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John Lennon's Journey in America

Aired December 5, 2010 - 22:30   ET



JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Ten years of absolute Beetlemania.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I mean, it was big. It was as big as it gets.


ROBERTS: But that would be all over come 1969. Their last performance as a group on a rooftop in London.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was so much prejudice against Yoko and anger towards him that he had left The Beatles.


ROBERTS: For John Lennon, a new relationship.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was starting over.


ROBERTS: And a new life in America.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The thing that had finally given him some peace was being married and being a father.


ROBERTS: A murderous band would cut his life here short, but it would be an extraordinary journey from the heights of fame to the edge of despair and back again.

(on camera): Almost 30 years ago to the day John Lennon was killed in the front steps of his adopted home here at the Dakota apartment building in New York City. But before he was cut down, this city that he loved provided the inspiration for a new chapter in his life, a chapter that helped him escape the growing burden of being a Beatle.

(voice-over): February 7th 1964, the Beatles landed at New York's JFK Airport. Ten thousand frenzied fans were waiting.

ANTHONY DECURTIS, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, "ROLLING STONE": There was this sense of the entire city being wrapped up in the event.

ROBERTS: Anthony DeCurtis, contributing editor for "Rolling Stone" magazine remembers.

DECURTIS: There was a level of hysteria to the Beatle's arrival here. People make the connection between The Beatles arriving so soon after the Kennedy assassination. They really were similar and that everybody was watching them.

ROBERTS: Two days later, an explosive performance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," brought The Beatles to a record-breaking 73 million television viewers.

DECURTIS: New York was the city that The Beatles first came to in the United States.

ROBERTS: And Lennon fell in love.

DECURTIS: He embraced New York and New York very much embraced him.

ROBERTS: John Lennon was living in England during the height of The Beatles superstardom. But a chance meeting would bring him back to the city he loved five years later. It was November 1966 when Lennon walked in to a London art gallery.

DECURTIS: It was a very hip place. And so the owner of the Indica gallery brought Lennon by while Yoko was setting up his exhibition.

ROBERTS: Lennon was still married to his first wife, Cynthia, at the time.

DECURTIS: But it wasn't exactly what he saw as his destiny, and so when Yoko entered it was like a kind of wind blowing through.

ROBERTS: Lennon was feeling creatively blocked as a Beatle.

JOHN LENNON, SINGER: Paul and I turned out a long of songs those days, and it was easier because it was the beginning of our relationship and career. But then it got to be format, and sort of not the pleasure that it was, and that's when I felt that I'd lost myself.

DECURTIS: And I think he was looking for something beyond The Beatles, and to meet someone like Yoko, it opened some doors to him, I think, in his heart and also imaginatively for a new direction that he might want to go in. ROBERTS: But the public was not ready for a new direction, or for John and Yoko.

DECURTIS: The fact that he was a woman, Japanese, and an avant- garde artist, you know, these were not passports to acceptance among the British public.

ROBERTS: The couple needed to escape the constant criticism. They fled from London to the safety of New York City in 1971.

BOB GRUEN, JOHN LENNON'S PERSONAL PHOTOGRAPHER: John Lennon often said that he felt that New York was like the center of the world, the way Rome had been center of the world during the Roman times.

ROBERTS: Bob Gruen was Lennon's neighbor in Greenwich Village. Over the years, he became a close friend and his personal photographer.

GRUEN: Greenwich Village is actually the early English settlement, and that settlement was New Amsterdam downtown and this was more of the English side. So I think John and Yoko felt more comfortable, because it does have kind of an English feel, small cars on the streets and small buildings.

ROBERTS: Strange to think that John Lennon was living right here.

GRUEN: Yes, and enjoying it.

More and more, he was trying to be a more normal person, where he could go outside and walk down the block and get a cup of coffee like a regular guy, and he could do that in New York.

ROBERTS: The couple love their newfound New York lifestyle, but things were about to get rocky.

GRUEN: People started finding out that they were there, and then people started showing up and ringing the doorbells. And there was an FBI agent standing across the street for a while.

DECURTIS: When Lennon came to New York, he became very politically active. And you know, among the group of people that he and Yoko fell in with were Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. They were a well-known political radicals.

There was fear on Nixon's part that there was going to be an organized protest at the Republican convention in 1972, and that Lennon was going to be one of its leaders.

