From the Vault: John Lennon & Yoko Ono, 1969

Music Features John Lennon
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As a member of the Wolfgang’s Vault family, Paste has access to a rich archive of historic audio interviews from a variety of sources. Many of these interviews have never existed in text form. Our new From the Vault series will publish a different interview each week from our favorite rock ’n’ roll icons. We begin with John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s famous Bed-in at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel on May 26, 1969.

Knowing that there would be a huge amount of publicity surrounding their wedding on March 20, John Lennon and Yoko Ono decided to use the opportunity to promote a cause close to their hearts. Their first Bed-In for Peace took place in late March during their honeymoon in Amsterdam, where they sat in a hotel bed and allowed members of the media to swing by during the day to discuss their ideas for achieving world peace. Hoping to reach a larger audience, a second Bed-In was scheduled for late May in New York, but because of John’s conviction for possession of marijuana and resultant inability to enter the U.S., it ended up taking place in Montreal.

This interview was recorded over the phone during this second Bed-In with a friend of the couple, journalist (and Oscar-winning filmmaker a few years later) Howard Smith. In keeping with the spirit of the occasion, the focus is largely on the message of peace that the two were trying to spread. While Smith was most likely supportive of their intentions, it is hard to tell here, as he asks whether or not their methods are effective. It is a healthy balance, with Smith’s skepticism prodding John and Yoko to explain the philosophy behind their acts in detail, and his familiarity allowing the tape to capture two individuals in the center of an historical event.

John Lennon: Hello Howard how are you?
Howard Smith: How are you?
Lennon: I’m fine. I’ve been talking from 10 in the morning until 10 at night. I’m just about going hysterical with it, you know?

Smith: What are you doing up there?
Lennon: We’re broadcasting. We let the press and the radio, we opened the lines to radio about half nine to ten every morning and we shut it off at ten or half ten every night and there is a continuous stream of press and all the media coming in all day long. And it’s fabulous because it’s spreading like mad you know. I mean we’re selling this peace this like soap. You know, I’m trying to get people indoctrinated to think peace you know?

Smith: Do you think doing it the way that you’re doing it is working?
Lennon: Sure it’s working. You know, I mean we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t think it would work. It’s the most functional way we could work out to promote peace you know and even if it inspires people to do other things that’s good enough, yeah.

Smith: Are you doing a bed-in up there?
Lennon: Yeah we’re doing the bed-in. We’ve been in bed for three days now and we’ve been continually talking you know. We’re doing what we did in Amsterdam but obviously it’s bigger here cause there’s more radio and there’s more press and there’s more TV, there’s more everything you know.

Smith: Yeah. Do you think it’s effective though? You know, is it literally doing something for peace?
Lennon: Sure it’s doing something for peace. The only way we can do something for peace is make everyone do something for peace, all the majority of people you know. And what we’re doing is indoctrinating them to think about peace. You know it’s peoples’ responsibility to change the world for better, although it’s going to change anyway, and we want to indoctrinate them to do it Gandhi’s way. You know, that’s all.
Cause it’s like everybody’s sitting on the side, on the sand by the sea talking about I’ll never learn to swim or could I never learn to swim or water’s too deep and the current’s too strong and the sharks are in the water and they spend their whole life wondering is anything possible, could we ever get peace? All we’re saying is dive in, you know. And okay some of the kids are (inaudible) in the places where they’ve dived in with peaceful methods of protest and they got hit and that’s a drag you know but what they’ve done is obviously dived in the bit where the current is too strong and instead of diving in the same place again they’ve got to get back on the beach, recuperate, think it out again and make another move you know. We got to play it, sort of cooler than it’s going. I think, you know, the kids have picked up the squares’ paranoia and everybody’s too paranoiac you know and that’s the drag.

Smith: You’re not paranoid?
Lennon: Well, you know, not often [laughs], less and less. [Inaudible voice of Yoko emerges in background.]

Smith: Less and less, huh? Why do you want to come to the United States now?
Lennon: Because the States is the biggest source of power and we want to go to the sources of power you know, we’d like to go to the States and then we’d like to go Moscow and we’d like to see the Pope you know and we’d like to gather them all and get something moving you know.

Smith: I heard that you wanted to see Nixon?
Lennon: Well if we could get to see him it would be very nice you know, but we’re not pushing ourselves.

Smith: Uh-huh.
Lennon: You know because pushing causes fear.

