On December 18, 2012, almost 300 historic documents will be auctioned by Profiles in History in Calabasas Hills, just outside of Los Angeles. Almost buried amid the piles of letters penned by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Vincent Van Gogh, and Albert Einstein is an eight-page note written in 1971 by John Lennon to Eric Clapton, in which the former Beatle invites the former Cream guitarist to join the singer/songwriter and his wife, Yoko Ono, in the Plastic Ono Band. (To see a pair of John Lennon “to-do” lists posted by one of our Show & Tellers, click here and here.) Clapton had previously joined Lennon and Ono for a single show in Toronto, Canada, portions of which were released as “Live Peace in Toronto 1969.”
“I consider Klaus, Jim, Nicky, Phil, Yoko, and you could make the kind of sound that could bring back the Balls in rock ‘n’ roll.”
The full text of the Lennon letter is below, but highlights include the then-radical notion of allowing wives and girlfriends to join a tour that Lennon suggests could take them to Russia, China, Hungary, and Poland. Lennon also envisioned three to six months of rehearsals aboard a ship that would carry the band, their families, and the requisite film and recording crews to the South Pacific, with stops in New Zealand, Tahiti, and Tonga. Lennon describes this adventure as “‘Easy Rider’ at sea,” but presumably he envisioned a happier ending.
Perhaps the most revealing moment in the letter is the oddly arrogant statement on Lennon’s part that “…I know I can bring out something great–in fact greater in you that [sic] had been so far evident in your music….” When Lennon wrote these words, Clapton was a bona-fide guitar God, having made his reputation with the Yardbirds, John Mayall, Cream, and Blind Faith, not to mention an uncredited appearance on George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” That Clapton might have needed anyone, even John Lennon, to give him musical inspiration seems a bit quaint, but that Lennon was able to speak so freely suggests how close the musicians were to each other.
The Lennon-Clapton Letter
I’ve been meaning to write or call you for a few weeks now. I think maybe writing will give you and yours more time to think.
You must know by now that Yoko and I rate your music and yourself very highly, always have. You also know the kind of music we’ve been making and hope to make. Anyway, the point is, after missing the Bangla-Desh concert, we began to feel more and more like going on the road, but not the way I used to with the Beatles–night after night of torture. We mean to enjoy ourselves, take it easy, and maybe even see some of the places we go to! We have many ‘revolutionary’ ideas for presenting shows that completely involve the audience–not just as ‘Superstars’ up there–blessing the people–but that’s another letter really.
I’ll get more to the point. We’ve asked Klaus, Jim Keltner, Nicky Hopkins–Phil Spector even! To form a ‘nucleus’ group (Plastic Ono Band)–and between us all would decide what–if any–augmentation to the group we’d like–e.g. saxs, vocal group, they all agreed so far–and of course we had YOU!!! In mind as soon as we decided.
In the past when Nicky was working around (Stones, etc.) bringing your girl/woman/wife was frowned on–with us it’s the opposite, Nicky’s missus–will also come with us–on stage if she wants (Yoko has ideas for her!)–or backstage. Our uppermost concern is to have a happy group in body and mind. Nobody will be asked to do anything that they don’t want to, no-one will be held to any contract of any sort–(unless they wanted to, of course!)
Back to music. I’ve/we’ve long admired your music–and always kept an eye open to see what you’ve been up to lately. I really feel I/we can bring out the best in you–(same kind of security, financial or otherwise will help) but the main thing is the music. I consider Klaus, Jim, Nicky, Phil, Yoko, and you could make the kind of sound that could bring back the Balls in rock ‘n’ roll.
Both of us have been thru the same kind of shit/pain that I know you’ve had–and I know we could help each other in that area–but mainly Eric–I know I can bring out something great–in fact greater in you that had been so far evident in your music, I hope to bring out the same kind of greatness in all of us–which I know will happen if/when we get together. I’m not trying to pressure you in any way and would quite understand if you decide against joining us, we would still love and respect you. We’re not asking you for your ‘name,’ I’m sure you know this–it’s your mind we want!
