In Which John Lennon Is Split In Two
Tuesday, December 6, 2011 at 10:22AM
Alex in MUSIC, john lennon, kathryn sanders, may pang, yoko ono

Was It Just a Dream?


One morning in August of 1973, Yoko Ono walked through her apartment in the Dakota into the office of the Lennons’ 22-year-old personal assistant, May Pang. Yoko closed the door and sat down. She lit a Kool. She told May that she and John weren’t getting along, which wasn’t a surprise to anyone who had been in the company of the Lennons during that time. She said she knew John would start seeing other women, and she was worried he would choose poorly, picking someone who would only use him. “You don’t have a boyfriend,” Yoko continued. May balked; she had no interest in John. He was her employer. He was married. “Don’t worry,” Yoko said, between puffs of her cigarette. “I’ll take care of everything.”

Shortly afterward, John pursued May and they began a sexual relationship, shacking up in May’s studio apartment on the East side after evenings spent recording and mixing the album Mind Games. Despite the new dimension to their relationship, May continued working for the Lennons, helping John finish the album and acting as a gofer for Yoko. John was still officially living with his wife at the Dakota and it was starting to cramp his style, so in October, he and May headed to Los Angeles under the guise of promoting the album while staying in various friends’ homes.

John wanted to do two things in LA – he wanted to sing on an album of songs that inspired him to become a musician, and he wanted to produce another artist. He wanted to make music, but he didn’t want to make John Lennon albums. For the former, he enlisted Phil Spector to produce his oldies record, and the latter, he chose Beatles’ pal Harry Nilsson, whom Lennon once called his “favorite American artist.”

While preparing to record, John and May moved to a house in Santa Monica. Many of the other musicians were also friends who stayed in the house with them – Keith Moon, Klaus Voormann, and Ringo Starr, among others. Yoko called every day, usually multiple times, talking to John about everything from where she went shopping, how she was suicidal, her solo career, how she had a boyfriend. She wouldn’t say who it was, but John quickly guessed, and was right – David Alan Spinozza, a session guitarist who was working with Yoko on her latest album.

It was during this time in L.A. that John began giving interviews to promote the album. May saw first-hand the immediate difference between the public and private John. Public John was hilarious, warm, witty, brilliant. Private John could be these things, but was also moody, dark, and sometimes violent, particularly when he drank. John dealt with his fear of women by allowing them to manipulate him, and he dealt with his anger over that by manipulating men.

It is relatively well-known that John had issues with women. In art school he asked his first wife Cynthia for a date. After she told him she was engaged to someone else he walked away before turning back around and shouting at her, “I didn’t ask you to fuckin’ marry me!” Left by his mother at a young age and raised by his domineering Aunt Mimi, young John was constantly torn between longing for a hippie and a tyrant.

It is easy to see how Yoko’s extremism and intense attitude towards work appealed to John, especially in the wake of his post-Beatles uncertainty. Lennon was a man of many faces and Pang saw it early on in Los Angeles. There were several “scary drunk” moments where he exploded, crying, throwing things, shouting that nobody loved him. How sad to think that his most basic fear, and his deepest feeling about himself, was that no one loved him for just being John. He thought everyone loved “John Lennon” and acted accordingly.

The sessions with Phil Spector were a legendary nightmare. Phil would have all of the session musicians show up at once, though that was inefficient and the costs were exorbitant. Spector himself would show up hours late high on amyl nitrate and wearing costumes, as a doctor in scrubs one day, as a karate sensei the next, always with his gun visible in his hip holster. The sessions turned into parties soaked with booze, and musicians would mill about with nothing to do, those both hired to play and drop-ins, including Mick Jagger, Elton John, and Joni Mitchell with Warren Beatty (“Yet another of Joni’s trophies,” according to John). In one of the early sessions, John got so drunk that he grabbed guitarist Jesse Ed Davis and kissed him on the lips, and then punched him as hard as he could leaving him sprawling on the ground, John staring at him in disgust and calling him a faggot. This was one of the tamer scenes at the Spector sessions. He apologized to friends who called the day after, explaining, “It was a bad dream that has passed.”

Recording with Harry Nilsson wasn’t much better. John had cut back on alcohol but Harry was always a hard drinker. His vocal chords were so damaged at that time that after he’d sing, there would be blood on the microphone. Harry didn’t want to tell John, for fear he would post-pone their sessions. Harry went to see a doctor in Palm Springs, and John and May went along with him. That night, after many drinks and when they were all in the hot tub, John grabbed May’s throat and quite possibly would have strangled her to death if Harry hadn’t leapt to her defense, pulling John away.

To finish Harry’s album, John decided they needed to go back to New York, where he felt he would have more control of both Harry and himself. He asked May to stay in Los Angeles, but several weeks later, called and said he missed her. She flew to New York. May had been worried he was seeing other women, but as a mistress herself, had little right to call out that behavior.

In Japan, it wasn’t uncommon among the upper classes to have “wives” and “mistresses” who knew about and were cordial to each other. Yoko wanted to be the wife and made it clear to John that she was happy to allow May to remain the mistress. Yoko wanted to stay in the Dakota. She developed a shopping habit, regularly spending thousands every time she went to Henri Bendel’s, taking limousines everywhere she went. She was recording and performing as a solo artist. She was Yoko Ono, and she no longer had much use for John Lennon.

How do we know when to hold out and when to give in? When do we learn to differentiate between what we want, and what we need? May encouraged John to write, and also to stand on his own two feet; to be an adult. With May, he wrote and recorded the magical, and appropriately named, “Walls and Bridges” in record time. Yoko repeatedly told John he didn’t need to record anymore. He had already proven himself to the world. Yoko treated him like a child, controlling everything. In waffling between May and Yoko, John had to choose between becoming an adult or staying a child, the difference between his mother and Aunt Mimi.

Back in New York after completing Harry’s album Pussy Cats, John and May got their own apartment on East 52nd Street. Yoko still phoned them regularly. She initially had tried to talk them into getting their own apartment next to hers at the Dakota, an idea which May immediately vetoed. Meanwhile, Yoko’s solo album and career weren’t doing as well as she anticipated. She and David Spinozza had split up after he suggested Yoko stop using John’s money to produce her albums. He said that if she wanted to be an artist in her own right, she should stop using John’s name. She told David he was unsupportive.

Yoko called May one day and told her she was thinking of taking John back. May was scared, as she knew she was no match for Yoko’s will. In February of 1975, Yoko called John and told him she had found a cure for smoking. She herself had recently quit cold turkey. John had been trying to quit for some time. He went to Yoko’s, where he was with her and her hypnotist for two days. When he came back to May, he seemed dazed. She described him as looking “brainwashed.” He gave May a gift from Yoko, a vial of essential oil that reeked of sulfur. John had come to tell May he was moving out of their apartment and back in with Yoko. She had a month to vacate.

It is sad to think of John as being happier in a relationship that encouraged him to stay at home and not make music, to sever ties with those he loved. When John spoke of Yoko publicly, he seemed quite enamored of her, and willing to sacrifice much for the marriage. And perhaps that was part of the appeal. In being with Yoko, he could be ‘not John Lennon.’ With May, he was very much himself, seeing old friends, frequently in touch with his first son Julian, making music, living his life. While appealing to a degree, what he ultimately wanted was a break from himself. People paint Yoko as the domineering wicked puppet master who broke up the Beatles, but are we forgetting that John had a choice? He could have stayed John Lennon. He chose to be Mr. Ono.

Kathryn Sanders is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Los Angeles. She tumbls here and tweets here. This is her first appearance in these pages.

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