Lennon and…John?

Michael Gerber
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I don’t know about you, but this always felt like a real friendship to me.

Commenter @Hologram Sam dropped this into a comment thread but I thought it was worth making into a post. In Elton John’s new autobiography, Me, he tells of a meeting he had with Yoko Ono in the early 80s (had to be some time before January 1984, for reasons you’ll see in a second).

If you’re reading this site, you know that Elton John and John Lennon were good friends, and Elton was apparently one of the few people John socialized with during the Dakota years. Unlike Harry Nilsson or Ringo, John’s friendship with Elton didn’t seem to have obvious undertones of bumper-cars-out-of-control; the pair really seemed to relate to each other, and it’s to Yoko’s credit that she didn’t get totally weird about it. (Only partially, I guess; Elton being gay was maybe a part of that. Maybe another part was Elton’s role in getting John and Yoko back together…although that never helped Paul.)

Anyway, so much to say that it’s not totally strange that Yoko would “urgently” ask to meet with her husband’s old pal. When he got there, Elton was shocked to hear Yoko’s proposal: that he finish some of the demos John had been working on in late 1980. Elton…not Paul.

To his credit, Elton demurred immediately. “I thought it was too soon, the time wasn’t right. Actually I didn’t think the time would ever be right. Just the thought of it freaked me out…I thought it was horrible. Yoko was insistent, but so was I. So it was a very uncomfortable meeting.” The demos were released, as-is, on Milk and Honey, in January 1984.

In poking around for this post, I found another, lighter memory from the book, this time from Page Six: “In the book, [Elton] opens up about his friendship with the Beatle, recounting a night when the superstars were using cocaine together at the Sherry-Netherland hotel in New York. The pair heard a knock at the door, only to see Andy Warhol through the peephole.

“‘Do you want him coming in here taking photos when you’ve got icicles of coke hanging out of your nose?’ Lennon asked Elton, before deciding not to let the artist in, according to the book.”

Not someone to trust with secrets.

You know what? Celebrities were more fun in the 70s! I think I just found something to ask for, for Xmas.

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  1. Avatar Gretchen Nelson wrote:

    Aw, Elton is so sweet. I think he was definetely better for John than Paul was. He just always had such a pleasant demeanor about him,so relaxed and calm. I think he is just a genuinely nice person. i’m not sure I can say the same about Paul. Having been a lifelong Beatles nut, I have never fully trusted Paul,especially when it comes to John. Of course, it could be related to,the fact that I have never totally forgiven him for his”it’s a drag”comment. I have also always found it very strange that given the fact that Paul had ALWAYS been the most image conscious and press savvy of all of them, that he didn’t know that he would be crucified for that,comment;and the look on his face when he said it didn’t register shock,but anger. For whatever reason, I think he knew exactly what he was doing. Sorry for the rambling, I know it’s going on 40 years since John was killed,but Paul’s reaction(or lack of?)still bothers me to this day. But getting back to the subject, I think Elton was very good for John.❤️

    • Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

      I’ve always read that “it’s a drag” comment as angry — and directed at the press for asking it. The tendency to shove a mic in someone’s face just after someone has died and ask how they feel is both tasteless and unilluminating, IMO.

  2. Avatar Tasmin wrote:

    To be fair, here is an excerpt from the 1984 Playboy Interview with Paul and Linda. Paul explains why he said “It’s a drag”, when confronted with his feelings over John death.

    Also, not everyone reacts the same with regards to grief. I think Paul was in shock. He lost his former best friend, partner, brother.

    Playboy Interview with Paul and Linda McCartney:
    Interviewed by Joan Goodman
    Article ©1984 Playboy Press

    PLAYBOY: “Paul, it’s been nearly four years since John Lennon died and you haven’t really talked about your partnership and what his death meant to you. Can you talk about it now?”

    PAUL: “It’s… it’s just too difficult… I feel that if I said anything about John, I would have to sit here for five days and say it all. Or I don’t want to say anything.”

    LINDA: “I’m like that.”

    PAUL: “I know George and Ringo can’t really talk about it.”

    PLAYBOY: “How did you hear of John’s death? What was your first reaction?”

    PAUL: “My manager rang me early in the morning. Linda was taking the kids to school.”

    LINDA: “I had driven the kids to school and I’d just come back in. Paul’s face, ugh, it was horrible. Even now, when I think of it…”

    PAUL: “A bit grotty.”

    LINDA: “I knew something had happened…”

    PAUL: “It was just too crazy. We just said what everyone said; it was all blurred. It was the same as the Kennedy thing. The same horrific moment, you know. You couldn’t take it in. I can’t.”

