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The John Lennon we did not know

Emmy-Award winning journalist Larry Kane shares his personal experiences with one of the most talented singer-songwriters of our time.
/ Source: TODAY

Emmy Award-winning journalist Larry Kane enjoyed rare access to the Beatles during the Fab Four's first American tour, and his subsequent relationship with John Lennon put him in a unique position to author "Lennon Revealed." This chapter highlights the wild and scarcely reported times John Lennon had while on his “lost weekend” in Los Angeles in 1973 (which actually lasted eighteen months). First published in 2005, Kane's biography has recently been released in paperback. Here's an excerpt:

Chapter 3
Danger in the Shadows
John continued to walk the tightrope between his tendency toward outrageous behavior and his desire to appease the norms of an adoring public for most of the rest of his life. During one particularly troubling period — his eighteen-month “lost weekend” — he fell off it several times.

That dark period was heavily influenced by his relationships with two fellow musical giants: singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson and infamous producer/mad-genius Phil Spector.

May Pang, who was by John’s side throughout the period, was especially wary of Nilsson. She says:

“John loved Harry. He loved his energy; he loved his writing. What he loved in Harry was the beauty of his friendship and relaxed personality. That’s what he saw. Harry drank, a lot. But Harry was the type of guy that if you go out drinking with him, he’d be sure at the end of the night that there would be a big brawl and that you are the one who’s in trouble, even though he started it. Harry would keep feeding John drinks until it was too late.”

Mark Lapidos, has a different perspective on Nilsson:

“Outside of the drugs, Harry was a great friend to John. Like John, he didn’t suffer fools lightly. He would rather share time with friends, real friends, than hang out with superficial entertainers. He was genuine, no b.s. My wife Carol and I enjoyed his company and the time he spent at our conventions. But we never saw the destructive side that people talk about.”

John loved Nilsson, but Nilsson’s friendship was beginning to wear thin, even early on during the Los Angeles days segment of the “lost weekend.” Music arranger and producer Mark Hudson, for one, saw the bad side of Nilsson’s influence on John:

“Harry was a great guy. I really had affection for him. The two were very tight, but John was beginning to notice that Harry might be bringing him down.”

That destructive side was a nightmare to May Pang, John’s lover and unofficial guardian in Los Angeles. Pang was also fearful of Spector, the legendary and mercurial rock producer who invented the famous “Wall of Sound” in the early sixties and was producing Lennon’s latest solo album. The demons surrounded John in Malibu, Hollywood, and Beverly Hills, and May felt helpless. So, at times, did John.

“When he did work, John had a great work ethic,” May recalls. “He liked to be on time and work, work, and work. Phil Spector was different. At times he would come into a session two or three hours late, dressed in some costume. One night he was a doctor, the next night a karate expert. He drank heavily. He drank a bottle of Vodka every night and held everybody at bay by screaming at them. I hated when he popped those nitrates. They smelled like dirty socks and he would pop them under everyone’s noses.

“The worst scene happened one night when Phil was playing his ‘I am God’ routine. He took away John’s glasses, so John had no idea where he was. He literally was frothing at the mouth. John was screaming and he thought that he was being put into this sexual gay thing because Phil’s bodyguard George was trying to tie him up. He thought he was going to do something. He was kicking and screaming. Nothing happened, but it was terrifying to John.”

Spector’s musical talents had always impressed John, but there was always that air of danger surrounding Phil Spector. Hudson vividly remembers it:

“I was at the A&M studios with my brothers (The Hudson Brothers) and everyone knew that Lennon was in the big studio with Phil Spector, and through the walls you could hear Spector just going off on John. One time, Spector pulled out a large gun and started chasing John through the hallways. John was trying to laugh it off, but it was horrible. I mean Spector’s reputation had preceded him. I was scared to death.”

Away from home, passionate for a new woman who allowed space for his insecurity and unevenness, and influenced by friends who played the role of social wrecking crew, John Lennon was sinking into the abyss. And then came the nights at the Troubador.

The Troubador was a popular West Los Angeles nightclub. For John and his friends, visits there could be either memorable or despicable. One night, John, May Pang, and legendary guitarist Jesse Ed Davis got together for an early evening dinner at a restaurant in Santa Monica, where John got famously drunk before disappearing into the bathroom.

