Doug Thompson: CONFESSIONS OF A PROFESSIONAL ROCK AND ROLL INTERVIEWER – “OH YOKO, OH YOKO, MY LOVE WILL TURN YOU ON”

I’ve been gently reminded that at the end of my very first column months ago, I wrote that for my next one, I’d write about how Bobby Curtola almost got me killed In Edmonton (did that, check); how Rock and Roll Hall of Fame record producer and musician extraordinaire Quincy Jones kept me waiting (did that one too, check); and my dinner with Yoko Ono (oops, forgot to write about that, sorry).

So, here goes.

I’ve interviewed Yoko Ono several times since John Lennon’s murder in 1980, but the first time was the most memorable (isn’t it always).  It had been nearly 5 years since John Lennon had been tragically gunned down as he and Yoko returned home to their Dakota apartment after mixing a new single at a New York recording studio.

And the world mourned.

I’d been writing and producing five multi hour radio specials a year for Telemedia Network Radio in Toronto.  Several of those programs focused on John Lennon (more about all those in a later column) and I thought that this might be a good time to produce a new fresh radio special on John.  Laura Gross, a good friend of mine from LA, knew just about everybody in the Beatle world.  She was good friends with Paul McCartney and his wife Linda as well as George Harrison and Olivia Harrison.  In fact, Laura was hired to work on “The Beatles Anthology” documentary and spent several months in London on that project.

Anyway, I was in LA doing interviews for another Telemedia program and Laura and I went out to dinner at one of my two favourite LA restaurants.  I honestly can’t remember which one, but I’m pretty sure it was Moonshadows in Malibu, since Laura only lived on the other side of Topanga Canyon in Woodland Hills at the time.  Moonshadows, you may recall, was the restaurant Mel Gibson was at that night in August of 2006 when he was pulled over and arrested for DUI, then hurled anti semitic slurs at the LA Country Sherriff’s deputy.

By the way, in case you were wondering (and even if you weren’t), my other favourite LA restaurant is The Smokehouse in Burbank, directly across from the Warner Brothers studio lot.  I first discovered that place in 1977, when my writing partner, Bill McDonald and I spent three months plying our advertising skills in LA.  During our LA sojourn, we lived at the Oakwood Garden apartment complex on Barham Boulevard, just up the hill from The Smokehouse. We did OK business in LA, Bing Crosby Productions hired us to write and produce a series of radio spots for the motion picture “Walking Tall:  The Final Chapter”.  We also created a bunch of spots for other clients, but quickly realized that we really needed to live in LA permanently to make it work (something Bill did in 1978 when he went to work with Chuck Blore and I did 10 years later when I moved to LA to work with John Candy).  The Smokehouse is a legendary LA dining spot.  It was built in 1946 and is a throwback to the 1950’s era with red leather seats in the booths (they only have booths) and a bar area with a small stage where performers such as The Captain & Tennille got their start (actually I think The Captain & Tennille were the only band that became famous after playing at the Smokehouse).  It’s been featured in several movies and many a movie or TV star, such as Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor, Candice Bergen and even George Clooney, has popped in for a cold one or a dee-licious meal after shooting on the set all day.  In fact, Clooney named his production company, Smokehouse Pictures, after the restaurant.

Anyway, back to Yoko.  Laura and I were talking about various projects and I mentioned my John Lennon show concept.  We both agreed it was a cool idea, but needed a different angle than just another John Lennon radio special, so we decided to focus on the love story between John and Yoko.  Polydor had released the vinyl LP, “Heartplay:  An Unfinished Dialogue” in 1983 and using that as our inspiration, we came up with “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, the title obviously ‘borrowed’ from The Beatles 1969 single.  Laura had interviewed Yoko previously and said she’d set up a new interview with her as well as get Yoko’s OK on the project.  I had interviewed a lot of musicians, engineers, producers, etc who had worked with John, so we had the beginnings of a 3 hour special.  I flew back to Toronto and the next week, received a phone call from Laura, saying Yoko had given her blessing and would grant us an interview.

Cool.

A few weeks later, I was winging my way to Manhattan.  I’d loved visiting New York (never wanted to live there though) since 1974 when Bill McDonald and I won our first CLIO award and stayed at the legendary Plaza hotel (but that’s another story for another column).  Laura flew in from LA and we both stayed at a hotel on Central Park West (in separate rooms for those of you thinking otherwise), which was a couple of blocks from the Dakota apartments.  Laura and I figured we’d have about an hour with Yoko, so we had to focus our questions on what we needed specifically for the program.  I’d brought along my trusty Nagra reel-to-reel tape recorder and 6 reels of tape, which at 7½ips, was enough for three hours of interview (I’ve always been a glass half full, optimistic kind of guy).