    LINDA: “It put everybody in a daze for the rest of their life. It’ll never make sense.”

    PAUL: “I still haven’t taken it in. I don’t want to.”

    PLAYBOY: “Yet the only thing you were quoted as saying after John’s assassination was, ‘Well, it’s a drag.'”

    PAUL: “What happened was we heard the news that morning and, strangely enough, all of us… the three Beatles, friends of John’s… all of us reacted in the same way. Separately. Everyone just went to work that day. All of us. Nobody could stay home with that news. We all had to go to work and be with people we knew. Couldn’t bear it. We just had to keep going. So I went in and did a day’s work in a kind of shock. And as I was coming out of the studio later, there was a reporter, and as we were driving away, he just stuck the microphone in the window and shouted, ‘What do you think about John’s death?’ I had just finished a whole day in shock and I said, ‘It’s a drag.’ I meant drag in the heaviest sense of the word, you know: ‘It’s a–DRAG.’ But, you know, when you look at that in print, it says, ‘Yes, it’s a drag.’ Matter of fact.”

    PLAYBOY: “You tend to give a lot of flip answers to questions, don’t you?”

    PAUL: “I know what you mean. When my mum died, I said, ‘What are we going to do for money?'”

    LINDA: “She brought in extra money for the family.”

    PAUL: “And I’ve never forgiven myself for that. Really, deep down, you know, I never have quite forgiven myself for that. But that’s all I could say then. It’s like a lot of kids; when you tell them someone’s died, they laugh.”

    PLAYBOY: Because they can’t cope with the emotion?”

    PAUL: “Yes. Exactly.”

    LINDA: “With John’s thing, what could you say?”

    PAUL: “What could you say?”

    LINDA: “The pain is beyond words. You can never describe it, I don’t care how articulate you are.”

    PAUL: “We just went home. We just looked at all the news on the telly, and we sat there with all the kids, just crying all evening. Just couldn’t handle it, really.”

    LINDA: “To this day, we just cry on hearing John’s songs; you can’t help it. You just cry. There aren’t words… I’m going to cry now.”

  3. Avatar Hologram Sam wrote:

    Yet despite his self-described sex addiction, Elton John “was never actually into fucking that much.” So what would he do? “I was an observer, a voyeur. I’d kind of set up my perversion, have two or three guys doing things for me to watch,” he writes. “That was where my sexual pleasure came from, getting a bunch of people who wouldn’t normally have sex with each other, to have sex with each other.” And that’s not all. “I just watched, took Polaroids, organized things,” he continues. “The only problem was that I was incredibly houseproud, so they’d end up having sex on the snooker table with me shouting, ‘Make sure you don’t come on the baize!’ which tended to puncture the atmosphere a bit.” You don’t say!
    Elton John finally gave up cocaine when he checked himself into rehab in 1990 — stars like Freddie Mercury and George Harrison, among many others, had told him to go for years, but he didn’t listen until his ex-boyfriend, Hugh Williams, checked into rehab while they were dating.


  4. Avatar Gretchen Nelson wrote:

    Why was it,do you think that Yoko trusted Elton more than Paul?

    • Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

      I think Yoko perceived Paul as a rival for John’s attention in a way no one else was. Lennon and McCartney were already linked as artistic partners in a way that couldn’t be undone, and she seems to have felt threatened by the idea of the two of them doing anything more together — even if it was a posthumous project. She didn’t ease up on that until Anthologu.

      • Avatar Gretchen Nelson wrote:

        I don’t know why she would have felt threatened if they were friends. She was a woman,they were two men,what was there to have been concerned about?

        • Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

          Gretchen, I’m writing from my phone so can’t link, but look up the HD “Time Lapse Photography” post that Michael wrote some years ago. Basically I think it’s about artistic and personal partnership, not sex.

  5. Avatar Kristy wrote:

    EXACTLY, Nancy. Yoko was not threatened by Elton John and avoiding Paul would continue the story they had built, that Paul was old news. Especially interesting since for years she apparently had a tape that John had specifically written “For Paul” on, I think?

  6. This revelation didn’t surprise me at all, for two reasons. First, it is consistent with how the Lennon Estate monetized his legacy and public grief surrounding his death to do something like having another person “finish” demos of his songs (even quite personal songs!) and put those songs out uncomfortably soon after his murder. (It feels icky to me, but so does putting his bloodstained glasses on an album cover.) Second, it is consistent with Yoko’s discomfort with Paul McCartney, and the Lennon/McCartney partnership generally, that Yoko would ask Elton–someone who was apparently considered a “safe” friend for John to have, since he wasn’t among those who were de facto banned from the Dakota like Mick Jagger–to finish the songs out. Nor is it inconsistent that Elton would be asked to do this even though there was another British rock star out there whom John had cowritten over 150 songs with who was apparently hoping to collaborate with John again in 1980. (For example, when the music video for #9 Dream was prepared for a Lennon Legend DVD in 2004, Yoko’s face, not May Pang’s, appeared in it.)