“He returned from the bathroom with a Kotex on his forehead,” May recalls. “I pleaded with him to take it off. He just smiled.”

The trio headed to the Troubador where John continued to drink and ignore the pleas of May Pang. This episode ended unceremoniously when John said to the waitress, “Don’t you know who I am?” The waitress, in one of the more direct retorts in John Lennon’s life, said, “Yeah, you’re some asshole with a Kotex on his forehead.” The “Kotex Incident” passed with little fanfare. But what happened a few days later, on March 13, rocked John’s life.

John and Harry Nilsson had decided to catch the Smothers Brothers act during their engagement at the Troubador. Tommy Smothers, after all, had joined the chorus for the recording of “Give Peace A Chance” during John and Yoko’s Toronto bed-in a few years earlier.

As they so often did together, John and Harry quickly became drunk. On an empty stomach, smoking like a steam engine and egged on by Nilsson, John began heckling the Smothers Brothers. Heckling a band is one thing. Interrupting the timing of a comedy act is overtly destructive. The language was foul and so was the action. Actor Peter Lawford, accompanied by a young lady, was seated nearby. He repeatedly yelled at John to stop the tirade. But Lennon continued. Ken Fritz, manager of the Smothers Brothers, came over to make a personal appeal. Fritz raised his arm. Lennon raised his right fist and took a swing at Fritz, and then lobbed a glass full of liquor in Fritz’s direction. As the club’s bouncers forcibly removed Lennon and Nilsson, May watched in horror. John would later, with embarrassment, describe the scene for me:

“We started yelling at Tommy and his brother. I think we almost screwed up the act. A few weeks before I was in the same place, I found a tampon machine or something in a restaurant, wore one on my head. Heckled some more. And I don’t remember how it happened, but they threw my ass out.”

John was contrite. He seemed humiliated by the incident.

May Pang also remembers the incident with a great deal of chagrin:

“I realized that I had to work harder to clean him up. There were bad influences there and, at times, I was losing the battle. But underneath was such a caring guy. The drinking was drying him up emotionally, and that night was the worst.”

Unfortunately, “that night” didn’t end with the inglorious exit. Even as the trio left for the car, an even more potentially damaging event occurred. A fifty-year-old freelance photographer tried to immortalize the moment by pointing her camera at John. The photographer, Brenda Mary Perkins, claimed Lennon slapped her over her right eye in response.

Proclaiming his innocence, John saw a darker side to the photographer’s intentions, when he declared, “Well, I was not in the best frame of mind. I was wildly drunk. But I was nowhere near this chick, she’s got no photographs of me near her. It was my first night on Brandy Alexanders, and they tasted like milkshakes. The first thing I knew I was out of me gourd.

“Of course, Harry Nilsson was no help feeding them to me, saying ‘Go ahead, John.’ It is true I was wildly obnoxious, but I definitely didn’t hit this woman who just wanted to get her name in the papers and a few dollars.”

Ms. Perkins filed a complaint with the Los Angeles Police Department. After a two-week investigation, the district attorney proclaimed there was not enough evidence to support criminal charges. John was lucky. A criminal indictment would have cemented the Nixon administration’s relentless efforts to deport John based on his marijuana conviction a few years before in the United Kingdom.

In any person’s life, grim and ugly moments can lead to precipitous decline or a realization that it’s time to change. As it turns out, the humiliating bender at the Troubadour was simply the moment of truth for John. The nightclub embarrassment seemed unbearable for him. John sent letters of apology to the comedians, their manager, and the management at the club.

The Troubadour mess ended up serving a purpose. It shocked Yoko back home in New York. In Los Angeles, May Pang was beside herself. But most of all, the publicity surrounding the incident and the public outrage it caused chastened John. It ended up inspiring not just that typical morning-after apology, but weeks of self-analysis and extreme remorse. It was the beginning of the end of the bouts of drinking that had beleaguered his body, mind, and soul.

Excerpted from "Lennon Revealed" by Larry Kane. Copyright 2005. Published by . No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.