John Lennon & Yoko Ono
interview with Howard Smith
12th December 1970
John Lennon and Yoko Ono, December 1970
This interview was conducted for the Radio Station WPLJ at an apartment in Greenwich Village where John & Yoko were staying during their December 1970 visit to the United States. The twin Plastic Ono Band albums were released that month and, as well as discussing these, they also talked about the primal therapy that they had undertaken during the summer. During this pre-Christmas 1970 visit, John & Yoko also shot two films - Up your legs and Fly  - and gave the famous "Lennon Remembers" interview to Rolling Stone.
 

Howard Smith: How much longer are you going to be in New York, do you have any idea?

John Lennon: We have a Visa, or whatever they call it, only to the 31st. We’re allowed, or I’m allowed, 30 days each time I come, so the 31st is the last day. And of course we have our fab albums out, we were coming to see how they went and [to] promote ‘em but we ended up making films instead.

Smith: What reaction have you gotten to your album? From like, people you know, friends…

John: Erm, I don’t know.

Yoko Ono: [To Smith] Well you should know that better actually.

John: I don’t know, you know. People I played it to, or that I’ve given it to, they found it just a bit heavy first time, a bit brought down - and then next time they listen to it, it’s not so hard for them.

Yoko: Because it’s so real and people just can’t take something that’s so real and on John’s album he’s just put everything straight, straightforward, and just said things.

John: I tried to do it without any trimmings.

Smith: There wasn’t any overdubbing then?

John: No, no.

Smith: You did it almost like it was live.

John: When you’re writing a song and you’re just playing the piano, say at home, or a guitar, the piano notes just linger on so much - there’s many many sounds in there and for years me and others have said we wish we could just do it with a piano, but when you get there you always think 'Oh no we’ll just put a maraca on it' or 'we’ll just double track', we end up building it into a kind of mush, like a trifle. But this time I was tough with it and 'That’s it now' and we were doing it in 1 or 2 takes and things like that. I don’t really like making tracks and then putting the voice on after, I find it more inhibiting, I like to play and sing it at the same time.

Yoko: I think the trend is, music is becoming so psychedelic and a decorative thing. It’s almost wallpaper - like John said once - and instead of that, his is like a message. And instead of the medium is the message, it’s the message is the medium in this case. It’s such an urgent message, you don’t need any more.

John: Yoko’s album compliments mine for people who are interested in that kind of thing, hers is a kind of, er, well, I call mine like a literate version of what we went through in the last year or so and Yoko’s is a sort of a sound picture, rather than a word picture.

Smith: Yoko, I’m curious how you did yours, was it done in the same way live in the studio?

John: Yoko’s was right off live, we didn’t even know we were making it, she did all her tracks in one night except for the track with Ornette Coleman which was an old one.

Smith: And that’s including the music?

John: Yes we did it live.

Yoko: I like the idea of just sort of deciding something very vague, like let’s do something slow and just take off from there on, sort of improvise things, like the first track Why was like a dialogue between John’s guitar and my voice, I do a certain thing and then he comes on and then I get very inspired by that and you know, it’s like that.

John: In the old tradition of music really.

Smith: Were there people other than the musicians and the engineers in the studio?

John: No, no.

Smith: I was trying to imagine the scene with all that screaming, were you shaking and carrying on or …

John: I was dancing around with the guitar in front of her, sort of catching her eye and she was screaming back at me. It was a fantastic scene. There was just the four of us there, Klaus Voorman on the bass and Ringo on the drums, me on the guitar and Yoko on voice and we just knocked it off you know.

Smith: You didn’t take any films?

John: No, it was one of those things that just happened that night, it just happened and we didn’t plan it, the musicians were in a good mood, they were grooving and Yoko was in a good mood. We started Why without her, she was in the control box, it was meant to be my session and we got into such a good lick and on the beginning of the track I’m shouting Hey! Hey!, you know, I’m trying to signal her in the control box to come in and start ‘cus it was right for her to start singing with it, but she didn’t hear me, she just wandered into the room anyway because she was inspired by the sound, she just came in and grabbed a mic and luckily the engineers got her, normally when she opens her mouth they’re so surprised and they whip down the volume because she blasts the mic to shreds.

