PAGE TUNER: The Playboy Interviews with John Lennon & Yoko Ono

I’ve spent the last month devouring music books. One of my recent finds was an old, weather-beaten original copy of “The Playboy Interviews with John Lennon & Yoko Ono” (a limited pressing, later republished as All We Are Saying: The Last Major Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono). I actually had read it years ago, but as I’ve aged, so have my views of John. He’s arguably the most influential musician of all time; another Beatles book I have read described him as “Saint John, Patron Saint of Angry Young Rockers”, which I think accurately summarizes his legacy in popular culture.John Lennon was obviously much more than this pithy appellation, and over the years his personal philosophies and aesthetic ideas evolved with speed, often contradicting his earlier incarnations. The Playboy interviews underscore this rapid and tangential evolution. They paint a portrait of of a sensitive, intelligent, intuitive man who struggles to reconcile his ethics with life and his art.

John and Yoko met with Playboy journalist David Sheff several times over three weeks during the run-up to the release of “Double Fantasy”, and the conversations were recorded for the original 20,000 word piece in Playboy. Sheff repeatedly asserts that his was the Lennon’s final interview, a claim made by other journos as well, but it is undoubtedly the most substantial interview done with the couple in the years immediately before John’s death. Indeed, only days after the original article appeared in print, John Lennon was shot and killed. So it’s really tempting to read too much into John’s uncertain comments about his own future. However, it is nonetheless a significant interview. David Sheff grills Lennon at length about his politics, his aesthetics, his family, and his songwriting. Lennon and Sheff had intended a “song-by-song” analysis of all of his work, both with the Beatles and as a solo artist, and they actually do get through probably a fifth of Lennon’s recorded output. But the “analysis” doesn’t go anywhere. John’s memories about his songs are either self-lacerating put-downs (“rubbish”, he says of “Strawberry Fields”), denials of authorship, mocking jabs at his own lack of inspiration, or simple admissions of who wrote the song (“mine” or “Paul’s”). But that’s really a very small section of the book. The remainder is free-floating conversations about politics and philosophy, viewed through the lens of the most famous man in the world.  When I read the book the first time, I was a lot younger and mostly interested in revelations about his songs (of which I found none). With the benefit of age, I re-read the interviews, directing my critical eye to Lennon’s sociopolitical views. Lennon is one of my biggest musical idols, and so I couldn’t resist reading his “final testatment”, as the book cover so religiously describes the conversations.

Honestly, my first (second) reaction was that John Lennon was completely full of shit. He talks at great length about the value of non-attachment, about liberating the mind from the petty contrivances of this world, all while sitting in his multi-million dollar fortress inside the impenetrable walls of the Dakota (which is known as a home to exceedingly rich artists). He talks about the perils of mass-media and how important it was for him to get away from the public eye, while discussing intimate details of his private life and relationships with a journalist from the crassly populist magazine Playboy. He proudly declares himself liberated from the concept of possession, and Sheff points out that he’s one of the richest men in the world. Lennon’s defense is essentially to claim that he controls his wealth, not the other way around, so that, in a sense, he is liberated from the great millstone of his fame of fortune. A few minutes later, he admits that he has no idea about many of the things into which he’s invested his fortune. He speaks at length about his concepts of peace, and his view that any system of control or government is inherently repressive, but he fails to provide any viable alternative to existing societal structures. Yoko takes over the conversation at these points, helping John to stitch together tenuous arguments that probably only make sense from his point of view.

There’s also a borderline uncomfortable amount of discussion about gender politics and the male/female human dynamic. His and Yoko’s view is simple: men are stupid and destructive, and women are the fountain of life, love, and reason. They talk about how much easier life would be if the girls were in charge of the world. John seems to relish pointing out the flaws in his own “male” identity, while nearly deifying Yoko and the rest of womankind. Although I generally agree with the assumption that men are by default responsible for most of the world’s ills, it’s far too reductive and general to be a useful concept. It just seems like self-flagellation for the misogynist bastard that John admittedly was at an earlier stage in his life.

Yoko does attempt to moderate his opinions somewhat, and she does contribute a fair amount to the discussions. But once again, I found myself preoccupied with considering the source: Yoko Ono was born to a wealthy, aristocratic family, went to private schools, and spent her adult life making conceptual art. Hers was surely a privileged life if there ever was one. Her ideas about love and peace are compelling, but they carry less force when you consider her background.

None of this takes away from the man’s greatness. He is still the one and only John Lennon, Rock Saint. But what I found so interesting was the difference in myself that was revealed by reading these interviews for a second time. As a younger person, I accepted his contradictory and over-generalized worldview. Now, as full-blooded skeptic (as Lennon himself once was), I was incapable of accepting his rich man’s perspective at face value. I see now that his ideas are like an entry-level course in thought: the concepts are only really useful to further your own analysis and encourage healthy discourse. They aren’t meant as the be-all, end-all of contemporary philosophy. But they do reveal that John was a man who had to intellectualize and understand his world. He wasn’t content to simply bask in his success (although he did take advantage of it, certainly); he had to ask difficult questions, mostly of himself, in order to understand his own life. And when someone has lived a life as varied and crazily successful as John Lennon, the very first legitimate rock star, you can understand how their worldview might be a little disconnected from day to day reality. John admits that he doesn’t have all the answers, but he does encourage his audience to find their own. And this is actually a fitting epitaph for John Lennon, the sharp-tongued son-of-a-bitch who wrote the prettiest, most indelible pop melodies you’ve ever heard. He was a man of peace who spoke and thought like a man at war. He’ll always be a fascinating tangle of contradictions: that was the “real’ John Lennon.

Read an excerpt from the Playboy interviews here.

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