Their first U.S. hit, a rowdy two-minute, 24-second single titled “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” exploded in January 1964. To a nation still reeling out of the darkness of Dallas two months earlier, the Beatles’ cheery exuberance and cheeky wit seemed a welcome breath of life. During the next six years, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr would stretch pop music’s technical and conceptual boundaries and dominate the Top 10 charts more than any rock group ever. Who’s your favorite Beatle? became the pop culture question of the times, and for many the answer was John Lennon, the witty, acerbic and outspoken force behind the group.
Now, eight years after Lennon’s assassination, comes author Albert Goldman to topple the mop top legend and erect in its place The Lives of John Lennon, a 719-page biography of the much-idolized rock star. Goldman, a former associate professor of English at Columbia University and pop culture writer for LIFE, brought solid credentials as a biographer to his latest undertaking. His 1974 tell-all bio, Ladies and Gentlemen—Lenny Bruce!!, was followed seven years later by his equally revealing Elvis, a book that for the first time detailed the extent of rock king Elvis Presley’s disintegration from drug abuse. For his book on Lennon, Goldman spent more than six years doing research, conducting 1,200 interviews with friends, family members and associates of the late rock star. The book he has written, which will be published later this month (William Morrow, $22.95), is unsparing, often unflattering, and expansive in its scope. Whatever the preconceptions of those who read The Lives of John Lennon, or the excerpt that follows, few people will leave it with their views unchanged.
Like a Zen arrow flying through the night, “Kit Carter” comes winging up Central Park West in the predawn darkness of a December morning in 1979. When he reaches 72nd Street, he glances up at the Dakota, glimmering dimly in the light of a solitary street lamp, like a ghostly German castle. Darting across the street to the iron portcullis guarding the tunnel-like entrance, he gives the night bell a short, sharp jab. As soon as the gate is unlocked, he bounds up the steps to the concierge’s office, where he exchanges a perfunctory nod with the night man before plunging into the maze of passageways that leads to the tall oak door of Studio One, the office of Yoko Ono.
Lightly he raps. Instantly he is answered by the metallic snap of the dead bolt. As the towering wooden leaf swings open, there stands little Yoko, her face masked by black wraparound shades. While Kit notes how ill she looks—and that she’s dressed in the same black shirt and jeans that she’s worn all week—she reaches up like a cat and snatches out of his hand a packet of tinfoil. Ducking into her private bathroom, she slams the door and turns on the faucets full blast. As Kit removes his shoes, preparatory to entering the back office, he hears above the rush of water a series of loud snorts, followed by the noise of retching.
Yoko’s retreat is sumptuous and eerie. Concealed lights shine up from the thick white carpet, casting shadows on the cloud-bedecked ceiling and reflections on the smoked-glass mirrors that rise from the waist-high oak wainscoting. An immense Egyptian revival desk stands catercorner to the shaded windows on the courtyard, its mahogany sides inlaid with large ivory reliefs. Yoko’s commanding seat is an exact replica of the throne found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb.
As Kit sinks into the creamy white leather couch, he stares at the objects that give the room its magical air: the gray little skull between the two white Princess phones, the Egyptian baby’s gold breastplate, the bronze snake slithering along the crossbar of the coffee table by Giacometti. This is the sixth week since he began making these deliveries, but he still thinks about the first time.
He had been so frightened that he had brought the heroin in a hollowed-out book wrapped in brown paper. Yoko he found sitting in the outer office, talking on the phone in Japanese. For five long minutes she continued to jabber away, as unconcerned as if she were holding a delivery boy from the pharmacy.
Initially, he made his deliveries once or twice a week. The night before he would pick up the stuff from a 57th Street jeweler, who was the connection. At first a gram of H cost $500, but as soon as Yoko started running up her habit, the price increased. Now Kit is paying $750 for that same little gram, which means that Yoko has got herself a $5,000-a-week habit.
