Rolling Stone Founder Jann Wenner Talks About John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Himself

From a Rolling Stone story by Jann S. Wenner headlined “John, Yoko, and Me”:

JANN WENNER FOUNDED Rolling Stone in the fall of 1967, when he was a 21-year-old UC Berkeley dropout working out of a tiny San Francisco loft. One of his main goals was to pull the curtain back on the most fascinating cultural and political figures of our time and reexamine their inner lives. But Wenner’s own life has remained mostly a mystery to the readers, even as Rolling Stone became one of the most respected and widely read magazines in America. That’s going to change Sept. 13 with the release of his memoir, Like a Rolling Stone.

The book offers readers an intimate portrait of Wenner’s life and times as the driving force behind Rolling Stone — and examines its many ups and downs over the past five decades. He opens up about his private family life and close friendships with the likes of Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Bono, Yoko Ono, Bette Midler, and Bruce Springsteen. Wenner also goes into frank detail for the first time about the dire health issues that plagued him in recent years and his difficult decision to sell Rolling to PMC in 2017.

In this exclusive excerpt, he looks back at his relationship with John Lennon. It began with the very first issue of the magazine, when a still from Lennon’s movie How I Won the War ran on the cover, and continued the following year when the magazine ran nude photos of Lennon and Ono from their Two Virgins LP that had been banned in stores around the world, resulting in Rolling Stone’s first significant mainstream press. “Print a famous foreskin,” Wenner wrote in the next issue, “and the world will beat a path to your door.”

Wenner breaks down how he won Lennon’s trust after the nude photos ran and persuaded him to sit for a deeply personal interview in which he spoke about the creation of many of his most beloved songs and the real reason the Beatles broke up. It was the start of a long relationship between Lennon and Rolling Stone that culminated in a 1980 nude cover shoot by Annie Leibovitz, taken just hours before he was murdered by a deranged fan.

Wenner’s relationship with Lennon and Ono started in 1970, when they stopped by the Rolling Stone offices to introduce themselves.

“HI, HI. SO, the thing is, you see, that we, John and Yoko, too, are in San Francisco, and we’re coming to see you.” It was Yoko on the phone, speaking in her staccato whisper. It was late-spring 1970. Twenty minutes later, John Lennon was striding down the hall of the Rolling Stone offices in a green military shirt. I was nervous, trying to be in the moment. Something about him seemed without guile. Suddenly, he was standing next to me. Everyone was up from their desks, dead silent, at a standstill. I showed John and Yoko around and introduced them to the staff one at a time. Meet John Lennon. The real, living, breathing John Lennon.

John had brought me The Primal Scream, a book by Dr. Arthur Janov, a psychotherapist who treated patients in group therapy by trying to regress them to infancy and scream the pain out. John had inscribed it:

Dear Jann,
After many years of searching — tobacco-pot-acid-meditation-brown-rice you name it — I am finally on the road to freedom and being REAL + STRAIGHT. I hope this book helps you as much as it did for Yoko + me. I’ll tell you the “true story” when we’re finished.
Love, John + Yoko

We had lunch at Enrico’s, a sidewalk bistro in North Beach where I was a regular. John was a constant talker. Yoko would punctuate his sentences with a “Yes, yes” or some little bit of emphasis. I was uncomfortable with the harsh way that John refused an autograph seeker: “Can’t you fucking see that I’m eating?”

John had never seen the documentary Let It Be. My wife, Jane, and I took them to an afternoon showing in a nearly empty theater, sitting together in silence. The movie so obviously forecast the Beatles’ impending breakup — you could see them coming apart right in front of your eyes. John said nothing. When we walked out, the four of us stood on the sidewalk, arms around each other in a huddle. John cried, and then all of us joined in.

We had a great dinner at my favorite Italian restaurant, Adolph’s, just two couples out on a Saturday night. Yoko had spent some childhood years in San Francisco, so we drove around and did a lot of sightseeing. The next weekend we visited with them at their rented mansion in Beverly Hills. They lived in one room hung with weavings, incense burning and candles lit. John agreed to give me the interview — he was ready to tell his story of the Beatles.

