The following article appeared in the December 8, 1981 issue of US magazine.
"You are sanpaku," Yoko Ono once told John Lennon. A Japanese term meaning "three whites," it signifies poor physical and psychological health. In a sanpaku person, the irises of the eyes are turned upward so that white can be seen on three sides.
Explaining that sanpaku was often an omen of death, Yoko showed Lennon photos of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. Neither had started out that way, but had become sanpaku with age.
John tended to believe her. He had tended to believe much of what this cryptic, cativating woman said ever since they'd met in 1967 at an art exhibition she'd staged in London.
He was certainly coming to some kind of end in his life. Not only were the euphoric '60s closing with warfare in Vietnam and Belfast and mass starvation in Biafra, but the Beatles, the group that had symbolized the decade, was rapidly deteriorating. At the moment, they were recording Let It Be, the last album the Beatles would release. The project had been conceived as a return to roots, a search for lost innocence. All the sessions were producing, however, was a particularly bitter brand of bickering.
Part of the problem was resentment at Yoko's constant presence. "Paul and George are the worst of the bloody lot," John said at the time. "They're always making cheap, snide little remarks about her. I saw the way Paul looked at Yoko every time he sang the chorus to 'Get Back,' like he wa singing it to her. And I still can't believe the things George said to her, like he heard bad vibes about her from people in New York. I should've smacked him in the mouth, but I still thought they'd all come to love her once they knew her."
Anger against Yoko was also shared by the Beatles' employees, the band's fans and the British press. Fleet Street described her as "ugly and ruthless.' Fans were in the habit of called her Nip and handing her clusters of roses, thorns first.
The hostility became so intense that, at one point, Yoko believed Beatles' aides were plotting to kill her to keep the group together. Though the idea initially sounded absurb, it seemed more plausible the more John thought about it. After all, millions of British pounds were at stake, much of it within the grasp of highly organized, vindictive businessmen. John's intention to quit wa common knowledge, and it was equally apparent that nothing short of Yoko's departure would persuade him to change his mind.
By January 1969, the same month Let It Be began, the resentment had reached such an extreme that the couple began using heroin. Since several of their friends-including Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and Marianne Faithful-were on smack, obtaining the drug was no problem. John and Yoko had first snorted it at a friend's flat, where they'd arrived seething with rage over the latest affront. The friend had suggested that smack would rejuvenate them, make the pain go away. They became violently ill after the initial experience, but repeated the experiment on subsequent occations. The pain never went away.
Yes, John could believe in sanpaku, in the truth of the eyes. He and Yoko had pored over photos of the Beatles and realized that, though none of them had been sanpaku in their early days, now they all were. John was not suprised. He'd believed for some time that the Beatles were a spent force, that their continued existence was an unhealthy pretense.
Neither John nor Yoko were prepared for the shock they felt when the break up of the Beatles finally became a reality. Instead of the long-anticipated sense of freedom, there was loss. Instead of triumph, there was despondency. They secreted themselves at Tittenhurst Park, living only in the bedroom and the kitchen, refusing to speak to anyone execpt through their personal assistant or housekeeper. Sometimes they would spend days lying in bed, watching the endlessly flickering TV screen.
Frequently they would fight one another with their claws out. He would scream at her, reducing her to paroxysms of weeping. She would tell him he was a cruel, bullying, woman-hating animal. More and more, John was cutting himself off, just as he had done when he couldn't cope as a little boy living with his Aunt Mimi or, later, when he was married to Cynthia. He smoked too much dope, refusing even to talk to the builders who were hard at work on the gargantuan task of restoring the little-used mansion.
There were occasional bright spots, like Yoko's 37th birthday, when he took her to the Inn on the Park Hotel in London and ordered the suite to be filled with red roses. But mostly the relationship was falling apart, as surely as his marriage to Cynthia had.
It was vastly different from the first time they'd made love, back in 1968. It had taken place one evening while Cynthia was in Greece. John, after puzzling for hours over the letters Yoko had been sending him, telephoned her to ask if she would like to come over.
The spent the night smoking joints and playing childish games-trying to tape their simultaneous burps, for instance-indulging in the same kind of silliness John had once injoyed with his mother.
At dawn, they crawled exhausted to the bedroom and made love with a passion John had never known with any other woman. Yoko, who had been married twice before, possessed a physical power and vivid imagination that left John literally dizzy. When he woke up later the next evening to feel her lying besides him, softly stroking his hair, he knew his life would never be the same again.
