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Beatles Interviews Database: John Lennon - Rolling Stone Interview, 11/23/1968
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Rolling Stone magazine
November 23, 1968 issue
Interviewed by Jonathan Colt
Copyright © 1968 Rolling Stone
The interview took place at John Lennon and Yoko Onoís temporary basement flat in London -- a flat where Jimi Hendrix, Ringo Starr and William Burroughs, among others, have stayed. But the flat seemed as much John and Yokoís as the Indian incense that took over the living room. The walls were covered with photos of John, of Yoko, a giant Sgt. Pepper ensign, Richard Chamberlainís poster collage of news clippings of the Stones bust, the Time magazine cover of the Beatles.

We arrived at five on the afternoon of September 17, said hello to gallery owner Robert Fraser, who had arranged the interview, and to John and Yoko, sitting together, looking ďtres bien ensembleĒ. We sat down around a simple wooden table covered with magazines, newspapers, sketch paper, boxes, drawings, a beaded necklace shaped in the form of a pentangle.

John said he had to be at a recording session in half an hour, so we talked for a while about Johnís show at the Fraser Gallery. John wrote some reminders to himself in the wonderfully intense absorbed way that a kid has painting the sun for the first time. As a philosopher once remarked: "Were art to redeem man, it could do so only by saving him from the seriousness of life and restoring him to an unexpected boyishness." When we arrived the next afternoon, September 18, John was walking around the room, humming what sounded like ďHold Me TightĒ -- just singing the song to the air. Old '50's forty-fives were scattered about the floor, and John played Rosie and the Originalsí version of ďGive Me Love.Ē We talked about the lyrics of Gene Vincentís ďWoman Love.Ē In spite of having slept only two hours, John asked us to sit down on the floor and begin the interview.

Any suspicions that John would be ornery, mean, cruel or brutish -- feelings attributed to him and imagined by press reports and various paranoiac personalities -- never arose even for the purpose of being pressed down. As John said simply about the interview: ďThereís nothing more fun than talking about your own songs and your own records. I mean, you canít help it, itís your bit, really. We talk about them together. Remember that". It's impossible to recapture in print John's inflections and pronunciations of words like "ahppens" for example. Wish you had been there.

Q: "IĎve listed a group of songs that I associate with you, in terms of what you are or what you were, songs that struck me as embodying you a little bit: 'Youíve Got to Hide your Love Away,' 'Strawberry Fields,' 'Itís Only Love,' 'She Said She Said,' 'Lucy in the Sky,' 'Iím Only Sleeping,' 'Run for Your Life,' 'I Am the Walrus,' 'All You Need Is Love,' 'Rain,' 'Girl.' Ē

JOHN: "The ones that really meant something to me -- look, I donít know about 'Hide Your Love Away,' thatís so long ago. Probably 'Strawberry Fields,' 'She Said,' 'Walrus,' 'Rain,' 'Girl.' There are just one or two others, 'Day Tripper,' 'Paperback Writer' even. 'Ticket to Ride' was one more, I remember that. It was a definite sort of change. 'Norwegian Wood' -- that was the sitar bit. Definitely, I consider them moods or moments."

Q: "I feel you in these songs more than in a song like 'Michelle' for example."

JOHN: "Yeah, right, they're me touch. Well the thing is, I don't know how they'd work out if I recorded them with other people, it would be entirely different. But it's my music with my band when it's me singing it, and it's Paul's music with his band. Sometimes it's halvey-halvey you know. When we write them together, they're together. But I'm not proud of all my songs. 'Walrus,' 'Strawberry Fields,' you know -- I'll sort of stick my name on them, the others are a bit... I think they're more powerful."

Q: "I heard that 'Strawberry Fields' was written when you were sitting on a beach alone."

JOHN: "Yeah, in Spain, filming 'How I Won The War,' I was going through a big scene about writing some songs again you know -- I seem to go through it now and then, and it took me a long time to write it. See, I was writing all bits and bits. I wanted the lyrics to be like conversation. It didn't work, that one verse was sort of ludicrous really, I just wanted it to be like (John sing-talks) 'We're talking and I just happen to be singing' -- like that. And it was very quiet. But it was written in this big Spanish house, part of it, and then finished on the beach. It was really romantic -- singing it too -- I don't know who was there."

