Nowhere Man

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John Lennon’s final interview took place over the first few days in December. Lennon spent nine hours with Rolling Stone writer Jonathan Cott discussing his past, his present, and future. Ultimately, Lennon lived just three days after the interview wrapped and would never get to live out the dreams he shared with Cott. In December of 2010, thirty years after Lennon’s death, Rolling Stone magazine released “The Lost Lennon Tapes” issue. Jann S. Wenner, the current editor of Rolling Stone begins the issue with the story of how the tapes became public, noting that until this fall, the tapes had been in Cott’s closet. Upon Lennon’s untimely death, the Cott interview that had been originally scheduled to grace the cover of the magazine was changed to an in memoriam piece. In his grief, Cott has stored the tapes in an unmarked box and left them there (Wenner, 2010, p.18). Cott and Lennon have an already well-established relationship from prior interviews that had evolved into a friendship. The discourse sample was taken from the transcripts of the interview between Jonathan Cott and John Lennon that took place on December 5, 1980.

Part One

John Lennon’s interview with Jonathan Cott wasn’t supposed to be anything out of the ordinary.  Cott arrived at Lennon’s New York City apartment on the morning on December 5, 1980 to gather material for the January cover of Rolling Stone magazine. Having met Lennon before, Cott had established a certain amount of trust with the former Beatle, so he was conducting the interview from a rather personal setting. The ceiling to the moderately sized apartment was painted as if it were a sky, adding to the spiritual presence that seemed to follow Lennon wherever he went. Yoko Ono, Lennon’s wife, comes and goes from the room frequently, and one gets the sense that if she wasn’t in the room she was listening from the other side of the door. The mood seemed eerily calm, and Cott picked up on the fact that something strange was in the air that morning although no one knew quite what it was. Less than 72 hours later, John Lennon would be dead.

What began as a standard interview would become the final, and perhaps most important piece of the John Lennon puzzle. As the public mourned the loss of Lennon, every song he ever wrote and every word he spoke became immortalized. People held on to whatever they could find in order to keep the legacy of John Lennon alive. In the uproar that followed his tragic death, claims were made, books were published, and stories covered every newspaper and magazines. The December issue of Rolling Stone was never supposed to say “In Memoriam” under Lennon’s famous half smile.

Over the years Rolling Stone had published countless stories on Lennon, but Cott’s final interview didn’t surface until the thirtieth anniversary of Lennon’s death.  The December 2010 cover that boasted “The Lost Lennon Tapes” served as a mirror into the past; a way to catch a glimpse of what was going on in Lennon’s head three days before we lost him forever.

The past frame a reader may have had before December 8, 1980 is much different than the frame that exists today. Back then “John Lennon” revolved around a very well known, public image of a living legend. The simple “celebrity” frame may have been what most people saw him as, although the “Beatles” were forever intertwined with how we saw him, despite Lennon’s best effort. Today, when one reads the interview they see Lennon through a post 1980 frame: murder. He is much more symbolic than he ever was when he was alive, and he has become even more legendary in his untimely death. Framing affects how we see a person, and the two very different perceptions of the interview are a significant part of the analysis process.

Yoko Ono begins the piece by remembering the last days of Lennon’s life, painting a portrait of a man who was oddly well aware that he may not grow old. “Death was around us like a thick fog” (Cott, 2010, pg. 88) Yoko remembered. The couple seemed to coexist in a world that was far from permanent, and Lennon alluded to the impending doom that would come the morning of the eighth. Yoko’s words are comforting, allowing the reader to remember that besides being a member of the most popular band in the world; John Lennon was a husband, a father, and a human being.

The preface from Yoko Ono is episodic as she described what actually happened the morning her husband was killed. Each intimate detail she offered allowed the reader to transport themselves back to 1980 in New York City, walking hand in hand with someone they loved. The story personifies John Lennon and provokes the reader to see the interview in a different light than they might have originally. The humanistic benefits of this framing process are crucial to the impact of the actual interview.

It’s important to Yoko, and the author, Jonathan Cott, that the reader have a well established image of the “real” John Lennon before they read his last words. The endless admiration and respect they continue to have for the deceased interviewee is evident from the first line of the interview, “Welcome to the inner sanctum!” (Cott, 91) John’s greeting to Cott the morning of the fifth. By immediately immersing the reader in the private setting of John Lennon’s living room, it humanizes Lennon and prompts the reader to see him as a man rather than “John Lennon the ____”. The mood  is calm and inviting, the vocabulary is non-threatening and Lennon’s playful demeanor is shown through the entertaining twists the interview takes on.

