As a child in Liverpool during World War II, he explained, you could never get cream, so it was a special treat. He took another bite and gave an exaggerated sigh to underscore just how sweet it tasted.
The mention of Liverpool made John nostalgic. I already knew a little about John's early days, but it was fascinating hearing him tell the story. John was born in 1940 -- a year after me -- and he was raised by his Aunt Mimi after his parents broke up when he was about 5. His mother, Julia, started seeing another man who had children of his own and didn't want another one around. John loved Mimi dearly, but he also longed for his mother, who lived only a few miles away.
During his teens, just around the time he had formed the Quarrymen skiffle group, he said he had begun seeing more of his mother and had gotten the feeling she was trying to make up for all the years of her absence from his life. She was especially excited about the band, and John treasured their time together. But his mother was hit and killed by a motorist while walking to a bus stop. His mother had been taken from him twice. He was 17.
John had thought that rock 'n' roll fame would make everything right in his life, but even after his success he continued to search for someone or something to make his world seem complete. That was the theme of the "Plastic Ono Band" album. The very first song, "Mother," started with him screaming, "Mother, you had me, but I never had you / I wanted you, but you didn't want me." It continued, "Father, you left me, but I never left you / I needed you, but you didn't need me."
He found that missing foundation in Yoko, which is why she became more important to him than even the Beatles. In "God," a later song on the record, he again screams, "I don't believe in Elvis. I don't believe in Zimmerman [ Bob Dylan]. I don't believe in Beatles. I just believe in me. Yoko and me. That's reality."
As he spoke, I could understand why John felt so adrift. Until that night, I had assumed he had separated from Yoko and was involved in a new relationship with May, but he said that Yoko had pretty much demanded a break in their relationship. He was clearly still in love with her. Without her, he had no shield against the pressures of the rock 'n' roll world and his own depression.
In the fall of 1980, John and Yoko were finishing up their new album, "Double Fantasy," and I headed to New York for John's first newspaper interview in five years. This was when John raced into Yoko's office at the Dakota with a copy of Donna Summer's "The Wanderer."
He had returned to New York after the "lost weekend" period and spent the next five years rebuilding his life with Yoko and helping to raise their son, Sean. On this day, he looked nice and trim in jeans, a jean jacket and a white T-shirt. He was maybe 25 pounds slimmer than the last time I'd seen him. "It's Mother's macrobiotic diet," he said later about his weight, employing his nickname for Yoko. "She makes sure I stay on it."
By the time we headed to the recording studio, it was nearly dark. As the limo pulled up to the studio's dimly lit entrance, I could see the outlines of a couple dozen fans in the shadows. They raced toward the car as soon as the driver opened John's door. Flashbulbs went off with blinding speed. Without a bodyguard, John was helpless, and I later asked if he didn't worry about his safety. "They don't mean any harm," he replied. "Besides, what can you do? You can't spend all your life hiding from people. You've got to get out and live some, don't you?"
Inside the studio, I heard several tracks from "Double Fantasy," which was John's most revealing album since "Imagine." I could see he was happy to be back in the studio, and he looked forward to making more music with Yoko. Some critics branded the gentle, relaxed tone of the collection too soft. They missed the old Lennon bite. To me, however, the collection was a marvelous reflection of John's mood, and Grammy voters were right when they named it album of the year.
The Dakota is one of New York's most famous residential addresses. Built in 1884, it has spacious rooms and high ceilings; John and Yoko's living room had the formal but graceful feel of a museum with its Egyptian art, including a sarcophagus that dominated one side of the room. From one window of the seventh-floor apartment, I could see across Central Park and much of the city's spectacular skyline. For the preceding five years, that scene had been John's primary view of the world.
I spent hours at the apartment and the studio talking to John about the changes since Los Angeles. He felt at peace for one of the few times in his life. He was deeply in love with Yoko and thrilled to be a father again. He also spoke with affection about the Beatles days and how much he still looked forward to seeing Paul. That surprised me because of the sarcastic barbs he'd launched in interviews and the biting lyrics he'd written about Paul since the breakup of the band. "Aw, don't believe all that," he said, smiling. "Paul is like a brother. We've gotten way past all that." He also spoke fondly of Ringo but more distantly about George. He felt slighted by some things in George's autobiography, "I, Me, Mine," especially George's failure to give John credit for helping him learn guitar techniques.
Mostly, we talked about the "house husband" period that was just ending, a time of emotional drying out, a chance to reset priorities.
He had decided in 1975 to shut down his career to work on his strained marriage with Yoko and to spend time with Sean, who was born that October. He also wanted to escape the pressures and expectations of the rock 'n' roll world. Despite his highly acclaimed solo works of the early 1970s, John found it difficult to deal with the ghost of his Fab Four association.
"When I wrote 'the dream is over' [in 'God' in 1970], I was trying to say to the Beatles thing, 'Get off my back.' I was also trying to tell the other people to stop looking at me because I wasn't going to do it for them anymore because I didn't even know what the hell I was doing in my own life," he told me that first day. "What I realized during the five years away was that when I said the dream is over, I had made the physical break from the Beatles, but mentally there was still this big thing on my back about what people expected of me. It was like this invisible ghost. During the five years, it sort of went away. I finally started writing like I was even before the Beatles were the Beatles. I got rid of all that self-consciousness about telling myself, 'You can't do that. That song's not good enough. Remember, you're the guy who wrote "A Day in the Life." Try again.' "
John wasn't a recluse for those five years. He and the family traveled to Japan and elsewhere. He also went out regularly in New York, but he stayed away from the music business and the media. He said he had begun writing again the previous summer, during a vacation with Sean in Bermuda. Excited about the new material, he had called Yoko, who had remained in New York to take care of some business matters, and he played her a tape on the phone. She then wrote reply songs, which she played back to him a few days later. With the songs forming a dialogue, the Lennons went into a recording studio in New York in the autumn to record an album.
In the limo on the way to the studio, John continued to talk about Yoko, saying she served as an artistic catalyst -- questioning, discussing, challenging. He called their musical relationship a partnership, noting that she wrote and sang half the songs on the album. But what about the commercial consequences? There had been so much anti-Yoko feeling because of the breakup of the Beatles. Would his fans accept Yoko as a musical partner?
This time, Yoko spoke up. "I have two concerns in this album," she said. "First, I hope that it reminds people of John's talent. Second, I hope the fact that I am working with him enhances the man-woman dialogue. At the same time, I don't want the situation to become negative because my songs are too far-out or anything. That's hurting the chances of the album reaching as many people as possible. That wouldn't be fair to John. So in selecting my songs, I was conscious about the ones that are not too -- shall we say -- offbeat. This album is like our first hello. When you say hello, you don't want to complicate things. Maybe in the second or third album, we can experiment more."
John smiled at her words and said, "Yes, this is just starting over. We're going to move forward in the next album. It's going to be even better, so people better get ready."
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