John Lennon - The Last Interview - December 8, 1980
Laurie Kaye: “Can you tell us about that meeting [with Yoko]?”
JOHN: “With Yoko? Well, it was sort of 1966 and, uh, I got a call from a guy called John Dunbar, who used to be married to Marianne Faithful – you know, everybody’s connected. And he had a gallery in London called Indica Gallery, an art gallery. And, I used to go there occasionally to see whatever art show was on, you see? And he said, ‘oh, I’ve got this...there’s this fantastic Japanese girl coming from New York, and she’s gonna do this other thing but she’s also gonna put on an exhibition at my gallery. And it’s gonna be this big event'. Something about 'black bags!’ and I thought, ‘Ooooh, orgies’, you know? These artists, they’re all ravers, you know? It was in the days of happenings, paint, and all that stuff, right? So I go right down there, you know, for the opening. ‘Goody, goody!’, [slaps hands together] you know? Lennon goes down to see what’s happening. I get down there, and it’s the night before the opening. I mean, I thought there was going to be a big party, and an opening and the whole bit, you know? A big hap...I didn’t wanna get involved. I wanted to watch, you know? I get there and its all white and quiet and there’s just these strange things all on display, like an apple on a stand for 200 pounds – when the pound was worth $8, or something. Whatever. And there’s hammers, saying ‘Hammer a nail in’, all this very peculiar stuff, and a ladder with a painting on the sky...or it looked like a blank canvass on the ceiling with a spyglass hanging from it. So, I’m lookin’ ‘round and there doesn’t seem to be many people. There’s a couple of people downstairs. And I didn’t know who was who. So, I get up the ladder, and I look through this spyglass and it says, 'Yes’. And I took that as a personal, positive message, because most of the avant garde artists of that period were all negative. Like, breaking a piano with an axe; it was mainly male...I’m looking at the female [Kaye]...it was mainly male art, and it was all destructive, and sort of ‘nay, nay-na-nay nay’, you know? But here was this little crazy message on the ceiling. And then the guy introduced me to her [Yoko]. And she didn’t know who the hell I was. She had no idea. She was living in a different environment altogether. And, uh, I was sayin’ ‘Well this is a good con, isn’t it? Apples at 200 pounds. Hammer a nail. Who’s gonna buy this?’, you know? I didn’t know what concept art was; which, in a nutshell is 'the idea is more important than the object'. So that’s why you won’t see many rich concept artists around [laughs], because you can’t really, you know...like the guy that wraps up, uh, what’s the guy that wraps up the...”
[Christo (born Christo Vladimirov Javacheff) and his wife Jeanne-Claude (born Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon) were a married couple who created environmental works of art together under the name "Christo". The works - called "wraps" - included the wrapping of the Reichstag building in 1977. Ironically, their partnership was often compared to that of John and Yoko. In a further eerie parallel to John's life, Christo and Jeanne-Claude were both born on the same date, like John and Sean. Jeanne-Claude just died last month, November 18th, of a brain aneurysm at the age of 74.]
JOHN: “Christo wraps up things. He doesn’t expect you to buy the canvass. What he’s doing is selling you this idea, whatever it is he’s projecting. It was the same kinda thing, but I hadn’t come across it before. How do you sell a ‘nail in a hammer [sic]?’ So anyway, I said, uh, the gallery owner was all fussin’ ‘round saying, ‘Is he [John] gonna buy something?’ And she’s not..she’s ignoring me. So he introduced us, and I said ‘Well, uh, where’s the event?’ you know, ‘Where’s the happening?’ ‘Cause I’d seen the bag. So she just takes a card out and gives it to me and it just says, ‘Breathe’. So I said, ‘[makes huffing noise] like that?’ She said, ‘You got it’. I said, ‘Uh huh, alright'. I’m beginning to catch on, here. So, and then I see this hammer, this thing...”
YOKO: “I just remember his nose...He [John] did it [in 1966] exactly like that [how he just did it]."