By the time Yoko rejoins Kit, she’s trying to appear cool and casual, but she’s betrayed by the faint traces of white powder around her nostrils. She’s bearing, as usual, a tray with two turquoise cups in which Lipton’s teabags are steeping. Once the demands of Oriental decorum have been satisfied, Yoko rises deliberately and sleepwalks to her massive desk. Opening a drawer, she removes her antique bag, snaps its top and hauls out a huge wad of $100 bills. Counting off eight mint-fresh notes, she hands them wordlessly to Kit. (He always receives a $50 tip.) Fixing him with an imperious look cast through her dark Porsche goggles, she warns, “John must never know.”
John Lennon comes to consciousness before dawn in a pool of light cast by two spots above the polished dark wood of his church-pew headboard. These lights are never extinguished because John has a horror of waking in a dark bedroom. Darkness to him is death.
No sounds from the streets below penetrate the enormously thick walls of this century-old building whose floors are packed with tons of soil from the excavation of Central Park. Daylight is barred by the dark wooden shutters and clumsily hung fabric that seal the big window. If it were not for the sighing sounds of the speakers over John’s head and the colored flickering of the two big TV sets at his feet, this dark chamber with its narrow spill of artificial light could be a tomb.
Lennon has confined himself to this room for the past three years. Save for summer holidays in Japan, he rarely leaves his queen-size bed. Much of the time he sleeps, perhaps half the day, in two-to four-hour spells. The balance of the day he spends sitting in the lotus position, his head enveloped in a cloud of tobacco or marijuana smoke, reading, meditating, or listening to tapes, including self-hypnosis cassettes with titles like I Love My Body or There’s No Need to Be Angry. Everything he prizes most—his drugs, manuscripts, girlie mags, British harmonica—he keeps at the foot of the bed in a little domed chest blazoned LIVERPOOL.
Though he is lying in the bosom of his family, John could not be more remote. The only times he’s in touch are for an hour or two in the morning and during supper and a little thereafter, when Daddy, as he likes to call himself, watches TV with his little boy, Sean. All the rest of the day Lennon is back here in his room, alone and silent.
To satisfy his need to play a part in the family’s life, John has cast himself in the role of “househusband.” He and Yoko have exchanged sexual stereotypes, with her becoming the breadwinner and he the bread baker. Yoko has sustained her part with grim determination, spending her whole life pent up in her office. John’s role is largely fantasy. He did try his hand once at baking bread, but what he really wanted to pop out of the oven was a tray of hash brownies.
What he’s done for most of his adult life is starve himself to perfection. The onset of his anorexia can be traced back to the year 1965, when some fool described him in print as the “fat Beatle.” That phrase struck such a blow to his fragile ego that the wound has never healed. He still runs a string around his waist every morning on arising, and if he sins by eating something forbidden, he will duck into the bathroom and stick a finger down his throat.
As he slips out of bed now to perform his yoga limbering exercises, he displays the bag-of-bones body of an Indian fakir. His arms are not just skinny but so devoid of muscle that when he picks up a hollow-bodied guitar, he complains of its weight. You could pour a cup of water into the hollows of his collarbones. He’s pale, naturally, because he never goes out in the sun, but what is strange about his skin is the way it glows. This unnatural sheen is produced by bathing a dozen times a day and washing his face and hands twice as often.
Shrinking from contact with either flesh or fabric, he rarely wears clothing, apart from a pair of backless slippers. As a rule he avoids touching anyone. If in a rare access of parental affection he takes Sean on his knee, John will make sure to seat the child facing away from him so that the boy will not have the opportunity to plant a wet, smacky kiss on his father’s face. A nature boy, Sean has been reared since birth completely free of all the restraints and demands normally imposed on children. Never weaned or toilet trained, he runs around at the age of 4 wearing diapers and sucking on a bottle that has already begun to rot his teeth and give him a lisp.
As John and Yoko learned through primal therapy, their basic problems—as well as their basic affinity—arose from the fact that they were both deprived of the mothering they craved as children. For John the solution to this problem was to make Yoko his mother, an identification he proclaims every time he addresses her as “Mother” or “Mommy,” especially when he speaks to her in baby talk. Yoko, for her part, sought to resolve her problem by assiduously denying any possible identification with her mother; hence her lifelong insistence that she has neither the desire nor the ability to play the role of mother.
