Remembering John Lennon

by Greg Prato

December 8, 2020 marks 40 years since the tragic death of the legendary John Lennon. To celebrate what made the former Beatle such an unforgettable and influential artist, I have assembled a new book (my fourth this year!), John Winston Ono Lennon.

Comprised of interviews with those who worked alongside him (Bob Gruen, Gary Van Scyoc, Bun E. Carlos), admirers of his music (Kasim Sulton, Frank Black, Rufus Wainwright, Ace Frehley, Mike Portnoy), and Beatle experts (Recording the Beatles co-author Brian Kehew, editor/publisher of The 910 newsletter Doug Sulpy, Beatlemania member Mitch Weissman, DJ/VJ Matt Pinfield), among many others, John Winston Ono Lennon provides interesting/uncommon observations and viewpoints into the brilliance of this truly legendary artist. Below are exclusive excerpts from the book.

John at home

Bob Gruen [photographer]: The way he described it – as a "house husband." He was very attentive, he was totally concerned about every detail of Sean's life – what he was eating, how he was feeling, what he was doing. And he learned how to cook – there was a lot of things that happened during that period. One thing that was interesting that not a lot of people know was at one point, John and Yoko got sick – they got the flu. So, they didn't eat anything for two or three days. And when they were feeling better, he decided to take the advice of their friend, Dick Gregory, who was promoting a fruitarian liquid diet, basically. And they went on a fast to clean out their bodies – because they felt that they had gotten the flu and they were full of un-needed and un-wanted things.

So, they thought they would cleanse their bodies, and went on a 40-day fast – meaning no solid food for 40 days. They could eat vegetable juice or fruit juice – anything they could put through a juicer. They could drink juices, but not eat any solid foods. I saw him a few days into that, and it seemed like they were tripping – they were on such a high, in a happy way. One thing that I thought was really intelligent – and shows you the kind of intelligence John had – was that after a few days of getting into the diet, he found that all he was thinking about was eating. But instead of eating, he got a whole bunch of books – recipe books, nutrition books, the history of food – and started reading about food. And he would read elaborate recipes, and have a whole fantasy about eating a meal, and then turn the page, and then have another. So, he could keep thinking about food without actually having to eat anything. And that's how he got through the whole 40 days.

Right at the end, he insisted on baking some bread – which is an irresistible, delicious smell. That was his first meal, and it was interesting to me that after the fast, he had learned about the macrobiotic diet. "Macrobiotic" is a long, bad name for a very good, healthy diet. It's a very simple diet, of eating mostly vegetables and grains, and balancing what you eat in your life. And he had read a number of books about diet and about cooking. So, after the fast, he actually started cooking. And before that, for him, he was English – he could make a cup of tea. He could boil water and pour it in a cup. And he could make things like cereal and milk. But he was not cooking anything. Whereas after the fast and after that knowledge, I was there one night where he steamed some vegetables, he baked fish – it was a fantastic, delicious meal. That was one of the big improvements in his life.

First seeing/hearing the Beatles

Bun E. Carlos [ex-Cheap Trick drummer]: I saw a picture of them in Life Magazine in November of '63. I was just amazed by these guys with long haircuts and big noses. [Laughs] Because Ringo and John were in the picture, and I was like, "Wow. These guys have got big noses... but sure have long, cool hair." Then I started hearing about them, and that day came when you first heard a Beatles tune on the radio.

John and Yoko's classic week-long guest hosting stint on The Mike Douglas Show

Gary Van Scyoc [Plastic Ono Elephant's Memory Band bassist, Elephant's Memory bassist]: During the week, a couple of things that happened behind the scenes were the very first day, we were standing in the wings to go on, John and I were standing there, and Mike Douglas used to come out every day and sing a song at the beginning. They had a band of great Philadelphia musicians. So, John and I are standing in the wings, kind of nervously – we're going on in front of millions of people. And all of a sudden, we hear the band start, and Mike Douglas is singing "Michelle." [Laughs] And John flipped. He had this look on his face, and said, "Fuckin' hell." He was not happy. So, we had to kind of bury that one.

Other things that happened during the week once we joined forces with Chuck [Berry, also a guest on the show when Lennon was hosting] was we quickly in the dressing room... we didn't really rehearse, but we had to talk through a few things. I mean, it was "Johnny B. Goode," what are you going to do? But when we got started, all of a sudden, Chuck is playing in different keys. And right in the middle of one song, he yells over to John, "Take a solo!" And John was not a soloist, per se – especially at that time. It really caught him off guard. Our guitar player, "Tex" Gabriel, picked up on it, turned up, and played a great solo. Most people wouldn't even recognize that if you watched the tape. It's out there on DVD [released as The Mike Douglas Show with John Lennon & Yoko Ono]. But behind the scenes, it was tense. It was something that we talked about after it was over, that's for sure.

