A decade after the Beatles separated, John Lennon spoke of his solo music, falling into a depression after separating from Yoko Ono, public and personal pressure, and a Beatles reunion. The article was originally published on Nov. 16, 1980, weeks before Lennon’s death on Dec. 8, 1980:
Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison lived so close to the emotional edge that their deaths, in retrospect, weren’t all that surprising.
But it’s hard to think of John Lennon as out of control. He was the intellectual Beatle, the one who taught and led. Yet, Lennon believes he, too, was headed for disaster before going into exile in 1975.
Resurfacing last month with a single appropriately titled “Starting Over,” Lennon said his danger point was an 18-month “lost weekend” in the early 1970s. Depressed by a separation from wife Yoko Ono and the pressures of living up to public expectations, he spent much of that period in Los Angeles on drugs and booze.
“I think I was suicidal on some kind of subconscious level. … Night and day drinking or taking Librium or whatever,” he said recently, sitting in one of his luxury apartments at the Dakota building. “The goal was to obliterate the mind so that I wouldn’t be conscious. I didn’t want to see or feel anything.
“Part of me can’t believe I would self-destruct — the youthful part that feels invincible. Yet another part realizes that I could have died. I was consuming at least a bottle of vodka a day, and a half bottle or more of brandy.
“Also, I did things like jumping out of cars. It was a crazy kind of teen-age game I had: telling myself, ‘I wasn’t meant to die at this moment so I can jump out of the car.’ What I was ignoring, of course, was that the next car after us could have run over me.”
Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger were more popular, but John Lennon and Bob Dylan were the two ‘60s rock stars who touched us most deeply. Though both later rejected the spokesman role, they probed and provoked, articulating the aspirations and frustrations of a generation.
The idealism of that period now seems naive, but its original impact was enormous. Thanks to Lennon and Dylan, rock themes no longer had to revolve around girls and Saturday night. Social concerns became acceptable pop subject matter.
Lennon’s activism made him a target when the Beatles split in 1970. All Paul, George and Ringo had to do after that was make catchy records. Lennon was expected to come up with hit records and continue commenting.
Lennon met the challenge of the ‘70s head-on. Even before the Beatles’ break-up, he released “Give Peace a Chance,” a tune whose hymn-like tone contrasted brilliantly with the prevailing public hostility toward anyone who resisted the Vietnam War.
Lennon’s real statement, however, was his first solo album, 1970’s “Plastic Ono Band,” an absorbing social document that foresaw much of the ‘70s social complacency. Attacking political hypocrisy, he also scolded young fans for relying on rock stars or other idols for answers. In the album’s most moving tune, he stressed self-reliance: “I don’t believe in magic … I don’t believe in Elvis … I don’t believe in Beatles … The dream is over … I was the walrus, but now I’m John ...”
Realizing the album was too stark for most pop tastes, Lennon restated many of the themes in the softer “Imagine,” a 1971 album that went to No. 1 on the charts. Lennon’s next three studio albums, however, lacked the elegance or power of those works.
“Sometime in New York City” was an interesting but badly flawed attempt at pop/political reporting. “Mind Games” and “Walls and Bridges” were well crafted but contained only hints of the early Lennon vision.
“That period of ‘Mind Games’ and ‘Walls and Bridges’ was pretty rough going. I’m not ashamed of the albums, but if you listen to my voice on ‘Bridges,’ you can see how tired I was. I was absolutely depressed. Yoko and I were apart. I had been through the immigration (threatened deportation) stuff and there was all the pressure of the music business.
“Making music was no longer a joy. For 20 years, I had been under this pressure to produce, produce, produce. My head was cluttered. Every time I’d sit down to write, there would be a cloud between me and the source, a cloud that hadn’t been there before. I was trapped and saw no way out.”
The breakthrough for Lennon was when he and Yoko reconciled.
“Without her, I’d probably be dead,” he continued. “She was the one who literally said to me, ‘You don’t have to do this. You exist outside of the music.’ That was a frightening concept for me. My whole security and identity was wrapped up in being John Lennon, the pop star.
“But Yoko told me the same way she had told me with the Beatles: ‘You are in a phony scene and you’re surrounded by phonies.’ She didn’t mean George and Paul and Ringo. She meant the machine, the whole shebang. That was one liberation for me: I didn’t have to be in the Beatles. The second liberation was that I didn’t have to make records; that I still existed if my name wasn’t in the gossip columns or whatever.”
During the five-year break from recording Lennon and Ono switched the traditional marital responsibilities. She took over management of the family’s financial affairs; he became a “househusband,” supervising the raising of their son, Sean, now 5.
It was an important shift for both, they maintain. Ono, a respected avant-garde artist in the 1960s, felt smothered after her marriage to Lennon because people no longer took her art seriously, thinking chiefly of her as the dilettantish wife of an ex-Beatle. By concentrating on the family’s affairs, she found a new, private outlet for her energies.
Lennon, meanwhile, benefited from focusing his attention on Sean. He no longer spent his time worrying about the next record and the artistic shadow of the Beatles.
Using the Dakota apartment as home base, the Lennons traveled a lot during the five years, bought some property and kept out of sight. They did such a good job of the last that Lennon became the subject of numerous Howard Hughes/recluse rumors.
“The funny thing is when we were doing the bed-ins and all the other strange John and Yoko things in the ‘60s, people kept saying, ‘Well, they’ll do anything for publicity.’ But the stories continued even after we dropped out of sight. I kept reading these mysterious little items about how I had become a lunatic or something who sat in a dark room all day with this long hair and these long fingernails. I thought it was all hysterical.”