As soon as John has satisfied himself that he is perfectly clean, he clacks through the curtain of white beads, made by the ancient Tairona Indians of Colombia, that Yoko has purchased for $65,000 to guard the bedroom against evil spirits. John’s abrupt entrance on the apartment stage is a lot more daring than were his entrances as a Beatle. Without a thought for whom he may meet, male or female, friend or stranger, the great Lennon walks into the kitchen au naturel, raw as a clam on the half shell—and puts the kettle on for tea.
Some mornings, Yoko will suddenly raise her head as she catches the sound of John’s footsteps thudding down the hallway. Quick as a cat, she jumps up and darts over to the cat box, where she seizes a little turd that she plants in John’s path. When the master of the house makes his big entrance, he puts his foot squarely in cat shit.
The transformation of Beatle John into the hermit of the Dakota commenced as early as 1966, the Beatles’ pivotal year. At its outset the Fab Four stood supreme upon the summit of success. Objects of hysterical devotion, idealized exemplars of the new youth culture, prophets of where the modern world was heading, the Boys from Liverpool combined within their enthralling image the superstar, the culture hero, and the original concept of the messianic figure.
But their trip to the Philippines ended in a riot and their last tour of the U.S. proved to be a horror. Not only were the Beatles constantly frightened, but they suffered from working in vast ball parks, which they could no longer sell out. When the Beatles reached Memphis, they received an anonymous phone call warning them that they would be killed during the course of their two shows at the Mid-South Coliseum. During the evening show, firecrackers were thrown on the stage. The Beatles reacted instantly, turning to John, half expecting to see him drop dead.
They made their decision to quit the stage despite the enormous and unending pressures brought to bear upon them by both their advisers and their fans. The truth is that they had no commitment to the stage. The rock hero must be like a lion tamer who every time he enters the cage is prepared to impose his will upon the will of the beast. It was in this will to command that the Beatles were most deficient. They were charmers in an arena where only power is respected. They had never exhibited the theatrical prowess of rock’s greatest showmen…the riveting intensity of Bob Dylan, the superb poise of the mature Elvis, the flamboyant showmanship of Little Richard, the corybantic ecstasy of James Brown. Far from becoming rock gladiators, they became rock mannequins, standing out in some vast and hysterical arena, immobile, inaudible, almost invisible. Born to play it cool in a cool medium, they now took their stand where they belonged, before a studio mike, where they exercised all the virtuosity and authority that the arena performer exhibits before the mob.
The first practical effect of their decision to stop touring was that, released from the yoke of obligatory performance, they flew off in different directions. In the fall of 1966 George and his wife, Patti, went for the first time to India, where they met Ravi Shankar and received a mantra from the Maharishi Yogi. Paul and equipment handler Mal Evans took a sight-seeing trip through East Africa.
John, desperate for an occupation, allowed himself to be persuaded to play the part of Private Gripweed in Richard Lester’s satiric How I Won the War, a dreadful film that proved that Lennon didn’t have a scrap of acting ability. After spending two months out of England, he was glad to get home—where he plunged again into acid. One night, half-crazed after a sleepless three-day run on the drug, he stepped out of his black Cooper-Mini and made for the Indica Gallery, where he had been invited to see a show by a screwball Japanese artist named Yoko Ono.
When Yoko had met her first Beatle, Paul, she told him that she was collecting manuscripts for a forthcoming publication by John Cage that would reproduce examples of scores by all the great contemporary composers commencing with Stravinsky and concluding, she hoped, with the Beatles. Though her pitch was perfect, Paul was not about to hand over any of his manuscripts to this pushy little stranger. Instead, he suggested—not without a certain malicious humor—that she would fare much better with his mate John, who was very keen on anything avant-garde.
When the famous night—Wednesday, November 9, 1966—rolled around, Yoko was laying for him. “Yoko took one look at John and attached herself to him like a limpet mine—with much the same destructive effect,” recalled Lennon’s driver, Les Anthony. “She clung to his arm while we went around the exhibition, talking away to him in her funny little high-pitched voice until he fled.”
