David Gambacorta | Longreads | June 2019 | 20 minutes (5,128 words)
The sun was beginning to set over a mostly deserted expanse of beach in Malibu, casting long shadows behind a pair of visitors as they strolled a few feet from the water’s edge. They had the innocuous, no-particular-place-to-go demeanor of average beachgoers, except for the fact that their every step was being recorded by a local news cameraman. One was a guy who was intimately familiar with being filmed, photographed, analyzed, idolized, ridiculed, and praised: John Lennon.
An ocean breeze pushed Lennon’s short brown hair away from his forehead, and his eyes were hidden behind small, oval sunglasses. There was a slight chill in the air of the early November afternoon in 1973, and Lennon kept his hands tucked inside the pockets of his bell-bottoms as he trudged across the sand. Trailing him was Elliot Mintz, a young television entertainment correspondent who had become friendly with Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, after he’d interviewed them separately two years earlier. Now, Lennon was looking to promote his upcoming album, Mind Games, and agreed to a fresh interview with Mintz.
Lennon didn’t express any surprise, though, when Mintz steered the conversation to that other topic, the one that was an object of fascination for millions of people around the world. “When you think back during that period of time known as Beatlemania, are the thoughts happy ones, are they good ones, John?” Mintz asked.
It had been three years since the Beatles’ magical, kaleidoscopic romp through the 1960s — one that forever redefined popular music, culture, and countless other aspects of Western civilization — came to a bitter end. The band’s love, love, love ethos was replaced by subpoenas, lawsuits, and private resentments that became public fodder for their suddenly disillusioned fans. And in the early days following the Beatles’ split, no one seemed more willing to discard their legacy than Lennon, who was learning to purge his personal demons through primal scream therapy. “The Beatles was nothing,” he told Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner during an infamous 1970 interview.
His most visceral animosity was reserved for his old songwriting partner, Paul McCartney. “Paul thought he was the fuckin’ Beatles, and he never fucking was, never,” Lennon had said. Several years after they harmonized together about the importance of working out problems, Lennon and McCartney started using their music to bitch at each other. “That was your first mistake,” McCartney sang on “Too Many People,” from his 1971 album, Ram. “You took your lucky break and broke it in two.” Lennon responded with even sharper jabs in his songs. Fans and record company executives who fantasized about Lennon, McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr reuniting someday seemed to be yearning for the impossible.
But Lennon’s perspective had since mellowed. “Most of them are good, you know. I’ve even forgotten what touring was like,” he offered, in his nasal Liverpudlian lilt. Earlier that year, he’d recorded with Harrison and Starr, giving life to new rumors of a fully fledged Beatles reunion, despite the gulf that still existed between the once inseparable Lennon and McCartney, the creative engine that drove the band.
“Could they team up again?” Mintz asked.
“It’s quite possible, yes,” Lennon responded. “I don’t know why the hell we’d do it, but it’s possible.”
No one could have known that four months later, Lennon and McCartney would be standing together inside a recording studio, surrounded by a handful of wide-eyed musicians, as they took the first tentative steps toward making music again — or that some of the details of that surprising night would still remain a mystery 45 years later.
For people who weren’t alive during the Beatles’ mythical rise, it’s hard to grasp how jarring it was to see the era’s foremost proponents of peace and love succumb to a divorce like mere mortals, with all of the attendant finger-pointing and name-calling.
Each of the ex-Beatles has, over the years, cited different factors that led them to feel fed up with being in the world’s most famous band, and the restrictions and obligations that came with it. Harrison was tired of watching Lennon and McCartney dismiss the strong material that he crafted in the late ’60s. Lennon wanted to pursue a life with Ono and whatever artistic adventures that entailed. McCartney grew frustrated with perpetually having to hector his bandmates to record new tunes. Even Starr was disenchanted with the whole routine.
During a meeting to sign a new recording contract with Capitol Records in September 1969 — a few days before the Beatles’ opus, Abbey Road, was released — McCartney pitched ideas to Lennon and Starr about what the band might tackle next. Lennon tersely rejected each of them, then announced that he wanted out. “I mean the group is over,” he told them. “I’m leaving.” Lennon later recalled that McCartney seemed relieved that Lennon hadn’t gone public with his decision: “He said, ‘Oh, that means nothing really happened if you’re not going to say anything.’” But the band was finished, a reality that sent the then-27-year-old McCartney spiraling into an alcohol-drenched depression; he’d been a Beatle since he was 15.
