John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Me: Surreal adventures with rock’n’roll’s oddest couple

By Ray Connolly

One afternoon I was sitting with John Lennon in the kitchen at his Tittenhurst Park home in Berkshire when he asked me if I’d written his obituary yet. It was 1970, and amused at the very idea of an obituary when neither of us had reached 30, I replied that I hadn’t. John grinned: “I’d love to read it when you do.” So I promised I’d show it to him if I ever did it.

I’d still not got around to it when, a decade later, on December 9, 1980, I was woken by a phone call at 4:30 in the morning. My first thought was that it must be the taxi company phoning about the cab that was to take me to Heathrow to catch a plane to New York, where I was to interview John for The Sunday Times.

It wasn’t the taxi company. It was a journalist on another newspaper who had just heard that John Lennon had been shot outside his New York home. He didn’t know how seriously injured the former Beatle was. But, 30 minutes later, tuning our radio to the BBC World Service (in those days before 24-hour news stations), my worst fears were realised. John was dead, murdered by a deranged fan.

I cancelled my flight to New York that morning and sat down to write the promised obituary.

Most of us have moments of luck in our careers, but I was super-lucky at the beginning of mine when, just a few weeks after getting my first job in Fleet Street on the London Evening Standard in 1967, I was detailed to follow in my car the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour coach. I met Paul McCartney for the first time that night in the bar of a hotel in Devon. Getting to know John took a lot longer, though: during a year I spent reporting Beatles stories, I watched as he broke up with his first wife, Cynthia, and set up home with Yoko Ono — semi-famous then for having made a film about bottoms.

Then, one night during recording sessions at EMI’s Abbey Road studios, while John was with the producer George Martin mixing Cry Baby Cry, Yoko told me her life story, and how she and John had come to release an album of electronic sounds called Two Virgins that showed the two of them naked on the cover.

The idea for the photographs had, she said, been John’s. “He’d heard some of the tapes of my voice pieces and said they should be on an LP, and it should have a picture of me naked on the cover. I don’t know why he said that … He didn’t even know me that well at the time.”

With Yoko, John had begun reinventing himself as an avant-garde artist. He was bored with the Beatles.

Ever the iconoclast, John was, day by day, chipping away from within at what he called the “four gods on stage” monument that the Beatles had become, and there was nothing Paul could do to stop him.

Seeing John during those months, delighting in his new craze of experimental film making in a tiny cutting room in Soho, or being asked to play a triangle with him in a recording session when Yoko began her career as a singer, was to see a world hero shedding one skin and taking on a completely different one.

To the outside world he was still a Beatle, making the documentary film “Let It Be” and then the Abbey Road album. But he was already semi-detached when one day he phoned me at my office, giggling that he’d just sent his Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) back to the Queen, in protest at Britain’s involvement in the civil war in Nigeria.

When another Lennon rumpus inevitably followed, and they were coming thick and fast, I wrote an op-ed page that was headlined The Day the Beatles Died, explaining how the group had, in effect, ceased to exist as a band when they’d stopped touring two-and-a-half years earlier. I was rather scared to go into the office the next day for fear of angry representations from the Beatles’ press officer or their solicitors.

There were no protests. Instead, lying on my desk was a single white rose in a Cellophane box. With it was a message, “To Ray with love from John and Yoko”. As far as John was concerned, I’d got the situation dead right. From that moment on, he became my Deep Throat inside the Beatles.

A month later I was flying first class (my first time) to Canada to join him and Yoko at the home of the old-time rock singer Ronnie Hawkins, outside Toronto. There, taking a break from signing hundreds of copies of erotic lithographs he’d drawn of Yoko, he took me to his and Yoko’s bedroom and, with much glee, told me that he’d left the Beatles. My hunch had been more accurate than I’d known.

It was potentially the biggest scoop of my life as a journalist, until John quickly added: “But don’t write it yet. Allen Klein [then the Beatles’ manager] wants me to keep it secret until the “Let It Be” film comes out next March [it was released in May 1970]. I’ll let you know when you can put it out.” So, considering my scoop to be treasure in heaven for which I was going to have to wait, I sat on the story.

As a journalist that was a mistake. Four months later, when newspaper headlines around the world read “Paul McCartney quits Beatles”, after he had released a vague press statement saying that he had no plans to work with the Beatles, John was very grumpy. “Why didn’t you write it when I told you in Canada?” he demanded on the phone that day.