"I don't know how it happened," he said later. "She just sort of bowled me over. As she was talking to me, I would get high, and the discussion would get to such a level that I would be going higher and higher. When she'd leave, I'd go back to this sort of suburbia. Then I'd meet her again and my head would go open like I was on acid."
But now, gradually, they were coming apart. In urgent need of treatment, neither of them had sufficient strength left to call out for help.
The answer came in the mail. A friend in America had sent them a copy of a new book, Arthur Janov's The Primal Scream. Janov's technique consisted of persuading the patient to relive those moments in life when a basic emotional need had been denied. Rather than repressing the hurt, patients were encouraged to vent their rage, screaming to exorcise the haunting ghosts.
John and Yoko fell on the idea like starving people on charity soup. A short time later, they were in Los Angeles, living with music producer Phil Spector and undergoing tormented sessions at The Primal Institute.
For John, it was a chance to deal with a painful past, particularly his abandonment by his father and his mother's accidental death. He also had to face his own violent rages: He'd rampaged around Liverpool like a wounded buffalo, and once, in Hamburg, had mugged a German soldier of his money.
Yoko, too, had to confront his own anguish. Born in 1933 to a wealthy Tokyo family, she was abandoned at the start of World War II when her parents fled the country. Left in the care of servants who quickly deserted her, the child had to scrounge for food until her parents returned. Yoko was in her mid-teens when her father was appointed Japanese representative to the United Nations. Life in the U.S. brought an education at Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied art and philosophy, and an introduction to a flourishing avant-garde art scene. She emerged as one of the most controversial conceptual artists. Yet she had to grapple with two unsucessful marriages and the art establishment's refusal to take her work seriously. At one point, her deep depression culminated in a suicide attempt to a psychiatric hospital.
Their experiences in primal therapy formed the raw material for John Lennon Plastic Ono Band was stark, tortured and compelling, more comparable to an agonized Van Gogh self-portrait than to the frivolous pop of the Top Ten, and it established the post-Beatle John Lennon as a major cultural force.
Power to the People
Settling in America was a haphazard, unplanned affair. It was part of John and Yoko's long, complex custody battle over her daughter, Kyoko. The pursuit of the child and her father, Tony Cox, Yoko's second husband, had led the couple from England to Majorca, the Virgin Islands, Houston and, in August 1971, to New York City.
While their effort to get Kyoko back ultimately failed, John and Yoko did find a permanent home. Always fascinated by America, John became even more enthralled during his 1969 peace campaign. The British press had mocked his opinions, but American reporters treated him with a measure of respect.
New York was receptive. In the early '70s, the city was a matrix of political theater, with Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman as its principal actors. John and Yoko-the outrageous couple who, protesting the immorality of war, had turned their honeymoon into a seven-day bed-in-were welcomed as star players.
Rebellion was hardly new to the iconoclastic Lennon. But his anger at the businessmen who'd helped destroy the Beatles and at the politicians who'd sneered at his pleas for peace, fueled his rebellion into an open espousal of revolution. Dressed in military fatigues, he and Yoko spoke out on the Attica prison riot, American Indians, the IRA, marijuana laws and, most notably, the feminist movement.
John's political passion was sincere, a sinerity potently expressed in such songs as "Power to the People" and, with more subtle effectiveness, "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)." Yet his passion was also naive-a naivete mawkishly revealed in 1972's Sometime in New York City. The worst musical and lyrical disaster of his career, the tuneless, charmless album sold only a fraction as many copies as his previous LP, Imagine.
The Nixon Administration was not impressed by record sales. The Lennons were regarded with extreme suspicion. Indeed, as early as January 1971, the government's internal security officers had prepared a confidential memo branding John a dangerous political influence.
In January 1972, knowing nothing of the memo, the couple applied for an extension of their visas, due to expire March 1. Normally, the procedure is a mere formality, but this request was denied. The reason given for the refusal was John's 1968 British conviction for possession of cannibis. The couple was ordered to leave the country, and on April 18 deportation proceedings began.
Their defense became a cause celegre, joined by such luminaries as Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, painter Roy Lichtenstein, poet Allen Ginsberg, New York Mayor John V. Lindsay, Leonard Woodcock, president of the United Auto Workers union, Lord Harlech, Britain's former Ambassador to the United States.
Eventually, the Lennons were allowed to stay in the country, pending an appeal, but now subtler pressures were exerted. Their phone was conspicuously bugged, giving off so many clicks and whirrs that it was nearly impossible to use. Each time John went out in the street, he was closely followed. Fearing their enemies might resort to extreme measures, the couple moved from Greenwich Village to the Dakota, a grim, fortresslike apartment building. The Dakota posted a security guard 24 hours a day, and John began to feel less vulnerable.
