Twenty years ago David Sheff climbed the back steps of the Dakota into the personal thoughts and dreams of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. From the kitchen to the studio and up those fateful Dakota steps, Sheff recorded 20 hours of tape, discussing everything from childhood to the Beatles.
Sheff gives a rare and last glimpse of John and Yoko, one that seemed to look beyond the kitchen table to the future of the world with startling premonitions of what was to come.
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About the Author
David Sheff's articles and interviews have appeared in Playboy, The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Wired, Outside, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Esquire and Observer Magazine in England, Foreign Literature in Russia and Playboy (Shueisha) in Japan. He also writes for and is West Coast editor of Yahoo! Internet Life magazine.
Other interviews, including those with Ansel Adams, nuclear physicist Ted Taylor, Gore Vidal, Steve Jobs, Tom Hanks, Scott Peck, Betty Friedan, and Keith Haring, received wide recognition, as did his "Portrait of a Generation" in Rolling Stone. His radio documentaries for National Public Radio on John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird won several awards.
When it first appeared in 1981, Sheff's "The Playboy Interviews With John Lennon and Yoko Ono," which has been described as "historic," "compelling and compassionate" and "definitive," was a Literary Guild selection.
David Sheff's articles and interviews have appeared in Playboy, The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Wired, Outside, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Esquire and Observer Magazine in England, Foreign Literature in Russia and Playboy (Shueisha) in Japan. He also writes for and is West Coast editor of Yahoo! Internet Life magazine. His interviews, including those with Ansel Adams, nuclear physicist Ted Taylor, Gore Vidal, Steve Jobs, Tom Hanks, Scott Peck, Betty Friedan, and Keith Haring, have received wide recognition, as did his "Portrait of a Generation" in Rolling Stone. His radio documentaries for National Public Radio on John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird won several awards. When it first appeared in 1981, Sheff's "The Playboy Interviews With John Lennon and Yoko Ono," which has been described as "historic," "compelling and compassionate" and "definitive," was a Literary Guild selection.
Read an Excerpt
At the Dakota, the elderly guard, more a fixture than a comfort in front of the gray, ghostly apartment house, opened the car doors for us. John greeted the man by name and hastily but gently smiled for some snapshots posed with a fan who had been waiting up late just on the off chance of meeting him. After two quick flashes of the bulbs, John blindly headed for the entryway. Blinking to regain his eyesight, he stopped short. "Oooop, dear, I hope you have your house key. I forgot mine." Yoko didn't answer but used her key to call the elevator. John looked sheepishly at me. "I needn't have asked," he grinned.
Within the apartment, John guided me through a hall covered with photographs to the kitchen, where he instructed me to wait while he freshened up. Yoko was off in a different part of the apartment. As I looked around the huge, freshly painted kitchen, stocked with containers of tea and coffee, spices and grains, I heard voices from a distant bedroom: a child's giggling and a father's mock scolding. "So, you rascal, why aren't you asleep? Ahh haa! Well, I would have kissed you goodnight even if you were sleeping, silly boy."
John came tripping back into the kitchen, wholly revitalized, and, while putting a pot of water on to boil, he explained that their child Sean wasn't used to his and Yoko's new schedule, working on the album all hours. Before this project, John had been home virtually all the time.
Yoko entered the kitchen, wearing a kimonolike robe, and John poured three cups of tea. "Well, shall we start?" he asked as he sat down.
I looked at the two of them, waiting intently, and began. "The word is out: John Lennon and Yoko Ono are back —"
John interrupted immediately, and laughingly nudged Yoko. "Oh, really?" he joked. "From where?"
I smiled and continued: "— in the studio, recording again for the first time since 1975, when they vanished from public view. What have you been doing?"
John turned playfully to Yoko. "Do you want to start, or should I start?" he asked.
"You should start," she replied firmly.
"I should? Really? OK ..." John leaned back in his chair, his hands clasped tightly around the cup of tea. He watched the steam float upward as he began.
LENNON: I've been baking bread.
