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Lennon on Lennon
Conversations with John Lennon
By Jeff Burger
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2017 Jeff Burger
All rights reserved.
Doreen Kelso | June 21, 1964, St. George Hotel, Wellington, New Zealand | Broadcast date unknown, 2ZB (Wellington, New Zealand)
The Beatles' earliest meetings with the press were manic affairs, with teenage girls screaming, multiple reporters shouting often ridiculous questions, and the Fab Four shooting back funny, lightweight replies. Typical was the press conference they gave when they arrived at JFK International Airport on February 7, 1964, at the beginning of their first visit to the United States. The event started with an MC pleading, "Could we please have quiet? Could we please have quiet? Quiet, please! Unless you keep quiet, we won't have a press conference." And finally: "Will you please shut up?"
Then came questions about whether the Beatles' haircuts helped them perform and whether they were "afraid of what the American Barbers' Association is going to think of you." We got an early taste of John Lennon's wit — and candor — when someone asked the group to sing and he replied, "No, we need money first." Mostly, though, the JFK Q&A and other Beatles press encounters of the period serve just to remind us of the sort of inane questions they had to put up with in the early days.
The following brief interview with New Zealand radio personality Doreen Kelso, which took place a little more than four months after the press conference at JFK, is one of the exceptions to the rule. The mood is more subdued than usual, because no fans are present and because the participants include only one reporter and — fairly unusual for those days — just one Beatle. And while the interviewer does ask the inevitable haircut question, she also throws in a few serious queries.
Beatlemania was in full swing at the time of this conversation. The group had released several exuberant, addictively upbeat hit albums in short succession, including Please Please Me, With the Beatles, and Beatles for Sale. They had also taken the States by storm, performing on a February 9, 1964, broadcast of The Ed Sullivan Show that attracted an estimated seventy-three million viewers, the largest American television audience up to that point. A Hard Day's Night, their first all-originals collection, would appear in the United States just five days after this interview and would spend fourteen weeks at the top of the charts. Its music — including such classics as "If I Fell," "And I Love Her," and "Things We Said Today" — would help turn their shoestring-budget first film into a major hit.
On their summer tour of Australia and New Zealand, their popularity proved as strong there as it was in the United States and United Kingdom. The Beatles attracted the usual screaming crowds, and kids scooped up their records in unprecedented numbers. On the Australian pop charts for 1964, they held nine of the top twenty-five positions, including the top six. They also managed to have fourteen songs on the list, because most of their records were two-sided hits.
But as this Q&A suggests, these were still early days indeed when it came to Lennon's dealings with the press. Perhaps somewhat less at ease than usual without his bandmates by his side, the twenty-three-year-old singer appears to struggle at times to express himself. The program's announcer, meanwhile, underscores the fact that at least a few people remain uninitiated to the Beatles by getting Lennon's name wrong in his introduction. — Ed.
Announcer: The interviewer then spoke with John Lemon [sic].
Doreen Kelso: You do have fans from all age groups, don't you?
John Lennon: Yes. Some people say it's a ... that when you get older fans, the kids don't like you. It's true with a pocket of kids, but it's much more satisfying to have a good, you know, sort of, I can't think of the word, coverage of, and y'know, what's the word? I can't, y'know ... oh, it doesn't matter anyway, more different types than just one packet of, pocket of, sort of [laughs] one packet of little fans in one corner, y'know.
Kelso: Your book, In My Own Write [Correct title isIn His Own Write. — Ed.] ... what's it all about, John?
Lennon: It's about nothing. If you like it, you like it; if you don't, you don't. That's all there is to it. There's nothing deep or anything in it. It's just meant to be funny.
Lennon: I hope.
Kelso: What about the next one you're writing?
Lennon: I don't know. I'm just, y'know ... I don't know whether I'll ever write one if I get ... it just depends how I feel. I'm just writing now and then when I feel like it. I only do it when I feel in a funny mood.
Kelso: You mentioned art school. Were you going to be an artist of some kind?
Lennon: I went to art school because there didn't seem to be any hope for me in any other field. It was about the only thing I could do, possibly, but I didn't do very well there either 'cause I'm lazy, you see. So that's the way it goes.
Kelso: Did you use your art at all? Have you done any drawings?
