Nina Myskow, The Times
October 9 2010 12:01AM
Paul McCartney is probably the least likely candidate to have played Cupid to Yoko Ono and John Lennon. In an interview to mark what would have been Lennon’s 70th birthday today, Yoko reveals that McCartney took a leading role in bringing the couple back together after what her errant husband called his “lost weekend” in Los Angeles.
It was in fact an 18-month separation, which ended only after they met backstage at an Elton John concert in New York in 1974. The received rock wisdom is that it was Elton who brought about the reunion. However, in a BBC Radio 6 interview to be broadcast tomorrow, Yoko tells me that it was Paul who stepped in.
“Paul and Linda visited me earlier in the year in New York, and Paul told me he was going to see John in LA,” she says. “He asked what it would take for me to go back to John, and I said, ‘Well, maybe if he courted me’.”
And in a phone call from Los Angeles this week, where she was joined on stage by Lady Gaga during a Plastic Ono Band concert for her late husband, she expanded on this: “I want the world to know that it was a very touching thing that he did for John. He’d heard the rumours that John was in a bad way, in a rough situation, and he was genuinely concerned about his old partner. I was getting calls from big-time music executives who were telling me very rudely that I should pick John up, take him back.
“There was talk that he could be suicidal, although I knew — because John and I were talking almost every day — that things weren’t that bad, and that he wasn’t. Their concern was not out of kindness. They wanted to make sure that one day the Beatles would get back together, and he was the boy they needed. But Paul and Linda were genuinely worried for him, and it was so sweet that he wanted to save John.
“I want people to know how kind and sensitive he was to him. Sure they were two macho, very talented guys, who had strong opinions, arguments, like most brothers. But when it came to the crux of the matter, when Paul thought John was in dire straits, he helped. Even though John was not even asking for help — John, Paul, all of them were too proud to ask anything — he helped. John often said he didn’t understand why Paul did this for us, but he did.”
When Paul and Linda visited Yoko at home, Yoko says, “the whole building was in a kind of flurry because it was Paul coming, it was the first time he had visited. And we had a talk in the kitchen, which went on so long it started getting dark. I had a strange kind of fridge, one that had a glass door so you could see inside, the kind you see in a professional kitchen, and that was the only light by then.
“Paul said they were going to go to LA, and just when they were leaving, the door was open already, and he just did a kind of double-take, and came back and said, ‘By the way, what will make you come back to John?’ John told me later he’d said, ‘You want to know how to get Yoko back?’ Obviously that’s not just how we came back, because we are two individuals who had our own feelings, and it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, if Paul says . . .’ But the fact that John immediately tried to court me, and came back to New York, had some meaning.”
Today Lennon would have been 70, and Yoko will be in Iceland to light the Imagine Peace Tower on Videy Island in Reykjavik bay. A vast beam of light that shoots upwards to space, it is illuminated by her every year on his birthday, and remains lit until December 8, the anniversary of his murder. This year it will be 30 years since he was shot dead outside the Dakota building.
Yoko is very much the keeper of the flame, but she says that it was the fans who inspired the celebrations: “I think it’s good to celebrate because with his words and music and statements, he is still here, still helping people.”
Did he like to celebrate his birthday? “No! He loved to celebrate my birthday and [their son] Sean’s birthday, but that was about it. He didn’t ever want to have a big party, so I’d prepare cake for him and it would be a quiet, private party of me and Sean and him, and we’d sing Happy Birthday.
“The last birthday, he told me, ‘I can’t quite believe I’m going to be 40’. I don’t think he liked that part.” Would he have hated being 70? “I don’t think he would have thought that way — time is created by people. I don’t feel that I’m 77. And I don’t think of him as 70. He was always that sort of strutting around, very, very energetic guy, and to me he’s still like that.”
How good was he at taking care of himself, how healthy was he? “Not bad,” she says. “In the early days in the Sixties, we all were a little reckless, as you know. Because of that, we went into a period of just cleaning, cleaning. We once did a 40-day juice diet, which was really good. Nothing but juice. It was a very long time and sometimes you felt you just wanted to quit. But when you do it with somebody else, if you’re not alone, it’s easier.”
What would he be like at 70, I wonder? “I think he would look like somebody who is very energetic and very wise and enjoying life. And I think he would have aged well, he had a good bone structure.”
She adds that he would have got into computers in a big way. “He was always jumping on new ways of expressing himself, and I’m sure he would have done everything he could with the computer — art as well as music. And he would have made statements that went around the world right away. He would have loved that.
“What I do know is that he would have been very, very angry that violence and war are still going on. It’s such a waste of energy, and children still being maimed, just terrible. He would definitely still be an activist.”
To mark the anniversary year there is a massive re-issue of Lennon material, which Yoko went into the studio to re-master. “Of course, I’ve been listening to those songs for 30, 40 years and more,” she says.
“But a strange thing happened. I thought it was going to be just business, but when I started to listen I became so emotional, because I realised again how great he was as a singer, and his words — almost like the Shakespeare of his age. I wanted to say, ‘John, you’re so good’, and he wasn’t there. I felt really bad.”