Next morning, we had an early lunch at the hotel, discussed again what we need to get from the interview with Yoko, then walked the couple of blocks to the Dakota.  We passed the guard gatehouse and into the alleyway where Lennon was shot, up the few steps into the Dakota office where we cooled our heels while they called Yoko’s office.  Once we were approved, we were instructed where the Lennono office was on the main floor, got there, were greeted by one of what seemed like a myriad of assistants, who politely asked us to remove our shoes and have a seat.  The Lennono office was much like any other small office area, tightly packed with many large 4 drawer filing cabinets, desks, phones and the usual office paraphernalia.  The big difference was the filing cabinets in THIS office were filled with John Lennon’s handwritten lyrics, letters from John to Yoko and vice versa, unseen Beatles photos and memorabilia, Lennon family archives and all sort of things never to be viewed outside those office walls.  An assistant made a fast phone call (I assume to Yoko upstairs) and then led us to the elevator.

Oh my!  We were going to do the interview in the private family quarters.  John and Yoko owned several apartments at the Dakota.  The one on the main floor they used for an office, then they had one upstairs where they actually lived and one other where John and Yoko stored things like John’s guitar collection, artwork etc.  They may have had more than that, but I only know of the three apartments.

The Dakota is an amazing looking structure.  Very gothic.  In fact, they shot the movie “Rosemary’s Baby” there and the filming disruption upset the upscale tenants so much that filming in the building was never allowed again.

The elevator opened right into the apartment and Yoko was there to meet us.  She gave Laura a hug and I got a warm but friendly handshake (well, she DID know Laura and I was a perfect stranger).  Yoko ushered us into the famous ‘white room’ – white rugs, white walls, white couches, the legendary white piano on which John had written the song “Imagine” as well as many other classics.  Laura and Yoko chit chatted a bit while I set up the Nagra and plugged in the microphone.  After that was done, Yoko asked where I was from and when I mentioned Toronto, he eyes lit up.  Yoko said that she and John had had such a wonderful time in Canada in general and Toronto and Montreal in particular.  She asked if I knew Ronnie Hawkins.  I said that indeed I did.  She said she hoped he was well.  I said as far as I knew, he was.  For the record, John and Yoko flew from the Bahamas to Toronto for a day or two in 1969 before travelling to Montreal and the Queen Elizabeth Hotel where they held court, greeted and were interviewed by the media for 7 days on their second leg of the ‘Bed In For Peace’ (the first ‘Bed In’ was held in Amsterdam just after they were married in Gibraltor).  John and Yoko came back again later that summer for the legendary rock concert at Varsity Stadium with Eric Clapton on guitar, Klaus Voorman on bass and future Yes drummer Alan White.  I was Production Manager at 1050 CHUM and CHUM FM at the time and had a backstage pass.  I stood less than 3 feet behind John, Yoko and Apple promo head Pete Bennett on the right side of the stage less than an hour before the Plastic Ono Band went on.  I was debating with myself whether or not to go over and shake John’s hand, but after about 10 minutes, I chickened out and they moved away. That’s as close as I ever got to John Lennon.  I mentioned this to Yoko years later and she said, “You should have come over.  John and I didn’t bite, ya know”.  Lennon and Ono came back one more time in the winter of ’69 where they stayed at Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins place before travelling by train to Ottawa to meet Canada’s Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who gave them almost 90 minutes of his time, the only world leader to do so.  It had originally been scheduled for 15 minutes.

We started our interview with Laura and I sharing questions.  Yoko was thoughtful, honest and very forthcoming.  The only time she faltered was near the end of the interview when we asked how she thought John would have liked to be remembered.  Yoko started to answer, but got caught up in the emotion and choked up.  It was a poignant moment.  She quietly regained her composure and we finished the interview after 2 full hours (using 4 of my 6 tape reels).  We’d started around 1PM.  It was now just after 3 and I packed up the Nagra figuring we’d be ushered out.

But no!

Yoko then invited us into the kitchen.  I’d read about the Lennon/Ono kitchen in the January 1981 Playboy interview with John.  Writer David Sheff and Lennon had sat on that same kitchen couch to conduct some of their interview.  I simply couldn’t conceive of a couch in a kitchen, yet there it was right in front of me.  This kitchen was more like a bachelor apartment, it was that big…or that small, if you’ve ever actually lived in a bachelor apartment like I have.  We sat and talked (actually Laura and Yoko did most of the talking.  I did a lot of listening).  Around 4:30, it was finally time to go.  When we arrived back at the Lennono office on the main floor, Sean Lennon was home from school and was running around the office.  He was introduced to us by one of the assistants, dutifully shook our hands then went running off.  Less than 20 seconds later, he came bounding back with a stuffed cat.  He held it out in front of him for a few seconds, then said, “Andy Warhol gave me this cat”.