When John and Yoko got back to London, soon after their visit to me, they recorded his first solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. I got letters from him, addressed to me in “San Francis-cow, Californiar,” with the W of my last name illustrated as butt cheeks. Inside one was a postcard of a dominatrix spanking somebody with a horse crop, wishing us all Merry Christmas. Another letter read, “From a man wot once met Elvis.” That one had a page torn from a porn paperback on which he had written, “This is John and Yoko’s Christmas Message.” He would be in New York in early December for the release of the album, and ready for our interview.

There was so much in the Beatles’ history that we knew, but in fact, we knew very little. They had lived in a well-guarded world, and now a clumsy and awkward breakup was underway, with no explanation other than who might have had the idea or said it first. I made a list of songs that I was curious about how and why they were written. “A Day in the Life” — Who wrote what parts? What does this or that imagery in their songs refer to? How did the McCartney and Lennon partnership work? I made handwritten notes for questions on a yellow legal pad, a habit I picked up from my dad.

Annie Leibovitz, who had little experience with something so important, offered to travel on a youth fare and stay with friends so she could photograph John and Yoko. She begged for the chance and agreed that I would own the negatives. Deal! When I met her at the airport, she was carrying nearly a hundred pounds of equipment. She turned down my offer to help with it. Yoko told her that she and John were so impressed that I had let someone like her — she was still in school — shoot them, when they were used to the most famous photographers in the world. They didn’t treat her like a kid. Right away, John put her at ease, just as he did with me at our first meeting.

John and Yoko referred to themselves in the third person as Liz and Dick — Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton — whenever I went out with them. One day they were in a loft with a small camera crew making Up Your Legs Forever, a Yoko project in which they filmed more than 300 people’s naked backsides from the waist down. I was having lunch with Tom Wolfe, and brought him to the studio, dressed to his toe tips as usual. Annie was there, shooting. Tom declined to strip; I would only do it with my underpants on. I’m the one in the navy-blue jockey shorts.

Our interview took place in the paneled boardroom of Allen Klein, who managed Apple Records in those days, in addition to Phil Spector. “Oh, you’ve got notes and all that,” John said. “Well, we have to get right to it, don’t we? Give me the paper to doodle on. Where to start? Don’t be shy.”

John took charge. It was to be more about what he wanted to say than what I wanted to ask. I didn’t expect the intensity of his responses, his anger and bitterness about so many things, from childhood and the teachers who didn’t recognize his talent and potential genius to the rejection that had been laid on Yoko by his fellow Beatles, the fans, and the popular press. John spoke in argumentative, sometimes harsh tones. I think it came from his Liverpool upbringing. He could veer quickly into anger. He needed to fight back, to be paid attention to. He also had an unerring sense of humor, the sharpness of it overwhelming any need to be polite or kind.

John talked about his early days in London when the Beatles and the Stones ruled the nightlife; his ongoing friendship with Mick; meeting Bob Dylan; his LSD trips; songwriting with Paul; his favorite songs; vacationing with Brian Epstein, their gay manager; his love for the poet Chuck Berry. There was also a lot of myth shattering. “The Beatles tours were like [Fellini’s] Satyricon. We had that image, but the tours were something else … full of junk and whores and who the fuck knows what.” But what got the most attention was what he said about Paul. They were in a battle for control of the Beatles business, with Allen Klein facing off with McCartney’s in-laws, the Eastman family, father and son, both tough entertainment lawyers. John was respectful of Paul’s talents and the partnership they had shared. But it was a public divorce, and he had some pretty nasty stuff to say.

John was putting out his first solo album, an extraordinary revelation about himself. No one at the time made an album that intimate. Certainly no one so famous would dare to. It was painful in many parts, chilling and disturbing. To best understand the interview, you should listen closely to that album … and vice versa. The album was stunning. One of his greatest works. He was on a mission to tell the truth. Throughout his life, John had a desperate need to be a truth teller. He never had been allowed to say what he felt when he was a Beatle, and having kept so much of it hidden, had had enough. He was ready to explode, unleashed through therapy and his new album. He explained in the interview that he had stopped writing about outside situations and stories, and now wrote about himself. He was in search of his truest self, and in search of peace and love. The interview, along with the album, was an epitaph for the Beatles and their special world, one that we had all wanted to live in:

The dream is over. What can I say? The dream is over, yesterday.
I was the dream weaver, but now I’m reborn.
I was the Walrus, but now I’m John. And so, dear friends,
You just have to carry on — the dream is over.