Lennon’s return to the record business began during a Bermuda vacation last spring.
“When I took the break, I never had any time limit in mind,” he said, sitting at a kitchen table, holding one of the couple’s three cats. “I wanted to be with Sean the first five years, which are the years that everyone says are the most important in a child’s life.
“When he was coming up on 5, Yoko and I thought that maybe it was time to record again. But then I remembered all the mess. It’s not just the making of an album, it’s all the other stuff: dealing with the record people, the Beatles stuff, people wanting this or that. So, I said, ‘No.’ I found I could live without that.”
In Bermuda, however, a relaxed Lennon began writing songs again. He recorded them on a tape recorder and played them over the phone to Ono, who had remained in New York on business. She then wrote “reply” songs and the album took shape. Due in the stores this week, the LP is titled “Double Fantasy” and examines the strains of modern relationships.
Lennon and Ono each wrote and sang lead on seven of the LP’s 14 tunes. Rather than put all his songs on one side and all of hers on the other, the Lennon and Ono numbers are alternated on both sides so that they form a dialogue.
That sequencing is bound to alarm many Lennon fans because much of the music on Ono’s early solo albums was dismissed by critics and the public as far-out ravings. The irony is that many of the peppy rhythms and eccentric vocals on those albums are now in vogue with a wing of rock’s new-wave audience. Ono’s “Kiss, Kiss, Kiss,” the flipside of Lennon’s smash “Starting Over” single, will be mistaken by many young listeners as a copy of the B-52’s, but that group was clearly influenced by Ono.
Fiercely independent, Ono resists listening to other people’s work, but Lennon finally convinced her to sample the B-52’s “Rock Lobster” so that she could see that a record in her style was now a hit.
More amused than flattered, she said of the B-52’s hit, “It seems a little contrived, but it’s OK. It’s just a little funny that they should be doing that now because 10 years ago it was new. I expect young people to do something more far out than that today.”
Ono doesn’t rely on the quirky rhythms of “Kiss, Kiss, Kiss” in every track. There’s a teasing vaudevillian bounce to her “Yes, I’m Your Angel” and an uplifting gospel feel to “Hard Times Are Over.” More than music, however, she’s interested in message.
“What we are doing in this album is not just dealing with our own personal life, but the relationship of men and women in this society,” she said during a break in the recording studio, where they were putting the final touches on the new album.
“This is a very difficult time for relationships, but I think a new age is coming. I think there’s hope that men and women can get closer together again.
“That’s why I think John’s song, ‘Starting Over,’ is so beautiful. It’s a personal message to me, but it’s also like all men saying to all women, ‘Let’s try again.’ It’s not going to be easy.
“In the ‘60s, there was this sexual revolution which resulted in women waking up to the fact that it was a sexual revolution (only) for men and that women were really being used. So, in the ‘70s, women became very bitter, which was understandable. They didn’t want to just be ‘toys.’ So, there was this breakdown in relationships and the family. I think the ‘80s could be a time of reaching out and trying again. But women can’t do it alone. Men are going to have to give, too.”
Lennon may have written the “Starting Over” single as a second-honeymoon celebration to Yoko, but the record’s Presleyesque undercurrent also allows the song title to apply to Lennon’s return to his own rock ‘n’ roll roots. That fondness for early rock makes him pleased with today’s new-wave movement, which also celebrates the passion of 1950s music.
“I love the music of today,” he explained. “It’s the best period since the 1960s: the Pretenders, the B-52’s, Madness. Someone showed me a video of the Clash. They’re good. It’s the perfect time for me to be coming back. I started noticing what was happening when Queen did the Elvis-sounding tune (‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’). I thought: ‘This is my period again.’
“I think a lot of the new kids went to the ‘50s because they were sick of hearing so much about the ‘60s. They all said, ‘Screw the ‘60s and all of that intellectualizing, let’s go back to when it was fun.’”
Lennon’s love of ‘50s rock doesn’t mean that he’s no longer proud of the ‘60s and the Beatles’ accomplishments. He even sympathizes with those who keep hoping for a Beatles reunion.
“All these Beatles rumors are silly,” he said. “I mean, do we really want to go out there and try to re-create something that happened 15 years ago? There’s no way we could live up to their dreams. The only time I think about it is when someone asks me.
“But I do know how people feel. When I was a kid in Liverpool, we used to always get these rumors about Elvis (Presley) coming to London. We’d save our money and try to figure out how to get a ticket. Then, nothing would happen. It went on for years, but he never played in England. I guess the Beatles rumors will go on, too.”
What does Lennon think would have happened to the Beatles if they hadn’t broken up?
“I don’t know, it 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 where everything we did was right. After that, it was up or down depending on the single or the movie or whatever.
“We could split 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 Jagger where he said after the break-up, ‘At last, we’re No. 1.’ What he didn’t realize was that when we split, we created a bigger thing than if we had stayed. He could never catch up with that.
“If anything, I’m arrogant about the Beatles and what happened in the Beatles. That’s another good thing about the last five years. It has enabled me to look back on that period without being tense about it. I can see a lot of things more clearly now.
“Tennessee Williams said he slept through the ‘60s. Well, I didn’t sleep through the ‘70s, but I certainly had blinders on. Those years just went by. It’s good to be wide awake again.”