It was the rock ’n’ roll coup of the decade, the one that every broadcaster was desperate to secure: the first interview for ten years with John Lennon.
And for Andy Peebles of BBC Radio One, it was a remarkable new high in an already distinguished career.
Millions heard his acclaimed Lennon Interview in January 1981, made all the more powerful by John’s horrific death just two days after their recording.
The episode would prove to be a turning point, not just in the history of popular music, but in Andy’s life too. Indeed, it cast a shadow that has remained with him ever since.
Bound by professional obligations to the BBC, as well a natural sense of discretion, Peebles has never before told the story of the aftermath of his close, if improbable, friendship with John’s charismatic widow, Yoko Ono.
But today, in a frank and at times emotional interview, he raises a series of disturbing questions about her fame-hungry behaviour. He asks:
- Why did Yoko seem much happier after John’s death?
- Why did she parade her new lover Sam Havadtoy around New York, dressed in John’s old clothes?
- And why did she appear to exploit John’s memory and legacy for personal fame?
Peebles fears that John and Yoko – but especially Yoko – manipulated him for the sake of commercial profit. And, perhaps most troubling of all, he concludes that the couple’s ‘Starting Over’ episode in December 1980 was a sham promotional exercise, designed to restore John’s profile after a five-year absence.
He voices both sadness and anger at the BBC for keeping his most famous interview locked away instead of treating it as the public document he had hoped it would be.
Peebles had never before met John and Yoko when he flew to New York with his production team in December 1980, to talk about the new album, Double Fantasy.
John and Yoko realised that the key to its success was to regain contact with the UK, having walked away after the break-up of the Beatles, because Yoko had been blamed for it.
Immersed in controversy and scandal thanks to drug offences, aware that the Nixon administration wanted him out of America, and terrified to travel home for fear that U.S. immigration authorities would prevent him returning to the States, John had stayed put and parked his musical career.
Now he was back on the music scene, promoting the album Double Fantasy, which featured an equal number of songs by husband and wife. And they wanted to talk to the BBC, the broadcaster that John held most dear.
Peebles, of course, was a name in his own right. A respected DJ and music authority who spent 13 years at Radio One and created the long-running My Top Ten, interviewing stars about their favourite records.
Yet little had prepared him for his first encounter with Yoko.
‘We had agreed to meet her at The Dakota [the apartment block where she and Lennon lived] at midday on Friday, December 5,’ Peebles recalls. ‘Even though everything was arranged before we left the UK, we still had to be interviewed by her, to ensure that she wanted to proceed.
‘Their apartment was palatial, gorgeous. We were shown in to Yoko’s enormous office. She was seated behind an antique Egyptian desk. We were asked to remove our shoes.
‘I remember thinking, thank God I’d put on clean socks. I sat cross- legged on a sofa, and barely said a word. Yoko was opinionated and emphatic. She told us she’d had better offers than the BBC’s. She was being deliberately provocative. She wanted us to beg for it.’
Peebles was struck by her appearance in the flesh. At 47, she was ‘small and hard, with a slim figure, but also very busty.
‘What was I thinking as I sat there looking at her? I was thinking, frankly, “So this is the woman who broke up the Beatles”.
‘She said, “Right, if we are going to do this, I need to make very clear to you that this interview will be 50 per cent about John, and 50 per cent about me.” I felt like saying, “Who on earth are you? You’re the woman who has done for singing what Wayne Sleep has done for Rugby League”.’
Nevertheless, the interview the next day was a triumph, concluding with a celebratory dinner.
Peebles and his team spent the next day Christmas shopping, and boarded their return Pan Am flight on the evening of December 8. When they were halfway across the Atlantic, assassin Mark Chapman shot Lennon outside his home. Only when the plane landed was Peebles given the devastating news.
Perhaps the last thing he could have expected was that he and Yoko Ono would become friends.
But soon after the historic interview was finally broadcast in January 1981, he began receiving calls from New York.
Drawn together, apparently, by their common love of John, they grew close. Each time a Lennon anniversary approached, it was to Peebles that Yoko turned, insisting that only he was allowed to interview her.
He spent private time with her on three continents over several years, and came to love the Lennons’ young son, Sean.
Each time the DJ went to New York, whether for pleasure or on business – such as when Elton John flew him over on Concorde to attend his concerts at Madison Square Garden – he and Yoko would meet up.
Whenever Yoko was in London, she’d get in touch. And they talked all the time on the phone.
It wasn’t long before the scales fell from his eyes, however. He was at first surprised, and then bemused, as Yoko’s energy grew and grew.
The grieving widow mounted exhibitions around the world, and expanded her profile as a musician. Indeed, she became more creatively active than ever before in her life.
‘It was obvious to me that John’s murder was working to her advantage,’ Peebles says.
‘I was embarrassed and ashamed at some of the decisions she made.
‘She used John’s death to hype her own new record, for example, and rushed to record a sentimental B-side compilation of bits of John talking as a souvenir. She compared John’s killing to the assassination of John F Kennedy, and herself to Jackie Onassis, insisting that their influence was greater than that of the Kennedys.
