UPDATE: Watch LENNONYC in full at pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters!
Select segments and more below:
imaginepeace.com: “This fall, as the world remembers John Lennon on what would have been his 70th birthday, and the 30th anniversary of his death, American Masters airs LENNONYC, a new film that takes an intimate look at the time Lennon, Yoko Ono and their son, Sean, spent living in New York City during the 1970s. The film premieres nationally Monday, November 22 at 9pm on PBS (check local listings).
“New York became a part of who John and I were,” said Ms. Ono. “We couldn’t have existed the same way anywhere else. We had a very special relationship with the city, which is why I continue to make this my home, and I think this film captures what that time was like for us very movingly.”
“The period that Lennon lived with his family in New York is perhaps the most tender and affecting phase of his life as a public figure,” said Susan Lacy, series creator and executive producer of American Masters as well as a producer of the Lennon film. “Just as the generation that had grown up with the Beatles was getting a little older and approaching a transitional time in their lives as they started families, they saw this reflected in Lennon as he grew from being a rock star icon into a real flesh and blood person.”
“I have long been moved by the honesty and directness of John’s music,” said Michael Epstein, LENNONYC director, producer and writer. “And, by using never-before heard studio talkback of John from this period, I think I was able to give the viewer a window into John Lennon that had not been put to film before.”
As much as New York made an impact on Lennon and Ono by offering them an oasis of personal and creative freedom, so too did they shape the city. At a time when New York faced record high crime, economic fallout and seemed to be on the verge of collapse, Lennon and Ono became a beloved fixture in neighborhood restaurants, at Central Park, at sports events and at political demonstrations.
Lennon and Ono also bonded with millions of their fellow New Yorkers in their experience as immigrants. The film traces their struggle to remain in the U.S. when the Nixon administration sought to deport them, supposedly based on a narcotics violation, but which Lennon insisted was in response to his anti-war activities.
LENNONYC features never-before heard studio recordings from the Double Fantasy sessions and never-before-seen outtakes from Lennon in concert and home movies that have only recently been transferred to video. It also features exclusive interviews with Ms. Ono, who cooperated extensively with the production and offers an unprecedented level of access, as well as with artists who worked closely with Lennon during this period, including Elton John and photographer Bob Gruen (who took the iconic photograph of Lennon in front of the skyline wearing a “New York City” t-shirt).
American Masters: LENNONYC is a co-production of Two Lefts Don’t Make A Right Productions, Dakota Group, Ltd and THIRTEEN’s American Masters in association with WNET.ORG for PBS. Director/writer is Michael Epstein. Executive producers are Stanley Buchthal, Michael Cohl and Susan Lacy. Producers are Susan Lacy, Jessica Levin and Michael Epstein. Susan Lacy is the series creator and executive producer ofAmerican Masters.
American Masters is made possible by the support of the National Endowment for the Arts and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Additional funding for American Masters is provided by Rosalind P. Walter, The Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation, Jack Rudin, Rolf and Elizabeth Rosenthal, The André and Elizabeth Kertész Foundation, and public television viewers.
“The October 9th Central Park screening is free and open to the public on a first-come, first-serve basis. Line up early. Enter at 69th Street and 5th Avenue. Blanket seating, food and drink welcome (no glass, no chairs and no video cameras allowed). Special guest speaker will be singer Lou Reed and radio personality Dennis Elsas, WFUV Radio.”
Obviously there is a whole lot more that will be included–Yoko’s interviews, touching home movies and more… The podcasts are fascinating if you are a Lennonaholic because nothing’s edited out. Most of the podcasts are over an hour long… What will remain on the cutting room floor? Will this program shed more light on John’s life from 1970-1980? Will myths be shattered? Will controversies be solved?
COMMON THEMES OF THE PODCASTS: Discussed below are John’s composing style, the early New York protest period with the street radicals and the effect it had on John, the L.A. period (the Lost Weekend) with May Pang and his alcohol abuse, and his return to New York sober; and finally the emerging new man that reconciled with his wife, produced a child and new music with Double Fantasy with hope for the future.
John’s composing style and preferences
Drummer Jim Keltner talks about what a powerful songwriter John was, and how strong he was in directing the guitarists and keyboard players. “He knew what arrangements he wanted.” This is backed up by Jack Douglas and Roy Cicala. All three talk about John’s ability to go with the flow and work with the inspiration he was getting from the other musicians in real time. Many times lyrics would be changed to fit the music as it was occuring. And all talked about John’s tendency to keep the sound adventurous, a little rough, not so “clean.” He would rather sound like the old Sun Record sound than the new Hi-Fi records. This is a dramatic difference from Harrison’s and McCartney’s styles, which are more “clean.” John liked delays and echoes on his voice, things that would make it sound different.
How did the protests of Sometime In New York City slide into the sweet Mind Games and Walls and Bridges?
