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In My Life: Robert Hilburn's 'Corn Flakes With John Lennon'

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Robert Hilburn was pop music critic for the Los Angeles Times for 35 years, from the psychedelic era to the emergence of the iPod. He witnessed many of rock 'n' roll's seminal moments and interviewed virtually every major pop figure of the period. All of this is chronicled in his memoir, "Corn Flakes with John Lennon (and Other Tales From a Rock 'n' Roll Life)," to be published this month. In this abridged excerpt, Hilburn explores his relationship with Lennon after the Beatles' breakup and explains the book's title. Additional excerpts will appear Monday and Tuesday in Calendar.

John Lennon raced into Yoko Ono's home office in the mammoth old Dakota building with a copy of Donna Summer's new single, "The Wanderer." "Listen!" he shouted to us as he put the 45 on the record player. "She's doing Elvis!" I didn't know what he was talking about at first. The arrangement felt more like rock than the singer's usual electro-disco approach, but the opening vocal sure sounded like Donna Summer to me. Midway through the song, however, her voice shifted into the playful, hiccuping style Elvis had used on so many of his early recordings.

"See! See!" John shouted, pointing at the speakers.

The record was John's way of saying hello again after five years. I had spent time with him in Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, during the period he later referred to as his "lost weekend" -- months when he was estranged from Yoko and spent many a night in notorious drinking bouts with his buddies Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr. John got so boisterous one night that he was thrown out of the Troubadour, one of the city's landmark music clubs. He invited me to dinner a few times, and I later found out it was when he had an important business meeting the next morning and didn't want to wake up with a hangover. I got the nod over Harry and Ringo because I didn't drink anything stronger than diet soda. We would eat at a chic Chinese restaurant and then return to his suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Those hours would race by because we loved talking about our favorite rock hero, Elvis, which brings us back to "The Wanderer."

I've experienced hundreds of memorable concert and interview moments, so it's hard to rank them in any favorite order, but my final hours with John in New York are certainly on the short list. It was just weeks before his death in December of 1980, and his playing the Summer record was an endearing greeting -- and one that was typical of John. Of the hundreds of musicians I've met, John was among the most down-to-earth.

::

As soon as I started working at the Los Angeles Times, people warned me not to get too close to artists because it could make it difficult to review their work and you can never really tell if the "friendship" is genuine. Even so, I felt there was much value in getting to know some of the most important artists beyond what you can glean in the hour or so you have to interview them. The relationship with Lennon -- and it never approached anything like a daily or even weekly tie -- came about naturally. I liked him and enjoyed his company.

John came to town in late 1973 to record an oldies album with Phil Spector and to promote his new solo album, "Mind Games," which he had produced himself. I interviewed him at the Bel-Air home of record producer Lou Adler, a chief force behind the Monterey Pop festival. May Pang, who introduced herself as John's personal assistant, answered the door and took me to the patio where John was waiting. He was wearing jeans and a sweater vest over his shirt and he walked toward me enthusiastically. "Well, hello at last," he said with a warm smile.

"Phil tells me you're a big Elvis fan," he said.

We ended up spending so much time talking about Elvis and other favorites from the 1950s that I was afraid we weren't going to get to the Beatles and his solo career. I was particularly interested in his thoughts on his "Plastic Ono Band" album (from 1970); the songs struck me as being so personal.

"I always took the songs personally, whether it was 'In My Life' or 'Help,' " he said. "To me, I always wrote about myself. Very few of the completely Lennon songs weren't in the first person. I'm a first-person journalist. I find it hard, though I occasionally do it, to write about, you know, 'Freddie went up the mountain and Freddie came back.' And even that is really about you."

John said he actually preferred "Plastic Ono Band" to its follow-up, "Imagine," even though the latter sold more copies and got generally better reviews. "I was a bit surprised by the reaction to 'Mother,' " he said, referring to "Plastic Ono Band" by his own title for it. "I thought, 'Can't they see how nice it is?' " So, John said, he went back into the studio and wrote new songs about many of the same themes, only this time he put on some strings and other production touches that made the message more accessible. That's why, he said, he privately called the "Imagine" album "Mother With Chocolate."

The interview didn't run in The Times until the album "Mind Games" was actually in the stores several weeks later. In the meantime, Phil invited me to one of the sessions for the oldies project. They had been going on for some weeks and the word was that they were pretty raucous, even drunken affairs. On the night I stopped by the studio, the liquor flowed freely. John, a gob of cake in his hand, chased Phil around the control booth while those around them danced to John's just-recorded version of an early Elvis recording, "Just Because."

