Photo by Allan Tannenbaum
The Last Time I Saw John Lennon
“So, what are you doing right now?”
The voice on the other end of the phone was one I’d become familiar with over the past month: a slightly high-pitched coo with a Japanese accent and clipped tones, but feminine, soothing. The question might have been provocative coming from another woman, but its almost childlike glee spoke innocent excitement. At one o’clock in the morning, an old Clark Gable movie was playing on my nine-inch black-and-white TV as I lolled in bed, hoping to get drowsy enough to fall asleep.
“I’m watching a Clark Gable movie,” I said. I didn’t know the title, not being a Gable fan.
“Oh,” she said in that understated way she sometimes used when she was about to spring an unexpected line of thought on me. “Because John and I are here in the studio, and he said he’d like to meet you.”
“Really?” A lame response, but I was temporizing, my brain cells already buzzing, body rousing.
“Yeah, he really liked your article, and he wants to talk to you,” she said. “We’re at Record Plant, working on one of my songs that wasn’t on the album.” Pause. “But maybe you’d rather finish watching your movie.”
There it was, her driest little kid voice now, toying with me. Not sarcastic, just sort of, Oh-have-I-got-something-for-you-and-can-your-heart-stand-it?
“No, that’s all right, Yoko,” I said. “I can get a cab. I’ll be there in 20 minutes.”
The studio was just a 10-minute ride from my apartment on University Place off Washington Square, but I had to throw on some clothes and find a taxi, not so easy at that hour on a weeknight. The album she had alluded to was Double Fantasy, released the previous month. That they were reworking a track of hers that wasn’t on the LP, possibly as a new single, was news to me—as it would be to the entire music world—and the chance to sit in on the session was almost as exciting as the opportunity of meeting John Lennon for the first time.
The Record Plant was located in a nondescript building on West 44th between Eighth and off Ninth Avenues. It was industrial drab from the outside, but the studios inside were uncommonly plush and comfy and had seen the likes of Hendrix, Springsteen, the Eagles, and Patti Smith. About twenty minutes after hanging up the phone, I was walking down a hallway at the end of which a giant mock-up of a guitar leaned against a wall. An assistant producer walked me into the studio where John was sitting, looking tired but content behind his trademark round dark glasses. He was wearing an ultracool black jacket with red trim, white piping, brass snaps, and Japanese characters running up the sleeves, the kind you’d expect a rock star to own, especially if his wife spoke the language.
Yoko jumped up from beside him to introduce me, and as we were about to shake hands, the first words I heard John say were, “I think I met you before.”
Trying to make out his eyes through those shades, I wondered in what parallel universe that might have occurred. “Yeah,” he continued, nailing it down to his satisfaction. “It was with your old boss in the back room at Ashley’s.”
I froze for a moment, because what he was saying was at least conceivable, if it weren’t so absurd. I knew Ashley’s all right, and had even gone there once to meet with the then-publisher of the Soho News, Michael Goldstein, but I hadn’t made it past the doorman. Maybe this was all happening in some alternate world. I was loath to dispute the author of In His Own Write, but the drug hadn’t been invented that could make me forget meeting the coolest guy on the planet. As I pondered his unsettling remark, the reality of the last few weeks flashed through my overloading brain in stylized slow motion.
A little over a month ago, as the world readied itself for John Lennon’s return from his self-imposed musical sabbatical, word had gone out that Double Fantasy would be unlike any of his previous recordings, even those he had made with Yoko. Each of them had written seven new songs, and although John played guitar on Yoko’s compositions, they didn’t sing together. The songs alternated on the album, an unprecedented format for its time, and rarely if ever reprised by anyone since then.
Further, you could follow a narrative through-line in the lyrics that moved from track to track in a kind of call-and-response, all about their relationship—as if John had gone out of his way to signal their absolute equality as creative artists, never mind the vast disparity in their commercial success. A hit album for John meant a hit for Yoko, like it or not. And lots of diehard Beatle fans might not like it, but the only bad news from my perspective was that John and Yoko would be strictly limiting their print interviews to half a dozen high-profile outlets: The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Paris-Match. As the Music Editor of the Soho News, an arts-heavy but decidedly low-circulation Manhattan weekly, I had no shot at landing an interview for what would be the biggest music story of the year.