Everyone agrees that the One-to-One concert in New York and the album being promoted at that time, Sometime In New York City, was a nightmare in the ratings. “Everyone hated it” said Bob Gruen. “And the One-to-One show was a disaster because Yoko was up there on stage and everyone “booed” them. “John took it to heart”, said Gruen, “and it upset him.” At the same time, the Nixon administration was tapping Lennon’s phones—“You could hear it” said Cicala, who said “it was obvious. They were so bad at it that you could hear the clicking sounds.” (Cicala mentions though that he thought it was the English because they were like Keystone Cops.)
Because of this, John then put his tail between his legs and went “middle of the road to the bank” joked Lennon to Bob Gruen, with Mind Games and Walls & Bridges. He left politics behind and went back to commercialism. But Douglas was the only one who discounts that change in style. “Mind Games and Walls and Bridges were directionless” said Douglas. “You can hear the turmoil in those albums. But #9 Dream is great, lots of those songs were great. But those albums hurt him with the public.”
The interviewer’s shock can be heard on the tape—“What??” But Douglas insisted that those albums “hurt John more than Sometime in New York City.” The reasoning is that he “went to do a pop album and didn’t have anything to say. If he’d stayed the course and gone deeper into his beliefs, the next album might have been outstanding. Because he was saying something in that album.”
The Lost Weekend and May Pang – “off the handle”
Gruen, Douglas, Cicala and Keltner all described the time John spent in L.A the same way: “drunk.” That Lennon was a “bad Irish drunk” and alcohol did not sit well with him. They all described L.A. as so different from New York that you just had to drink there. It’s what everyone did. And it wasn’t good for John. The description of one bad night in LA where they had to throw John into the back of Phil Spector’s Cadillac and hold him down while he punched and kicked his friends, screaming Yoko’s name, is horrific, after which they all proceeded to break every antique in Lou Adler’s expensive mansion.
The recollection that John was “always screaming Yoko’s name” is overplayed. He did do that sometimes–while drinking–but Roy Cicala said “He also used to scream his Aunt Mimi’s name too, though. He’d yell, ‘Mimi! Help me!’ It was obvious to everyone that he was insecure and needed the strong women in his life to save him. That Yoko provided a security that he missed in L.A.
Big perspective is needed here: Elephants Memory was just as bad
Well first of all, the time in New York with Elephant’s Memory was not exactly like a bankers meeting. Everyone remembers the street band of protesters being so drunk all the time that if they were recording, “you had to get the tracks laid down in two hours because after that they were in never-never-land.”
Much is said about the horrible night at Jerry Rubin’s when John went into a bedroom, drunk as a skunk and probably high as well, and had very obvious sex with a chick while Yoko was right in the next room. It was the turning point of their relationship, and Gruen remembers being hung over with John the next morning at 5am on the docks by their Bank Street home, and John really had his head hung in his hands with remorse.
Lennon “was not always drunk in L.A.” recalls Gruen
Gruen was not in L.A. and some of his comments about this time period are based on what everyone else was saying. However he is careful to admit that “John wasn’t continually drunk while there….he produced a lot of great work there. But once every ten days or so they tied one on.” This jives with May Pang’s recollections as well. He had bad nights in L.A. but he also produced a lot of good work.
With respect to May Pang, Cicala and Keltner’s recollections are sketchy but will probably be used in the edits for the film to support the overall theory that John’s drunk nights in L.A were a call for Yoko’s help and dominated his entire time there—i.e. that he was such a mess that his relationship with May was also to be disregarded.
For example, Cicala mistakenly thinks that John was having a little fling with May that lasted “a month”, so he doesn’t recall much. Keltner only remembered John being out of control and wanting to go home. But think–the wider perspective is that these are guys who were partying as much as John–and were just as messed up as he was those nights. They all admit to drinking “tons and tons” of scotch, tequila, vodka, smoking joints, taking drugs, whatever was around, and that everyone was “off the handle in L.A.” And thirty-five years later, they are supposed to remember what they thought of John’s relationship with May? It doesn’t sound like the boys hanging around John really cared too much, although they remember May being a “good administrator and handled lots of stuff for John.” You can’t come to any conclusion about how serious John might have been about May Pang based on these recollections.
Douglas is the only one of the four that cut May Pang some slack: “He went further with May than anyone expected. We are good friends, and she wrote a good book with her pictures. And he did a lot of great stuff during that eighteen months. There were horrors and alcohol, drugs, and he had one really bad night. May was young, and she didn’t notice things sometimes, but he had strong feelings for May. But even with her, he could put on a happy face.”
May Pang was extensively interviewed for LENNONYC, for well over an hour, but as Roger Friedman pointed out this morning, she has again been minimalized (she told us she got about “two minutes”), and her podcast is not available on the American Masters website. The subject of May Pang is the one subject that gets swept under the rug I’m afraid.