Yoko: In the avant-garde scene and all that, most of my friends were so sort of intellectual and when we were doing this Why we suddenly realised that John and I had this temperament that we both go mad, really mad you know, his guitar went really mad and I just started to join in.

John: On the first bit of Why, we keep talking about the same track, but we all thought that the guitar was Yoko’s voice when we got back in the engineering room, ‘cus we were in such a fuzz we didn’t know what we’d done, we just did it and ran into the control booth to hear it, we couldn’t tell which was her voice and which was the guitar at first, but you can just tell when her voice comes in just after the guitar, you realise one’s human and one’s steel.

Smith: I told you when I played it on the air, back several weeks ago, what a lot of people’s reactions were, phone calls and all that, 95% said Never play it again, terrible! and some of the people even called before I played it.

John: Well then they must be crazy.

Yoko: Baby’s cry, people are just used to shouting and screaming in life in general so I’m sure they must understand screaming and shouting, but the thing is I think they are too scared to see something…..

John: No, they feel it I think, when they hear it, they can’t help feeling it. I heard somebody calling in to one programme or other, whichever it was, and it made her skin crawl. It’s realism again, it gets to you whether you like it or not, there’s no escape from it and that’s what people don’t like.

Yoko: They can’t stand strong emotion, you have to sort of refine the emotion into some pretty music to communicate with them, usually, and I just detest that.

Smith: That’s how I tried to explain it also, I didn’t see it as entertainment necessarily.

John: It must been like the same as when they brought out abstract art you know, people were saying 'Well that’s just he’s thrown the paint at the canvass' or 'Where’s the human form in it?'

Smith: That’s what people were saying, 'It’s not music, it’s just a lot noise and yelling.'

Yoko: Like John’s saying too, when he was doing recording and all that with the Beatles and all that, I think there were many times that they all figured they needed more sounds added to it etc. and add some things to John’s songs or something. This time he was just doing it exactly like he wanted.

Smith: How about Phil Spector, how did he come into it? because he’s listed as co-producer with both of you.

John: Yeah right, he co-produced my album. Yoko and I did Yoko‘s. Phil’s a, well, a genius you call it, he’s a super energy guy and he came in just at the right moment on the album, we’d done a bit of work and he came in and inspired us again. There’s no bull with him, he can play a control board, he just plays it.

Yoko: He has a fantastic knowledge of technical engineering.

John: He can make any sound you like just within seconds, his knowledge is incredible. I learnt a lot from him on this album.

Smith: But in terms of what you were doing on the other side of the board, with musicians and everything, he wasn’t involved with that?

John: No, Phil leaves you to present him with a picture you think you want and then he’ll take the best shot of it with his camera, you present him with the stage set and he’ll make sure you get a good picture out of it and a good sound. You get what you’re making. The usual trouble is that a person’s interpretting all the time on the other side or whatever, but Phil could have been on either side of the board, which he was, like on Love he played the piano, he’s just like one of the band, not like an A&R man. When he’s with you, he’s one of the band.
He likes the same old kind of rock crap that I like, so when we did Instant Karma together he said "What do you want?" and I said "Like 1950’s now" and he did it! Great.

Smith: Yes I really liked Instant Karma a lot, that’s one of my favourite songs for a long time. How did you write the songs for this album? Did you write the words out first or did you do it on the guitar or a piano?

John: All those things I did, some of them I had words and a bit of melody in my head. I’m often asked that and I can never remember. I wrote Isolation on the piano and I Found Out on the guitar. I usually play the instrument that I wrote it on - on the take, because that’s the one I know best, my instrumental capabilities aren’t that good so I play what I know and that’s usually what I’ve written.

Smith: I wrote something to the effect that I thought it was almost psychoanalysis set to music and I think a lot of people are picking up on that.

John: There’s some truth in it, but it’s like Strawberry Fields was psychoanalysis set to music really. It’s the fact that we actually went down to California and did that thing with Janov and that, that people sort of see that side of it more, but its’ like Help!, Strawberry Fields, In My Life and a few songs are the same kind of thing, it’s about me, and I can just probably express myself better and simpler now.

Smith: Through what happened with Janov?