In our editorial boardroom, though, we had hatched an alternate plan, code name “Yoko Only.” I would ask for an exclusive interview with arguably the world’s most scorned musician, for a cover story on her career as an avant-garde artist, performance art innovator, songwriter, and vocalist—and John wouldn’t be invited to the party. After a few false starts with her overprotective office manager, I got a call from Yoko asking if we could meet first informally to discuss the parameters of the interview. She knew the paper and was aware of our reputation in the worlds of art and music. (The Soho News might not have had the six-figure circulation of the Village Voice, but, based in a hot center of the gallery world, it punched above its weight among the art cognoscenti.)
When I met Yoko downstairs at the Dakota a few days later, she walked me to a nearby, newly-trendy singles bar called Rúelles at Seventy-fifth and Columbus, where she drank espresso and smoked Shermans and essentially interviewed me to see if she would agree to let me interview her. Apparently, I passed; we met several more times over a couple of weeks at the Lennons’ duplex apartment in the Dakota, beginning with a guided tour. Yoko showed off their “pyramid room” (which housed a framed pyramid structure large enough to lie under) along with several classic examples of her early conceptual art, like a silver teaspoon on a tall wooden stand, labeled “Spoon.”
As agreed, there was no sign of John, but so what? Yoko proved to be an utterly captivating subject, revealing details about her life that she had never told publicly at such length. She discussed not only her pioneering roles in conceptual and performance art, which had been legitimately ground-breaking, but also the minutiae of managing John’s financial empire and their joint archives. The latter were housed in impressive floor-to-ceiling white metal filing cabinets, complete with rolling ladder, that occupied an entire wall of her “office,” known as Studio One. She even spoke of her rag-tag childhood in the countryside outside her native Tokyo during World War II, her two failed marriages, and her resulting disinheritance from one of the wealthiest families in Japan.
What I didn’t get in several lengthy sit-downs in the White Room (which held the white piano on which John had composed “Imagine”), I filled in with numerous phone conversations—some almost as late as tonight’s call. If anything, I’d gathered too much information, too many quotes in which Yoko was either outrageously frank or out of left field. Like when she described how she felt after she had become romantically involved with John and the whole planet seemed to despise her for exercising some kind of mind-control over him, and, more unlikely still, breaking up the Beatles. “The world was really hating me,” she said, “and sending hatred vibes toward me for I don’t know how many years. But in some ways I’m happy about it. It taught me a lesson. These hate vibes, they’re like love vibes, they’re very strong. It kept me going. When you’re hated so much, you live. Hate was feeding me.”
I’d had a bear of a time knitting all the pieces into a coherent feature. But with the help of an editor friend at the paper named Paul Slansky, I assembled a wide-ranging story that touched on her many associations, from jazz legend Ornette Coleman, with whom she had once recorded a live album, to Phil Spector, who had alarmed her and John by waving a gun around when they spent the night at his Hollywood mansion. Although I had begun my assignment with real skepticism about Yoko’s art—and about conceptual art in general, since few things move me less than art about art—I had come to admire her for her sheer originality and her persistence in the face of contumely long before she ever met John.
When my piece hit the stands on December 3, headlined Yoko Only—the cover photo by our photo editor Allan Tannenbaum showed her with her hand on the zipper of her jeans, as if poised to let it all hang out—it created a stir. Liz Smith had devoted most of her column that morning to a preview of the piece, and Yoko phoned me later that day, not to say whether she had liked it or not but to tell me that John had gone out early, bought a copy to bring home and read—and then sent an assistant to buy a hundred more. All this unaccustomed attention made me giddy for a few hours. Although I enjoyed editing the music section, my own writings about jazz and my interviews with jazz greats like Sonny Rollins—in Soho and more mainstream publications, from Melody Maker to Playboy—had not attracted the kind of attention that this piece generated overnight. (And—oh yeah—John liked my story.) But we had another issue to get out, and I figured that was that. True to our agreement, I didn’t ask Yoko if I could meet John or even phone him for a chat.
And so, Yoko’s one o’clock call two days later had been a welcome surprise. The idea that John wanted to thank me personally for a piece about his wife was gratifying, but the pleasure of the moment was undercut by his assumption that he’d already met me. Did I look that, um, commonplace?
As we shook hands, I snapped back to the present and tried to make some sense of what he had just said. Ashley’s was a trendy nightclub on lower Fifth Avenue near the Lone Star Café. The night I’d gone there to discuss some editorial crisis needing Goldstein’s attention, the doorman informed me that it was a “private party.” I wasn’t used to being excluded from such events, but I waited as Goldstein was called to the door; he rendered his decision on the crisis, then explained that he couldn’t get me in. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but now I wondered if that very night he’d been huddled in the back room with Lennon and my doppelganger.
“No,” I told John. “Somehow I think I would’ve remembered meeting you.”
