December is the anniversary of John Lennon’s death, and that always makes me feel like reminiscing about him. I remember a moment of epiphany at Shea Stadium in 1964 while the Beatles were singing, even though I couldn’t hear them above the screaming of the crowd. I realized that the four mop-tops were not only filling a certain void left by the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but also that the audience could identify with a Beatle in a far more personal way than they had identified with the President. It was summed up by a young girl holding aloft a hand-lettered poster that said, “It’s All Right, John—I Wear Glasses Too!”
During the next five years, the Beatles took us along on their musical journey from youthful innocence to psychedelic awareness, from “I wanna hold your hand” to “I’d love to turn you on.” In 1967, the Summer of Love, a friend gave me a hit of LSD and a stereo headset with Sgt. Pepper playing and I experienced some kind of spiritual orgasm—reassured, after all, that I was not the only Martian on my block.
I recall walking along the sidewalk one afternoon in 1968, passing house after house, listening to radio after radio, all playing “Hey Jude,” so that I didn’t miss a note. And then, that night, hearing it again at the Electric Circus on New York’s Lower East Side, accompanied by what can only be described as free-form tribal dancing. “Take a sad song and make it better” became the unofficial credo of a burgeoning counterculture.
One night on my radio show in San Francisco I asked listeners to call in and share their moments of awakening—when they were struck, as if by lightning, with a realization that life would never be the same. There were several callers whose moment of awakening had occurred while tripping on acid and listening to the Beatles.
I first met John Lennon with Yoko Ono in July 1972. The Nixon administration was trying to deport him, ostensibly for a marijuana bust, but actually because they were afraid he was planning to perform for protesters at the Republican Convention in Miami that summer. In April, J. Edgar Hoover had directed the New York office of the FBI to “locate subject [Lennon] and remain aware of his activities and movements…. Careful attention should be given reports that subject is a heavy narcotics user.”
When I asked Lennon over lunch a naive question—was “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” about LSD?—he denied it with the wink of a dedicated prankster, just as Peter Yarrow had denied that Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Puff the Magic Dragon”—with that lyric about “Little Jackie Papers”—was about pot-smoking. My friend, comedy writer Dawna Kaufmann, was “keeper of the marijuana” for George Harrison, and he tried to teach her how to roll a joint with one paper. She preferred the two-paper method, “which George found amusingly amateurish,” she told me, “so I would hand the stash to him and he’d roll these single Zig-Zag bombers. Such a talented man.”
John and Yoko spent a weekend at my home in Watsonville, CA. They loved being so close to the ocean. In the afternoon, I asked them to please smoke their cigarettes outside, but in the evening we smoked a combination of marijuana and opium, sitting on pillows in front of the fireplace, sipping tea and munching cookies. We talked about conspiracy researcher Mae Brussell’s theory that the deaths of leading-edge musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison were actually political assassinations because they served as role models, surfing on the crest of the youth rebellion.
“No, no.” Lennon argued, “they were already headed in a self-destructive direction.” A few months later he would remind me of that conversation, adding, “Listen, if anything happens to Yoko and me, it was not an accident.” That was the level of his understandable paranoia.
At my home, we also discussed the Charles Manson case, which I had been investigating. Lennon was bemused by the way Manson had associated himself with Beatles music. “Look,” he said, “would you kindly inform Manson that it was Paul McCartney who wrote ‘Helter Skelter’—not me!”
“No, please don’t tell him,” Yoko interrupted. “We don’t want to have any communication with Manson.”
“It’s all right,” Lennon said. “He doesn’t have to know the message came from us.”
“It’s getting chilly in here,” Yoko said to me. “Would you put another cookie in the fireplace?”
Lennon was absentmindedly holding on to the joint. I asked him, “Do the British use that expression—to Bogart a joint—or is that only an American term? You know, derived from the image of a cigarette dangling from Humphrey Bogart’s lower lip?”
“In England,” Lennon replied, with that inimitable sly expression on his face, “if you remind somebody else to pass a joint, you lose your own turn.”
Later that year, at Ringo Starr’s birthday party, everybody sang verses from “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” The feminist movement was growing, and when my turn came, I sang “She’s got the whole world in her hands.” During the ensuing conversation with John and Yoko, the seeds of “Woman Is the Nigger of the World” were planted.
Even though John Lennon is dead, I still have an occasional dialogue with him. Recently we talked about the time a stoned Elvis Presley—who originally had such a profound influence on the Beatles—visited the White House, received a federal narcotics officer’s badge from Richard Nixon and then warned the President about the danger posed by the Beatles. Lennon relished and savored that moment of irony.