Continuing our week-long celebrations commemorating John Lennon's 75th birthday, here Yoko Ono recalls their relationship
Shortly after their reconciliation, Yoko discovered that she was expecting a baby after three miscarriages – the first commemorated on Life With The Lions.
Asked about her pregnancy, Yoko tells Uncut: “I didn’t know what to do, really. My initial instinct was to leave it to John. We came back together after a big separation so with the pregnancy – I would have gone either way. It may be a horrible thing to say. I just wanted to make sure that John was ready for it.”
And was he?
“Oh – ‘Of course we’re going to have it!’ He was totally thrilled.”
At the age of 42, Yoko gave birth to Sean Taro Ono Lennon on October 9 – John’s birthday. The proud father declared, “I feel higher than the Empire State Building,” and enlisted Elton John as godfather.
Then they retreated behind the Gothic façade of the Dakota building for the best part of five years. There were occasional public appearances – and a storm of publicity on July 27, 1976 when John finally won his years-long immigration battle by receiving his Green Card (which was actually blue).
He enthused: “The main thing is that I can travel now. Until today, my attorney wouldn’t even let me go to Hawaii for a vacation in case I couldn’t get back. Whenever I flew to Los Angeles, I was paranoid in case the plane was diverted to Toronto on the way… If I had lived 2,000 years ago, I would have wanted to live in Rome. New York is the Rome of today. Now I’m going home to crack open a tea-bag and start looking at some travel catalogues.”
John and Yoko went to an ice-cream parlour. In their routine lives, no fanfare accompanied their morning strolls to La Café Fortuna to drink coffee and smoke, or their visits to the shops and restaurants of Manhattan. They had stepped out of the limelight, although even this would be controversial due to their reversal of traditional roles, with John rearing Sean while Yoko ran their business from the ground-floor office, Studio One.
This was John’s “house-husband” period. The Lennons no longer wanted to entrust their financial affairs to an outsider. Yoko had developed a shrewd business acumen and negotiating skill from sitting in on any number of high-powered Beatles meetings, and John therefore opted to take on the daily domestic responsibilities, nurturing and photographing Sean, baking bread and cooking the family meals.
Lennon told Andy Peebles: “Somebody has to take care of business… and there’s no way I can do it. I don’t have that talent. So she had to do it. She has the talent to do it. And so I had to contribute something… so what am I supposed to do? So I had the sort of early relationship with Sean… and it was fantastic… I looked on [my role] as a discipline, an absolute discipline… Through that I got into a whole other new world…”
He also said: “It was quite an experience, and I appreciated what women have done for me all my life. I’d never even thought about it.”
Paul McCartney has confirmed that in phonecalls with Lennon, they would talk about children and bread-making – and John sent photographs of his first loaf to his friends.
Some authors have contradicted the Lennons’ account of this period, including Frederic Seaman, the assistant who repaid his employers by stealing John’s diaries immediately after he died. (The diaries have since been returned to Yoko and locked away.) In these portrayals, John was said to be lazing in bed, stoned and idly flicking through the TV channels while servants catered to his every whim. Yoko was painted, once again, as a “Dragon Lady”, driven by dollars, glacially indifferent to her husband and son.
She was, it was alleged, more interested in the dairy cows and the properties she had bought than in the rhythm of life going on above her in the top floor of the Dakota.
The woman who has safeguarded the Lennon fortune has also been portrayed as something of a flake, making crucial business decisions at the turn of a card or an astrological prediction. And she’s also been accused of inventing “directional” advice, where she would send a naïve John Lennon off on journeys of specific lengths and in “pre-ordained” directions for his own well-being. Memorably, he manned a boat to Bermuda over stormy seas in June 1980, to be joined by Sean and Frederic Seaman after a few days.
What do you say about the allegations that John spent five years in bed, flipping the remote control and smoking reefers?
