Early December has a special resonance for me. Memories swirl up often for those of us in our 70s, sometimes too often. As a journalist, I try not to live in the past. I still look for new heroes and villains to chronicle.
But this month, the past has intruded in a particular way for me — borne back by the sweetness of music and youth, and by the poignancy of loss and death.
In the same week that Stephen Sondheim died, my wife and I sat down with our adult sons to watch the Beatles documentary, Get Back. We have an incidental personal connection to both.
We lived for a time in the same rural Connecticut village that Sondheim had lived and died in. And years later, in 1980, as the editor in charge of interviews at Playboy magazine, I took part in Lennon’s final interview, his longest ever. It had just arrived on the newsstands when Lennon was killed by a deranged fan in New York City.
40 ... and 50 ... years later
I’m writing this column on the date that John Lennon died, Dec. 8. It will appear in print a few days after that, on Dec. 12, when I turn 77. On a wall niche in our kitchen, Thia has mounted an anniversary gift from our friends Andy and Linda — a warmly-lit neon sign reading, “All You Need is Love.” You can see how for us, the auguries have been crackling like the wild, vivid lightning storms we watch from our balcony above Tampa Bay.
Thia and I settled down for the long watch in our apartment. On a nice big fat 65-inch screen. (Like any guy, I think it could be bigger. Thia does not agree.) She had popcorn ready, and sons Blair, 42, and Tyler, 39, stretched their big, sandaled feet onto our coffee table. Their mother allowed it, this once.
It was a moment, having both sons under our roof at the same time, another wisp from the past. Over 30 years ago, our own fab foursome would assemble once a week to see the only TV show we allowed the boys to watch as kids: The Wonder Years. The series, a soft-focus, nostalgic look back at a family in the ‘60s, had a theme song — of course, a Lennon-McCartney tune. In the present, I had to stifle an urge to ask our grown sons if they’d done their homework.
The Peter Jackson documentary, on Disney+, is a cull from 60 hours of film of the Beatles’ Let It Be sessions, culminating in their final live rooftop performance in 1969. An earlier film drawn from the same footage showed quarreling band members on the verge of a nasty breakup — which came just months later.
Jackson’s version is what we gratefully watched a few days ago: four lads, several of them geniuses, creating immortal music, making it up in real time, rehearsing their tight harmonies, joshing, joking, on deadline, busting one another’s chops, getting into scraps, with roadies and girlfriends and children and pets wandering in and out. Like other fractious families, but with unfathomably more talent.
Spend your days with Hayes
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For those of us watching, present and past played out in chords, some sweet, some discordant. Because I’d spent a little work time with two of the film’s principals, Blair and Ty would pause the video and ask me about Beatles lore. They already knew more than most. Yoko had made a lasting contribution to the boys’ lives in our past.
So we weren’t surprised to see the documentary showing Yoko as a mostly benign presence, more like a nuzzling newlywed than the intrusive dragon lady who supposedly broke up the Beatles. Paul: “They just want to stay together. … It’ll be comical 50 years from now to hear them say, the Beatles broke up because Yoko sat on an amp.”
Also: Good-natured, steady-drumming Ringo, chanting his “Octopus’ Garden,” prickly George, squirming under Paul’s guitar directions, trying out lyrics to his masterpiece, “Something,” as John suggests he use a nonsense phrase until the right one emerges: “Attracts me like a cauliflower.”
After watching Paul, annoyed at John’s lateness, create “Get Back” out of thin air, my favorite moment: The camera pans between the two battling Liverpool mates, guitar riffs twanging, finding a difficult chord for “Two of Us,” as the camera zooms in to show John nodding at Paul, grinning, signaling: Good one, that.
It couldn’t get much better.
‘What can I do to make it up to you boys?’ asked John
So, here’s what happened … many years ago.
In 1980, 10 years after the events in the documentary, after “Imagine” and several solo albums, Lennon had taken five years off. He memorably sowed wild oats, then devoted himself to being a dad and a house husband. Meanwhile, Beatlemania scarcely abated, with rumors of a reunion surfacing every other month.
