"Is there anybody going to listen to my story/All about the girl who came to stay?" John Lennon asked in his song "Girl" on the Beatles' 1965 Rubber Soul album. Three years later, on the afternoon of September 17, 1968, I found myself ringing the doorbell of a basement flat at 34 Montagu Street in London. After a few seconds, an effervescent twenty-seven-year-old man with shoulder-length dark-brown hair — dressed in a black sweater, jeans, white tennis shoes and wearing round, wire-rimmed granny glasses — opened the door. "Come in, come in!" he said, then led me into the living room where he introduced me to the extraordinary girl who had come to stay, invited me to sit down on a couch, and asked me if I would like to listen to his story.
Days That I'll Remember is my own personal story about the times that I spent with John Lennon and Yoko Ono over a period of forty-five years. It is a story that began on a cold New York City morning in December 1963 during the first semester of my senior year at Columbia College. My clock radio had woken me up at 7:30. Craving another few minutes of sleep — even if it meant that I would arrive late for my much-dreaded class in set theory — I decided to turn the radio off; but just as my hand was reaching for the knob, I suddenly heard a male voice shouting out One-Two-Three-FAW! And then: "She was just seventeen/If you know what I mean!" Just as it happens in the song, my heart went BOOM; and I immediately knew that, from that moment on, "I Saw Her Standing There" would be the wake-up call for my entire life.
"I can't wake you up," John Lennon once said. "You can wake you up." But, luckily, the Beatles were going to remind me to do so — "Woke up, fell out of bed/Dragged a comb across my head." Sometimes, however, it seemed as if the Beatles themselves were a dream from which you really never wanted to awake. In fact, many people came to think of the four Beatles as symbolic dream figures and presences — like the four evangelists, the four seasons, the four phases of the moon, the four corners of the earth; and in an elementary sense, each Beatle — in the way he became defined by his face, gestures, voice, and songs — took on an archetypal role: Paul, sweet and sensitive; John, restless and rebellious; George, mysterious and mystical; Ringo, childlike but commonsensical.
"None of us would've made it alone," John once explained, "because Paul wasn't strong enough, I didn't have enough girl-appeal, George was too quiet, and Ringo was the drummer. But we thought everyone would be able to dig at least one of us, and that's how it turned out." For me, John Lennon was always the One. He had attained instant hero status in my eyes from the moment I first heard about the Beatles' 1963 Royal Command Variety Performance at London's Prince of Wales Theater with the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret in attendance. Introducing the song "Twist and Shout," John stepped up to the microphone and announced: "For our last number, I'd like to ask your help. The people in the cheap seats, clap your hands. And the rest of you, if you'd just rattle your jewelry."
A century-and-a-half earlier, in 1812, another one of my heroes, Ludwig van Beethoven, was walking down the street of a Bavarian resort town with the distinguished German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe when they happened to cross paths with the Empress Maria Ludovica and a retinue of nobles. Goethe stepped aside, doffed his hat, and kowtowed deeply. Beethoven, who rolled over for no one, strode right through their midst and admonished the obsequious writer, reminding him that nobles were a dime a dozen "but there are only two of us!" As the Beatles, in a similar vein, once observed: "Her Majesty's a pretty nice girl/But she doesn't have a lot to say." (Ironically, as I would later discover, Yoko Ono herself could claim a lineage purporting to go back to a ninth-century Japanese emperor; and in my book I discuss what is probably for most people her unfamiliar family history.)
As John developed both as a person and an artist throughout the twelve years that I knew him, he continually revealed ever-increasing facets of himself both to me and to his millions of admirers, even inviting us to accompany him on his journey down to Strawberry Fields to observe him delving into and exploring his own mind, which was, in fact, Strawberry Fields itself. Alluding to the well-known image of the giraffe going by a window, John once said: "People are always just seeing little bits of it, but I try and see the whole ... not just in my life, but the whole universe, the whole game." He was both Nowhere Man and Eggman, he contained multitudes, and of these, one and all, he wove the song of himself.
It was an all-embracing song that included anthems ("Give Peace a Chance") and dream collages ("Revolution 9"), meditations ("Strawberry Fields Forever") and calls to action ("Power to the People"), comic portraits ("Polythene Pam") and cosmic statements ("Across the Universe"). And it was a song that expressed an astonishing range of contrasting states of feelings and emotions: weariness ("I'm So Tired") and wakefulness ("Instant Karma!"), need ("Help!") and independence ("Good Morning Good Morning"), depression ("You've Got to Hide Your Love Away") and elation ("Whatever Gets You Thru the Night"), and pleasure ("I Feel Fine") and pain ("Yer Blues").
Never afraid to expose and explore his own vulnerabilities, John audaciously confronted the reality of his own irrepressible jealousy — as he once amusingly said, "I get jealous of the mirror" – and dealt with this self-feeding demon in Beatles songs like "No Reply," "You Can't Do That," and "Run for Your Life," lifting its line "I'd rather see you dead, little girl,/Than to be with another man," from Elvis Presley's "Baby, Let's Play House." But it was in one of his most remarkable songs, "Jealous Guy," that he entered daringly into jealousy's realm, describing with astonishing exactitude the manner by which it manifests itself in our bodies — heart beating fast, shivering inside, swallowing one's pain — and in so doing, allowed it to be experienced as something rich and strange.
Excerpt from Days That I'll Remember: Spending Time With John Lennon and Yoko Ono by Jonathan Cott. Copyright 2013 by Jonathan Cott. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.