From his former lover, a quieter portrait of Lennon during his ‘Lost Weekend’
In Beatles lore, it’s known as John Lennon’s “Lost Weekend” — the 18-month period starting in 1973 where Lennon and Yoko Ono separated, and Lennon lived with May Pang, the couple’s personal assistant and production coordinator.
As legend has it, the Lost Weekend was something of a Lennon Gone Wild period — a debaucherous drug- and alcohol-
fueled year-and-a-half in Los Angeles and New York, during which Lennon partied with Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon, and others before returning to Ono.
“There are a lot of myths about that time, and myths have become truths,” says Pang, 66.
Pang is showing her intimate portraits from that time — including photos of Lennon, his friends, and his son, Julian — in an exhibition now at the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River. She shares the billing with rock photographer Deborah Feingold, whose photos have been featured in Rolling Stone, Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times. Both photographers will answer questions and sell prints at a free artists’ reception Wednesday.
The Globe caught up with Pang — who has also published two books about her time with the Beatle, “Loving John” (1983) and a book of photographs, “Instamatic Karma” (2008) — to learn more about the stories behind her photos.
Q. You started out working as John and Yoko’s personal assistant.
A. Right, I was working for the company that managed Apple Records. We were considered the American side of Apple. John and Yoko had come into New York, and they wanted to make two short films — “Fly,” and “Up Your Legs Forever.” They needed help, and I got called to be part of that gang.
Q. What was your day-to-day like?
A. It was fun. I worked at least 12-hour days. Whether it was working on an album, a single, booking musicians, setting up interviews, sometimes clothes shopping, whatever was needed. When they first moved here, I ended up with a room in the St. Regis Hotel. They were doing the recording of “Happy Xmas,” doing film work. I was always the first one in.
Q. So how did the Lost Weekend start?
A. It was a very strange period for John and Yoko and anybody who was working for them. You could feel the tension between them. One day, Yoko walks into my office and says, “I’ve got to talk to you.” I’m thinking, “I haven’t had my first cup of coffee yet.” She said, “John and I are not getting along.” I said, “I’m so sorry to hear that.” Meanwhile everyone could feel it. She said, “You know, he’s probably going to start seeing other people.” Then I hear, “Oh, you don’t have a boyfriend.” I said, “What? I’m not interested.” She said, “Oh, I know, I know, but I still think you would be good for him.” I said, “I’m not interested.”
One day, we were going to the studio for John’s recording session, and as we were leaving to get to the studio, in the elevator, all of a sudden, John leaned over and gave me a kiss. He said, “I’ve been waiting to do this all day.” I said, “What are you talking about?”
What happened was, he’d liked me. When he started to pursue me, I kept backing off. Finally, he was more insistent than I had anticipated. It’s hard to resist someone after so long [laughs].
Q. You really weren’t interested in him?
A. I didn’t see him as someone who was available. He was a guy I worked for. I know people would say, “Oh sure,” but it’s true. I had a different viewpoint of him. I learned a lot in the studio. That was more where I was coming from.
Q. I was surprised at how lighthearted some of your photos are. People tend to think of him as depressed, drunk, or dark during this period.
A. Everybody likes to exaggerate, to say he was drunk all the time. No, he wasn’t. If he was drunk, how could he make that music? He had his first and only number one single [“Whatever Gets You Through The Night”] and album during that time.
Also, he hadn’t seen his son Julian in three years, and I was able to get him to talk to Cynthia, his first wife, to have closure he never had. There was a lot of loose ends, and that closure was needed.
Q. So what was like to be with John Lennon? He was one of the most famous people in the world at the time.
A. [Laughs] It definitely was different. To think the first boyfriend that you lived with is John Lennon, it’s hard to make that realization to someone. [But] I saw him differently. I’d already worked for him. When I was his girlfriend, the only thing was, people always recognized him. I had to be conscious — “Let’s get out of here” — at certain times. We went to restaurants; people came up to visit us. Paul and Linda [McCartney] were constant visitors at our apartment in New York City.
Q. Do you have pictures of them in the show?
A. No, because it’s not something where I was like, “Oh, let me get a camera!” People were around all the time — [David] Bowie, Elton John, Mick Jagger, Keith Moon. People say, “Oh God, you’re name-dropping.” Well who else comes to your house when you’re John Lennon? These were normal friends to him. McCartney, Jagger, they’d stop in and I’d order pizza or Mick’s favorite beef curry from the local Chinese restaurant. We did normal things.
Q. Do you have any memories of John writing songs?
A. With “Beautiful Boy,” oddly enough, in early 1975. I was watching a Chinese soap opera on cable, and he loved the music in the background. His writing process could take days. He would write a line, put the pencil down and walk away. Pick up a scrap later and say, “Let me see if I can make anything out of it.”
Q. What did he like to do for fun?
A. He loved being out by the water, because it reminded him of Liverpool. Our balcony in New York faced the East River. He loved getting on a boat, swimming, sitting in the sun. There’s a few pictures of him swimming or on a boat in my collection. He loved the simple things; things he grew up on. I used to make him the typical English breakfast of bacon and eggs, beans on toast and black pudding. He loved to watch television; it was the advent of cable TV.
Q. What was his favorite show?
A. Johnny Carson, all the way.
Q. Did you hear from Yoko during this time?
A. Almost every day, all the time, many phone calls a day. We were never out of touch with her. We visited her, she visited us. There’s a myth we never saw each other; that’s not true.
Q. Did you stay in touch with him after the relationship ended?
A. We stayed in touch until he died [in 1980].
Q. What inspired you to finally publish these photos, and do gallery shows and talks like this?
A. Because people think he was constantly drunk, out of his mind [during that time]. I wanted to show our everyday life was not like that. I had access to John like very few people had had. This is my own private collection, and you see John in a different way — through my eyes.
MAY PANG AND DEBORAH FEINGOLD
At the Narrows Center for the Arts, Fall River, Aug. 9 at 6:30 p.m. Free. Their exhibition “Rock ’n’ Roll Through Our Lenses” continues through Sept. 1. 508-324-1926, www.narrowscenter.org