50th Anniversary Flashback: Inside John Lennon's Long History With Rolling Stone
On December 8th, 1980, Annie Leibovitz arrived at the New York apartment building of John Lennon and Yoko Ono to photograph the couple for a cover of Rolling Stone. She urged them both to take their clothes off, a flashback to their first Rolling Stone cover, in 1968, when they appeared naked to promote their Two Virgins album. Ono declined, but Lennon was game, and stripped down before getting on the floor near their bed and curling up in a fetal position next to the woman he called "Mother." "I remember peeling the Polaroid and him looking at it and saying, 'This is it. This is our relationship,' " Leibovitz recalled. Hours later, Lennon was shot dead in front of the building.
The image (which in 2005 was voted the best magazine cover of the previous 40 years by the American Society of Magazine Editors) appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone's January 22nd, 1981, issue. It was the heartbreaking end of a 13-year relationship between Lennon and the magazine. In his Rolling Stone interviews over the years, Lennon was startlingly open. He explained the Beatles' breakup to the world, fought Richard Nixon's attempts to deport him, shared the stories behind his songs, and talked about everything from his macrobiotic diet to primal-scream therapy. In Rolling Stone, Lennon saw a magazine that shared his passions and his worldview; in turn, he shined a light on the young magazine. "John, more purely than anybody else at the time, symbolized rock & roll," says Rolling Stone editor and publisher Jann S. Wenner. "He was the most natural heir to Elvis. Everything he and Yoko did to support Rolling Stone added a little of their luster. It gave us credibility and authority."
The relationship started with Rolling Stone's first issue. When Wenner needed an image for the cover of RS 1 (November 9th, 1967), he saw a publicity shot of Lennon as Private Gripweed in Richard Lester's film How I Won the War. "It was a day before deadline," says Wenner. "This was the best thing we had on hand. It was incredibly fortuitous, symbolic and prophetic of the future."
A year later, Wenner heard record stores were selling Two Virgins in a plain brown wrapper, since Lennon and Ono appeared naked on the album's cover. Rolling Stone editor emeritus Ralph Gleason suggested the magazine contact Beatles publicist Derek Taylor and ask to see the images in full. "They said OK and sent it over," says Wenner. "It was as simple as that."
The cover – accompanied by an interview by Jonathan Cott – caused a national scandal. Featuring Lennon and Ono naked from behind (the full-frontal shots were inside), it hit newsstands on November 23rd, 1968. A New Jersey postmaster general stopped issues from going to East Coast subscribers. One San Francisco newsstand employee was arrested for selling obscene material. (nude beat-le perils s.f., declared a San Francisco Chronicle headline soon after.) Wenner was exuberant. "The point is this," he wrote in the next issue. "Print a famous foreskin and the world will beat a path to your door."
Lennon realized Rolling Stone was the perfect medium for communicating with his fans. He wrote an account of the chaos that surrounded the proposed 1970 Toronto Peace Festival, and when Lennon and Ono staged their "Bed-in for Peace" in Montreal in 1969, Rolling Stone writer Ritchie Yorke was by their side. "It was the early days of John and Yoko together, and John was anxious to make his own statement," recalled Yorke, who died in February. "I was very impressed by what he was trying to say."
A year after the Bed-in, Lennon and Ono went to California to study primal-scream therapy with Dr. Arthur Janov. They decided to stop by the Rolling Stone office, a tiny loft space above a printing press in San Francisco. "The office was totally agog," says Wenner. "The Beatles were like distant gods. People didn't meet them."
Wenner and his wife, Jane, wanted to show Ono and Lennon around the city. Let It Be, which chronicles the band's contentious studio sessions in 1969, was playing at a theater. Somehow, none of the four had seen it. "The ticket taker did a double take," says Jane. "When Paul sang 'Let It Be,' John began to cry, and then Yoko started to cry. Pretty soon we were all crying. They were just so raw from the primal-scream therapy."
Around this time, Wenner was gently urging Lennon to agree to an interview. Finally, in late 1970 – eight months after Paul McCartney had announced the breakup of the Beatles in a press release – Lennon decided it was time to talk. Wenner was summoned to New York, where Lennon and Ono talked to him for four hours at the office of Beatles manager Allen Klein. "My goal was to get the story of the Beatles from his point of view," says Wenner. "The story of the band's breakup really hadn't been told."
What he got was one of the most revealing interviews in rock history. Lennon showed sides of himself the public had never quite seen: grown-up, clear-eyed, even a little bitter. He admitted to using heroin, blasted the utopian "myth" of the Beatles, and outlined the band's breakup in shocking detail: "That film [Let It Be] was set up by Paul for Paul. That is one of the main reasons the Beatles ended. I can't speak for George, but I pretty damn well know we got fed up of being sidemen for Paul."
The 36,000-word interview, divided into two cover stories in early 1971, was front-page news all around the world. The New York Times devoted massive space to the more explosive quotes the paper ran next to a surreal drawing of Lennon ripping a ball and chain from his head. "This was the first time we really broke news," Wenner recalls. "That was the single launch that shot us into the big time."
The interview captured both Wenner and Lennon at pivotal points in their lives. "I was just 25," says Wenner. "He had just turned 30. Being in the Beatles is not an experience you can fully integrate and assimilate and understand and put into perspective when you're that young and it just stopped. Similarly, I'm still a young kid just learning journalism."
In the following years, the magazine was side-by-side with Lennon in his new cause: fighting the Nixon administration's attempts to deport him for his anti-war efforts. Rolling Stone ran editorials and covered the legal battle in detail. In 1975, Lennon's deportation order was reversed. "We couldn't have done it without you," Lennon and Ono wrote to Rolling Stone in October '75. "Thanks to all the wellwishers who sent cards, 'grammes, gifts, etc., for the great triple event (judges decision/baby Sean/on J.L.s' birthday)!!!"
In late 1980, after Lennon had taken half a decade away from the spotlight to raise his son Sean, word came that Lennon and Ono had completed Double Fantasy, and would agree to an interview at their apartment building, the Dakota. Wenner again assigned the story to Cott. Lennon was optimistic and blunt during the interview, full of enthusiasm and strong opinions. "[The press] only like[s] people when they're on the way up, and when they're up there, they've got nothing else to do but shit on them," Lennon said. "I cannot be on the way up again. What they want is dead heroes, like Sid Vicious and James Dean. I'm not interested in being a dead fucking hero."
Cott accompanied Lennon and Ono to the recording studio as they worked on a remix of "Walking on Thin Ice." They would finish it three nights later, minutes before he was killed. "The night they met, they made Two Virgins," Cott recalls. "Their first and last dates were both musical collaborations. I find that extraordinary."
Like much of the country, Wenner learned about Lennon's shooting from Howard Cosell's announcement on Monday Night Football. Wenner walked across Central Park to the Dakota in
a daze to join a throng of mourners. "There was a bit of singing and people holding candles," he says. "People genuinely didn't know what to do."
The next morning, the Rolling Stone staff began work on a tribute issue celebrating Lennon's life. "They were mocking up [cover] photos with John's portraits," said Leibovitz. "I said, 'Jann, I promised John the cover would be him and Yoko.' And Jann backed me up. I said it was the last promise." In the following years, Wenner grew close to Ono, and Rolling Stone became a leading voice in the campaign against handguns. Even in death, Lennon is still an important part of the magazine. "He put the imprimatur of John Lennon on this magazine," says Wenner. "And he remains a North Star for us."