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The Abbeyrd Interview With May Pang

By Steve Marinucci

(Note: This interview is copyrighted by Abbeyrd's Beatles Page and may not be reprinted anywhere elsewhere without our permission.)

Thanks to St. Martin's Press for setting up the interview and for May Pang, author of Instamatic Karma: Photographs of John Lennon for taking the time to talk to us.)

Photo by Tyler Gaaee
SM: The book party got such incredible coverage in the media, everybody from the New York Times, even to the New Yorker. That must have felt awfully good to have Cynthia and everybody else there. How did that make you feel?

MP: It was absolutely terrific. It took me by surprise. I wasn't sure if Cynthia was going to make it at the end. She always used to say to me, “I'll be there when your book is released. If you need me for something, I'll be there.” Her husband had had some back problems. And I said traveling with that is not always a great thing. In the end, all of a sudden, a week before, she says, ‘Well, I'm coming. I'm just coming.’ And I was just so elated and over the moon. And she said, “Whatever you need, I'll be there." And she came on a couple of the interviews with me.

SM: I remember seeing some of the coverage ...

MP: She threw the party because she wanted me to have a party like I threw for her in New York for her book. And it was the best time I've had in ages and it was so good to see her. I even got at one point ... they had Julian Lennon's assistant coming over for this party as well.

SM: He didn't show up, as I recall?

MP: No, he didn't show up, but he did send me a message that he was here in spirit with us.

SM: I noticed in the newspaper pictures (that) Joyce DeWitt (of “Three’s Company”) was there. How do you know Joyce?

MP: It's kind of funny. She was working with Richard Barone on some things and just through all the friends and we got to be friends. It's really through all the friends that we've known each other through the last year.

SM: Because John Ritter was a huge Beatle fan.

MP: I was actually a friend of John Ritter's. I left him a message a couple of days before he died. So it really ... his death took me by surprise... I was really torn apart by that one.

SM: In the preface, Larry Kane quoted John as saying John’s time with you was one of the happiest times of his life. In reading through it, the book really bears this out. John usually has this real commanding type ... he really has this commanding, dominating look and he seems so much softer in the book. Do you agree with that?

MP: What you're seeing in those pictures was the John I knew. And so you see him through my eyes. This is how it was for us. It would be different, I guess, with each relationship. I don't know how he was or how people looked at him when he was with Yoko or with Cynthia. Each one is a different person. So what you're seeing is what it was like with me.

SM: I know you probably have to tell this story every time you get interviewed, but just for the record, can you give a brief on how you and John got together?

MP: Well, I worked for John for three years. At that point, both John and Yoko. The relationship between the two of them was hitting a rough patch. And Yoko came into my office to tell me they were thinking of separating and he was going to start seeing other people. And I had no idea why she was telling me because we all knew. Anybody who was working in the house knew. And then the next thing I hear is she said, "Oh, I think John needs to go out with somebody that's nice to him and everything and you'd be good for him. And I just looked at her and said, "Not me. I'm not interested.” (She said) "I know you're not after him, but you need a boyfriend." And I said, "But I'm not interested." So I let that pass because I thought this is one of those crazy moments, and I had hope her idea would pass. I managed to fend it off for a while and no one was saying anything so it was all good. I was thinking the next morning, somebody would come to their senses. The only reason I ended up being with John was because … John ended up pursuing me himself. One day he knew that his lawyer was going to L.A. and he was leaving that evening and he turned around and said, "I think we're going to be coming with you, too." And that's how we went off. So that's how it started. He also wanted us to get away to start a new relationship without any outside influences.

SM: One of the sections in the book that must have been crazy was when they were in the beach house with Keith Moon, Harry, Ringo, John and Paul. What was that like?

