RAY CONNOLLY first met John Lennon in 1967, when he was reporting on the making of The Beatles film, Magical Mystery Tour. Accepted into the band’s coterie, he later watched John work at
One night in New York, John Lennon got very drunk at a party, took a girl into a room and had sex with her.
Unfortunately, all the guests’ coats had been heaped on the bed. So when people wanted to go home, they couldn’t retrieve them — and everyone, including his wife, Yoko Ono, realised what was going on.
That, in a nutshell, was what Yoko told me some time later. ‘It was,’ she said, ‘very embarrassing.’
Of course, ‘embarrassing’ isn’t the word most wives would have chosen to describe the situation. But most wives aren’t Yoko.
She’d long known that when John got drunk, he’d behave irrationally and could sometimes be violent, and for this reason she always limited the amount of alcohol in their apartment.
But, on that particular night in 1973, there’d be no limit on drinks and drugs.
Other party guests said that they’d tried to calm John down, that he was blabbering and shouting and pushing them away before he disappeared into the bedroom with his conquest.
Was Yoko angry? Impossible to say. Happily indiscreet about the events in her life, she rarely explained her emotions.
When I sympathised with her about John’s adultery, all she said was: ‘John can be very hard to live with sometimes.’
The day after the party, he was full of remorse. But a line had been crossed.
View of the back cover of the record album ‘Two Virgins,’ by John Lennon and Japanese-born artist Yoko Ono in 1968
After nearly five years of being together, night and day, the myth of perfect love the couple had woven around themselves — ‘like Cathy and Heathcliff’ as Yoko liked to say in reference to Wuthering Heights — had been shattered.
Sex was the last thing on his mind when John Lennon, then aged 25, was first introduced to Yoko Ono.
The year was 1966. He’d wandered into the basement of an art gallery, where a very small Japanese lady in black, peering out from between two curtains of hair, was busily preparing an exhibition. It was called Unfinished Paintings And Objects By Yoko Ono, and was due to open the following day.
Yoko — then aged 33 — didn’t recognise John. Then a little-known conceptual artist, she was on a visit to London with her husband and daughter and had seized a rare opportunity to publicise her work.
To John, however, it all seemed very silly at first. But he liked silliness, so he decided to go along with it.
‘Anyway, I’m looking for the action, and I see this thing called Hammer A Nail,’ he recalled. ‘It’s a board with a chain and a hammer hanging on it, and a bunch of nails at the bottom, and I said: “Can I hammer a nail into it?” She said: “No”, and walked away.’
But when the gallery owner told Yoko she’d just said ‘No’ to John Lennon, she walked straight back and asked him for five shillings.
John said he didn’t have five shillings because he never carried money. ‘What if I give you an imaginary five shillings and hammer in an imaginary nail. Would that be all right?’ he asked.
Yoko agreed that it would indeed be all right.
At that point, he knew nothing about her, other than the fact that she was making a short movie, Bottoms (Film No. 4), having put an advertisement in a newspaper for ‘intelligent-looking bottoms’. She’d then filmed 365 of them.
Was he attracted to Yoko? Unlikely. If he had been, she’d have known about it, because he certainly wasn’t shy about making his intentions clear. Yet there was something intriguing about her. She might seem half-crazy but she was an enigma, and he’d never met anyone like her before.
One day, this odd little Japanese woman would change his life. But back then, John didn’t give her much thought; he didn’t even go to her exhibition launch.
Yoko, however, decided to pursue John by letter. Viewing him as a multi-millionaire with money to burn, she was determined to win his financial backing for her art.
The idea that she ran after John, she’d say later, wasn’t true. Others might say she never left him alone.
Finally, in October 1967, John caved in, agreeing to sponsor an exhibition that consisted of half of everything — a bed, a chair and a room — all painted white. He didn’t actually turn up to see it, but Yoko was starting to get under his skin.
Then, to his wife Cynthia’s surprise, the Japanese lady turned up at a private meeting. The Lennons and the other Beatles had gone to see the assistant to the Maharishi, an Indian yogi whom they all planned to visit at his Himalayan ashram.
Yoko was already there when they walked in, sitting in a corner armchair. She didn’t explain her presence and John appeared not to notice her.
