There’s a reason Yoko Ono peers penetratingly from the jacket cover of Rolling Stone journalist Jonathan Cott’s slim volume of reminiscences and outtakes from the multiple interviews he conducted with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, including a nine-hour conversation with the ex-Beatle that took place days before Lennon died. But in the context of this book, Ono plays the role of the lead guitarist plucking out audacious (and, at times, indecipherable) riffs while Lennon strums a steady rhythm in the background to create a riveting portrait of one of the most vilified and exalted love stories of the twentieth century.
Cott, a Beatles Alpha-fan, who serendipitously slid into a coveted gig as Rolling Stone’s first European editor, penetrated the fortress that the notoriously private Lennon had erected around himself by tracking down the rock legend through channels in London’s avant garde art world at the precise moment when he’d fallen for a brash young artist by the name of Yoko Ono. Cott’s first interview with Lennon in 1968 took place in the basement flat the singer-songwriter shared with Ono in the early days of their romance. Shortly after arriving, Cott instantly passed muster and was welcomed into the Ono-Lennon fold and whisked off to Abbey Road studios to watch the Beatles record several tracks on the “White Album.” For a hardcore Beatlemaniac like Cott, that experience was the equivalent of a white-light encounter with the divine. He lovingly renders the evening in granular detail, from the tinkering that went into “Glass Onion” to the wild anarchy that erupted during the “Helter Skelter” jam session.
Far more revealing, however, are the intimate moments Cott spends with Lennon and Ono, who remain virtually inseparable throughout the book. The day after the Abbey Road experience -- and off-and-on over the following thirteen years -- Cott's encounters with the couple exposes Lennon to be a diehard music nerd with a particular affinity for American rock and soul like Smokey Robinson, whose “I’ve been good to you” inspired the Beatles’ “Sexy Sadie.” Cott also leads Lennon into some interesting revelations about the emotional source material for “Strawberry Fields.” Overall Lennon comes off as an affable and surprisingly unpretentious chap who ultimately can’t wait to shift his focus back to Yoko, who is never more than a shout away.
In December of 1980, Cott was assigned to interview the two of them for the upcoming release of their final album, “Double Fantasy.” His longstanding relationship with the couple earned him unparallelled access into what Lennon jokingly refers to as the “inner sanctum.” The wide-ranging nine-hour conversation took place at the couple’s sprawling apartment at the Dakota just three days before Lennon was murdered by a deranged fan just outside of Central Park.
Throughout the interview, the couple come off as a symbiotic unit, fused together by a mutual desire to transcend conventional notions about art, music, expression, activism, and relationships. Lennon, in particular, revealed a self-aware candor on a number of subjects, including rock star behavior (“promiscuity is wanting your mummy, wanting all the mummies in the world") and the struggle to be a good parent (“play, I can’t. I can watch TV with him, I’m great at that. I can watch any garbage as long as I don’t have to move around”).
Throughout the book, Cott goes to great lengths to explain the nature of Lennon and Ono's bond while highlighting Ono’s unique gifts as an individual artist. To this end, Cott’s memoir culminates with a one-on-one conversation with Ono that took place in Stockholm in March of last year. The Ono of today comes off as slightly less opaque and cryptic than she did in previous vignettes, as she reflects on a wide range of subjects, from what it was like being “the most hated woman in the world” to the similarities between “Imagine” and Japanese poetry. The conversation ends on a sentiment that goes a long way toward explaining Ono’s world view and her enduring and positive influence on Lennon and, arguably, some of the best late Beatles songs. “Beauty will save the world,” Ono says. “You know what beauty is? It’s something you recognize in yourself. Actually you don’t have to feel the beauty within. But within you just feel the beauty of everything.” Imagine that.