MP: Well, I'll tell you who was in the house. It was Ringo. It was Keith Moon. It was Klaus Voormann. It was Hilary Gerrard (sp). And let's see, who did I miss? I just have to think. Did I mention Harry? Ok, so it goes Klaus, Harry, Keith Moon, Ringo, and Hilary Gerrard and ourselves here. John and I had the master bedroom. And it was a crazy time, but the reason that John wanted the house for these people to live in was that we could get to the studio on time. And once the session started, we had visitors during the day because our sessions were at night. And we had the McCartneys as guests over a couple of times. And Mal Evans. And the other musicians that were playing on the album would all drop by. So we had a handful of people all the time. And as crazy as it was, it was a good time because John and I would get up early and take in the sun. Klaus got up early to go swimming, John and I got up early and the others sort of filtered down whenever. That "whenever" could be whenever. It could have been minutes before studio time. It was just any old time. And Keith was a lovely lovely guy. He would be telling us stories and John and I would be looking at each other going, "Wow! These are crazy stories.” Keith would tell us about his famous car stories, one being driven into the pool and one into the lobby of a motel.. It never got that crazy for John, so it was interesting. And for me, even though I was probably one of the youngest ones in the house, I was like, I guess, the den mother in that place, keeping everybody intact and making sure everybody got to the studio on time, made sure there was food on the table. Whatever it was, I was the organizer. But I loved Keith. He was so sweet to me. He was very nice. For me it was great to have Ringo around. For John it was like the old days. It was nice to have a family, in a sense. Everybody was just relaxed. They would play pool, they would play poker or just sitting around. And of course, during the day, we had the Macs coming over with their kids. At that time, it was Mary and Stella.

SM: Well, that kind of leads me to my next question. You talked a lot about Moon. The Baron Von Moon picture. You can't help but notice that picture in the book. And that brings the question to my mind was Keith in character like that 24 hours a day?

MP: I would say he probably was. I used to get nervous if he took too many drugs. He loved his qualuudes cause that just came in. And like being the den mother, I felt I was responsible for everything to go smoothly. I was just watching everybody and I'm saying, "Is everybody OK?" It was quite interesting for me cause it was all happening at once. Keith in that outfit ... if I pulled the camera back a bit more, you would see that he's wearing no trousers, either. So he would come down in his leather coat every morning ... and because the rest of us would be out there ... John and I and maybe Klaus or somebody would be just there sunning themselves ... and he would come down and he was wearing the jacket as you can see, that real long leather coat ... and he was carrying a briefcase. He's got his binoculars. He's got the scarf around the neck. And he's got his ankle boots on, but no trousers. ... It started to be a habit after John acknowledged him one morning. "Ah, the baron's up." He goes, "Baron Von Moon. Good morning." He says, "Good morning, 'morning." He says, "Ah, he's up, he's up." And the next thing we'd know, he'd go back upstairs and we wouldn't see him for a while until he came back down for some food. I know it was just crazy. As quickly as he came down, he left just as fast. It was wild.

SM: You said the Macs were guests at the house. How was the relationship between the two of them at that time?

MP: Oh, it was like nothing happened. Whatever the business problems that they had they did not bring it into the house or had conversations about it. That was left up to their respective lawyers to work out.. They acted like brothers that hadn't seen each other in a while.. Everybody's hanging around. Everybody's talking and in that photo, you see it's just the two of them hanging out in casual conversation. Nothing more than what they were doing musically. and where they were at. And that's how it worked.

SM: What do you recall about that jam session ... the one ...

MP: Yes, I know which one you're talking about .. it was done on the first night of the "Pussycats" session. The session had already finished. The three drummers, Jim Keltner, Ringo and Moonie -- had gone home. And a couple of other people and Klaus. They went home. And John was sitting behind the board to hear the newly laid down track. Harry was there, Jesse Ed and a few other people. And all of a sudden I looked up and I happened to spot (Paul and Linda) walking through the door into the studio. "Oh my God, what are they doing here?" And they were quite surprised the session had finished. And what a lot of people don't know is that when John worked, he was working. He's not looking for anybody to do any recreational anything. He wants to get the job finished. And then if you want to smoke or drink, you can do it afterwards, but not before. So, by the time Paul had come in, everybody was just starting to relax after the session. Paul was going into the studio and said. "Ah, Linda, let's have a jam, whatever." He gets up on the drum kit. And all of a sudden, we have a drummer. We have guitar players, John joined in by that point as well as Jesse Ed Davis and Harry. We had Stevie Wonder walking in from somewhere. Then Linda going behind the Hammond organ. Then Mal Evans and myself ended up on tambourines. But we didn't have a bass player, so somebody from another session had heard we were looking for a bass player just for a jam. He threw his session over for a once in a lifetime jam with John and Paul. But it was not meant to go out to the public. It was meant just for the group there to have fun.