ROBERTS: Officials in the Nixon administration launched a campaign to deport the star because of those rumors, using an old marijuana conviction in England is grounds.

DECURTIS: Yes this people, you know, they kept enemies list. They checked their list more than twice and they found Lennon's name on it quite a lot.

ROBERTS: Lennon fought his deportation legally and in the court of public opinion.

GRUEN: I felt that the Statue of Liberty was a good symbol of welcoming people to the country, and I suggested to John that we went there and took a picture in front of the statue. It will help dramatize his case.

ROBERTS: The photo became one of Lennon's most famous.

GRUEN: Here is the Statue of Liberty saying welcome to America while we're trying to throw out one of the greatest artist in the world.

ROBERTS: Eventually Lennon was granted permission to stay, but the battle took its toll.

DECURTIS: It lasted for a few years and it scared him. His phone was tapped, he was being followed. There were all kinds of things along those lines.

ROBERTS: And his music became defiant.

He released "Sometime in New York," a controversial album that was aggressively political.

Lennon had a new identity. John and Yoko had replaced John The Beatle. But behind the public facade, there was trouble. And John Lennon was heading for a fall.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Many times he said, you know, he could have easily died. He was drinking so much and partying so much.



DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Don Lemon. Here are your headlines this hour. The Senate tried and failed twice to extend the Bush tax cuts for the middle class this morning in a rare Saturday session.

Senate Democrats were leading the push, but they came up seven votes short of the sixty they needed. Republicans want all of the tax cuts extended including those for the wealthy.

The U.S. has cut a huge trade deal with South Korea. President Barack Obama announced the agreement today, which he says will increase U.S. exports by $11 billion and supports 70,000 American jobs. If approved by Congress, it will eliminate tariffs on over 95 percent of industrial and consumer goods within five years.

Two men say they were the rightful president of the Ivory Coast. The current president Laurent Gbagbo who was sworn in today despite pleas from world leaders for him to step aside. Preliminary result showed this. His opponent Alassane Ouattara winning that contest. He declared himself the president today as well. The political chaos is raising fears that the country will plunge back into civil war.

Shifting lands are fuelling a wildfire in northern Israel. Police have two suspects in custody. But they suspect negligence, not arson is to blame for the blaze. The flames have killed 41 people and force the evacuation of some 17,000 people from the fire zone.

By revealing diplomatic cables, WikiLeaks pick a fight with the U.S. Now the U.S. is fighting back in more ways than one. U.S. lawmakers want to see founder Julian Assange tried under the espionage act. At the same time, Sweden is renewing an arrest for Assange for allege sex crimes.

WikiLeaks Web site has its own troubles now. PayPal has announced it has suspended WikiLeaks account costing it a vital source of funding.

Those are you headlines this hour.



ROBERTS (voice-over): It was 1973, on the outside John Lennon seemed to have it all, but underneath, he was spiraling down a dangerous path.

DAVID SHEFF, WRITER: John was a mess.

ROBERTS: Writer David Sheff had unusual access to the Lennons, spending weeks interviewing them.

SHEFF: He just spent ten years living this crazy, crazy, wildlife, making records, traveling, performing.

ROBERTS: Heroin and alcohol provided his escape from the pressures of fame.

SHEFF: You know, those years that we're supposed to grow up, we're supposed to mature, he was with The Beatles. We can't imagine what that was like. And he lost it eventually. He was miserable.

ROBERTS: Yoko Ono also struggled, blamed for breaking up The Beatles, but also feeling invisible to those around the famous duo.

DECURTIS: For her being Mrs. Lennon was a complicated business. Yoko was somebody who took herself seriously as an artist for many years and to be completely overwhelmed by Lennon's fame and Lennon's renowned, and all of a sudden this stuff was very hard for her.

ROBERTS: Two years after their move to New York, their marriage was unraveling.

(on camera): She didn't throw him out?

SHEFF: He was on his own, and he said, I felt like I was on a raft floating in the middle of the universe. He described it as his lost weekend, because he was lost.

ROBERTS (voice-over): Lennon fled to Los Angeles, but he was not alone. By his side was 23-year-old May Pang.

(on camera): Tell me about the moment when they did this?