“You asked me not to,” I replied.

“You’re the journalist, Connolly, not me,” he snapped, cross because, as he’d started the Beatles, he thought he should be known as the one who had broken them up — not Paul, who had been the last of the four to leave the group, and who forever after would find himself blamed, wrongly, for murdering the musical happiness of millions.

Had John secretly wanted the story out and slipped me the information, thinking that as a journalist I wouldn’t be able to resist writing it? Possibly. He never said. But sometimes you just couldn’t win with him. He was such a volatile character.

Always acting on the cusp of the moment, he was a chameleon who adapted his personality according to the company he was keeping, allowing on one occasion a group of peace-loving Hare Krishna devotees to live in one of the outbuildings at Tittenhurst Park [John’s country house near Ascot]. “They’re all ex-druggies, but they’re all right,” he told me when I first encountered them.

At first, everything went well as the new lodgers ghosted around the estate, smiling and murmuring “Hare Krishna” and “Peace, man, peace” whenever they passed anyone, and decorating a little temple in the grounds.

John Lennon Memorial ‘imagine’ in Central Park, New York, near the Dakota Building.

On a later visit, however, I noticed that they were no longer there. “What happened to the Hare Krishna people?” I asked.

“Oh, I had to show them the door,” John smiled. “They were driving me mad with all that ‘Hare Krishna … Peace’ chanting all the time. I couldn’t get any f****** peace.”

His moods were particularly vacillating when he talked about Paul. While he might be scornful of Paul’s romantic musical streak one day, on another he would insist, “Paul and me were the Beatles. We wrote the songs” — putting down, by inference, the contributions of Ringo and George.

He knew how good Paul was, but he couldn’t hide the rivalry and a jealous streak that nibbled away at him. “Paul has a good voice,” I once commented as we were discussing singers. “He has a high voice,” came his instant correction.

My path, as I saw it, was not to take sides. During the band’s break-up, I interviewed Paul nearly as often as I did John, who read a very long two-part interview I’d done with Paul very carefully, astonished that his former colleague was angry because Phil Spector had put some female voices on the song The Long and Winding Road.

“Is that what this is all about?” he asked incredulously, exaggeration rarely a sentence away. “Paul should have thanked Spector for all the work he’s done on the record, making it possible for it to be released … It was the most miserable session on earth, with the most miserable music going on and on and on …” Things were so bad between them, it was as if the only way they knew what the other was thinking was by reading the interviews they were both giving.

John’s second solo album, in 1971, was recorded in a studio he’d had built at Tittenhurst Park. I was there one day for some filming, and after he and I had played a surreal game of snooker while blindfolded, he took me into his and Yoko’s bedroom to play an unlabelled acetate of it on an old Dansette record player, after being unable to make his super new stereo equipment work. Secrets always seemed to be imparted in the sanctity of a bedroom.

The first track he played was Gimme Some Truth. “This,” he said, “will be the new single.”

I wasn’t very impressed. It sounded like a rant to me. “What’s on the other side?” I asked.

So, he turned the record over and he played me a piano-led ballad.

“Surely that should be the A-side,” I said as it ended.

John looked across at Yoko, who was sitting on the bed. “Yoko, Ray thinks Imagine should be the single.”

“Oh, good,” she said. “I like that one, too.”

Neither gave so much as a hint that they’d known all along what the A-side of the single was going to be, or that Imagine would be the name of the album. Presumably John had wanted to test his own opinion on someone who hadn’t been involved in the recording.

That summer, I flew to New York with other journalists to cover George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh charity gig. Checking into the hotel on Central Park South, where I knew John and Yoko were staying, I called their suite, only to discover that the two had fallen out when George didn’t want Mrs. Lennon on stage. Torn between his wife and his old friend, John had gone to the airport and was already on his way home.

Yoko wanted to follow him immediately, but she had a problem. Her younger sister, Setsuko, who was in her mid-20s, had just arrived in New York from Switzerland for the concert and didn’t know anyone.

I had a problem, too. Pan American had lost my suitcase on the way over. Yoko solved the two problems in one. If I moved into the Lennons’ suite I could look after Setsuko for the weekend and take her to the concert. And as I only had the clothes I stood up in, and John had left all his shirts and jackets behind, I could wear his. On top of that, I could use the chauffeur-driven stretch limousine all weekend, as well as room service. All I had to do was sign everything “Lennon, plus 15 per cent”. The next night Setsuko and I were driven down to Madison Square Garden and shown to our front-row seats for the concert.