“Oh, you sure?” he said, as casually as if we were chatting at his local pub. “Well, look, would you like a tuna sandwich?”
It might have been late, but I was still on yellow alert, and I prickled at his question. Part of the premise of my piece was that I had originally been repulsed by much of Yoko’s art, music, and writings. I’d begun the article with some intentionally unflattering opinions, the better to set up my change of heart, which developed gradually as I discovered, among other things, that her influence had reached beyond the art world to encompass new wave rock performers like the B-52’s and Patti Smith. I wasn’t sure how John might have taken my comments, or if his pleasure at seeing Yoko finally getting some recognition would outweigh my apparent snideness.
For instance, I had asked what the guy who wrote stories like “No Flies on Frank” and songs like “A Day in the Life” was doing with the woman who had written “Tunafish Sandwich Piece.” (Imagine one thousand suns in the sky at the same time. Let them shine for one hour. Then, let them gradually melt into the sky. Make one tunafish sandwich and eat.) So I gave a weak laugh and acknowledged that he’d read my piece carefully.
“Oh that, no,” he said with a genial wave of his hand. “I wasn’t thinking about that. I just meant that we’re all having tuna sandwiches and thought you might like one.”
And so it went. If I had expected John to be his famously snarky, hyper-critical self, he was instead friendly, funny, and downright conspiratorial. No sooner had Yoko returned to the recording booth to work on her vocals, leaving John and me on the other side of the glass along with their producer, Jack Douglas, than John pointed to a small mini-fridge on the floor to my right. “You see that mini-bar over there?” he said, keeping his voice down, even though Yoko couldn’t hear us from the other side of the glass. “Why don’t you get us each a Pepsi and a Hershey bar?”
I said I’d be happy to oblige. “Even with the old dark glasses,” he said, “the smoke still gets in my eyes.” A bit of a non sequitur: Was he complaining about the cigarettes Yoko and I had been smoking—as if his own pack of Gitanes weren’t lying within arm’s reach? Or simply covering for asking his guest to be a gofer, even if the errand required just a few steps? Could the most iconic rock musician alive really be so courtly? More likely, I was infusing his most mundane statements with layers of meaning that weren’t there. That was all right, though, because I was in awe at having face time with the guy whose face I’d been staring at since I first saw the picture sleeve of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on a jukebox on Long Island when I was just seventeen.
Still, I couldn’t resist asking a few questions, starting with whether he’d been upset by the negative press he’d received during his five-year sabbatical from the music world while raising his new son, Sean, or if he had ignored it all.
“I’m used to that,” he said, “but I don’t ignore anything. I can still remember the first write-up I ever got. It was in New Musical Express and it was by a fellow I once played backup for. Just 12-bar blues, that kind of thing.”
“And,” I said, “was it a good review?”
“He was nice. Not nasty or critical or anything. But I was really nervous waiting for it to come out, y’know? I took those things seriously.”
Yoko was visible through the glass, still dubbing her shrieks over the rhythm track. John grabbed his throat, wincing in pain that seemed heartfelt. “Christ,” he said to nobody in particular, “it hurts me to hear her do that!”
The song Yoko was singing overdubs for was “Walking on Thin Ice.” Yoko later told me that she had felt it was too “experimental-sounding,” and she didn’t want to hurt John’s chances of having a number one album by including it on Double Fantasy. As we sat in the studio, however, the LP had stalled on the Billboard charts just outside the Top 10 and had been subjected to surprisingly negative reviews. But some details in the conclusion of my piece had sparked John’s imagination. To make the point that Yoko was, even now, still on the cutting edge, I had mentioned going with a friend to a new rock club called The Peppermint Lounge, on Forty-fifth Street. The club had just reopened in a new location after its heyday had ended some fifteen years ago, its roster mainly drawn from the emerging rap and hip-hop world along with new girl rockers like the Bangles, Waitresses, and Joan Jett. That night the live act was the Go-Gos, an all-female band that had spun together a retro ‘60s beat with lots of attitude. More notably, they wrote their own songs and played their own instruments, something virtually unheard of in 1978, when they had emerged from the L.A. scene. By 1981 their debut album, Beauty and the Beat, featuring the hit single “We Got the Beat,” would go double platinum. But in November of 1980 they were just a funky bunch of cute young girls having a blast onstage.