LENNON: And looking after the baby.
PLAYBOY: With what secret projects going on in the basement?
LENNON: Are you kidding? There were no secret projects going on in the basement. Because bread and babies, as every housewife knows, is a full-time job. There ain't no space for other projects.
After I had made the loaves, I felt like I had conquered something. But as I watched the bread being eaten, I thought, Well, Jesus! Don't I get a gold record or knighted or nothing?
And it is such a tremendous responsibility to see that the baby has the right amount of food and doesn't overeat and gets the right amount of sleep. If I, as housemother, had not put him to sleep and made sure that he was in the bath by 7:30, no one else would have. It's a tremendous responsibility. Now I understand the frustration of those women because of all the work. And there is no gold watch at the end of the day ...
PLAYBOY: What about the little rewards — the pleasure of watching somebody eat the bread or the baby sleep?
LENNON: There is great satisfaction. I took a Polaroid of my first loaf. [Yoko laughs.] I was overjoyed! I was that excited by it. I couldn't believe it! It was like an album coming out of the oven. The instantness of it was great. I was so into it, so thrilled with it, that I ended up cooking for the staff! Every day I was cooking lunch for the drivers, office boys, anybody who was working with us. "Come on up!" I loved it. But then it was beginning to wear me out, you see. I thought, What is this? Screw this for a lark. I'd make two loaves on Friday and they'd be gone by Saturday afternoon. The thrill was wearing off and it became the routine again. So the joy is still there when I see Sean. He didn't come out of my belly but, by God, I made his bones, because I've attended to every meal, and to how he sleeps, and to the fact that he swims like a fish. That's because I took him to the "Y." I took him to the ocean. I'm so proud of those things. He is my biggest pride, you see.
PLAYBOY: Why did you become a househusband?
LENNON: It was a case of heal thyself.
ONO: It was asking, "What is more important in our life?"
LENNON: It was more important to face ourselves and face that reality than to continue a life of rock 'n' roll show biz, going up and down with the winds of either your own performance or the public's opinion of you. And it was something else, too. Let's use Picasso as an example. He just repeated himself into his grave. It's not to take away from his great talent, but his last forty years were a repetition. It didn't go anywhere. What do you call that? Living on your laurels.
You see, I found myself in my mid-thirties in a position where, for whatever reason, I had always considered myself an artist or musician or poet or whatever you want to call it and the so-called pain of the artist was always paid for by the freedom of the artist. And the idea of being a rock 'n' roll musician sort of suited my talents and mentality, and the freedom was great. But then I found I wasn't free. I'd got boxed in. It wasn't just because of my contract, but the contract was a physical manifestation of being in prison. And with that I might as well have gone to a nine-to-five job as to carry on the way I was carrying on. Rock 'n' roll was not fun anymore. So there were the standard options in my business: going to Vegas and singing your greatest hits — if you're lucky — or going to hell, which is where Elvis went.
ONO: You can become a stereotype of yourself. We may have been heading that way. That is one thing we did not want to be. This is what I really despise about the art world. You get a tiny idea like, "All right, I'm an artist who draws circles." You stick to that and it becomes your label. You get a gallery and patrons and all that. And that's your life. And next year, perhaps you'll do triangles or something. There's such a poverty of ideas. Then if you go on and continue doing that for maybe ten years or something, people realize you are someone who continued ten years and you might get a prize. [Chuckling] It's such a ridiculous sort of routine.
LENNON: You get the big prize when you get cancer and you've been drawing circles or triangles for twenty years.
ONO: And then you die.
LENNON: Right. The biggest prize is when you die — a really big one for dying in public. OK: Those are the things we are not interested in doing.
[John clutched a spoon as he spoke, tapping it lightly on the table, keeping a beat that his words seemed to follow.]
That's why we ended up doing things like bed-ins, and Yoko ended up doing things like pop music. With our first attempts at being together and producing things together, whether they were bed-ins or posters or films, we crossed over into each other's fields, like people do from country music to pop. We did it from avant-garde left field to rock 'n' roll left field. We tried to find a ground that was interesting to both of us. And we both got excited and stimulated by each other's experiences.