Lennon: I did the drawings for the book. That's the most amount of drawing I've done since I left college.
Kelso: John, what was your group called originally?
Lennon: We had one or two names. I had a group before I met the others called the Quarrymen, and then Paul joined it, and then George joined it. Then we began to change the names for different bookings, you know, and then we finally hit upon the Beatles.
Kelso: And what about the haircut?
Lennon: That just, ah, it's so long ago we can hardly remember. It was something to do with Paris and something to do with Hamburg, and we were not quite sure now 'cause there's so much been written about it. Even we've forgotten. That's true.
Kelso: Have to read it up to find out.
Lennon: Yeah, well, you know, they just make it up about the hair now, but it was something that happened between Hamburg and Paris.
Kelso: How do you feel about all the manufacturers sort of jumping on the bandwagon with all the Beatles shoes and bags and clothes?
Lennon: Well, most of them spelling it B-E-A-T-L-ES, we've got some sort of thing in it. I don't know how it works; our accountants do it. So I don't mind it as long as we're in on it. And the ones that aren't are usually tracked down, if you're listening, and the clever ones try and use B double-E, but it doesn't often help, you know.
Kelso: Is there anything you want to do and see while you're in New Zealand?
Lennon: I want to see this stuff steaming out of the ground.
Kelso: Rotorua. [A town on New Zealand's North Island, known for geysers and thermal mud pools fueled by geothermal activity. — Ed.] Will you get up there?
Lennon: I don't know. We'll try.CHAPTER 2
August 11, 1966, Astor Towers, Chicago
From the time the Beatles arrived in America in February 1964 until shortly after this press conference, it seemed as if they ruled the world and could do no wrong. Their singles dominated the charts, their films drew large crowds, and their hit albums — each better and more sophisticated than the one before — arrived at a dizzying pace. In a period of approximately twelve months leading up to this press conference, for example, their releases included Help!, Rubber Soul, Yesterday and Today, and Revolver.
But then, for a brief time, the whole business appeared at risk of collapse, all because of something John Lennon had said to British journalist Maureen Cleave. "Christianity will go," he told her. "It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right, and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first — rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me."
It would be difficult to overstate the furor that followed that comment — particularly the line about the Beatles' popularity exceeding Christ's. Reaction was relatively light when the London Evening Standard published the quote on March 4, 1966, but the response intensified, particularly in the southern United States, after an American teen magazine picked up the lines a few months later.
Birmingham, Alabama, DJ Tommy Charles, of WAQY-AM (known as "Wacky 1220"), told his listeners: "If you as an American teenager are offended by statements from a group of foreign singers which strike at the very basis of our existence as God-fearing, patriotic citizens, then we urge you to take your Beatle records, pictures, and souvenirs to any of the collection points about to be named, and on the night of the Beatle appearance in Memphis, August 19, they will be destroyed in a huge public bonfire at a place to be named soon."
As it turned out, the controversy didn't last much longer than the bonfire, but records were indeed destroyed, and the Beatles convened press conferences in multiple US cities at which Lennon variously tried to explain and apologize for his comments. During this Chicago meeting with reporters, which took place six days after the UK release of Revolver, he attempted to do both. — Ed.
Reporter: Mr. Lennon, we've been hearing a great deal of interpretations of your comment regarding the Beatles and Jesus. Could you tell us what you really meant by that statement?
John Lennon: I'll try and tell ya. I was sort of deploring the attitude that ... I wasn't saying whatever they were saying I was saying, anyway. That's the main thing about it. And I was just talking to a reporter [Maureen Cleave], but she also happens to be a friend of mine and the rest of us, at home. It was a sort of in-depth series she was doing. And so I wasn't really thinking in terms of PR or translating what I was saying. It was going on for a couple of hours, and I just said it as, just to cover the subject, you know. And it really meant what, you know ... I didn't mean it the way they said it.
It's amazing. It's just so complicated. It's got out of hand, you know. But I just meant it as that — I wasn't saying the Beatles are better than Jesus or God or Christianity. I was using the name Beatles because I can use them easier, 'cause I can talk about Beatles as a separate thing and use them as an example, especially to a close friend. But I could have said "TV" or "cinema" or anything else that's popular, or "motorcars are bigger than Jesus." But I just said "Beatles" because, you know, that's the easiest one for me. I just never thought of repercussions. I never really thought of it. ... I wasn't even thinking, even though I knew she was interviewing me, you know, that it meant anything.