The club's DJ was David Azarc, who had been hired away from the Mudd Club, where he had established himself as a trend-setter in the underground rock dance world. The Peppermint Lounge might be a more commercial venue than the Mudd, but David was still doing his intuitive work in the booth. As the Go-Gos finished their set and the applause began to die down, he was already spinning, leading off with the Vapors’ club hit “Turning Japanese,” an infectious song with repetitive hooks:
no wonder it’s dark
I loved the track but its lyrics sounded oddly surrealistic—until I learned that the title was British slang for wanking, presumably based on a racist allusion to men’s eye movements when so engaged. It was great to jump-dance to, but then I was surprised to hear David segue into “Kiss Kiss Kiss,” one of Yoko’s contributions to Double Fantasy and the B-side of its debut single, “(Just Like) Starting Over.” My first thought was that he was riffing on the title of the Vapors’ song, but “Kiss” also has a sexual subtext. During our interviews, Yoko had acknowledged how vulnerable she felt recording this in the studio, because at one point she had to simulate an orgasm. Well, she didn’t have to, but that’s how she had written the song and, being Yoko, she wasn’t going to chintz out on the realism—or the shock value. She was moaning, convincingly, in Japanese, “Moto, moto!“ (More, more!).
“Suddenly I got embarrassed at all those guys in the control booth watching me make those sounds,” she told me. “So I made them turn out the lights on my side of the glass. And I lay down on the floor with the boom mike dangling over my mouth. That was the only way I could do it.” The exhibitionist with a heart of modesty.
Yoko’s remarks came back to me as I listened to the song on the Lounge’s throbbing sound system. I was excited as much by the fact that David has chosen her song as by the way he segued into it with an underground rock club smash. “God, I love this song!” my friend Marianne shouted to me over the din. “Isn’t it funny that Yoko should be the one to come out with a song that fits right in at this place?”
Marianne had a point. “I mean,” she said, “John sounds like he’s still stuck around the White Album, you know? I never used to like Yoko’s stuff that much, but suddenly it seems perfect. Perfect.”
The amplified sound of a woman moaning in rhythmic ecstasy sure fit the vibe of the Peppermint Lounge at two in the morning. Then her cries faded into the current hit by the B-52’s—another knowing segue from David, this time based on a vocal style connection—and the dancers picked up the beat.
John, who had continued following new developments in rock throughout his five-year sabbatical and his return to recording, had heard the B-52’s and had also spotted Yoko’s influence on them. Now as we sat listening to Yoko sing, he told me that, when he read about “Kiss, Kiss, Kiss” being played at a rock dance club bookended by the B-52’s and others, he decided it was time for Yoko to be recognized in that domain as well. He wanted to help her get a number one hit of her own, and the vehicle would be the song she had considered too far out for Double Fantasy. That’s what had brought them to the Record Plant to rework “Walking on Thin Ice” into the spectacular rock-disco dance track that it became. John had even recorded a new guitar solo that, he told one interviewer, was the best solo he had ever played.
“So,” John said, “It’s because of David that we’re here in the studio to all hours of the morning.”
“It’s all the deejay’s fault, then?”
“Well, not really,” John said. “You know, anything for —” and he inclined his head in Yoko’s direction.
I was starting to get the bigger picture now. John had taken a lot of shit in the press, rightfully so in this case, for the sometimes abusive way he treated women, including Yoko, and for his infamous 18-month “lost weekend” in L.A. with Mai Pang and assorted drinking buddies. He had copped to his own violence against women in recent interviews, but it was clear that he was now committed to burning away as much of that old karma as he could, even if that meant staying up all night, and morning, to get Yoko a shot at her first number one. And perhaps in other ways impossible to foresee.
Meanwhile, a call had come in for Yoko from someone whose name I didn’t catch. I heard Yoko say over the speaker, “Tell him to call back at 7:30.” It was already near 5 a.m. and John looked beat.
“We’re not gonna be here till 7:30, are we?” he said.
“Well,” Yoko replied, no-nonsense, “if we want to finish these tracks, we’ll have to. Like you always say, we’ll sleep when we’re dead.”
Lennon grimaced. Yoko went back to work, leaving John and me alone again. At that point, though, John announced that he needed to go outside for some fresh air, and I seized the opportunity to make my exit. I still had to be at the newspaper by early afternoon, and judging by his friendly manner, I had reason to believe this might not be my last chance to spend time with John and Yoko.
We took the elevator down with a studio hand. Forty-fourth Street looked deserted, except for John and Yoko’s limo waiting at the curb. As the driver got out to open the door, John waved him off. “Nah, we don’t need the car,” he said. “We’re just taking a walk to the corner.”