Cott doesn’t follow the typical journalistic framing approach. There is no exclusive evidence of a specific type of framing technique, making the interview appear less structured, and more organic. In the beginning of the interview, it’s apparent that Cott and Lennon are more friends than acquaintances. When divulging when the two first met, Cott writes, “I was just a lucky guy in the right place at the right time.”(Cott, 92) Cott’s admiration of Lennon showed  in his writing, but when conversing with him he spoke to him as an equal and was careful not to place him on a pedestal. Cott made it clear that he wasn’t going to judge Lennon, which is an extremely important point when analyzing their dynamic. Lennon recalled, “From Me to You was ‘below par Beatles.’ That was the review in NME. Jesus Christ…I’ll never forget that.” (Cott, 92) Lennon, while not necessarily fragile, was highly vulnerable and Cott’s respect for Lennon allowed him to let his guard down.

Lennon and Cott’s interactional dynamic was heightened by their personal relationship and concrete foundation for the basis of the interview. The reader isn’t forced to squirm and wonder why the interviewer asked such inappropriate questions; the interview is never sold as being slanderous and exploitive as interviews often are. There is no secret agenda to the interview; neither party acts as if they have something to gain from how many issues will be sold. This – setting is of significance because of the subject’s notoriety. The fact that Cott was able to pull off a remarkably intimate and professional interview when talking to someone as note-worthy as John Lennon is a testament to Cott’s journalistic integrity and ability.

Before the actual interview, Lennon makes a point to describe the outfit he is wearing “for the readers”. Cott transcribes Lennon’s description of the outfit, serving as a testament to his told friend’s sense of humor. It calls on the notion that John was well aware of the ridiculous microscope he was under. The wire rimmed glasses, long hair, and needle-cord pants were being used to define Lennon when he so desperately wanted to be taken seriously for the person he was beyond the public perception. The introduction Cott chose to set up the article was the perfect piece to capture the essence of John Lennon and unveil the reader’s eyes to someone they may not have seen before.

Beginning there, Cott began to break down the reader’s traditional notion of John Lennon. Under the ‘celebrity’ and ‘Beatle’ associations there was also a human being. Cott works hard throughout the interview to present Lennon as a regular person, operating under the frames of ‘father’ and ‘husband.’ For some it may have been the first time they associate humanistic words with Lennon at all.

Cott captured Lennon’s personality in a way that was heartbreakingly accurate. “John was graceful, charming, exuberant, direct, and playful: I remember noticing how he wrote little reminders to himself in the wonderfully absorbed way that the child paints the sun.” (Cott, 92) Lennon’s lust for life and the excitement he displayed for living is especially impactful on the reader who understands that three days after the interview Lennon would be dead. Charming sentiments like this passage demonstrate how Cott successfully forms a relationship with the reader without having it come off as phony.

The candid atmosphere that encompasses the interview is highlighted through the genuine comments and questions posed by Lennon and Cott. Rather than stick to a textbook interview rubric like Price’s, there is no huge revelation. Lennon doesn’t divulge a secret that people will be talking about for years to come, and there is hardly any form of conflict mentioned in the article besides the critics. The two men are on an equal platform and aren’t threatened by each other. In interviews it’s often “every man for himself” where the entire exchange consists of one person defending themselves while the other person fires off accusations. It’s sobering that Lennon’s last interview was far from explosive. Rather than sell magazines, the interview gives a clear and concise profile on a man who had gone forty years in the public eye with most people having no idea who the real John Lennon was.

Cott drew upon the public’s pre-conceived notions of Lennon when formulating his interview structure. He paid close attention to establishing a mutual respect for both parties right away and conveyed Lennon as a normal guy rather than the Beatle. “The illusion I was cut off from society is a joke. I was just the same as the rest of you; I was working nine to five baking bread, changing nappies and dealing with the baby” (Cott, 92) Lennon stated, and then Cott backed it up. Through events Cott witnessed, feelings he described, and the portrayal of Lennon’s character he presented the reader with a no b.s. look at the (gasp!) relatively normal side of one of the most public figures in the world.

