Lennon at 70!
As he approaches the big milestone and his highly anticipated reunion dates with the Plastic Ono Band, the irrepressible ex-Beatle talks about cows, survival, and Yoko.
The scars run up and down John Lennon’s torso, unignorable souvenirs of that night nearly 30 years ago when a team of Roosevelt Hospital physicians, led by Dr. Stephan Lynn, heroically patched back together an upper body torn open by the gun of Mark David Chapman. Four plastic surgeries followed in the next eight months, as did an intensive rehabilitation program of physical therapy, but no amount of medical expertise could disappear the various discolored nebulae of scar tissue that blotch Lennon’s chest and back.
Not that he seems to care on this scorching, sun-blasted August 2010 day. He bounds about the pastures of his dairy farm unabashedly shirtless—nearly naked, in fact, wearing only skimpy white tennis shorts with the top snap undone and a pair of olive-green Wellies “because Mother doesn’t want me getting Lyme’s again.”
His assistant has fixed us iced cappuccinos in tall fountain glasses, which slosh their contents precipitously as we hustle down the mown path from the back porch of his 19th-century farmhouse through fields of tall grass. About a quarter mile in, we come upon a winding creek out of Huckleberry Finn. “Time for me mornin’ swim,” says Lennon, who has only just woken up. It is two p.m.
Lennon, who will turn 70 on October 9, remains enviably slim and has a deep late-summer tan. The longish hair is mostly white and a bit thinned out on top but becomingly so, in the manner of late-period Richard Harris. We stop at a crook in the creek where the waters slow and eddy, and where a stand of willows shades the bank scenically. Hung on a hook nailed to one of the trees is a handmade sign bearing the words “old mclennon’s swimmin hole.” Lennon hands me his cappuccino glass, drops his shorts, and Nestea-plunges backward into the water.
He re-emerges with a splash and a triumphant whoop, pushing his hair out of his face. Then he gently lowers himself back in, lying supine and semi-submerged, his penis bobbing upward, pointed right at me. “Alrighty then,” he says. “First question.”
I’ve driven up to his estate in Delaware County, 160 miles northwest of New York City, for the ostensible purpose of discussing the 40th-anniversary reissue of John Lennon/ Plastic Ono Band and the highly anticipated live shows that will accompany it. Lennon’s publicist, Elliot Mintz, has warned me off any deviations from the topic at hand, but I quickly discover, as so many interviewers have before me, that there’s no distinction between on- and off-topic where Lennon is concerned. He cheerfully waves away my softball inquiry about whether he is excited about the album’s re-release, laughing at the flagrant commercial opportunism of the whole enterprise.
“Look,” he says, “every month is the anniversary of something that the record company can repackage and resell to you in re-digified-nanofied-retromastered form for a luxury fee. ‘Here’s the 47th-anniversary edition of the alternate take of “From Me to You” with John playing lead because George was off having a wee. Pre-order now on iTunes!’ It’s a con. But a brilliant one that keeps me in ruby-spangled codpieces and caviar hosiery.”
And from there, there’s no stopping him: the stream of consciousness flows as freely as it did in the days of In His Own Write, with Lennonesque aperçus on everything from his Club Penguin addiction (“I’ve 16 Puffles in me igloo, man”) to his pre-sleep regimen (“a potent cocktail of vino rosso, Klonopin, and Craig Ferguson”) to his bafflement at the praise heaped upon Bob Dylan’s so-called Never Ending Tour (“It’s rubbish! They’ve taken his guitar away, and he stands over the keyboard like it’s a Zimmer frame. Zimmer-man frame, more like”).
When he hops up from the creek to towel off and reclaim his shorts, I seize the opportunity to get a word in edgewise. “John,” I ask, “are you nervous about performing with Yoko again?”
He suspends his vigorous toweling and fixes me with a serious look. “I’m scared shitless of performing,” he says. “But not about with Yoko. She’s the reason I’m even doing it.”
It’s the participation of Yoko Ono, Lennon’s ex-wife, that has ratcheted up to extraordinary heights the already high expectations for his six-night November engagement at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Together with a reconstituted Plastic Ono Band—featuring Ringo Starr and Klaus Voormann, who played drums and bass on the original album, plus Sean Lennon, John and Yoko’s son; Mark Ronson, the musician and producer; and Cynthia Hopkins, the multi-instrumentalist and performance artist—the former Mr. and Mrs. Lennon will play John Lennon/ Plastic Ono Band from start to finish, plus a second set of what Lennon describes as “happenings, pranks, surprises, and maybe the odd Oasis cover.”
Twenty-seven years ago, you’d have been hard-pressed to envision a time when Ono would ever again speak to Lennon, much less share a stage with him. Their acrimonious 1983 divorce came amidst a ferocious midlife crisis that saw Lennon womanizing with abandon (most notoriously with Beverly D’Angelo, then still married to an Italian duke) and renouncing their lovey-dovey triptych of “heart play” albums—Double Fantasy, Milk and Honey, and Grow Old with Me—as “a diabetic coma.” Lennon further torpedoed his public image later that year when, upon taking his oath of U.S. citizenship, he announced that he would cast his vote in the ’84 presidential election for Ronald Reagan.