SM: So, from what you were saying, it was Paul who initiated it, not John?

MP: I think they were getting ready. It was like everybody was still in the studio hanging around. You know. Let's talk, let's jam. But Paul went behind the drums. It's like ..

SM: So he kind of made the first move?

MP: I think he was kind of getting there. I know Jesse Ed was already in the studio hanging out. There was always somebody with a guitar in hand just hanging around. (Long pause.) Hard to distinguish.

SM: How did anything get done on the "Pussycats" session with John and Harry?

MP: See that's the thing. It wasn't John going out to get drunk. Harry used to be out there all the time. We stayed home except for an occasion or two that we would go out. On the whole, during the session, Harry would go out and get acupuncture done in the morning and then when the session finished, he'd leave and go out and party when John and I went home. When John was in the middle of something, he didn't really like to go out. He wanted to get the session finished. And at the end, he realized that Harry was losing his voice and didn't tell us and he was hemorrhaging in his throat. And John just said, “Let's just go back to New York. I can't work here. ” And that's why the studio ... the rest of it and the overdubs and the other stuff ended up coming back to New York to be finished.

SM: During Phil Spector's trial, a lot of attention was paid to his looks the way he looked in the courtroom every day. Is there a different Phil than the public saw in court?

MP: No. I think he's the same. He's just as ... I don't even know what to say ... he's just as eccentric or just ... he's just Phil. He's in the studio and one day he's screaming. “All these people coming in and out. I'm gonna swallow the key. Gimme the key. Lock the door. ” What are you gonna do? So the persona .. it's just the same, what you see is what you get.

SM: I was really struck by the "Walls and Bridges" pictures. They're just so much of the way we remember John. Is that the one that hits you hardest?

MP: Absolutely. I spent the most time on it. The photos were taken our home balcony. It reflects on an album that was John's only No. 1 with the No. 1 single in his lifetime. And I got a chance to sing on one of the songs, “Number 9 Dream,” and it's also my voice doing the whispering of his name.

SM: I love that song, too.

MP: Thank you. And John let me have some input into that song. Orchestrally what I was feeling, did I like it? Were there enough instruments going on? It was also the album he wrote a song for me “Surprise Surprise”. To know that this album went to number 1 was amazing. In the end when it hit gold, John gave me a gold record to go with it. Can't beat that.

SM: Another thing that I saw in the book that knocked me out was the "Listen To This" campaign. And I don't recall hearing before that he was the one who came up with that.

MP: Oh yeah.

SM: That was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. What led to him coming up with that?

MP: It was a combination of talking to the people that was doing the stuff at Capitol. And he designed a t-shirt also that went with it which was black with the armband. If you remember seeing the t-shirt. It had the look of his eyes right across his chest. It was very interesting. He worked with the art director there. He loved the idea that it was the “Listen To” campaign. That was always him, you know. Listen to this, listen to that. And they worked off of that. It was great.

SM: I've seen all sorts of items that have been obviously have been put put out by that weren't specifically related to the campaign. Like Listen to This Button.

MP: That was a Capitol thing. Listen to this Button was one. Listen to This Matchbook. I still have some of those matches. You know, now we don't give out matches. In those days, you had a bit of everything. But the T-shirt was great. Listen To This T-Shirt.

SM: I saw the billboard, Listen To This Billboard.

MP: So when you see something like that, it's great. The campaign worked so well. He was on air all the time. He would go out and play DJ to promote the album.

SM: I've heard some of those. They're fun to listen to.

MP: Absolutely. He was doing them all across the country wherever they said, “Do you want to do this? He was very accessible at that point.

SM: The one I remember hearing the most was WNEW.

