Robert Hilburn was pop music critic for the Los Angeles Times for 35 years, from the psychedelic era to the emergence of the iPod. He witnessed many of rock 'n' roll's seminal moments and interviewed virtually every major pop figure of the period. All of this is chronicled in his memoir, "Corn Flakes with John Lennon (and Other Tales From a Rock 'n' Roll Life)," to be published this month. In this abridged excerpt, Hilburn (below left with Lennon in 1980) explores his relationship with Lennon after the Beatles' breakup and explains the book's title. Additional excerpts will appear Monday and Tuesday in Calendar.
John Lennon raced into Yoko Ono's home office in the mammoth old Dakota building with a copy of Donna Summer's new single, "The Wanderer." "Listen!" he shouted to us as he put the 45 on the record player. "She's doing Elvis!" I didn't know what he was talking about at first. The arrangement felt more like rock than the singer's usual electro-disco approach, but the opening vocal sure sounded like Donna Summer to me. Midway through the song, however, her voice shifted into the playful, hiccuping style Elvis had used on so many of his early recordings.
"See! See!" John shouted, pointing at the speakers.
The record was John's way of saying hello again after five years. I had spent time with him in Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, during the period he later referred to as his "lost weekend" -- months when he was estranged from Yoko and spent many a night in notorious drinking bouts with his buddies Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr. John got so boisterous one night that he was thrown out of the Troubadour, one of the city's landmark music clubs. He invited me to dinner a few times, and I later found out it was when he had an important business meeting the next morning and didn't want to wake up with a hangover. I got the nod over Harry and Ringo because I didn't drink anything stronger than diet soda. We would eat at a chic Chinese restaurant and then return to his suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Those hours would race by because we loved talking about our favorite rock hero, Elvis, which brings us back to "The Wanderer."
I've experienced hundreds of memorable concert and interview moments, so it's hard to rank them in any favorite order, but my final hours with John in New York are certainly on the short list. It was just weeks before his death in December of 1980, and his playing the Summer record was an endearing greeting -- and one that was typical of John. Of the hundreds of musicians I've met, John was among the most down-to-earth.
As soon as I started working at the Los Angeles Times, people warned me not to get too close to artists because it could make it difficult to review their work and you can never really tell if the "friendship" is genuine. Even so, I felt there was much value in getting to know some of the most important artists beyond what you can glean in the hour or so you have to interview them. The relationship with Lennon -- and it never approached anything like a daily or even weekly tie -- came about naturally. I liked him and enjoyed his company.
John came to town in late 1973 to record an oldies album with Phil Spector and to promote his new solo album, "Mind Games," which he had produced himself. I interviewed him at the Bel-Air home of record producer Lou Adler, a chief force behind the Monterey Pop festival. May Pang, who introduced herself as John's personal assistant, answered the door and took me to the patio where John was waiting. He was wearing jeans and a sweater vest over his shirt and he walked toward me enthusiastically. "Well, hello at last," he said with a warm smile.
"Phil tells me you're a big Elvis fan," he said.
We ended up spending so much time talking about Elvis and other favorites from the 1950s that I was afraid we weren't going to get to the Beatles and his solo career. I was particularly interested in his thoughts on his "Plastic Ono Band" album (from 1970); the songs struck me as being so personal.
"I always took the songs personally, whether it was 'In My Life' or 'Help,' " he said. "To me, I always wrote about myself. Very few of the completely Lennon songs weren't in the first person. I'm a first-person journalist. I find it hard, though I occasionally do it, to write about, you know, 'Freddie went up the mountain and Freddie came back.' And even that is really about you."