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- February 20, 1984
- Vol. 21
- No. 7
The Last Ballad of John & Yoko
How Lennon's Swan Song Almost Got Sabotaged with a Little Help from His Ex-Friends
Why must my poor heart keep following you?
Stay home and love me, my Liverpool Lou...
John Lennon often regaled his wife and child with folk songs and stories of Liverpool. One promise he always intended to keep was to show his birthplace to his son. Two weeks ago, on the eve of the release of Milk and Honey, an album of new songs from the Lennons recorded shortly before his death, Yoko Ono set out to keep her late husband's promise. She and Sean flew into Manchester airport to begin an emotional pilgrimage to the landmarks of John's youth. But no sooner had they touched down than Yoko found herself subjected to a grueling 30-minute search by customs officials, who combed through her lingerie, inspected the heels and soles of her shoes, and even ran their fingers through her cold cream. Particularly upsetting to her was the insensitive way that they rifled through her treasured carrying case, a black leather satchel with the meaningful initials "J.L." But it was just another example of the relentless public and private scrutiny she has endured during the past three years.
While Yoko was bearing one indignity in Manchester, a more shocking invasion of her privacy was being disclosed at home: revelations of burglary, blackmail, buggings, exploitation and even threats against her life that have made the past three years "a private hell," according to her friend and aide Elliot Mintz. "Project Walrus" was the code name for a scheme to rob and betray her, and it was hatched and christened just two days after John died by his trusted assistant, Fred Seaman, and Seaman's college buddy, writer Bob Rosen.
Notations in the 10 spiral-bound notebooks belonging to Seaman and Rosen outline the conspirators' objectives—both of which they managed to carry out. Seaman brazenly took care of the first. His weapon: a shopping i bag. For a year he spirited away from the Dakota John's most personal possessions, including unreleased recordings, love letters and John's diaries, which covered the period from 1975 up to the day he died.
Phase Two called for the destruction of Yoko's reputation through a campaign of lies, innuendo and gross slander that the two would-be journalists hoped to shepherd into print. Their efforts ranged from the inept to the diabolical. On the sexual front, they were unable to agree whether to paint her as a nympho or frigid. However, according to their own journals, they were able to make regular purchases of illegal drugs—speed, downers, even heroin—increasing the amounts each time and telling the dealers the substances were for Yoko. "Project Walrus was prepared to do whatever it took to establish Fred Seaman as the ultimate source on Lennon—and the anointed messenger of his legacy," Mintz explains.
After a falling out between the conspirators, Rosen spilled the beans, and Seaman was convicted of second-degree grand larceny and sentenced to five years' probation. But certain key materials—including irreplaceable recordings by Lennon that were intended for Milk and Honey—were never recovered. That the album was ever finished is a tribute to Yoko's perseverance. "It's a miracle," she says.
The traumatic events following Lennon's death have left no visible mark on Yoko. By 4 a.m. her normal workday has already begun. Curled on a couch, her arm draped protectively around her son, she looks much the same as she did nearly two decades ago, when Lennon first brought her to the attention of the world. As Yoko approaches 51, Lady Clairol now washes away her gray, but her energy and slim figure remain those of a teenager. So does her Mona Lisa veneer—the flawless skin, the whisper-shy voice, an enigmatic smile.
Yoko smiles, but only when she means it. Her mother, the aloof heir to a Japanese banking fortune, warned her daughter never to smile in public. "Smiles are for shopkeepers," she said derisively—meaning those who need to ingratiate. So Yoko reserves smiles for her friends, hides insecurity behind dark glasses, and suffers the accusation of arrogance.
Controversy has been her close companion. Back in the '60s, as a leading avant garde artist and creator of freewheeling "happenings," she was called a kook. Later, with Lennon, she was perceived as the Dragon Lady who stole him from the Beatles. Other accusations far worse have surfaced since his death. One of the kiss-and-tell books published last summer by former associates depicted her as a neurotic, manipulative sorceress jealous of Lennon's talents.
The unkindest cuts have come from those she once considered her closest friends—John Green, a trusted tarot-card reader who composed his attacks while living rent free in her lower Manhattan loft, and Peter Brown, who penned his less-than-flattering portrait while sunning himself at her Palm Beach home. Unable to read the books—"I prefer to remember [Green and Brown] as I knew them"—she nonetheless gets the savage news from those friends who remain. She adds, "When John was alive, they persecuted our relationship. Finally, the insanity of the world took him away. Now, some people are even trying to destroy the truth—that we did love each other." She pauses. "We never claimed that we walked on water."
The bittersweet optimism of Milk and Honey, which entered Billboard's album charts at No. 39 last week, is a poignant reminder that their love was real. It's also a candid self-appraisal by the artists. On Milk and Honey, Lennon is alternately droll and fearful as he contemplates his return to public life after five years of blithe domesticity—a period during which John was so insecure about his own talent that he asked Yoko not to write songs when he wasn't writing them. "Well, I can sing for my supper/But I just can't make it," he disarmingly confesses in I Don't Wanna Face It. On songs such as Don't Be Scared, as well as in married life, Yoko often took the supportive role. Though her cool and uncompromising nature has made her an easy target for those who call her bossy, record-company executive David Geffen has maintained that critics were missing the point: "People used to think he did what she wanted, but the truth is the other way around. The most impressive thing about Yoko Ono is how seriously she took her job of taking care of John Lennon." Far from protecting him from the world, she forced him to face it—and himself.
Milk and Honey (subtitled A Heart Play) was born of a sailing trip that Yoko encouraged John to take during the summer of 1980. Lennon, the son of a sailor, had often dreamed of going to sea but hadn't the nerve to try. Finally, he plucked up his courage and signed on as cook and cabin boy aboard a friend's yacht from Newport to Bermuda. One night, while John cooked brown rice for the crew, a storm blew in. Everyone got sick, and Lennon had to take the wheel. Clutching it for five hours as if it were a life preserver, he shouted sea chanteys at the top of his lungs like a crazed Viking. "He was reborn," Yoko says.