“I think we’re at a point where there’s too much government in everyone’s business and too many people looking for handouts,” he told NBC’s Lloyd Dobyns on the news program Monitor. “My father was a merchant seaman who walked out on the family. He couldn’t be bothered with me until I was a rich Beatle, and then he was suddenly coming ’round all the time, hat in hand. That’s where we’re at with America, you know—people knocking on Uncle Sam’s door, hands outstretched, [doleful voice] ‘Help me, man. Gimme, gimme.’ Ronnie, he understands that it’s time to bloody slam the door.”
The public response was apoplectic, with protesters making bonfires of Beatles records (again) and Jann Wenner placing his famous “Dear John” letter on the cover of Rolling Stone, accusing Lennon of “undoing a legacy of peace and music for a few tax breaks” and announcing that thereafter, Lennon—who had been the cover boy of Rolling Stone’s very first issue—would never again see his name in the magazine’s pages.
It wasn’t long before Lennon issued his “What was I thinking?” mea culpa and patched things up with Wenner, but his relationship with Ono took longer to repair. “In a sense I’ve never lived that down,” he says today, chalking up this bumpy period to cocaine abuse and what he calls “Post-Ono Disorder Syndrome, or PODS for short. I was a pod person. I was lost in the 80s, wearing me sleeves rolled up like Don Johnson, trying to be an ’80s man,’ whatever that might be. Letting the times inform me rather than the other way ’round.”
Lennon says he was still in this “fragile ego state” when he succumbed to the inevitable and agreed to play Live Aid with the other three Beatles, closing the Wembley show with a sloppy if ecstatically received “All You Need Is Love.”
“Queen mopped the floor with us, but even so, if we’d left it at that, it wouldn’t have been so terrible,” he says. It was the ignominy of 1987’s Everest, the first album of new Beatles material since Let It Be, that made him realize at last how astray his sense of judgment had gone.
I happen to have a CD of Everest in my work bag, which I take out when we settle into his barn recording studio to talk further. Lennon cringes at the sight of it: “Oh, God, the outfits! We look like we’re wearing bloody screen savers!”
Indeed, it’s hard to get past Everest’s cover image of John, Paul, George, and Ringo in white puffy shirts and purplish, hideously patterned brocade vests, all of the Beatles save McCartney wearing their hair in that acutely late-80s style: long, slicked back, and cinched tightly into ponytails that trail down their backs.
As every Beatles fan knows, the group flew to the Himalayas in a symbolic show of unity. Everest had been the original title for what became Abbey Road, but the name was dropped when the four Beatles, exhausted and at each other’s throats in 1969, were willing to travel no farther than just outside the doors of EMI’s London studio for a photo shoot. Everest’s cover was meant to suggest that in 1987, things had changed: here are the grown-up Beatles, all friends again, standing in front of a majestic peak in puffy shirts!
But in truth, the same old arguments and resentments reared their heads, with Lennon and Harrison chafing under McCartney’s control-freak tendencies, and Starr tiring of playing the jolly mediator. From the distance of 2010, Everest is not as bad as the haters found it back then—the Harrison-written single “Handle with Care” holds up particularly well—but it remains a mystique-puncturing letdown marred by dated Jeff Lynne production (those compressed snare drums!), and its worst moment undoubtedly belongs to Lennon: the well-intentioned but abominable “A Day in the Life ’87,” the aids-themed re-write whose risible opening verse goes, “I read the news today, oh boy/ About a wave of boys who died too soon/ They wove a quilt out of their grief/ It’s someone’s life you rob/ When you don’t sheathe your knob.”
“Well, Elton likes it!” says Lennon, laughing. “I was trying to be relevant, y’know, but here I was, living in the sticks with a bunch of cows.” (In their divorce settlement, Ono kept the apartment at the Dakota in Manhattan, while Lennon kept the upstate farm they had purchased in 1978 to raise Holstein dairy cows. Since 1991, Lennon has also owned a loft on Warren Street in Tribeca.) “I mean, what did I know of what was happening in the streets?” he says. “Prince did the AIDS thing a million times better on Sign o’ the Times, which, I’ve said it before, was the best Beatles album of 1987.”
It took until 2001, with the 9/11 attacks and Harrison on his deathbed, for Lennon and McCartney to reach a lasting peace. Their three-song acoustic set at the Concert for New York City at Madison Square Garden—“In My Life,” “Hey Jude,” and John’s solo hit, “Imagine,” in which they traded verses—was not only a cathartic moment for their fans (and just when their fans most needed it), but a redemptive moment for the Lennon-McCartney friendship.
“We do e-mails now,” Lennon says. “Not about working together again—that train has sailed, in the words of Austin Powers. Just old-man stuff: holiday snaps, ‘Did you see that so-and-so died?,’ the merits and demerits of coloring one’s hair.”