American Masters director Michael Epstein is adamant that Yoko Ono had no editorial control over this show, but in the end, just her presence throughout (her interviews are used heavily in the show) has an overall impact on the flow of the program and what’s included and what’s not. In the end, it’s not going to be objective. On John Lennon’s 70th birthday and 30th anniversary of his passing, he left a widow who bore him one son, Sean. And no one wants to admit on air that John was still maintaining his relationship with May long after he went home and rekindled his marriage with Yoko besides May herself. And apparently her admissions have been cut out.
All agreed that John’s move back to New York was the best thing he could have done. “Once back in New York”, Douglas recalled, “we got Walls & Bridges done in 30 days.” John sobered up. If the film leads you to believe that he was with May because he was blasted drunk, consider that he sobered up in New York in summer of 1974, and continued to live with May while producing the album, until February of 1975.
Elton John and the reconciliation with Yoko
Elton John’s podcast is the shortest, at just ten minutes, while everyone else’s is over an hour. Elton fondly recalls John and Yoko reuniting after the Madison Square Garden concert November 28, 1974 and says he is so proud that he “had something to do with them reuniting.”
But it should be clear by now that while a spark may have been re-lit that night, John and Yoko did not reunite formally until February, two months later. May points out, “it’s interesting that Yoko has recently actually credited Paul (McCartney) for reuniting them.” She is referring to the story that Yoko recently referenced in an interview, where she thought it was “sweet what Paul did for us” by going to L.A. to talk sense in to John and tell him how he could get Yoko back. That is basically true but it was in March of 1974, eleven months before John moved back to the Dakota.
Double Fantasy era
The Double Fantasy era is fascinating for its total turn-around in John’s mood. Jack Douglas recalls that they fondly called Double Fantasy the “well” album. This was John’s code word for “everything is well now—I’m happy, I’m healthy, all is well.”
All interviewed agreed on one thing: John was happiest during this era. He was healthy, eating right, he had sobered up long before, and he loved being a daddy. The five years off of the music business while he reconnected with his wife and new child, did him good.
Beatles reunion was in the making
Douglas said that “Paul was on board with John to do a Ringo album.” This, he says, was an absolute given. “Gonna do this with the boys,” he recalled John saying happily. Apparently the songs that later appeared on Milk and Honey were slated for the album with Ringo. John was angry with George Harrison at the time because of his autobiography, but he said he knew they could pull George in as the album got going.
John was going home to England
Bob Gruen recalled John looking forward to going home to England, “not to move there, but to visit.” Many people corroborate this fact, including interviews with his Aunt Mimi before she died and his sister Julia Baird. “John was going to tour,” Bob recalled.
John had a sense of freedom in New York
All agreed that New York meant freedom to John. In New York, he could walk the streets without being bugged, but in L.A. people were constantly going up to him and touching him. But in New York, Jack Douglas recalls, “he could go into that pharmacy on Columbus and buy stuff and no one bothered him. He was so happy one day because he went into a store and bought the silver jacket with the fur.” John came back to the studio and said “I walked around, tried stuff on, the silver jacket fit, I took out my AE card and bought this MYSELF.”
Tragically, Douglas choked up while saying “He was shot in that coat.” Douglas recalls seeing John for the last time as he left the studio the night of December 8. “He had been reading the reviews of Double Fantasy and he was happy. We said we were going to meet at 9am the next day. As he walked into the elevator, he turned and I saw that smile. He was happy. His smile said it all. It said to me that he was settled inside, that he was happy. A little while later, I got a phone call and it was that John had been shot and was at Roosevelt Hospital.”
Spinner Exclusive: “Released in the UK in 2009 to several British Academy Film Award nominations, ‘Nowhere Boy’ hits screens in America on Oct. 8, one day before the 70th anniversary of Lennon’s birth…The film is directed by conceptual artist Sam Taylor-Wood, perhaps best known for her collaboration (with Henry Bond) on a piece called ’26 October 1993,’ a reimagining of the classic Rolling Stone cover of a naked Lennon wrapped around a clothed Yoko Ono, taken by Annie Leibovitz a few hours before Lennon’s murder in 1980.”
examiner.com: “extensive interview podcasts, called LENNONYC: Beyond Broadcast … can be listened to in their entirety online… include interviews with people closely associated with John during those eventful years of 1970 – 1980, including drummer Jim Keltner, photographer Bob Gruen, producer Jack Douglas, Elton John, Gary Van Scyoc of Elephant’s Memory, bassist and artist Klaus Voorman, and producer and engineer Roy Cicala. Also included are people associated with his pre-New York life, including Colin Hall, curator of John’s childhood home Mendips, and Colin Hanton, original drummer for the Quarrymen.