But John wasn't all playfulness. He had sharp words for one of the studio employees and insulted a record company guest. This wild John was a lot different from the charming guy I had met at Adler's house, and I hoped the rude, drunken behavior was an aberration. But I kept hearing reports, including one about Phil firing a pistol one night and others about a tipsy John out on the town with his buddies and how he sometimes drank as much as a bottle of vodka a day. The first time I saw him this way away from the studio was at the Troubadour, where I was reviewing the opening of R&B singer Ann Peebles, who had a hit single, "I Can't Stand the Rain."

I didn't know John was in the club until he was in the middle of a big commotion. He was so drunk that he had wrapped a Kotex sanitary napkin around his head. When one of the waitresses tried to quiet him, he shouted, "Don't you know who I am?" Her answer was repeated the next day in all the record company offices and later in lots of magazine articles: "To me, you're just some ass -- with a Kotex on his head." A bouncer escorted John and his party out onto Santa Monica Boulevard.

Eventually, John returned to New York with May and spent weeks trying unsuccessfully to get Phil to give him the sessions' master tapes so he could finish the album himself. By then, I was beginning to hear reports about a strain between John and Yoko Ono and the suggestion that his relationship with May was more than simply professional. John was in a terrific mood when he returned from New York a few months later. He was only supposed to be in town for a few days, but the trip was extended and May phoned one day to say that John would like me to join him for dinner. When I got to the hotel, I figured he'd have a limo waiting downstairs. But John, wearing blue jeans and a black T-shirt, suggested that I drive, and we were soon off to a nearby Chinese restaurant, where we spent a couple of hours talking about Elvis, naturally.

Back at the hotel, Around 11:30, John turned on Johnny Carson's TV show and ordered corn flakes and cream from room service. He turned the sound down on the TV and stirred the corn flakes and cream with his spoon in an almost ritualistic fashion before taking a bite.

I didn't think much of it until the same thing happened the next time we returned to the hotel after dinner. This time I asked what was up with the corn flakes.

He smiled.

As a child in Liverpool during World War II, he explained, you could never get cream, so it was a special treat. He took another bite and gave an exaggerated sigh to underscore just how sweet it tasted.

The mention of Liverpool made John nostalgic. I already knew a little about John's early days, but it was fascinating hearing him tell the story. John was born in 1940 -- a year after me -- and he was raised by his Aunt Mimi after his parents broke up when he was about 5. His mother, Julia, started seeing another man who had children of his own and didn't want another one around. John loved Mimi dearly, but he also longed for his mother, who lived only a few miles away.

During his teens, just around the time he had formed the Quarrymen skiffle group, he said he had begun seeing more of his mother and had gotten the feeling she was trying to make up for all the years of her absence from his life. She was especially excited about the band, and John treasured their time together. But his mother was hit and killed by a motorist while walking to a bus stop. His mother had been taken from him twice. He was 17.

John had thought that rock 'n' roll fame would make everything right in his life, but even after his success he continued to search for someone or something to make his world seem complete. That was the theme of the "Plastic Ono Band" album. The very first song, "Mother," started with him screaming, "Mother, you had me, but I never had you / I wanted you, but you didn't want me." It continued, "Father, you left me, but I never left you / I needed you, but you didn't need me."

He found that missing foundation in Yoko, which is why she became more important to him than even the Beatles. In "God," a later song on the record, he again screams, "I don't believe in Elvis. I don't believe in Zimmerman [ Bob Dylan]. I don't believe in Beatles. I just believe in me. Yoko and me. That's reality."

As he spoke, I could understand why John felt so adrift. Until that night, I had assumed he had separated from Yoko and was involved in a new relationship with May, but he said that Yoko had pretty much demanded a break in their relationship. He was clearly still in love with her. Without her, he had no shield against the pressures of the rock 'n' roll world and his own depression.

::

In the fall of 1980, John and Yoko were finishing up their new album, "Double Fantasy," and I headed to New York for John's first newspaper interview in five years. This was when John raced into Yoko's office at the Dakota with a copy of Donna Summer's "The Wanderer."

He had returned to New York after the "lost weekend" period and spent the next five years rebuilding his life with Yoko and helping to raise their son, Sean. On this day, he looked nice and trim in jeans, a jean jacket and a white T-shirt. He was maybe 25 pounds slimmer than the last time I'd seen him. "It's Mother's macrobiotic diet," he said later about his weight, employing his nickname for Yoko. "She makes sure I stay on it."

By the time we headed to the recording studio, it was nearly dark. As the limo pulled up to the studio's dimly lit entrance, I could see the outlines of a couple dozen fans in the shadows. They raced toward the car as soon as the driver opened John's door. Flashbulbs went off with blinding speed. Without a bodyguard, John was helpless, and I later asked if he didn't worry about his safety. "They don't mean any harm," he replied. "Besides, what can you do? You can't spend all your life hiding from people. You've got to get out and live some, don't you?"