Yoko: “He wasn’t like that. Of course he was unwinding, just as all The Beatles, I’m sure, they were unwinding from their big world trip. It was a magical but exhausting thing that they went through, and the world benefited. It’s very hard for them to create a new life after that, I’m sure. He was doing the same thing.”
How about the allegations that you spontaneously advised him to travel here and there, just to get him out of the Dakota?
“You see, since John and I became a partnership – we started to have a partnership instead of him being partners with the other three – the responsibility was dropped in my lap to make his life easier and enjoyable, in a way. When he says he wants to do this or that, I would just check the way it could be done.
“He always wanted to sail, like most Englishmen do, I understand. I said, ‘Well, you always wanted to do it – you should.’ Then I would check.”
That was the famous trip.
“He went to Bermuda from Long Island.”
So you didn’t just wake up in the morning and decide to send him 7,000 miles north-east or whatever?
“[Graciously] No. He would not have gone along with that. The world forgets the fact that he was a very strong-willed person. He was wise enough to maybe take my advice on how to travel – but he wanted to travel.”
John was devoted to Sean. And he had started seeing Julian again. Having missed most of Julian’s first years during Beatlemania, and having seen little of him since the divorce from Cynthia, he was trying to make up for lost time. At the age of 11, Julian spent some time with John and May Pang, first in New York (where he played drums on the Walls And Bridges track “Ya Ya”) and then in Florida in December 1974, when they visited Disneyworld. After returning to Yoko, John kept in touch with Julian by phone, and invited him over to visit in the school holidays.
Julian later said of his father, “He was like a real dad, you know? I mean, he was the boss. He got heavy on occasion, so I didn’t shoot my mouth off a hell of a lot. I was very quiet. We used to sit down with guitars and mess around, playing old blues and rock.”
He also stated: “He advised me on how to cope with problem and what to do as I grow up. He’s a very important figure in my life.”
Julian described his visits to New York: “We go out quite a lot together, round some of the art galleries or to his house at Long Island. When we stay in, we have musical jam sessions together, singing our latest songs to each other, or talking about art.” However, his feelings about Yoko were more complicated.
How would you describe your relationship with Julian?
Yoko: “Julian was, from the beginning, a very attractive little boy, extremely sensitive and intelligent. I think this whole thing about stepmother, which is an ugly word, first of all… it’s really not like Hansel and Gretel to me.
“Now, the modern stepmother, and there are many of them because there were many divorces in the ’60s – it was like a norm… stepmothers try very hard to make it okay for the children. For children, it’s very, very difficult. It was extremely difficult for Julian.
“Julian and I tried to be friends. Of course, if he’s too friendly with me, then I think that it hurts his other relatives. He was very loyal to his mother. That was the first thing that was in his mind. She was feeling, I think, very hurt about the situation. He shared that anger, probably.
“He wasn’t angry with me. He was very nice. All through his growing up, I felt we were having fairly good relationship. It must have been more difficult for him… So that if he prefers not to visit me so much, then I understand.”
Yoko has often been portrayed as a cold and distant mother to Sean – but to meet Sean himself is to learn the opposite. When Uncut last bumped into him, he smiled broadly at the mention of his mother’s name, enthusing, “Isn’t she great?”
Yoko herself contends that far from paying him too little attention over the years, she sometimes paid too much.
“Sean is the apple in my eye,” she twinkles. “I think that just as any teenager, he was almost resentful that the mother is always getting in touch with him. ‘You’re calling me again!’ You know, when you’re trying to be independent – ‘You don’t have to call, I’m fine.’ That’s normal for any child. Now he’s 27, he’s starting to calm down about it. He calls me, too! He’s a very good friend.”
Sean’s band IMA played with Yoko when she went on tour in 1996 to promote her Rising album, and he remains a huge encouragement to her new career in the dance world.
Yoko has also, finally, been happily reunited with Kyoko. In a truly extraordinary turn of events, Kyoko phoned out of the blue to tell her mother that she had a granddaughter, and all three came face to face in January 2001. Yoko was 67, Kyoko 37 and Emi three.