But the most crucial pressure was to come from within the Dakota, within the Lennons themselves. Desperately wanting to be a mother again, Yoko insisted they both visit a specialist to see why she had been unable to conceive a child. The specialist told Yoko it would be difficult for her because she had undergone more than one abortion and several miscarriages. Worse still, he said that John had become infertile, apparently because of the vast quanities of drugs and alcohol he had pumped into his bloodstream over the years.
Visibly shaken by the news, John became almost as irritable and aggrissive as he'd been back in Liverpool. As time passed, he began drinking heavily, and as his idealistic plans deteriorated, he began verbally assaulting Yoko. He seemed to feel she was responsible for the miserable mess his life had become: the failure of his music, the seemingly endless procession of court cases.
Yoko could feel him slipping away, knew that she was losing him. In an effort to salvage their relationship, she tacitly agreed that he should go away for a few days with their pretty Japanese secretary. May Pang was a sweet, gentle girl, but Yoko knew she could never be a serious revel for John's love.
In October 1973, shortly after John's 33rd birthday, he and May jumped on a plane to Los Angeles. "I went out to buy newspapers and didn't go back," he joked when friends asked him what happened to his marriage.
Stand By Me
The separation lasted more than a few days; it lasted more than a year. John was in full flight, running from the brutal arguments with Yoko, the immigration bureau's persecution, the failure of his records, the onset of middle age-from everything and everyone.
What he was seeking was a return to his musical heritage, the gritty rock 'n' roll he'd loved all his life. He knew no one could take him back there than Phil Spector, the pioneering producer who'd become a rock legend in the '60s and who shared John's passion for crude, thundering blasts of music. Agreeing to produce John's album of old rock standards, Spector began the seesions surfing on waves of excitement.
Spector's manic behavior, his wild eccentricity, was well known throughout the rock world. John was not too astonished when Spector began arriving at the studio with a loaded revolver, though the explosion of gunfire once heard from the bathroom was a bit unsettling. Spector also took to knocking back increasing quanities of brandy with John and many of the other musicians who happened to be around. John liked booze. It blotted out the tormoil inside his mind and stopped him from thinking too much. But then Phil began to miss sessions, and on the days he did arrive, John was often so smashed he could barely sing.
Suddenly Spector retreated from the world into his huge, heavily guarded mansion on Sunset Strip. When John tried to see him, he was turned away by burly security guards. "Phil's been in a motorcycle crash," John was told. "He's ill, he's dying."
John became lost, confused. He had been relying on this album to pull the threads of his life together, and now even this project had turned into chaos. His bafflement only increased when he discovered that Spector had arranged for Warner to pay for the recording session, despite John's contract with Capitol. Even if Spector did return to the land of the living, it looked as though there would be lawsuits.
He couldn't go home to Yoko. He somehow had to persuade Spector to hand over the tapes they'd recorded. Any day now, he thought, he'd be deported and never see the tapes again. While he waited he drank even more brandy. May Pang had no control over him. He treated her exactly as he treated Cynthia: fondly, but with little respect.
He began visiting bars and clubs with an old friend, singer Harry Nilsson. One night they both arrived very drunk at the Troubadour Club, where the Smothers Brothers were performing. Several journalists John knew had come to see the show, but John and Harry were far too gone to even notice them.
They both began heckling the performance as they down one brandy Alexander after another. At first the audience was amused, but the slurred and drunken insults rapidly became boring. Eventually, John staggered shakily to the lavatory to return with a sanitary napkin plastered on his forehead. Harry roared with laughter, but the long-suffering waitress was less amused. They had, she told them, drunk quite enough for one evening.
"Do you know who I am?" John loudly protested.
"Yes," she replied looking straight into his lidded eyes, "you're an ass with a Kotex on."
Moments later, John and Harry were physically ejected from the club. Airing his displeasure, John attacked a nearby photographer who was recording the incident for posterity. The ejection and the fight made nearly every newspaper in the world, and the ensuing uproar made John think a little work therapy was in order. He decided to produce Harry's next album, and to this end assembled Ringo Starr, Keith Moon, Klaus Voorman and Bobby Keyes in a studio.
Somehow, though, they never actually began work. They all started drinking vodka when they woke up in the early afternoon, then gradually moved on to brandy as midnight approached. They invented wonderful games, such as daring one another to leap from moving cars. In addition to drinking, they were now dropping any pill they could lay their hands on.
"My goal was to obliterate the mind so I wouldn't be conscious," John explained later. "I think I was suicidal on some kind of subconscious level."