    It seems that Elton was one of the few friendships John had in the Seventies with someone who was a kind of a peer, and not an enabler/employee/syncophant-slave. I think had John remained with May, Elton could have continued to be a conduit for Lennon re-entering the entertainment (as opposed to political protest) side of making music.

    • Avatar Tasmin wrote:

      It’s so sad he didn’t stay with May. I read her book, and it seemed like she was such a positive influence.
      John was spending time with Julian, and May also encouraged him to talk to Paul.

      • Avatar Gretchen Nelson wrote:

        Will someone PLEASE explain to me why that bitch(sorry,I can’t help it!) I hope I didn’t offend anyone’s; had such a problem with John and Paul spending time together? I don’t get it.

        • @Gretchen, only those three know for sure, but from the outside it certainly appears that Yoko and Paul were fighting over John’s attention. And Yoko was understandably worried that John would choose Paul and Beatledom and the approval of the world over her and politics and conflict with the world (or isolation from it).
          It’s a shame that this situation couldn’t resolve, but it seems like it couldn’t.

  7. Avatar Alejandra wrote:

    Whenever I see images of John in the 70s I can’t help feeling, incredulous, that he got too far away from what he and his path should and could have been, to the point of not being able to return. He always seemed lost… on very rare occasions he looked happy again, as with EJ, let’s say.
    Elton John was definitely a positive influence for John, considering that it was with his collaboration that he returned to the popularity charts, and it is not accidental that it happened in the times when he was away from Yoko.
    That showed (more to Lennon himself than others) two things: first, that John could collaborate efficiently with someone else, and second, that he could do it without Yoko.

    • As @Sam stated down in the thread, Elton was ten years younger than John, and so I suspect Lennon could have a bit more of a mentor role, or Elder Statesman, like he did with Bowie.

  8. Avatar Hologram Sam wrote:

    That’s it, I’m getting a t-shirt saying “DON’T COME ON THE BAIZE”

    I’m pretty sure that was the title of a 1960 Bob Hope – Lucille Ball movie.

    I remember arguments in the 1970s (well, not arguments, just lively discussions) among Beatle fans about Yoko. There were some who believed every bad thing about her breaking up the band, and there were others who were offended by those claims. The ones who were offended would quote Lennon interviews: “If you think she’s controlling me, then screw you, brother!” etc.

    Those years, I was always somewhere in the middle. I didn’t really think she was the Evil Dragon Lady, but it was also obvious to me she wasn’t a Beatle fan, and didn’t care for Paul. But now, decades later, with all these new stories, I find myself agreeing with commenters here who believe John would have been better off with May Pang.

    I struggle with feelings of resentment towards Yoko. At the same time, I see the compassion that Michael Gerber always displays here for her, and I try to follow his example. I find it’s healthier for me in the long run.