In Bermuda John displayed a burst of songwriting exuberance he hadn't felt in five years, and he began to play his new songs to Yoko over the phone. She responded with several of her own. Twenty-two songs and two albums emerged from that musical exchange. Double Fantasy, the first album, released in 1980, seemed to celebrate the ideal world of marriage and parenthood. Even the music was polished to a sheen. Milk and Honey, the second half of those sessions, has a rough-hewn, rocky sound that harkens back to early Lennon, and many critics consider it the more forceful album. Yoko has kept John's tracks pretty much as he left them, including the off-the-cuff banter and joking asides that showcase his playful warmth. Even the album's two most poignant songs—Yoko's Let Me Count the Ways and John's Grow Old With Me—had whimsical origins, though both were inspired by the decidedly nonfrivolous poetry of Victorian romantics Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The Lennons often joked that they were the reincarnated spirits of "Bob and Liz." Yoko recalls that when she first met John, "I was ill a lot, always lying down and looking wan and pale. John found that sexy. It reminded him of Elizabeth, who was forever sickly and whose delicacy kept her a prisoner in her room. John identified with Robert, the young poet, passionate and driven, who saves Elizabeth from her overprotective father."
In part the album's title is a puckish allusion to their mixed-race marriage. It also refers to the biblical promised land. But for Yoko, completing the record was anything but paradise. It was originally intended for release in 1981, but there were compelling reasons for its delay—most importantly, the theft of John's original Bermuda recordings of Grow Old With Me from their home. According to Yoko, Geffen, who had released the couple's first album, urged her to release the second LP "before the Lennon craze dies and the music is less salable." Yet she simply couldn't. When she attempted to listen to John's voice, she sank into depression. "But there wasn't one day during those years when I didn't have Milk and Honey in a corner of my mind, pressuring me. I felt John couldn't rest if those tracks were sitting on a shelf." By 1983 she could finally put them on the cassette player, but it still was painful. "I heard every intake of breath, and it hurt because breath meant life! And his life existed only on those tapes."
If the resurrection of Milk and Honey was emotionally trying, Yoko's recent pilgrimage to Liverpool with Sean was meant to heal. With the album behind her and some of her foes vanquished, she could begin to relax—and make peace with her past. She and Sean started their sentimental journey by visiting the landmarks immortalized in Beatle songs: a traffic roundabout known as Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields, the orphanage where Lennon went to garden parties as a boy (and which is now a modest Salvation Army home where Yoko and Sean would leave a $15,000 donation in John's name). Then their Mercedes limo whisked them through winding cobblestone streets of red-brick houses past Hessy's Music Store with its window message proclaiming: "The Beatles Bought Their First Guitars Here."
Other ports of call included the grammar school where John, an impudent Teddy Boy, formed his first skiffle band and filled exercise books with surreal wordplay; and the Art College where Yoko ordered out for a round of fish 'n' chips for all. While Sean munched contentedly on sweet fillets wrapped in wax paper, he was presented with his dad's report cards, which featured failing grades.
Lennon's Aunt Mimi no longer lives in the respectable suburban home where she raised him. Ailing and in her 70s, she received Sean and Yoko at her sister's tidy home across the Mersey. It was a moving hearthside meeting. Seeing Sean for the first time, Mimi cried, struck by his resemblance to John. Later she gave Sean several rare photos of his dad.
But the trip had its downside. In the beginning Liverpool had been slow to appreciate the Beatles, regarding them with the mixture of pride and resentment symbolized by the town's recent razing of the Cavern Club—the tiny cellar where the Fab Four began—to make way for a garage. Yoko too, despite her generous donations, is regarded with suspicion. Indeed, she later confessed to a "mixed, strange feeling" when she passed through the city. "It reminded me of what he went through as a child," Yoko says. "I had listened to his tales for so long, I felt I really was the young him, breathing his insecurity, as well as the pain and longing of a boy who wasn't appreciated for what he was.
"Because he didn't want to grow up and become a vet or an accountant, Liverpool made him feel that there was something disastrously wrong with him. In one way Liverpool haunted his whole life; in another it gave him his driving force. To many, he was a New Yorker. But to the end he was really just a Liverpool boy."
Locked in a 700-pound fireproof steel cabinet in Yoko's home are some cassette recordings of songs the Liverpool boy composed for a Broadway musical; other music exists merely as scribbled notes that others could sing. At least one of Lennon's works-in-progress stolen by Seaman has already been merchandised and exploited—a blistering takeoff on Bob Dylan's Gotta Serve Somebody that Lennon called Serve Yourself. Enough material exists for Yoko to release one more Lennon LP—a documentary album, just John and his guitar, intercut with interviews.
Helping Yoko and Sean through hard times has been Samuel Havadtoy, 31, a gregarious antiques dealer from Hungary, whose friendship with Yoko has blossomed into a romantic relationship over the past two years. But "no one can compete with the dead," she says, glancing around at the Dakota room where John's Restoration face still peers down from dozens of photos on the wall. "The past link is still my life."
Perhaps that will change. Last spring Yoko strolled into a Fifth Avenue boutique and spotted a pale yellow cashmere jacket. "It was so...unlike me," she laughs. "You know, I'm always wearing dark colors! My God, it was a bit embarrassing! But then I thought, 'Why don't I try it?' And I found myself buying it. Since it was a beautiful day, I walked through the park all the way. And," she says wistfully, "for the first time since John died, I thought, 'Maybe winter is over.' "
April 27, 2015
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