Q: "Don't you find something special about that song?"

JOHN: "Oh yes, definitely yes. It was a big scene, like I say 'Ticket to Ride' was a big scene. 'Rain' was, not so much, but because of the backwards, you know. That was the time I discovered backwards accidentally. It was the first time I discovered it. On the end of 'Rain' you hear me singing it backwards. We'd done the main thing at EMI and the habit was then to take the songs home and see what you thought a little extra gimmick or what the guitar piece could be. So I got home about five in the morning, stoned out of me head, I staggered up to me tape recorder and I put it on, but it came out backwards, and I was in a trance in the earphones, what is it -- what is it? It's too much, you know, and I really wanted the whole song backwards almost, and that was it. So we tagged it on the end. I just happened to have the tape the wrong way round, it just came out backwards, it just blew me mind. The voice sounds like old Indian."

Q: "There have been a lot of philosophical analyses written about your songs, 'Strawberry Fields' in particular..."

JOHN: "Well, they can take them apart. They can take anything apart. I mean, I hit it on all levels, you know. We write lyrics, and I write lyrics that you donít realize what they mean till after. Especially some of the better songs or some of the more flowing ones, like 'Walrus.' The whole first verse was written without any knowledge. And 'Tomorrow Never Knows' -- I didnít know what I was saying, and you just find out later. I know that when there are some lyrics I dig I know that somewhere people will be looking at them. And I dig the people that notice that I have a sort of strange rhythm scene, because Iíve never been able to keep rhythm on the stage. I always used to get lost. Itís me double off-beats."

Q: "In 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' what about an image like 'newspaper taxis'?"

JOHN: "That was a Paul line, I think, in alot of them you'll get so far. You've lumbered yourself with a set of images and it's an effort to keep it up."

Q: "Pop analysts are often trying to read something into songs that isnít there."

JOHN: "It is there. Itís like abstract art really. Itís just the same really. Itís just that when you have to think about it to write it, it just means that you labored at it. But when you just say it, man, you know youíre saying it, itís a continuous flow. The same as when youíre recording or just playing. You come out of a thing and you know 'Iíve been there,' and it was nothing, it was just pure, and thatís what weíre looking for all the time, really."

Q: "What is Strawberry Fields?"

JOHN: "Itís a name, itís a nice name. When I was writing 'In My Life' -- I was trying 'Penny Lane' at that time -- we were trying to write about Liverpool, and I just listed all the nice-sounding names, just arbitrarily. Strawberry Fields was a place near us that happened to be a Salvation Army home. But Strawberry Fields -- I mean, I have visions of Strawberry Fields. And there was Penny Lane, and the Cast Iron Shore, which Iíve just got in some song now, and they were just good names -- just groovy names. Just good sounding. Because Strawberry Fields is anywhere you want to go."

Q: "How much do you think the songs go toward building up a myth of a state of mind?"

JOHN: "I donít know. I mean, we got a bit pretentious. Like everybody, we had our phase and now itĎs a little change over to trying to be more natural, less 'newspaper taxis,' say. I mean, weíre just changing. I donít know what weíre doing at all, I just write them. Really, I just like rock'n'roll. I mean, these (pointing to a pile of 50's records) are the records I dug then, I dig them now and Iím still trying to reproduce 'Some Other Guy' sometimes or 'Be Bop A Lula.' Whatever it is, itís the same bit for me. Itís really just the sound."

Q: "The Beatles seem to be one of the only groups who ever made a distinction between friends and lovers. For Instance, thereís the 'baby' who can drive your car. But when it comes to 'We Can Work It Out,' you talk about 'my friend.' In most other groupsí songs, calling someone 'baby' is a bit demeaning compared to your distinction."

JOHN: "Yeah, I donít know why. Itís Paulís bit that -- 'Buy you a diamond ring, my friend' -- itís an alternative to baby. You can take it logically, the way you took it. See, I donít know really. Yours is as true a way of looking at it as any other way. In 'Baby, Youíre a Rich Man' the point was, stop moaning. Youíre a rich man and weĎre all rich men, heh, heh, baby!"

Q: "I've felt your other mood recently: 'Here I stand, head in hand' in 'Hide Your Love Away' and 'When I was a boy, everything was right' in 'She Said She Said.'"