John: Well, it was like a mirror you know, I was given a mirror and I had to look into my own soul and I wasn’t looking in it from a sort of mystical perspective which tended to colour things, or a psychedelic perspective or being the famous Beatle perspective or making a Beatle record perspective, all those things gave a colour to what I did. This time it was just me in a mirror and so it came out like that.
But the moments in the past where that’s happened have been things like, I keep saying Strawberry Fields, where I’ve been alone completely in a situation and written like that. When you’re left with yourself what do you sing about? I found it easier when I was younger to project story things: She loves him because He left her, but I never could really get into it, I always liked first person novels and I like first person songs too.

Smith: Yes but this time it’s incredibly personal, almost er….

John: Well for 6 months we were looking at ourselves you know.

Yoko: But you see, Cold Turkey for instance, that was written along time ago, it has that very painful shouting and everything and when he performed in the Lyceum in London he said “This is a song of pain”. John had such a deprived childhood that he didn’t have the time or money or whatever to become unreal, he always somehow had to be real to cope with whatever he was going through.

Smith: Well that’s one reaction to it, some people have a similar childhood and go exactly the other direction, constantly in fantasy.

John: Well I’ve been through a lot of fantasy, I think we all have, I’ve been through the whole generation trip with everybody else, we’ve all been through it and I feel as though I’ve just come out of one period. One reality back to reality.

Smith: This going into analysis though with Janov, had you both decided to go into analysis and then found him? How did that come about?

John: No, no. We were just in England and the book came through the post from the publisher. I think Janov and a few of his people there decided who to send it to that would understand it and we read it and we liked what we read, so we called him up and he came over and we started whatever it is, Primal therapy, in England and then finished it off in California.

Smith: Have either one of you been in analysis before?

John: I would never go for that kind of jazz you know, I think most analysis is just symptomatic where you just talk about yourself, but I don’t need to do that because I’ve done a lot of it with reporters. So this seems something else. I never had any time for psychiatrists and those people because they’re all cracked, crazy.

Smith: What was it that attracted you specifically?

John: The book itself.

Smith: But was there any key element within the book?

John: Well “Primal scream“ got us, the title was enough

Yoko: What got me was, I was screaming all the time, in my songs and that. So I said Oh Primal Scream, that’s screaming, that got me.

John: Because we all have a scream inside us.

Smith: A squelched scream almost.

John: Squelched scream from birth almost.

Smith: I don’t think anybody doesn’t go through a day where they don’t say, Oh I wanna SCREAM and nobody ever does.

John: Right, so. We scream. We screamed.

Yoko: Right.

Smith: Do you continue to scream? Is that part of the therapy?

John:  There’s no way of describing it, it all sounds so straight just talking about it, what actually you do is cry. Instead of penting up emotion, or pain, feel it. Rather than putting it away for some rainy day.

Yoko: We’re going through some sort of painful experience every day, you - instead of feeling the pain, you will just sort of light a cigarette or something like that and try not to feel the pain because it’s too painful.  But instead of doing that we just feel the pain and cry, which is the natural thing to do, instead of repressing it.

Smith: Had you been very blocked and repressed about things….

John: I think everybody’s blocked, I haven’t met anybody that isn’t a complete blockage of pain from childhood from birth on.

Yoko: Like men are not supposed to cry for instance.

Smith: Never.

John: Right, that’s bad you know, why shouldn’t we cry? They tell us to stop crying about 12 or whatever it is. You know, “Be a man“, what the hell’s that? Men hurt.

Smith: I wonder whether your album’s going to have an effect on people, the lyrics talking that clearly about it, I wonder, because you know, both you and the Beatles in general have had a very big impact on a lot of people’s lives, I mean I get that all the time on the radio station where people will call in when we’re playing Beatles music and talk about how it had changed them and everything like that. I wonder whether this is going to have a similar effect.

John: I don’t know you see, I mean, I’m not the Beatles.

Smith: I’m saying You AND the Beatles. I mean, individually each of you, I think, you have a certain kind of power whether you’re aware of it or feel it or not.

John: I know there’s something there but I don’t know what effect what I put out, or what Paul puts out or what George puts out, it’s diverse now. I think as a foursome we projected four people’s power, that’s a lot different from one person. I don’t know you know, I hope it sort of gets to some people.

