Robert Hilburn was pop music critic for the Los Angeles Times for 35 years, from the psychedelic era to the emergence of the iPod. He witnessed many of rock ‘n’ roll’s seminal moments and interviewed virtually every major pop figure of the period. All of this is chronicled in his memoir, “Corn Flakes with John Lennon (and Other Tales From a Rock ‘n’ Roll Life),” to be published this month. He and Lennon were especially close–largely because of their abiding love and admiration for Elvis–and Hilburn spent a lot of time with John and Yoko up through the fateful night outside the Dakota. Here are excerpts from the book, which yours truly, of course, will eagerly add to his Lennon book collection, from the LA TIMES:
John Lennon raced into Yoko Ono’s home office in the mammoth old Dakota building with a copy of Donna Summer’s new single, “The Wanderer.” “Listen!” he shouted to us as he put the 45 on the record player. “She’s doing Elvis!” I didn’t know what he was talking about at first. The arrangement felt more like rock than the singer’s usual electro-disco approach, but the opening vocal sure sounded like Donna Summer to me. Midway through the song, however, her voice shifted into the playful, hiccuping style Elvis had used on so many of his early recordings.
“See! See!” John shouted, pointing at the speakers.
The record was John’s way of saying hello again after five years. I had spent time with him in Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, during the period he later referred to as his “lost weekend” — months when he was estranged from Yoko and spent many a night in notorious drinking bouts with his buddies Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr. John got so boisterous one night that he was thrown out of the Troubadour, one of the city’s landmark music clubs. He invited me to dinner a few times, and I later found out it was when he had an important business meeting the next morning and didn’t want to wake up with a hangover. I got the nod over Harry and Ringo because I didn’t drink anything stronger than diet soda. We would eat at a chic Chinese restaurant and then return to his suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Those hours would race by because we loved talking about our favorite rock hero, Elvis, which brings us back to “The Wanderer.”
I’ve experienced hundreds of memorable concert and interview moments, so it’s hard to rank them in any favorite order, but my final hours with John in New York are certainly on the short list. It was just weeks before his death in December of 1980, and his playing the Summer record was an endearing greeting — and one that was typical of John. Of the hundreds of musicians I’ve met, John was among the most down-to-earth.
Back at the hotel, Around 11:30, John turned on Johnny Carson’s TV show and ordered corn flakes and cream from room service. He turned the sound down on the TV and stirred the corn flakes and cream with his spoon in an almost ritualistic fashion before taking a bite.
I didn’t think much of it until the same thing happened the next time we returned to the hotel after dinner. This time I asked what was up with the corn flakes.
As a child in Liverpool during World War II, he explained, you could never get cream, so it was a special treat. He took another bite and gave an exaggerated sigh to underscore just how sweet it tasted.
I spent hours at the apartment and the studio talking to John about the changes since Los Angeles. He felt at peace for one of the few times in his life. He was deeply in love with Yoko and thrilled to be a father again. He also spoke with affection about the Beatles days and how much he still looked forward to seeing Paul. That surprised me because of the sarcastic barbs he’d launched in interviews and the biting lyrics he’d written about Paul since the breakup of the band. “Aw, don’t believe all that,” he said, smiling. “Paul is like a brother. We’ve gotten way past all that.” He also spoke fondly of Ringo but more distantly about George. He felt slighted by some things in George’s autobiography, “I, Me, Mine,” especially George’s failure to give John credit for helping him learn guitar techniques.
Mostly, we talked about the “house husband” period that was just ending, a time of emotional drying out, a chance to reset priorities.
He had decided in 1975 to shut down his career to work on his strained marriage with Yoko and to spend time with Sean, who was born that October. He also wanted to escape the pressures and expectations of the rock ‘n’ roll world. Despite his highly acclaimed solo works of the early 1970s, John found it difficult to deal with the ghost of his Fab Four association.
“When I wrote ‘the dream is over’ [in ‘God’ in 1970], I was trying to say to the Beatles thing, ‘Get off my back.’ I was also trying to tell the other people to stop looking at me because I wasn’t going to do it for them anymore because I didn’t even know what the hell I was doing in my own life,” he told me that first day. “What I realized during the five years away was that when I said the dream is over, I had made the physical break from the Beatles, but mentally there was still this big thing on my back about what people expected of me. It was like this invisible ghost. During the five years, it sort of went away. I finally started writing like I was even before the Beatles were the Beatles. I got rid of all that self-consciousness about telling myself, ‘You can’t do that. That song’s not good enough. Remember, you’re the guy who wrote “A Day in the Life.” Try again.’ ”
As Elvis sang “Don’t Be Cruel” in the background, John recalled his first and only meeting with our mutual rock hero. It was a story he relished sharing as much as he did his Beatles memories.
“It was probably 1965 and we had a break in L.A. during a tour. We went up to his house and we were terrified. I can’t remember the first moment I saw him, but he looked great. We started singing some of his songs. That’s what we always did when we met Chuck Berry or Carl Perkins or any of them.”
I asked if Elvis had known how big the Beatles were and if he had felt any hint of competition.
“Are you kidding?” John replied with a laugh. “He knew damn well who we were — from the word ‘go.’ He was terrified of us and the English movement because we were a threat to him. I heard he was so paranoid all afternoon that he kept practicing things to say to us, asking the guys around him if we were any good. It was like Ali wondering if he could handle Frazier. To us, he was a god. We’d like to beat his record and become the champion, but we would always give him credit. It always hurts and infuriates me when Mick Jagger puts Elvis down. Maybe he’s jealous because Elvis was the original body man in rock and it’s too near to Mick’s game for him to admit that Elvis’ movements were at least as good as his and that maybe Elvis could sing a damn sight better than he could.”
John’s favorite time with the Beatles surprised me — the early days. Hamburg, Liverpool, the dance halls. I’d thought he’d say it was when the band had conquered America. “Naw,” he said with a wave of a hand. “We were already blasé. We had the show down. We were already past our peak as performers. It was like Vegas — what we did on stage, I mean. We shook our head on this number and . . . well, you know the rest.”
I told John I couldn’t imagine, as a fan, how hard it must have been for him to simply walk away from music.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life — not make music,” he said. “Not because I had this love for music or because I was so creative and I couldn’t bear not to be creative, but because I felt that I didn’t exist unless my name was in the gossip columns of Rolling Stone or the Daily News or whatever. Then, it dawned on me that I do still exist.”
We had such a good time over the three days that John invited me to his and Sean’s birthday party at Tavern on the Green. I knew what the perfect birthday present for John was. I had mentioned in the studio that there was a great new Elvis photo book by Alfred Wertheimer, who had spent a couple of weeks with Elvis around the time of “Hound Dog” in 1956. John hadn’t seen it.
The party was scheduled for noon, and I left the hotel around 11, thinking I’d pick up a copy of the book at a bookstore. But I had to go to a half-dozen stores before finally finding one, and the party was over by the time I got to the restaurant. I headed back to the Dakota. I didn’t want to bother John, so I left the book with the doorman.
At the bookstore, I also picked up a copy of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry in case I wanted to quote more from the poem John had mentioned. He had said he wished he could put those feelings into a song, because it would be the perfect love song. During the flight back, the final lines struck me. In them, Barrett Browning says, “If God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.”
I flashed on that final line two months later when I heard the news.
Excerpted from “Corn Flakes with John Lennon (And Other Tales From a Rock ‘n’ Roll Life),” by Robert Hilburn. Copyright ©2009 by Robert Hilburn. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, Pa. 18098.