But the following spring, news of the Beatles’ breakup became front-page news around the world — thanks to McCartney, who included a self-penned Q&A in press kits for his eponymous first solo album, which was released a few weeks before the Beatles’ own Let It Be. Certain passages leapt off the page:
Q: Are you planning a new album or single with the Beatles?
Q: Do you foresee a time when Lennon-McCartney becomes an active songwriting partnership again?
Lennon lashed out in Rolling Stone. While he begrudgingly admired his old partner’s innate PR sensibilities — tying some earth-shattering news to an album release was a surefire way to get people’s attention in the pre-Instagram, pre-Twitter world, and McCartney went to number one in the U.S. — Lennon and the other ex-Beatles weren’t happy with their former bass player. “We were all hurt that he didn’t tell us that was what he was going to do,” Lennon explained to Wenner. In that same interview, Lennon derided McCartney’s lo-fi album as “rubbish” and blamed him for the Beatles’ demise. “I can’t speak for George,” he said, “but I pretty damn well know we got fed up of being side-men for Paul.”
McCartney later confessed to Rolling Stone writer Paul Gambaccini that he pored over every one of Lennon’s comments. “He’d been hurt by it. He had known John for years, so he’s thinking, ‘John is saying this,’ not primal scream John,” Gambaccini tells me on a spring afternoon, in a plaza next to Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York. “You can never stop caring about your boyhood friends. … Lennon and McCartney were teenagers together. So for Paul to think, ‘Oh my God, John doesn’t think I’m good,’ that would be the most damaging, negative opinion there could be.”
Fighting with an old friend is inherently risky; both participants have a map of each other’s insecurities and sensitivities, so the only question is how much damage you’re willing to inflict to make your point. McCartney led off his second album, Ram, with “Too Many People,” which he acknowledged was meant for Lennon and Ono and their nascent rock star activism. “Too many people preaching practices,” he howled. “Don’t let them tell you what you wanna be.” (Some critics also took note of a piece of album artwork that showed one beetle mounting another.)
Lennon opted for a nuclear response. While recording Imagine, the album that instantly became the high-water mark of his solo career, he enlisted none other than George Harrison to play a slinky slide guitar solo on a five-and-a-half-minute evisceration of McCartney called “How Do You Sleep?” Every line was written to inflict maximum pain. McCartney was reduced to “a pretty face” whose only real accomplishment was “Yesterday” and who was now peddling the equivalent of elevator music. “How do ya sleep, ya cunt?” Lennon snarled during one outtake.
The feud spilled into the pages of the Melody Maker, a British weekly music magazine, where McCartney meekly protested: “He says the only thing I did was ‘Yesterday.’ He knows that’s wrong.” Making things all the more difficult was the fact that McCartney had sued his ex-bandmates and their company, Apple, in a bid to formally dissolve their partnership and untangle their finances. The legal proceedings ensured that even their private conversations were laced with unrelenting tension. “I just want the four of us to get together somewhere and sign a piece of paper saying it’s all over, and we want to divide the money four ways,” McCartney told the magazine. Lennon dashed off a lengthy response to his “obsessive old pal” that was reprinted in its entirety. “Even your own lawyers know you can’t ‘just sign a bit of paper,’” Lennon wrote, “or don’t they tell you?”
There didn’t seem to be an end to the pettiness or the flow of insults. But perhaps the two old friends could find a clearing — or, as McCartney once sang, a way to get back homeward.
The pissing contests couldn’t erase the fact that Lennon and McCartney had genuinely been friends since they were teenagers, long before they became Lennon and McCartney, trapped in the living sarcophagus that is celebrity. They remained tethered to each other, to that bond, even as they established new identities for themselves as solo artists trying to escape the shadow of the Beatles.
McCartney ended 1971 with a new band, Wings, and an album, Wild Life, which didn’t fare any better with his critics. But tucked at the album’s end was a song for Lennon. “Dear Friend” was quiet and mournful, the sound of a guy wondering if he’d reached the end of the line with one of the most important figures in his life. “With ‘Dear Friend,’ that’s sort of me talking to John after we’d had all the sort of disputes about the Beatles breakup,” McCartney explained in 2018, after he released two raw demos of the song as part of an album reissue project. “I find it very emotional when I listen to it now. I have to sort of choke it back. I remember when I heard the song recently, listening to the roughs [remastering works in progress] in the car and I thought, ‘Oh God.’”