Smith: This whole thing with pain, it’s mentioned often in the lyrics on your new album, the whole thing with Janov and everything that he talks about, his style of primal scream, it all seems to be pain. Is that primarily it? What you’re involved in?

John: Well pain is what we’re frightened of, we all seem to think we have a secret, you know, the secret is that we hurt because of lots of things that happened to us.

Smith: Could you have both have gone through that analysis without each other?

John: I suppose we could but that’s like saying what would you have done if you were born in…..

Smith: No I don’t mean that, I just meant was it easier? Maybe that’s how I should have phrased it.

John: Yes yes, it’s always nice to have a friend, in what ever situation you’re in and Yoko and I are good friends, so it was easier.

Yoko: We sort of re-assured each other.

John: It’s nice to be alone with somebody, in your pain.

Smith: Were you involved in group therapy also? With other people?

John: They have a kind of group thing, yes. That’s part of it. It’s not all that holding each other’s hands and touch and all that crap.

Smith: But you were involved in a group situation.

John: There are group things yes, they’re not confrontations or anything like that, it’s a very different kind of therapy.

Smith: The reason I’m asking, I’ve been involved in a lot of various kinds of therapy.

John: I’m sure many people are probably wasting many years and much money.

Smith: I feel that I wasted it with some and with others I didn’t, depending on where my head was at - at the time, or which form of therapy I was in. But from different group situations that I’ve been involved in, I was trying to imagine what it would have been like if two people like you had been in that group.

John: We did cause a few primals, as they call them, for other people with us being there.

Smith: But it calmed down and everybody was able to get more or less back to normal?

John: Oh yes, people have too much of their own pain to be bothered with who’s sitting in the therapy and who isn’t. When you get down to looking at yourself, it’s enough to keep you occupied.

Yoko: And yourself is more important really.

John: You’re not worried about what the curtains are like or where you are, you really get into yourself.

Smith: I did go to one sort of Reikien offshoot type therapist one time when I felt a great deal in pain and the reaction I had at the time (of course I was much younger and less sophisticated and more uptight), I found it kind of silly all the time. Did you have that kind of problem at first with Janov where it felt silly what you were doing?

John: No, no, it never felt silly, because - I don’t know how to describe where it would sound any different from any other kind of therapy to people who have been through therapy, but once you’re switched on to yourself, nothing’s silly. When you’re aware of your own body it’s not silly, there’s no time, you’re aware of your feelings all the time.

Smith: But seeing both of you in individual type sessions, did he work with the body directly?

John: The main work is done yourself, it really is, it’s so hard to talk about it, I can’t give it you in a nutshell, you almost do your own therapy after the… I don’t want to confuse people you know.

Yoko: I think anybody who is listening to this who is aware of their pain, so much that they’re so desperate that they need something, they’ll understand it. If they don’t understand it then that means they don’t need it so much probably, we needed it very much so that we understood, it’s like if you’re hungry and you see food, there’s no intellectualism about it,  you just grab and eat it. So it has a lot to do with your need I suppose.

Smith: Is the design of his therapy though to stop and then you carry it on yourself? Will you be going back to him again or not?

John: I don’t think there’s any need, we would go back to say ‘hello’, because we had experiences as a result of it, but it’s almost like you take a pill in the first three weeks and it stays with you, you do it yourself. It’s like somewhere along the line we were switched off not to feel things, like for instance - crying - men crying and women being very girlish or whatever it is, somewhere you have to switch into a role and this therapy gives you back the switch, locate it and switch back into feeling just as a human being, not as a male or a female or as a famous person or not famous person, they switch you back to being a baby and therefore you feel as a child does, but it’s something we forget because there’s so much pressure and pain and whatever it is that is life, everyday life, that we gradually switch off over the years. All the generation gap crap is that the older people are more dead, as the years go by the pain doesn’t go away, the pain of living, you have to kill yourself to survive. This allows you to live and survive without killing yourself.

Smith: There’s been reports and everything, I guess fairly well justified, that both of you went everywhere, all the time, together, never left each other’s side for a minute. Is that all still true?

John: Yes. We’re our best friends you know and touch is very important, so we like to touch each other all the time.

Yoko: Keep in touch [laughs]

John: A lot of the pain people go through is because they’re never touched. I mean, they might get in bed and have a quick…. but it doesn’t last long.