JOHN: "Yeah, right. That was pure. That was what I meant all right. You see, when I wrote that I had the 'She said she said,' but it was just meaning nothing. It was just vaguely to do with someone who had said something like he knew what it was like to be dead, and then it was just a sound. And then I wanted a middle-eight. The beginning had been around for days and days and so I wrote the first thing that came into my head and it was 'When I was a boy,' different beat, but it was real because it just happened. Itís funny, because while weíre recording weíre all aware and listening to our old records and we say, weíll do one like 'The Word' -- make it like that. It never does turn out like that, but weíre always comparing and talking about the old albums -- just checking up, what is it? like swatting up for the exam -- just listening to everything."

Q: "Yet people think youíre trying to get away from the old records."

JOHN: "But Iíd like to make a record like 'Some Other Guy.' I havenít done one that satisfies me as much as that satisfied me. Or 'Be Bop A Lula' or 'Heartbreak Hotel' or 'Good Golly, Miss Molly' or 'Whole Lot of Shakin.í Iím not being modest. I mean, weíre still trying it. We sit there in the studio and we say, 'How did it go, how did it go? Come on, letís do that.' Like what Fats Domino has done with 'Lady Madonna' -- 'See how they ruhhnnn.' "

Q: "Wasn't it about the time of 'Rubber Soul' that you moved away from the old records to something quite different?"

JOHN: "Yes, yes, we got involved completely in ourselves then. I think it was 'Rubber Soul' when we did all our own numbers. Something just happened. We controlled it a bit. Whatever it was we were putting over, we just tried to control it a bit."

Q: "Are there any other versions of your songs you like?"

JOHN: "Well, Ray Charlesís version of 'Yesterday' -- thatís beautiful. And 'Eleanor Rigby' is a groove. I just dig the strings on that. Like 30's strings. Jose Feliciano does great things to 'Help!' and 'Day Tripper.' 'Got to Get You Into My Life' -- sure, we were doing our Tamla Motown bit. You see, weíre influenced by whateverís going. Even if weíre not influenced, weíre all going that way at a certain time. If we played a Stones record now, and a Beatles record -- and weíve been way apart -- youíd find a lot of similarities. Weíre all heavy. Just heavy. How did we ever do anything light? What weíre trying to do is rock & roll, with less of your philosorock, is what weíre saying to ourselves. And get on with rocking because rockers is what we really are. You can give me a guitar, stand me up in front of a few people. Even in the studio, if Iím getting into it, Iím just doing my old bit -- not quite doing Elvis Legs but doing my equivalent. Itís just natural. Everybody says we must do this and that but our thing is just rocking -- you know, the usual gig."

"Thatís what this new record is about. Definitely rocking. What we were doing on Pepper was rocking, and not rocking. "A Day in the Life" -- that was something. I dug it. It was a good piece of work between Paul and me. I had the 'I read the news today' bit, and it turned Paul on. Now and then we really turn each other on with a bit of song, and he just said 'yeah -- bang bang,' like that. It just sort of happened beautifully, and we arranged it and rehearsed it, which we donít often do, the afternoon before. So we all knew what we were playing, we all got into it. It was a real groove, the whole scene on that one. Paul sang half of it and I sang half. I needed a middle-eight for it, but that would have been forcing it. All the rest had come out smooth, flowing, no trouble, and to write a middle-eight would have been to write a middle-eight, but instead Paul already had one there. Itís a bit of a 2001, you know. Q: "Songs like 'Good Morning, Good Morning' and 'Penny Lane' convey a child's feeling of the world."

JOHN: "We write about our past. 'Good Morning, Good Morning,' I was never proud of it. I just knocked it off to do a song. But it was writing about my past so it does get the kids because it was me at school, my whole bit. The same with "Penny Lane." We really got into the groove of imagining Penny Lane -- the bank was there, and that was where the tram sheds were and people waiting and the inspector stood there, the fire engines were down there. It was just reliving childhood."

Q: "You really had a place where you grew up."

JOHN: "Oh, yeah. Didnít you?"

Q: "Well, Manhattan isnít Liverpool."

JOHN: "Well, you could write about your local bus station."

Q: "In Manhattan?"

JOHN: "Sure, why not? Everywhere is somewhere."