JOHN: “...well, you know, what else are you gonna do? This was the big event. I mean, all the way from New York for that? So, I see the hammer hanging on the thing with a few nails. And I said, ‘Well, can I at least hammer a nail in? You know, I’ve come all the way from the suburbs for this'. And she says, ‘No!’”
YOKO: “’Cause it’s before the opening...”
JOHN: “...it’s before the opening and she didn’t want the thing messed up. So, anyway, the gallery owner has a 'little word' with her. Then she says, she comes over to me and she says, ‘Alright.’ No smiling, or anything. Because, you know how she is, she doesn’t...she’s not runnin’ for office – she never was, though. She looks at me and she says, ‘You give me 5 shillings’. Well, that’s about $10 or maybe $20...”
YOKO: “$10?!? Are you kidding? 5 shillings was about 50 cents...”
JOHN: “No, no, in those days the shilling,...well, whatever, she says ‘Give me 5 shillings and you can hammer a nail in.’ So I looked at her and I said, ‘I’ll give you an imaginary 5 shillings and hammer in an imaginary nail in, okay?’ And that’s when we connected really, and we looked at each other like...you know that sort of...something went off. Well, I didn’t see her again for a few weeks. We went to a Claes Oldenburg [Oldenburg is a sculptor, best known for his public art typically featuring very large replicas of everyday objects] opening and we were all...we...I went with Paul, and I don’t know who she was with. But I got separated from Paul, and I felt this sort of vibe behind me. And I looked ‘round and there she was. And, we’re both very shy - believe it or not. And we...I don’t know what I said. We said something...uh, we didn’t really get together until 18 months later. We didn’t make love ‘till two years...You think we’re rock and rollers, you know, all the...life that people lead. And, uh, it’s alright coming on with someone you know its not going to go anywhere. It’s easy to one-night-stand, and groupies and that. But for a real relationship...I was so paranoid and it was 18 months or a year before we got near to, uh, [putting on deep voice] each other physically, as it were. [Back to regular voice] ‘Cause I didn’t know how to treat somebody – a real woman. I only knew how to treat groupies, really. That’s not to say anything against me first wife, but that was when we were kids and our relationship [he and Cynthia] started when we were both kids, so it was a different thing altogether. But this [with Yoko] was quite a shock for me, and somebody who demanded equal rights right from the word ‘go’, you know? It was quite a long trip. But we’ve been together now longer than the Beatles. You know that?"
YOKO: “That is interesting...”
JOHN: “People always think, ‘well, John and Yoko just got together and the Beatles split'. But we’ve been together longer than the Beatles."
Kaye: “How did your music start...and your meeting, and your spiritual bond with Yoko – was it immediate?”
JOHN: “Well, it was immediate. I used to have a place where I worked in the house – again – upstairs in my first incarnation with my other wife and kids [sic]. And I used to make kinda freaky music at home. And I’d...you’d hear it coming through on things like Tomorrow Never Knows on Revolver, or Rain and some little backwards things. But I never made that the whole track...”
YOKO: “Well, you had sort of freaky stuff on cassettes...”
JOHN: “...but at home I’d make freakier stuff, you know? Which...I would take the sort of most usable and add it to the Beatles, or to my tracks on the Beatles, like (I Am the)Walrus or Strawberry Fields, whatever. Fiddled around a bit, or put loops or something funny... But at home I was really far out. And I had a kinda little studio, which was really just a lot of tape recorders. And we made Two Virgins that way. She came over for a date – as it were. And I didn’t know what to do, and she didn’t know what to do. So I said...you know, I didn’t know what to do with her! So I said, [putting on funny voice] ‘You wanna go upstairs and play with the tapes?’, [back to regular voice] you know? So...‘cause we didn’t know what to do, we did play with the tapes all night, and we made Two Virgins. And I was showin’ her all me different tape recordings, and how I made the funny sounds...”
YOKO: “You running around...”
