As she leaned on his arm in the back of the limo, they seemed very comfortable. It was nighttime and everything felt quiet and safe in the car. "It's not really so unusual, you know," Yoko said, mentioning the literary couple Robert and Elizabeth Browning. "Ah," John said. He started quoting one of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's most famous lines: "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." Yoko talked about how Robert and Elizabeth had inspired each other. I said that might be a good angle for a story: "John and Yoko, the Robert and Elizabeth Browning of rock." We all smiled.
On that second day, he took me to Sean's playroom, where he kept one of his prized possessions, a vintage jukebox. Plugging it in, he punched one Elvis Presley record after another and bopped around playfully.
As Elvis sang "Don't Be Cruel" in the background, John recalled his first and only meeting with our mutual rock hero. It was a story he relished sharing as much as he did his Beatles memories.
"It was probably 1965 and we had a break in L.A. during a tour. We went up to his house and we were terrified. I can't remember the first moment I saw him, but he looked great. We started singing some of his songs. That's what we always did when we met Chuck Berry or Carl Perkins or any of them."
I asked if Elvis had known how big the Beatles were and if he had felt any hint of competition.
"Are you kidding?" John replied with a laugh. "He knew damn well who we were -- from the word 'go.' He was terrified of us and the English movement because we were a threat to him. I heard he was so paranoid all afternoon that he kept practicing things to say to us, asking the guys around him if we were any good. It was like Ali wondering if he could handle Frazier. To us, he was a god. We'd like to beat his record and become the champion, but we would always give him credit. It always hurts and infuriates me when Mick Jagger puts Elvis down. Maybe he's jealous because Elvis was the original body man in rock and it's too near to Mick's game for him to admit that Elvis' movements were at least as good as his and that maybe Elvis could sing a damn sight better than he could."
John's favorite time with the Beatles surprised me -- the early days. Hamburg, Liverpool, the dance halls. I'd thought he'd say it was when the band had conquered America. "Naw," he said with a wave of a hand. "We were already blasé. We had the show down. We were already past our peak as performers. It was like Vegas -- what we did on stage, I mean. We shook our head on this number and . . . well, you know the rest."
We had never spoken all that much about the Beatles, and John seemed to be amused by my sudden display of interest. He even laughed when I told him the reason I wanted to be Elvis was because of all the screaming girls. Was it the same with him in the Beatles? "That was one of the main reasons you go on stage, because the guy in the band gets the girls," he said with a broad grin. "There's an old joke, but it's true: Sometimes you'd get this girl after the show and you'd be in bed and she'd ask you which one you are. I'd say, 'Which one do you like?' If she said, 'George,' I'd say, 'I'm George.' "
This was so much fun that it didn't even seem like an interview. I was just a fan, asking him to name things like his favorite Beatles albums ("Rubber Soul," "Revolver," "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," and the White Album) and what tracks he'd put on a Beatles greatest hits package ("I'd favor my own tracks, of course. I'd go with 'Walrus,' 'Strawberry Fields,' 'Come Together,' 'Revolution,' 'In My Life,' 'Hard Day's Night,' 'Help' -- stuff like that and some of the early tracks like 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' and 'Day Tripper.' ").
John was so into reminiscing that he even came up with a question: What would have happened if the band hadn't broken up in 1970?
In answering it, he said, "We would have probably gone down the tubes and then been resurrected like everything else. I always thought it was best to go out when you're flying high. The popularity was always ebbing and flowing. That's what people forget. It was only during the initial rush that people thought everything we did was right. After that, it was up or down depending on the single or the album or whatever. We could split up in 1970 because we were on top. In fact, it was probably the best thing that ever happened to the Beatles myth. I read this book about Mick where he said after the breakup, 'At last, we're No. 1.' What he didn't realize was that when we split, we created a much bigger thing than if we had stayed. He could never catch up with that."
I told John I couldn't imagine, as a fan, how hard it must have been for him to simply walk away from music.
"It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life -- not make music," he said. "Not because I had this love for music or because I was so creative and I couldn't bear not to be creative, but because I felt that I didn't exist unless my name was in the gossip columns of Rolling Stone or the Daily News or whatever. Then, it dawned on me that I do still exist."
We had such a good time over the three days that John invited me to his and Sean's birthday party at Tavern on the Green. I knew what the perfect birthday present for John was. I had mentioned in the studio that there was a great new Elvis photo book by Alfred Wertheimer, who had spent a couple of weeks with Elvis around the time of "Hound Dog" in 1956. John hadn't seen it.
The party was scheduled for noon, and I left the hotel around 11, thinking I'd pick up a copy of the book at a bookstore. But I had to go to a half-dozen stores before finally finding one, and the party was over by the time I got to the restaurant. I headed back to the Dakota. I didn't want to bother John, so I left the book with the doorman.
At the bookstore, I also picked up a copy of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetry in case I wanted to quote more from the poem John had mentioned. He had said he wished he could put those feelings into a song, because it would be the perfect love song. During the flight back, the final lines struck me. In them, Barrett Browning says, "If God choose, I shall but love thee better after death."
I flashed on that final line two months later when I heard the news.
Excerpted from "Corn Flakes with John Lennon (And Other Tales From a Rock 'n' Roll Life)," by Robert Hilburn. Copyright ©2009 by Robert Hilburn. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, Pa. 18098.
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