Within a couple of days Yoko had conned her way past the guards at Abbey Road and gotten inside Studio 2. Shown the door, she took to hanging out in front of the building with the Apple Scruffs, the young girls who spent every night, even in the coldest weather, camping outside the studio in the hopes of seeing a Beatle or exchanging a greeting.
One night, when John and his wife Cynthia stepped into the backseat of their limo, Yoko threw herself between them. Promptly deposited at her own door, she shifted her beat next to Kenwood, John’s Tudor-style mansion outside London, where she hung about in such dreadful weather that Mrs. Powell, Cynthia’s mother, took pity on her and admitted her to the house so that she might call a cab. Yoko took advantage of the opportunity to plant a ring, which she could return later to reclaim. She also began bombarding John with notes, begging for money to present her art and threatening, “If you don’t support me, that’s it! I’ll kill myself!”
Some men would have been turned off by Yoko’s tactics, but John was titillated. He was accustomed to being the prey not the hunter, yet most of the women who had chased him had been types he scorned: groupies, show girls, whores, and little fans sent up to his suite like a steak from room service. Never in all the years since his passionate affair with Cynthia in art school had he been in love or even seriously involved with a woman. His passion, the strange amalgam of love and hate that was the essence of his being, had long been focused on manager Brian Epstein, whom he confessed years later he had “loved more than a woman.”
For a woman to stir John deeply, she had to possess a strong masculine component. Here is where the aggressive Yoko began to tip the beam, which she inclined further by being an Oriental, Lennon’s favorite type, and further yet by embodying the New York avant-garde scene, which meant a lot now to John since he had become the leader of the rock avant-garde. Clearly, John Lennon was a man upon whom Yoko could work her spell.
Yoko’s real attraction for John Lennon arose from the fact that she was ideally suited to play the starring role in his fantasy system.
“I always had this dream of meeting an artist woman that I would fall in love with—even from art school,” confessed Lennon. “And when we met and were talking, I just realized that she knew everything I knew, and more probably. And it was coming out of a woman’s head. It was like finding gold. To find something that you could go and get pissed with, and to have exactly the same relationship with any mate in Liverpool you’d ever had, but also you could go to bed with it, and it could stroke your head when you felt tired or sick or depressed. Could also be a mother…well, it’s just like winning the pools.”
“John began to weaken,” reported Les Anthony. “Came the day when Cynthia went off to the north and Yoko arrived at their house in order to discuss John sponsoring some art show. A business meeting, they said it was. But she didn’t go back until the morning, and after that John couldn’t leave her alone…In those first days, before John left Cynthia, he and Yoko used to do their courting, to put it politely, in the back of the car while I was driving them around.” According to Les Anthony, who was certainly in a position to know, the time between meeting and mating was exactly three weeks.
Though the public assumed the leading men of the Beatles enjoyed a close personal relationship, this had never been the case. John described them as being like two soldiers in the same foxhole: each man held the other’s life in his hands, but when the shooting stopped, they had no desire to remain together.
When Lennon prostrated himself before the Acid Buddha, he destroyed his carefully maintained balance with his partners. The more passive and withdrawn Lennon became, the more active and engaged grew his rival, Paul McCartney. By November 1966, when the Beatles began laying down tracks for the album that became Sgt. Pepper, Paul had become the band’s de facto artistic director. Pepper was from the outset Paul’s album. He conceived the idea, wrote at least half the songs, ran the recording sessions, supervised the mixing, and arranged for the precedent-making package. John Lennon was so graveled by this tour de force that he complained bitterly that Paul had gotten the upper hand by employing the tactics of the fait accompli. “When Paul felt like it,” grumbled John, “he would come in with about 20 good songs and say, ‘We’re recording.’ And I suddenly had to write a f——— stack of songs. Pepper was like that.”
John was not the only Beatle to experience depression during the sessions that produced Sgt. Pepper. All the boys but Paul were numbed by this unprecedented ordeal. Seven hundred hours of studio time were logged from November 1966 to March 1967. The basic problem was the simple fact that the Beatles had set out to make an album that would extend the frontiers of pop recording without first gaining access to a studio that represented the current state of the art.