Yoko and I are not interested in earning bread from public appearances, but neither do we expect the rest of the band (who mostly have families) to work for free–they/you must all be happy money wise as well–otherwise what’s the use for them to join us. We don’t ask you/them to ratify everything we believe politically–but we’re certainly interested in “revolutionizing” the world thru music, we’d love to “do” Russia, China, Hungary, Poland, etc.
A friend of our just got back from Moscow, and the kids over there are really hip–they have all the latest sounds on tape from giant radios they have. “Don’t come without your guitar” was the message they sent there are millions of people in the East–who needed to be exposed to our kind of freedom/music. We can change the world–and have a ball at the same time.
We don’t want to work under such pressure we feel dead on stage or have to pep ourselves up to live, maybe we could do 2 shows a week even, tentatively (nothing definite) goes like this:
I know we have to rehearse sometimes or other, I’m sick of going on and jamming every live session. I’ve also always wanted to go across the Pacific from the U.S. thru all those beautiful islands–across to Australia, New Zealand, Japan,–wherever, you know–Tahiti–Tonga–etc, so I came up with this.
How about a kind of “Easy Rider” at sea. I mean we get EMI or some film co., to finance a big ship with 30 people aboard (including crew)–we take 8 track recording equipment with us (mine probably) movie equipment–and we rehearse on the way over–record if we want, play anywhere we fancy–say we film from L.A. to Tahiti, we stop there if we want–maybe have the film developed there–stay a week or as long as we want–collect the film (of course) we’ll probably film wherever we stop (if we want) and edit it on board etc. (Having just finished a movie we made around our albums ‘Imagine’ & ‘Fly’–it’s a beautiful surreal film, very surreal, all music, only about two words spoken in the whole thing! We know we are ready to make a major movie). Anyway it’s just a thought, we’d always stay as near to land as possible, and of course, we’d take doctors etc, in case of any kind of bother. We’d always be able to get to a place where someone could fly off if they’ve had enough. The whole trip could take 3-4-5-6 months, depending how we all felt–all families, children whatever are welcome etc. Please don’t think you have to go alone with the boat trip, to be in the band. I just wanted to let you know everything we’ve been talking about. (I thought we’d really be ready to hit the road after such a healthy restful rehearsal.)
Anyway, there it is, if you want to talk more please call us, or even come over here to N. York. We’re at the St. Regis, here til Nov. 30 at least (753-4500-ext/room 1701) all expenses paid of course! Or write. At least think about it, please don’t be frightened, I understand paranoia, only too well, I think it could only do good for you, to work with people who love and respect you, and that’s from all of us.
Lots of love to you both from, John & Yoko.
This letter seems to be from 1971, not 1969. Lennon mentions his Imagine album (1971) and the Concert for Bangla Desh (also 1971), and invites Clapton to come seen him in New York; Lennon did not leave England for New York until the summer of 1971. -Thanks for the catch, fixed! Ed.
Thanks for publishing this article – and the letter. However, this sentence: “That Clapton might have needed anyone, even John Lennon, to give him musical inspiration seems a bit quaint…” reveals that you don’t fully grasp the hierarchy that existed at the time. Clapton’s notable contributions to blues and rock by that time, compared to the Beatles, only defined him as a mere speck on the musical landscape – and by his own admission, in interviews. It would have been like a mayor of a village being summoned by the king. Pun intended.
Why Lennon didn’t didn’t pick up on Clapton’s overt racism let alone his limited musical ability (which led to some pretty terrible music later on) blows my mind. Lennon himself mocks Enoch Powell in recorded Beatles sessions, yet Claption went to lengths to champion this far-right bigot — and here is Lennon saying “we want your mind” in our band. It really underscores how human and relatively clueless Lennon was.
Don’t miss the arrogance in the assumption that they “can change the world – and have a ball at the same time.” Maybe a common (but ignorant) perception among people who still hadn’t got over colonialism or understood it for what it was. Maybe one can function within an exploitative system and still change the world. But at least a little self-reflection about oneself, ones personal relationships and ones plac win the world pecking order is necessary to even understand what one is doing.
I prefer Dylan’s hands-off approach to changing the world. It is more honest.