An interview by Steve Turner 1971
We came together to talk about Grapefruit, Yoko’s book of poems, and ended up talking about Jesus. Somewhere in between, we mentioned the Beatles. John and Yoko are currently facing the plight of ‘super-stardom’. Within two weeks they had become the third set of artists I had met who were complaining of being sold as people rather then for their art or for their music. James Taylor was the first, complaining of being used only as a headline or a photograph to sell more newspapers, and Pete Townsend was equally determined that “he won’t get fooled again” into being a “superstar”.
“Being misunderstood”, John explained, “is being treated as if I’d won the pools and married an Hawaiian dancer. In any other country we’re treated with respect as artists, which we are. If I hadn’t bought a house in Ascot I’d leave because I’m sick of it. It’s only because it’s such a nice house that I’m staying. I’m a fantastic patriot for Britain. Ask Yoko – I never stop selling it! But she finds it hard to love England when they never stop shitting on her.”
Yoko feels very much the same way and is waiting rather apprehensively for the response to the paperback edition of Grapefruit. She’s been feeling misunderstood for the past fifteen years and has come to the conclusion that she must be the supreme optimist to ever carry on. “I just get this feeling that it’s going to be the same thing again, but I have to go on knocking on the door.”
John says: “An artist is not usually respected in his own village, so he has to go to the next town. It’s a bit of that with us really. I think it’s also like Dylan Thomas and Brendan Behan – they both died of drink. Artists always die of drugs, drink and all that. Like Jimi and Janis -it’s just that they’re so misunderstood and tortured that they kill themselves. I refuse to do that. I’ve found the way out. You are here, live for the day, minute by minute. That’s the essential way.”
“You are here”, meaning that this is all we can know of life’s purpose, is the pervading message behind the art of both John and Yoko, The message is short but conclusive. In his song God, John lists fifteen people and philosophies that he no longer believes in and claims that he has now arrived at a position where he only believes in, “Yoko and me/that’s reality”. When I asked him what he considered reality to be, he answered, “Reality is living, breathing, eating and dying”. So, outside of the undeniable fact of our own existence they claim that there is no need for questions or answers. As far as any ultimate reason, purpose or meaning to this life is concerned, John states, “There isn’t an end product to life or a reason for it, it just is, It’s not a game, though,” he assured me, “it’s very serious.”
“You are here”, is the statement they offer, and “what you can do while you are here” seems to be the message behind Yoko’s poetry. They all take the form of a simple instruction, often of a single line and are divided into sections titled Painting, Event, Dance, Film, Object etc. When life itself has no meaning, there is no reason why the activities we perform during that life should have any ultimate meaning either. This would seem to be the philosophy behind the poem Line Piece, which says “Draw a line/Erase a line” or Map Piece – “Draw a map to get lost”. Probably the best poem in this line, once you have an understanding of the underlying philosophy, is the one line ‘Lighting Piece‘. Here it is important to see both the meaninglessness inherent and the allegory between the match and our lives. The poem says simply “Light a match and watch till it goes out” Without purpose we seem to have been brought down to the level of a matchstick, and our lives are as a flame which burns awhile and then extinguishes. The matchstick is then discarded.
Yoko of course, is no newcomer to the art world having been associated with such avant-garde artists and musicians as Andy Warhol and John Cage. Warhol has explained his own art as being, “to stop you thinking about things”. Francis Bacon, another contemporary artist who shares the same philosophy, has said, “Man now realises that he is an accident, a completely futile being and that he can only attempt to beguile himself for a time. Art has become a game by which man distracts himself.”
In these cases, art has lost its power of Man communicating ideas and emotions to Man. It merely becomes a game to amuse ourselves with while in death’s absurd waiting rooms. I feel that it is absolutely necessary to understand the thoughts of John and Yoko before their art becomes understandable.
“People seem to be scared of being put on”, says John, commenting on a recent review of Grapefruit.”I don’t understand people who say they don’t understand it because even a seven year old can understand it,”says Yoko. I commented that it’s not the how of the instructions that were misunderstood but the why? Yoko explained: “You see, we live and we die. In between that we eat and sleep and walk around – but that’s not enough for us. We have to act out our madness in order to be sane.”
I asked John whether he’d been influenced a lot by Yoko’s ideas. “Yeah, it’s great, It’s amazing that we think so alike coming from different ends of the earth. She’s come from a very upper class scene, going to school with the prince and all that shit, and I’m from wherever! It just shows that colour, class and creed don’t come in the way of communication. You don’t even have to speak the same language. We made a calendar with some Grapefruit quotes on and some from my books. The ideas behind it were quite similar. Yoko was a bit further out than me when we met – and I was pretty far out, you know – but she really opened my head up with all her work.”
