Author Interviews
1:59 pm
Sun February 17, 2013

Days With John And Yoko: A Writer Remembers

Originally published on Sun February 17, 2013 5:00 pm

As the European editor of Rolling Stone, Jonathan Cott spent his time interviewing legendary musicians like Mick Jagger and Pete Townshend. But in 1968, he finally got the opportunity to meet his hero, John Lennon. Cott was nervous.

"He said, 'There's nothing to be nervous about,'" Cott recalls. "'It's going to be OK, and we're doing it together, and that's what really matters.'"

Cott forged a working relationship and friendship with Lennon, and with Yoko Ono, that would span more than two decades. He sat in on recording sessions for The Beatles' White Album, and was the last journalist to interview Lennon — just three days before Lennon died.

Cott's new book, Days That I'll Remember: Spending Time with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, chronicles his years in the couple's company. He spoke with NPR's Jacki Lyden about being in the studio with The Beatles and the depth of Lennon and Ono's relationship.


Interview Highlights

On the White Album sessions

"As soon as the other Beatles saw me, they just really cringed. They didn't care for this at all. They hadn't been informed that [Lennon] was bringing someone. And I just hid behind one of the speakers and stayed there for a number of hours, listening to them work on these two songs. One was 'Helter Skelter,' which is Paul McCartney's song, which really is a proto-heavy metal song and really uncharacteristic of Paul McCartney — just totally insane-sounding, crazy, end-of-the-world thing. And then John Lennon was doing 'Glass Onion,' which was gentle and kind of stream-of-consciousness, Beatles mythology images of 'The Fool On The Hill' and 'Lady Madonna' and 'Strawberry Fields.' ... So it was really like having the marriage of heaven and hell."

On the last time he saw Lennon

"I was there for nine hours at his home, and then into the recording studio, where they were making Yoko Ono's record — very famous record, as it turned out, called Walking On Thin Ice. Two nights later, on the night of Dec. 8, he was actually carrying a cassette tape that contained the final mix for that song — when he went home, just before he was killed. ... What's so fascinating to me is that their first date was a musical collaboration, and their 'last date,' so to speak, was also a musical collaboration."

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. And it's time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH YOKO!")

JOHN LENNON: (Singing) Oh, Yoko...

LYDEN: Yoko Ono celebrates her birthday tomorrow. She'll be 80 years old. Yoko Ono and John Lennon had perhaps one of the most torrid love affairs in rock and roll history. Inseparable after Lennon dropped in on her conceptual art show in New York in 1968, the two would marry, have a son together and become cocreators in music, art and activism.

Writer Jonathan Cott met them in the early days of the romance when he was working on a piece for Rolling Stone magazine. Lennon, 27, was in the middle of recording his new album with The Beatles, the "White Album." To Cott's astonishment, Lennon invited him to the Abbey Road sessions.

JONATHAN COTT: Like as if he said to me, why don't you come along to the "Magical Mystery Tour" or something or go into the "Yellow Submarine" with him and The Beatles, you know? So I went up, and I walked in there and, you know, crossed that zebra pattern and...

LYDEN: Crossed the zebra crossing in London.

COTT: ...which was holy ground. And as soon as the other Beatles saw me, they just really cringed. They didn't care for this at all. They hadn't been informed that he's bringing someone. And I just hid behind one of the speakers, and I stayed there for a number of hours listening to them work on these two songs. One was "Helter Skelter"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELTER SKELTER")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the slide. Where I stop and I turn and then I go for a ride till I get to the bottom and I see you again, yeah, yeah, yeah.

COTT: ...which was Paul McCartney's song, which, really, is a proto-heavy metal song and very uncharacteristic of Paul McCartney - just totally insane-sounding, crazy, end-of-the-world thing. And then John Lennon was doing "Glass Onion"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLASS ONION")

BEATLES: (Singing) I told you about strawberry fields, you know the place where nothing is real. Well, here's another place you can go where everything flows.

COTT: ...which was gentle and kind of stream-of-consciousness, Beatles mythology images of "Fool on the Hill" and "Lady Madonna" and "Strawberry Fields."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELTER SKELTER")

BEATLES: (Singing) Do, do, don't you want me to love you?

COTT: The heavy metal stuff was really, like, drove me out of my mind. They were repeating it over and over and editing and remixing and all that and rehearsing. And then the "Glass Onion" song came, and it was just so dreamy. So it was really like having the marriage of heaven and hell.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLASS ONION")

BEATLES: (Singing) Looking through the bent backed tulips to see how the other half lives, looking through a glass onion.

LYDEN: Yoko Ono would change John Lennon's life. And in your book, he's talking to a friend, and he said, you know, the minute I met this woman, it was as if I had known her before in another lifetime. My life was complete. I want to spend every day of my life with her. You found that a very natural process between the two of them. What did John Lennon tell you?

