Interview with author May Pang
MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Usually I tend to interview writers of fantasy and science fiction, since that’s what I write, but we’re going to take a bit of a turn this week. I’ve been given the opportunity to interview May Pang, and no true Beatles fan would turn that opportunity down!
May Pang grew up loving music. Her very first job was at the Beatles’ management company, ABKCO Industries, where one of her responsibilities was assisting John Lennon and Yoko Ono. As exciting as this was, little did she know what fate had in store. One day in June 1973, Yoko approached her and explained that she and John needed a break from each other. Yoko had also decided that May would be his “ideal companion.”
So began an 18-month relationship that had become known misleadingly as “Lennon’s Lost Weekend.” In 1983, in order to clean up many misconceptions about that time and to set the record straight, she wrote her memoir, LOVING JOHN. In 2008, she shared her private photographs from her collection in a book titled INSTAMATIC KARMA.
Today, May is a full-time single mom, but her heart is still in rock n’ roll. She is currently a photographer, artist and Feng Shui jewelry and furniture designer. She lives in New York.
Ms. Pang, what was the reason for LOVING JOHN, your first book?
MAY PANG: The reason I agreed to write the book was simply to set the record straight. I understood the need for John to diplomatically refer to our time together as a “lost weekend” and to imply it wasn’t a good time for him. While John was still here, he’d tell me, “I’m going to have to say this, you understand…” and I did and it was fine. After his death, however, the myths of the depth of his misery not only continued, but grew. And people who were not even around us jumped onto the bandwagon and would say things that were so out there, it didn’t even make sense. That was hurtful.
VENTRELLA: Did you approach a publisher or editor with the idea? In other words, what was the process that resulted in the book being printed?
PANG: Actually, my co-author, Henry Edwards, approached me. He was a well known music journalist who had a history with John and Yoko and had had a couple of books out himself. He also knew me and he thought I had a fascinating story to tell.
VENTRELLA: How did your collaboration with Henry Edwards work?
PANG: We worked well together, but I think even he had a hard time believing some of the things that happened. Also, mine was the second book to come out after John was killed, so these stories were new to most people and, in retrospect, perhaps a little too soon after the tragedy. But, compared to the slew of books that have come out since, mine was tame and kind to everyone involved.
VENTRELLA: This book was later edited down to concentrate less on the music and released as THE LOST WEEKEND. Whose decision was that?
PANG: You’re referring to a the title of a reissue, which was the same book with an updated end chapter. The original book Henry and I submitted in 1983 was over 600 pages and talked about the creative aspects during our time together. The publisher, who had just had great success with the Jim Morrison bio NOBODY GETS OUT OF HERE ALIVE wanted to recreate that, which this wasn’t. So it was released with a lot of the important stuff edited out and the more salacious, for lack of a better word, in. Of course, without the balance, a lot of that was out of context.
VENTRELLA: The book is now out of print. Do you still have the rights? Could you release it by self-publishing it?
PANG: I have the co-rights, with Henry, but I have no interest in re-releasing it. It would have to appear in the same edited form, which is unacceptable now.
VENTRELLA: Your most recent book is INSTAMATIC KARMA, a collection of photographs from the so-called “Lost Weekend.” It’s received excellent reviews. How did you decide to write that?
PANG: Again, it was a friend who suggested I do this one. He was tired of hearing about the “miserable time” and had seen the photos from way back when they were taken. He said, “Rather than try to explain it wasn’t so bad, why don’t you just show them?” and so that was how that came about. It does have some text, but just to put the photographs into context. In fact, the only criticism of INSTAMATIC KARMA was that people wanted more stories.
VENTRELLA: You have been promoting these books at Beatles conventions and shows, I understand. There is a Beatles cruise coming up shortly where you are one of the honored guests. How did this come about? Are you looking forward to it?
PANG: I actually didn’t do the Beatle conventions for INSTAMATIC KARMA, but I did do signings at bookstores and galleries and the cruise was something that sounded like fun when approached by the promoter and I would be spending time with old friends and fans.
VENTRELLA: Do you enjoy these events?
PANG: I do enjoy them, because the people who come loved John and want to know more about what happened during his most prolific period as a solo artist.
VENTRELLA: John seemed to have perhaps his most creative period musically during the time he spent with you. In that 18 month period, he wrote and released the albums “Mind Games”, “Walls and Bridges” and “Rock and Roll.” He played on Elton John’s #1 hit “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and helped write and play on David Bowie’s “Fame.” He produced songs for Ringo and an album for Nilsson. (I remember this time greatly! It seemed like every few weeks there was something new from him. It was a great time to be a fan!) What do you think brought about this period of creativity?
PANG: Yes, it was all that certainly, but more importantly, there was a positive change in him as a person. He and (his first son) Julian resumed a relationship. John had also mended fences with the other Beatles and was particularly outgoing during this time. Some of the radio interviews he did, displaying that old wit and upbeat humor, are now legendary.
VENTRELLA: Do you appear anywhere else on the albums other than the “John” line in “Number Nine Dream”?
PANG: I’m also singing the backup “Ah, bowakawas…” on that song. And I’m on the end chorus of Ringo’s “Goodnight Vienna,” John’s “Do You Wanna Dance” (Rock’n'Roll) — and also in the chorus of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” from way back in 1971, when John and Yoko first came to New York.
VENTRELLA: You’re also the only other woman John wrote a song about in his solo career (“Sweet Bird of Paradox”). What does that song say to you? What do you think John was trying to say?
PANG: What can I say? I was floored when he played it for me. It was written early on in our relationship. The song was called “Surprise, Surprise” because our relationship and his feelings for me caught him off guard.
VENTRELLA: In some ways, just hanging out with all these great rock stars must have been a dream come true for you. Of the people you’ve met, who impressed you the most? Did anyone contradict their public persona?
PANG: I’ve met a lot of wonderful people. And almost everyone of them contradicts their ‘public’ persona to a degree, in that they’re all human; shy, vulnerable, somewhat reserved in real life. People always expect their heroes to be “on.” I know fans were always expecting the John from “A Hard Day’s Night” when they’d meet him and be surprised, for the most part pleasantly, when he’d be just warm, unassuming, what they’d call ‘down-to-earth’.
VENTRELLA: I note that you worked for Island records for a while in the mid 70s. Did you get to meet Sparks? (They’re one of my favorite bands, especially from that era.) Any interesting stories about them?
PANG: I didn’t meet them back then, but I did after I married Tony Visconti, who produced them. They were fun to hang out with … I remember Ron Mael driving around L.A. in his Volkswagen’s Thing. Talented brothers.
VENTRELLA: How did the David Bowie video (“Fashion“) come about?
PANG: David and I were old friends, he just asked me to do it.
VENTRELLA: The public image Yoko created is that John was “lost and misguided” during those 18 months, and then she forgave him and he came back and baked bread for 5 years (before releasing “Double Fantasy” – the album that had about as much rebellion and rock and roll as a Carpenters album). Is any of that image true?
PANG: Well, we can’t lay all the blame on Yoko; John helped with that myth.
VENTRELLA: A lot of misconceptions exist about that period of John’s life. Which ones bother you the most?
PANG: Three bother me equally. That John was so miserable and that it was 18 months of drunken chaos. Yes, a couple of high-profile nutty things happened. But, as you pointed out, there was some great music and great artistic productivity. And, as history shows, it was the last time he spent any quality time with his first son and his musical brothers. And finally the word “mistress” and its connotation. John and Yoko were officially separated and we were living openly at our own apartment across town where Paul & Linda, Bowie, Jagger, etc. came by to visit us and most importantly where Julian stayed. It was all above board.