double life, including an affair with art curator Sam Green and a heroin addiction that was more serious than John knew about. The assistant was later found to have stolen many of the dead Lennon’s effects from the Dakota, including manuscripts, love letters, private photographs, clothing and his diaries.

Not exactly a man to be trusted, then, but it does make us wonder about the mostly rosy picture presented to Sheff. Still, the latter takes us inside the Lennons’ minds and inside the Dakota, the eerie setting of the film “Rosemary’s Baby”, with much fascinating detail: the creaking lethargic elevator to the upper floors where the Lennons’ apartment had wall-size Warhols, the “White Room”, a sarcophagus encased in glass, a huge trampoline and Yoko’s art pieces, etc, etc.

Read with reservations.

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