JOHN: “[Laughs] I was runnin’ around pushing the buttons, and playin’ the mellotron and she was...she started into her Yoko Ono stuff – which is now stuff you hear on B-52s or Lene Lovich [she is an American singer based in England, who first gained attention as part of the New Wave music scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s] and all that stuff. She started doin’ this [cackles, mimicking Yoko’s voices] ‘Oooooh. Ohh. Ow’ [back to regular voice] and all that. And I thought, ‘This is great!’ And I was goin’ [mimicking tape loops] ‘Bloobulb. Booblub’ [back to regular voice] on the tapes, and she was goin’ [Mimicks Yoko] ‘Owww. Ohhh.’[Back to regular voice] And we did...we made a tape all night and in the morning [putting on mellow voice] we made love, as the sun came up. [Back to regular voice] But we’d made this album’s worth of sound together, without consciously setting out to make something. And that was the first togetherness. We shot the cover [of Two Virgins] ourselves, privately, and it wasn’t...we got somebody to set the camera up. Took the shot, and put out Two Virgins. And that was the start of the whole she-bang.”
Kaye: “And the reaction was….”
JOHN: [Mimicking high, shrilled voice of outrage] “’What are they doing?!?!? This Japanese witch has made him crazy, and he’s gone bananas.’ [Back to normal voice] But what...all she did was take the bananas part of me out of the closet more, you know, that had been inhibited by other part."
Kaye: “And did that help you?”
JOHN: “Oh it was a...it was a complete relief to meet somebody else who was as far out as I was, you know? That was the real thing.”
Sholin: “The music you make together is such a pleasure for you to make...at the same time that it is a pleasure for you...well, obviously you enjoyed making this album [Double Fantasy] (John lights a cigarette) was that it or did you want it to be a commercial success, along with the fact that ‘we also enjoyed it and are having a good time’?”
JOHN: “Oh, well, now we’d like to have a commercial success because...also...I mean if I’m taking up too much of your [Sholin and Kaye] time, please direct the question to Yoko...”
YOKO: “Oh, no...go ahead..”
JOHN: “...its from all those years of...I tend to hog the conversation. But when we made Two Virgins we weren’t worried about commercial. We wanted to put out a statement of where it was at, we wanted to share the thing...”
JOHN: “No, not naively at all, because some people accepted it – a lot of people didn’t – but the thing had an affect. The fact that an ‘Elvis Presley’ would take his clothes off and expose...now we had other shots for that cover [of Two Virgins] which made us look a lot more sexy and attractive. Believe me, you know? You know, if you pose a certain way you just do it like this [demonstrating]. And there were a couple more shots that later came out in a calendar with the Live Peace in Toronto album, where we look a little more attractive as a couple in a ‘star’ kinda way. But we deliberately chose the one where we were standing there in our...in all our glory [laughs], with like a little flab ‘round the waist, the legs a little...you know – nothing pretty about it. We wanted to say ‘We met. We’re in love. We wanna share it.’ And it was a kinda statement, as well, of...of...of an awakening for me, too, you know? ‘This Beatle-thing that you’ve heard about?...This is how I am, really.’ You know? ‘This is me naked, with the woman I love. You wanna share it?’ And, people did and people didn’t. But now you can’t get it for $200 bucks, Two Virgins, right? So that’s the way it goes. But of course, now...she got more interested in pop and I got more interested in avant garde, so we sort of blended in like that. And I think now we’ve kind of found...we ‘re finding a meeting ground, which has only really developed through Double Fantasy.”
Sholin: [To Yoko] “Where was that time, where you got more involved in pop?”
YOKO: (John lights cigarette) “Oh, well around Approximately Infinite Universe [a double-album by Yoko with a more conventional pop/rock sound mixed with 'feminist rock'], I think. I started to understand, ‘well, it’s [pop music] interesting’, you know? And there’s a lot of things you can say with it, and so...But even then, around that time, I was more interested in expanding the medium of pop into, ah, something more theatrical. Like a Bertolt Brecht kinda thing. [Brecht was a German poet, playwright, and theatre director. He is considered one of the most influential theatre practitioners of the 20th century]. And, so, all the songs were long, I think...”