I was running the New York office of Playboy, where I had the task of assigning the monthly Playboy Interviews. I was lucky, at a young age, to have inherited one of the jewels of magazine journalism. (We were all young then. My boss, legendary editor Arthur Kretchmer, was tapped to run editorial by Hugh Hefner at the age of 32.) In those days, the magazine had an enormous readership in the millions, many of whom read the articles. Interviews could go over 20,000 words. A typical holiday issue could be as thick as 300 pages — thus the space to let interviews run long. A fifth of the readers were women. The Playboy Interviews were collected, taught, had staying power.
Before my time, there were interviews with Martin Luther King Jr., Vladimir Nabokov, John Wayne, Salvador Dali, Malcolm X (interviewed by pre-Roots Alex Haley, who turned his Q&A into the Autobiography of Malcolm X). In my time — before and after 1980 — we went in-depth with Jimmy Carter, Marlon Brando, Fidel Castro, Steve Jobs, Dolly Parton, Barbra Streisand, Donald Trump. The magazine was always an unlikely amalgam, but we took our interviews seriously. So did our subjects. It’s why I dared hope we could land one of the biggest catches of all: John Lennon.
We’d heard that Lennon was coming out with a new album, and after so much time out of the public eye, competition was intense to get an interview with him. First-timer David Sheff, a young California writer in his mid-20s, began pitching me on Lennon, finally wearing me down. He also knew his music. He got the assignment to land the ex-Beatle.
David managed to get through to Yoko, who made all the business decisions for the pair, while John stayed home to “bake bread” and write songs. “Home” was the Dakota, the “Rosemary’s Baby” manse on West 72nd Street.
Yoko had her eccentricities, no denying it. A numerologist, she demanded David’s birthdate — and that of his Playboy editor — before giving assent. David and I met her at the Dakota to go over ground rules. I wanted to make sure it was an exclusive. She wanted assurance it would be a joint John-and-Yoko interview.
David’s sessions with the two got underway. David was a thoughtful, probing questioner, and John was in a lively, philosophical frame of mind during most of that week. But almost from the outset, there was an eerie sense of foreboding, perhaps only discernible in retrospect. At the very opening of the interview, this is John Lennon, explaining his earlier withdrawal from public life in his early 30s:
Rock and roll was not fun anymore. There were the standard options in my business: going to Vegas and singing your greatest hits — if you’re lucky — or going to hell, which is where Elvis went. ... The biggest prize is when you die — a really big one for dying in public.
Later in the interview, he said, during a conversation about being a pacifist:
Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King are great examples of non-violents who died violently. I’m not sure what it means when you’re such a pacifist that you get shot. I can never understand that.
These were the undercurrents. Most of the talk was spirited, up-tempo. This was a new start for John. David kept pressing him: Was there really no chance the four Beatles would ever get back together again?
We had a dozen hours of interviews in the can when, early the following week, we saw the new copy of Newsweek. There, across a double spread, was a short interview with John and Yoko. We’d been scooped! David and I called Yoko and asked for an immediate meeting. We taxied uptown to the Dakota, where the usual group of fans gathered by the giant gates.
I encountered John for the first time in an outer room of their apartment, tying his sneaker laces in an armchair.
“Hey-y,” he said, cheerfully, “Tits and ass!” It was a friendly, slangy reference to the other notable feature of Playboy magazine. He and Yoko repeatedly were photographed stark nude for album covers. No real problem there. Replying in the same spirit, I said, “John, you rat! You blew our exclusive.”
John owned up to it. He stood up, put his hands on his hips, and said, “We did. So … what can I do to make it up to you boys?”
Journalists measure their professional lives in moments. The moment when …
There I was, a young magazine guy, probably too full of myself, in fact semi-frozen. The most famous musician on the planet, pursued by uncountable fans and paparazzi and journalists, was just now asking, “What can I do for you?”
I knew I had to come up with something. Thinking hard, I conjured my own minor improvisation:
“John, have you ever gone over your music, song by song, to recall who wrote what, and under what circumstances?”
John’s response was immediate and enthusiastic.
“Are you kidding? Instead of talking about Beatles reunions and all that rubbish? I’m proud of my work. I’ll give you the definitive version — at least my version. You can do it from the womb to the grave. Boom!”
“You’ll probably only have to do this once in your life,” we assured him.
“Yeah, ‘In my life!’ ”
The four of us spent time in their giant kitchen, stacked high with cans of spices. Yoko served us exotic tea. Before John launched into what he called the “memory lane bit,” I had a moment alone with John while David was talking to Yoko. We were sitting side by side on a couch near the “white” room — the one with the Egyptian sarcophagus and the white grand piano on which John, inspired by Yoko, wrote “Imagine.”