MAY PANG, JOHN LENNON'S FORMER GIRLFRIEND: Yoko came to me one morning and said, you know, John and I are not getting along. And I said, I don't want to -- she said, no, no, I know he likes you, I think you will be good for him. And I said, I am not interested, I'm OK. And she said, I think you should, and you should start right away.

ROBERTS (voice-over): It was the summer of 1973, and May Pang officially became John Lennon's girlfriend.

DECURTIS: May fell in love with John, and I think he felt something like love for her.

PANG: Here's a picture of John that's --

ROBERTS: May documented her time with John with photographs.

PANG: He's just relaxing.

ROBERTS: She also helped him fix one of his biggest failures, reconnecting him with Julian, the son he abandoned from his first marriage.

PANG: He was really nervous. He was pacing at the airport. When the door opened at the airport, he saw his father, he just leapt right into his arms. It was the most amazing moment to see.

JULIAN LENNON, JOHN LENNON'S SON: I cannot tell you specifically what he said, but you know, he obviously was trying to reach out. And he knew that I still was longing for that relationship with him.

ROBERTS: While there were happy moments in L.A., Lennon was also wrestling with his demons.

JACK DOUGLAS, RECORD PRODUCER: He came out here and went wild. There are bouts of drinking and drugs.

ROBERTS: In the studio, Jack Douglas had a front row seat to recording sessions with the legendary and notorious record producer, Phil Spector.

DOUGLAS: Phil was a really dangerous person to be around.

ROBERTS (on camera): Phil Spector?

DOUGLAS: Yes. We all knew it. You know, he was such a hero to John that John knew he was poison, but wanted to do it any way. It was like living on the edge working with that guy. I mean, the guns in the control room, it was just awful. Very often I would end up driving the getaway car because some nonsense that had gone on somewhere and I would be like getting away with him in the back.

ROBERTS: How crazy did it get?

DOUGLAS: More than I was willing to talk about.

ROBERTS (voice-over): Yoko Ono was a lifeline to sanity for Lennon. They spoke daily.

SHEFF: He would call up Yoko in the middle of the night crying, begging to come back to her but not just that, aware that he was lost, that he needed help.

ROBERTS (on camera): Did you ever get a sense that during that time Lennon might not have been consciously trying to kill himself, but perhaps subconsciously.

SHEFF: Yes, he was on the road that thought would lead, and he did not care. He wanted to die.

ROBERTS (voice-over): Still, he never stopped making music. In December of '74, Lennon returned to New York to record a new album of originals, "Walls and Bridges." His old friend, Elton John, stopped by and lent background vocals and piano to the song.

PANG: Elton says I think this is going to be a hit because it will be number one, and John was like, it won't be. Elton says, yes -- OK, I'll make a bet. If it becomes number one, you know, you're going to have to make an appearance with me.

ROBERTS: The song wind up being Lennon's only number one single of his solo career. And on November 28, 1974, Lennon performed with Elton John at Madison Square Garden. Yoko Ono was there, weighing the decision to take him back.

DECURTIS: Yoko, I think, wanted to be sure that he wanted it. He really wanted it. That whatever it is he needed to work out, he worked out. She wanted to make sure that if they did it again, it was going to be forever.

ROBERTS: A few months later they reconciled.

LENNON: The worst was being separated from Yoko and realizing that I really, really needed to be with her, wanted to be with her and could not literally survived without her. As a functioning human being I just went to pieces and I didn't realize that I needed her so much.

ROBERTS: The relationship with May Pang effectively ended.

(on camera): You must have been crushed?

PANG: Yes, and I was trying to process everything all at once. And it was -- you know, it was tough.

ROBERTS (voice-over): Soon, Lennon and Ono had good news. After three miscarriages, Ono became pregnant. Sean Ono Lennon was born on October 9th, 1975. It was the same day Lennon turned 35.

GRUEN: He asked me to come to Dakota and make some pictures to send to the family. When I got there, they were both just in Kimono. Sean actually in his little kimono on, but particularly this day, I did not have to ask him to smile or anything. He was just very happy to be a father. It was a great day, and it was a great beginning of the next five years.

ROBERTS: Five years that would shock his fans around the world. John Lennon stopped the music.

DOUGLAS: He was free for the first time in his life.




DOUGLAS: Three thousand screaming teenagers are at New York's Kennedy Airport to great, you guessed it, The Beatles.


