Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hilburn [left] interviews John Lennon [right] on October 10, 1980. Video of the interview surfaced on YouTube in 2007.
On October 10, 1980, Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hilburn interviewed John Lennon in the Hit Factory Studios where John and Yoko Ono were recording and mixing Double Fantasy. At some point that evening, John's personal assistant, Fred Seaman, had set up on the console in front of Hilburn and Lennon a new RCA video camera and began filming. It is the only video interview of John in 1980. Intentionally or otherwise, John and Yoko only did radio interviews in promotion of the album by the time of his death.
The quality of the video - remember, this is 1980, folks, is horrid. One can barely make out the images of Hilburn and John. The sound, however, is pretty good. Good, that is, with the exception of the fact that album co-producer Jack Douglas is playing an excerpt from Star Wars at an incredibly loud volume, splicing the audio from a laser fight into Ono's Beautiful Boys. Unfortunately, during many periods of the interview, John and Hilburn are inaudible because of the sound.
Seaman, along with Toshihiro Hamaya, were John's closest assistants in the last two years of his life. Seaman had access to just about every facet of Lennon's life, including writings, songs, videos and photos. On the night of John's murder, Seaman went to the Dakota and stole many items, including Lennon's diaries, some stereo equipment and photos. When he was arrested later, he claimed that he was acting on John's orders to him to make sure that Julian Lennon receive the diaries. Since Seaman couldn't explain why the stereo equipment disappeared [presumably, Julian had his own], the judge didn't buy it and convicted him. He only received probation, and by that time had already reproduced many of the photos, diaries and videos. I used some of those photos last year in The Last Interview series. I did so with mixed feelings, as they were private and possibly [we'll never know] never meant for public consumption. Nonetheless, I used them because they were often touching, personal snapshots of the last years of his life.
The October 10, 1980 video is one of the items that Seaman either took from the Dakota the night of John's murder, or had already copied earlier for some nefarious reason. A few years ago, the video turned up on YouTube. Whether Seaman himself put it there or he had sold the video [or given a copy] to someone, I don't know. I first saw it in 2007 and was mesmerized, even though the video quality is awful. It was intriguing, however, because I'd never heard of it [let alone seen it].
On this, what would have been John's 70th birthday, I thought I would reproduce a transcript - as best as I can thanks to Star Wars - of the interview. In the interview, it is clear that John - one day after turning 40 - is subdued and possibly even a little depressed. Unlike most of the other public interviews he gave that fall, he is not "on", meaning positive, up and looking toward the future. There could be many reasons for this, of course. Knowing how I felt the day after I turned 40, I can certainly relate. It could also be because Hilburn - at least in the portions Seaman videotaped - asked questions about the past as opposed to Double Fantasy.
There is an interesting moment in the tape where John sees the camera and mistakenly thinks Seaman has left the lens cap on. The camera was RCA's latest video camera, which for the first time came with a video monitor for viewing [as opposed to simply looking through a lens]. John is amused to discover that "there's a little TV" as opposed to a lens.
During those periods where the audio is, well, inaudible because of the Star Wars battles, I have simply written [Inaudible]. So, as a birthday tribute, here then is my best attempt at a transcript of the October 10, 1980 interview of John Lennon by Robert Hilburn.
As the video begins, John and Hilburn are looking at photographs taken the day before of the skywriting message Yoko had written over New York City, with birthday wishes for John and his son Sean, who had turned 5. There was also a message about world peace in 1981. Hilburn has just handed John a photograph of the message:
John: ”Well, that's quite far away [the photo], ‘Cause when I saw it it was, the image was that big, look [John holds the photo up high to the ceiling]. It was sort of, it was that fat."
Hilburn hands John another photo:
John: “I like that.”
Hilburn: “It’s just hard to get the whole thing because the wind…”
John: “Yeah, and it was too wide [the message], anyway."
Hilburn: “…it [the writing] started to fade…”
John: "’Cause it’d say 'Happy' you know, ‘Peace 81 and Sean' on The Plaza [presumably from where the photo was taken]. You know, like ‘Happy Birthday John and Sean'."
Hilburn: “Yeah, it was like half the city, it was really cool.”
Yoko to John, “Is Toshi [production assistant Toshihiro Hamaya] there?”
