As a voice of change in music and society, John Lennon never backed away from risk, in his work or in his life. The sense of willful adventure in his singing and his songs helped make the Beatles the biggest rock’n’roll act of all time. Then, seeking relief from the cutting edge, Lennon embarked on the most revolutionary undertaking of any rock star’s career: an attempt to lead a normal life. It was a bid for some measure of the security that had eluded him—from his lonely Liverpool childhood, through the isolation of fame, a failed marriage and a distant first experience at fatherhood. John chose in 1975 to become a househusband to build a closer bond with Sean, the child his wife, Yoko, was carrying. He ceded to Yoko the responsibility of tending his portfolio, by some estimates worth more than $200 million.
That leap of faith in his marriage seems to guarantee that his family will be free of the wrangling and litigation that has plagued the heirs of less foresighted rock greats (page 59). Yet in readjusting to the life of ordinary people on the West Side of Manhattan, Lennon may have succeeded all too well. “I can go out right now and go into a restaurant. People will come up and ask for autographs but they don’t bug you,” he told a BBC interviewer. Two days later Lennon was shot and killed. An apparently deranged fan, Mark David Chapman, 25, was charged with the murder.
Few outsiders saw John Lennon in the last phase of his 40 years; privacy was, after all, the point. But toward the end of it Sean was 5 and ready for school. That gave Lennon the option to make music once more, this time free of managers and under his own artistic control. John reached out to his public again. Buoyed by the completion of his first album in five years, Double Fantasy—a 14-track celebration of family life—Lennon granted the most extensive interview of his career to Los Angeles writer David Sheff. In the course of that interview, which appears in the current issue of Playboy, Sheff spent three weeks with the Lennons at home and in the recording studio. What follows is Sheff’s intensely personal account of a day with John Lennon during the last and perhaps most meaningful experiment of his life.
At the end of a slow ride in a gilded antique elevator I rang the only bell in sight and waited. And waited. Then came a metallic cacophony of locks unlocking, bolts sliding, one inside door opening, then the tall heavy door in front of me—and there was John Lennon, smiling a wry, inviting smile. Dressed in tight black jeans and a faded Hawaiian shirt, he held out both hands and sang his salutations to the tune of Eleanor Rigby: “Here’s the reporter, come to ask questions with answers that no one will hear…”
The entryway was large and sparsely appointed: two clear plastic sculptures by Yoko, a gallery of photographs of John, Yoko and Sean in every possible combination. The living room beyond was enormous and light, with a huge fireplace, deep off-white wall-to-wall carpeting and ceilings higher than the line of sight. There were sheets over most of the furniture: The room was being redecorated, and white paint was still wet on the walls. This room—like the whole apartment—was most notable for what it lacked; there was no guitar, no piano, not even a stereo system—no sign that a former Beatle or even a musician lived here. “I never listen to music,” John said, though he later admitted tuning in to an FM jazz station once in a while on a transistor. As for rock’n’roll, he declared flatly: “It’s boring.” He had decided to take up the domestic life, he said, “to get as far away from the music business as I could.”
The grand tour of their seven-room apartment (one of five they owned in the building, including Yoko’s office-apartment on the first floor) ended in John’s favorite room, a kitchen that seemed to stretch over half a city block. There he offered an organic cake Sean’s nanny had baked that morning. Complaining of the evils of waking up (it was 11 a.m.—he had been taping the night before), he searched for some instant coffee. But there were only herbal teas—enough to stock a health food store. He settled for tea, ignoring the cake to chain-smoke Gauloises while relating his theory of exercise: “Don’t. Starve and you’ll stay thin.” The Lennon family diet was macrobiotic, he said. The usual dinner was a specially prepared platter of sushi and sashimi delivered by a local Japanese restaurant—”but we’re not above a bit of sugar on occasion, and I’ll take the family out for a pizza. That is the American thing to do.” John said he loved to make bread and missed cooking regularly as he had done when Sean was a baby (“I had to make sure he ate properly”). John’s gracious, caring service of the tea and cake as Yoko labored for the Lennon enterprises in her office downstairs recalled the lyric on their latest album: “The Queen is in the counting home/ Counting out the money./ The King is in the kitchen/ Making bread and honey.”
And then the Queen came home, ending a four-hour workday at noon. John remained the host of the occasion and treated her like a guest as well, fixing her tea, giving her a bit of cake, asking her how her day had gone. (It had started seven hours earlier, at 5 a.m., with her usual walk in Central Park—”when it’s all mine.”) Reaching out to take her hand, he said emphatically, “Everything I know Yoko taught me. She is my wife, my lover, my friend. People who are skeptical of our relationship are jealous.” The role-reversal worked for both of them, she said: “John understands what women feel—he’s allowed himself to open up the sensitive side men are supposed to hide. I have learned that I have strength too, I can use my talents. Most important is that we both work for the family now, and our family is our priority.”
Then Sean arrived and rushed straight for John’s open arms, his cheeks flushed and his speech confused by the excitement of a visit to the Central Park Zoo with his nanny. My first attempts to talk to him got nowhere; he hid behind John. In time, though, I felt his hand on my knee, and then he climbed into my lap. Soon he was showing me some of his finger paintings, while John looked on proudly. Yoko was distant with Sean, cool as an awkward new father, but John talked baby talk, tickled him, threw him in the air, slipped him between his knees and prompted him with spontaneous learning games—”How many fingers am I holding up? …I’m thinking of something blue.” There was no mistaking it: John was Sean’s mommy. “Sean is my biggest pride, you see,” he said. “And you’re talking to a guy who was not interested in children at all before—they were just sort of things that were around, you know?”
Sean dragged me to his room. John came along. It was by far the most memorable room in the apartment. The size of a small warehouse, it featured a huge trampoline, a set of monkey bars with a diving board over an enormous stuffed pillow, a dozen larger-than-life stuffed animals and the apartment’s only visible source of music, a jukebox. (Sean’s favorite selection is Hound Dog, one of the few playthings he does not have.) I wondered why Sean did not seem spoiled. He brought out a paper bird he had made and said he’d like to hang it over his bed. Then he made a face and said he wouldn’t, though, because it might “make poopoo on me at night.” Sean giggled.
After dinner John gave his son a bath and read him to sleep, then got ready to go to the recording studio with Yoko to put some finishing touches on the album. We left together, and when we reached the first floor, he looked out the window and saw a crowd. “I’ve had enough of screaming fans,” he said. “Let’s try something.” He led us through a door and down a creaky, dark, narrow staircase. Finally we found ourselves in the bowels of the Dakota, this grand and ancient building. We ducked under rusting pipes. “Ahh, we’re safe,” John sighed, but as we slipped out to the alley, girls appeared from nowhere to ask him when he would agree to a Beatles reunion. “When are you going back to high school?” he barked at them, then felt badly about it. “It’s not that I don’t like people,” he explained. “I enjoy them. It’s that it gets wearing. People don’t realize they aren’t the only ones who want something. The postman wants an autograph. The cabdriver wants a picture. The waitress wants a handshake. Everyone wants a piece of you. It’s never-ending.” He and Yoko got into their limo, which was idling in the enclosed courtyard. Then he was gone.