The things we did together were all variations on a theme, really. We wanted to know what we could do together, because we wanted to be together. We want to work together. We don't just want to be together on weekends. We want to be together and live together and work together.
So the first attempts were the bed-ins. We attempted to make music together, but that was a long time ago. People still had this idea the Beatles were some kind of thing that shouldn't step outside of its circle, and it was hard for us to work together then. We think either people have forgotten or they have grown up. Now we'll make the foray into the place where she and I are together and it's not some wondrous mystic prince from the rock world dabbling with this strange Oriental woman, which is the picture projected by the press before.
PLAYBOY: After all that, why now?
LENNON: Well, the spirit moved me. Yoko's spirit never left her. But my spirit moved me to write suddenly, which I haven't done for a long, long time. Also, I had been concentrating on being a househusband and I had sort of half-consciously wanted to spend the first five years of Sean's life actually giving him all the time I possibly could.
ONO [to John]: I think that it's not that the spirit moved you. [To me] I think that while he was sort of doing his thing about tuning in to Sean and tuning in to family and all that, or because of those things, his spirit rejuvenated. He did that instead of just dishing out records as he used to.
LENNON: Yeah, you're right. I was trying to say that. Maybe I didn't say it clearly. I could have continued being a craftsman, but I am not interested in being a craftsman, although I respect craftsmen and all the rest. I wasn't interested in proving I could go on dishing things out every six months like —
PLAYBOY: Like Paul [McCartney]?
LENNON: Not only Paul. Like everybody. So the experience of being a full-time parent gave me the spirit again. I didn't realize it was happening. But then I stepped back for a moment and said, "What has been going on? Here we are: I'm going to be forty, Sean's going to be five. Isn't it great! We survived!"
I am going to be forty, and life begins at forty, so they promise. Oh, I believe it, too. Because I feel fine. I'm, like, excited. It's like twenty-one — you know, hitting twenty-one. It's like: Wow! What's going to happen next?
The room had grown chilly. John popped up to close the window, which had been opened slightly. He turned his chair around before sitting again. He leaned it back and gently rocked as we continued.
LENNON: Suddenly it all came through to me like, pow, in the form of songs, although it all must have been on my mind somewhere or other all these years.
ONO: Yes, these songs are really inspired songs.
LENNON: There isn't one where I had to sit down and sort of try to make a dovetail joint.
PLAYBOY: Had it gotten to that uninspired point before?
LENNON: Yes, quite often.
PLAYBOY: On your and Yoko's albums?
LENNON: I think I was more in a morass mentally than Yoko was. If you listen to Walls and Bridges [Lennon's last album] you hear somebody that is depressed. You can say, "Well, it was because of years of fighting deportation and this problem and that problem," but whatever it was, it sounds depressing. The guy knows how to make tables, but there's no spirit in the tables.
I'm not knocking the record. But I'm saying it showed where I was. It's a reflection of the time, where I was —
ONO: It was a last breath —
LENNON: It was a depression —
ONO: It was a breath, though, a real breath.
LENNON: It was like phewwww [exhaling]. It doesn't make it more or less, but that's what it is.
PLAYBOY: How did you decide on the next step — rather than trying for another last breath?
LENNON: Well, walking away is much harder than carrying on. I know; I've done both. I hadn't stopped from '62 till '73 — on demand, on schedule, continuously. And walking away was hard. What it seemed like to me was, This must be what guys go through at sixty-five when suddenly they're not supposed to exist anymore and they are sent out of the office. I thought, Well, oughtn't I? Shouldn't I? Shouldn't I be, like, going to the office or something? Producing something? Because I don't exist if my name isn't in the papers or if I don't have a record out or on the charts, or whatever — if I'm not seen at the right clubs. It must be like the guys at sixty-five when somebody comes up and goes [knocks on the long, oak kitchen table: knock, knock, knock], "Your life is over. Time for golf."
