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Excerpted from the Hardcover Edition
"Welcome to the inner sanctum!” said John Lennon, as he greeted me with high-spirited, mock ceremoniousness at the entrance to Yoko Ono’s office in their ground-floor apartment in the Dakota—the quasi-Gothic, castle-like edifice with its gables, gargoyles, and wrought-iron gates on New York City’s Upper West Side. I removed my shoes and entered an iridescent, high-ceilinged, white-carpeted room, and Yoko, who was seated at a large gold-inlaid desk, got up to say hello.
It was Friday, December 5, 1980. Rolling Stone was preparing a cover story on John and Yoko for its first issue of 1981, and I had come to interview John on the occasion of the release of his and Yoko’s new album, Double Fantasy. It had been a long while since they had talked to the press. With the birth of their son, Sean, in 1975, John and Yoko had undertaken what they called “the Spring Cleaning of our minds” and had ceased stoking what Joni Mitchell once referred to as the “star maker machinery.” For five years, they made no records, created no new music or artworks, and made no public appearances. And while Yoko looked after the family business, John became a self-styled househusband who spent his time taking care of his son and engaging in domestic chores. One thinks of the Greek historian Herodotus’s description of some of the remarkable customs practiced by the Egyptians in the fifth-century B.C.: “Women attend market and are employed in trade, while men stay at home and do the weaving.” The Lenonos—to use the name of John and Yoko’s music-publishing company—seem to have run an ancient Egyptian household! Or a topsy-turvy nursery-rhyme one, where, as John informed us in his song “Cleanup Time,” the queen is in the counting house “counting out the money,” while the king stays in the kitchen “making bread and honey.”
In an interview with journalist Chet Flippo, the media consultant Elliot Mintz—who had developed a close friendship with John and Yoko in 1971—spoke of a night when John phoned him in Los Angeles. “It was very late,” Mintz recalled, “and John said, ‘An incredible thing happened to me today, Elliot,’ and he said it with such reverence that I thought he was going to divulge a really significant spiritual experience. So I propped myself up and said, ‘Yes?’ And John said, ‘I baked my first loaf of bread and you can’t believe how perfectly it rose, and I’ve taken a Polaroid photo of it and I think I can get it out to you by messenger tonight.’ ”
Mintz explained that John and Yoko would use a courier service instead of the mail because people would pocket their letters or packages as souvenirs when they saw either one of their names on them. “So someone would pick up the communication,” Mintz elaborated, “and get on an airplane and fly with the communication wherever it was going, and then hand the communication to the person it was going to.” Mintz received the Polaroid. A week or two later, he flew to New York and stopped by the Dakota. “We were sitting around the kitchen one night,” Mintz said, “and John brought out an object enclosed in silver foil. It was a piece of the bread that he had saved me from his first loaf. And we broke bread together.”
John had stepped outside the inner sanctum for a few minutes, and I sat down next to Yoko on an enormous pearl-white plush couch. In this gently lit, immaculate office, I noticed a black upright piano and, on a wall above it, a painted portrait showing John and Sean, both with shoulder-length hair, sitting on a beach in Bermuda; an ivory-and-jade inlaid oak box resting on a coffee table; and several glass vitrines containing ancient Egyptian artifacts, which Yoko valued for their beauty and magical properties.
Then I looked up, and, as if I were rising—rather than falling—into a dream, I suddenly realized that the entire ceiling was in fact a supernal trompe l’oeil sky filled with floating and drifting gossamer clouds. “Above us only sky.” And I was immediately reminded of the open letter written by John and Yoko and published on the back page of The New York Times on May 27, 1979. Entitled “A Love Letter from John and Yoko to People Who Ask Us What, When, and Why,” it had concluded: “Remember, our silence is a silence of love and not of indifference. Remember, we are writing in the sky instead of on paper—that’s our song. Lift your eyes and look up in the sky . . . and you will see that you are walking in the sky, which extends to the ground. We are all part of the sky, more than of the ground.” And although my head was still in the clouds, ensorcelled by cerulean light, I slowly brought myself back down to earth as Yoko began explaining to me how the album Double Fantasy came to be.