The musical olive branch was apparently accepted; the public sniping between the two men tapered off. Then Ringo Starr nearly got the whole band back together. Starr began recording an album of pop songs with the producer Richard Perry in the spring and summer of 1973, and he turned to his famous pals for help.
That March, Lennon, Harrison, and Starr gathered at Sunset Sound Recorders in Los Angeles and recorded a wry Lennon tune, “I’m the Greatest,” which included a few winking references to their Beatles days. A few weeks later, Starr ventured to London and recorded a song with McCartney.
Anything could happen. I like to write with John. I like to write with anyone who’s good.
All of the ex-Beatles activity resulted in breathless media speculation: Was this all leading to an announcement about an official reunion? A single, an album, a concert tour? “It’s hard to communicate how desperately the Western world wanted the Beatles to be together again, and read every sign like it was some ancient ruin,” Gambaccini says. “If word got out that in 24 hours, the Beatles would be playing at such and such location, the road and rail and air networks would have been jammed. Everyone who could have gone, would have gone.”
Fans had to make do with Starr’s album, Ringo, which was released that November and indeed featured all four ex-Beatles, albeit not together on one track. It was around that same time that Lennon confessed to Mintz, during their oceanside interview, that he was open to the possibility of a full reunion. “Me memories are now all fond, and the wounds are healed, and if we do it, we do it,” he said. “If we record, we record. I don’t know. As long as we make music.”
In December, McCartney released an album that he’d been quietly toiling on with his wife, Linda, and longtime Wings guitarist Denny Laine: Band on the Run. After several years of hearing that his solo work paled next to what he’d done in the Beatles, Band on the Run proved to be a masterpiece that would go to No. 1 in the U.S. and the U.K.
While undoubtedly pleased to see critics and the record-buying public affirm his genius, McCartney still couldn’t help but continue to cast an eye in Lennon’s direction. “I very much got the feeling that Paul missed casual moments with John,” Gambaccini says of a series of interviews he did with McCartney in ’73. “He wouldn’t have talked about him so much if he didn’t.” During one interview, Gambaccini asked McCartney if he could write with Lennon again.
“Anything could happen,” he replied. “I like to write with John. I like to write with anyone who’s good.”
While McCartney was on a professional and personal upswing, Lennon was in a period of upheaval and uncertainty. He separated from Ono in 1973 and began a relationship with May Pang, who had been the couple’s assistant, starting an 18-month period of sometimes wild partying that became known as his “Lost Weekend.”
The couple split their time between New York and California, where they rented a beach house in Santa Monica that once belonged to MGM Studios cofounder Louis B. Meyer, and frequently entertained friends like Keith Moon, Harry Nilsson, and Starr. But Lennon’s outlook during that time varied, depending on the source.
Mintz, whose deep, carefully articulated voice has appeared in multiple documentaries about Lennon over the years, offers a grim view: “He was primarily miserable. Frequently drunk, high, and depressed. I must’ve seen him a hundred times during that period, and that was his overriding persona.”
Pang, meanwhile, has long depicted their time together in sunnier terms. “They were hectic days filled with chaos and fun,” she tells me in an email. “It brought a lot of friends together.” In 2008, Pang published a book of photos from the “Lost Weekend” era that shows an often unguarded Lennon looking cheerful as he reconnected with his son Julian and worked on the albums Rock ‘n’ Roll and Wall and Bridges.
“I may have been the happiest I’ve ever been,” Lennon later told Larry Kane, a TV news anchor in Philadelphia who covered the Beatles’ American tours in 1964 and ’65. “I loved this woman. I made some beautiful music and I got so fucked up with booze and shit and whatever.”
It wasn’t uncommon for Lennon to jam with other musicians who were partying in California. Drummer Jim Keltner, who appeared on numerous Lennon albums in the ’70s, recalls one such session at the Record Plant in Los Angeles, which saw Lennon produce Mick Jagger, Keltner, and former Cream bassist Jack Bruce as they recorded a song called “Too Many Cooks.”