Afterwards, things got even odder. As John and Cynthia walked towards their chauffeur-driven car, Yoko climbed in ahead of them. Even John looked surprised, Cynthia recalled, though he politely asked Yoko if they could give her a lift anywhere.
‘Yes, please,’ Yoko said, giving the chauffeur her address. The journey passed in complete silence.
‘What was all that about?’ Cynthia asked John afterwards. He said he didn’t know. What he didn’t say was that he’d already seen Yoko several times.
A few months before, he’d invited her to a Beatles session at Abbey Road. She had not been bowled over. ‘Why don’t you do something more complex?’ she asked.
John had then suggested they go to an assistant’s flat, where he confidently expected to have sex with Yoko. But she’d found his approach crude.
Her rejection only made her seem more beguiling and mysterious. By the following month, John had decided that when he went to India, he’d take both Cynthia and Yoko with him — but he lost his nerve at the last minute. Had Yoko still expected to be going to India when she turned up at the meeting? It would appear so.
Unwittingly, Cynthia made the break-up easier for John by going on two holidays in quick succession in 1968. After the first, she came home to find John and Yoko — wearing the Lennons’ towelling bathrobes — sitting cross-legged on the floor.
It was obvious they’d spent the night together, but Cynthia gave John another chance. The next time he didn’t even wait for her to get home: he sent a minion to Italy to tell her he wanted a divorce.
The little Japanese lady had won. That same week, in May 1968, the new couple went public, with Yoko clinging to John’s protective arm.
In private, he made her write down a list of all the men she’d slept with before they met.
Then, as he told me, he made a list for her of all the serious affairs he’d had, going right back to girls in Liverpool whom Cynthia had known nothing about.
John Lennon and May Pang – John Lennon and May Pang, who was wife Yoko’s secretary, had an affair at the end of 1970s
Soon John and Yoko would dress in matching white suits, both parting their long hair down the middle. For John, it was a matter of ‘I am he as you are he as you are me and we are altogether’, as he’d sung in I Am The Walrus.
In The Beatles, he’d always seen himself as the front man, but now he began to subsume his personality into that of Yoko. One of their first joint enterprises was to make a narcissistic film that merged their faces together.
They were now a brand — ‘JohnandYoko’ — and John threw his energies into promoting it. There was Yoko’s balloon event — 365 white ones bearing the message ‘You are here’ were released — then a film of John smiling, which lasted over 30 minutes.
Most critics viewed these as no more than Yoko’s vanity projects. For ‘JohnandYoko’ to catch the public imagination, they needed to do something seriously outrageous. So they did. John decided to have them both photographed naked from the back and front, and to use the images on their first joint LP, Unfinished Music No 1: Two Virgins.
Then there was a film, Self Portrait, that focused for 20 minutes on John’s private parts. Yoko was at last becoming famous.
As work began on a new Beatles LP — The White Album — John insisted she be with him in the studio. The first major casualty was the Lennon-McCartney songwriting relationship.
Paul later told me: ‘If I started to think of a line, I’d begin to get very nervous. I might want to say something like “I love you, girl”, but with Yoko watching I always felt that I had to come up with something clever and avant-garde.
‘John and I tried writing together a few more times, but I think we both decided it would be easier to work separately.’
As PAUL freely admitted, he was annoyed with John, and jealous of Yoko. But he bit his lip and tried to keep his feelings to himself.
‘It’s going to be a comical thing in 50 years’ time,’ he told George Harrison, ‘if people say that The Beatles broke up because Yoko sat on an amp.’
Amps weren’t the half of it.
Later, after Yoko suffered a whiplash injury when John pranged their car during a driving tour of Scotland, four porters wheeled a bed into the studio so she could watch proceedings in comfort, propped up on pillows.
The fun was going out of being a Beatle. And, in private, John was now indulging in a far more dangerous kind of fun: heroin. Yoko had tried some at a party and enjoyed it, so he decided to have a go himself.
Soon he was hooked. ‘I never injected,’ he’d say. ‘Just sniffing, you know.’ But he rarely did anything he liked by halves, so his denial is questionable.
John — who’d always had a callous streak — would speak to Cynthia only once more before the divorce. ‘My final offer is £75,000,’ he told the woman he’d once loved to distraction. ‘That’s like winning the pools for you. So, what are you moaning about? You’re not worth any more.’ In the end, they settled for £100,000 (about £1.5 million today).