Smith: Uh-huh, are you going to be able to get in the States or not? What do you think?
Lennon: Well, we’ve reapplied for our visa for the Montreal-U.S. Embassy here and we got great help and that’s all. Do you want to talk to Yoko as well because I mean, Village Voice is… (interrupted by Smith).

Smith: Okay, well let me talk to you first. Okay and then I’ll talk with her because I’m used to…
Lennon: Because I’ve got her on the bed right here with me.

Smith: Okay, well let me talk to you first.
Lennon: Yeah.

Smith: Somebody told me about these acorns you’re sending around. What is that all about?
Lennon: Well the acorns started off as a piece of sculpture at a sculptor exhibition with all the Henry Moore’s and the Barbra Hepworth and all showing their big pieces of stone and brick and all that and we came up with the idea to put acorns in as a living sculpture you know. And from then on it sort of developed and we thought we’d send a living sculpture to everyone. Every head of state and then we came up with the idea instead of sending we thought we could take them and offer them as a token of peace and that’s all it is.

Smith: Have you done that yet?
Lennon: Well, we wanted to start with American you know so, that’s all we’re hoping to do you know.

Smith: Do you think you’ll be able to get to Nixon? What do you think?
Lennon: I don’t know you know, I really don’t know. We just hope we can and if not we’ll just post them to him or do something you know. We’re finding out the more we sort of say, “we’re coming to do this,” more fear or reaction happens before we even, you know some sort of strange vibe sort of sets in. So I’m shutting up a bit about acorns and Mr. Nixon and all that bit. You know, I just want to get in.

Smith: Mm-hm. What do you think’s holding it back now?
Lennon: The visa?

Smith: Yeah.
Lennon: Well that fact that I’ve only just reapplied today really, you know. And it’s been going around in circles, that’s all.

Smith: Mm-hm. Yeah. How does music fit in with all this? Are you going to stop playing or something?
Lennon: This period now is like me holiday. The Beatles just finished an album and half another album and we took a break and I’m using the holiday to do this gig you know. This time we announced it, we used our honeymoon you know. So what we’re given is time really.

Smith: How about the other three Beatles, how do they feel about you doing this?
Lennon: Well I mean, they’re peaceniks. The most positive peacenik beside me-self is George. You probably guessed that. And Ringo is sort of a living acorn himself. And Paul is sort of more intellectual about it but you know, he wants peace. We’re all individuals so we do it different you know.

Smith: Ringo was just in New York and…
Lennon: Oh is he there?

Smith: No, he was in New York and he was quoted at this press conference he gave as saying he wouldn’t exactly do it your way but he loves you for doing it.
Lennon: Well, I mean that’s great you know because we’re not saying to people, “oh, you’ve got to get in bed for peace instead of marching you know.” We’re just saying this is one other way of protesting. You know because the marching was fine and dandy for the workers in 1920 but it’s a different age and it’s about time to promote peace with the methods used these days, you know use different methods because anybody can lie in bed or donate to holiday for it but all we want to do is inspire people to do something else.

Smith: Have you heard the song that Tom Paxton wrote and dedicated to you?
Lennon: Is it dedicated to me?

Smith: Yeah, he wrote and dedicated it to you. It’s called “Crazy John.”
Lennon: Oh, that’s beautiful. Somebody was asking me about the song today but I didn’t know it was dedicated to me. (To Yoko) Tom Paxton the singer dedicated a song to me called “Crazy John.” Well I think crazy, I’m glad to be crazy. It sounds good. I’d love to hear it. I must get it. Is it out?

