Continuing our week-long celebrations commemorating John Lennon's 75th birthday, here Yoko Ono recalls their relationship
They were getting on each other’s nerves. While their campaigns and projects were truly bonding, there was inevitably a disadvantage to being in each other’s pockets all the time. Yoko was feeling the strain of being seen as Mrs Lennon rather than as a person and artist in her own right, and had taken to performing solo concerts.
The couple had been living with the threat of deportation for a long time, and they had been dealing with various legal and business problems, including their dropping of Allen Klein, “for many reasons”, in April 1973, with Lennon conceding that “possibly Paul’s suspicions were right… and the time was right.”
The next month, they moved into their seventh-floor, luxury apartment in the Dakota Building, overlooking Central Park at West 72nd Street – where they would later buy more suites for office and storage space. At the same time, they learned that Yoko had been granted permanent custody of Kyoko, who was still missing. By September, they had decided on a temporary separation. John was about to embark on his legendary “Lost Weekend” with his lover and the Lennons’ full-time assistant, May Pang, who was 10 years his junior.
Pang has since declared that her affair with Lennon started in August – at Yoko’s instigation – towards the end of the Mind Games sessions, while all three were under the same roof at the Dakota. It continued in Los Angeles and New York during the 16-month Lost Weekend, ending when Lennon returned to Yoko.
Lennon said of the separation, in typically dramatic manner: “Yoko kicked me out! She literally kicked me out! I said, ‘OK, OK, I’m going… bachelor free.’ I’ve been married all my life and I thought, ‘Whoooo–whoooo-yippee!’ But it was God-awful.”
Despite Pang’s contention that “he was my soulmate” and that “we did fall in love”, John spent much of the Lost Weekend drunk, unhappy and anxious to return home. At one point, he was accused and cleared of assaulting a waitress, and of hitting a female photographer, an allegation which he paid his way out of, but still denied.
John later said: “I wanted to be with her [Yoko] and could not literally survive without her. As a functioning human being, I just went to pieces. I didn’t realise that I needed her so much.”
How did the Lost Weekend come about?
Yoko: “It’s not him… it was me, because I felt by that time it was so stressful about the immigration and all that – it was coming to a point that I felt he was thinking about other girls, or looking around, but he wasn’t. He was feeling so guilty he wouldn’t even look around. I didn’t want somebody thinking about things like that when they’re sitting with me. It’s very unflattering, isn’t it? So I said, ‘We’re both still attractive and young, and let’s not do this to ourselves and let’s look around.’ ”
It’s been suggested that you set up John with May Pang so that you could manipulate the affair.
“It’s more delicate than that… So then John said he doesn’t want to do it in the same city I’m living in. I said, ‘How about LA?’ I knew that he had a great time there before, with The Beatles. He said, ‘OK, that’s good, but I never travel alone.’ I suggested a few people, including May – because she was a very good assistant as well. It wasn’t to manipulate them into whatever. But I just knew there was something else…”
You thought that something might happen between them?
“I kind of figured it.”
When you said, “Let’s look around,” did you also look around?
“What I found out is that for guys, it’s very easy. You go somewhere and everybody arranges so you can have fun. With a woman or a wife of a person, I think it’s a different situation, and nobody’s going to suggest or help you. You’re just sitting in the corner. I went to a Buddhist lecture and I learnt a new mantra. I went through all different religious organisations to check out things. All different kinds of philosophy I got into, new age philosophy more than the old ones.
“John actually did make the statement afterwards – ‘You know what happened to me there, but Yoko on the other hand was really researching all different philosophical ideas, and very different [to] how I coped with it.’ ”
How did you feel when you heard the stories about him drinking and getting chucked out of clubs with sanitary towels on his head?
“I think he wanted to come back. But he wasn’t ready for it at the time.”
In retrospect, do you think the separation was a positive thing?
“It was really very, very good, even in hindsight. I liked the fact that I suggested it, so John sowed his oats. If I hadn’t given him that opportunity, I would have been feeling guilty now.”
As well as revelling at the Rainbow Bar & Grill and the Troubadour with Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon and Ringo, John was keeping busy. In October 1973, he started work with Phil Spector on the Rock’N’Roll covers album at the Record Plant and A&M studios. Yet for reasons of his own, the volatile producer, who had at one point, reputedly, fired a gun into the studio ceiling, kidnapped the tapes and refused to hand them over.
Lennon: “And we had to sue through Capitol to get them back.”
He added: “The LA sessions gradually collapsed into mania… it definitely got crazy. There are 28 guys playing a night and 15 of them are out of their mind… including me.” And he vowed: “That’s the first time I let an album out of my control – I’ll never do it again.” With the album unexpectedly halted, Lennon made promotional appearances for Mind Games as the year drew to an end.
The spring of 1974 was a sobering experience. In March, Lennon began production work on his drinking buddy Harry Nilsson’s Pussy Cats album, for which he had also written the track “Mucho Mungo”. At the time, he was sharing a beach house in Santa Monica with Nilsson, Starr and Moon.
“And one day I realised, Jesus, I’m the producer… And we’d go in, the bottle would be out and everybody was just falling on the floor and nobody was working, so I sobered up then. I just quit, cold turkey, the drink.” The album was eventually finished in New York.
During this period, Paul and Linda McCartney had been visiting Lennon, and the world’s greatest musical partnership was reunited for a jam session at the beach house, with Paul playing drums. It seemed they were beginning to build some bridges.
In April, John and May returned to New York, where they rented an apartment in East 52nd Street. Within two months Lennon had begun work on Walls And Bridges at the Record Plant – and, at the same time, the Spector tapes were returned. He finished Walls And Bridges first, and while he was working in the studio in August, Yoko was touring Japan with the Plastic Ono Super Band. In October, John knocked out more songs for Rock’N’Roll, leaving only four of the original Spector recordings on the record.
Elton John had duetted with John on the Walls And Bridges single “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night”, and he struck a deal with Lennon: if the single made No 1, Lennon would perform onstage with him at Madison Square Garden. On November 16, both Walls And Bridges and “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night” topped the US charts. Twelve days later, Lennon was on stage with Elton, playing “I Saw Her Standing There”, “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night”. Yoko was in the audience, feeling “choked” because “I thought, ‘Oh, he looks so lonely out there.’ ”
John told Andy Peebles: “I didn’t know she was in the audience. I couldn’t have gone on if I’d known she was there. Came off stage and there she was, you know, and we looked at each other. Oh-oh, like the Indica Gallery scene again…”
John didn’t move back in immediately. He and Yoko spent Christmas apart, and in January 1975 he went into the studio with David Bowie, recording “Across The Universe” and “Fame”, which the two stars co-wrote. At the end of the month, he visited Yoko at the Dakota to talk about a smoking cure she’d heard about. And he stayed.
Lennon: “It was like I’d never left. I realised that this was where I belonged. I think we both knew we’d get back together again sooner or later, and that’s why we never bothered with divorce. I’m just glad she let me back in again. It was like going out for a drink, but it took me a year to get it.”
He never did give up the cigarettes.