The drinking and drugs took a terrible physical toll on Harry who, unknown to John, was frequently coughing up blood after their wild nights on the town. When they finally made it into the studio, Harry suddenly realized that he had burned his voice out. He could no longer sing.
The shock sobered John. For the first time in nearly a year, he began to take stock of himself. He cut down on his drinking, forced Harry to reduce his intake and went on to complete the album. Like primal therapy, the act of finishing the record seemed to exocise his demons. He coudl feel this season in hell coming to an end. Moving in mysterious ways, Spector had suddenly-though grudgingly-returned the tapes. In addition, John had embarked on a frenzied scibble of songwriting.
He returned to New York in the summer of 1974, burning to create. He spent the rest of the year recording two LPs-Walls and Bridges, an album of original material, and Rock 'n' Roll, the collection of oldies he'd started with Spector. "After the year I've been through," he said, "I'm almost amazed I could get out anything at all." Both albums were successful, and each contained a hit single that symbolized his purgatorial release. One was John's own song, "Whatever Gets You Through the Night," and other, his version of the Ben E. King classic, "Stand By Me."
The crowd was standing on the chairs, screaming an hysterical welcome for the return of New York's prodigal son. They'd come to Madison Square Garden this November 1974 night to see Elton John. They hadn't expected Elton to bring on a special guest, an old friend: John Lennon bouncing out on stage for the show's encore, joining Elton in pounding versions of Beatles songs, concluding with "I Saw Her Standing There."
Ironically, a woman was standing there-offstage, in tears but out of John's sight.
"I didn't know Yoko was there," he said later. "I mean, if I'd known she was I'd just have been too nervous to go on. I would've been terrified. She was backstage afterwards and there was just that moment when we saw each other and like, it's in the movies, you know, when time stands still. There was silence, everything went silent, and we were just sort of looking at each other and somebody said, 'Well, there's two people in love.' That was before we got back together. But that's probably when we felt something. It was very weird."
John and Yoko were growing closer, though they were still living apart. He continued to share an apartment in Greenwish Village with May Pang, but he and Yoko knew it was almost over. He celebrated the New Year with May in plush Florida hotel. It was last time they would ever make love.
"I feel I've been on Sinbad's voyage," he said months later. "I've beaten all the monsters and now at last, I've come home."
My Wife's Dying
The wizened old Chinese acupuncturist leaned back in his chair. There was a smile in his eyes as he looked first at John, then at Yoko.
"You behave yourself," he said quietly. "No drugs, eat well, no drink. You have child."
Yoko began to protest: She was 42 years old. Other doctors had said she and John couldn't possibly produce a baby. She'd had too many miscarriages and abortions, and there was something wrong with John's sperm.
She also remembered her last pregnancy in 1968, when she suffered complications. Doctors had confined her to a maternity hospital. John had been distraught: he'd already recorded the fetal heartbeat and was consumed with the thought of Yoko producing his child. He arranged for the hospital to allow him to sleep on the floor besides Yoko's bed, in a sleeping bag. Later, the nurses took pity on him and gave him a spare bed. He and Yoko had felt so close, they seemed to be going through the same pain. On Nov. 21, when she lost the child, they cried themselves to sleep.
"Forget what the other doctors said," the acupuncturist interrupted firmly. "You have child."
In the spring of 1975, the acupuncturist's prediction came true. Bob Mercer, an EMI Records representative, was discussing a possible new record deal with John when Yoko burst in, flushed with excitement at the news of her pregnancy.
"I guess that shelves the work," John told him excitedly. "I'm going to devote the next nine months to making sure Yoko has this baby."
Yoko was fragile, and after a few months her condition became so critical that she was moved into a hospital for the remainder of her pregnany. Still there were problems, one of which affected John profoundly.
Somebody had given Yoko a tranfusion of the wrong blood type. "I was there when it happened," John would recall later. Yoko quickly grew rigid and began to shake. Notified by John, a doctor appeared minutes later. "He walks in," John related, "hardly notices Yoko, goes straight to me, shakes my hand and says, 'I've always enjoyed your music.' I start screaming, 'My wife's dying and you wanna talk about my music!'"
The incident crystallized John growing contempt for his illusory fame.
On Oct. 7, 1975, after three and a half years of legal battles, the United States Appeal Court canceled the deportation order. John's British conviction for possession of marijuana was ruled unjust by U.S. standards. The decision followed a spate of newspaper revalations about the Nixon Administration's plot to deport John, fearing he would help distrupt the 1972 Republican National Convention.
