1968-09-18 - Rolling Stone Magazine - John Lennon
September 18, 1968 - Afternoon
Interviewed By Jonathan Cott
34 Montagu Square, Marylebone, London, United Kingdom
Published On November 23, 1968 In Rolling Stone Magazine
The interview took place at John Lennon and Yoko Ono's temporary basement flat in London - flat where Jimi Hendrix, Ringo Starr and William Burroughs, among others, have stayed. But the flat seemed as much John and Yoko's as the Indian incense that took over the living room. The walls were covered with photos of John, of Yoko, a giant Sgt. Pepper ensign, Richard Chamberlain's poster collage of news clippings of the Stones bust, the Time magazine cover of the Beatles. We arrived at five on the afternoon of September 17, said hello to gallery owner Robert Fraser, who had arranged the interview, and to John and Yoko, sitting together, looking "très bien ensemble." We sat down around a simple wooden table covered with magazines, newspapers, sketch paper, boxes, drawings, a beaded necklace shaped in the form of a pentangle. John said he had to be at a recording session in half an hour, so we talked for a while about John's show at the Fraser Gallery. When we arrived the next afternoon, September 18, John was walking around the room, humming what sounded like "Hold Me Tight" - just singing the song to the air. Old Fifties 45s were scattered about the floor, and John played Rosie and the Originals' version of "Give Me Love." We talked about the lyrics of Gene Vincent's "Woman Love." In spite of having slept only two hours, John asked us to sit down on the floor and begin the interview. Any suspicions that John would be ornery, mean, cruel or brutish - feelings attributed to him and imagined by press reports and various paranoiac personalities - never arose even for the purpose of being pressed down. As John said simply about the interview: "There's nothing more fun than talking about your own songs and your own records. I mean, you can't help it, it's your bit, really. We talk about them together. Remember that."
JONATHAN COTT: I've listed a group of songs that I associate with you, in terms of what you are or what you were, songs that struck me as embodying you a little bit: "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away," "Strawberry Fields," "It's Only Love," "She Said She Said," "Lucy in the Sky," "I'm Only Sleeping," "Run for Your Life," "I Am the Walrus," "All You Need Is Love," "Rain," "Girl."
JOHN: The ones that really meant something to me - look, I don't know about "Hide Your Love Away," that's so long ago - probably "Strawberry Fields," "She Said," "Walrus," "Rain," "Girl," there are just one or two others, "Day Tripper," "Paperback Writer," even. "Ticket To Ride" was one more, I remember that. It was a definite sort of change. "Norwegian Wood" - that was the sitar bit. Definitely, I consider them moods or moments.
JONATHAN COTT: There have been a lot of philosophical analyses written about your songs, "Strawberry Fields," in particular . . .
JOHN: Well, they can take them apart. They can take anything apart. I mean, I hit it on all levels, you know. We write lyrics, and I write lyrics that you don't realize what they mean till after. Especially some of the better songs or some of the more flowing ones, like "Walrus." The whole first verse was written without any knowledge. And "Tomorrow Never Knows" - I didn't know what I was saying, and you just find out later. I know that when there are some lyrics I dig I know that somewhere people will be looking at them. And I dig the people that notice that I have a sort of strange rhythm scene, because I've never been able to keep rhythm on the stage. I always used to get lost. It's me double off-beats.
JONATHAN COTT: What is Strawberry Fields?
JOHN: It's a name, it's a nice name. When I was writing "In My Life," - I was trying "Penny Lane" at that time - we were trying to write about Liverpool, and I just listed all the nice-sounding names, just arbitrarily. Strawberry Fields was a place near us that happened to be a Salvation Army home. But Strawberry Fields - I mean, I have visions of Strawberry Fields. And there was Penny Lane, and the Cast Iron Shore, which I've just got in some song now, and they were just good names - just groovy names. Just good sounding. Because Strawberry Fields is anywhere you want to go.
JONATHAN COTT: Pop analysts are often trying to read something into songs that isn't there.
JOHN: It is there. It's like abstract art really. It's just the same really. It's just that when you have to think about it to write it, it just means that you labored at it. But when you just say it, man, you know you're saying it, it's a continuous flow. The same as when you're recording or just playing. You come out of a thing and you know "I've been there," and it was nothing, it was just pure, and that's what we're looking for all the time, really.
JONATHAN COTT: How much do you think the songs go toward building up a myth of a state of mind?