OK.

As Laura and I were walking back to our hotel (separate rooms remember), I had a premonition.  I said to Laura, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if when you get back to your room, there’s a message from Yoko inviting us to dinner?”  Laura poopoo’d the idea saying we’d just spent nearly four hours with her and that was probably it.  Back at the hotel, we got into the elevator and pushed our separate floor buttons (I told you).  Mine was first, so I said to Laura that I’d see her in about two hours for dinner and went to my room (which, by the way, was smaller than Yoko’s kitchen).  About a minute later, the phone rang.

Yep, you guessed it.  Laura said, “You won’t believe this, but Yoko’s invited us to dinner at the Russian Tea Room”.  My psychic powers hadn’t failed me.

So after resting for an hour or so, Laura and I met in the lobby, grabbed a cab and headed to the Russian Tea Room on West 57th.

Yoko was already there with her companion Sam Havadtoy.  Sean was there as well with his buddy (whose name sadly escapes me).  He was the grandson of Hollywood director Meryn Leroy, whose credits included “Mr. Roberts” with Jimmy Cagney and Henry Fonda as well as “No Time For Sergeants” starring Andy Griffith and Nick Adams and dozens of other classic films.  Sean’s friend also lived at the Dakota.  We sat down at their table, were introduced to everyone and proceeded to have a wonderful meal.  At least I think we did, I honestly don’t remember what anyone ordered, including me, but the conversation was amazing.  People Magazine had recently announced that they’d be featuring an in depth interview with the man who shot and killed John Lennon (I will not mention his name because he does not deserve any recognition whatsoever).  At one point in the conversation, we were discussing the upcoming People article and Sean piped in, saying “Mum, why would anyone want to read about the guy who shot dad?”

Wow!

Out of the mouths of babes.

After dinner, I assumed Yoko and entourage would have a limo take them back to the Dakota.  I was wrong.  It was a nice August night in New York, so they decided to walk back.  Since we were staying only a few blocks away, they invited us to walk with them.  As we passed the Plaza Hotel, Yoko decided we should all have dessert (no one had ordered any at the Russian Tea Room), so in we traipsed, but the place was packed, so we skipped dessert and just kept walking.  Eventually, we arrived at our hotel, so we said goodnight to Yoko (both Laura and I got hugs this time), Sam, Sean and his unnamed friend (if you’re reading this, I apologize for not remembering your name) and called it a night.

What an amazing day…and night!

I’ve interviewed Yoko several times since and she has always been wonderful to me – very giving and honest with her answers.  She was and is, a very elegant woman.  I doubt very much that she’d know who in the hell I was today, but for a few brief hours, I was in the company of the woman John Lennon loved.

That’s enough for me.

Doug’s column appears one Friday every month.

Contact us at: dbawis@rogers.com.

Doug Thompson has spent his entire adult life in broadcasting, both in Canada and the U.S. and has won 152 awards for his work.  He worked with Canadian actor John Candy for 17 years, writing and producing commercials, specials and several weekly radio programs.

Currently, he’s writing and producing the second season of a television program for the Hi Fi channel in Canada called “Hi Fi Salutes”, a series of short biographical documentaries on Canadian musicians, producers and record industry pioneers.  One of those programs recently won a Platinum Award at the World Film Festival in Houston.

5 Responses to “Doug Thompson: CONFESSIONS OF A PROFESSIONAL ROCK AND ROLL INTERVIEWER – “OH YOKO, OH YOKO, MY LOVE WILL TURN YOU ON””

  1. Glen Bringslid Says:

    That’s a great story, Doug! Thanks for a glimpse into a more tender side of Yoko which she seemingly hid well in public. It was good to see her through your eyes… 🙂

    • Doug Thompson Says:

      I’ve interviewed Yoko and/or been part of an interview project that interviewed her three separate times over 17 years and she’s always been kind and generous with her time. I’m very glad that Paul McCartney recently publicily stated that Yoko was NOT responsible for breaking up The Beatles.

  2. Did you do your interviews only for radio or did any of them ever make it to print?

    • Doug Thompson Says:

      I only did the interviews for radio, since I was producing several national and international specials per year. Never for print.

  3. My brother stumbled upon this article, and it was incredible to read it! I’d forgotten so much of this (isn’t that awful), so it was a great reminder and memory! I’m not sure which restaurant we ate at in LA either, although I do know we have eaten at both The Smoke House and Moonshadows! Sean’s young friend was named Max, who often joined us on the many times Yoko, Sam, Sean and I went to dinner (obviously, including this time you write about) and there’s a long and sad story that follows regarding Max, who is deceased. Anyway, I thought I’d post a comment here, as I’m not even sure I still have all your details anymore. I hope you’re well.

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