Two days later, on John 35th birthday, Sean Ono Lennon was born.
After returning from the hospital, one of the Lennons' first visitors was Bob Mercer. The record deal, John told him, was indefinitely postponed. He believed the first five years of a child's life were the most important, and he planned to spend them exclusively with Sean. He wouldn't neglect this son as he'd neglected his first, Julian. "John wanted a close relationship with the child," Mercer said, "and given his wealth, he could afford to do it."
On Oct. 22 John released an anthology album, Shaved Fished, and then, quite suddenly, he and Yoko completely retired from public life.
In early 1976, the Lennons ritualistically cleansed themselves of the past by fasting for six weeks, then settled into family life. While Yoko toiled over their complex tangle of business affairs, John rose at 6 a.m. to drink Japanese tea and prepare Sean's breakfast.
But gradually, he became bored. Yoko suggested he take a holiday on his own: It would do him good, and she'd enjoy looking after Sean by herself. At first he was terrified. He had never traveled anywhere without a retinue of aides.
At the more reason, insisted Yoko, to try it now.
Reluctantly, he book himself on a jet to Hong Kong. By the time he got to the hotel, he was quaking with nerves. It was the first time in almost 20 years htat he'd actually organized such a trip. He'd never checked into a hotel, never even called room service himself. Even unpacking his suitcase was a fresh experience. He needed a Valium or a drink but instead took a long, hot bath. Yoko maintained that a bath was the best sedative of all. He gazed out his window at the chaotic, seething streets, steeling himself for the moment when he would venture outside.
His nerve, however, repeatedly failed him. Each time he'd simply take another bath and escape into a book or TV.
Eventually, he simply strolled out of the hotel and followed a bustling crowd of bleary-eyed office workers onto a packed ferry boat. Nobody noticed him or even looked at him. He was being treated like any other tourist, but for John it was a momentous experience. He felt like a teenager on his first trip abroad, spreading his wings and fluttering from the nest. In that moment, he realized he had rediscovered himself. He had endured all the Beatlemania, the Indian mysticism, the drugs and the women to return to the same point in his life he had been at when he started out in Liverpool over 20 years before.
He came back to America fully accepting himself as an everyman, thoroughly ordinary, no different from anyone else. While Yoko managed their estate (estimated at over $150 million), he happily resumed the role of housefather. Over the next few years, the few friends who saw him say, he was as jubilant as he had been in the first few days of the Beatles.
True to his word, he maintained his exile for five years. In the spring of 1980, he began planning his comeback, an album that would reflect the simplicity and serenity of love and family live, with him and Yoko singing on alternate tracks.
That summer, as Sean approached his fifth birthday and John his 40th, he bought a small sailing ship called Strawberry Fields, and the two of them sailed to Bermuda.
One day, as the father and son sat down to lunch in Bermuda's Botanical Gardens, John noticed a singularly beautiful flower. It was called Double Fantasy.
The fans outside the Dakota, waiting for him to autograph the new album, failed to faze John. His mood was exultant: Only two weeks after its release, Double Fantasy had already sold over 500,000 copies, earning a gold disc. Besides, he enjoyed meeting the people who bought his records. It reminded him of the early days.
In fact, he looked like he was still playing seedy Liverpool and Hamburg clubs. His hair had just been cut in teddy-boy style, and he was wearing the same type of leather jacket, stovepipe trouser and cowboy boots he'd worn in his youth.
Nothing could faze him that December day, but something did startle him. At first he hadn't even looked into the face of the man holding the out-stretched album. But as John handed the record back, their eyes locked momentarily. John was used to the crazies, the kids with a penchant for acid who craved his benediction, but there was a glittering madness in these eyes which made them disturbingly unique. The man wanted to talk, but John hustled Yoko inside the waiting limousine and left.
After getting the autograph, the man spent six hours reading J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and thinking about John Lennon. He felt a tremendous affinity for his idol: They'd both come from broken homes, had staggered through the miasma of drugs and religion and married Japanese women.
But finally meeting his alter ego left him confused; something was wrong. The Lennon he'd seen was somehow taller, more imposing, than he'd expected. And John hadn't talked to him.
Deep in thought, he was jarred when the limousine returned. He slipped the book and the couple moved into the light around the Dakota's entrance.
"Mr. Lennon!" the voice called from the shadows. John turned. [killer's name omitted] smiled slightly as he dropped into a combate stance and pulled something from his other pocket. Yoko saw the metallic glint and began to scream. All John saw were the eyes-those feverish, cadaverous eyes again-and for the moment time stood still.