Studio 2 at Abbey Road didn’t bear the remotest resemblance to a modern recording facility. Constructed in 1931, it was hopelessly out of date from a technical standpoint. The control board was so crude that just to do a routine playback, the engineers had to repatch the leads, a process that might take a half hour. The tape recorders were obsolete four-track machines. Nor were there any electronic refinements: for example, when the Beatles wanted that funny speaking-tube effect they exploited on “Yellow Submarine,” instead of the engineer throwing a switch to activate a filter, he would give John Lennon a cardboard mailing tube down which he had to holler.
To picture the Beatles during the creation of what is universally regarded as the ultimate masterpiece of the rock age, you must imagine them sitting about in odd corners of a vast and dreary space, like stagehands during a performance of The Twilight of the Gods. Most of the time they were idle, whiling away the hours in pastimes like playing chess or cards, drinking tea or eating beans on toast or chatting with their childhood friends or cronies from Liverpool.
No wonder that on some nights, when the waiting had reached unbearable lengths, John Lennon would suddenly snap out of his trance and thunder up at the control booth: “What the f— are ya doin’ up there! You’re not supposed to be takin’ tea breaks! You’re supposed to work straight through because we’re the f——— Beatles!”
Overnight Pepper recharged the Beatles’ aura with the electricity of Beatle-mania, only now the glow around the band was a psychedelic glory. A monument to the Sixties, the album glows with the excitement of an age that felt it had the whole world at the tip of its knob-turning, pill-popping fingers. Paul’s triumph, however, was a Pyrrhic victory, for Pepper marks the beginning of that deadly quarrel between the Beatles’ leaders that would ultimately deprive the public of the greatest songwriting and record-making team of modern times. But that summer, ’round and ’round went Pepper both at home and on the air as DJs took to flipping it over as if it were a double-headed hit single.
The in place during the Summer of Love, 1967, was the Speakeasy, a basement club at 48 Margaret Street, just behind Oxford Circus. Sarah Kernochan, later winner of an Academy Award for co-producing Marjoe, recalled that on her second night as a waitress at the club, the Beatles appeared. “They were dressed uniformly in either Indian gear or velvets. That was the way Swinging London togged out at the time. John was completely engulfed with girls. He was just cramming them in his face.”
Her recollection of Lennon bespeaks a vastly different public image from any he had displayed in the past. Just a couple of years before, when he frequented the Ad Lib, he had always sat in a corner, “keeping himself to himself.” If anything happened to excite his ire, he would erupt in violence. Now he seemed a different man.
Indeed, everybody commented on how much John had changed. Ivan Vaughan, a childhood friend who had spent a lot of time with Lennon during the Pepper sessions, observed: “Even a couple of years ago the old animosities were still there: refusing to talk to anybody, being rude, slamming the door. Now he’s just as likely to say to people, ‘Come in. Sit down.’ ”
John himself ascribed his revolutionary change of character to acid, claiming the drug had given him a new breadth of vision and the philosophic mind. Actually, it was not so much acid as it was the enormous quantity of the drug that Lennon consumed that wrought this remarkable change. At the peak of his acid addiction John was consuming LSD at a rate that blows a man clear off the charts of the known drug world. “I must have taken a thousand trips,” he confessed. “I just ate it all the time like candy.” Taken that frequently, acid acts like the “love drug.”
John’s unappeasable appetite for LSD inspired next one of the most concealed enterprises of the Beatles’ organization: the Great Acid Smuggling Expedition. The goal of this caper was to procure a lifetime supply of the finest LSD available, the product of the renowned Augustus Owsley Stanley III’s secret laboratory. The cover for the move was provided by the Monterey Pop Festival, to which the Beatles sent a camera crew even though they knew the film rights had been purchased by an American company. The idea was to use the crew’s abundant baggage to conceal the contraband. When the filmmakers returned to London after their apparently futile journey, they were carrying in their airtight lens cases a large quantity of a clear fluid of unimaginable potency. By late June John Lennon had standing on the shelves of his sun-room two pint-sized bottles of nearly pure lysergic acid.