The first time she went into the studio after his death to put together Milk and Honey, an album of songs they recorded, and she heard John’s voice on the tape saying, ‘Let’s get going’, she fainted. “I had to lie down on the couch there, and tell myself I had to do it. From that moment I had to start to deal with it and learn to be just a professional person who listens to the music. This time was very different.”
The hardest song for her to listen to is I’m Losing You, written when they were separated. “I thought it was a great song when I first heard it, but underneath I was feeling terribly guilty and I was choking up.” It was the same guilt she felt when she saw him join Elton John on stage at Madison Square Gardens in November 1974, the year they were apart.
“When John came out it was like thunder. The floor was just bouncing, the love for him, but he was a different kind of guy, he was bowing a little bit. The John I remembered was always the Working Class Hero, a macho rocker who wouldn’t bow. I thought, ‘Did I do this to him? That he’s feeling so insecure that he’s bowing?’
“I started to cry and cried from beginning to end when he was singing. I couldn’t help it, the tears were just pouring out.”
She had sent a gardenia to both Elton and John, so that there would be no misunderstanding that John’s was in any way special. But when she went backstage, she saw he was wearing the flower. “I looked at him, he looked at me and I thought, ‘Ah, it’s starting again’. It was a very emotional moment. I had thought it was too hard. Do you know what it’s like to have the whole world hate you?
“The whole world didn’t like the fact that we were married, it was so difficult. I saw his popularity waning, bad for a professional musician, and I felt very responsible. I had been thinking, ‘Let’s forget this. He can have a good life; I can have a good life. We’re still young, this is crazy to go through this’. But when I saw him backstage, I thought, ‘Probably we just can’t help it’.”
He did indeed court her, taking her to a Man Ray exhibition and a film screening, among other things. “He was really trying to make it work,” she says. When she finally opened the door of the Dakota building to him in January, she didn’t yet know that she was pregnant with Sean.
The John who came home was a changed man. Yoko laughs. “I was walking with Peggy Simon, Paul Simon’s ex-wife, and we saw a sign on a second floor that said ‘Psychics’. So we decided to check it out. The psychic said to me, ‘You’ll meet a man who is exactly like your husband, but much more gentle and kind and loving. He’s as famous as your husband’. I thought he must be crazy and I was laughing with Peggy afterwards, because if he was as famous as my husband I would already know him. But it was John who came back. Different. He was extremely gentle, extremely concerned, and kind and sensitive. Of course he was always a sensitive guy, but there was the macho side there. This time he really felt that to keep the relationship, you don’t become too macho.”
Sean was born in October — on John’s birthday, two weeks late. John became a househusband. “Those people who resented our relationship said that was just PR. John said, ‘I’m baking the bread every day, I’m making this effort, you know’. It was good bread, too. All the Studio One workers would sit in the kitchen waiting for it, and the minute he made it, it just went like that. John would say, ‘I’m sweating making it, they’re enjoying it’.”
Today Sean has a music career of his own, but he is also the music director of the Plastic Ono Band, who will play a special concert tonight in Reykjavik. Last weekend he presided over their concert in LA. “Lady Gaga was amazing,” Yoko says. “She’s not just a charismatic phenomenon, she can do anything, even the blues. She has a great voice.
“At one point I was lying down on the piano — which I did 50 years ago — and I found she was lying down right next to me. So we kind of rolled around on the piano together. It was amazing — she’s a very powerful woman.”
Yoko is anxious to dispel newspaper speculation that Sean received a far greater sum of money from John’s estate than his half-brother, Julian. “It was said that Sean got 350 million and Julian only got 20 million,” she says. “In fact Julian got exactly the same amount and conditions as Sean. That was my decision, because I thought it would better for their relationship, as brothers.
“What I don’t like about it is that people will think, ‘Oh, she’s being unfair to Julian’, and I’ve never had any ill-feeling towards Julian and he knows it.”
Yoko and Sean were photographed together recently with Julian and his mother, Cynthia, in New York at the premiere of Nowhere Boy, Sam Taylor-Wood’s film about John’s early days. “When Sean did a concert tour, Julian just appeared on the tour bus and Sean loved that. Whenever Julian does something in the States we always go and say hello.”
The events in Iceland mark the beginning of the Lennon anniversary celebrations and will culminate with a concert on December 8, the anniversary of his death, in Japan. The Dream Power Concert will have Japanese artists singing Lennon songs. “It’s our tenth year now and all the money goes to an organisation that creates schools in Africa, Asia and South America.”
In all of this, Yoko feels that John is guiding her. “For instance, when I go to Liverpool, I feel he is guiding me through the streets, saying, ‘Look at this, look at that’.”
I ask if she feels she will meet him again one day, and she says, “I feel he’s with me, anyway, still around me. Definitely. I hope he approves of what I do.
“Sometimes when I think of these things I’m doing, I think, ‘How did I do that? That’s pretty good’. And then I realise, ‘It’s probably John’s idea’.”