“That was a successful night, and Mick put the song out later on one of his solo records,” Keltner says. “The rest of them were kind of big parties.” Other nights, Lennon found a perfect partner in crime in Nilsson. The two were once thrown out of the Troubadour nightclub after they drunkenly mocked the Smothers Brothers.
Nilsson, a Brooklyn-born singer who was blessed with impossible vocal range, included covers of the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” and “You Can’t Do That” on his 1967 album Pandemonium Shadow Show. Lennon and McCartney described him to an interviewer in 1968 as their favorite American artist.
Lennon offered to produce Nilsson’s album Pussy Cats while he was living in California. The first night of recordings — March 28, 1974 — ran until midnight at Burbank Studios, where Nilsson worked through a rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” according to the Alyn Shipton biography Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter.
Pang was there along with Lennon, Nilsson, guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, and Mal Evans, a longtime friend and assistant to the Beatles. As the group wrapped up for the evening, they turned and noticed a pair of unexpected guests had strolled into the studio: Paul and Linda McCartney.
It had been nearly five years since Lennon and McCartney appeared in a recording studio together. The last time around, they were at Abbey Road Studios in London with Harrison and Starr, working on the Abbey Road track “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” Given all that had transpired since then, those five years might have felt like 25.
Who’s got a mic besides me? Come on. Somebody join.
Pang recalls the two ex-partners greeted each other casually, as if they’d just seen each other the day before. The room was big enough to hold two drum kits — one of which was Starr’s — an organ, a keyboard, and a giant gong. “John and Harry wanted to jam, and Paul wanted to join in,” Pang explains, “so Linda went to the Hammond organ, Jesse Ed [Davis] was on guitar. Paul decided he wanted to be the drummer.” Pang and Mal Evans picked up tambourines. Within seconds, they were joined by another surprise guest: Stevie Wonder, who’d been recording nearby.
According to several past publications, including Shipton’s Nilsson biography, they were also backed by producer and onetime Beatles roadie Ed Freeman on bass guitar and the saxophonist Bobby Keys. But I discovered that neither of those details were accurate. “I WASN’T AT that reunion jam,” Freeman wrote to me, “in spite of all the rumors that I was, and I’ve been hearing those rumors for 40 years.” Keys also wasn’t there, Pang notes.
The assembled musicians went to their instruments. McCartney chopped a beat across a snare drum and Davis played a handful of riffs, as the room filled with the sound of a band trying to find a groove. It fell to Lennon to call things to order, like he was back in Hamburg again, back in the Cavern Club, the sweaty little joints where the Beatles cut their teeth. All they needed now was a song. Lennon suggested sticking to something from the ’50s, no later than the ’60s. “Who’s got a mic besides me? Come on,” he called out. “Somebody join.”
“Hey!” came the response, an octave or so higher, from McCartney, who sported a feathered mullet and a mustache. Led by Wonder on electric piano, they lurched into Little Richard’s “Lucille,” a staple of early Beatles gigs. And then it happened: As Lennon screeched out the lyrics to a reliable rock ‘n’ roll story about a man looking for a woman who can’t be found, he was joined by McCartney, and their voices blended together the way they used to, the way they’d once seemed fated to.
It could have been the start to an incredible session — the 20th century’s most iconic songwriting duo, getting back to where they once belonged, singing the songs that first brought them together in Liverpool in 1958. But things quickly went sideways. “It is a little better if we think of a song,” Lennon noted as the band started to drift. “Where’s all that drink they always have at this place?” Then cocaine began to make its way through the room. “Someone give me an E [chord] or a snort,” Lennon said, before launching into a series of complaints about the microphones and earphones.
“Stand By Me” was chosen as the next number. “We all know it, right?,” Lennon snapped. “Just turn this friggin’ vocal mic up, again! McCartney’s doing harmony on the drums. Stevie might get on it there, if he has a mic.” Several ragged attempts at the song followed, but after half an hour or so, the session sputtered to a stop like a wheezy Oldsmobile on its last legs.
For all of its warts, this reunion was a genuine bit of history in Lennon and McCartney’s storied relationship — the only time that they made music together after the Beatles broke up. Yet the jam session has never been widely publicized or discussed, even among people who were close to both men during that time. Denny Laine, who played alongside McCartney through all of Wings’ various lineups in the ’70s, had never been told about it, according to his spokeswoman. Richard Perry worked with Lennon and McCartney on two Starr albums and tells me he’d never heard about the session, either.