How John recorded his vocals

Brian Kehew [Recording the Beatles co-author, the Moog Cookbook keyboardist]: When I listen to records by John Lennon, and he's screaming or he's emotional or he's super-powerful, I imagine him sweating or jumping around in the studio. But one of the few times you can actually see him record, is for the song "I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier Mama" or something, he's literally frozen on the mic, articulating very carefully. So in other words, he's not being "Mr. Emotional," and, "I'm gonna jump around and scream." He's actually trying to translate his voice through the wording, syllables, and enunciation, to make that concept come through the microphone and on to the tape.

So, if that makes sense, he's not being, "Capture me being expressive." He's wanting to push that feeling onto the tape by controlling himself, and making sure it comes through the microphone. Whereas, if he were just literally jumping around, screaming, ranting, and raving, the microphone might have not even picked it up. So I think he was highly conscious of making a record, and highly conscious of affecting people. And that was one of my discoveries watching that film – I was like, "Wow, look at him. He's just standing there. And literally carefully controlling his voice at that point to be on tape and to affect us." And I think that is really cool.

The influence of the music of the Beatles and John Lennon on other styles of music, such as alt-rock

Matt Pinfield [DJ/VJ, former host of MTV's 120 Minutes]: Chris Cornell and Scott Weiland loved John Lennon. 100%. And Chris Cornell, I remember the story where he found a bunch of Beatles records in a neighbor's basement – literally, his neighbor left a whole collection of Beatles records behind. And he told me that story that he would create a fourth harmony with his voice while singing along to Beatles records. But he just loved John's voice. He told me that he loved the fact that John's songs were very introspective and they came from a very honest place, and talked about pain and suffering. And the same with Scott. I think Scott was a huge fan of John's, too. He loved Lennon – he loved Lennon like he loved Bowie.

The Flaming Lips without a question are a big one. You've got to admit that Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam loves him – and he covered "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." Any artist that has any kind of sensibility of emotion has explored John Lennon's music and has taken some influence from him. And Kurt Cobain loved John Lennon. Even Billy Idol's original band, Generation X, did "Give Me Some Truth," from the Imagine album. Did a great punk version of it.

That was the thing about John – he was so confrontational and honest. And it can translate in any genre or format of music. That was the beauty of what he did. Take the really dark take that Maynard James Keenan did in A Perfect Circle's "Imagine" – you watch that video and listen to the song, and it takes on a very dark and almost sinister thing. Obviously, it wasn't what John meant, but it was the way it could be used. It just shows you how many different ways his music has affected people – so many artists.

John remembered

Mike Portnoy [ex-Dream Theater drummer]: I remember him every day of my life. I think his music will be here forever. Unfortunately, we only had 40 years with him – but the music will stand the test of time forever. I absolutely loved seeing the movie Yesterday this year – just because it gave you that "What if?" moment – what if John had lived all this time? And to see John Lennon in his seventies in that movie, it just gave me goosebumps. You're always going to think "What if?" "What if John Lennon had lived?" When Double Fantasy came out, that was his comeback. And then... boom – just a few weeks later, he was gone. He was taken from us way, way too soon – and in such a tragic way, as well.

I compared it earlier to 9/11, but it really is not that far removed from that kind of shock and impact it had on the world. I kind of compare it to either 9/11 or when Kennedy was killed – it had that kind of impact. So, how will he be remembered? I think he will be remembered as one of the greatest songwriters of all-time, but also, as somebody that had a real voice and real honesty about him. He never sugarcoated anything. Paul would sugarcoat stuff, and Paul is always smiling, and Ringo is flashing the peace sign. But John would be the one giving the middle finger. Paul gives the thumbs up, Ringo gives the peace sign, and John would definitely be the middle finger. I think that sums that up right there.

November 23, 2020

Here is the ordering info for John Winston Ono Lennon.

And Greg wasn't kidding... he really DID write three other books in 2020! Here are excerpts from all three of them:
Bon Scott Remembered
Remembering Jimi Hendrix and John Bonham

Further reading:

John Lennon Songfacts
How The Beatles Crafted Killer Choruses
George Harrison on George Harrison
The Last Days of The Beatles

More Song Writing


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