John talks into the microphone that allows those in the control room to communicate to those down into the studio below.
John then speaks Japanese to into the microphone. At that moment, the video goes fuzzy. Just prior to the video resuming, Seaman whispers faintly, ‘John Lennon’, as if for some reason he had to identify who he was recording. As the video resumes, Hilburn has just asked John about Paul McCartney.
John: “Paul? My dear one.”
At that moment, we first hear the Star War battles. While the sound makes it impossible to hear Hilburn's exact question, it has to do with Magical Mystery Tour. Presumably, Hilburn has asked something along the lines of, ‘Whose idea was it?’.
John: “It was originally Paul. Here’s another one [example] when he’d call me up and say, eh, ‘We’re going to be up at the studio..” [Inaudible]“'…we’re gonna make a movie, so just write a bit.’ So I just wrote dreams that I had…” [Inaudible]“….and try to recreate them. The one bit, the only bit I like [in the movie] – that I contributed to –is the dream sequence where the... where they’re eating and the very fat lady and this English or Scottish guy... [Inaudible] …he’s sayin’ something or other to her…It was a real dream of mine. [Inaudible] And people are walkin’ on the tables, and there’s an elevator that comes down – this is in the dream – that comes down – like one of those French ones you’ve seen? And there was a midget in it, and it comes down and lands right on a table and comes out. And people are comin’ out of the elevator and walkin’ across the room…but the waiter is me. Only most people didn’t recognize me. I dressed like me father, me stepfather, ‘cause they were both waiters. And they greased their hair back and these little pencil….[miming a mustache] those cheap little Valentino …like in the forties…and, you know this greased hair, and this crazy [John removes his glasses and makes the face of a demented person...John then stands up and mimes as if he is shoveling] and I’m shoveling the food on the table, like this, with all this spaghetti, and the fat woman’s just eating it. And they're talkin’ as if I’m not doin’ anything. And I’m just doin’ it – like John Cleese, in fact."
Hilburn, “That’s a great scene…”
John: “Yeah, well, that was my dream , ya know, but…he [Paul] had it [the movie] kinda mapped…’cause they [The Beatles] were gonna go on this tour, ya know? And it’s on a bus, and …[John holds out his hand like he’s holding a piece of paper, showing how Paul held up the map of the script], and here he says, ‘This quarter, you have to fill in'. So, I says, ‘Well, how long have a I got?’ ‘You got two days.’ ‘Oh, I have? Okay.’ [John laughs]. So I got two days, so I’m tryin’ to fill in…. He’s [Paul]...he’s got an hour written like that [showing his hand again]….”
Hilburn: “So, would each of you do one quarter, or…."
John: “Well he was dividing it a bit like a record, you know? But the fact is, he’d written like ten songs and I had nothing [laughs]. [I Am The] Walrus is the only one in that film, I mean, that’s entirely me. I contributed to the Mystery Tour songs [Inaudible]…runnin’ down the steps...Your Mother Should Know [Inaudible]. So ‘Walrus’, I filmed that part, too. And they had all these policemen on the top of the [Inaudible] studio, so the guy got us an airplane hanger to film in, you know. And they had these big concrete blocks [Inaudible] the planes in the war. [Inaudible] confuse meself [Inaudible] so, whatever, we’ll dress up in these funny [Inaudible] and all these eggheads …”
At this point, again, the video goes fuzzy. It resumes:
John: “…cause I didn’t know anything [Inaudible] editing. And it’s out of frame for TV. You know, so I said, ‘Ok' [Inaudible] and the frame comes back over the top. And I said ‘Well print the bit down below'. See, if you ever see it [the movie], you’ll see the sky – well it’s surreal again - the sky, and the cops are all dancing beneath the group, whose playing with all the lunatics walking. And that’s how that was made.”
Hilburn: "When it [the movie] was finished, what did you think of it when you saw it?"
John: “Oh, I loved it. You know, because it was a trip. So everybody was down on it, but it was...it’s alright. Pretty average. So what? So was the first [Beatles] album. But there’s too much 'nothing' happening. Just nothing happening at all. But there’s some nice moments, the dream sequence . Your Mother Should Know’s a nice sequence. Comin' down [the stairs] with all those silly suits on you know. …”
Hilburn: “Did the [negative] reaction [to the film] surprise you?”