JOHN: “Well, on Approximately Infinite Universe what...what year was that?”
YOKO: “That was 1971, I think...' [it was actually 1973]
JOHN: “Yeah, they were very theatrical pieces...”
JOHN: “1971 or 2 or something like that. And uh, they were theatrical and, uh...some of the ideas that she wanted both of us to do then – I must say, I was more square then than I am now, in a way – that I wished we’d done because now other people have done them because...And I would say, ‘No, I’m not gonna do that! Are you kiddin’?! I’m not doin’ that.’ I would start reserving, you know? So, ‘I don’t wanna do that. We’re in enough trouble as it is [laughs], you know, let’s not do that!”
YOKO: “And also, I started to feel guilty because – for instance – Open Your Box was a good track…”
JOHN: “That was on Approximately Infinite Universe also[it actually appeared on Yoko's Fly album, in 1971]; the B-side of Power to the People. Just to let ‘em know where we’re at [chronologically]...”
YOKO: “...it was on Approximately Infinite Universe and it was 197….early 1971. And, uh, he [John] wrote a song called Power to the People – which is a very powerful song. And then my Open Your Box on the B-side and – of course – that was banned in America, you know? [It was banned because of the interpretation of the word 'box' being a substitution for 'vagina'] And that sort of thing started to happen. So I felt that maybe I was doing a disfavor to him [John], in a way because, well you know – he could be number one all the time, but now because he’s involved with somebody a bit radical or this and that, that he’s getting that...well, if you ban the B-side you’re banning the single [laughs]. It was that sort of thing. And I was starting to feel guilty a bit. But, on the other hand, we did a lot of interesting things. We were having fun, you know, as well. It was exciting. And also, like Sometime in New York City, which was also again Bertolt Brecht….and many interesting tracks. I mean, Woman is the Nigger of the World...”
JOHN: “...which was pre-...that was banned, that was – Woman is the Nigger of the World – because of the word ‘nigger’. Now, I had Ebony and Jet both say they are not offended and we went down there with Dick Gregory, just in case there were any questions there. And the statement ‘woman is the nigger of the world’ was made by Yoko in 1967 or 8 to an English women’s magazine called Nova, which was a kind of Vogue, and she was on the cover and the title was ‘Woman is the Nigger of the World’. I immediately stole the title and wrote a song. It didn’t come until ’71. And, uh, there was all this hullabaloo about the word ‘nigger’ but the hullabaloo was from the white community, you know, not from the black community. ‘Cause they understood where it was comin’ from...”
YOKO: “...’Cause they don’t think that they’re niggers, so they didn’t care. But the whites basically thought, ‘Well, niggers. Well, that’s their [blacks] word...’”
JOHN: “...she [Yoko] came from a background of classical music, studyin’ piano at five, and all the things that rich kids do, you know? And [composer Arnold] Schoenberg and [choreographer Ned] Wayburn she’d studied at Sara Lawrence [College, where Yoko attended in the 1950s] and all that. I didn’t know any of that stuff. And she was turning me onto it….even Bertolt Brecht. [Brecht explored the theatre as a forum for political ideas]. I knew when we made Sometime in New York City to me we were doin’...a newspaper. So one would rush it out into print, you see? So there were mistakes, say, a little harmony wasn’t perfect. We didn’t go back and perfect every note, we just printed it out, you know, like sometimes there’s words missing or something like that. And it was later she said, ‘Well, you know what we did there?’ I said, ‘No. We got into a lotta trouble, that’s all I know! And, the harmony’s funny or something’, you know? ‘Cause we had...her idea, again, we had Chairman Mao and Richard Nixon dancing naked on the cover [of Sometime in New York City] – it wasn’t really their bodies, we just stuck their heads on ‘em. Well, the record company stuck a label on it in the supermarkets, and you couldn’t even get it off when you went home, you know? And, there was no genitals – nothing, you know? But then, anyway, she...and I started getting’ down about that record, saying ‘it was a mistake’ even though we tried to say something about women, and we tried to say something about love and peace and all...whatever, the war. And we got into so much trouble. So she then took me to see Richard Foreman’s [he is an American playwright and avant-garde theater pioneer] production of the Threepenny Opera of Bertold Brecht, which – I don’t when it was originally out, in the twenties or the thirties. [Brecht formed a writing collective which became prolific and very influential. These writers - along with Brecht - produced a number of teaching plays, which attempted to create a new dramatic art for participants rather than passive audiences. These addressed themselves to the massive worker arts organization that existed in Germany and Austria in the 1920s. So did Brecht's first great play, Saint Joan of the Stockyards, which attempted to portray the drama in financial transactions. This collective adapted John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, with Brecht's songs set to music. Retitled The Threepenny Opera it was the biggest hit in Berlin of the 1920s. One of its most famous themes underscored the hypocrisy of conventional morality imposed by the Church, conniving with the established order, in the face of working-class hunger and deprivation, to subjugate the masses.] And I said, ‘Oh, I see. So we’re not alone,’ you know? May...I don’t know what happened to Brecht when he first put that out, but it was the same idea – meaning, you know, to make a statement on the society right now, right away and no B.S. Just say it, you know? ‘I think this is wrong, that’s right. This is my opinion.’ “
Sholin: “You know, music...now’s a good time to ask this: is to educate or is it to entertain, or both?”
JOHN: “Communicate. Communicate was the thing. That need to communicate. And, uh...”
Sholin: “...but it doesn’t necessarily have to be political...”
JOHN: “No, no I mean politics was in the air in those days, c’mon. I mean, you couldn’t avoid it, right? And, uh, being artists, when we get into something [using deep voice] we get into it, [back to normal voice] you know what I mean? We want it to be right there down on the front lines - as we always said to everybody – with flowers, but still right down there. We want to go all the way with it. And, uh, [laughing] I think we did go all the way with it, too, you know? But our intentions were good.”
Kaye: “Woman is the Nigger of the World being the most militant feminist thing that was coming out then, probably still is, even today...”
YOKO: “No, that was the first and the only...”
JOHN: “It was before Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman...”
YOKO: “...feminist song that was made by a guy, you know?”
JOHN: “It was before Helen Reddy, I know that, right? And she [Yoko] did Sisters O’Sisters on the B-side, a reggae version [laughs]."
YOKO: “But the point was that, I mean, you know, this is something that’s gonna dawn on somebody...people later. But, uh, he [John] was always doin’ it, you know? And, uh, so we were very proud of that album [Sometime in New York City] in that sense. Until it was really knocked! But we didn’t feel ashamed. And, you know, that year Rolling Stone selected us as the ‘Most Boring Couple’ of the year, or something, and really sort of knocked us about it [Sometime in New York City]. We thought, ‘Oh, alright’...”
JOHN: “’Well, if it’s boring, we won’t do it anymore.’”
Kaye: “But everything – every statement from the two of you has been taken as ‘What are they doing?’ whether its extremely radical or perceived as ‘kooky’ or avant garde, everything has its hard, tough ‘I wanna get something across to you people’. Um, how...how do you feel? I mean, are you trying to get something across, or were you...”