Reporter: What's your reaction to the repercussions?
Lennon: Well, when I first heard it, I thought, It can't be true. It's just one of those things like bad eggs in Adelaide, but when I realized it was serious, I was worried stiff because I knew how it would go on. All the nasty things that would get said about it and all those miserable-looking pictures of me looking like a cynic. And they'd go on and on and on until it would get out of hand and I couldn't control it. I really can't answer for it when it gets this big. It's nothing to do with me now.
Reporter: A disc jockey from Birmingham, Alabama [the aforementioned Tommy Charles — Ed.], who actually started most of the repercussions, has demanded an apology from you.
Lennon: He can have it. I apologize to him. If he's upset and he really means it, you know, then I'm sorry. I'm sorry I said it for the mess it's made, but I never meant it as an antireligious thing or anything. You know, I can't say anything more than that. There's nothing else to say, really, no more words. I apologize to him.
Reporter: Mr. Lennon, are you a Christian?
Lennon: Well, we were all brought up to be. I don't profess to be a practicing Christian, and Christ was what he was, and anything anybody says great about him I believe. I'm not a practicing Christian, but I don't have any unchristian thoughts.
Reporter: Was there as much of a reaction to your statements throughout Europe and other countries around the world as there was here in America?
Lennon: I don't think Europe heard about it, but they will now. It was just England, and I sort of got away with it there, inasmuch as nobody took offense and saw through me. Over here, it's just as I said: it went this way.
Reporter: Some of the wires this morning said that Pan American Airlines had provided each of you with free Bibles.
Lennon: We never saw that.
Reporter: If Jesus were alive today in a physical form, not a metaphysical one, he would find "Eleanor Rigby" a very religious song, a song of concern with human experience and need. I'm curious about your expression of that.
Lennon: Well, I don't like supposing that if Jesus were alive now, knowing what he'd like to say or do. But if he were the real Jesus, the Jesus as he was before, "Eleanor Rigby" wouldn't mean much to him. But if it did come across his mind, he'd think that, probably.
Paul McCartney: It was written because there are lonely people, and uh, it was just a song about —
George Harrison: And we had to have another track to fill up the LP.
McCartney: Anyway, what you said is right.
Reporter: Do you think the Americans lack a sense of humor?
Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Ringo Starr [in unison: No.
McCartney: The thing is, you know, when we talk about all these things you say ... "the Americans," but as you said, the Americans can't all be the same person. They can't all think the same way, you know. Some Americans lack humor and some Britons lack humor. Everybody lacks it somewhere. But there are just more people in the States, so you can probably pick on the minority classes more, you know.
Reporter: I read something recently that you were —
Lennon: Never said it!
Reporter: — worrying about the Beatles being brought down, that certain people were interested in getting the Beatles over with.
Lennon: Oh, I don't know. I think that's a bit of one that's ... you know, I don't really know about that story, honestly.
Harrison:Sounds like a homemade one.
Lennon: There's nobody pulling us down. I'd agree that if we were slipping, there's lots of people that'd clap hands daddy-come-home.
Reporter: What kind of people do you think would be interested in —
Lennon: I don't know, because they never show themselves until that time arises when it's right for them.
Reporter: Do you feel you are slipping?
Lennon: We don't feel we're slipping. Our music's better — our sales might be less — so in our view we're not slipping, you know.
Reporter: How many years do you think you can go on? Have you thought about that?
Harrison: It doesn't matter, you know.
McCartney: We just try and go forward and —
Harrison: The thing is, if we do slip, it doesn't matter. You know, I mean, so what? We slip, and so we're not popular anymore. So we'll be us unpopular, won't we? You know, we'll be like we were before, maybe.
Lennon: And we can't invent a new gimmick to keep us going like people imagine we do.
Reporter: Do you think this current controversy is hurting your career?
Lennon: It's not helping it. I don't know about hurting it. You can't tell if a thing's hurt a career ... until months after, really.
Reporter: You were also quoted as saying that you were not looking forward to the American tour, and that the only part of the tour that you really wanted to get to was the California part of the tour.
Harrison: I think I said that.