In February 1968 the Beatles flew from England to India to join the maharishi at his ashram. At the Meditation Academy there were 70 Westerners, most of them rich old ladies from Sweden because the maharishi had a center at Malmö, as well as some pretty girls from California and several pop stars: Donovan, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, and Mia Farrow, who was recovering from her brief marriage to Frank Sinatra.
John loved the academy because it offered him all the things he craved: privacy, protection, an absence of demands, and an atmosphere highly conducive to mental tripping. He insisted upon living apart from Cynthia, occupying a one-room stone bungalow carpeted with an old rug, upon which he sat for hours every day, supposedly meditating but actually composing songs.
The Beatles had gotten a taste already of the exploitive tactics of the “giggling guru.” They had discovered before they left for India that the maharishi was negotiating with ABC-TV to star in a show on which he had promised to deliver the Fab Four. When a warning from Beatles’ functionary Peter Brown made no impression on the old man, Paul and George flew to Malmö to make clear they would not participate in such a program.
The Indian idyll unraveled rapidly at the end. Alex Mardas, a friend of John, discovered that the maharishi was busy seducing one of the pretty girls from California. When John and George refused to credit this scandalous accusation, Alex set a trap for his man.
The next time the monk was alone with his adoring disciple, Alex made a noise outside the bungalow. He observed the maharishi give a guilty start and rearrange his clothing, then send the girl to her quarters. George waxed indignant and refused to believe that his master was caught with his dhoti up. But John Lennon was quick to see that he had been duped.
Aboard the plane flying home from India, John began drinking hard liquor for the first time in months. As the booze melted his inhibitions, the rage that lay at the bottom of his soul, like sulfuric acid under a wax stopper, began to fume up. For no apparent reason, he started telling Cynthia about all the women he had f—— during the eight years of their marriage. The hundreds of girls John had screwed on the road, as many as seven in a single night, counted for little in his confessions. What he concentrated upon, according to Peter Brown, were the women whom Cynthia would recognize. Whether his motive was to goad Cynthia into suing for a divorce or to punish her for some real or imagined indiscretion makes little difference; the fact is that he hurt her horribly without helping himself one bit.
Baffled in his desire to break free, John took off on a tremendous drug binge as soon as he got home. He dropped acid and smoked tea. He popped pills and drank whiskey. He tooted cocaine and horned heroin. Within a month, he could have been declared non compos mentis. As always at a moment of crisis, John longed to retire into seclusion. So just two weeks after her return from India, Cynthia found herself leaving the country again, this time in the company of Alex and Jenny Boyd (Patti Harrison’s younger sister), bound for Greece.
When Cynthia got home, she had an experience straight out of a horror movie. “It was eerily silent,” she recalled, as she approached the house with Alex and Jenny. The first thought that went through her head was that there had been an all-night party and everybody was dead asleep. Seizing the knocker in the shape of a woman’s derriere, she knocked loudly on the front door. There was no response. Finally, she opened her purse and took out the magnetically coded card that activated the special lock. It was at that moment that Cynthia discovered that the door was unlocked. Entering hesitantly, followed by her friends, she stood in the dark, wood-paneled foyer and shouted up the stairs: “John! Julian! Anybody home?” There was only silence and the weird light that came through the closed drapes on the windows in the lounge. Turning to the right and making her way through the dining room and kitchen, Cynthia stepped into the sun-room, and froze!
Sitting on the little Queen Anne sofa in a green and white terrycloth robe, his hair disheveled, a cup of tea in his hand, was John Lennon. Facing him, with her back to Cynthia, was a tiny woman with a great bush of black hair, her body shrouded in a black silk kimono. “It was like walking into a brick wall,” Cynthia said, adding: “It was as if I didn’t belong anymore.” The truth was that she didn’t belong. Without her knowledge she had been eliminated.
After a silence that seemed to last forever, John said, “Oh, hi!” coolly taking a puff on his cigarette.
Cynthia was now so freaked out that she opened her mouth like an automaton and began to recite a little speech that she had prepared on the plane. “I had this great idea!” she gushed. “We had breakfast in Greece, lunch in Rome, and Jenny and Alex and I thought it would be great if we all went to dinner in London to carry on the whole holiday.”
