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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 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 said, 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 Coke. 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.
I was in New York to spend three days with John and Yoko while they finished Double Fantasy, John's first collection of new material since the mostly forgettable Walls and Bridges six years earlier. He 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 twenty-five £ds slimmer than the last time I'd seen him. "It's Mother's macrobiotic diet," he said later, and 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. 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.
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 may have declared "I don't believe in Beatles" in "God" on his 1970 album, Plastic Ono Band, but it took the five-year sabbatical that followed the "lost weekend" for him to break away from the suffocating pressures of being an ex-Beatle, including the need to mirror in his music and in his life the image of the witty, sarcastic John. During his time away, he learned that there was personal joy and fulfillment away from the rock 'n' roll merry-go- round. For Double Fantasy, he even wrote a tender song about his newfound outlook and freedom, "Watching the Wheels."
On that November night, the studio atmosphere was so relaxed that John invited me to contribute to the album's sound effects. Yoko and I took turns dropping coins in a tin bowl to duplicate the sound of someone giving change to a beggar. We had to do it several times before the noise level was just right. For most of the evening, I just watched John and Yoko at work--and took advantage of breaks to ask them questions. The studio tape must have been running much of the time, because years later a bootleg of that interview surfaced in Japan.
One thing troubled me during the all-night recording sessions: the way John would slip from time to time into an adjoining lounge. The first thing that came to mind was drugs, because I was so used to seeing musicians pass around bowls of cocaine with the casualness of M&Ms. John had had drug problems earlier in his life, and I feared he had relapsed--despite all his talk about feeling healthier than ever. Maybe the pressure of being back in the studio was greater than he was letting on. At one point, I happened into the lounge and saw John at the far end of the narrow room. He was reaching for something on a cabinet shelf, and my first instinct was to go back into the studio so I wouldn't violate his privacy. But he spotted me and called me over, putting his finger up to his lips in a signal to be quiet. When I was next to him, he reached into the cabinet again and pulled out something wrapped in a towel.
"Want some?" he asked. "Just don't tell Mother," he said with a conspiratorial look. "She doesn't want me doing this anymore."
As he opened the towel, I had to laugh.
John Lennon's private stash turned out to be a giant-size Hershey bar. He broke off a chunk for me and one for himself. Holding his piece in a toast, John smiled and said, "Good to see you again."
Years later, I told the chocolate-bar story to Bono, and he loved it--the idea of a Beatle, someone who had been exposed to every possible temptation, delighting in something as simple as a candy bar. It was a little after midnight and Bono and I were the last customers in a restaurant in the Clarence Hotel in Dublin. Much had changed since early in the band's career, when I had sat with Bono on the steps of the same grand old hotel as he told me about his dreams for U2. Now, he and the Edge, his bandmate, owned the Clarence. I'd been interviewing him for a couple of hours about U2's latest album, but now the tape recorder was off and Bono was asking the questions. He liked hearing stories about some of his favorite rock stars, especially John, Elvis, and Bob Dylan.
I've known Bono ever since U2 first came to America in the early 1980s, and I always looked forward to these postinterview chats. I was impressed early on by his belief in the power of rock 'n' roll to elevate, which I felt was the music's greatest quality. But I also came to appreciate his hunger for stories about the personal sides of his rock 'n' roll heroes. Originally, I thought it was just the fan in him asking the questions, but as U2 became more successful, I realized that it was reassuring for Bono to hear about the human qualities of his heroes. So many great artists have told me how hard it is to balance all the acclaim and attention against their private doubts, insecurities, and needs.
Over time, I began to see in Bono many of the qualities of his heroes, especially John. He and Bono would have been great mates. John would have been delighted by Bono's love of Elvis, but, more importantly, by his ability to campaign for his social beliefs. Like John, Bono absolutely believes that social change is possible, not just a utopian dream. While John chiefly believed in singing about it, Bono feels a responsibility to use his fame to take his case directly to world leaders in commerce and politics. In turn, Bono is inspired as a songwriter by observing firsthand the impact that rock 'n' roll has in motivating those world figures. "I see it in everyone I meet, whether it's Bill Clinton or Bill Gates," he told me. "Music ... the music of rock 'n' roll has shaped their social values. This music is a guidepost for the modern world."
Bono and I kept at it for another two hours--talking about the time I made out a set list for Dylan in Israel; when I visited Leonard Cohen, another of his favorites, at a Zen colony near Los Angeles; and all the times I saw Elvis in Las Vegas. I had told him some of these stories before, but he delighted in listening to them again. Finally, I begged off. I had to be up at 7:00 the next morning to catch a plane for London. On the flight home, I thought about what Bono had said about music changing people's attitudes and values, and I realized how much I, too, had been affected by all the years of listening to this revolutionary sound.
I've always felt that one of the main challenges for a rock critic is to focus on those musicians who contribute to expanding that art form. In searching for those artists, I frequently ended up writing about false promises: artists who ran out of ideas, self-destructed, or compromised their music in hopes of wider sales. But I was also fortunate enough to connect with the most important artists of the rock era.
I came to appreciate the tremendous toll that rock can take on an artist's personal life, how there is often far more drama offstage than on. In the end, all it takes to be a star is luck and a commercial sound, which explains why we have so many mediocre hit makers. To be a true artist, you need enormous talent, fierce ambition, an original vision, and an unyielding toughness. I saw some artists triumph because they were tough and others die because they weren't tough enough.
I've also spoken to thousands of fans about what they want from music. Some are just after entertainment, others respond to unchecked anger and rebellion, still others like a band because their friends do, and there are those who value artists with the insight and craft to uplift and inspire us. No single rock 'n' roll diet works for everyone. We all have different musical DNA, and we all follow different musical paths. Yet there is a unifying quality about rock 'n' roll that helps instill confidence and hope in millions of fans at times in their lives when little else makes sense.
What linked Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash and Ray Charles, the Beatles and Bob Dylan was the old-fashioned American notion that each individual can make a difference, whether you are a truck driver from Memphis or a blind piano player from southwest Georgia. Rock 'n' roll is the promise of a better day, and the best artists spread that message with an almost missionary zeal. I've always believed in that liberating message, which is probably why I respond most to artists who fight to keep the promise alive.