Robert Hilburn was pop music critic for the Los Angeles Times for 35 years, from the psychedelic era to the emergence of the iPod. He witnessed many of rock 'n' roll's seminal moments and interviewed virtually every major pop figure of the period. All of this is chronicled in his memoir, "Corn Flakes with John Lennon (and Other Tales From a Rock 'n' Roll Life)," to be published this month. In this abridged excerpt, Hilburn explores his relationship with Lennon after the Beatles' breakup and explains the book's title. Additional excerpts will appear Monday and Tuesday in Calendar.
John Lennon raced into Yoko Ono's home office in the mammoth old Dakota building with a copy of Donna Summer's new single, "The Wanderer." "Listen!" he shouted to us as he put the 45 on the record player. "She's doing Elvis!" I didn't know what he was talking about at first. The arrangement felt more like rock than the singer's usual electro-disco approach, but the opening vocal sure sounded like Donna Summer to me. Midway through the song, however, her voice shifted into the playful, hiccuping style Elvis had used on so many of his early recordings.
"See! See!" John shouted, pointing at the speakers.
The record was John's way of saying hello again after five years. I had spent time with him in Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, during the period he later referred to as his "lost weekend" -- months when he was estranged from Yoko and spent many a night in notorious drinking bouts with his buddies Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr. John got so boisterous one night that he was thrown out of the Troubadour, one of the city's landmark music clubs. He invited me to dinner a few times, and I later found out it was when he had an important business meeting the next morning and didn't want to wake up with a hangover. I got the nod over Harry and Ringo because I didn't drink anything stronger than diet soda. We would eat at a chic Chinese restaurant and then return to his suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Those hours would race by because we loved talking about our favorite rock hero, Elvis, which brings us back to "The Wanderer."
I've experienced hundreds of memorable concert and interview moments, so it's hard to rank them in any favorite order, but my final hours with John in New York are certainly on the short list. It was just weeks before his death in December of 1980, and his playing the Summer record was an endearing greeting -- and one that was typical of John. Of the hundreds of musicians I've met, John was among the most down-to-earth.
As soon as I started working at the Los Angeles Times, people warned me not to get too close to artists because it could make it difficult to review their work and you can never really tell if the "friendship" is genuine. Even so, I felt there was much value in getting to know some of the most important artists beyond what you can glean in the hour or so you have to interview them. The relationship with Lennon -- and it never approached anything like a daily or even weekly tie -- came about naturally. I liked him and enjoyed his company.
John came to town in late 1973 to record an oldies album with Phil Spector and to promote his new solo album, "Mind Games," which he had produced himself. I interviewed him at the Bel-Air home of record producer Lou Adler, a chief force behind the Monterey Pop festival. May Pang, who introduced herself as John's personal assistant, answered the door and took me to the patio where John was waiting. He was wearing jeans and a sweater vest over his shirt and he walked toward me enthusiastically. "Well, hello at last," he said with a warm smile.
"Phil tells me you're a big Elvis fan," he said.
We ended up spending so much time talking about Elvis and other favorites from the 1950s that I was afraid we weren't going to get to the Beatles and his solo career. I was particularly interested in his thoughts on his "Plastic Ono Band" album (from 1970); the songs struck me as being so personal.
"I always took the songs personally, whether it was 'In My Life' or 'Help,' " he said. "To me, I always wrote about myself. Very few of the completely Lennon songs weren't in the first person. I'm a first-person journalist. I find it hard, though I occasionally do it, to write about, you know, 'Freddie went up the mountain and Freddie came back.' And even that is really about you."
John said he actually preferred "Plastic Ono Band" to its follow-up, "Imagine," even though the latter sold more copies and got generally better reviews. "I was a bit surprised by the reaction to 'Mother,' " he said, referring to "Plastic Ono Band" by his own title for it. "I thought, 'Can't they see how nice it is?' " So, John said, he went back into the studio and wrote new songs about many of the same themes, only this time he put on some strings and other production touches that made the message more accessible. That's why, he said, he privately called the "Imagine" album "Mother With Chocolate."
The interview didn't run in The Times until the album "Mind Games" was actually in the stores several weeks later. In the meantime, Phil invited me to one of the sessions for the oldies project. They had been going on for some weeks and the word was that they were pretty raucous, even drunken affairs. On the night I stopped by the studio, the liquor flowed freely. John, a gob of cake in his hand, chased Phil around the control booth while those around them danced to John's just-recorded version of an early Elvis recording, "Just Because."
But John wasn't all playfulness. He had sharp words for one of the studio employees and insulted a record company guest. This wild John was a lot different from the charming guy I had met at Adler's house, and I hoped the rude, drunken behavior was an aberration. But I kept hearing reports, including one about Phil firing a pistol one night and others about a tipsy John out on the town with his buddies and how he sometimes drank as much as a bottle of vodka a day. The first time I saw him this way away from the studio was at the Troubadour, where I was reviewing the opening of R&B singer Ann Peebles, who had a hit single, "I Can't Stand the Rain."
I didn't know John was in the club until he was in the middle of a big commotion. He was so drunk that he had wrapped a Kotex sanitary napkin around his head. When one of the waitresses tried to quiet him, he shouted, "Don't you know who I am?" Her answer was repeated the next day in all the record company offices and later in lots of magazine articles: "To me, you're just some ass -- with a Kotex on his head." A bouncer escorted John and his party out onto Santa Monica Boulevard.
Eventually, John returned to New York with May and spent weeks trying unsuccessfully to get Phil to give him the sessions' master tapes so he could finish the album himself. By then, I was beginning to hear reports about a strain between John and Yoko Ono and the suggestion that his relationship with May was more than simply professional. John was in a terrific mood when he returned from New York a few months later. He was only supposed to be in town for a few days, but the trip was extended and May phoned one day to say that John would like me to join him for dinner. When I got to the hotel, I figured he'd have a limo waiting downstairs. But John, wearing blue jeans and a black T-shirt, suggested that I drive, and we were soon off to a nearby Chinese restaurant, where we spent a couple of hours talking about Elvis, naturally.
Back at the hotel, Around 11:30, John turned on Johnny Carson's TV show and ordered corn flakes and cream from room service. He turned the sound down on the TV and stirred the corn flakes and cream with his spoon in an almost ritualistic fashion before taking a bite.
I didn't think much of it until the same thing happened the next time we returned to the hotel after dinner. This time I asked what was up with the corn flakes.
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