Cott counters this aspect of Lennon with the acknowledgment that he is not pretending that he is completely unchanged by his fame. “You know, we make no pretense of being average Tom Dick’s, or Harry- we make no pretense of living in a small cottage or trying to make our son an average child. I tried that game with Julian…they spat and spit on him.”(Cott, 94) Technically the claim contradicts normalcy, but the way Cott framed the two revelations made it clear that Lennon was telling the truth on both occasions. Part of being normal is admitting that Lennon is affected by his fame, but he isn’t defined by it. He still goes grocery shopping, but it’s with a hundred eyes watching him. He loves what he does, but it’s exhausting. He doesn’t do it for anyone but himself, but he is affected by the critics. Each time Lennon admitted a different part of who he was, he made more sense. Cott capitalized on the public’s perception of “John Lennon” and reminded them that  this was a guy who when Cott him complimented for his lyrical genius, Lennon replied that he got the idea from “Kellogg’s Corn Flakes” commercial. Jonathan Cott put the human being back into “John Lennon,” and although he never got to see the finished result, Lennon wouldn’t have been surprised.

Part Two

John Lennon is one half of one of the most famous songwriting duos of all time. Lyrically, he has turned metaphors into some of the most popular songs on the planet. “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (yes I know this is Harrison) and “Strawberry Fields Forever” are all examples of how two seemingly unrelated things are alike in a crucial way. It’s not surprising that during the interview with Cott, Lennon uses metaphors frequently.

“The whole universe is a wheel right? Wheels going round and round”  Lennon asked (Cott, 94). Later on in the interview, Lennon described how he saw his relationship with the rest of the world, “There’s no separation, and we’re all one. What’s real? What’s the illusion I am living or not living? (I’m) Looking through the glass onion.” (Cott, 120)  Although there doesn’t seem to be an obvious relation to the two subjects, when paired together one can conceptually imagine peeling back the layers (like an onion’s) to analyze the present state of their world.

“In a way no thing is real, if you break the word down. As the Hindus or Buddhists say, it’s all an illusion” (Cott, 120). In a final vision metaphor, Lennon states, “I cannot live up to other people’s expectations of me because they’re illusionary. I’m older now. I see the world through different eyes now” (Cott, 120).  Metaphors served as a driving force of the interview, with almost every paragraph containing a quote comparing two ideas that one may have never imagined fit together. Lennon’s talent of expressing his thoughts metaphorically (which comes as no surprise to any Beatles fan) is shown through statements like “Women really are the other half of the sky” (Cott, 95). The revelations don’t appear foreign, but are rather remarkably easy to conceptualize, which demonstrates a well constructed metaphor. One of the things that stand out throughout the whole interview is the ease to their conversation, with Lennon’s words picking up exactly where Cott’s question left off.

Stories are perhaps the most effective way to successfully engage a reader, and in the Lennon and Cott interview there are plenty of them. In perhaps the most revealing passage, Lennon shares a story that captures his struggles as a father in just a few lines. Upon discussing one of his sons, Sean, Lennon confesses, “I write a song about the child, but it would have done better for me to spend the time I wrote the fucking song actually playing ball with him. The hardest thing for me to do is play… I can do anything else” (Cott, 94). Lennon is the most vulnerable is when he is discussing his son. In particular, when he eludes that rather than writing all of the songs that have received praise about his son, (for example ‘Beautiful Boy’) he should have been actually interacting with him. The rather startling admission that he should have spent more time “just playing ball” was one of the most intimate revelations of the interview. It’s obvious how important the relationship is to Lennon, yet he is riddled with guilt for not being able to communicate his affection in anything other than music. This is an especially poignant part of the interview as Lennon would never get the chance to have the relationship with his son he so desperately wanted, as he was murdered less than a week after the interview.

By including the pause, the impact of Lennon’s statement is amplified. The line suggests that Lennon’s relationship with Sean is something he has struggled with for a long time. It’s especially insightful because it touches upon the little known private side of Lennon that is in complete contrast of the saint like image the press assigned him. The topic may have originally activated a particular story frame, but upon reading Lennon’s words the reader may see Lennon in a different light. Through simple punctuation Cott effectively shares a candid and memorable revelation with the reader.