In the interview, he said to me, “I’m not just talking about the Beatles, I’m talking about the generation thing. It’s over, and we gotta — I have to personally — get down to so-called reality.” What a dream it had been. But if it was a dream, why has it never been forgotten? How many end-of-the-Sixties moments were there going to be? The last question I asked was, “Do you have a picture of ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’?” He replied, “I hope we are a nice old couple living off the coast of Ireland … looking at our scrapbook of madness.”

Annie had a wonderful session with them. John wore bib overalls with a small American flag sewn on the front. He looked like a working man, especially with the round wire-frame glasses, the kind that were issued by the British National Health Service. When we got back to San Francisco, I looked at Annie’s contact sheets. She had many good photos, but nothing stopped me until I got to a sheet of head shots. It was just one frame — I saw it immediately. He is thinking. It’s very private. There is no mask. It’s a mystery. She had been using one of her cameras to take a light-meter reading; he gave her a quick look, and in that moment, she snapped the shutter for the aperture test. It was an accident, a simple twist of fate. I called the interview “Lennon Remembers,” after the memoir that had just been published, Khrushchev Remembers. I liked the direct echo with Lenin and couldn’t think of anything better. Because of his anger at the time, he focuses on the dark side. He is describing the inside of a never-seen, sealed-off world. Imperfect and incomplete as the interview was, it stands as Lennon’s memoir of the Beatles. The piece hit front pages: “The End of the Beatles!” “Satyricon, Lennon Claims!” “I Don’t Believe in Beatles, Says Lennon” “I Broke Up, Not Paul” — banner headlines for days in England, splashed on every newsstand, and throughout the world.

Paul was hurt the most. In a later Rolling Stone interview, he said, “I sat down and pored over every little paragraph, every sentence. And at the time I thought it’s me … That’s just what I’m like. He’s captured me so well. I’m a turd.” I had an awkward relationship with Paul for years because I was the handmaiden to this “last testament” of John’s. I’m sure John would have liked to take back some of what he said. He started calling the interview “Lennon Regrets.” But it was all truth, his truth, and to read it is to know that and to know John Lennon.

Rolling Stone was more visible than ever, once again because of John and Yoko. We published the interviews as a book the following fall, against John’s wishes. It was not a legal or financial issue, as I had the clear right to do so. I suspect John had not expected the blowback from the interview. He had hurt and disparaged people he knew and who had helped him. Later he said, “It’s just me shooting my mouth off. I’ll say anything. I can’t even remember it.”

To refuse the wishes of someone who had conferred an unquantifiable recognition on us, through the status of his own legitimacy, tore me apart. We had been given a sanctified role in a sacred ritual called the Beatles. It made me sick to feel as if I was “betraying” John. He accepted it but wouldn’t talk to me. His relationship with Rolling Stone remained, which was a comfort. He signed off his later letters to me with “Lennon remembers!” It was playful, and I took it as a sign of reconciliation.

Although John had been angry, we remained allies, stayed in touch, and worked together till the end. He sent me a letter thanking me for the magazine’s later support in his immigration battles.

Dear Jann,
Got yer note. Re/read it on the 7th! Am leaving for the snow on the 8th. You’re reading this on the … 10th/11th? (in S.F.)?
… A simple twist of!
we’re pretty much lost in Babyland … thanx for the immigration,
lennon remembers! love y dove
hi to jane
happy new now!

We had done that foundational interview in New York City on Dec. 8, 1970. Ten years later, to the day, John was dead.

IN THE DECADE that followed the “Lennon Remembers” interview, “Rolling Stone” moved to New York, and became the most important music magazine in the world. Lennon’s early-Seventies albums were covered extensively, but he largely dropped out of the scene in 1975, after his son Sean was born. When he reemerged in 1980 with a new record, he agreed to a cover story. He was shot and killed later just hours after the cover photo was taken.