Smith: Now I wonder whether….

John: There’s never been any reason to be apart you see. Like for what for? For Yoko’s work? my work? it’s the same thing.

Smith: I just find that unusual because I don’t think I know any other couple in my whole experience…

John: Dick and Liz. Aren’t they like that? I imagine the Burton’s are like that in their own way. There are some couples like us. I’m sure Dick and Liz never leave each others side hardly.

Yoko: It just happens naturally, we’re not trying to do it or anything, it just happens.

Smith: I mean it’s not an agreement, it’s not like a plan.

John: No no, it just happens you know.

Yoko: We never plan things.

John: We never planned our relationship, it just happened and it ended up that we’re always together.

Smith: But based on that then, that it’s not planned, I can just imagine one day when you just might say, "I think I want to go for a walk in Central Park by myself".  Ok, being that that’s never been planned or anything, I’m sure you’ll just go and do it, you’ll be seen there and that’ll be it, it’ll be all over the newspapers all over the world that John and Yoko split because you’ve been seen one time.

John: Yes I know, I know, I’m sure they’d do that. It’s speculation. Well, we’ll see. I don’t care about the rumours so much.

Smith: No, I guess not anymore.

John: I mean, it’s not nice that people are waiting for us to split or something. Sometimes it feels like that, some of those columnists, but we’ll be the first to know.

Smith: Because so many couples that I know, the problem that they seem to be going through a great deal is how to achieve great depth in a relationship but at the same time have a feeling of freedom.

John: Freedom is in the mind you know, like they say. It seems that as soon as a couple gets together, the man’s supposed to go somewhere and work and the woman’s supposed to be somewhere else, but I don’t think that’s very good for a relationship, it just so happens that that’s the way we all live. Maybe in the past they worked together, or within sight of each other, like she’d be digging the potatoes and he’d be cutting the hay or something or they split for hunting, something like that. I don’t see why we should be apart, especially as we can work together and have the same interests. It’s not like I’m a mountain climber and she’s a archaeologist. Our interests are the same, so that helps.

Smith: It just seems there’s such a move away in general from marriage from monogamy, but yet with the two of you, it seems to be going really against the grain of what most people are doing.

John: I think that’s just a sort of phase, when it gets down to it you haven’t got enough energy to live with more than one person for long,  I don’t think any of that will really last unless it’s a large community and that becomes a village and the village becomes a town and the town becomes a city, so if they want to start off in villages again that’s fine.

Smith : But you do feel that the really important things are just between two people.

John:  Yes, nothing is more important than what goes on between two people, because it’s two people that produce children, two people that fall in love, you don’t generally fall in love with two people at once, I’ve never experienced it anyway. Promiscuity is something else, it’s for kids really.

Smith: You do see it as that?

John: Yeah, I feel as though I went through it. What’s the point? I mean, ******* isn’t that satisfactory as an end product to living, it’s like eating, you can’t survive on it alone, you need something else. You need somewhere to eat and live.

Smith: Just that on the art, music, literature type scene, I used to see a phenomena similar to what you two are describing where people used to be much more promiscuous when they were younger and then as they gain both their artistic and emotional maturity let’s say, getting older a little bit, they begin to not be as promiscuous. But now I’ve definitely begun to notice, on those same scenes, almost a reverse trend - That among couples who have even been together even a long time and who are in their 30’s, there is a definite move away towards just being with each other and I’m talking about really on a sexual level. A move away…

John: Maybe they had a more uptight teenage life or whatever you know. Probably the middle classes, middle classes are the ones that go through the rituals.

Yoko: When they’re not so creative or something, instead of making a song or something, they just have an affair. Affairs sometimes become substitutes for whatever they really want to do.

Smith: Oh I’ve seen that phenomena, sure.

Yoko: We don’t have that kind of necessity, actually we’re doing so many things, expanding our minds or something is not our problem, the mind is expanding in too many directions, like we make records and we make films, allsorts of things, we write and all that, so actually we want a reference point, so instead of expanding our minds we try to somehow have a point of reference which is ourselves, us, between us.