Smith: Yeah, what he says is that he loves you and if you’re crazy then he wants to be crazy like that.
Lennon: Oh that’s beautiful. I’m just telling Yoko. [To Yoko] He says he loves me and that if I’m crazy he wants to be crazy too. [To Smith] Well tell him I love him and we’ve got to all get together and do something. You know, good men don’t do anything until you tell them. Like the workers have to ask for more money and strike and do whatever they did then for more money and better wages and better living quarters and the only way to get governments to do anything is to tell them. And all that crap about you can’t be white, it’s white all propaganda, you know we can do it if we want it. I just watched TV yesterday morning or this morning, I don’t remember, and this guy from Harvard, some professor was on. They said they did an experiment with some kids and they didn’t let the teachers in on the experiment and they just said there’s going to be a year test and after a year certain kids in this class are going to prove to be exceptional. And what the professor, the Harvard guy did was pull out half a dozen names at random from a hat and he didn’t tell the teachers this, he just gave the names to all the teachers and said, “these are the kids that are going to be special.” And at the end of the year the kids were at the top of the class or whatever and the kids turned out to be exceptional. And that, it just shows that if the teachers believe the kids were going to be successful, therefore the kids picked it up from the teachers and they believed it too and together they brought the fullness out of the kids you know. And all we’re saying is we can do this on a mass scale. It’s to tell everybody you all are artists, you all are everything, you all got the universe in you and you have the power. It’s insecurity and years and years of dribble from government and all that to tell you that you’re nothing and you need leaders and you don’t need leaders, we’re all capable of being our own leader. You know we just have to tell people they are the artist themselves. Like, everybody’s an artist until they’re 11. Everybody writes, sings, writes poetry, sings and paints pictures. And then suddenly some bum-head tells you when you’re 11, “hey kid, you’re no good. You can’t be an artist, you don’t do woodwork you know. And that’s a load of bologna. That’s all we’re getting from governments and we’ve got to wake people up to the fact that they are invincible and they can do anything they want.

Smith: How are you going to change everything though? How are you going to change it so it comes about like that?
Lennon: How does the teacher stop you or whoever stop painting or drawing or writing when they were kids? How did they stop them? They told them they kept saying, “you’re no good, now stop that, you’re no good now stop that” and what we’re doing is saying, “you are good and keep going, you are good, keep going.” Think of peace. If you want peace you can get it. Do what you can, do anything. Smile for peace. Clean your teeth for peace. Do anything for peace, think peace and just turn the people on for peace. And all the hippies and the so-called aware kids they’re just getting into the game of snobbism and saying, “oh we’re hip man but we can’t talk to them squares.” And the squares are retarded children. And if you have a retarded child in the family you don’t lock him out, or you don’t hit him, or you don’t just cut out communication with him. You extend a hand to him and all we’re saying is okay, we’re the so-called hip ones, it’s up to us to extend a hand to the squares and talk their language. Like Yoko was saying, if you go to Africa you know, you don’t just barge in there and scream English at them. You learn the language if you want to communicate with them. And if the squares are the ones who are holding it up, holding the scene up, we’ve got to communicate with them and stop forming these clubs that everybody’s getting into. You know?

Smith: But what I wonder about is with yourself, your whole image is being very hip, very rich, very rock n’ roll, the way you dress, the way you look and everything. Doesn’t that in itself turn off the squares from listening to what you want to tell them?
Lennon: Yeah, but I don’t know about that. The squares are getting used to the way we look, you know I’m saying if the hippie goes to the backdoor of somebody’s house and talks to the housewife, he can get through on that level. You know, and if he just sort of says, “can I look after the kid for you,” okay she’s going to be a bit paranoiac about the marshin at first at first. But if he does something about it he can change it if he cuts the grass or some crap like that. But the way that we’re projecting this thing, they’re not going to take any note to what bag I’m wearing. You know, I mean I’m not, if I cut me hair off and you know sort of change… I’m being me-self you know, so I’m not going to change that for anything. I’m telling everybody to be themselves you know and what we’ve got to get over is to change their heads so it won’t make any odds what I got on at all whether I’m naked or clothed. I’m not going to compromise by changing my image or whatever it is, my rock n’ roll swinging image.

Smith: Yeah, but you know, but like if peace is what’s important, a lot of people are going to say, “well I don’t want to listen to peace from him because he takes his clothes off.”
Lennon: Okay, well I mean then if they won’t listen to it from me, they’ve got to listen to it from somebody else. I’m just setting one way of doing it you know. And I’m going to be me-self whatever. Okay, so I do that, and I look like some Clark, then I don’t get through to the kids then. You know.

Smith: But the kids agree with you. Yeah, but all the kids agree with you.
Lennon: It’s who I am and I’m not going to change that. I know peace is most important but I don’t believe that me getting me haircut is going to make it any better.

Smith: But you see, I don’t know, my feeling is that so many of the kids already believe what you’re saying and maybe that’s all you’re reaching are the people who already agree with what you think.
Lennon: No. I, I don’t think so, you know. Because the ones who agree with what we think, what are they doing about it you know? I mean you’re getting some cynics as well you know. We’re getting to a lot of people and it’s going to take a bit of time but it’s not going to take that long you know. And maybe I don’t know, I can’t see myself, I don’t believe that shaving me beard, or cutting me hair is really going to do it, you know. I just got to convince them that looking like this doesn’t mean a damn.

