Chapter extract from John Lennon: The Life

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Chapter 27
Trouble with Harry

John was to call these next 14 months his Lost Weekend, borrowing the title of the most famous film ever made about alcoholism and urban loneliness. Billy Wilder’s 1945 noir classic follows a young writer, played by Ray Milland, as he struggles through a solitary Friday to Monday in New York wrestling with demons of temptation and self-loathing. Alcohol certainly loomed large in John’s West Coast version, as did loneliness and self-loathing, but the script would contain much else besides. ‘It wasn’t by any means a lost weekend,’ his friend Elliot Mintz says. ‘Just a very long one.’

Mintz had got to know John while working as a disc jockey on station KLOS in Los Angeles. His first contact was with Yoko, whom he interviewed on his show by phone from New York, proving so sympathetic that he later built up a friendship with her the same way. A face-to-face meeting did not come until the summer of 1972, when John and Yoko decided finally to kick their lingering methadone habit with the help of a Chinese acupuncturist in San Francisco. Feeling that they should take a proper look at the country from which they might soon be banished, they made the trip by road, chauffeured by their assistant, Peter Bendry. Rather than the usual limo, they chose an ordinary estate car without the integrated stereo system John usually regarded as essential. Instead, he played singles on a portable record player whose needle jogged with a horrible scrunch whenever the car hit a pothole.

Some Time in New York City was just about to be released, with its eulogies to the Black Panthers and the IRA. When Elliot Mintz finally met John and Yoko in the flesh, John gave him an early pressing and said he was to have the privilege of breaking it in the LA area. Mintz played the entire album on KLOS without commercials or interruption, a bravura gesture that cost him his job at the station. He had since moved from radio to become an entertainment reporter for ABC-TV’s Eyewitness News. This was to prove ironic, as the confidential nature of his relationship with John and Yoko would prevent many extraordinary scenes to which he was an eyewitness from finding their way onto the air.

Mintz was waiting at Los Angeles Airport when John arrived on the flight from New York, accompanied by May Pang and carrying $10,000 in traveller’s cheques, which he had borrowed from Capitol Records for their immediate subsistence. As Mintz recalls, there was no suggestion that he and Yoko had parted by mutual agreement or that their separation was other than permanent. ‘He said she’d kicked him out and he didn’t know when or even if they’d be getting back together.’

To all media interviewers he told the same story, as he would undeviatingly over the next 12 months: that Yoko and he were simply taking a break from each other, and there was nothing wrong with their relationship. ‘Now that she knows how to produce records and everything about it, I think the best thing I can do is keep out of her hair. We’re just playing life by ear, and that includes our careers. We occasionally take a bath together and occasionally separately, just how we feel at the time.’

As it happened, too, he had plausible professional reasons to be in Los Angeles. Mind Games was scheduled for release in November, and Capitol had scheduled various meetings with its West Coast marketing and promotion departments. Besides, LA had long since taken San Francisco’s position as the happening place in white American pop, thanks to the new singer-songwriter breed headed by Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, and the modish country-rock style of Neil Young and Jackson Browne. If John wanted more hit albums, it was only wise to take careful soundings here.

Nor would he be friendless and neglected like the protagonist of Lost Weekend. Mal Evans, the Beatles’ roadie who had always acted as nursemaid and bodyguard to him in particular, was now living in LA, forgetful of a cash-strapped wife and children back in Britain. And Ringo Starr frequently came into town, as much a bachelor in his own marriage as John could wish to be. Despite the unresolved legal questions among them, the other three ex-Beatles could still put aside their differences in mutual fondness for Ringo: on his new, eponymous album, John had written one track, ‘I’m the Greatest,’ and sung harmonies with George playing lead guitar; another song, ‘Six O’Clock’, featured Paul and Linda McCartney. Ringo had also recently bought Tittenhurst Park, in the same obliging spirit that a Liverpool pal might take over some old banger of a car. John hated the thought that his rolling parklands and lake had gone for ever, and drew comfort from Ringo’s promise that a bedroom would always be kept for him there.

He had been loaned a small duplex apartment in West Hollywood by Harold Seider, the lawyer representing him in the Allen Klein lawsuit. Soon after arriving, however, he bumped into an old friend from Beatlemania days, the Rolling Stones’ former manager, Andrew Loog Oldham (who had many tales of his own about litigation with Klein). Oldham was staying at the Bel Air home of the record producer Lou Adler while Adler was away for an extended period. As he was about to return to Britain, he suggested that John and May should borrow the house in his place.

From the moment John reached LA, according to Elliot Mintz, his one thought was returning to Yoko. ‘He called her every day, saying, “When can I come home?” She’d also call me every day, to see how he was doing and check that he wasn’t harming himself or making a fool of himself, though at that stage she certainly wasn’t looking for steps to get him back. Most of the time, John was in denial. But when he got drunk or high, he couldn’t stop talking about Yoko and how much he needed her. The sense with him all the time was “What do I have to do to get out of here and back to her?” ’

Yoko, too, found the separation hard, but was determined not to weaken. ‘For the first two weeks, my whole body was shaking, I couldn’t stop. Because before that I was never without him, and now I was alone here [at the Dakota]. But I didn’t want to tell that to John because then he would have come back. I thought, “I have to get over this because I can’t be in a position where my existence relies on being with somebody.” ’

On the telephone, John’s mood would veer between euphoria at his newfound freedom and reproachful homesickness. “In L.A., when things were going well, he’d say, ‘Oh, you’re such a great, great wife, I can’t believe it,’”

Yoko remembers. ‘When things were not going well, it was, “How could you send me out here?”’ A telegram he sent to Derek Taylor revealed the extent of his desperation amid the usual Lennon punnery: ‘I’m in Lost Arseholes for no real reason ... Yoko and me are in hell but I’m gonna change it...’