In December 2005, my boss asked me to write a story on the upcoming 25th anniversary of John Lennon’s death. I protested, as I always did when given an assignment, arguing that it was not news, that every day is a rock ‘n’ roll anniversary, and everything that can be said about Lennon has already been said a million different times.
Well, my boss persisted and I relented. I left messages with dozens of people, getting desperate as the day wore on with nothing to show for my efforts. Eventually Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler, music producer/mogul Jimmy Iovine, and Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner returned my calls. I’m forever indebted to these three wonderful men. It’s no fun trying to write a thinkpiece without any thinkers.
Steven was on the road with Aerosmith in Cleveland, and had to break off and get on a plane to Chicago. He said he’d call back when they landed. And he did. It’s a helluva thing to be serenaded by him. Jimmy had great anecdotes from his time working with John. And Jann Wenner was a straight shooter. Here are some excerpts from the unpublished transcript, edited for clarity.
He rode life like a surfboard, and then when he got to the shore instead of paddling straight back out again to catch the next wave like I did, he sat there for a while and wrote it down, and then went on to something else. And I love that about him.
DID YOU EVER HAVE ANY COMMUNICATION WITH JOHN LENNON, EITHER AS A RESULT OF YOUR COVER OF “COME TOGETHER” OR THROUGH YOUR MUTUAL PRODUCER JACK DOUGLAS?
No. But I got bits and pieces from Jack who spoke to John about it. The closest I got to him was at a Wings concert — I was going out with Bebe Buell, Liv’s mother — in England at the Royal Albert Hall, and I was backstage taking a whiz, and Denny Laine was a good friend of mine and he was in the band. I went into the bathroom and I’m pissing at the urinal and I look over and there’s Paul. And he said (in working-class English accent), “Very good job on ‘Come Together,’ mate!” And I was just — as anybody would be —knocked on my back. But no, I did not. I was in rooms and in places that John had been. I missed him by five minutes doing all the work that we did at the Record Plant.
HOW DID HIS SONGWRITING OR STAGE PERSONA INFLUENCE YOU AS A MUSICIAN?
He and Janis Joplin both were the ones . . . They taught me the difference between (in grand, pompous voice), “You’ve got to hide your love away!” and (in Tyler’s trademark howl), “Heeeey! You’ve got to . . .” Putting a little ‘fuck-all,’ I call it – and John did as well – into a song, which is more your personality, how it makes you feel. I’ve always said, “Dance like you would when no one’s looking.” That sort of thing. He taught me how to put that into a song and that that should be it. Whereas Paul McCartney, not that he didn’t, but he was more about conveying the melody. I’m a big melodic freak as well. (sings) “Blackbird singing in the dead of night.” John’s more about, “Hey!!” and “I am the Walrus!!”
DO YOU THINK LENNON’S SONGS LIKE “POWER TO THE PEOPLE” AND “IMAGINE” HELPED ROCK ‘N’ ROLL BECOME A FORCE FOR PROTEST?
I think that people realized the Beatles certainly wielded their fame, but the power behind it – John – showed everybody. Laying in bed with Yoko, and “fifty acorns tied in a sack.” Every little thing that he did got mentioned by virtue of him just doing it. Of course it was the Beatles, but of course it went further than that. I can’t tell you how many priests have come up to me and said, you know, exactly what John said, “We’re more powerful than Jesus.” Because you do have the capabilities of — we call it — throwing a party every night for 30,000 people. But to be able to have that as a forum and get the ear and hold the ear of that many people, night after night after night is very, very powerful. When the Beatles first came to America with the British Invasion, ’64. Three years later was Sgt. Pepper, right? ’67. And then John died in ’80. God, what a short-lived thing, huh? So quick.
WHAT WERE YOU DOING ON DAY HE WAS KILLED?
I remember crying and just realizing … it was another epiphanous moment in my life where it just all hits at once: Oh, my God, could this happen? Why did it happen? How did it happen? It was all for such ridiculous reasons.
I was a kid [aged about 20-22] and he took me in, and he said, “I’m gonna teach you how to make records. I know you’re interested in this.” And he was fabulous to me under any circumstance that ever came about. And I traveled to L.A. and New York with him a bunch of times. We spent a lot of time together. He was extraordinary to me. I’m not saying I was his best friend. I was a kid working, but he couldn’t have treated me better. He was just an incredible cat.
There were some rough times in L.A. then [1973-1974]. I spent that whole time with him in L.A. [He missed Lennon’s ejection from the Troubadour, because he was at the Record Plant with Phil Spector.] . . . There was the whole thing with Nixon. Then it was the Rock ‘N’ Roll album with Phil, where they tied him up and they gagged him and everything. Phil tied and gagged John — little Phil and his bodyguard. In fact, it’s in May Pang’s book. It was a horrible night. He was drunk, and Phil is a lunatic, and Phil’s bodyguard, they thought that’s how they would stop him from acting up at the house, because he was breaking things … I found him on the lawn. It was terrible.
DID YOU UNTIE HIM?
Absolutely, I did. It was an extraordinary time in his life, and then Phil stole the tapes. So we made Walls and Bridges.
There was 40 people on every session. There was Leon Russell, Elton John, Jim Keltner, Hal Blaine, eight guitar players, Barry Mann on piano, Cher singing background. It was madness. But he was always really great to me. I’ll never forget it. I have tons of photos. I have great memories. To think that he died at 40 years old is shocking to me.
I believe he’s probably one of the greatest voices ever in rock music – his singing chops. It never gets talked about. That guy sang his ass off. He always liked his voice doubled in the studio. We doubled his vocals all the time, and he’d take a lot of time [“No. 9 Dream,” “Steel and Glass,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Stand By Me,” etc.]
