All We Are Saying: Three Weeks With John Lennon In August 1980, writer David Sheff flew to New York for the assignment of his life: an interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Over the course of three weeks, he witnessed the day-to-day life of the couple in their Manhattan apartment, months before Lennon was shot dead outside the building. Here, Sheff shares several audio recordings of his interview, most of which has never been broadcast.
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All We Are Saying: Three Weeks With John Lennon

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All We Are Saying: Three Weeks With John Lennon

All We Are Saying: Three Weeks With John Lennon

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

In August of 1980, David Sheff flew to New York for maybe the biggest magazine assignment there was at that point. He was going to interview John Lennon and Yoko Ono for Playboy.

Every day for three weeks, Mr. Sheff, often with his tape recorder running, talked with the couple in their Central Park West apartment, on the street, in coffee shops and in recording studios. The Playboy interview hit the newsstands on December 6th.�Two days later John Lennon was shot dead on the street in front of his apartment.��

David Sheff's interviews with John and Yoko were later collected in the book "All We are Saying." For the most part, the audio from those conversations has never been broadcast.�Today would have been John Lennon's 70th birthday. To mark that occasion, we've asked David Sheff to share some excerpts from his now 30-year-old recordings.�He joins us from member station KQED in San Francisco.�

David, nice to talk to you again.

Mr. DAVID SHEFF (Journalist): Hello, Scott. Nice talking to you. Thanks.

SIMON: Set the scene for us. They were arguably the most famous couple in the world then, weren't they?

Mr. SHEFF: They were. And it was sort of an extraordinary time, because they sort of disappeared, I guess, after John released the rock and roll albums. You know, as far as we knew, the public knew, the fans knew, he was gone. And five years. And so there was all this mystery and all these questions.

SIMON: They were working on the "Double Fantasy" and "Milk and Honey" albums, right?

Mr. SHEFF: That's right.

SIMON: So what was that first meeting like? I bet you recall it.

Mr. SHEFF: It was pretty surreal. I mean, I had been trying to get to him for a long time. My editor, you know, sort of set me off on this task. And I said, of course, you know, cocky 24 years old, I said, sure, no problem.

And, of course, it was almost impossible. But I sent letters to people in the music business. And one day I got a phone call from somebody and he asked me when I was born and where I was born. And, you know, three or four days later I got a call. Someone said, you know, Yoko Ono wanted to meet me in New York. I got on a plane. And the next day I was having coffee with John Lennon.

SIMON: Was she interested in your astrological sign or something when she asked?

Mr. SHEFF: I think it was my numerology. Apparently my numbers were right. In fact, I think I was told later that my number was nine, which is the same number as John's.

SIMON: Well, let's delay not any more in hearing John Lennon talk about fame.

(Soundbite of recording)

Ms. YOKO ONO (Musician): Because you can become a stereotype of yourself and that's one thing we didn't want to be, in a way. And a lot of...

Mr. JOHN LENNON (Musician): Also I must add that I found myself in the position where, for whatever reason, I always considered myself an artist or musician, whatever you want to call it. And the so-called pain of the artist was always paid for by the freedom of the artist.

But then I found that I wasn't free. And then I might as well have gone to 9:00 to 5:00 job as carry on the way I was carrying on. I just got myself boxed in. And there's two ways to go. You either go to - or what I term going to Vegas, you know, and singing your greatest hits, if you're lucky. Or going to hell. You know, dying. Actually, literally dying.

SIMON: Boy. I can't tell you what it's like to hear John Lennon's voice.

Mr. SHEFF: I just was going to say, it doesn't - it almost doesn't matter what he says. That beautiful, beautiful voice.

Mr. LENNON: And then, of course, the reference, utterly casual, to dying.

Mr. SHEFF: It was so ironic, of course, because everything about the time I spent with him was about the future. And he was so positive. And he was looking forward to not only "Milk and Honey" and, you know, his son was five years old. I mean, the saddest thing in the world.

SIMON: Speaking of Sean, they were baking together, I guess, and he took what seemed to be enormous pride in his baking. We have a clip about that.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. LENNON: There's a great satisfaction. I took a Polaroid photograph of my first loaf.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LENNON: I was overjoyed when, you know, I mean, I was that excited by it. I couldn't believe it. It was like an album coming out of the oven. And the instantness of it was great.�And every day I was cooking lunch for the staff -drivers, office boys, anybody who was working, come on up. You know, I love it.

SIMON: So what were they like to spend three weeks with?

Mr. SHEFF: It was just too much. I mean, I was overwhelmed. And the thing that was, I guess, maybe the most surprising is how often I forgot that I was sitting across from John Lennon, because he was so gracious and so easy and so thoughtful.