Says Yoko of Kyoko: “It’s a very good relationship. We’re friends. I’m just very thankful that she’s so independent and intelligent.”
In Bermuda, John started writing again, liaising over the phone with Yoko, who was also writing in New York. One phonecall wasn’t quite so happy.
Lennon told Andy Peebles: “I called her, you know, and I couldn’t get through. Can you imagine it? She was so busy with so many calls… I got really mad, and I wrote this song in the heat of passion as it were…”
That song was “I’m Losing You”. For the most part, however, John’s contributions to his last album, Double Fantasy, talk of a new beginning, and of a great love for his family, with some of the regrets that entailed. And it was in this spirit of rebirth that the Lennons went into the Hit Factory, with producer Jack Douglas, in August 1980.
Was everything really wonderful again for John and Yoko?
Yoko: “When we came back together again, it was quite thrilling, of course. And when we finally decided we’re going to record, it was a very thrilling time for us, and a lot of love songs came out of us, too. But when you listen to the record, you’ll notice it’s not all just lovey-dovey. It was really telling the truth.”
Was it easy, working with him?
“John was extremely co-operative and very helpful.”
He wasn’t before?
“He was in a way, but not this way. It was like, for a Beatle to say, ‘OK, we can record Yoko’s song’ – it is a big step, and also he had to try to convince the other musicians. They would do anything that John says, but at the same time, he didn’t want to sound like he’s all soggy about it – ‘OK, we’re just doing one from Yoko on it.’ With Double Fantasy, he was really very astute but also helpful. John was so happy that he was recording again – that was my suggestion – that he kept saying, ‘Thank you, thank you, that’s so great.’ And I felt very good about it, too.”
This is confirmed by Double Fantasy guitarist Earl Slick. He tells Uncut: “John and Yoko were very happy together. The way they were acting, you would think you were at their home instead of the studio. It was pretty informal. They were good together. It was funny. He [John] was excited about everything all the time. Every song that we did, the idea of putting a new record out, the idea of touring – everything he talked about was definitely with a tone of excitement.
“It was a very relaxed, fun experience. For the most part, when it came to Yoko’s stuff, she was hands-on and there, and when it came to John’s stuff, she pretty much left him to his own devices. It was almost like making two albums at the same time. I thought it was fun.”
Yoko hired a skywriter. In the clear blue sky on October 9, her message could be clearly seen: “Happy birthday John and Sean – Love Yoko.” John was 40. Sean was five. And then, on October 29 1980 – five days after the release of the comeback single “(Just Like) Starting Over” – the unemployed and mentally disturbed Mark Chapman flew from Honolulu to New York carrying an unloaded handgun.
Chapman had become obsessed with the idea of himself as Holden Caulfield, the central character in JD Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye. He had also developed a pathological anger towards John Lennon after reading John Lennon: One Day At A Time – a memoir written by a former employee, Anthony Fawcett. Chapman suddenly saw the rich and powerful Lennon as a phoney, and felt a huge wave of personal betrayal by the Beatle he had once believed in. Stoking Chapman’s anger was the fact that his great hero, Todd Rundgren, had lambasted Lennon in Melody Maker back in September 1974, calling him “a fucking idiot” and an attention-seeker: in short, a phoney.
In midnight rants and pleas to Satan for help and strength, Chapman vowed to kill Lennon. He was Holden Caulfield, and he would take his crusade against hypocrisy one step further than the character in the book: he would kill John Lennon, who had become, to Chapman, symbolic of a cruel and uncaring world. From October 29 to November 12, he hung around outside the Dakota, breaking to fly to Georgia where his friend Dana Reeves – a sheriff’s deputy in Henry County – gave him five Smith & Wesson bullets, believing the gun was for Chapman’s protection. He didn’t see John.
Chapman phoned his wife Gloria and told her that he had intended to shoot Lennon, but that her love had saved him: he was coming home. Then, on Saturday December 6, Chapman returned to New York.