JOHN: I don't know. I mean, we got a bit pretentious. Like everybody, we had our phase and now it's a little change over to trying to be more natural, less "newspaper taxis," say. I mean, we're just changing. I don't know what we're doing at all, I just write them. Really, I just like rock & roll. I mean, these [pointing to a pile of Fifties records] are the records I dug then, I dig them now and I'm still trying to reproduce "Some Other Guy" sometimes or "Be-Bop-A-Lula." Whatever it is, it's the same bit for me. It's really just the sound.
JONATHAN COTT: The Beatles seem to be one of the only groups who ever made a distinction between friends and lovers. For instance, there's "baby" who can drive your car. But when it comes to "We Can Work It Out," you talk about "my friend." In most other groups' songs, calling someone "baby" is a bit demeaning compared to your distinction.
JOHN: Yeah, I don't know why. It's Paul's bit that - "Buy you a diamond ring, my friend" - it's an alternative to baby. You can take it logically, the way you took it. See, I don't know really. Yours is as true a way of looking at it as any other way. In "Baby, You're a Rich Man" the point was, stop moaning. You're a rich man and we're all rich men, heh, heh, baby!
JONATHAN COTT: I've felt your other mood recently: "Here I stand, head in hand" in "Hide Your Love Away" and "When I was a boy, everything was right" in "She Said She Said."
JOHN: Yeah, right. That was pure. That was what I meant all right. You see, when I wrote that I had the "She said she said," but it was just meaning nothing. It was just vaguely to do with someone who had said something like he knew what it was like to be dead, and then it was just a sound. And then I wanted a middle-eight. The beginning had been around for days and days and so I wrote the first thing that came into my head and it was "When I was a boy," in a different beat, but it was real because it just happened. It's funny, because while we're recording we're all aware and listening to our old records and we say, we'll do one like "The Word" - make it like that. It never does turn out like that, but we're always comparing and talking about the old albums - just checking up, what is it? like swatting up for the exam - just listening to everything.
JONATHAN COTT: Yet people think you're trying to get away from the old records.
JOHN: But I'd like to make a record like "Some Other Guy." I haven't done one that satisfies me as much as that satisfied me. Or "Be-Bop-A-Lula" or "Heartbreak Hotel" or "Good Golly, Miss Molly" or "Whole Lot of Shakin'." I'm not being modest. I mean, we're still trying it. We sit there in the studio and we say, "How did it go, how did it go? Come on, let's do that." Like what Fats Domino has done with "Lady Madonna" - "See how they ruhhnnn."
JONATHAN COTT: Wasn't it about the time of Rubber Soul that you moved away from the old records to something quite different?
JOHN: Yes, yes, we got involved completely in ourselves then. I think it was Rubber Soul when we did all our own numbers. Something just happened. We controlled it a bit. Whatever it was we were putting over, we just tried to control it a bit.
JONATHAN COTT: Are there any other versions of your songs you like?
JOHN: Well, Ray Charles' version of "Yesterday" - that's beautiful. And "Eleanor Rigby" is a groove. I just dig the strings on that. Like Thirties strings. Jose Feliciano does great things to "Help!" and "Day Tripper." "Got To Get You Into My Life" - sure, we were doing our Tamla Motown bit. You see, we're influenced by whatever's going. Even if we're not influenced, we're all going that way at a certain time. If we played a Stones record now, and a Beatles record - and we've been apart - you'd find a lot of similarities. We're all heavy. Just heavy. How did we ever do anything light? What we're trying to do is rock & roll, with less of your philosorock, is what we're saying to ourselves. And get on with rocking because rockers is what we really are. You can give me a guitar, stand me up in front of a few people. Even in the studio, if I'm getting into it, I'm just doing my old bit - not quite doing Elvis Legs but doing my equivalent. It's just natural. Everybody says we must do this and that but our thing is just rocking - you know, the usual gig. That's what this new record is about. Definitely rocking. What we were doing on Pepper was rocking - and not rocking. "A Day in the Life" - that was something. I dug it. It was a good piece of work between Paul and me. I had the "I read the news today" bit, and it turned Paul on. Now and then we really turn each other on with a bit of song, and he just said "yeah" - bang bang, like that. It just sort of happened beautifully, and we arranged it and rehearsed it, which we don't often do, the afternoon before. So we all knew what we were playing, we all got into it. It was a real groove, the whole scene on that one. Paul sang half of it and I sang half. I needed a middle-eight for it, but that would have been forcing it. All the rest had come out smooth, flowing, no trouble, and to write a middle-eight would have been to write a middle-eight, but instead Paul already had one there. It's a bit of 2001, you know.