Q: "In 'Hey Jude,' as in one of your first songs, 'She Loves you,' youíre singing to someone else and yet you might as well be singing to yourself. Do you find that as well?"

JOHN: "Oh, yeah. Well, when Paul first sang 'Hey Jude' to me -- or played me the little tape heíd made of it -' I took it very personally. 'Ah, itís me!' I said, 'Itís me.' He says,'No, itís me.' I said, 'Check, weíre going through the same bit.' So we all are. Whoever is going through that bit with us is going through it, thatís the groove."

Q: "In the 'Magical Mystery Tour' theme song you say, 'The Magical Mystery Tour is waiting to take you away.' In Sgt. Pepper you sing, 'Weíd like to take you home with us.' How do you relate this embracing, come-sit-on-my-lawn feeling in the songs with your need for everyday privacy?"

JOHN: "I take a narrower concept of it, like whoever was around at the time wanting to talk to them talked to me, but of course it does have that wider aspect to it. The concept is very good and I went through it and said, "Well, okay. Let them sit on my lawn." But of course it doesnít work. People climbed in the house and smashed things up, and then you think, 'Thatís no good, that doesnít work.' So actually youíre saying, 'Donít talk to me,' really. Weíre all trying to say nice things like that but most of the time we canít make it -- ninety percent of the time -- and the odd time we do make it, when we do it, together as people. You can say it in a song: 'Well, whatever I did say to you that day about getting out of the garden, part of me said that but, really, in my heart of hearts, Iíd like to have it right and talk to you and communicate.' Unfortunately weíre human, you know -- it doesnít seem to work."

Q: "Do you feel free to put anything in a song?"

JOHN: "Yes. In the early days I'd... well, we all did... we'd take things out for being banal cliches, even chords we wouldn't use because we thought they were cliches. And even just this year there's been a great release for all of us, going right back to the basics. On 'Revolution' I'm playing the guitar and I haven't improved since I was last playing, but I dug it. It sounds the way I wanted it to sound. It's a pity I can't do it better... the fingering, you know... but I couldn't have done that last year. I'd have been too paranoiac. I couldn't play: ('Revolution' guitar intro) 'd-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d.' George must play, or somebody better. My playing has probably improved a little bit on this session because I've been playing a little. I was always the rhythm guitar anyway, but I always just fiddled about in the background. I didn't actually want to play rhythm. We all sort of wanted to be lead -- as in most groups -- but it's a groove now, and so are the cliches. We've gone past those days when we wouldn't have used words because they didn't make sense, or what we thought was sense. But of course Dylan taught us a lot in this respect."

"Another thing is, I used to write a book or stories on one hand and write songs on the other. And I'd be writing completely free form in a book or just on a bit of paper, but when I'd start to write a song I'd be thinking: dee duh dee duh do doo do de do de doo. And it took Dylan and all that was going on then to say, 'oh, come on now, that's the same bit, I'm just singing the words.' With 'I Am the Walrus,' I had 'I am he as you are he as we are all together.' I had just these two lines on the typewriter, and then about two weeks later I ran through and wrote another two lines and then, when I saw something, after about four lines, I just knocked the rest of it off. Then I had the whole verse or verse and a half and then sang it. I had this idea of doing a song that was a police siren, but it didn't work in the end (sings like a siren) 'I-am-he-as-you-are-he-as...' You couldn't really sing the police siren."

Q: "Do you write your music with instruments or in your head?"

JOHN: "On piano or guitar. Most of this session has been written on guitar 'cuz we were in India and only had our guitars there. They have a different feel about them. I missed the piano a bit because you just write differently. My piano playing is even worse than me guitar. I hardly know what the chords are, so it's good to have a slightly limited palette, heh heh."

Q: "What did you think of Dylan's version of 'Norwegian Wood'?"

JOHN: "I was very paranoid about that. I remember he played it to me when he was in London. He said, 'What do you think?' I said, 'I don't like it.' I didn't like it. I was very paranoid. I just didn't like what I felt I was feeling - I thought it was an out-and-out skit, you know, but it wasn't. It was great. I mean, he wasn't playing any tricks on me. I was just going through the bit."

Q: "Is there anybody besides Dylan youíve gotten something from musically?"