We’d been talking about age. “Do you ever fear that creativity might ebb?” I asked. “Mathematicians, and some musicians, do their best work when they’re young.”
He gave me a sharp look. “Here comes the editor, put the fear of God into me, bringing up that bogeyman … but many people didn’t start writing till they were 40, 50, 60. So there’s hope yet.”
“Well, Mozart, for instance…”
“Oh, him. Well, it comes and goes. But you can’t ever be 24 again. You can’t be that hungry twice.”
I went back to the office. For the next several days, David and John went through the Beatles catalogue, song by song, with the albums and sheet music spread out between them on the floor.
My contributions to Paul’s songs was always to add a little bluesy edge to them. ... He provided a lightness, and optimism, while I would always go for sadness, the discords, the bluesy notes … here’s what I mean: Paul came in humming the first few bars of a new song, “Michelle,” and he says, “Where do I go from here?” I had been listening to (jazz singer) Nina Simone, and she had this line…(gruffly) I love you, I love you, I love you…
My role was just a footnote. David likes to say he was the lucky person at the other end of a tape recorder. But David’s deep, encyclopedic knowledge of Beatles music was essential in the soon-to-be historic interview, memorializing for all time — and the only time — the most prolific songwriting partnership in pop history.
Two months later John was dead.
Lennon and McCartney
Though John had just one, nearly-didn’t-happen chance to tell his side, Paul was interviewed countless times in the 40 years since his partner’s death. He had the rest of his life to tell his side, including once with Playboy in 1984.
It was the mirror image of our John and Yoko interview, this time with Paul and Linda McCartney. I didn’t participate in the same way this time. But our interviewer, freelance journalist Joan Goodman, reached a similarly wistful moment with the famously sunny, never-morose McCartney.
Talking about his partnerships after John, Paul was asked about his collaborations with Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. Admiring of Wonder, dismissive of Jackson, Paul brought the conversation on his own around to a songwriter he truly admired: Stephen Sondheim.
Playboy: Sondheim? You mean as in Broadway musicals?
McCartney: Sure. You know, when we started the Lennon-McCartney thing, with a 50-50 handshake, it was like a Rodgers and Hammerstein trip. For me, anyway. That romantic image of collaboration, all those films about songwriters plugging away at the piano — and they all go to California and get drunk. That’s the way that dream went.”
P: Is there a part of you looking for someone you can write with the same way you did with John?
M: The collaboration I had with John — it’s difficult to imagine anyone else coming up to that standard. He was no slouch, that boy. When I sing, “It’s getting better all the time.” I can’t imagine anybody who could chime in, “It couldn’t get much worse.”
A gift from Yoko
So that’s been my December so far. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Stephen Sondheim. It’s been another gratifying, glorious year to be alive, another horrifying year of plague and unrest. Getting better, couldn’t be much worse.
It’s made me think about my life, about long lives and short. Lennon was 40. Sondheim lived to be 91. After he turned 40, Sondheim wrote Company, Follies in Concert, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George. McCartney is 79, and Tyler and I watched him do a live 3-hour show at the Amalie Arena just a few years ago. At midnight, I was wiped, but Paul was still bopping around the stage, hitting his high notes.
One last story before I stop my reminiscing, kick our sons’ large feet off the coffee table, and don my mask. I mentioned that Yoko had done our family a kindness.
I got a call in 1981, around this season, a year after John died. It was Yoko.
“Hello,” she said. “I was thinking of the people who were around us last year. I remember you said you had a little boy.”
“I do, yes. We’ve another on the way.”
“Well, John left our Sean an Akita as his Christmas present. His last gift. She’s had puppies. Would you like one for your Christmas?”
I strapped 3-year-old Blair into our station wagon and drove to John and Yoko’s suburban “country” home in Cold Spring Harbor, on Long Island. Yoko greeted us with a cardboard box. Inside was a sleeping, weeks-old Akita puppy. We brought the dog home and raised it, along with both boys. We called him Abbey. Smart, talented, but kept getting into scraps with other dogs.
Guest columnist Barry Golson covers the Tampa Bay senior scene. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Playboy, Forbes and AARP, and he is the author of “Gringos in Paradise” (Scribner). Contact him at email@example.com.