Smith: Mm-Hm. (pause) Yeah.
Lennon: Do you want to speak to Yoko?

Smith: Okay, put her on.
Lennon: Okay, here she is.

Smith: Okay.
Yoko Ono: Hello.

Smith: Hello Yoko.
Ono: Hi, who is this?

Smith: This is Howard Smith. Do you remember me?
Ono: Yes, of course. Hi Howard.

Smith: I remember going to your happenings.
Ono: Yes, yes. And you’ve written about what I did with something, do you remember?

Smith: That’s right, about your stone event where everybody got in the bags.
Ono: And you said, you know, many interesting things. You mentioned those things.

Smith: Yeah. So how are you?
Ono: I’m okay. How are you?

Smith: Good. Is it very frantic up there?
Ono: [laughs] Yes, you know you have to talk a bit louder because it’s just a very frantic scene all together, you know.

Smith: Uh-huh. Your whole life has sort of changed now, huh?
Ono: I wouldn’t say that, you know Howard, you know how it was; it was always like a circus you know. Well, all right, you know, so it’s in a larger scale maybe but you know, it’s just relative.

Smith: Yep.
Ono: And as you know I always on the go and you know I was leading a life of a gypsy and now we’re gypsies together, you know.

Smith: Yeah, huh. What I was talking about with John just now is that your whole thing for peace, the way you’re going about it is you’re just reaching the people who already agree with you. Because of your whole life style the way both of you look and everything like that…
Ono: Yeah, okay I get you but you know the thing is, peace is a very common language. It’s like a very simple word, you know that even a housewife would understand. And you know, the squares come to us and they say, “what the hell I mean, we know what this is, we know peace is better. You’re not teaching us anything.” I mean there are many people who understand it. And of course the ultimate idea is Hare Krishna or something like that, we’re not compromising but we feel that before Hare Krishna we should say peace because peace is a more understandable word and an understandable concept. Now people who say Hare Krishna said something very interesting yesterday and that sort of kept me thinking all night actually. They said, “All right peace is no good as a mantra.” We kept saying peace, peace, peace, as our own mantra—that’s our mantra now. You understand what I’m?

Smith: I understand, yes.
Ono: And chanting peace instead of some mantra, some Indian mantra. And they said, “No, peace is no good because peace is a word that has a meaning.” Meaning peace, you know, which has an opposite word which is violence and the words go together like salt and sugar, you know. Like peace and violence, you know. It’s a couple word, you know. A word in pairs so to speak. So the more we push peace, the reaction is going to be violence. Or the more you push violence people are going to think about peace—vice versa. So after we bring peace to the world there will be a big reaction and it will go to violence again.

Smith: You really think so huh?
Ono: On the other hand, Hare Krishna is above peace and violence. Hare Krishna is a word that doesn’t have an opposite word. So you know it’s above Yin and Yang. You know if you do a very Yin thing and then you go on and do something very Yang, you eat sugar everyday and you start to miss salt, you know it’s a natural physical thing. If you go on doing something violent then you want peace naturally. If you go on doing something peaceful then you naturally want violence, you know. That’s the Yin and yang thing. The Hare Krishna is a constant mental thing, which is above violence and peace, and therefore Hare Krishna is better than peace. Now I get to thinking about that and you know they’re right about that. But the thing is the world is so violent now and as you say, okay even the word peace communicates better in sort of our circle, in circle and maybe we communicate less with the squares or something. There’s the danger of that. We can’t bring Hare Krishna after the violent scene, so the step is after the violent scene we bring peace. And after the peace, it may go naturally back to violence, just before that we leave the peace thing with Hare Krishna, you know.

Smith: Uh-huh.
Ono: So we don’t have to go in that vicious circle of violence, peace, peace, and violence. You know what I mean?

Smith: Yes, I know what you mean.
Ono: So we’re thinking in that term. So peace to me, or to us rather, means something that is more communicable than Hare Krishna so there’s no danger in that. Peace is a word in the English dictionary and it’s a language we can communicate even to the squares.

Smith: Uh-huh.
Ono: It’s not a compromise, It’s not a substitute to Hare Krishna or anything. I’m not trying to play it down it’s just we believe in wide communication.