Impassively John Lennon replied: “No, thanks.” At this moment, Yoko turned around and gave Cynthia “a positive, confident look.”
Long before John and Yoko had obtained their freedom, they were enslaved by heroin. Yoko told her friend Mamie Hair that John had been on the drug for a long time before he hooked her, adding that he could withdraw from anything, but she could not.
“Spanish Tony” Sanchez, a hustler intimate of the art dealer to the stars Robert Fraser (imprisoned for heroin possession after he was busted with the Rolling Stones), spent a lot of time that summer with John Lennon, watching him get high with Brian Jones and Keith Richard, both notorious addicts. “John, I feared,” wrote Sanchez, “seemed to be following Brian into a world where drugs dominated everything. [Lennon was using heroin, cocaine, and hashish, as well as LSD, marijuana, and Biphetamine pills.]
“He called almost daily to see if I could help him get hold of dope…. Once he aggressively insisted I supply him with heroin. He sent his chauffeur to my apartment to get it. I was so annoyed at the way he was pressuring me that I accepted the $200 proffered by the driver and gave him a stash containing two crushed aspirin. ‘That,’ I thought, ‘should stop him from pestering me once and for all.’ The next day John was back on the phone asking for more. ‘What about the last lot?’ I said. ‘Oh, I didn’t think very much of that,’ he said. ‘It hardly gave me a buzz at all.’ ”
Ringo’s flat in Montagu Square had witnessed plenty of drug craziness even before John and Yoko moved in. Decorated by Ken Partridge as a honeymoon nest, it had been trashed by Jimi Hendrix, who went out of his mind one night and threw cans of paint all over its watered blue silk hangings. Ringo had scrapped the original decor and painted the place stark white. Now it got another dose of junkie squalor. “They lay in the basement of Montagu Square almost all July that simmering summer, submerged in self-inflicted stupor,” recalled Peter Brown. Soon the apartment appeared a “pigsty, a junkie’s haven of rumpled sheets, dirty clothes, newspapers and magazines heaped all over the floor.”
Yoko recalled that she and John lived on a diet of champagne, caviar, and heroin. John said that they lived in “a strange cocktail of love, sex, and forgetfulness.” It’s unlikely they were ever closer or happier together, for though they appeared to be wallowing in stupor and squalor, they were actually experiencing a bliss that is unimaginable save to those who have tasted of their love potion. Symbiosis was the miracle heroin wrought upon these narcissistic lovers, who celebrated their love by acting as if they were one person in two bodies.
Heroin’s other effect on Lennon was to trip him back to infancy: “I felt,” he declared, “like a baby wrapped in cotton wool and floating in warm water.” (In his caricatures of this time he depicts himself naked and floating on clouds.) Now it was natural that his earliest feelings about his mum should revive and mingle with his love for Yoko. That is the burden of the remarkable “Julia,” which John recorded that summer, testifying better in song than he ever could in mere words to the precise nature of his infatuation with Yoko.
On November 8, 1968, just two weeks after John Lennon announced publicly that Yoko was pregnant with his child, Cynthia Lennon was granted a divorce. “Cynthia was amputated from the Beatles with ruthless speed and precision,” wrote Peter Brown, who added: “Few Beatles employees or friends dared to show her support or speak out against Yoko, lest the wrath of John Lennon fall on them.”
The only old friend in the Beatles’ circle who offered Cynthia any support or sympathy was Paul. “I was truly surprised when one sunny afternoon Paul arrived on his own,” recalled Cynthia, adding: “I was touched by his obvious concern for our welfare and even more moved when he presented me with a single red rose accompanied by a jokey remark about our future: ‘How about it, Cyn? How about you and me getting married?’ ”
John got off lightly with a settlement of £100,000 [about $240,000 at that time] plus £2,400 annually for Julian’s maintenance. The trust fund established for Julian was just as ungenerous. It provided for the payment of £100,000 when his son reached the age of 25, provided John Lennon begot no more children. In the event John had another child, Julian’s provision was to be halved.
