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SUNDAY 14 APRIL 2024

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When Wislon spent the night with Yoko Ono

By CHRISTOPHER WILSON, former Hickey editor of the Daily Express


“There's someone called Yoko on the phone for you, Dad,” my eight-year old daughter said, sticking her head round the door. The group of friends we had in for dinner laughed sardonically at this blatant ruse to show I knew somebody interesting.


But indeed it was the woman who broke up the Beatles on the line. We'd become friends – or as near friendship as you can achieve with someone from another universe.


By one of those strokes of luck I was the first journalist to get the interview with Yoko after John Lennon was shot in New York in December 1980. It nearly bankrupted me.


After the murder Yoko went into hiding for three months, holed up in the Dakota building on Central Park, seeing nobody, taking no calls. She'd become drug-dependent, had to be helped in and out of the bath.


Everyone wanted her story. With the single exception of Express editor Arthur Firth.


I went to see Arthur and told him a friend, Dezia Restivo, had long ago become close to Yoko and after several weeks of my pleading was persuaded to ask Yoko to break her silence. One day she called and told me to get on a plane as soon as possible – I'd been given the nod.


Arthur wasn't interested. “Old story,” he said. “Don't bother.”


Despite his undisputed expertise in what makes newspapers interesting I had to disagree, and hastily asking for a few days' leave I headed for Heathrow.


This sounds like standard Fleet Street procedure, but despite the fact we liked to pretend otherwise, the Hickey staff got paid the same as everyone else — we had mortgages, overdrafts, kids in school and the obligatory drawerful of unpaid parking tickets. An on-the-day plane ticket to New York took all the cash I had in the bank, and I wasn't sure how I was going to pay for the hotel bill the other end. All I knew was I had to do it.


After I landed, I hung around the Apple for two expensive days waiting for the call that didn't come. I wondered how I was going to explain to my wife it would take a month of Sundays to pay back the cash that was draining out by the hour on this stupid gamble. I thought, too, of the shame of having to go back to the office and explain to colleagues that it was all a dream.


Finally, though, the great lady agreed to see me, and I met up with her at two in the morning at the Hit Factory on West 48th Street. She sat in the control room supervising the mixing of a track from her 'Season of Glass' album, and I was made to sit in a corner. Despite the fact the lights were dimmed almost to extinction, still she wore her trademark black shades.


She was wearing them two hours later when finally I was led over and introduced: “Mr Wilson, from the London Daily Express.”


The glasses didn't come off but after a quick glance in my direction she said out of the corner of her mouth, “There is no interview.”


At that point a great many WTFs raced through my brain — WTF am I doing here, then? WTF do you think you're playing at, bankrupting me and kicking me in the teeth like this? WTF am I going to say to colleagues in the office when I get back? And my bank manager, he's going to be doing a lot of WTFing as well...


She went back to work on the mixing desk, but eventually started to talk. Slowly, slowly, she told me what I and the entire readership of the Express (sorry, Arthur) wanted to hear — she had been next to her husband, she had seen him gunned down. She had seen his life drain away. It was possibly the most famous assassination of the 20th century (begging your pardons, JFK and Franz Ferdinand).


I was armed with a tape recorder and notebook but discouraged by her demeanour from using either, and desperately I was storing up every last morsel of what she said in my fatigued brain.


It was past dawn when we parted company. I sat on a dustbin in a back alley and scribbled down everything and by lunchtime had it typed up. It ran as a big spread (sorry, Arthur) a few days later and I was allowed to reclaim my expenses. No great words of praise for beating the rest of Fleet Street but then, whenever was there?


Yoko, though, liked the piece so much I got called back to New York and was entertained in the Lennon-Ono apartment high over Central Park. I had supper in the kitchen with the infant Sean Lennon on my knee. On another occasion we went strolling in Greenwich Village and she bought me coffee. And out of that single gamble I got a raft of interviews over the years after I became a freelance. I remain grateful to this day.


This month, Yoko turned 90. She remains the enigma she always aspired to be – shrewd, elusive, an expert media manipulator, one who to a large extent still controls the fortunes of the two remaining Beatles. She is far more remarkable than most journalists give her credit for.


But even I, after those many meetings with her, realise I only ever saw the tip of the iceberg.