Lennon: Well, somebody probably said, "Which place do you like best in America?" and we probably said, "We enjoy L.A. most because we know a lot of people there." And that's how that comes to be, "We only want to be in L.A." You know, it just so happens we know a few people there, and we usually get a couple of days off, so we usually say L.A.
Harrison: We usually eat different food from hotel food. Not that there's anything wrong with hotel food! But, you know, it's a break from hotels because we get a house.
Reporter: Are there any southern cities included in your tour this trip?
Lennon: Memphis. We're going there. Yeah.
Reporter: What is your feeling about going down South where most of this controversy has arisen?
Lennon: Well, I hope that if we sort of try and talk to the press and people and that ... you know, you can judge for yourselves what it meant, I think, better by seeing us.
McCartney: The thing is, if you believe us now, what we're saying, you know, and we can get it straight, then ...
Lennon: It might get through.
McCartney: 'Cause, I mean, we're only trying to straighten it up, you know.
Lennon: 'Cause we could've just sort of hidden in England and said, "We're not going, we're not going!" You know, that occurred to me when I heard it all. I couldn't remember saying it. I couldn't remember the article. I was panicking, saying, "I'm not going at all," you know. But if they sort of straighten it out, it will be worth it, and good. Isn't that right, Ringo?
Reporter: Do you ever get tired of one another's company?
Excerpted from Lennon on Lennon by Jeff Burger. Copyright © 2017 Jeff Burger. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Preface Jeff Burger vii
Radio Interview Doreen Kelso
June 21, 1964, St. George Hotel, Wellington, New Zealand | Broadcast date unknown, 22B (Wellington, New Zealand) 1
August 11, 1966, Astor Towers, Chicago 6
Radio Interview Fred Robbins
October 29, 1966, Carboneras, Spain | Broadcast date unknown, Assignment: Hollywood, syndicated (US) 13
TV Interview Joe Garagiola
May 14, 1968, NBC Studios, New York | Broadcast May 14, 1968, The Tonight Show, NBC (US) 26
Conversation Maurice Hindie & friends
December 2, 1968, Kenwood (Lennon's home), Surrey, UK | Brief excerpts published January 1969, Unit (UK) 44
March 31, 1969, Hotel Sacher, Vienna, Austria 84
Conversation Timothy Leary Rosemary Leary
May 29, 1969, Queen Elizabeth Hotel, Montreal | Published June 25, 2012, Timothy Leary Archives (blog) 94
Radio Interview Howard Smith
December 17, 1969, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada | Broadcast December 1969, WABC-FM (New York) 104
Conversation Tariq Ali Robin Blackburn
January 21, 1971, Tittenhurst Park (Lennon's home), Berkshire, UK | Excerpts published March 8, 1971, the Red Mole (UK) 153
TV Interview Dick Cavett
September 8, 1971, ABC Studios, New York | Broadcast September 11, 1971, The Dick Cavett Show, ABC (US) 195
TV Interview Dick Cavett
September 8, 1971, ABC Studios, New York | Broadcast September 24, 1971, The Dick Cavett Show, ABC (US) 228
Radio Interview Howard Smith
January 23, 1972, 105 Bank Street (Lennon's home), New York | Broadcast January 23, 1972, WPLJ-FM (New York) 246
February 1972, Philadelphia 293
TV Interview Dick Cavett
Early May 1972, ABC Studios, New York | Broadcast May 11, 1972, The Dick Cavett Show, ABC (US) 302
Radio Interview Dennis Elsas
September 28, 1974, WNEW-FM studios, New York | Broadcast live, WNEW-FM (New York) 319
Long Night's Journey into Day: A Conversation with John Lennon Pete Hamill
Early February 1975, the Dakota (Lennon's home), New York | Published June 5, 1975, Rolling Stone (US) 353
He Said, She Said Frances Schoenberger
March 1975, New York | Published October 1988, Spin (US) 375
The Real John Lennon Barbara Graustark
Circa August 1980 | Published September 29, 1980, Newsweek (US) 391
John Lennon: The Man, the Memory Dave Shoun
December 8, 1980, the Dakota (Lennon's home), New York | Broadcast December 14, 1980, RKO Radio Network (US) 399
About the Participants 443
About the Editor 447