JOHN: "Oh, millions. All those I mentioned before -- Little Richard, Presley."

Q: "Anyone contemporary?"

JOHN: "Are they dead? Well, nobody sustains it. Iíve been buzzed by the Stones and other groups, but none of them can sustain the buzz for me continually through a whole album or through three singles even."

Q: "You and Dylan are often thought of together in some way."

JOHN: "Yeah? Well we were for a bit, but I couldnít make it. Too paranoiac. I always saw him when he was in London. He first turned us on in New York actually. He thought 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' -- when it goes 'I canít hide' -- he thought we were singing 'I get high.' So he turns up with Al Aronowitz and turns us on, and we had the biggest laugh all night -- forever. Fantastic. Weíve got a lot to thank him for."

Q: "Do you ever see him anymore?"

JOHN: "No, Ďcuz heís living his cozy little life, doing that bit. If I was in New York, heíd be the person Iíd most like to see. Iíve grown up enough to communicate with him. Both of us were always uptight, you know, and of course I wouldnít know whether he was uptight, because I was so uptight. And then, when he wasnít uptight, I was -- all that bit. But we just sat it out because we just liked being together."

Q: "What about the new desire to return to a more natural environment? Dylanís return to country music?"

JOHN: "Dylan broke his neck and we went to India. Everybody did their bit. And now weíre all just coming out, coming out of a shell, in a new way, kind of saying, remember what it was like to play."

Q: "Do you feel better now?"

JOHN: "Yes... and worse."

Q: "What do you feel about India now?"

JOHN: "Iíve got no regrets at all, Ďcuz it was a groove and I had some great experiences meditating eight hours a day -- some amazing things, some amazing trips -- it was great. And I still meditate off and on. George is doing it regularly. And I believe implicity in the whole bit. Itís just that itís difficult to continue it. I lost the rosy glasses. And Iím like that. Iím very idealistic."

"So I canít really manage my exercises when Iíve lost that. I mean, I donít want to be a boxer so much. Itís just that a few things happened, or didnít happen. I donít know, but something happened. It was sort of like a (click) and we just left and I donít know what went on. Itís too near -- I donít really know what happened."

Q: "You just showed me what might be the front and back album photos for the record youíre putting out of the music you and Yoko composed for your film Two Virgins. The photos have the simplicity of a daguerreotype..."

JOHN: "Well, thatís because I took it. Iím a ham photographer, you know. Itís me Nikon what I was given by a commercially minded Japanese when we were in Japan, along with me Pentax, me Canon, me boom-boom and all the others. So I just set it up and did it."

Q: "For the cover, thereís a photo of you and Yoko standing naked facing the camera. And on the backside are your backsides. What do you think people are going to think of the cover?"

JOHN: "Well, weíve got that to come. The thing is, I started it with a pure... it was the truth, and it was only after Iíd got into it and done it and looked at it that Iíd realized what kind of scene I was going to create. And then suddenly, there it was, and then suddenly you show it to people and then you know what the worldís going to do to you, or try to do. But you have no knowledge of it when you conceive it or make it."

"Originally, I was going to record Yoko, and I thought the best picture of her for an album would be her naked. I was just going to record her as an artist. We were only on those kind of terms then. So after that, when we got together, it just seemed natural for us, if we made an album together, for both of us to be naked. Of course, Iíve never seen me prick on an album or on a photo before: 'What'n'earth, thereís a fellow with his prick out.' And that was the first time I realized me prick was out, you know. I mean, you can see it on the photo itself -- weíre naked in front of a camera -- that comes over in the eyes, just for a minute you go!! I mean, youíre not used to it, being naked, but itís got to come out."

Q: "How do you face the fact that people are going to mutilate you?"

JOHN: "Well, I can take that as long as we can get the cover out. And I really donít know what the chances are of that."

Q: "You donít worry about the nuts across the street?"

JOHN: "No, no. I know it wonít be very comfortable walking around with all the lorry drivers whistling and that, but itíll all die. Next year itíll be nothing, like miniskirts or bare tits. It isnít anything. Weíre all naked really. When people attack Yoko and me, we know they're paranoiac. We don't worry too much. It's the ones that don't know, and you know they don't know -- they're just going round in a blue fuzz. The thing is, the album also says: Look, lay off will you? It's two people -- what have we done?"