John: It’s like blaming the marriage family ritual for how you feel, you are the result of how you are brought up in a way, it’s like sort of saying, well I’m not just gonna live just in America, I’m gonna live in America and Paris and England all at once or try and do that but you have to stop somewhere. Otherwise you just go on all your life travelling round. What’s the point? It’s no good blaming America for the way you feel, you have to get on with it, you have to have a relationship with your home and with the land and the person you live with. I think if those people who are screwing round, if they found somebody that really satisfied them, then they’d stop. It’s like that, it’s like trying all the different junk or trying all the different food.

Smith: I’m not so sure… Myself again, I’ve really been around and I’m not sure that’s the case, I’m almost beginning to think that there’s a basic need in a lot of people, maybe not in both of you, I’m not saying this is in everyone. More depth AND freedom….

John: We’re not monks and nuns, but we’re not going to sacrifice what we have just for a spare ****. It means bringing somebody else into your relationship and we don’t have any room for that. We’re a pretty horny couple and we’re artistic and neurotic like everybody else, the kind of people who express themselves sexually a lot. But we’ve both been through the mill and we’ve done it all, so what the hell, now we’ve decided this is what we want. We so satisfy each other that that’s enough. I’ve done it all man, what the hell, there’s nothing to it, I’ve done it all you know, the Beatles were like Satyricon on tour you know and there’s nothing else to do. It doesn’t satisfy, it’s like smoking or…..

Smith: What did you say, you were like Satyricon on tour?

John: Yeah

Yoko: It’s almost like I think people who are always looking for promiscuity are sort of romanticists, they think that maybe they are gonna see some beautiful dream or something, they’re always sort of searching for something like that.

John: Lucy in the sky I was.

Yoko: But when you see those 365 bodies, like the other day, you see that they are pretty much the same, they are all very beautiful in their own way and everything but it’s not so much a fantastic thing that you, I mean sex is not such a fantastic thing that you risk and put all of yourselves and your life onto something like that. When you say promiscuous you generally think in terms of sex right? So it’s not such a fantastic thing you know. It’s better to have a very deeply emotionally and spiritually involved relationship.

Smith: What I’m saying is that I think a lot of people now find that they can and that it almost helps a deeper relationship to also have an occasional variety of sexual experiences outside the deep relationship.

John: Maybe we’ll change, I don’t know, but now….

Yoko: Sex ALONE, is not such a fantastic thing.

Smith: I think anybody who’s made all the different scenes knows that, obviously.

John: It’s like in a restaurant, you can order it all and have a nibble of everything, but when you find out what you like you tend to order what you like. After you’ve eaten everything else, over the years, you get down to specifics, like steak like that and I like Coffee like that and I won’t bother anymore trying Ovaltine or Coco. I know what I like.

Smith: Dr Pepper.

John: Right, same to you.

Smith: I’ve never seen anybody drink so much Dr Pepper.

John: I hope I get some free ones if this goes over the air please, if you’re listening.
 
 

Note:- This next passage was not included in my copy of the interview but has come to my attention since. I'm not sure where abouts in the transcript it should be placed so I'm adding it as a footnote............

Smith: Some people talk mainly about joy, that you have to learn to feel joy as opposed to pain.

John: Well that's like, when you're born, you're in the pram and er, you smile when you feel like smiling. But normally the first game that you learn is to smile before you get touched, most mothers actually torture the kid in the pram, you know? Make it smile when it doesn't want to smile - smile and you get fed. That isn't joy. Those people that go 'round saying 'well let's sing Hare Krishna and be joyful' - you cannot be joyful unless you feel joyful, otherwise it's phoney. [If] Mummy makes you smile, or say Hare Krishna, before you feel good, then you've gone through a process of falsification of your feelings. If you feel good - you feel good, if you feel bad - you feel bad. There's no way out, it's like you can take drugs or get drunk or you can do whatever, but you're just suppressing the feelings.

Smith: That's where the lyrics on your album differ so much from the lyrics on George's album. The two of you seemed to have started at somewhat a similar point, at some place back there when you were all involved with the Swami scene and everything, and George seems to be basically saying things, you know, 'By chanting the names of the Lord, you'll be free' and all of that and you seem to be saying almost the exact opposite.

John: I am.

Smith: And yet this seems to have worked for you and the other seems to have worked for him.

John: But I wonder how happy George is.
 
 

See also: John Lennon Radio Interviews
 
 

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