JOHN: “It’s to share it, you know? It’s like bein’ somewhere beautiful like Bali, and all your friends haven’t been, and you wanna say, ‘My God! I was in Bali, man, and it’s just the greatest place, and it’s really...’ and it’s that, that’s how we are about things. We get enthusiastic and say we wanna...the same as when I...it sort of dawned on me that love was the answer, when I was younger, on the Beatles' Rubber Soul album. My first expression of it was a song called The Word. ‘The Word is love. In the good and the bad books that I have read, whatever, whatever the word is love’ seemed like the underlying meaning to the Universe or to everything that was worthwhile, got down to this ‘love, love, love’ thing. And, it was the struggle to...to love, and be loved, and express that, you know there’s something about love that’s fantastic even though I’m not always a loving person. I wanna be that, I wanna be as loving as possible. In the Christian sense, as Christ-like as possible. In the Hindu sense as Gandhi-esque as possible. And we always approached it as...and when I met her [Yoko], even though we were from two different schools of thought, as it were, we found that was the common denominator. That’s why we became the ‘love and peace’ couple. Because, before I met her she was protesting against war, in a black bag, in Trafalgar Square. And when we met, and we discussed what we wanted to do together, what we wanted to do was carry on me in my ‘love, love, love’ and her in her ‘peace, peace, peace’, put it together and that’s how we came out with the bed-in. Because I couldn’t go down, as John Lennon, to lie in a bag in Trafalgar Square, because I might get attacked those days. It was dangerous – it was dangerous for her even as an individual protest. So we developed this thing of how to express what we both believe in together the best we can. And so, you say, well, comin’ back to that ‘well, you came back’[to music in 1980]... I went to a disco for the first time since 1967, when I was in Bermuda just before we made this album [Double Fantasy]. And I was finally dragged to a disco by an assistant of mine, and I went there, and upstairs they were playin’ disco, and downstairs they were playin’ Rock Lobster by the B-52s, and I said, ‘That’s Yoko!’. And somebody said...I thought there was two records goin’ at once or something. Because I thought it was so like Yoko, so her, I thought ‘This person’s studied her.’ I said, ‘Get the axe out, call the wife, gee have you heard this?’ I called her and said, I said, ‘You won’t believe this: I was in a disco and there was somebody doin’ your voice.' I said, ‘This…’ I said, ‘This time  they’re ready for us, man.’ I mean, ‘we can go on and do our stuff without even steppin’...without even changing a thing. We could go on, right back.’ And I dug out the old records we’d made; I dug out the B-52s. And I spoke to my assistant, who’d tried to turn me on to them [the B-52s] 18 months before, but I was saying [then], ‘No, I’m not into the music now’, I didn’t want to hear it. He was trying to play me Pretenders and Madness and all that stuff, and I didn’t want to listen to it. And I said, ‘Get me some more of this! What’s goin’ on out there?!’ He brought all this kooky, you know - whatever you wanna call it – in and we [John and Yoko] just sort of looked at each other and said, ‘A-ha! They’ve finally caught up to where we were, what we were trying to do all the time’, which was another form of expression. And we thought, ‘This time, surely, they’re gonna understand it.’ And here we are doin’ it. Again. It’s not that much different than what we did...if you take the Plastic Ono Band albums – which are title-less – I call mine Mother for reference because it had Mother and God and a couple of tracks like that on it; and her album, which was the same cover but a kinda reverse...the first….”
AT THIS POINT, THE TAPE RAN OUT. WHILE A SECOND TAPE WAS BEING PREPARED, IT SEEMS THE CONVERSATION MOVED TOWARD WHETHER JOHN FELT HE COULD REACH THE KIND OF LEVELS OF FAME HE’D HAD WITH THE BEATLES. HE SEEMED TO BE SAYING SOMETHING ALONG THE LINES OF “I ONCE HAD ALL OF THE TOP FIVE SONGS AT THE SAME TIME IN THE CHARTS...” WHEN THE SECOND TAPE BEGAN RECORDING THE CONVERSATION AGAIN
JOHN: “...at one time, right? So I can never get more than I ever had in that respect. I’m not sayin’ I could never have four numbers, five numbers at once, ‘cause that’s wishin’ meself bad luck. But let’s face the reality. I’ve had the boyhood thing of being the Elvis and having...getting’ my own spot on the show. I wanna be with me best friend – me best friend’s me wife – who could ask for anything more? I’d sooner do something else together than not work together. And that’s why we...I think that comes across in the work now. And we feel like this is just the start, see? Double Fantasy’s our...I...we feel like this is our first album. I know we worked together before; we even made albums together before. But we feel like this is the first album. I feel like...we...nothin’ happened before today."
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