John was very amused by it when we next spoke. “How did you enjoy being a Beatle? Glad it gave you a buzz.”

There’s always the danger in these situations that a reporter gets too close to his sources. And, looking back, there’s no doubt I was too close to John and Yoko. But I’d have to say that the “Evening Standard” got more out of my relationship with John than he did, as, given extraordinary access, I was filing exclusive after exclusive. He liked journalists and read everything about himself. When I told him that Fleet Street was beginning to think of him as a nutter, he liked that, too. “Yes. I’m the nutter,” he said. “F*** ’em all.”

Interestingly, whenever John introduced me to anyone in America, he would describe me as a “friend from London”, never as a journalist, while I’d be thinking, “But it’s not like a usual friendship.” It never can be between a journalist and a world-famous superstar. On one level, we were equals. Exactly the same age, and brought up 10 miles apart in families governed by women, we’d gone through grammar schools and shared all the same points of reference. But while I knew his wife and home very well, he didn’t know my wife or my children.

Obviously, I didn’t know everything that was going on either — for instance, that John had a stop-start heroin problem during some of those years. He kept that from me, probably considering that I was too straight to understand. Our minds were more in tune when it came to music, being driven along in upper New York state in the autumn of 1971 singing our favourite Fats Domino and Buddy Holly songs together. “If I’d had you in my class at school, I’d have had you in the Quarry Men,” he said at one point.

“My mother wouldn’t have let me join,” I replied.

“I’d have forced you to join to rebel against your mother,” was his answer, and on we went with the singing until Yoko looked so bored that John had to call a halt to it.

“I’m not a f****** juke box,” he smiled, turning his attention to his left-out wife. I used the line when I wrote the 1974 film Stardust, about a fictional British rock star — which Lennon would later call my “famous film” and wonder if it was about him. It wasn’t.

John and Yoko liked to present themselves as the perfect love story, but, although they’d been inseparable chums when they’d first got together, he would become, as Yoko would tell me, “hard to live with”. I could well imagine that after seeing him explode into anger when he thought she was dressed inappropriately to meet the residents’ committee at the Dakota building in Manhattan, where they would eventually go to live. She’d been wearing hot pants.

All the same, when Yoko told me that he’d gone off to California with May Pang, their assistant, I was astonished. As Yoko explained, John had got drunk at a party and ended up having sex in a bedroom with a girl he’d just met. After that they had admitted to each other that maybe John should see other women.

I knew and liked May, but I hadn’t seen this coming. Nor, I discovered, had she. Yoko, as she admitted to me quite happily, had engineered the new relationship.

At the time I was taking a few years out of journalism while writing films and television plays, so I wasn’t privy to John’s 18 months with May, his “lost weekend”, as he called it. Then, in 1975, a postcard arrived from Yoko telling me that, not only were she and John back together, but also that she was pregnant.

For the next five years, as John remained mainly out of the public eye, living in the couple’s several apartments in the Dakota, our only contacts were by way of a few letters, in which, witty as ever, he joked about George Harrison as “George (‘I’m with God’) Harrisong”, friendly mocked my stammer and drooled over his baby son, Sean. As he wrote to several other old friends and relatives at the time, I did wonder whether he was lonely in his new life, but was too proud to come home to England and admit it.

Then, in 1980, when he came out of hibernation with his first album in five years, I called the Dakota and got Yoko on the phone, who said the time wasn’t right for an interview. Not knowing if this was because she thought the planets weren’t in their right positions for a successful meeting — I knew that she had become a numerologist — I got on with other work.

Then a couple of weeks later, on December 8, 1980, she phoned, wanting to know why I hadn’t yet come to New York to see them. I told her I would go the following morning. That night I bought my airline ticket, played the new album, packed my suitcase and, just before going to bed at around midnight, called back to tell them what time I would be arriving.

An assistant took the call. John and Yoko had gone down to the studio to remix one of Yoko’s tracks, he said. His instructions were to tell me that I should go straight to the Dakota when I got into New York the following afternoon. John was looking forward to seeing me again.

Four and a half hours later, the telephone at my bedside began to ring…

– The Interview People