I wondered whether he found a great difference between the poetry that he puts into his songs and the poetry that Yoko writes. “The last album I made was very much the same as Yoko’s poetry, There weren’t many words to it. It was pretty simple and so is the one I’ve just made which is called Imagine. We work well together in music too, except when I’m doing completely straight rock. But things like Revolution Number 9 would make a good background for her voice.” John reminded me that his meeting with Yoko hadn’t been the factor that made him write his songs of personal statement. He was writing the same kind of song back in his days as a Beatle, but again he was famed for just ‘being a Beatle’ rather than for the content of his work. “Help was a personal statement, In My Life was a personal statement and so was I’m A Loser. I was always on that kick but they were just considered to be ‘pop’ songs at that time. That’s why I gave it up. It was all Beatles.”
Halfway through our interview, John went out of the room for a few minutes and returned with a magazine which had been sent into the Apple offices for him, the cover contained his picture and the inscription ‘Dear John’, indicating an open letter to him which was inside. “You ought to see this, This is a message to me from the Jesus people. This is the Jesus freaks in America.” He then sat down again and began reading aloud:
“Dear John, I’ve been through a lot of trips with you. When I was down I put your records on and you’d bring me back to life. We’ve been up mountains together and I know you know where it’s at. But the main reason I’m writing to you is to tell you of a friend I met last June. He said that he is the way, the truth and the life. I believed him and gave my life to him. I can see now how he can boast such a claim. Since then I’ve heard that you don’t believe in him, but you can see in your eyes that you need him. Come on home Johnny, Love a friend.”
“I think they’ve got a damn cheek, I think they’re madmen. They need looking after.” I reminded him that this same suggestion had often been levelled at himself and Yoko. “That’s my opinion you know, You asked me what I thought and I think they’re crackpots.”
As our earlier conversation had been on the topic of prejudice and how to remove it from society, I asked John whether he wasn’t himself guilty of prejudice here. “I don’t think it’s a prejudice I just think it’s a lot of bullshit, I think it’s the biggest joke on earth that everyone’s talking about some imaginary thing in the sky that’s going to save you and talking about life after death which nobody has ever proved or shown to be feasible. Why should we follow Jesus? I’ll follow Yoko, I’ll follow myself.” John’s opinion of the Jesus Freak cult, is that they are following in the same tradition that he and the rest of the Beatles followed when they enlisted with the Maharishi. “It’s the same as I did when I went looking for gurus, It’s because you’re looking for the answer which everybody is supposedly looking for. You’re looking for some kind of super-daddy. The reason for this is because we’re never given enough love and touch as children.”
On another subject John very much sympathised with the attitude that Spike Milligan had presented when he ended his TV documentary with the question of whether it was he that was insane or the man who drills holes in pieces of wood for fifty years. “That is complete insanity….Don’t you see that the society creates insane people to do their insane work, so that they can wank each other off on fucking yachts. That’s what it’s all about. And everybody’s screwing holes in and going to school and going to work so that fifty people in Britain can fuck about on yachts.”
After these comments, and as a leg-pull, I suggested to John that he ought to have his very own political TV show. Taking it rather more seriously than I had intended, he stated With firmness, “I am a revolutionary artist, not a politician”. At least it gave me an extra understanding of what John Lennon thought about John Lennon rather than what critic and journalist number 5739 thought about John Lennon. It is precisely this assertion that he is an artist, which is the difference between Beatle John and the post-dream John, (“The dream is over… Yesterday I was the walrus/but now I’m John”).
Song writing is now just one of his arts as he dabbles further into the field of film, sculpture and happening. Yoko is certainly the person who harnessed and directed the Lennon potential but his talent has been evident for years. His anti-organised religion attitude was evident from his early books and as he himself said, the personal songs go back as early as I’m A Loser on the Beatles For Sale album. Previous to meeting Yoko he seemed to be a philosopher in search of a philosophy and an artist in search of something to say. Now with Yoko, he sings the songs explaining the philosophy which has made Yoko’s poetry a possible and indeed valid art form.
John and Yoko are two very warming people to be with. They both speak as if draining knowledge from the same mind, feeding each other with ideas. John hasn’t lost the humour which was enjoyed so much in the Beatle days and he pounces on any opportunity to make a crack. When you see a copy of Grapefruit, only laugh at it if you feel that what you are doing that day has more meaning to it than Yoko’s instructions. When you get John’s albums, use them as reference works to gain an understanding of his wife’s poems. And then next time someone tells you that John and Yoko are a couple of crackpots who could do with two years in the army, tell them that they’re a couple of misinterpreted but nevertheless brilliant artists who are honest to their beliefs, and tell them that it was I who said so.