The lesson was that it takes more than raw talent -- and glowing reviews -- to reach the top commercially. More important, it taught me that critics can't always predict stardom, but they can spot excellence, and that, ultimately, is the most important thing they can do.
Much popular music is hollow professionalism -- musicians and record producers recycling ideas and styles most likely to sell records. The memorable artists redefine the boundaries, either through blinding originality or by looking with unbending honesty at their deepest fears and grandest dreams. In writing about their worlds, I learned that the best were driven, almost obsessed, tough and, at times, brave.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 26, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
John Lennon: An article in Section A on Saturday about Robert Hilburn's memories of nearly 40 years as the Times' pop music critic referred to John Lennon being a child in London during World War II. Lennon grew up in Liverpool.
John Lennon's Inner Child
It's a rule in criticism: Keep a professional distance from the artists. I violated that with John Lennon.
I was a fan of the Beatles. But I also wanted to know more about the man behind the 1970 album "Plastic Ono Band," a flat-out masterpiece. It was Lennon's first solo album and a chilling attempt to move beyond the emotional scars of being abandoned by both parents.
In the opening lines, Lennon sang about loss so painful that his voice seemed tied to a nerve deep inside: "Mother, you had me / But I never had you / I wanted you / But you didn't want me."
When I finally met Lennon in 1973, he was temporarily estranged from his wife, Yoko Ono, and living in Los Angeles. Depressed about the separation and the pressure of trying to live up to his fans' high creative expectations of him, he spent much of his time partying with friends or drinking and taking drugs on his own; sometimes drinking a bottle of vodka or half a bottle or more of brandy a day. Years later, he told me that when he had an important business meeting the next day, he'd spend the evening with me because I didn't drink.
"I think I was suicidal on some kind of subconscious level," he said of what he called his "lost weekend."
"The goal was to obliterate the mind. I didn't want to see or feel anything."
One evening at his hotel, Lennon turned on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" and ordered up cornflakes and cream. I didn't think much of it until the same thing happened another night.
"What's up with the cornflakes?" I finally asked.
As a child in London during World War II, he explained, he could never get milk, so this was special. The lesson of the evening was that there are some childhood losses you can deal with through room service. For Lennon, the harder ones could be exorcised only through his songs.
Lennon eventually returned to Ono, and they teamed up in 1980 on the album "Double Fantasy." I visited them at their New York apartment in the Dakota during the final phases of recording, and Lennon was as happy as I had ever seen him.
As we left the Dakota that evening, though, half a dozen people rushed toward him. They were upon him so fast that I was startled. Without a bodyguard, he was helpless.
When I asked if he wasn't worried about his safety, he said no. "They don't mean any harm. Besides, what can you do? You can't spend all your life hiding from people. You've got to get out and live some, don't you?"
That closeness to Lennon contributed to my most difficult moment at The Times. After learning Lennon had been shot to death outside the Dakota by a deranged fan that December, I flew to New York and asked Elliot Mintz, a friend of the Lennons, to express my sorrow to Ono.
Mintz called back to say Ono wanted to see me. I didn't know if I was supposed to go as a friend or a journalist. It would be a great scoop to get her first words after Lennon's death, but I didn't want to betray the friendship. I left my tape recorder behind.
Ono was in bed, under the covers, when I got to the couple's seventh-floor apartment, clearly distraught in the semi-darkened room. Hundreds of mourning fans were gathered below, and you could hear their singing from the street.
"The future is still ours to make," Ono said softly. "The '80s will blossom if only people accept peace and love in their heart. It would just add to the tragedy if people turned away from the message in John's music."
It sounded like something she wanted to say to her slain husband's fans, and I asked if I could print it. She nodded yes and I reached for a pen.
Ono's thoughts were repeated in news broadcasts and newspapers around the world the next day. On the flight back to Los Angeles, I went over the evening again in my mind, wondering if I had acted honorably or if, in some way, I had taken advantage of her.
I realized only Ono could make that judgment. A few weeks later she did, sending me a thank-you card.
Cash's Peace of Mind
With last year's hit movie "Walk the Line," Johnny Cash's 1968 Folsom prison concert will likely stand for millions as the defining moment in the country music giant's life. But on that cold, overcast January morning, I was the only music writer with Cash because the singer's career, after a spectacular start in the '50s, was in decline.