Smith: Yeah, I sort of follow you. It’s all very complicated.
Ono: We keep on thinking, we’re the hippies, we’re the grooves, you know and actually the hippies and yippies they just talk to each other and think how rare we are, etc., and we are starting to become another snobbish establishment. You know, sort of an small “in” type circle. And we don’t want to bother to talk to the squares, sort of like, “to hell with the squares bit.” But the point is that correspondence… we are more rare than the squares, you know.

Smith: Hmm.
Ono: And to say that the squares are to be compared to retarded children or something like that, it’s very difficult. To say the squares are retarded children, you can’t do that because we’re all in the same family. We just have to extend our hand, you know. If we don’t try to extend our hands to them in terms that they understand, like the word peace, then they’re not going to extend hands to us certainly.

Smith: [interrupts] Yoko, I want to ask you, why did you choose the image of a bed?
Ono: [laughs] It’s funny, you know.

Smith: That’s why?
Ono: And it’s relaxing.
Smith: [laughs]
Ono: See, this world needs more relaxation you know. It’s too tensed up and all that.

Smith: Uh-huh.
Ono: Right?
Smith: Yeah, but the way the scene up there is described it sounds very tense. Maybe you and John are relaxed lying around in bed but the scene…
Ono: [interrupts] Yeah okay, it’s tense enough but it’s better than being killed in the war or something like that. Relatively speaking you have a scene and a feel guilty about that, the point is yeah okay, it’s a tense scene but at least we’re trying to convey the fact that there is relaxing, laughter, etc. It’s a very functional scene for us because if we go in the street or something we’d be mobbed you know. Here’s, well all right, we’re mobbed but not that badly. And we can communicate.

Smith: Mm, okay. I see.
Ono: It’s a functional scene for me. So we’ll see you when we get to New York, meanwhile, peace to you, okay.

Smith: Okay. Could I speak to John again a minute? I have to ask him something else okay?
Ono: Yeah, okay. And so love to you.

Smith: Okay, see you when you come to New York.
Lennon: Make it quick because we’ve got some adults who are going to ring from the station so we’ve got to communicate with them maybe.

Smith: Okay wait a minute now I want to ask you a few more things, okay?
Lennon: Okay.

Smith: In “The Ballad of John and Yoko” what actually is the meaning of the song? I want to know in your words.
Lennon: I mean, which bit of it? You mean, “Christ you know it ain’t easy?”

Smith: Yes.
Lennon: Well you know it means, “Christ you know it ain’t easy.” Who knows better than him how hard it can be, you know.

Smith: You’re just like, you’re not actually talking to Jesus are you in that?
Lennon: Well, I’d say, yes I am, you know. Yes and no, you know. I’m just talking, I’m just saying it like you say it on the street and you say it in your head, you know that’s all.

Smith: Like a prayer? Yeah, like a prayer and like an explanation mark, or whatever you call it.
Lennon: I mean, it’s just poetry man. Oh, what do you think it means?

Smith: No, I don’t know. I have some interesting ideas of what I thought it means. I wanted to get it from right in your words though, that’s all. Why do you think it’s causing so much trouble?
Lennon: Because any bit of truth causes trouble. Why did the Two Virgins cover cause so much trouble? And all it was was two people naked you know. You know as well as I do why it caused trouble.

Smith: What is your new album like?
Lennon: Fantastic. It’s like okay you know, get back to the most finished one of it and we were doing a rehearsal for the show. The show never was, so we put out the rehearsal, you know.

Smith: When is the release date?
Lennon: Eh, latest August because we’ve got a book with it and the book is a bit of a hassle, printing up millions of books you know but it’ll be worth it when we get it out.

Smith: Do you actually mean there will be a book with each record?
Lennon: Yeah, right.

Smith: What kind of book?
Lennon: With pictures and fab stories [laughs]. You know, things like that.

Smith: Written by all of you?
Lennon: They used mainly quotes. See, we filmed the whole thing, we ended up with 68 hours of film, and we used a lot of it. The bits and pieces we said on the tapes and that you know to caption pictures and stuff like that.

Smith: Mm.
Lennon: Yeah, I must wind up, is that it?

Smith: Okay, I’ll see you when you come to New York.
Lennon: You know it’s just that this one’s kind of special to the squares.

Smith: [laughs] Okay.
Lennon: Call me Saturday for a longer one if you’d like or should I call you or what?

Smith: I’ll call you Saturday.
Lennon: Okay.

Smith: And I’ll see you when you come to New York.
Lennon: Okay, can’t wait. See ya.

Smith: Okay, bye.
Lennon: Bye-bye.