John: “Uh, yeah, but they were gunnin’ for us before then. And what the BBC – the stupid idiots – did was they showed it in black and white first. Can you imagine? ‘Round Christmas on BBC2. So, it doesn’t look well in black and white. Color you can just about manage it. And all the kids would’ve been alright in color, but they put it in black and white and then they reviewed it in black and white on the BBC2. And so by the time it came to be on in color…well, I don’t know if it ever got on in color. But that was the end of it. It’s like reviewing a mono version of a stereo record."
Hilburn: "Was that the most…was that the kind of...the most criticism the band got from the outside…”
John: “Oh, I don’t think so. The review of From Me to You is ‘Below par Beatles'..in the NME [New Musical Express, a British music magazine]. So it started then. ‘Below par’. We’d only had two bloody singles out! [laughs].
Hilburn: “Cause everyone thinks it’s all acclaim…”
John: “Well NOW they think its all acclaim. You know, and Chaplin and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. But look of the reviews of the day [Inaudible]. Not all acclaim at all. Some very nasty bits."
Hilburn: “After a point though wasn’t it…”
John [dejectedly], “No. Never was easy…”
At this point the video goes fuzzy again. It resumes:
John: “…live in dreamland. ‘Give me a Beatle and I’ll make a million'. It doesn’t work like that or ever [Inaudible]..you’ve gotta have product. Yellow Submarine bombed out didn’t it? It’s a great movie…”
Hilburn: “I don’t think people were critical…”
John [sounding incredulous]: “Are you kidding?! It was ripped to shreds.”
Hilburn: “By critics?."
John: “Yeah, well, the answer was by everybody that it was because…the people, the kids like it. Sean loves it now – all the little children do. Because they [the critics] expected the real Beatles to be in the movie [as opposed to being animated] and they felt tricked [Inaudible]."
Hilburn: “Have you ever seen it again?”
John: “Oh, sure I seen ‘em [the Beatles movies] again. I see ‘em different every time I see ‘em. ’Cause I’m changin’ all the time."
At this point the video goes fuzzy again. It resumes:
John: “...I’m not so hard on meself with the group."
Hilburn: “Did the reaction to A Hard Day’s Night surprise you when you got such good reviews…”
John: “Oh no. In those days we expected everybody to just fall …"
The video goes fuzzy again. When it resumes, the topic has turned to John’s solo career and his first album, John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band.
John: “…I didn’t need to sell 20 million [albums] to feel good you know? I was proud of it. I knew it was alright. But some people [critics] got very upset about it. I think it’s because it made ‘em feel. It made them uncomfortable about their own mothers and their own fathers sand their own childhood and their own [Inaudible] and they reviewed their own emotions.”
At that moment – seemingly oblivious to the fact that he’s giving an interview - an engineer yells, “John!”
John [continuing, and ignoring the engineer]: “...about what that album …it makes you feel… you can’t listen to it in the background. You can’t have it goin’ on like the Stones you know. You have to either listen to it or forget it. And you can’t listen to it every other day, 'cause it’s all too much. It’s like goin’ to see some heavy play. You don’t want…you’re not in the mood. It’ll just destroy you.”
Hilburn: "When you went in to do Imagine , how did…did reaction to the first album effect you at all?"
John: “Yeah, I guess it did. Well, that was sort of, sort of after Imagine was sort of a success. And then I got a bit bitter sayin’, ‘Oh, well it’s [Imagine] just Mother with chocolate on it. You [the critics] couldn’t take it pure'. Also, I felt like makin it [Imagine] like that …”
At this point, Hamaya has spotted Seaman and the camera. Looking into the camera Hamaya says, "Busy bee. Busy bee." Seaman then pans the studio while John continues the interview. When he turns the camera back onto John and Hilburn, the conversation has turned to Some Time in New York City.
John: “…meaning, ‘don’t expect the typing [on the liner notes] to be all right [correct]. [Inaudible]...and it’s [the album] the rush edition. And it’s uh, there’s no finesse on it. It’s a newspaper it’s not a magazine. So….”
Hilburn: “By Mind Games…you were talking earlier today about…that it was hard for you…”
John: “Because then I was in confusion, you know? I mean? Jesus…”
Hilburn: “Did you know it at the time?”