COTT: Well, you know, their first date, she went over to his home, and he had a music studio on the top floor. He said: Why don't we go up and make a recording, you know? So they went up at midnight, and they made this recording. It was kind of a John Cage-like sound montage. And he was playing piano, organ and percussion, and she was singing, and he was fooling around with sound effects like reverb and backward tapes and white noise and all that.

And they played all night, and then they made love at dawn. And, you know, from that moment on, this was not going to be a one-night stand. This one-night stand lasted until 1973 when they separated for 18 months. And they were never out of each other's sights for all those years. You know, he had a line in one of his songs which go: When we're together or when we're apart, there's never a space in between the beat of our hearts. I mean, how romantic can you get?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE DAY")

YOKO ONO: (Singing) When we're together or when we're apart, there's never a space in between the beat of our hearts, 'cause I'm the apple and you're the tree.

COTT: She was his soul guide and teacher, life teacher and best friend. Their relationship was really 50-50.

LYDEN: In the book, Jonathan, you emphasized that she had a really positive influence on his personality despite this rupture in 1973. How would you say that was manifested?

COTT: You know, when they were together - let me answer it this way, if it's all right - they were so attuned to each other as if they were finishing each other's sentences. Let me give you an example. She would write one of her songs: I said yes, I said yes, I prayed yes a thousand times yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A THOUSAND TIMES YES")

ONO: (Singing) I said yes, I said yes, I said yes, I prayed a thousand times yes.

COTT: And he would write: Yes is the answer and you know that for sure. Yes is surrender, you've got to let it go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIND GAMES")

LENNON: (Singing) Yes is the answer and you know that for sure.

COTT: Then she would say: Touch, touch, touch, just one touch, that's all I need - something like that - and he'd write a song which had the words: Touch is love, love is touch.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE")

LENNON: (Singing) Love is touch, touch is love.

COTT: And she'd have an instruction in her book "Grapefruit," which is a book of instruction poems and pieces, and she would say: Imagine the crowd stripping, and then he would write: Imagine there's no heaven.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IMAGINE")

LENNON: (Singing) Imagine there's no heaven, it's easy if you try.

COTT: And they had this kind of a strange, symbiotic connection, if you see what I mean. They were just attuned to each other. I mean, John Lennon called their relationships two minds, one destiny.

LYDEN: My guest is writer Jonathan Cott. His new book is called "Days That I'll Remember: Spending Time With John Lennon and Yoko Ono." You saw John Lennon just a few days before he was murdered. It had to be staggering to learn what had happened.

COTT: For everybody. But I was there December 5, and I was there for nine hours at his home, and then into the recording studio where they were making Yoko Ono's record - very famous record, as it turned out - called "Walking On Thin Ice."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALKING ON THIN ICE")

ONO: (Singing) Walking on thin ice, I'm paying the price.

COTT: Two nights later, on the 8th, the night of December 8, he was actually carrying a cassette tape that contained the final mix for that song when he went home just before he was killed. So in fact, what's so fascinating to me is that their first date was their musical collaboration, and their last date, so to speak, was also a musical collaboration.

And if I could just quote the last lines from "Walking On Thin Ice," they go: I may cry someday, but the tears will dry whichever way. And when our hearts return to ashes, it'll be just a story, it'll be just a story. Can you imagine writing that song, those lyrics and then what happened half hour later?

LYDEN: It's just the most incredible foreshadowing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALKING ON THIN ICE")

ONO: (Singing) I may cry someday, but the tears will dry whichever way.

LYDEN: If you think about this extraordinary person who was only 40 years old when he died, of all the memories that you've amassed, you know, what stands out?

COTT: Well, that's a really good question. The fact that he asked me to go to a Beatles recording session and had no qualms about doing it and just saying, come on, it's going to be okay. And that's what he also said to me when I sat down to do my first interview with him, because I was really nervous. And he said, there's nothing to be nervous about. Come on, you know, it's going be okay. And we're doing it together, and that's what really matters.

LYDEN: And in your last interview, didn't he also say, you've got loads of time?

COTT: Yeah. He said - I was saying: Oh, I just read the album, but I didn't have enough time to really listen to it deeply. And I don't know - then he just interrupted me. He said: Slow down. We got plenty of time, plenty of time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORROWED TIME")

LENNON: (Singing) When I was younger living confusion and deep despair.

LYDEN: That's writer Jonathan Cott. He's a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, and his new book is called "Days That I'll Remember: Spending Time With John Lennon and Yoko Ono," and it's out now. Jonathan Cott, thank you very much for being here and talking with us.

COTT: And thank you. It really was nice to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORROWED TIME")

LENNON: (Singing) Living on borrowed time without a thought for tomorrow. Living on borrowed time without a thought for tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.