Q: "Lenny Bruce once compared himself to a doctor, saying that if people werenĎt sick, there wouldnít be any need for him."

JOHN: "Thatís the bit, isnít it? Since we started being more natural in public -- the four of us -- weíve really had a lot of knocking. I mean, weíre always natural. I mean, you canít help it. We couldnít have been where we are if we hadnít done that. We wouldnít have been us either. And it took four of us to enable us to do it; we couldnít have done it alone and kept that up. I donít know why I get knocked more often. I seem to open me mouth more often, something happens, I forget what I am till it all happens again. I mean, we just get knocked -- from the underground, the pop world - me personally. Theyíre all doing it. Theyíve got to stop soon."

Q: "Couldnít you go off to your own community and not be bothered with all of this?"

JOHN: "Well, itís just the same there, you see. India was a bit of that, it was a taste of it -- itís the same. So thereís a small community, itís the same gig, itís relative. Thereís no escape."

Q: "Your show at the Fraser Gallery gave critics a chance to take a swipe at you."

JOHN: "Oh, right, but putting it on was taking a swipe at them in a way. I mean, thatís what it was about. What they couldnít understand was that -- a lot of them were saying, well, if it hadnít been for John Lennon nobody would have gone to it, but as it was, it was me doing it. And if it had been Sam Bloggs it would have been nice. But the point of it was -- it was me. And theyíre using that as a reason to say why it didnít work. Work as what?"

Q: "Do you think Yokoís film of you smiling would work of it were just anyone smiling?"

JOHN: "Yes, it works with somebody else smiling, but she went through all this. It originally started out that she wanted a million people all over the world to send in a snapshot of themselves smiling, and then it got down to lots of people smiling, and then maybe one or two and then me smiling as a symbol of today smiling -- and thatís what I am, whatever that means. And so itís me smiling, and thatís the hang-up, of course, because itís me again. But theyíve got to see it someday -- itís only me. I donít mind if people go to the film to see me smiling because it doesnít matter, itís not harmful. The idea of the film wonít really be dug for another fifty or a hundred years probably. Thatís what itís all about. I just happen to be that face."

Q: "Itís too bad people canít come down here and individually to see how youíre living."

JOHN: "Well, thatís it. I didnít see Ringo and his wife for about a month when I first got together with Yoko, and there were rumors going around about the film and all that. Maureen was saying she really had some strange ideas about where we were at and what we were up to. And there were some strange reactions from all me friends and at Apple about Yoko and me and what we were doing -"Have they gone mad?". But of course it was just us, you know, and if they are puzzled or reacting strangely to us two being together and doing what weíre doing, itís not hard to visualize the rest of the world really having some amazing image."

Q: "International Times recently published an interview with Jean-Luc Godard..."

JOHN: "Oh yeah, right, he said we should do something. Now thatís sour grapes from a man who couldnít get us to be in his film (One Plus One, in which the Stones appear), and I donít expect it from people like that. Dear Mr. Godard, just because we didnít want to be in the film with you, it doesnít mean to say that we arenít doing any more than you. We should do whatever weíre all doing."

Q: "But Godard put it in activist political terms. He said that people with influence and money should be trying to blow up the establishment and that you werenít."

JOHN: "Whatís he think weíre doing? He wants to stop looking at his own films and look around."

Q: "Time magazine came out and said, look, the Beatles say 'no' to destruction."

JOHN: "Thereís no point in dropping out because itís the same there and itís got to change. But I think it all comes down to changing your head and, sure, I know thatís a cliche."

Q: "What would you tell a black-power guy whoís changed his head and then finds a wall there all the time?"

JOHN: "Well, I canít tell him anything Ďcause heís got to do it himself. If destructionís the only way he can do it, thereís nothing I can say that could influence him Ďcuz thatís where heís at, really. Weíve all got that in us, too, and thatís why I did the 'Out and In' bit on a few takes and in the TV version of 'Revolution' -- 'Destruction, well, you know, you can count me out, and in,' like yin and yang. I prefer 'out.' But weíve got the other bit in us. I donít know what Iíd be doing if I was in his position. I donít think Iíd be so meek and mild. I just donít know."

Source: Transcribed by from original magazine issue