PLAYBOY: But your retirement was self-imposed?
LENNON: Self-imposed, yes, but still the feeling is there. Suddenly there's a whole big space that seems to be unfillable. And naturally it got filled because that's the law of the universe: Leave a space and something will fill it.
PLAYBOY: Most people would have continued to churn out the product. Why were you able to see a way out?
LENNON: Most people don't live with Yoko Ono.
PLAYBOY: Which means?
LENNON: Most people don't have a companion who will tell the truth and refuse to live with a bullshit artist, which I am pretty good at. I can bullshit myself and everybody around. Yoko: That's my answer.
PLAYBOY: What did she show you?
LENNON: She showed me the possibility of the alternative. "You don't have to do this." "I don't? Really? But — but — but — but ..." Of course it wasn't that simple and it didn't sink in overnight. It took constant reinforcement.
ONO: It all shows how contaminated our minds are by society. We were taught and educated to achieve things or be something and, of course, doing something in the house is achieving something, but people don't recognize that. When John and I would go out, people would come up and say, "John, what are you doing?" They wouldn't believe he could simply — in quotes — be a househusband. But at least they asked him; they never asked me, because, as a woman, I wasn't supposed to be doing anything.
PLAYBOY: What were you doing then, Yoko?
LENNON: When I was cleaning the cat shit and feeding Sean, she was sitting in rooms full of smoke with men in three-piece suits that they couldn't button.
ONO [speaking softly, precisely]: I handled the business: old business — Apple, Maclen [the Beatles' record company and publishing company, respectively] — and new investments.
LENNON: We had to face the business. It was either another case of asking some daddy to come solve our business or having one of us do it. These lawyers were getting a quarter of a million dollars a year to sit around a table and eat salmon at the Plaza — I don't know if I can get sued for this — but most of them don't seem really interested in solving the problems. Every lawyer had a lawyer. Each Beatle had four or five people working for him. So we felt we had to look after that side of the business and get rid of it and deal with it before we could start dealing with our own life. And the only one of us that has the talent or the ability to deal with it on that level is Yoko.
ONO: We had to clean up. There was a demand about dealing with the business that needed to be filled. "Business" isn't such a terrible word. For us, "business" is something practical to our needs.
PLAYBOY: Yoko, did you have experience handling business matters of this proportion?
ONO: I learned. The law is not a mystery to me anymore. Politicians are not a mystery to me anymore. At first my own accountant and my own lawyer could not deal with the fact that I was telling them what to do.
LENNON: There was a bit of an attitude that this is John's wife, but surely she can't really be representing him.
ONO: Even now, there are many lawyers who write a letter and circulate it to all the directors of the corporation. I'm one of the directors, but instead of sending it to me, they send it to John or to my lawyer. You'd be surprised how much insult I took from them initially. There was all this "But you don't know anything about law! I can't talk to you." I said, "All right, talk to me in a way that I can understand it. I am a director, too."
LENNON: They can't stand it. But they have to stand it, because it is she who represents us. [Chuckles] They're all male, you know, just big and fat, vodka lunch, shouting males, like trained dogs, trained to attack all the time.
We made it fun, too, like [to Yoko] when you went to the meeting with the ten Jewish lawyers wearing an Arab headdress that we brought back from the pyramids.
ONO [laughing]: Everybody was just looking.
LENNON: Recently she made them about five million dollars and they fought and fought not to let her do it because it was her idea and she is a woman and she's not a professional. But she did it, and then one of the guys said to her, "Well, Lennon does it again." But Lennon didn't have anything to do with it.
ONO: I wouldn't say anything. I said, "Thank you," and hung up. I've learned; I'm being mellow. There is all this talk about the record we are working on now: about John's album with a song or two sung by Yoko. I'm leaving it alone. You know why? Because my businesswoman instinct tells me that it is better for the deal.
Excerpted from "All We Are Saying"
Copyright © 1981 Playboy.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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