Yoko’s divorce from her husband, Tony Cox, cost John Lennon more money than his divorce from his wife. John agreed to pay all the joint debts of Yoko and Tony, which came to £100,000. The extent of Tony Cox’s individual payment is unclear, but Tony’s brother, Larry, recalled that Tony had “a lot of money” when he left England. For tax reasons, the payoff was arranged to appear as an assignment from Apple Films for Tony to purchase cameras and hire a boat for filming in the Virgin Islands, where residence for the purpose of divorce can be established in six weeks.
The relentlessly turning kaleidoscope of pop fashion had now brought the Beatles into focus as hirsute hippies with rough hair down to their shoulders, a big fruit vendor’s moustache on Ringo and on Paul the massive black beard of a mountain man. The strangeness of their appearance as they gathered about the breakfast table at Twickenham Studios outside London on January 2, 1969, was as nothing compared with the changes that had occurred in their minds. John, who appeared with Yoko clinging to his arm as if she had him under arrest, was stoned blind and proclaiming through every pore of his body: “I don’t give a shit!” George was tense and angry because he felt the band was about to take a giant step backward. Ringo was depressed because Paul had given him such a hard time during their studio sessions the previous year that he had come home one day and told Maureen tearfully that he was out of the band. The only man who hadn’t changed essentially was Paul, who arrived a half hour late because he had tried to reach the studio by public transportation, both to save money and to prove that he was still one of the people.
The reason they all were gathered at this unaccustomed hour was that Paul had decided to make a last-ditch effort to pull the Beatles together again. Since nobody could face another tour, Paul came up with the idea of a single remarkable event that could become a TV show. Meantime, they had agreed to start laying down tracks for their spring album, taking as their theme the latest trend: rock ‘n’ roll revival. Paul had persuaded the boys to begin their labors at Twickenham so that footage of them at work could be used as cutaways in a concert film or as material for a documentary.
Yoko made it clear from the start that she was not going to join the other members of the entourage in sitting quietly outside the range of the cameras. If there was to be a TV show, she was going to be in it, as close to center stage as possible. Not only did she arrive on John’s arm, but she never relinquished it. Even when John lowered his butt onto the narrow perch of a piano stool, Yoko butted in on the same unaccommodating roost. At one point she had an easel set up next to the music stands, at which she made a great show of painting while the Beatles played. She even had the nerve to offer the band suggestions on their music.
In later years John and Yoko filled the media with outraged complaints about how the “others” had treated Yoko during these sessions. The gist of their charges was that the Beatles were macho pigs who could not tolerate the idea of a woman’s asserting herself as their equal. The fact of the matter was rather different. The Beatles actually let Yoko get away with murder because they were afraid of provoking John.
On March 14, 1969, as John and Yoko were being driven out of London in their white Rolls-Royce, they decided to get married. “Intellectually, of course, we did not believe in marriage,” explained John, “but one does not love someone just intellectually.” Shouting through the plate-glass window to Les Anthony, John demanded to know if it was possible to marry on a Channel ferry. When Les replied that he had no idea, John ordered him to drive to Southampton to make inquiries, first dropping them at their original destination, the waterfront bungalow at Poole that John had purchased in 1965 for his aunt Mimi.
It was richly ironic that John’s impulse to marry should have mastered him on the road to Mimi, for no one could have been more averse to the idea than his aunt. For this reason John did not reveal his momentous decision. Mimi would learn of John’s marriage when it was too late to prevent. Meantime, John danced with impatience, awaiting a ring from Les. When the call came, it made John even more irritable. The only boat on which you could marry, reported Les, was an oceangoing steamship. As it happened, a liner was scheduled to depart in just two hours. “Why didn’t you book when you were there?” barked Lennon at the hapless chauffeur.
John Lennon’s sudden rage for matrimony was not an inexplicable impulse. Quite the contrary, it was a clear case of not wanting to be outdone. Only two days before, the papers had announced the surprising news of Paul McCartney’s marriage to Linda Eastman.
Next week: revelations about John’s fling with May Pang, his battle with drugs and his troubled last years in New York.