John: “Oh, I knew I was confused, alright, because every time I tried to clear it [make the album have a central theme] it wasn’t coming out clear. Like, ‘rewrite, rewrite, rewrite'.”
Hilburn: "But did you think at that time, ‘Might I just wait another year'…”
John: “Oh, I never dreamt of waiting [laughing]. No, are you kiddin’?”
Hilburn: "You felt you just had to have…"
John: “It’s like bein’ on stage and thinking 'Well, it’s not a good night, I better stop', you know? You can’t do that. You just do it anyway, right? You see, the Mind Games single is fine. There’s just no energy to sustain through the album, and there was no clarity of vision. There’s a few pieces that are alright, but as a whole piece there’s no clarity. And the guy [John himself] is there on the front [of the album] with a little bag and she’s [Yoko] the mountain and, and the whole thing says it. That cover says more to me than the record."
Hilburn: “So, when you finished that record, did you think it was not up to what you’d done the first two times? [Inaudible]...when you went into Walls and Bridges ,how did you feel, was your confidence [Inaudible]..."
John: “I’m excited every time I make [a record], I’m always excited. I was not not excited about any of them. I was always excited. I was always pretty high on ‘em, but you can be excited but still be soft on it [afterward], right? [Inaudible]…”
Hilburn:"Well, when you finished with Walls and Bridges did you know you were going to take a break then or..."
John: “No idea. But I’ll tell you what's funny: at the end of the Rock And Roll album, I was doin’ Just Because which Phil [Spector, who produced the record], [Inaudible]...So I'm saying, ‘And so we say farewell from Record Plant….’ It just came into my consciousness - ‘Am I sayin’ goodbye to everything? Is this, the Rock and Roll and the picture from Hamburg ..is this it?' It just flashed in my mind for a split second, but I didn’t consciously think it."
Hilburn: “Was that on the record?”
John: “Yeah. It was the last track [Inaudible]. ‘And so we say farewell from Record Plant [Inaudible] '…is that’s what happening? Is this the beginning of the end?' [Inaudible]. No, I was ad-libbing like I do on many records but [Inaudible]. I was hearing it like somebody else was saying it. Thinking, ‘Is he sayin…is that what he’s saying?’ But then he [himself] didn’t meant that because it wasn’t consciously conceived. [Inaudible] I had no idea of not really doin’ it [making music]. Do you understand? So, it was like a dream [Inaudible], and then it's gone, you see? It doesn’t occur to me again until something happens and you say, ‘Is this de ja vu?’ So when I did it [go back in the studio for Double Fantasy] I started remembering that [his fade out ad-lib from Just Because ], thinking, ‘Jesus, is that ...it’s like the Mind Games cover, ‘Is that what it was? Is that what it was saying? Is it a premonition of my own self'?"
Hilburn: “But, when you go back six months [after making a record] and listen to it can you learn things from it?"
Johns: “I never do that. I always play the one [record I made] before...just before I go in again [to the studio]. Like, I played Walls and Bridges just before I came in here [to record Double Fantasy] to see what state of the art I was at then. And, uh, it was not bad. It’s just miserable."
Hilburn: “The memory of when you were doin’ it..”
John: “Yeah, yeah, just brought all the misery back. But, so, Mother can bring all the misery of that back. It does tend to.”
At this point, there’s an actual fade out of the video, as if it was intentional.It fades back in again:
Hilburn: “Do you keep up with Paul’s albums at all?”
John: “No, I dropped out ‘round about the one with the rose in his mouth…”
Hilburn: “Red Rose Speedway?”
John: "Yeah. But I hear the singles. If it's on the radio I hear it. And uh, I thought that Coming Up was great. And I like the freak version that he made in his barn better than that live Glasgow one. You see? I…”
Hilburn: “The one with the speeded up voices…”
John: “Yeah, I think…if I’d have been with him I’d have said, ‘That’s the one to do’. And I thought the record company had a nerve changing it ‘round on him, but I know they want to hear the real guy singing but I like the freaky one. Stevie Wonder does it and nobody moans at him."
Hilburn “When you stopped listening to Paul, You weren’t bitter…”
John: “Well, he was putting so much stuff out, I couldn’t compete with all that 'tingly-tingly' stuff going on albums, you know, just dribbling on….”