JONATHAN COTT: Songs like "Good Morning, Good Morning" and "Penny Lane" convey a child's feeling of the world.
JOHN: We write about our past. "Good Morning, Good Morning," I was never proud of it. I just knocked it off to do a song. But it was writing about my past so it does get the kids because it was me at school, my whole bit. The same with "Penny Lane." We really got into the groove of imagining Penny Lane - the bank was there, and that was where the tram sheds were and people waiting and the inspector stood there, the fire engines were down there. It was just reliving childhood.
JONATHAN COTT: You really had a place where you grew up.
JOHN: Oh, yeah. Didn't you?
JONATHAN COTT: Well, Manhattan isn't Liverpool.
JOHN: Well, you could write about your local bus station.
JONATHAN COTT: In Manhattan?
JOHN: Sure, why not? Everywhere is somewhere.
JONATHAN COTT: In "Hey, Jude," as in one of your first songs, "She Loves You," you're singing to someone else and yet you might as well be singing to yourself. Do you find that as well?
JOHN: Oh, yeah. Well, when Paul first sang "Hey, Jude" to me - or played me the little tape he'd made of it - I took it very personally. "Ah, it's me!" I said. "It's me." Hey says, "No, it's me." I said, "Check, we're going through the same bit." So we all are. Whoever is going through a bit with us is going through it, that's the groove.
JONATHAN COTT: In the Magical Mystery Tour theme songs you say, "The Magical Mystery Tour is waiting to take you away." In Sgt. Pepper you sing, "We'd like to take you home with us." How do you relate this embracing, come-sit-down-on-my-lawn feeling in the songs with your need for everyday privacy?
JOHN: I take a narrower concept of it, like whoever was around at the time wanting to talk to them talked to me, but of course it does have that wider aspect to it. The concept is very good and I went through it and said, "Well, okay. Let them sit on my lawn." But of course it doesn't work. People climbed in the house and smashed things up, and then you think, "That's no good, that doesn't work." So actually you're saying, "Don't talk to me," really. We're all trying to say nice things like that but most of the time we can't make it - ninety percent of the time - and the odd time we do make it, when we do it, together as people. You can say it in a song: "Well, whatever I did say to you that day about getting out of the garden, part of me said that but, really, in my heart of hearts, I'd like to have it right and talk to you and communicate." Unfortunately we're human, you know - it doesn't seem to work.
JONATHAN COTT: Do you feel free to put anything in a song?
JOHN: Yes. In the early days I'd - well, we all did - we'd take things out for being banal, clichés, even chords we wouldn't use because we thought they were clichés. And eve just this year there's been a great release for all of us, going right back to the basics. On "Revolution" I'm playing the guitar and I haven't improved since I was last playing, but I dug it. It sounds the way I wanted it to sound. It's a pity I can't do it better - the fingering, you know - but I couldn't have done that last year. I'd have been too paranoiac. I couldn't play dddddddddddd. George must play, or somebody better. My playing has probably improved a little bit on this session because I've been playing a little. I was always the rhythm guitar anyway, but I always just fiddled about in the background. I didn't actually want to play rhythm. We all sort of wanted to be lead - as in most groups - but it's a groove now, and so are the clichés. We've gone past those days when we wouldn't have used words because they didn't make sense, or what we thought was sense. But of course Dylan taught us a lot in this respect. Another thing is, I used to write a book or stories on one hand and write songs on the other. And I'd be writing completely free form in a book or just on a bit of paper, but when I'd start to write a song I'd be thinking dee duh dee duh do doo do de do de doo. And it took Dylan and all that was going on then to say, oh, come on now, that's the same bit, I'm just singing the words. With "I Am the Walrus," I had "I am he as you are he as we are all together." I had just these two lines on the typewriter, and then about two weeks later I ran through and wrote another two lines and then, when I saw something, after about four lines, I just knocked the rest of it off. Then I had the whole verse or verse and a half and then sang it. I had this idea of doing a song that was a police siren, but it didn't work in the end [sings like a siren]: "I-am-he-as-you-are-he-as . . ." You couldn't really sing the police siren.
JONATHAN COTT: Do you write your music with instruments or in your head?
JOHN: On piano or guitar. Most of this session has been written on guitar 'cause we were in India and only had our guitars there. They have a different feel about them. I missed the piano a bit because you just write differently. My piano playing is even worse than me guitar. I hardly know what the chords are, so it's good to have a slightly limited palette, heh heh.