    • Well I DO have great compassion for Yoko, and I’m glad it comes out, and glad it mediates some of the harsher impulses. She has come in for a lot of unearned criticism, as we all know well. And she’s suffered a lot of pain in her life, as we all have. I am, to be frank, more interested in Yoko as a person, or as a central character in this great story, than I am interested in criticizing her.
      Let us pause for a moment to note: it is strange that the “Yoko is controlling me” meme even exists. Nobody ever said that anybody was controlling Paul, George or Ringo. Or Dylan, Mick, Bowie, Elton, Andy Warhol, Bella Abzug, Muhammad Ali or whomever you want to compare to John. That John felt he needed to keep saying “I am autonomous from my wife!” is noteworthy, and speaks to something unusual about John and Yoko’s relationship. That element doesn’t disappear just because John got mad whenever people brought it up, and any responsible examination of his life, her life, and their life together *has* to address it. And you can’t dismiss it as fighting racism, sexism or patriarchy either; it wasn’t simply that Yoko was clearly a full partner in the marriage — it was that she was the dominant partner, which is remarkable because it requires a very different John Lennon than existed, in public or private, before 1968. There’s an element of “huh?” to who each of them were to the other that John&Yoko fans just sorta gloss over. And because this site is mostly about Beatle John — that is, mostly about John before Yoko — the “huh?” is magnified.
      In my experience, the difficulty any Beatles fan has with Yoko stems from the fact that, at bottom, she wasn’t/isn’t a fan of The Beatles. That’s another “huh?” moment. She’s a fan of John, mostly, but very seldom does she do or say things that make her seem like she loves the Beatles, or even understands why everybody else loves them. And this is worth remarking upon, because most of the world has been madly in love with the Beatles since 1962, and remains in love with them. So it’s weird that someone who claimed to adore the guy from whom The Beatles sprang, didn’t love his group. Didn’t (according to her) even know that group.
      Plus, there is the financial angle to Yoko’s relations with the fandom. Does anybody really think that she would’ve OK’d the Anthology, or the reissues, or whatever, if they didn’t make her a PILE of money? I don’t begrudge her the dough — at all — and am happy to pay her some portion of my Beatle Dollar. What I do not like is the suspicion that she thinks we’re all idiots; occasionally, she even lets slip something that reveals a real antipathy towards Beatles fans. George could “go there”; he’s a Beatle, and gave us all so much. Yoko Ono, that’s different. Have there been times when she’s been ill-treated by Beatles fans? Yes, absolutely. We all know them, and we all cringe at them. But without Beatles fans, Yoko wouldn’t be a millionaire, much less a billionaire, and her own artistic work wouldn’t be nearly as well-known, and she wouldn’t be even one-tenth as famous as that Serbian woman who sat in the chair, you know the one I mean. She would probably be an excellent, occasionally shown artist living quietly on Bank Street.
      And that’s OK! That’s a better fate than 99% of all artists, regardless of talent. But Yoko Ono won the lottery — and not just any lottery: patriarchal capitalism’s lottery — and has spent the time since kind of…angry about that good fortune? Why? That’s weird, you know? Yoko could’ve married John Lennon, the pipefitter. Olivia’s not weirdly non-plussed that people love George; she doesn’t let slip little digs about him. Yoko’s not just in competition with Paul, she seems to be in competition with John. Which is fine, people are complicated and marriages even more so, but…”huh?”
      I’m not saying that wealth, fame, and power should mean a lot to a person. But those things clearly mean a lot to HER, and those all come from one source and one source only: Beatle fans. I think deep down Yoko knows this, and resents it, and that resentment comes out in weird ways.

  9. I guess you’re a bigger person than I am. I just can’t help but think that if John hadn’t become involved with her,he’d still be alive. I have no way of knowing that for sure,of course,but she was just bad news. Apparently Paul had tried to get in touch with John a number of times,but Yoko intercepted them and refused them;her effort to keep John isolated. As everyone probably knows,I am not a huge fan of Paul, but even less of Yoko. I’m probably not very objective when it comes to John;he was BY FAR my favorite Beatle and I still miss him to this day. I always will.

  10. I sometimes wish that Elton had met John back in 1957 at the Woolton Fete instead of Paul. I’m sure that THAT remark is going to generate some replies,LOL!

    • Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

      That’s interesting—why do you think that would have been better, Gretchen? I can’t really see George and Ringo in a band with John and Elton, but who knows. My sense is that for all the conflict, John and Paul were uniquely able to work together.

    • Avatar Tasmin wrote:

      Gretchen, no matter your feelings about Paul, we are talking about The Beatles BECAUSE it was John and Paul who met. John and Elton John could not have made The Beatles. It had to be John, Paul, George and Ringo. The magic and music came from the alchemy of the 4 of them.

      • Avatar Gretchen Nelson wrote:

        I know you’re right. It was the chemistry between all of them that made the Beatles. I just ask myself why,if it was so DAMN,bloody good,why did it have to end? Something that was so beautiful shouldn’t have become so fucked up. How have the Stones stayed together? Why the Stones and not the Beatles? I have to be missing something.

        • Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

          Well, the Stones have had some personnel changes, while the Beatles wouldn’t have been the Beatles without John, Paul, George, and Ringo.
          As for why the core of that band has been able to stay together, I have a couple of thoughts.
          The Stones were never that idealistic, so they were much less vulnerable to disappointment and taking things to heart. This offered them some protection in hard circumstances, but it’s also why they don’t have the emotional range or resonance of the Beatles. (As Neil Young put it, “Only love can break your heart.”)
          The Stones weren’t under the same level of pressure — they were of course enormously popular and important to their generation, but they weren’t the repository of its hopes and dreams the way the Beatles were (that idealism again). That’s a lot to deal with, and it’s not too surprising to me that the Beatles cracked under the pressure.
          Finally, Allen Klein knew how to play up to John and was backed up by Yoko when the band was at its turning point. Lots of reasons why that turning point looked the way it did, but no way would the breakup have happened as it did without Klein’s malign participation.