And you know, we'd be taking about something - he talked about philosophy, he talked about his family, he talked about things, you know, he'd never talked about before. And we'd be sitting over coffee or tea or in the car or walking. And he's say, oh yes, and he was telling me a story about, you know, being in Spain. And he said, oh yeah, by the way, I wrote "Strawberry Fields" then.

I mean, there were so many of those moments where I thought, oh god, yeah, this is - this is the man. And John spent a lot of time, energy and passion talking about the view of Yoko that, you know, that he felt was wrong. He was very, very protective of her. And you know, on one hand he said, you know, it doesn't matter what people think of her, it's what I think of her that matters, but clearly there was also something that he wanted people to understand.

SIMON: Yeah. You inevitably raised the whole matter of whether or not she had cast some kind of spell over John Lennon that resulted in breaking up the Beatles. Let's listen to this.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. LENNON: Nobody ever said anything about Paul having a spell over me when I was with him for a long time, or me having a spell over Paul. They didn't think that was abnormal, two guys together, or...

Ms. ONO: They might have.

Mr. LENNON: ...or four guys together. In those days? Why didn't anybody ever say, how come those guys don't split up? I mean, what's going on backstage? I mean, what is that, you know, Paul and John business?

Mr. SHEFF: You know, I was part of the noise out there that was, you know, perpetually asking this question: Are the Beatles going to get back together? And he was, you know, clear that he'd moved on.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the music. What an opportunity this is for us to ask you about what John Lennon said to you about, I think, one of the great songs of all time, "Eleanor Rigby," and how he and Paul worked on that song.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. LENNON: Part of it we worked on it together, the lyrics too, if you want to get into that song. Because he had the first lines about Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice in the church when there's nobody there, and we worked in a room together on it somewhere to finish up a verse and a bit. And then the rest of it was finished off in the studio with me sitting at a table.

Mr. SHEFF: Would he envision the theme, this is about loneliness and...

Mr. LENNON: Oh yeah. The whole thing about Eleanor Rigby sits in the rice in the church where the wedding has been, and what was the next one?

Mr. SHEFF: Lives in a dream.

Mr. LENNON: I don't know if he (unintelligible) he only had the first verse. He didn't have the middle - (singing) oh, look at all the lonely people (speaking) that bit, that bit, that was sort of - they settled on that, he and George Harrison were settling on that as I left the room, you know, and I turned around and said that's it.

SIMON: David, how fortunate you were there to tell him his own line.

Mr. SHEFF: Yeah. Did I get it right? That's the thing - (singing) Eleanor Rigby sits in a church (speaking) yeah, it's right. Did I get it right: lives in a dream?

SIMON: I think so, yeah. I think so.

(Soundbite of song, "A Day in the Life")

SIMON: I want to ask you about "A Day in the Life," another one of my favorite Beatles productions.

(Soundbite of song, "A Day in the Life")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) I read the news today, oh boy. About a lucky man who made the grade...

SIMON: Now, I gather in your interview John said that he wrote the major part of the song but was missing a middle and Paul came up with that line - I almost sang it - I'd love to turn you on. And John Lennon tells that story...

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. LENNON: He had that one little lick floating around in his head, he couldn't use it for anything. He stuck in on. Now, instead of going on and developing that lick into the middle eight, which we would normally do, we got into how about putting a whole different song which he already had, that had nothing to do with "Day in the Life," which was all about being on top of a bus in a barber chair, and putting those two beats, which is a precursor to "Abbey Road" style later on.

(Soundbite of song, "A Day in the Life")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) But I just had to look. Having read the book. I'd love to - woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head...

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. SHEFF: Was it as important song to you as it was to the rest of the world?

Mr. LENNON: Oh yeah, it's important to me 'cause I thought it was a damn good piece of work, that's all.

SIMON: Damn good piece of work is a modest way of putting "A Day in the Life."

Mr. SHEFF: I agree with you. And one of the sort of disconcerting themes was, you know, we're sitting on the floor of Yoko's bathroom, on this marble floor, it's echo-y and I've got these little tiny tape recorders kind of clicking along. And I'm, you know, we have this stack of records, all the Beatles records, all of John's solo records, and we're going through song by song. At that particular session, we went on, I think, for almost three hours.

And half of the songs, songs of my life, he would dismiss. You know, oh God, we knocked that off, took 10 minutes, or that one was never recorded right. And then, you know, on the other hand, there was some stuff that he was really proud of and that was pretty exciting to hear about too.

SIMON: I'm going to ask you a couple more music questions, but why do you think he was so eager to talk to you, three weeks with you?

Mr. SHEFF: I was sort of the lucky person on the other side of the microphone. He had spent the previous five years transforming his life, and he went from a time in his life that he described as the lost weekend, when he was drinking and self-destructive, you know, really crazy, crazy times in Los Angeles and other places, to a time of reflection. And now we take it for granted that, you know, that sometimes the dad stays home and raises the child. But John was, you know, like he was on so many other - he was on the forefront of that. I mean, he called himself a househusband.