Inside the studio, I heard several tracks from "Double Fantasy," which was John's most revealing album since "Imagine." I could see he was happy to be back in the studio, and he looked forward to making more music with Yoko. Some critics branded the gentle, relaxed tone of the collection too soft. They missed the old Lennon bite. To me, however, the collection was a marvelous reflection of John's mood, and Grammy voters were right when they named it album of the year.

The Dakota is one of New York's most famous residential addresses. Built in 1884, it has spacious rooms and high ceilings; John and Yoko's living room had the formal but graceful feel of a museum with its Egyptian art, including a sarcophagus that dominated one side of the room. From one window of the seventh-floor apartment, I could see across Central Park and much of the city's spectacular skyline. For the preceding five years, that scene had been John's primary view of the world.

I spent hours at the apartment and the studio talking to John about the changes since Los Angeles. He felt at peace for one of the few times in his life. He was deeply in love with Yoko and thrilled to be a father again. He also spoke with affection about the Beatles days and how much he still looked forward to seeing Paul. That surprised me because of the sarcastic barbs he'd launched in interviews and the biting lyrics he'd written about Paul since the breakup of the band. "Aw, don't believe all that," he said, smiling. "Paul is like a brother. We've gotten way past all that." He also spoke fondly of Ringo but more distantly about George. He felt slighted by some things in George's autobiography, "I, Me, Mine," especially George's failure to give John credit for helping him learn guitar techniques.

Mostly, we talked about the "house husband" period that was just ending, a time of emotional drying out, a chance to reset priorities.

He had decided in 1975 to shut down his career to work on his strained marriage with Yoko and to spend time with Sean, who was born that October. He also wanted to escape the pressures and expectations of the rock 'n' roll world. Despite his highly acclaimed solo works of the early 1970s, John found it difficult to deal with the ghost of his Fab Four association.

"When I wrote 'the dream is over' [in 'God' in 1970], I was trying to say to the Beatles thing, 'Get off my back.' I was also trying to tell the other people to stop looking at me because I wasn't going to do it for them anymore because I didn't even know what the hell I was doing in my own life," he told me that first day. "What I realized during the five years away was that when I said the dream is over, I had made the physical break from the Beatles, but mentally there was still this big thing on my back about what people expected of me. It was like this invisible ghost. During the five years, it sort of went away. I finally started writing like I was even before the Beatles were the Beatles. I got rid of all that self-consciousness about telling myself, 'You can't do that. That song's not good enough. Remember, you're the guy who wrote "A Day in the Life." Try again.' "

John wasn't a recluse for those five years. He and the family traveled to Japan and elsewhere. He also went out regularly in New York, but he stayed away from the music business and the media. He said he had begun writing again the previous summer, during a vacation with Sean in Bermuda. Excited about the new material, he had called Yoko, who had remained in New York to take care of some business matters, and he played her a tape on the phone. She then wrote reply songs, which she played back to him a few days later. With the songs forming a dialogue, the Lennons went into a recording studio in New York in the autumn to record an album.

In the limo on the way to the studio, John continued to talk about Yoko, saying she served as an artistic catalyst -- questioning, discussing, challenging. He called their musical relationship a partnership, noting that she wrote and sang half the songs on the album. But what about the commercial consequences? There had been so much anti-Yoko feeling because of the breakup of the Beatles. Would his fans accept Yoko as a musical partner?

This time, Yoko spoke up. "I have two concerns in this album," she said. "First, I hope that it reminds people of John's talent. Second, I hope the fact that I am working with him enhances the man-woman dialogue. At the same time, I don't want the situation to become negative because my songs are too far-out or anything. That's hurting the chances of the album reaching as many people as possible. That wouldn't be fair to John. So in selecting my songs, I was conscious about the ones that are not too -- shall we say -- offbeat. This album is like our first hello. When you say hello, you don't want to complicate things. Maybe in the second or third album, we can experiment more."

John smiled at her words and said, "Yes, this is just starting over. We're going to move forward in the next album. It's going to be even better, so people better get ready."

As she leaned on his arm in the back of the limo, they seemed very comfortable. It was nighttime and everything felt quiet and safe in the car. "It's not really so unusual, you know," Yoko said, mentioning the literary couple Robert and Elizabeth Browning. "Ah," John said. He started quoting one of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's most famous lines: "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." Yoko talked about how Robert and Elizabeth had inspired each other. I said that might be a good angle for a story: "John and Yoko, the Robert and Elizabeth Browning of rock." We all smiled.

On that second day, he took me to Sean's playroom, where he kept one of his prized possessions, a vintage jukebox. Plugging it in, he punched one Elvis Presley record after another and bopped around playfully.