The previous spring, she recounted, John had, with her blessing, chartered the Megan Jaye, a forty-three-foot sloop based in Newport, Rhode Island, and set sail on June 4 with a four-member crew for the 635-mile trip to Bermuda. He had previously learned to sail on Long Island Sound where he and Yoko had a second home in Cold Spring Harbor, and for a long time had harbored a desire to undertake a long sea voyage. He would be turning forty on October 9, and, as he wrote in “Borrowed Time”—a song that he composed after the completion of his trip—“Now I am older / The future is brighter and now is the hour.”
The plan was for Sean to fly with a nanny to Bermuda after John had arrived there, and father and son would then spend a three-week vacation together, swimming and sailing, while Yoko stayed at home “sorting out business,” as she put it. But midway into John’s navigational journey through the Bermuda Triangle, a storm broke out with gale-force winds and twenty-foot-high waves. The captain and crew fell ill, and John, not prone to seasickness, had to take over as helmsman for six hours. Buffeted by the winds and pummeled by water, he later described himself as having felt like a Viking “screaming sea chanteys and shouting at the gods.” Reflecting on his adventure, John would later remark to me: “You get in a fucking boat in a 110-mile-per-hour gale and you really find out what’s real or not.”
He rented a stucco villa in the idyllically named Fairylands on the outskirts of Hamilton, and every day he and Sean would go swimming and build sand castles on the beach. It was here that they ran into a woman artist who mustered the courage to approach them to ask if she could paint John and Sean together. Surprisingly, John agreed. For several days, he and Sean went to her studio to pose for the portrait. When John returned to New York, he presented it to Yoko as a surprise gift, and it was this painting that I had noticed hanging on the wall above the piano in Yoko’s office.
One day, John took Sean to the Bermuda Botanical Gardens where, under a cedar tree, he came across some delicate white-and-yellow flowers called a Double Fantasy. “It’s a type of freesia,” John explained, “but what it means to us is that if two people picture the same image at the same time, that is the secret.” And then one night he wandered into Hamilton and, curious to find out what kind of music people were listening to, he went club-hopping—something he hadn’t done since the mid-1970s in Los Angeles—and ended up at a spot called Disco 40. “Upstairs, they were playing disco,” John would later tell me, “but downstairs I suddenly heard ‘Rock Lobster’ by the B-52s for the first time. Do you know it? It sounds just like Yoko’s music, so I said to meself, ‘It’s time to get out the old ax and wake the wife up!’ ”
John began writing songs at a rapid pace. “Woman” apparently took him about fifteen minutes, and in one of his new songs, “Dear Yoko,” he referred to his harrowing sea voyage, telling her that even in the midst of the tempest, her spirit had been watching over him. Simultaneously, Yoko, in New York, had also started writing songs. As if to confirm her idea that, as she once remarked, “you can assemble a painting with a person in the North Pole over a phone, like playing chess,” she and John began to speak on the phone every day and sang each other what they had composed in between calls. During one of their conversations, John sang her “Beautiful Boy,” and Yoko said, “I wrote a song, too, it’s called ‘Beautiful Boys.’ Let me sing it to you.” And when John came back to New York, Yoko asked him, “Do you want to do it?,” and John answered “Yes.”
John had now returned to the inner sanctum, and Yoko said that she’d be leaving us for a while so that we could chat. As John sat down on the couch, I told him that Yoko had informed me how Double Fantasy had come about, and observed that this was probably the first album ever created over the telephone. “Yeh,” John said, laughing, “and it’s a play. It’s a heart play, with the emphasis on ear in the middle of that word!”
“I’ve heard that you’ve had a guitar hanging on the wall behind your bed for the past five or six years,” I said to him, “and that you only recently took it down to play on Double Fantasy. Is that true?”
