By the summer of 1973, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s marriage was on the rocks. As an unusual remedy, Ono suggested that Lennon embark on an affair with their assistant, May Pang. That decision led to Lennon’s “Lost Weekend,” the 18 months that the ex-Beatle lived with Pang in her New York apartment and a rented home in Los Angeles.
Musically, it was a productive time. Lennon completed three albums – ‘Mind Games,’ ‘Walls and Bridges’ and ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ – and produced LPs for Ringo Starr and Harry Nilsson. And he also took part in an impromptu jam session that would be the last time he would record with Paul McCartney. But it was a period marked by Lennon’s outrageous behaviour while drunk or stoned. Two weeks before the historic jam session, a drunken Lennon was tossed out of the Troubadour.
Lennon referred to the time apart from Ono as ‘The Lost Weekend,’ named after a 1945 film that starred Ray Milland as an alcoholic writer. Ahead, some of the highlights – and low points – of John Lennon’s "Lost Weekend."
Summer 1973: Lennon and Ono Split Up
Lennon’s 1972 LP ‘Some Time in New York City,’ was a critical and commercial flop. Produced with Ono, the album was a disappointment after the success of 1971’s ‘Imagine.’
“I was very aware that we were ruining each other's careers and I was hated and John was hated because of me,” Ono told the Telegraph. “I needed a rest. I needed space. Can you imagine every day of getting this vibration from people of hate? You want to get out of that.”
Ono knew that Lennon was attracted to their personal assistant, May Pang, and believed that Pang would treat John well. In an attempt to save their marriage, Ono proposed that Pang begin an affair with Lennon. Pang, an employee since 1970, had worked with Lennon that summer on ‘Mind Games.’
“It was with her permission,” Pang told About.com. “She wanted him to go out. They were having problems. He was ready to go out with somebody whether it was me or anybody else.”
In October, Lennon and Pang went to Los Angeles to promote ‘Mind Games’ and decided to stay. But without Ono’s restraint, Lennon began to drink heavily.
December 1973: ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ With Phil Spector
In L.A., Lennon hoped to record an LP of the rock standards that had inspired him. To concentrate on his singing, Lennon ceded full control as producer to Phil Spector. Pang and drummer Jim Keltner told Uncut that Lennon’s drinking and Spector’s erratic behaviour at A&M Studios were a volatile mix.
“The guys were all drinking – and John was being one of the guys,” said Pang. “Everyone was as blitzed as he. One of the bass players got into a car wreck. We got kicked out of A&M when someone threw a bottle of liquor down the console.”
"John was exercising all his bad habits, as were we all, including Phil,” remembered Keltner. “The only problem with that was that Phil was the producer, and somebody had to be, you know, sane.”
Spector would often dress as a surgeon, a karate instructor or a cowboy, armed with a loaded revolver. One day Spector fired the gun into the studio's ceiling.
“Nothing was getting done,” said Pang. “Then Phil’s gun went off.” Spector then disappeared with the tapes for several months. Once the tapes were recovered, Lennon combined them with new tracks recorded in New York for what would become ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll,’ which was released in February 1975.
March 13, 1974: Booted Out of the Troubadour
All the Beatles were great fans and friends of singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson. They’d collaborated on songs and films since 1968. When Lennon arrived in LA in 1973, he looked up Nilsson, a prodigious drinker who also did cocaine.
“John loved Harry,” Pang related in ‘Lennon Revealed.’ “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.”
That’s what happened on March 13 at the Troubadour during a show by the Smothers Brothers. Lennon, drunk on Brandy Alexanders, disrupted the comedians’ act with relentless heckling. In the biography ‘Nilsson’ the Smothers’ manager Ken Fritz said, “I went over and asked Harry to try to shut up Lennon. Harry said, ‘I’m trying – don’t blame me!’ When Lennon continued, I told him to keep quiet. He swung and hit me in the jaw.”
Lennon and Nilsson were hustled out of the Troubador, knocking over a few tables in the process. “It was horrendous,” Tom Smothers recalled in ‘Dangerously Funny.’ “They came in pretty ripped to see our show, and, as Harry later explained to me, he told John, ‘He needs some heckling to make this thing work.’ He didn't think I had an act. Well, they start heckling, and it was some of the worst language I've ever heard – and they had a real buzz on. Cognac and toot, I guess. And it was a mess.”
March 28, 1974: Jam Session With Paul McCartney
The Troubadour incident was a wakeup call for Lennon and Nilsson. Lennon soon announced he would produce Nilsson’s next album, ‘Pussy Cats.’ They decided that the LP’s musicians should live together during the sessions. Lennon and Nilsson, along with Starr and Keith Moon, moved into a Santa Monica beach house.
But sobriety was not on the schedule. After wrapping the first session at the Record Plant on March 28, Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney unexpectedly joined Lennon, Nilsson and others for a midnight jam. On the bootleg album of the session, ‘A Toot and a Snore,’ Lennon is heard asking Wonder, “You wanna snort, Steve? A toot? It's goin' round.”
Starr by that time had left, so McCartney sat in on drums and sang harmony to Lennon’s lead vocals. Lennon also played guitar with Wonder on electric piano. Despite the star-studded lineup, standards like ‘Lucille’ and ‘Stand By Me,’ marred by technical problems, were disappointing.
By evening’s end, Lennon and McCartney agreed to see each other again but it would be the last time the two ex-Beatles would play together in a studio.
Early 1975: Reconciliation
In a 1980 interview with Playboy, Lennon and Ono revealed how the "Lost Weekend" came to an end.
“It slowly started to dawn on me that John was not the trouble at all,” said Ono. “John was a fine person. It was society that had become too much. We laugh about it now, but we started dating again. I wanted to be sure. I'm thankful to John's intelligence, that he was intelligent enough to know this was the only way that we could save our marriage, not because we didn't love each other but because it was getting too much for me."
“And we learned that it's better for the family if we are both working for the family, she doing the business and me playing mother and wife,” added Lennon. “We reordered our priorities. The number one priority is her and the family. Everything else revolves around that.”