JONATHAN COTT: What did you think of Dylan's "version" of "Norwegian Wood"? ("Fourth Time Around.")
JOHN: I was very paranoid about that. I remember he played it to me when he was in London. He said, "What do you think?" I said, "I don't like it." I didn't like it. I was very paranoid. I just didn't like what I felt I was feeling - I thought it was an out-and-out skit, you know, but it wasn't. It was great. I mean, he wasn't playing any tricks on me. I was just going through the bit.
JONATHAN COTT: Is there anybody besides Dylan you've gotten something from musically?
JOHN: Oh, millions. All those I mentioned before - Little Richard, Presley.
JONATHAN COTT: Anyone contemporary?
JOHN: Are they dead? Well, nobody sustains it. I've been buzzed by the Stones and other groups, but none of them can sustain the buzz for me continually through a whole album or through three singles even.
JONATHAN COTT: You and Dylan are often thought of together in the same way.
JOHN: Yeah? Yeah, well we were for a bit, but I couldn't make it. Too paranoiac. I always saw him when he was in London. He first turned us on in New York actually. He thought "I Want to Hold Your Hand" - when it goes "I can't hide" - he thought we were singing "I get high." So he turns up with Al Aronowitz and turns us on, and we had the biggest laugh all night - forever. Fantastic. We've got a lot to thank him for.
JONATHAN COTT: Do you ever see him anymore?
JOHN: No, 'cause he's living his cozy little life, doing that bit. If I was in New York, he'd be the person I'd most like to see. I've grown up enough to communicate with him. Both of us were always uptight, you know, and of course I wouldn't know whether he was uptight, because I was so uptight. And then, when he wasn't uptight, I was - all that bit. But we just sat it out because we just liked being together.
JONATHAN COTT: What about the new desire to return to a more natural environment? Dylan's return to country music?
JOHN: Dylan broke his neck and we went to India. Everybody did their bit. And now we're all just coming out, coming out of a shell, in a new way, kind of saying, remember what it was like to play.
JONATHAN COTT: Do you feel better now?
JOHN: Yes . . . and worse.
JONATHAN COTT: What do you feel about India now?
JOHN: I've got no regrets at all, 'cause it was a groove and I had some great experiences meditating eight hours a day - some amazing things, some amazing trips - it was great. And I still meditate off and on. George is doing it regularly. And I believe implicitly in the whole bit. It's just that it's difficult to continue it. I lost the rosy glasses. And I'm like that. I'm very idealistic. So I can't really manage my exercises when I've lost that. I mean, I don't want to be a boxer so much. It's just that a few things happened, or didn't happen. I don't know, but something happened. It was sort of like a [click] and we just left and I don't know what went on. It's too near - I don't really know what happened.
JONATHAN COTT: You just showed me what might be the front and back album photos for the record you're putting out of the music you and Yoko composed for your film Two Virgins. The photos have the simplicity of a daguerreotype. . . .
JOHN: Well, that's because I took it. I'm a ham photographer, you know. It's me Nikon what I was given by a commercially minded Japanese when we were in Japan, along with me Pentax, me Canon, me boom-boom and all the others. So I just set it up and did it.
JONATHAN COTT: For the cover, there's a photo of you and Yoko standing naked facing the camera. And on the backside are your backsides. What do you think people are going to think of the cover?
JOHN: Well, we've got that to come. The thing is, I started it with a pure . . . it was the truth, and it was only after I'd got into it and done it and looked at it that I'd realized what kind of scene I was going to create. And then suddenly, there it was, and then suddenly you show it to people and then you know what the world's going to do to you, or try to do. But you have no knowledge of it when you conceive it or make it. Originally, I was going to record Yoko, and I thought the best picture of her for an album would be her naked. I was just going to record her as an artist. We were only on those kind of terms then. So after that, we got together, it just seemed natural for us, if we made an album together, for both of us to be naked. Of course, I've never seen me prick on an album or on a photo before: "Whatnearth, there's a fellow with his prick out." And that was the first time I realized me prick was out, you know. I mean, you can see it on the photo itself - we're naked in front of a camera - that comes over in the eyes, just for a minute you go!! I mean, you're not used to it, being naked, but it's got to come out.
JONATHAN COTT: How do you face the fact that people are going to mutilate you?
JOHN: Well, I can take that as long as we can get the cover out. And I really don't know what the chances are of that.
JONATHAN COTT: You don't worry about the nuts across the street?
