It wasn’t easy being John Lennon’s friend, and Yoko didn’t make things any easier.
“If anyone was doing the hanging on, it was John. He hung on to me, always had done. He always made me feel special, made it clear he was desperate for my company, especially when he was depressed and fed up, which he was for many years. He used to say to me: ’I don’t want to be a Beatle any more, stuck in a bag marked Beatle. I want to open the bag and let the Beatles out. I want to be myself.’” – Pete Shotton (as told to Hunter Davies)
As anyone who’s ever tried it will tell you, it’s hard to be a friend. However close or long term a friendship, there are always moments when a friendship is tested by actions or circumstances that make or break the friendship. In many, if not most, cases friendships fail these tests. Those few that survive (one hesitates to use the word pass, as friendships are acts of endurance rather than one-off events like tests) can reach a level of intimacy and trust that provide the persons involved with comfort on the long, hard road of life.
But how does one stay that kind of friend when that friend becomes one of the most famous people in the world? Pete Shotton knew. He was John Lennon’s closest friend (outside the other Beatles) from the time they met at age six until Lennon’s death – 34 years.
As you have likely guessed, John was not an easy friend.
As I mentioned above, Shotton and John Lennon were friends from early childhood. Shotton was also a member of the Quarrymen (he played the washboard, possibly an indication of Lennon’s desire to have him in the band despite Shotton’s lack of musical ability). In an early example of the difficulty of being John’s friend, Lennon smashed Shotton’s washboard over his head after Shotton announced he didn’t like playing in the band.
Shotton’s replacement was a guy named McCartney.
Shotton lost touch with the Beatles during their early years of fame, but he reconnected with old friend John at a point when the overwhelming success and fame of the band had driven him close to madness. He was a steadying influence on John when Lennon desperately needed that. Through John he became friends with George and Ringo. Paul, however, Shotton found a more difficult person:
The one I found hardest to really know was Paul. He was always friendly and charming with strangers, but he played his cards close to his chest. Paul was the one Beatle who posed any challenge to John’s authority in the group. John did see him as a more or less equal….
But John never forgot that the Beatles had started out as his band. Sometimes it irritated him when Paul appeared to imagine otherwise.
As Lennon’s life grew crazier (Shotton tells how he and John took acid together for days on end), Shotton’s role shifted and shifted until he became John’s personal assistant and keeper. It was Shotton who arranged for Yoko Ono to come to John’s house while Cynthia and Julian were away, a decision he came to regret:
‘I couldn’t have been more pleased by Yoko’s arrival. She had a galvanising effect on John. I’d say she was the best thing that had ever happened to him. She wasn’t just the love of his life, she convinced him he was an artist, which he’d always wanted to be. John rediscovered his convictions through Yoko. It brought out the child in him. You could even say Yoko brought John back to life.
‘I sincerely believed that I did my best to make Yoko feel welcome at Kenwood – and I would like to have been able to say she extended the same courtesies to me. But unfortunately her possessiveness and jealousy or insecurity, call it what you will, meant that she couldn’t bear to see John enjoying a close rapport with anyone but herself.’
Over the next few weeks, says Pete, Yoko changed from being a timid little mouse into a tiger. He moved into a house nearby, where Cyn’s mother had lived. His wife and son moved up from Hayling Island to join him. ‘I never took orders from John, so I wasn’t going to take them from Yoko. But she was soon treating me like a servant to order about. That’s when it got hard,’ said Pete.
Eventually the Beatles ended of course, and John and Yoko moved to New York. Pete Shotton visited John there in 1976, and they had a good time together, but Yoko’s jealousy was a problem. Then four years later came John’s murder by Mark David Chapman. In shock, Shotton went to George Harrison’s home to commiserate. Musicians showed up a short time later; George had a recording session. When Shotton asked him why he wasn’t cancelling the session, George replied, “There’s nothing to gain by it, there’s nothing else we can do, we just have to carry on.”
Stunned, Pete Shotton got into his car and drove home thinking about the Beatles and the insanity of that life. Mostly, though, he thought about John: “What a life. What a fucking life. And what an end. What a fucking end.”
That’s what friends do.