As for Yoko’s husband, Tony Cox, who was caring for their child, John paid him off with £40,000 and despatched him to get a quickie divorce in the Virgin Islands. Interestingly, Yoko was less keen than her lover on remarrying. ‘I didn’t like the idea of limiting myself to one man again,’ she said, though she eventually agreed to a low-key wedding in Gibraltar.
John was jubilant at having married into the avant-garde intelligentsia. With his new wife, he was no longer just a Beatle: he could take his place as a true ‘artist’ — a word he used constantly in conversations about himself.
After all his frenetic years on the road, John, now 28, was going to slow down — ‘because I don’t want to die when I’m 40’.
By 1971, John and Yoko had settled in New York.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono, his bride of three months at the time this photo was made in Montreal in June 1969, pose in bed. His first solo album at the time featured songs telling of his love for Yoko
One day, I was staying with them at the St Regis hotel just as they were getting ready to be interviewed by the reputedly stuffy co-op board of directors who vetted anyone wanting to live in the stately Dakota building on Central Park West.
As I was talking to John, clad in suit and tie, Yoko suddenly emerged from their bedroom wearing a pair of floral hot pants and a blouse with the top three buttons undone.
He exploded. ‘You look like a tart, a f***ing whore,’ he shouted, his temper out of all proportion.
Yoko didn’t need telling. Without a word, or indeed a change of expression, she went back into the bedroom, returning a few minutes later in a demurely long skirt.
John had lost none of the temper he used to display with Cynthia. But Yoko clearly knew how to handle him.
A couple of years later, after John’s adultery on a pile of coats, she was finding him more difficult to manage.
By then — after a successful second attempt to impress the co-op board — they were living in the Dakota, where they’d confidently expected to be very happy. They weren’t. John would spend hours sleeping or staring mutely at the TV or tinkering listlessly with his guitar. Even Yoko was losing interest in her projects.
The real problem was that the dazzle had gone out of their lives, their marriage and their sex life. They were suffocating each other.
Perhaps he should go out with other women, Yoko suggested; if that was what he wanted, she’d understand. John, however, felt that he just needed to get away.
But he couldn’t go alone; he always had to have someone at his side. So Yoko suggested he take May Pang, a pretty young woman who worked for them at the Dakota. John liked her, Yoko pointed out. Indeed, every- one liked May, who’d been raised in a Chinese immigrant family.
Just 22, she dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and big round glasses, and she was always busy, cheerful, efficient and willing.
Excited by the idea, John left it to his wife to make the first move. The ensuing conversation could have been a movie scene, but May’s recollection tallies very closely with what Yoko later told me.
‘Listen, May,’ said Yoko. ‘John and I are not getting along. John will probably start going out with other people. Who knows who he will go out with? I know he likes you a lot. So . . ?’
May, completely out of her depth, was stunned. It seemed wrong: John was her boss, and he was married. Yoko persisted. ‘Don’t worry about a thing,’ she said. ‘It’s cool. I’ll take care of everything.’
A few nights later, with Yoko’s encouragement, May took John home to her apartment and went to bed with him.
Yoko was so delighted that when she had to fly to Chicago for a few days — for a feminist convention — she suggested May move into the Dakota while she was away.
In the event, the new lovers ran away to LA, and from that moment on, would be together for the best part of 18 months.
Yoko’s actions astonished many who knew the Lennons. But for her, it made perfect sense. In Japan, some upper-class wives welcomed a mistress into the home. Yoko might be a feminist, but she was following a long tradition.
As for John, he was off the leash. Now he felt like a teenager again, with a girlfriend — not long out of her teens — who loved rock ’n’ roll music. In fact, as May soon realised, he wasn’t off the leash at all. Yoko would phone sometimes over a dozen times a day, reminding her that her job was to make John happy and make sure he didn’t get into any trouble.
It wasn’t long before he reverted to his old life as a rock and roller, often getting paralytically drunk.
On one occasion, he had sex with a groupie and ordered May back to New York. Deeply upset, she went — but when she arrived, Yoko was waiting to take her out to dinner.
John needed to be nursed through these moments, Yoko told her. And May did what she was told and returned.