‘Out of nowhere, we had “Brand Lennon”. John would have loathed everything about it. I knew he wouldn’t have been comfortable with all that end-of-pier merchandise. He’d have laughed it off, most likely, but he would have seethed with anger inside.’
A year after the murder, the BBC decided to organise a Lennon tribute. They wanted Martin Bell, the then Washington correspondent, or presenter Sue Lawley, to interview Yoko, but she insisted on Andy.
Despite a growing sense of unease about her behaviour, he was pleased to have been offered another professional opportunity.
Peebles recalls: ‘She used her own crew, which was fine. I sat her at the white piano in the living room, and she was very good.
‘She cried, and said how much she missed John, and how stunned she still was by what had happened.
‘I referred to Mark Chapman, and she went berserk. She had never wanted his name mentioned in her presence.
‘But I found it hard to take her tears seriously. I knew she was in a new relationship with Sam Havadtoy, a sculptor and antiques expert 20 years her junior, and a former Lennon aide. It was quite scandalous.’
John was said to have been well aware that his wife was attracted to Havadtoy. One track on Double Fantasy is I’m Losing You – which John composed and wrote in a two-hour frenzy, fearful that Yoko, whom John called “Mother”, had fallen in love with Havadtoy.
On the same night as John’s murder, it is said, Havadtoy moved into the Dakota. He barely left Yoko’s side for months.
But suddenly, Sam took on a new image. Yoko had her young companion dress up in John’s old clothes, and wear his hair long, just like John’s. It was an impersonation that shocked and embarrassed their neighbours, including ballet star Rudolph Nureyev, who commented on it.
Havadtoy and Yoko wound up spending 20 years together – far longer than her marriage to John – and separated in 2000.
Peebles says: ‘I started asking myself whether she and Sam had been having a relationship before John’s death. All the pennies dropped at once.
‘I began to wonder if Yoko had encouraged John to go off and have a fling with their PA, May Pang. [May Pang later wrote and published a memoir, Loving John, about their affair] so that she could explore her attraction to Sam Havadtoy.
‘My blood ran cold. Had the whole Starting Over episode, the culmination of which had been my interview with them, been nothing but a charade?
‘Was their “happy couple back together and making their marriage work” stance all about the “product” – the album – ensuring that they got a hit out of Double Fantasy?
‘I felt sick. If indeed I had been duped, they were the finest actors on earth, the pair of them. It was Oscar-winning. It convinced me.’
Peebles has never spoken publicly about any of this before, but feels, finally, at the age of 67, that it is time.
‘It will be 35 years since John’s death on December 8. I no longer have any allegiance to the BBC, nor to any other broadcaster. I am still angry, for various reasons.
‘I was never allowed to use any part of my exclusive recordings with John for my talks, or anything else. The BBC profited hugely from my interview and from the tragedy, but I was effectively dispensed with.
‘Also, those interviews should have been made available more openly to the public. They are an important part of our culture, of our history. They should have been respected.’
Two years after John’s death, Peebles agreed with Yoko to make another programme with her in New York. The venue then changed to Los Angeles, and then Tokyo.
‘The production team and I switched our flights, arrived in Tokyo, and there was Yoko with her son Sean and Sam Havadtoy.
‘We stayed in the Mampei Hotel in Karuizawa, up in the southern Japanese Alps, deep in the forest. John and Yoko had spent many long holidays at the Mampei.
‘It was utterly magical. The only uncomfortable aspect was that Yoko was now sharing her bed with Sam Havadtoy.
‘We were there out of season, and the hotel was closed to the public. Yoko had it opened specially. Staff had been brought in, and fires were lit all over the hotel just for us.
‘She also had local restaurants opened for us, we were the only guests. Why? Because she could! To try and impress me, I suppose.
‘I have to say, she seemed genuinely happy during that trip. She probably was happier. No longer living in John’s shadow; no longer part of that relentless Lennon-Beatles circus; what’s more, able to turn the circus into something that suited her.
‘The bottom line, of course, was that she was just an average Japanese artist who got lucky – and wrecked the greatest band that Britain has ever produced.’
Sean talked to Andy about John, during long evenings together.
‘Sean had very happy memories of his father, and I was glad about that,’ says Peebles. ‘I have cried more over him in recent years than about anything. I lost my father when I was 11. A child never gets over the loss of a parent. I knew how he felt.
‘I so wanted Sean to be happy. I wanted him to be loved. He reminded me of myself in so many ways.
‘We’d sit on the sofa together, watching Inspector Gadget – his favourite – and we’d just talk and talk. Like the song on the Double Fantasy that is dedicated to him, he really was a very beautiful boy.’
But by that time, Andy was pretty angry with Yoko.
‘She had been very misguided – by her own ego. By her need to remain important in the context of John Lennon. But she isn’t. She is nothing. She is no more than his widow.
‘I would love to have stayed in touch with Sean. I wish I knew why we didn’t – although I suspect it was because of her.
‘I got no real buzz from Yoko’s efforts to impress me, nor from the fact that she persistently stayed in touch. I knew it wouldn’t last, and it didn’t. The minute she heard that I’d left the BBC to go elsewhere, I never heard from her again.’
© 2015 Lesley-Ann Jones & Andy Peebles
(Courtesy of http://www.dailymail.co.uk/)