ROBERTS (voice-over): John Lennon went from the most famous musician in the world to performing every day to an audience of one, his son, Sean.

DOUGLAS: He was really going to be there for Sean. And that's what it was all about. Right from his infancy through to his manhood.

ROBERTS: From 1975 to 1980, Lennon shunned the scene that had made him famous.

DECURTIS: It was -- he said I'm not wanting to have to write songs and not wanting to have to be out on the road, and not wanting to be in a band, and not wanting to talk to record executives.

ROBERTS: He relished life's simple pleasures.

DOUGLAS: He was free for the first time in his life. He could walk around. He could walk down the street and hold hands with Sean, he and Yoko could just take a stroll.

GRUEN: At that time, Yoko felt more comfortable.

ROBERTS: Bob Gruen was Lennon's friend and personal photographer.

GRUEN: This is a great photograph. Well, this was one of Yoko's favorites of the picture that I took. It really shows the connection that they had, that they were in touch and sharing things together. John had just picked the flower in Central Park and was giving it to Yoko.

ROBERTS: Lennon even had a new hobby, sailing. And he set off for a vacation in Bermuda.

SHEFF: He was with a seasoned old sailor. They got in the middle of this big old storm. The sailor got really sick, so he told John to take the wheel.

ROBERTS: Torrential rains and waves pounded the boat. Lennon told friends he saw his life flash before his eyes.

SHEFF: Right after this transformative, emotional and physically exhilarating experience on the sailboat, he arrived with this quiet space and it all came through him.

ROBERTS: John Lennon started making music again. Producer Jack Douglas got a mysterious call from Yoko Ono.

DOUGLAS: We want you to start thinking about doing something with John. But you can't talk about it at all. If you are interested in doing something, then you will go to the 34th Street C-Plane Pier on the East Side in the East River and you will be there at noon tomorrow, if you are interested at all. Who could resist that?

ROBERTS: Less than 24 hours later, Douglas flew to meet her. She gave him an envelope of tapes and a telephone, Lennon was on the line asking him to listen to the new material.

DOUGLAS: It was very primitive. It was played into a boom box that had a recorder on it. My reaction when I heard the cassette was how do I make it any better than this? What could I do to make it better? It's absolutely brilliant.

ROBERTS: Lennon asked him to put together a band and book a studio, but secrecy was critical.

DOUGLAS: And he said listen, I want to do a record, but I don't want anyone to know about it, because if it doesn't work, I don't want anyone to know that I tried it.

ROBERTS: Lennon and Ono recorded secretly for two months. The collaborative album "Double Fantasy," a conversation between husband and wife revealed a more mature Lennon.

GRUEN: He sobered up, he took care of his son, he learned a lot about diet and health and he was living a much more adult life. And he was not just being drunk like a teenage kid. And I think that all comes out in the "Double Fantasy" album.

ROBERTS: In September of 1980, Lennon and Ono were ready to let the world in on their covet project.

Writer David Sheff scored Lennon's first major interview in years.

SHEFF: You could tell he was so so so at peace. He was excited about being a dad. He was excited about this new creative burst, you know, that resulted in these albums. He was so in love. You can't rehearse that. ROBERTS: November 17th, 1980, "Double Fantasy" was released. At 40, Lennon felt he was turning a new page, a new album, talk of a world tour, better health and a stable family life. Like the album's amply titled first single, Lennon was starting over.

In his last interview on the day he died, he seemed to speak for his generation.

LENNON: I'm singing to them. I hope the young kids like it as well, but I'm really talking to the people that grew up with me. I'm saying here I am now, how are you? How is your relationship going? Did you get through it all? Wasn't the '70s a drag? Here we are. Well, let's try and make the 80s good, you know, because it's still up to us to make what we can of it. It's not out of our control. I still believe in love and peace. I still believe in positive thinking.

ROBERTS (on camera): On December 8th, 1980, just as John Lennon was watching a new chapter in his life, an obsessed former fan Mark David Chapman waiting in the shadows here at the Dakota ended it all in a hail of bullets.

(voice-over): It was a shocking death for his family and friends, and for his fans around the world.

JULIAN LENNON: All I could say is that he would have grown. And if he was continuing to grow the way he had always done, then he would be doing great things.