The Lennon-Ono reconciliation happened earlier and out of public view, in the aftermath of the botched Beatles reunion. One late night at the farm, sozzled with Chartreuse, melancholy, and remorse, Lennon picked up the phone, called his old number at the Dakota, and pleaded, “Mother, I want to come home!” Ono assented to have Lennon spend the night, but in a separate bedroom—an arrangement that more or less stands to this day. Though no longer lovers, Ono and Lennon are once again each other’s confidants and frequent companions, with “the spare room” open to John whenever he needs emotional ballast.
“Her and me, it’s not like a divorce in the Tiger Woods sense, we’re more like a French movie,” Lennon says. “We’ll have dinner and bring along whoever I’m seeing, whoever she’s seeing, whoever Sean’s seeing, all very Continental and debauched.” Over the years, Lennon has dated women as disparate as Carly Simon, Grace Jones, Betty Blue star Beatrice Dalle, Padma Lakshmi, and former WCBS-TV news anchor Michele Marsh. He is currently seeing Katja Auermann, a young milker who works at the dairy farm.
But what drew Lennon closer still to Ono—and convinced him to return to live performance—was his second near-death experience. Technically it was not Lyme disease, as Lennon is wont to say, but another tick-borne infection, ehrlichiosis, that befell him in the summer of 2008. It went undiagnosed for a week, Lennon mistakenly believing that he’d gotten food poisoning at a sushi restaurant in nearby Oneonta. By the time his staff at the farm realized it was something more serious, Lennon’s fever had spiked to 106 degrees and he was in a state of delirium.
Had Ono not rushed up to Delaware County with her doctor, who administered antibiotics intravenously . . . “Well, I’d have been compost now, pushing up the daisies,” Lennon says. “It really got me determined to get healthy and get to 70. When you make it this far, you don’t want to fall short of the fucking finish line, y’know? So Mother put us on a macrobiotic diet, which I’ve kept to religiously, apart from the cheeseburgers and alcohol.”
Ono stayed on at the farm for more than a month, nursing Lennon back to health. It was during this period of convalescence that she broached the idea of doing the Plastic Ono Band anniversary shows. Lennon was wary but ultimately trustful of her instincts. After all, it was Ono who brokered the introductions that led to his two small triumphs of the last decade: his return to movie acting in Jim Jarmusch’s Fish Tanque (2003), in which he affectingly played against type as the repressed English-expat owner of an aquarium store in Chicago’s Bulgarian-heavy Albany Park neighborhood; and Coarse Salt, the noise-rock collaboration with Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo that Pitchfork deemed the fourth-best album of 2007.
John Lennon/ Plastic Ono Band was recorded when Lennon and Ono were in the throes of primal-therapy treatment with the California psychologist Arthur Janov. It’s bookended by two songs, “Mother” and “My Mummy’s Dead,” that find Lennon laying bare his pain and the feelings of abandonment engendered by his mother’s early death. As such, it’s a peculiar album to build a series of feel-good reunion shows around.
“It is, yeah,” Lennon says. “And we’ll be dealing with that. That’s why Yoko’s brought in the conceptual-artist people, to weird it up. I’ll be emerging from a giant birth canal at the top of the show and tumbling forth into the orchestra seats in a sticky placental coating.”
It takes me a moment, and the sight of him tittering at my startled look, to realize that he is kidding.
“No, some of it will be [making air quotes] ‘performance,’ and some of it will be balls-out Johnny Rocker,” he says. “Sean and Mark are playing guitar, no synths or sequencers or any of that jiggery-pokery. It’s going to be the funnest, most rockingest primal-therapy-rock-’n’-roll-cynical-cash-in show you’ve ever mortgaged your house for.”
It’s still hot at 6:45 p.m., but the sun is setting and Lennon feels like going to the local dive bar. He puts on jeans and a T-shirt that says, “FU BP,” with the oil company’s logo fading from bright green and yellow to sludgy brown. Auermann joins us: a pneumatic German blonde from Baden-Baden in short cutoffs, hired as summer help and retained for non-agricultural purposes.
She and Lennon squeeze into one side of a dark booth illuminated faintly by a neon Genessee Beer sign. I ask the server, a pretty local girl who identifies herself as Jenny, what beers they have on tap. Cheerfully, she responds, “Bud, Bud Light, Genny, Genny Light, Genny Ice, Genny Cream.”
“I’d like some of Jenny’s cream,” Lennon says. Auermann elbows him. He gooses her.
There’s only time for one beer before I must hit the road. I ask Lennon, in parting, how it feels to be turning 70.
“Like turning seven!” he says brightly. “I honestly don’t feel much different from then. The same kid who wonders if he’s touched with genius or just touched, who thinks, ‘No one, I think, is in my tree.’ But also amazed that I’ve made it this far. George didn’t. Linda, y’know, didn’t. I guess it just wasn’t my time two years ago, and thank Whoever He May Be up there for that. Oh, it would have been awful! There would have been such a great carrying on—vigils in Central Park and Liverpool, crusties in army jackets outside Yoko’s window singing ‘Strawberry Fields.’ Can you imagine how horrible that would be?”