“I bought this beautiful electric guitar round about the period I got back with Yoko and had the baby,” he replied. “It’s not a normal guitar, it doesn’t have a body, it’s just an arm and this tubelike, toboggan-looking thing, and you can lengthen the top for the balance of it if you’re sitting or standing up. I played it a little, and then just hung it up behind the bed, but I’d look at it every now and then, because it had never done a professional thing, it had never really been played. I didn’t want to hide it the way one would hide an instrument because it was too painful to look at—like Artie Shaw went through a big thing and never played his clarinet again. But I used to look at it and think, ‘Will I ever pull it down?’
“On top of the guitar I’d placed a wooden number nine that some kid had sent me and a dagger Yoko had given me—a dagger made out of a bread knife from the American Civil War to cut away the bad vibes, to cut away the past symbolically. It was just like a picture that hangs there but you never really see, and then recently I realized, ‘Oh, goody! I can finally find out what this guitar is all about,’ and I took it down and used it in making Double Fantasy.”
“So that guitar wasn’t gently weeping behind you for five years?” I asked.
“Mine never weeped,” he replied. “Mine screams or it’s not on at all!”
“I’ve been playing Double Fantasy a lot,” I started to say to John overexcitedly, “and it’s fantastic, but I’ve only heard it for the past three or four days and I wish I had it before—”
“How are you?” John interrupted, and looked at me with a time- and interview-stopping smile. “You don’t have to rush, we’ve got hours and hours and hours. It’s been like a reunion for us these last few weeks. The record’s already up there, it’s already passed the test of whatever it’s supposed to pass, the public have accepted it and bought it. I’m glad, Yoko’s glad, we’re glad to work together again and talk to the press.”
“You haven’t minded answering all the usual questions?” I asked him.
“It’s a game,” he said, “but the whole of life is a game, isn’t it? But is the implication then that the game is immoral? I mean, are we supposed to be very serious or just a little serious about it? But it is a very serious concern—a lot of money is put into an album, a lot of sweat and blood . . . and then having to put up with the garbage again, right? So we’re doing it because we want to do it, and we think we can have fun with it, and people want a record, obviously, because otherwise they wouldn’t have bought it.
“We recently did a very nice interview with a very nice reporter—I really enjoyed him, and he was an intelligent guy, and I don’t want to hurt him in any way. But when he described me in his article, I realized he hadn’t seen me at all.”
“In what sense?” I asked.
“He described me as wearing wire-rimmed glasses. Now, I haven’t worn wire-rimmed glasses since 1973. You see the glasses I’m wearing? They’re normal, plastic, blue-frame glasses.”
“Just so that I don’t fall into the same trap,” I said to him, “maybe you could describe to the magazine’s readers what you’re wearing right now.”
“O.K.,” John began. “Tell them that he’s wearing needle-cord pants, and the same black cowboy boots he’d had made in Nudie’s in 1973—”
“What’s Nudie’s?” I asked him.
“It’s the famous cowboy shop in Hollywood where Elvis got his gold lamé suit. It’s the place with the bull horns on the front, and everybody knows it.”
“Now you do . . . And he’s wearing a Calvin Klein sweater and a torn Mick Jagger T‑shirt that he got when the Stones toured in 1970 or so. I think that it belonged to a roadie and someone gave it to me. And around his neck is a small, three-part diamond heart necklace that he bought as a makeup present after an argument with Yoko many years ago and that she later gave back to him in a kind of ritual. Will that do?”
“Thanks! You’ve saved me.”
“Anyway, it’s been fun talking to people, and it’s fun having your picture taken . . . well, not so much having it taken, but it’s fun to see them, and in ten years you still have them. We’ve seen Ethan Russell, who took photos of us in 1969, and Annie Leibovitz was here. She took my first Rolling Stone cover photo, and she’s doing her life. It’s been fun seeing everyone we used to know and doing it all again—we’ve all survived. When did we first meet?”
“I met you and Yoko in London on September 17, 1968,” I told him, remembering the precise date of the first of many encounters.