          • To me, the lineup changes reveal that the Stones are primarily a commercial enterprise, not an artistic one. And it’s a lot easier to persist on those terms than the Beatles’.
            The Beatles were created by a long process of friendship and shared experience, resulting in a deeper connection than your usual group. If we can identify any element as the primary one for “the magic,” it’s that one. Having started as friends, not co-workers, to continue to make Beatle music, The Beatles had to remain friends. This also meant they couldn’t really bring outsiders in to revitalize the group; when they brought Billy Preston in, it worked because he was an old friend. So the Beatles experience was smaller, more intense, and more fragile.
            Also, it’s pretty clear that the main drivers of the Stones, Mick and Keith, haven’t really the talent to succeed outside of the group. Whereas all four Beatles, including Ringo, have had greater solo success than any Stone. All four Beatles knew they had talent, and that pulled them apart.
            Also, please keep in mind that Mick actively steered John towards Allen Klein, at the same time as the Stones were trying to extricate themselves from him. This is, once again, looking at The Beatles as commercial rivals, not fellow musicians.

          • Michael Bleicher Michael Bleicher wrote:

            If the Stones had worked like the Beatles, then they wouldn’t have kicked out Brian Jones, and they would have broken up if and when he died. And if the Beatles had worked like the Stones, then once John Lennon started to be an erratic pain in the ass, Paul and George would’ve psychologically abused him to minimize his power within the group and cement theirs, pushing him toward his increasingly obvious demise without any evident concern, while Ringo stood by and let it happen.

            Get why the Stones have lasted longer? They’re more like a baseball team anchored by a couple of key position players. The Beatles were a rock group, but they were also not a rock group.

          • Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

            Well said — I concur.

          • This is a very good comment.
            “Get why the Stones have lasted longer?”
            Mick and Keith are a pair of guys, turned sociopathic by wealth and fame, with more commitment to financial matters than artistic growth? Yes, I get it.
            This is why I endlessly slag the Stones: unlike The Who, unlike The Kinks, or Cream, or or or — there’s no “there” there. There’s not even anything to dislike. Mick and Keith simply don’t have anything interesting to say, which is a huge advantage in a product designed for a mass audience. You can’t be the bland commercial success that the Stones have been, if you care about anything other than bland commercial success. But as music? As a group of musicians? Has there ever, in the history of Humanity, been a pair of artists given more opportunity to say things, who’ve said less? They had one good idea (that lots of others had at the same time), and they’ve let nothing stand in their way from milking that one idea for 60 years. You’ve got to be not just unartistic to do that, but anti-artistic — and that’s why they have remained in perfect tune with the music business.

  11. Avatar Hologram Sam wrote:

    I sometimes wish that Elton had met John back in 1957 at the Woolton Fete instead of Paul.

    Elton was ten years old in 1957, so he wouldn’t have made much of an impression on Lennon.

  12. Avatar Tasmin wrote:

    “Whatever Gets You Through The Night”, is one of my favorite post Beatle, Lennon songs.

  13. Avatar Hologram Sam wrote:

    The Fame guitar riff was written by Carlos Alomar, who had spent years in James Brown’s band, riffing on Brown’s arrangements. When Brown saw Fame race up the charts, he decided to take back what had been taken from him.

  14. Avatar Justin McCann wrote:

    @Sam, my favourite cure for jealousy is thinking about how ridiculous it looks when the most talented people in the world indulge in it.

  15. Avatar Piderpoo wrote:

    I see a new low in Paul hatred here…someone wishing John had met Elton in 57 at the church social rather than, as your blog has humorously called him “the greatest monster who ever walked the earth” , Paul.

    • Aw, y’know, people are weird. Didn’t John suggest the Beatles reform with Harry Nilsson in Paul’s spot? Brilliant fucking idea, John. Why not just buy the nation of Colombia and cut out the middleman?
      If I wrote it, I bet I called Paul “History’s Greatest Monster.” My writing partner used that phrase a lot.

  16. Avatar coco77 wrote:

    Seriously. I know its the thing to say “it was all four of them!” and while of course each one of them had their roles to play, the beating heart of the Beatles was the Lennon/McCartney partnership, whether people like it or not. Suggesting that Elton John could have replaced Paul is just sad to me, and shows a pretty big lack of understanding John himself in my opinion.

    • Avatar Tasmin wrote:

      Agree coco77. There’s a great soundbite I’ve heard on The Beatles Channel, where John says, (paraphrasing) “The only person I ever chose to have as a partner, who I realized was talented and I could get on with, was Paul. Pretty good picking!”

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