We headed off toward Eighth Avenue, which looked tinged with menace in the faint light of failing street lamps. I thought of a line from the old Shirelles song: “And the darkest hour is just before dawn.” Then I noticed a couple of guys across the street, huddled against a wall; they might be harmless winos, but out here you never knew, and I was glad to have an escort. The studio assistant noticed them too, then pointed to John’s jacket with its Japanese characters. “Maybe they’ll think you’re some kind of Kung Fu and leave us alone,” he said with a half-laugh.
“Well, I don’t have me handgun with me,” John said, “so it’s every man for himself.”
Lennon’s understated sarcasm recalled those first televised Beatles press conferences, and made me laugh.
Those were the last words I heard him say. A cab heading east on Forty-fourth stopped, and as I opened the door I turned back to see John walking away. I had meant to shake hands and say so long, but it was too late. I figured I’d see him again soon, so what the hell?
The horrific act that occurred three days later, when John was murdered arriving back home after a night at the recording studio, has been documented in great detail. What was passed over in many of those accounts, though, is that as he lay bleeding in the entranceway to the Dakota, he was carrying in his pocket the final mix of “Walking on Thin Ice,” the song that they had been refining into the early morning hours of his last day on Earth. It was also his ultimate gift of love to Yoko.
And just for the record, "Walking on Thin Ice" did become Yoko's first of many number ones. In 2003, a remix of the song was released as a maxi-single with remixes by dance artists including the Pet Shop Boys and Felix Da Housecat, it rose to number one on the dance charts, passing by Madonna and Justin Timberlake.
Interview with Yoko Ono
My interview feature with Yoko, which led to my meeting with John Lennon, broke a lot of ground in the media world, circa 1980. As I was preparing for the interviews, I read as many articles about her in the arts press that I could find, although, as John noted, there was very little of an uncritical nature in the mainstream press. And the few articles I found about her art didn't tie it in with the larger world of pop culture—as if the two markets shouldn't be spoken of in the same breath. Although the revelations in my piece were largely ignored by the national art press at the time, the piece itself was syndicated nationally and internationally by the New York Times News Service, appearing in dozens of newspapers around the world (with much of the more colorful language excised). And that all happened before the events of December 8. Yoko has since, finally, received a long-overdue retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, along with respectful reappraisals in the mainstream press. Just for historical context, I've scanned the original article as it appeared in the pages of Soho News some 40 years ago, including a number of unique photos by my longtime friend Allan Tannenbaum—including the astonishing full-wall file cabinets I mentioned.
Meeting John Lennon and Frank Zappa
I had the good fortune to meet two of the seminal figures in rock and roll history—
John Lennon and Frank Zappa—under very different circumstances.
I first met Frank Zappa in 1986 when I interviewed him for my book Once A Catholic. The following year, when I coauthored his autobiography, The Real Frank ZappaBook, I spent 3 weeks visiting Zappa at his home in the San Fernando Valley, meeting his wife Gail and his entire family—Moon Unit was 20 and Dweezil 18.
I met John Lennon in December 1980, just three days before he was murdered. I had spent much of the previous month interviewing his wife Yoko for a cover story that appeared in the Soho News, and was still on newsstands the night he died. Although I was with Lennon for only four hours, I spent considerable time at the Dakota with Yoko before and after his death.
Here are some curious facts relating these two great musical icons:
Frank Zappa and John Lennon were born 73 days apart in 1940.
Dec. 8, 2020, marked the 40th anniversary of Lennon’s death.
Dec. 4, 2020 was the 27th anniversary of Zappa’s death from prostate cancer; and
Dec. 21 marked the 80th anniversary of Zappa’s birth.
On Nov. 29, 2015, I was interviewed by Michael Gerlach on his show INSIGHT ON disABILITY. To listen to the entire 40-minute interview, without all the ads (just a brief intro and sponsor IDs), click below,
Frank Zappa Interview IS HERE!
In 1987, at the peak of Frank Zappa’s long career as an innovative musician and outspoken social critic, I interviewed him for my book Once A Catholic. Frank spoke with candor, high intelligence, and just a touch of anger, about his Catholic upbringing, the difference between religion and spirituality, Gregorian chant, catechism class, and music as sculpted air. As far as I'm aware, this is the only time he ever discussed his religious upbringing and his feelings about spirituality at length in print. My book (which also included interviews with George Carlin, Martin Scorsese, Mary Gordon, and Jimmy Breslin, among others) has been out of print for some time, but I’ve decided to make this long-lost interview with Frank Zappa available once again for his countless fans around the world.
Download readable on your tablet or phone with the free Kindle App, go here.