In a particularly revealing quote while discussing his career with Cott, Lennon states, “I cannot be on the way up again. What they want is dead heroes, like Sid Vicious and James Dean. I’m not interested in being a dead fucking hero….so forget ‘em. Forget ‘em” (Cott, 96).  Lennon seems acutely aware that his iconic status is nothing to be taken lightly. The statement was made just three days before he was murdered, causing the reader to question of whether or not Lennon was living in fear of death. The eerie tone to the dramatic statement stands out from the otherwise relaxed tone of the rest of the interview.

John Lennon’s playful attitude is highlighted by his often subtle, but distinct sense of humor. He comes off as care free in nature, as well as intensely aware of the scrutiny that the contents of the interview will face in the press. Upon discussing  song that was deemed “too simplistic” by the press, Lennon jokes, “Perhaps I should have said, ‘Your inside is like whale juice dripping from the fermented foam of the tenny-boppers’ VD in Times Square as I injected my white clown face with heroin’ Maybe then they’d like it, right?” (Cott, 96) For a guy who once belonged to the most famous music group in the world, the story presents him in a way that readers can relate to, which is something that is not easy to do.

Towards the end of the interview, Lennon is discussing his move to New York and his former band mate, George Harrison. “George was always talking about ‘let’s all go live in the sun. Here comes the sun.’ He’s always looking for the sun because he’s still living in England” (Cott, 121). Classic John.

Part Three

 When dealing with a celebrity it’s often the case where they believe they are more important than the person who is conducting the interview. In this situation, Lennon doesn’t act under the “celebrity” frame at all, but rather someone who genuinely wants to be seen as a regular guy. When Lennon admits to his struggle with fatherhood, his guard is let down. The personal story from Lennon helps to remove the “celebrity” frame from the reader’s view. Cott works diligently throughout the interview to show Lennon from a perspective that strips away what the media has portrayed him as. Although both are somewhat nervous when the interview initially gets off the ground, Lennon’s wife, Yoko Ono says, “Don’t worry; it’s just Jonathan” (Wenner, 18).This particular sample of discourse shows the intimate relationship that Cott and Lennon had that extended well beyond the interview. Cott wasn’t just another reporter, but a friend of Lennon’s.

Both Lennon and Cott are active listeners, meaning they take the time to both listen to and conceptualize their respective stories and comments. Lennon answers Cott’s interview questions with an honest, “off the cuff” approach. In return, Cott makes sure to ask well thought, intellectually stimulating questions. When Lennon hints that he may not want to talk about a certain subject, Cott doesn’t pressure him to continue and brings up a new subject. This came up when they were discussing some of Lennon’s more controversial lyrics, “You can’t really win” Cott says, suggesting that he understands Lennon’s frustration with the exceedingly hard to please press (Cott, 92). Lennon diffuses the somewhat tense conversation by making a joke about Bruce Springsteen, “God help him when they decide he’s no longer God” (Cott, 93). The shift from one sensitive topic to another not so emotionally charged subject is almost virtually seamless throughout the interview. The Springsteen joke is Lennon’s take on the fact that the public’s opinion is ever changing, and although he is adored today, he may not be tomorrow. The comment shows Lennon hasn’t lost sight of the inconsistencies of fame.

Lennon’s stories are rich with metaphors and humor, giving the interview a carefree and light weight vibe. While never exceptionally serious, some of the times  Once again, the celebrity as well as interview frame is stripped away from the reader as they read such honest revelations from Lennon. A face to face atmosphere is established, rather than a closed off interview.

Discussion/Conclusion

 As a single person, there are multiple frames pertaining to Lennon and it is interesting to see how Cott manages to strip most of them away from the reader as he breaks down the character of John Lennon. Cott uses Lennon’s stories, sense of humor, and their mutual respect for each other to create an intimate look at who John Lennon is under all of the gossip and preconceived notions. The Lennon and Cott interview serves as a historical document to someone who is no longer with us, and through my analysis his profound thoughts, ideas, and stories withstood the test of time.

References

Cott, J. (2010, December 23). The lost lennon tapes. Rolling Stone,

(1120/1121), 89-121.

Wenner,J. (2010, December 23).Lennon remembered. Rolling Stone,

(1120/1121), 89-121.

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One comment

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