As Elvis sang "Don't Be Cruel" in the background, John recalled his first and only meeting with our mutual rock hero. It was a story he relished sharing as much as he did his Beatles memories.

"It was probably 1965 and we had a break in L.A. during a tour. We went up to his house and we were terrified. I can't remember the first moment I saw him, but he looked great. We started singing some of his songs. That's what we always did when we met Chuck Berry or Carl Perkins or any of them."

I asked if Elvis had known how big the Beatles were and if he had felt any hint of competition.

"Are you kidding?" John replied with a laugh. "He knew damn well who we were -- from the word 'go.' He was terrified of us and the English movement because we were a threat to him. I heard he was so paranoid all afternoon that he kept practicing things to say to us, asking the guys around him if we were any good. It was like Ali wondering if he could handle Frazier. To us, he was a god. We'd like to beat his record and become the champion, but we would always give him credit. It always hurts and infuriates me when Mick Jagger puts Elvis down. Maybe he's jealous because Elvis was the original body man in rock and it's too near to Mick's game for him to admit that Elvis' movements were at least as good as his and that maybe Elvis could sing a damn sight better than he could."

John's favorite time with the Beatles surprised me -- the early days. Hamburg, Liverpool, the dance halls. I'd thought he'd say it was when the band had conquered America. "Naw," he said with a wave of a hand. "We were already blasé. We had the show down. We were already past our peak as performers. It was like Vegas -- what we did on stage, I mean. We shook our head on this number and . . . well, you know the rest."

We had never spoken all that much about the Beatles, and John seemed to be amused by my sudden display of interest. He even laughed when I told him the reason I wanted to be Elvis was because of all the screaming girls. Was it the same with him in the Beatles? "That was one of the main reasons you go on stage, because the guy in the band gets the girls," he said with a broad grin. "There's an old joke, but it's true: Sometimes you'd get this girl after the show and you'd be in bed and she'd ask you which one you are. I'd say, 'Which one do you like?' If she said, 'George,' I'd say, 'I'm George.' "

This was so much fun that it didn't even seem like an interview. I was just a fan, asking him to name things like his favorite Beatles albums ("Rubber Soul," "Revolver," "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," and the White Album) and what tracks he'd put on a Beatles greatest hits package ("I'd favor my own tracks, of course. I'd go with 'Walrus,' 'Strawberry Fields,' 'Come Together,' 'Revolution,' 'In My Life,' 'Hard Day's Night,' 'Help' -- stuff like that and some of the early tracks like 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' and 'Day Tripper.' ").

John was so into reminiscing that he even came up with a question: What would have happened if the band hadn't broken up in 1970?

In answering it, he said, "We would have probably gone down the tubes and then been resurrected like everything else. I always thought it was best to go out when you're flying high. The popularity was always ebbing and flowing. That's what people forget. It was only during the initial rush that people thought everything we did was right. After that, it was up or down depending on the single or the album or whatever. We could split up in 1970 because we were on top. In fact, it was probably the best thing that ever happened to the Beatles myth. I read this book about Mick where he said after the breakup, 'At last, we're No. 1.' What he didn't realize was that when we split, we created a much bigger thing than if we had stayed. He could never catch up with that."

I told John I couldn't imagine, as a fan, how hard it must have been for him to simply walk away from music.

"It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life -- not make music," he said. "Not because I had this love for music or because I was so creative and I couldn't bear not to be creative, but because I felt that I didn't exist unless my name was in the gossip columns of Rolling Stone or the Daily News or whatever. Then, it dawned on me that I do still exist."

We had such a good time over the three days that John invited me to his and Sean's birthday party at Tavern on the Green. I knew what the perfect birthday present for John was. I had mentioned in the studio that there was a great new Elvis photo book by Alfred Wertheimer, who had spent a couple of weeks with Elvis around the time of "Hound Dog" in 1956. John hadn't seen it.

The party was scheduled for noon, and I left the hotel around 11, thinking I'd pick up a copy of the book at a bookstore. But I had to go to a half-dozen stores before finally finding one, and the party was over by the time I got to the restaurant. I headed back to the Dakota. I didn't want to bother John, so I left the book with the doorman.

At the bookstore, I also picked up a copy of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetry in case I wanted to quote more from the poem John had mentioned. He had said he wished he could put those feelings into a song, because it would be the perfect love song. During the flight back, the final lines struck me. In them, Barrett Browning says, "If God choose, I shall but love thee better after death."

I flashed on that final line two months later when I heard the news.

Excerpted from "Corn Flakes with John Lennon (And Other Tales From a Rock 'n' Roll Life)," by Robert Hilburn. Copyright ©2009 by Robert Hilburn. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, Pa. 18098.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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