Hilburn: “How about at the beginning...[Inaudible]"
John: "I was so full of meself - centered. I didn’t give a shit what he [Paul] was doing.”
Hilburn: "Full of what?”
John: “Full of meself. Centered, you know? There’s no comparison [between Paul] to me because…"
Hilburn: “Do you mean artistically, or sales-wise?"
John: “Oh, sales-wise forget it. He was..he always had more fans than me, even in The Cavern. So there’s no comparison on that level. And on the other [artistic] level doesn’t…I don’t think it counts. I think it's like comparing...I dunno [Rene Francois Ghislain] Magritte and, uh [Pablo] Picasso if you want to put it on that level, or whatever. You know? How can you compare it?”
Hilburn: “Was there any sense [Inaudible]...did you try to come up with songs that were…did you feel he [Paul] wrote better songs than you….”
John: “What, when we were together [in The Beatles]? [Inaudible]...it was always competititve, all of us. For space and...and time."
Hilburn: “.. [Inaudible] were you impressed…”
John: “If I’m impressed [with a song he hears] I run away and write one. [Laughs]. You know?”
Hilbburn: "If you’re impressed…"
John: “Oh, if I’m impressed by a record on the air [on radio] I immediately, I want to write. Warren Beatty said it about movies. 'A great movie is one that makes you want to make a movie'. ‘I wish I’d made that’. ‘Shit, I’d go right out and make it', you know?” [Inaudible]. I don’t know what it is, but he [Beatty] is right: when I hear a great record I want to make it. ‘I'll make one like that.’"
Hilburn: “Was there one of Paul’s songs, that he came in [to the studio] with [while in The Beatles] that you were surprised that he could write something that...good, or...”
John: “No, he never surprised me because, like, can you be surprised by your brother? From age 15 on? Not surprised, but I’d think, 'Hmmm. Well, if he’s goin’ there, then I’m goin…’ [Inaudible]. It’s hard to detail it."
At this moment John stops. He sees what appears to be a cap over the lense of the camera and speaks to Seaman.
John: [Inaudible]“You’ve got a paddle over the front of it [the camera]. How can you see? It [the lense] says RCA. On the window [of the lense]. [Inaudible] Oh! That’s a little TV in there. Oh! The old cameras you used to actually see through, right? That [Inaudible] one you got me you could film in the night?"
Seaman: “No, that had a TV in it.”
Seaman [practically whispering]: “Movie cameras [Inaudible]..."
Seaman: "Movie cameras [Inaudible]..."
John: “I should’ve known [about the video monitor], but I didn’t. I thought, 'Oh the silly bugger’s left the cap on the lense', you know?
Seaman [now mumbling]: [Inaudible]
John [growing annoyed at being unable to hear Seaman]: “What!?!"
Seaman says something about a tape. Presumably, he’s saying that he’s shot some good video tape or that John will like the tape when he sees it.
John: “I will? Do it. File it under ‘good tape’."
Seaman then once again pans around the studio where producer Jack Douglas and others are mixing and remixing the Star Wars piece into Beautiful Boys.
The video goes black and then resumes with Seaman creepily filming Yoko as she somehow sleeps on a cot in the studio.
Next, Douglas makes a comment along the lines of the laser war he’s just recorded is the quickest war he’s ever seen.
John: “What do they call them? They have a name for those short wars, don’t they? What, what…they have some kind of name for very quick short wars."
Hilburn: “Like skirmishes?”
John: “Yeah, like ‘Three-day war’ [Inaudible] border skirmish.
John: [speaking to Douglas]: "Is Hal [horn player Howard Johnson] gonna do some tricks now?”
Douglas: “Pretty soon.”
John: “Oh, you have to, to tell him first, right?”
John: “Is it absolutely boiling [hot] in here [the studio] again?"
Douglas: “It feels warm.”
John: “It’s the lights [for the video camera]. Dim the lights, Toshi. …Oh, no…"
Seaman: “No, I’m going."
John: “Oh, ok. [To Hamaya] He’s goin'."
Seaman: “It’s a good cue.”
John: “Well, give me the video. You’re not goin’ off with it in the city..”
Seaman: “No, no, no, no.”
John: “You wouldn’t do that.
Apparently, though, in less than two months, he would….
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