This guy Roy Cicala, that my was my boss at the time, really worked on his vocal sound. At the time — I can only talk about the time I knew him — he wasn’t completely thrilled with the sound of his voice, but he was an extraordinary singer. Still today, when I hear people sing great, I still compare them to that, to when he used to sing live in the studio. He was an extraordinary singer, and very, very spontaneous, never needed a lot of takes, but always with such feel. This is as if he was completely straight, or not (laughs).
That voice with that attitude and singing what was in his gut is something that really moved the rock ‘n’ roll needle. There were guys before him like Johnny Cash and Elvis, and there were a few guys like Buddy Holly that wrote really well and sang incredibly, but John turned it up a notch as far as I was concerned, as far as singing with attitude. He was a great singer. I don’t want to knock Dylan, but Dylan wasn’t a great singer. John Lennon was a great singer and that’s something that no one talks about.
He was a good guitar player, but he was a great singer. That guy, fuckin’ on a microphone, man! We used to use an SM57, a regular touring mike, and he used to sing like the fuckin’ wind. And the problem was that that was the first cat I ever recorded as an engineer, so I used to compare everybody to him. The guy I worked with after then was Springsteen (on Born to Run). So I was like, “Ok, this is easy! All you need is guys like this, right?!”
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH JOHN OVER THE YEARS? WERE YOU FRIENDS? OR WAS IT MORE PROFESSIONAL?
It was more professional. We had a good, friendly professional relationship, but we didn’t have the time together to become good friends. A very good professional association, almost like an alliance or partnership on a bunch of stuff. Kind of a partnership in getting his message out, and then the peace thing.
PART OF THE THRUST OF MY STORY IS THAT JOHN HAS BEEN CANONIZED IN A WAY THAT PAUL MCCARTNEY NEVER WILL BE. IS THERE ANY MERIT IN THAT THINKING?
You have to look at the body of work, and not only is all the music sensational but the particular songs are anthems. While “Yesterday” is very famous and all that stuff, “Imagine” has a message. I guess you can kinda examine the body of work after they split up. What McCartney wrote and what John wrote.
I GUESS PAUL WAS BIGGER BY THAT MEASURE?
Very possibly. But what are you going to remember? “Silly Little Love Songs [sic]” or “Give Peace a Chance”? “Band on the Run” or “Imagine”? “Helen Wheels” or “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night”? I mean, there you go. OK. And the Beatles. It was John’s group. It wasn’t Paul’s group. It was John’s group.
SO NO PAUL McCARTNEY COVER STORIES FOR YOU IN THE NEAR FUTURE?
We just had one! [RS 985 (October 20, 2005)]. But I’ve been honest about this and said this before. It’s a matter of public record.
I REMEMBER DURING THE FIRST GULF WAR, EVERYONE GOT TOGETHER AND RE-RECORDED GIVE PEACE A CHANCE (AN ALL-STAR COMBO FORMED BY LENNY KRAVITZ). AND THEY DO IT AGAIN —
— Excuse me, or you see some rally — 200,000 Israelis somewhere mourning Rabin — and they’re singing Imagine. All these things. There’s a legacy that goes with that, having written that baby.
HOW ABOUT AMONG OTHER ROCK STARS, DO YOU THINK ROCK ‘N’ ROLL WOULDN’T HAVE BEEN NEARLY AS ACTIVIST WITHOUT JOHN?
He’s the model. It would have come up probably on its own. Somebody would have done it at some point. But if you’re gonna talk about rock ‘n’ roll activism, it was John. It wasn’t Bob Dylan. Bob was not even a protest singer, as they say.
BUT DYLAN DID HAVE A HUGE INFLUENCE ON JOHN’S WRITING
Oh, totally. Absolutely. And assimilated that into a pure rock context and did it well. A terrible imitation! But really applied the lessons of that in his own imagery and was able to break through basically because Bob was a huge influence on him. Put Bob Dylan and Elvis together and you can have John Lennon. Sort of, so to speak.
THE BASTARD CHILD!
Well! More legitimate, maybe!
WERE THERE KEY MARKERS FOR YOU WHERE JOHN’S SONGWRITING TOOK PROGRESSIVELY MORE THOUGHTFUL TURNS?
I thought that “Daytripper”/”We Can Work It Out” single. That moved them into new territory and from that came Rubber Soul. Drugs was a big marker. And leaving the Beatles was a big marker. He could do something on his own, so poignant and tough, things he could not have done with the Beatles, was to sing only about himself and his pain, and “Working Class Hero” and all those things, “Mother.” Genius stuff, tough to listen to. But major work.
AND THEN THERE WAS OBVIOUSLY A PATCHY PART IN THE ’70s WHERE HE DID BECOME MORE POLITICAL AND DIDN’T REALLY PAY OFF, SOMETIME IN NEW YORK CITY, ETC.
Yes, very weak stuff in there. He was a bit sloppy, not paying attention ,working with the wrong people. But as a solo artist he wrote some great stuff before that. And then I think Double Fantasy indicated he was going to come back with some great, great stuff.
WE TALK ABOUT THE PROTEST SONGS, BUT AT HEART WAS HE JUST A BIG ROMANTIC?
All of the above, all of the above. “Starting Over,” “Beautiful Boy,” “Oh Yoko,” “Hold On.” That was a very romantic album, from the cover to every bit of the contents. He could write these beautiful little tunes.
WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU SAW JOHN?
Probably when we did that interview.
Yeah. I might have run into him since then. He lived in New York, I lived in San Francisco.
WHAT WERE YOU DOING ON THE DAY HE DIED?
Oh, I was in New York City. I was watching TV. I saw it announced by Howard Cosell. Like everybody else.
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