Jonathan Cott interviewed John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1968, at a time when they were starting to do creative and political work together as a couple, and Lennon was starting to feel, as Louis Menand put it in a New Yorker essay, that there might be someone he “cared about more than Ringo”—that is, more than he cared about continuing to be part of The Beatles. (The book isn’t about blaming Ono, or anyone, for breaking up The Beatles. As Menand also put it, this was “a natural development,” and would have happened sooner or later.) A dozen years later, Cott interviewed Lennon again, three days before he was murdered, as part of the big publicity push for Lennon’s first album in five years, Double Fantasy.
By then, Lennon knew he was on friendly ground: Both interviews were conducted for Rolling Stone, which by the end of the ’70s was the official Boomer handbook, devoted to assuring the children of the ’60s that they had come of age during the Renaissance, and to coddling the era’s rock idols. (This was a couple of years after Jann Wenner took over the front page of the record-review section to write a scathing rebuttal to two of his critics for having dared, in previous issues, to find fault with the latest albums by Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones.) And Cott writes that he became so friendly with Lennon and Ono that he “would run into them at odd times and places, and the three of us would occasionally meet up for dinner.” This book includes the substance of those interviews, heavily padded out with descriptions of the circumstances under which they came to pass, along with “an account of one of the most unusual and lively of our dinner conversations that took place on March 17, 1971,” and a catching-up conversation with Ono from last year. The result is a testament to one of the most cherished principles of the Boomer generation of rock critics: Anyone who ever broke bread with a Beatle is entitled to get a book out of it.
For anyone old enough to remember the ’60s—or anyone who, as a student of popular culture, has spent some time paging through yellowing copies of Rolling Stone and the “Riffs” section of The Village Voice—this book has a certain nostalgic charm. Cott writes, “Many people came to think of the four Beatles as symbolic dream figures and presences—like the four evangelists, the four seasons, the four phases of the moon, the four corners of the earth—and in an elementary sense, each Beatle, in the way he became defined by his face, gestures, voice, and songs, took on an archetypal role: Paul, sweet and sensitive; John, restless and rebellious; George, mysterious and mystical; Ringo, childlike but commonsensical.”
Contemporary writers on pop music are often accused of hyperbole and strained effects, but they don’t blather quite like that. Most of them don’t feel the protective need to include stage directions with the dialogue, telling readers how to react, as when Cott precedes a Lennon quote with, “As he once amusingly said…” And having had the advantage of growing up after the great high/low-culture wars of the ’50s and ’60s, most music writers take it for granted that pop musicians can be artists, and don’t try to impress readers by forcing bizarre associations between their subjects and high-culture figures. Cott does exactly that, following a description of John Lennon delivering his famous wisecrack about “the cheaper seats” at the 1963 Royal Command Performance with a passage beginning, “A century and a half earlier, in 1812, another one of my heroes, Ludwig van Beethoven, was walking down the street of a Bavarian resort town with the distinguished German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe…”
This slim, attractively produced book might make a good stocking-stuffer for a Lennon fanatic who isn’t interested in learning anything new about the great man. (It would be an even better gift for an Ono fanatic; part of Cott’s motivation for assembling it seems to be “So there!” to her “uncomprehending and abusive detractors.”) But perhaps because his worshipful affection for Lennon blunted his journalistic killer instinct, Cott doesn’t seem to have caught his hero on his best days. The conversations recorded here have little of the freshness and bite of the ones in Wenner’s Lennon Remembers, or the 1975 TV chat with Tom Snyder, or even the posthumously published Playboy interview conducted by David Sheff, which covers much the same ground as Cott’s second full interview. John Lennon could be a great talker, especially when he felt challenged and had something to prove. He had a lot of anger and even meanness in him, and that was a big part of what fueled both his creativity and his magnetic energy. Like a lot of tributes to Lennon (and Ono) that have come out since December 1980, many of them from people who claim to have been among the few who really knew him, Days That I’ll Remember seems to have only ever heard about John the Nice Guy.