OF ALL THE people to bear the news to the nation, it fell to Howard Cosell, while calling a Monday Night Football game on ABC. The news was so improbable that it was beyond belief. Jane and I were stunned. Is it real? How could this happen? What should we do? I needed to talk to people who might help me. I got hold of Rolling Stone music editor Greil Marcus. I called Annie to have her go to the Dakota, the Manhattan apartment building where John had been gunned down, even though she didn’t want to. It was all I could think of. In the early-morning hours, when the phone calls stopped, I walked across Central Park to the Dakota, where several hundred people stood vigil in the winter air. I stood there trying to absorb the awesome and frightening reality that such a man, a towering man, an irreplaceable genius of my times, to whom I owed a deep personal debt, had been murdered, and that I, and perhaps all of us, were in scary, dark waters. My mind was filled with waves of sadness for Yoko and her son. And there I stood for hours.

The next week was gloom and solemn purpose. Nothing else mattered. John Lennon had been murdered. He was gone, this great man at the center of everything I believed. Why does a man who writes of love, an artist who stands for peace, get shot down on his doorstep? I went into the office each day, obviously shaken. The staff was quiet and respectful, probably worried about me. We had to put out an issue. John and Yoko had just released a new album, Double Fantasy, their first in years, and they had been at work with Annie and Jonathan Cott on a Rolling Stone cover story, like old times. We had great new photographs and what had become John’s last solo interview. John and Jonathan had spent nine hours with each other. I was determined to do the most beautiful tribute issue of all time. Everyone knew that we had to rise to an occasion that seemed unimaginable. The last line of our introduction read, “It’s hard to believe our luck has gotten this bad.” I insisted on being hands-on with every bit of it.

I stayed in my dark office listening to Double Fantasy, sinking deeper into mourning and sorrow. I felt dulled out, depressed, as I quietly worked on copy, approving layouts, taking phone calls. Jane Pauley asked if I would be a guest on an NBC News special they were doing the night after the murder. At one point, Jane asked me if I thought John and Yoko deserved credit for ending the war in Vietnam. I didn’t hesitate: “Yes. Absolutely. There were many factors that ended the war, but John and Yoko were one of them.”

The next day Yoko called. She had been watching. She wanted me to come over to the Dakota. I had not seen her or John in person for 10 years. John had been passing me messages through Jonathan during the past two weeks as we were gearing up to help them launch Double Fantasy.

A vigil was still underway outside the building, and I walked through the very place of his death and went up to her seventh-floor apartment, where I was asked to remove my shoes. There were beefy off-duty cops at the door and inside as well. It was hushed. No television was on, no newspapers were in sight. Yoko was under siege. She didn’t know what would happen next. She gave me an account of the killer calling out John’s name and then the gun coming out, how she and John had seen him there in the afternoon when they’d left, and what it had been like at the hospital. Sean scampered through to say hello and shake hands like a grown-up. She had John’s glasses with dried blood on them. She wanted me to look at them and hold them. Yoko asked for 10 minutes of silence around the world on Sunday at 2 p.m., New York time. There were mass gatherings in Liverpool and London and cities across America and around the world. The largest was in Central Park. Jonathan came to my apartment, and we walked over together. More than 100,000 people had assembled. The band shell was empty but for two stacks of speakers, a portrait of John on an easel, garlands of evergreen, and a single wreath. His softer songs played: “In My Life,” “Norwegian Wood.” The sun broke through for “All You Need Is Love,” and the clouds reappeared for “Give Peace a Chance.” During the moment of silence, the helicopters flew away out of respect; there was not a noise of any kind among the thousands of people I was with. It was simple and peaceful. You could feel John’s spirit moving. After 10 minutes, the meditation ended with “Imagine.” As Jonathan and I walked back to the office, it began to snow. I felt older.

For our special issue, Annie had shot a photo of John and Yoko, with John naked, curled up in a fetal position around Yoko. They had told Annie they wanted that picture on the cover. It was unimaginably powerful, an echo of their Two Virgins photo, and now something like a foreshadowing of death and rebirth. It said all there was to say, and I decided there would be no headline or words. I didn’t like the idea of an advertisement on the back cover either and pulled it, replacing it with the lyrics to “Imagine” in my own handwriting. Just before we went to press, I wrote a small note to John, promising to watch over Yoko and Sean; it was hidden in the binding. That was my secret, although Yoko somehow got wind of it 20 years later. John and Yoko had kept watch over Rolling Stone. Now those days were gone.

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