“I never did see John with Paul,” Keltner says of the jam. “I heard about it, but because of the crazy darkness of those days, I can’t really tell you if I was there. Everybody I would ask is now gone.” Gambaccini, who interviewed McCartney multiple times during the ’70s and chronicled the making of his 1975 album Venus and Mars, says he was “genuinely startled” when I contacted him about the reunion session. “He never mentioned it!”
Hardcore Beatles fans learned about the jam when a bootleg, A Toot and a Snore in ’74, surfaced in the early 1990s. “Nobody knew at the time that it was being recorded. I only found out about these recordings when someone sent me the bootleg copy of it,” Pang tells me. “I was quite surprised. Obviously it was not meant for the public to hear. Just a ‘let loose’ night of jamming.”
How, exactly, the recording ended up being leaked is unclear. Keltner surmises that an engineer might have made a copy of the session and passed it around. The fate of the master tapes from that night is also unknown, which is remarkable, considering how meticulously Lennon and McCartney have curated their past demos and recordings, and how much of an appetite there still is for even the smallest of Beatle artifacts. (A British music collector caused a minor sensation earlier this year when he went poking around in his attic and discovered 92 seconds of film he recorded in 1966 of the Beatles playing on the TV show Top of the Pops.)
Mintz is often sought out as an expert on all things Lennon, and he was also stumped about the recording’s whereabouts. “Yoko maintains a significant archive of John’s work, and their work together,” he says, “but I’ve never heard or seen of that particular experience surface or be referenced.”
Either way, the quality of the recording is hard to ignore. Chris Carter, the Los Angeles disc jockey and longtime host of the show Breakfast with the Beatles, believes the lackluster performance is evidence that Lennon’s and his entourage’s partying and drug usage had gotten out of control. “Music became secondary. It was so evident when you listen to those sessions. You got all these greats in the room — Stevie, John, and Paul — and they couldn’t muster up anything that meant anything,” he says. “This was such an off-the-cuff, random thing. The fact that Paul showed up put John on the defense. You can hear him try to act like it was nothing, but he knew it wasn’t nothing … and there was nothing there.”
No matter how underwhelming the final product was, the fact that the jam took place at all begs the question: What did it mean to Lennon and McCartney to sing together again, even for just one night?
Addictions, illnesses, and tragedies have whittled the number of people who were there for the surprise jam down to just three: McCartney, Pang, and Wonder, and of that trio, Pang is the one who has spoken the most extensively about her memories.
McCartney has never met a question about the Beatles that he hasn’t been eager to address with a sprawling anecdote or two, but he seems to have largely sidestepped exploring the emotional significance of the reunion during the few times he’s been asked about it.
“We were stoned,” he told Rolling Stone in 2012. “I don’t think there was anyone in that room who wasn’t stoned. For some ungodly reason, I decided to get on drums. It was just a party, you know.” McCartney was too busy with a new tour to discuss the topic again, his manager told me. (Wonder didn’t respond to multiple interview requests.)
I’m sure they went through a range of emotions. It must’ve felt good, it must’ve felt awkward, it must’ve felt peculiar.
Even Lennon downplayed the experience. “I jammed with Paul. I did actually play with Paul, yeah,” he told the BBC matter-of-factly in 1975. “We did a lot of stuff in L.A. But there was 50 other people playing, and they were all just watching me and Paul.”
At the end of one my conversations with Mintz, he mentioned that he thought he’d once asked Lennon, during a mid-’70s interview, how he’d felt about playing again with McCartney. After a few weeks of searching through his extensive archive of audio recordings, Mintz called me late one night and played me the clip — which actually turned out to be Lennon discussing what it had been like to record with Starr and Harrison on Ringo.
“To me, it was, once the music starts, then it’s just a session. I’m completely into what I’m doing. So, if the musician is reasonable or good, I’m not particularly aware of them as individuals,” Lennon said. Other people might have imagined a mystical or exciting scene, but to him, it was just another day at the office, ex-Beatles or not. “It’s not like it was unpleasant,” he added. “It was just a session.”
Mintz imagines that Len