JOHN: No, no. I know it won't be very comfortable walking around with all the lorry drivers whistling and that, but it'll all die. Next year it'll be nothing, like miniskirts or bare tits. It isn't anything. We're all naked really. When people attack Yoko and me, we know they're paranoiac. We don't worry too much. It's the ones that don't know, and you know they don't know - they're just going round in a blue fuzz. The thing is, the album also says: Look, lay off will you? It's two people - what have we done?
JONATHAN COTT: Lenny Bruce once compared himself to a doctor, saying that if people weren't sick, there wouldn't be any need for him.
JOHN: That's the bit, isn't it? Since we started being more natural in public - the four of us - we've really had a lot of knocking. I mean, we're always natural. I mean, you can't help it. We couldn't have been where we are if we hadn't done that. We wouldn't have been us either. And it took four of us to enable us to do it; we couldn't have done it alone and kept that up. I don't know why I get knocked more often. I seem to open me mouth more often, something happens, I forget what I am till it all happens again. I mean, we just get knocked - from the underground, the pop world - me personally. They're all doing it. They've got to stop soon.
JONATHAN COTT: Couldn't you go off to your own community and not be bothered with all of this?
JOHN: Well, it's just the same there, you see. India was a bit of that, it was a taste of it - it's the same. So there's a small community, it's the same gig, it's relative. There's no escape.
JONATHAN COTT: Your show at the Fraser Gallery gave critics a chance to take a swipe at you.
JOHN: Oh, right, but putting it on was taking a swipe at them in a way. I mean, that's what it was about. What they couldn't understand was that - a lot of them were saying, well, if it hadn't been for John Lennon nobody would have gone to it, but as it was, it was me doing it. And if it had been Sam Bloggs it would have been nice. But the point of it was - it was me. And they're using that as a reason to say why it didn't work. Work as what?
JONATHAN COTT: Do you think Yoko's film of you smiling would work if it were just anyone smiling?
JOHN: Yes, it works with somebody else smiling, but she went through all this. It originally started out that she wanted a million people all over the world to send in a snapshot of themselves smiling, and then it got down to lots of people smiling, and then maybe one or two and then me smiling as a symbol of today smiling - and that's what I am, whatever that means. And so it's me smiling, and that's the hang-up, of course, because it's me again. But they've got to see it someday - it's only me. I don't mind if people go to the film to see me smiling because it doesn't matter, it's not harmful. The idea of the film won't really be dug for another fifty or a hundred years probably. That's what it's all about. I just happen to be that face.
JONATHAN COTT: It's too bad people can't come down here individually to see how you're living.
JOHN: Well, that's it. I didn't see Ringo and his wife for about a month when I first got together with Yoko, and there were rumors going around about the film and all that. Maureen was saying she really had some strange ideas about where we were at and what we were up to. And there were some strange reactions from all me friends and at Apple about Yoko and me and what we were doing - "Have they gone mad?" But of course it was just us, you know, and if they are puzzled or reacting strangely to us two being together and doing what we're doing, it's not hard to visualize the rest of the world really having some amazing image.
JONATHAN COTT: International Times recently published an interview with Jean-Luc Godard . . .
JOHN: Oh yeah, right, he said we should do something. Now that's sour grapes from a man who couldn't get us to be in his film [One Plus One, in which the Stones appear], and I don't expect it from people like that. Dear Mr. Godard, just because we didn't want to be in the film with you, it doesn't mean to say that we aren't doing any more than you. We should do whatever we're all doing.
JONATHAN COTT: But Godard put it in activist political terms. He said that people with influence and money should be trying to blow up the establishment and that you weren't.
JOHN: What's he think we're doing? He wants to stop looking at his own films and look around.
JONATHAN COTT: Time magazine came out and said, look, the Beatles say "no" to destruction.
JOHN: There's no point in dropping out because it's the same there and it's got to change. But I think it all comes down to changing your head and, sure, I know that's a cliché.
JONATHAN COTT: What would you tell a black-power guy who's changed his head and then finds a wall there all the time?
JOHN: Well, I can't tell him anything 'cause he's got to do it himself. If destruction's the only way he can do it, there's nothing I can say that could influence him 'cause that's where he's at, really. We've all got that in us, too, and that's why I did the "Out and In" bit on a few takes and in the TV version of "Revolution" - "Destruction, well, you know, you can count me out, and in," like yin and yang. I prefer "out." But we've got the other bit in us. I don't know what I'd be doing if I was in his position. I don't think I'd be so meek and mild. I just don't know.
[size="1"][ Jun 23, 2003, 07:01 AM: Message Edited By: Jerry ][/size]
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