John & Yoko • Forty Years On
“Her life was saved by rock ’n’ roll” is a line from the iconic Velvet Underground song, but I could have written it, because rock ’n’ roll saved mine.
As a teenager, I appeared fine on the outside but suffered intense anxiety and depression. I felt different from other kids and was isolated from them. The popular kids—everyone but me, it seemed—pegged me as weird, which I was. Angst kept me awake through haunted nights “listening to the Terror through the wall,” as Allen Ginsberg described it. To get through those interminable hours I smoked endless joints and read the entire literary canon for teenage misfits—along with Ginsberg, it included Salinger, Vonnegut, Miller, Heller, Burroughs, Kerouac, Kafka, et al. But while the drugs and writers helped me tread water, nothing materially changed until I was awake one 3:00 A.M. twirling the Oreo-shaped dial of a Motorola transistor radio.
I hid under the covers with the volume low so my parents wouldn’t hear as I skipped past stations broadcasting country music, sports scores, tomorrow’s weather, and fire-and-brimstone evangelists, when I was stopped by a mesmerizing, gravel-voiced DJ on KDKB-FM, Phoenix’s underground station. The DJ ranted about race riots, the immoral war in Vietnam, and the deceitful U.S. president (he quoted a song by a guy named Tom Paxton: “Hey, hey, LBJ / How many kids did you kill today?”), and then paused for a breath. “But for now, take a break from the chaos and light up, kick back, and listen. Be prepared to have your mind blown.” He said he’d used “karma and magic” to get hold of an unreleased song by the Beatles, a track on a forthcoming album. “It’s by John Lennon,” he said. “So come with me on a magical mystery tour—down to Strawberry Fields, where nothing is real.”
The DJ played the song three times. And as he’d promised, my mind was blown.
By then the Beatles had more number one records than anyone in history. Lennon and his band had performed at Shea Stadium and on The Ed Sullivan Show, and, in 1965, the Queen of England had presented John with the MBE, the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, an award he irreverently returned. I’d heard of the Beatles, of course, but hadn’t paid attention. I was listening to inane pop records by the Monkees, the 5th Dimension, and Sonny & Cher (don’t judge—I was only eleven).
The day the DJ introduced me to Lennon, I rode my bike to a record store and spent my life savings ($130 earned over the course of a year of flinging the Scottsdale Progress newspaper on our neighbors’ porches) on Beatles albums. From then on, I was first in line when a new Beatles album—or, later, solo Lennon LP—was released.
I no longer felt like a stranger in a strange land. Rather than being ashamed of being different, I celebrated it; with John, I was in good company. In “Strawberry Fields Forever,” John sang, “No one I think is in my tree,” which comforted me because I didn’t think anyone was in my tree either, and in the song John promised, “It’ll all work out.”
The surrealistic lyrics and psychedelic sounds of Beatles songs awakened something in me. I felt hopeful. Alive. Every Beatles song thrilled me. Only later did I learn that the songs that moved me most were all primarily written by John: Along with “Strawberry Fields Forever,” they included “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “I Am the Walrus,” “Come Together,” “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” “Glass Onion,” and—“I read the news today, oh boy”—“A Day in the Life.”
In the late 1960s, Lennon released several experimental albums with his wife, Yoko Ono, that were then a bit too experimental for me to appreciate. However, songs on John’s first solo albums, released in 1970, ’71, and ’73, electrified me. Political songs like “Working Class Hero,” “Woman Is the Nigger of the World,” “Gimme Some Truth,” and, of course, “Imagine” and “Give Peace a Chance” gave me purpose—to do something about what I saw as the bleak state of the nation. I volunteered for Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers on the lettuce and grape boycotts—protests against the exploitation of farmworkers—and then, though I was too young to vote, I left home to work on George McGovern’s presidential campaign. Meanwhile, just as John’s political songs inspired action, his personal songs, including “Mother,” “Well Well Well,” “I Found Out,” and “God,” inspired me to look inside to find the source of the pain I’d experienced since I was young.
Following the McGovern defeat (which devastated me—the nation was left with another term for Tricky Dicky, eventually cut short because of the Watergate break-in), I began college at Berkeley, where I wasn’t any weirder than other students. That led to a job as assistant editor at the newly founded New West magazine, where I worked as a researcher on stories about the Peoples Temple, Zodiac Killer, and murders of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. I began freelancing for local magazines but aspired to write for Playboy and Rolling Stone, whose interview features were celebrated. I inundated their editors with query letters. Their responses—form rejections—filled cardboard boxes.
In early 1980, I was in New York and, on a whim (I didn’t have an appointment), decided to pop into the Playboy editorial office. My timing must have been good, because Barry Golson, the executive editor who oversaw their legendary interview feature, agreed to see me. Barry was renowned, one of the most respected editors in the business. He’d published seminal interviews with Bob Dylan, Marlon Brando, and many others, including the famous Jimmy Carter interview in which the then–presidential candidate admitted he lusted in his heart, a confession that almost cost him the 1976 election.
I’m not sure where my boldness came from, but I teasingly chastised Barry for ignoring my query letters. His response: “Slow down and have a seat.”
Interviews copyright © 1981 by Playboy Enterprises, Inc. Introduction copyright © 2020 by David Sheff