So he was home, he was raising his son. He talked about taking Sean to the YMCA in order to teach him to swim. And over that period of time, suddenly he felt this creative urge that he hadn't felt for a long time. And he sat down with a guitar. He said that these songs, all the songs that became "Double Fantasy" and "Milk and Honey," just sort of poured out of him.

And when I arrived, it was a time when he just had so much to say.

SIMON: And among the astonishing things to be discovered is among John Lennon's artistic inspirations was Bing Crosby. Let's listen to this. He said the song, "Please Please Me"...

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. LENNON: Was my attempt at writing a Roy Orbison song, will you believe it. I wrote it in the other bedroom in my house at Mammoth Avenue in Walton, which was my auntie's place, the suburbs. I remember the day and the pink eiderdown bed and I'd heard Roy Orbison doing "Only the Lonely" or something. And I was trying - (sings) Please me (speaking) that's where that came from. And also I was always intrigued by the words of - (singing) please lend your little ears to my pleas (speaking) the Bing Crosby song. I was always intrigued by the double use of the word please. So it was a combination of Bing Crosby and Roy Orbison.

SIMON: He does a pretty der Bingle, doesn't he?

Mr. SHEFF: Oh, isn't that lovely? I mean, that's the thing. You know, the interview came out, I don't know, I think it was the longest or one of the longest Playboy interviews ever, and then later the full interview was published as a book. But print does not do justice to the experience of sitting there with John. I mean, when he would sing like that.

SIMON: You got him to talk about that famous chord in "I Wanna Hold Your Hand."

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. LENNON: The chord that made the song was (singing) I wanna hold your hand. (Speaking) That was the whole bit. We were in downstairs in the cellar where I was on a piano, Paul was on the harmonium or vice versa, and we were both playing at the same time. And we had - (singing) oh you got that something...

(Soundbite of song, "I Wanna Hold Your Hand")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) I'll think you'll understand. When I say that something, I wanna hold your hand. I wanna hold your hand, I wanna hold your hand...

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. LENNON: And then he hit that beat seventh chord just as we were both playing chords, and I turned and said, that's it.

SIMON: What has it been like for you to sit here with us and maybe by yourself and listen to these recordings all over again?

Mr. SHEFF: Oh, it's so emotional, what can I say? I mean, brings me right back to those days and right back to being with him and right back to - you know, watching him as a husband and watching him as a father, you know, brings a whole other level in there. Because, you know, we lost him and then this little boy lost his father and Yoko lost her husband.

SIMON: And there's a moment in these recordings when you got him to talk about a sad and tragic sort of lineage of people who died before their time, I guess with little feeling that, at least in the minds of some people, he would soon join them.

Mr. SHEFF: Yeah. We were talking politics - we talked a lot about politics -and we talked about the peace movement. You know, he was, you know, really reflecting back on the '60s peace movement and about what he felt was, you know, done right and what he felt was done wrong. And then he sort of went off on this thing and started talking about, you know, sort of where does this desire for peace come from.

And he talked about his youth and he talked about sort of the violence that he grew up with and how he had to struggle to become sort of who he was. And then he reflected on, you know, other people who devoted their lives to peace.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. LENNON: Gandhi and Martin Luther King are great examples of fantastic non-violents who died violently. I can never work that out. You know, we're pacifists but I'm not sure (unintelligible) but what does it mean when you're such a pacifist that you get shot? I can never understand that.

Mr. SHEFF: You know, I think about at this time in John's life he was so excited about the future and he had so much to say and so much to give and so much music in him, that 30 years, you know, where would John have been now? It's impossible to imagine that John would have been 70 years old.

SIMON: And of course he talked in those terms when he spoke with you.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. LENNON: Time will tell where the real magic lies. I'm only 40 now when this tape comes out; Paul's 38. Elton John and Bob Dylan - we're still young people, relatively. And the game isn't over yet. Everybody is always talking in terms of the last record or the last Beatles concert, the last there's another, God, Goddess willing, 40 years of productivity.

Mr. SHEFF: One point he said: I live for the present, I live for the future. He said, you know, Paul wrote this great song, "Yesterday," and he said it's a beautiful song. I never wished I'd written it, and I don't believe in yesterday. And he said: life begins at 40, so they promise, and I believe that, you know, what's going to come. And, you know, that was one the last things actually he said to me.

SIMON: David, so good to talk to you. Thanks for letting us listen.

Mr. SHEFF: So good to talk to you. Oh man, hearing those tapes - every time.

SIMON: David Sheff. His 1980 interviews with John Lennon and Yoko Ono have just been released as the e-book "All We Are Saying."

(Soundbite of song, "(Just Like) Starting Over")

Mr. LENNON: (Singing) Our life together is so precious. Together we have grown, we have grown...

SIMON: And you can hear more from John Lennon at

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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