If John Lennon hadn’t become a rock star he might instead have made a very good stand-up comic. Get him talking and off he would go into a funny, self-knocking soliloquy, in which he was often the butt of his own jokes. ‘I’m either a performing flea or a crutch for the world’s social lepers,’ he once told me.
So, when he suddenly evicted a group of once-welcome Hare Krishna hippies from his estate, he explained his decision with a joke. ‘They kept going around saying, “peace, man, peace…” all the time. It was driving me mad. I couldn’t get any peace.’
That was John in a sentence. Sharp tongued, but often funny with it. And to interview him, which I did many times, was a dream because he couldn’t help but speak in headlines. Nothing was ever simply good or bad with John. He was a life-long exaggerator. Hence the recording sessions for the album and film Let It Be (now recut and remixed as The Beatles: Get Back) were ‘the worst fucking sessions ever’.
They weren’t, and Paul McCartney didn’t see those days spent in Twickenham Film Studios that way. But then Paul had three terrific new songs to record (Let It Be, Get Back and The Long And Winding Road) and John, always secretly jealous of Paul, had nothing fresh that he judged good enough.
Most stars are anxious not to offend, but John never cared, even when he knew that what he was about to say, or sometimes sing, would be hurtful. ‘A pretty face may last a year or two, but pretty soon they’ll see what you can do,’ he sang about his former best friend, Paul.
While he was vicious about his former guru, the recently much loved Maharishi, who had fallen out of favour. ‘Maharishi, you’ll get yours yet,’ he intended to snarl in song, until George Harrison insisted that it was a bite too far and Lennon changed the name of the song to ‘Sexy Sadie’.
Always clever with the pithy line, John might also have made a career for himself as an advertising copywriter or even a propagandist like Dominic Cummings, putting new phrases into the English language and newspaper headlines . ‘Give peace a chance,’ he sang during his anti-war campaign; ‘All you need is love,’ came during his hippy phase; while Ringo’s casual malapropism ‘It’s been a hard day’s night’ became, in John’s voice, a worldwide hit and headline.
I was always very fond of John, but I had no illusions, and if you like to think of him as the peace-loving, martyred saint of Yoko Ono’s rewriting of history you’ve got him dead wrong. Like most of his generation, he was opposed to the Vietnam War, but politically he was something of a cushion…spouting the attitudes of those who last sat on him.
His heart was in the right place, but he was never the ‘working class hero’ as he professed, having been brought up in middle class respectability. And, when asked by left wing activist Tariq Ali what he was going to do to ‘destroy the capitalist system’, he simply sang the song ‘Power to the People’ and moved on to a new craze.
There were always crazes. At the side of his second wife, Yoko Ono, he professed to be a great feminist, but his treatment of May Pang, the young mistress whom Yoko suggested he take when their marriage grew stale, was testimony to something else. May was dumped when her purpose ran out.
Tough love, I suppose, but that was John. I always liked his comment in New York when he was asked about the wealth he’d accumulated in the last years of his life. ‘Imagine no possessions…’ teased one of his oldest Liverpool friends on seeing a refrigerated row of John and Yoko’s fur coats
‘It was only a bloody song,’ grinned the ex-Beatle.
Ray Connolly’s latest novel The Last Interview is now on sale from Amazon.