Then, at lunch one day, John violently berated her because he thought she’d been flirting with the pop star David Cassidy. John accused her of wanting his money, and ended his tirade by smashing her glasses and telling her their relationship was over.
Twenty-four hours later, they were back in New York — only for John to change his mind and ask May’s forgiveness.
Eventually, they rented a flat not far from the Dakota. Yoko was happy with that. She was even amused when John sloped off for a night with a girl he’d met, and asked his wife to cover for him.
Could she please tell May he’d stayed the night in a spare room at the Dakota? It was a bizarre situation: a wife lying to her husband’s mistress after he’d just been unfaithful to that mistress. According to May, Yoko eventually suggested a divorce — and John agreed. But she was now heavily into astrology, and decided that the stars weren’t right.
Meanwhile, a new, more sociable, John was emerging; he was even thinking of returning to songwriting with McCartney, May recalled. Then Yoko rang. She had, she said, found an effective new way of giving up smoking.
Since John had been getting through two packets a day for years, he was keen to try the cure, so Yoko arranged for him to be hypnotised at the Dakota.
He never returned to the flat he shared with May. Three days later, they bumped into each other at their dentist’s surgery and he told her what she’d already guessed: Yoko had ‘allowed’ him to come home. ‘It wasn’t anybody’s fault. It just happened,’ he explained.
Then he lit a cigarette. The cure obviously hadn’t worked.
John never revealed anything more about what had happened to him under hypnosis. From then on, though, he and Yoko would present themselves as very much in love.
Secretly, however, John would slip away to see May occasionally for a further 18 months, using visits to a hospitalised friend as a cover.
So why did John suddenly go back to Yoko? One reason is she made him feel clever, not just a rock and roller. Did he also feel he needed someone with an iron will at his side? Yoko could be difficult, but, so long as he didn’t question her huge ego and desire for equal fame, she was capable of taking care of everything.
With her running the apartment and staff, and sitting in his place on the Apple [Records] board, he’d never have to worry.
In truth, she was more like a mother than a wife to him.
Perhaps that was why John began to call her ‘Mother’ after their son Sean was born in October 1975. With no outside obligations, he threw himself into fatherhood with the fervour he always summoned to a new project.
That meant, as instructed by Yoko, cleansing his body of alcohol, going on a macrobiotic diet and hanging up his guitar.
When childcare became too much of a chore, he’d hand Sean back to his governess and hide away in his bedroom, taking drugs, reading and watching TV.
As for his friends, they found it impossible to get past the internal switchboard. ‘Yoko has him all locked up,’ Mick Jagger said.
To believe that, however, was to miss the point. John could have walked out of the Dakota any time he wanted.
But, like many people who retire too early from exciting jobs, he was showing signs of depression — the only difference being that he was in his mid-30s.
In December 1978, he told May: ‘I never stop wanting to make music.’ He did nothing about it until 1980, when he suddenly began writing songs again — including Woman and Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy).
When he decided to release a new album, Yoko convinced him she should sing her own songs on half of it. Why did he agree? Even John knew that fans would simply lift the record deck pick-up when one of her tracks came on.
As it was, John and Yoko had heated rows in the studio. To say that by now they had a complicated, sometimes contradictory, relationship would be an understatement.
Still, despite tepid reviews for the album, Double Fantasy, John was in good spirits at the end of 1980.
On December 8, Yoko phoned me, insisting I interview John immediately. We agreed I should take an early flight the following morning — I never did.
That afternoon, John and his wife left the Dakota to do some work on a single by Yoko. As he was crossing the pavement, a plump man in glasses held out a copy of Double Fantasy to be autographed.
Mixing Yoko’s single took most of the evening, so the Lennons’ limo didn’t arrive back until 10.54pm. Yoko was slightly ahead, when John heard a voice call from behind: ‘Mr Lennon?’ He half-turned to see who it was. At that moment, four bullets ripped into his back.
John Lennon’s killer was Mark Chapman, the plump autograph- seeker, who’d just fulfilled his lifetime’s ambition. He had made himself famous.
Extracted from Being John Lennon by Ray Connolly, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on October 4 at £20. © Ray Connolly 2018. To order a copy for £16 (offer valid until September 29, 2018; p&p free), visitmailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640.