MP: Dennis Elsas. I knew Dennis and he asked if it was possible to have John on his show. I said, “Yeah, I'll set it up.” So I did. I think it was a Saturday. I knew a lot of DJs beforehand. If they called me, I tried to work it out. He enjoyed it. John enjoyed doing this.

SM: It sounded like he had an awful lot of fun.

MP: And he helped a lot of artists, as well, playing DJ and when a DJ ask him what do you like to listen to, they'd play a song that John would like for the people to hear. Look what happened to “I Can't Stand the Rain” or “I Can Help” by Billy Swan. They were off the charts and they came back because of John’s promoting the song.

SM: The pictures in the book of John signing the Beatles' dissolution papers say an awful lot from looking at his face. At the time, none of them really said a whole lot. Is it safe to say he was a lot sadder about it than he let on publicly?

MP: He probably was, but he looked at it and probably knew that nobody could go on the way it was because nobody was happy the way they were. And they needed to break up so they could all go on to the next level of things. And, you know, he went over it (the contract), spoke with his lawyer. John knowing he started it.… this band. And if you think about it, he ended this band. He's the last signature on this document. That's really what ended up happening. He was the last one because all the others had already signed it the week before..

SM: This is a personal thing, but some of my favorite pictures in the book are the ones from Disneyland.

MP: There's two, right?

SM: Right. MP: I haven't been there in a while. SM: Oh, it has changed so much! It really has. But somebody told me there's a picture – and I was looking for it in the book and I wondered if maybe this story that somebody told me a while back is true or not. There's supposed to be a picture of him mugging around the cigar store Indian on Disneyland's Main Street?

MP: There's a possibility you might have seen him and someone had taken a photograph of him, but it's not in mine. There's always a possibility because we had gone to both places. And if people saw him, they would always ask if they can take a picture with him. He was very obliging back then. And taking Julian around was great. He always hoped for people not to notice because it would be a little more difficult to get around. And as you can tell by that one photo I took of him in the book from the back, nobody was noticing (him). They were trying to get to the next ride.

SM: You saw a lot of Julian in those years. He's made statements that have not been all that positive about John. How does that ... is that accurate? Things were different when Julian was younger, correct?

MP: What has happened to him later on was something that I had no control over. I wasn't part of that thing. But Julian enjoyed being around us a lot. And in fact, Julian sent me a note just saying (the book) brought back mostly good memories for him. Unfortunately, I wish there could have been a lot more good memories for him. But I was just fortunate enough to give him something. And I think it is great that he could see it now… to look at it and have it bring back a flood of good memories for him.

SM: I couldn't help but notice in the dedication the one to Yoko for “giving all of us a hole in the sky.”

MP: Which is one of her things.

SM: Right.

MP: I knew you were gonna ask if I heard anything from her. I can anticipate that one. No. Not at all.

SM: I did a couple of interviews with her. In the first one, she opened up a little bit. She talked about getting on the internet and going to the Yoko Ono sites. She was quite relaxed in this interview. It was really kind of interesting that she actually said that to me.

MP: Well, I can understand why she'd want to go on the Internet and if John were alive today, he' d be all over the Internet.

SM: She said that too, actually.

MP: He loved the idea of being ahead of the game, everything being easy and at your fingertips. That was always John. When you look at the picture on the front cover of “Instamatic Karma,” he's got a Polaroid SX-70. When it was first introduced, they test-marketed it down in Florida. And once he found out it was being sold there, he sent somebody down there to pick one up for him. When Sony finally put out a cassette… how old does that sound?? It was a cassette recorder. And it was new technology then to have this player with a recorder. Not just a playback machine, but an actual recorder. He thought it was the most terrific thing ever made. So he gave one to some of his musicians friends for Christmas in '73.

SM: He was a high-tech guy.

MP: He was a definite high tech guy. It's just something that he liked. He definitely is one that would have been a techie.

SM: It sounds like you've kind of mellowed towards Yoko a little bit because I know in the past you've been very critical of her.

MP: I don't think I've been critical of her. I think what I've stated has always been the facts.

SM: Your feelings haven't changed?

MP: She has her life and I have mine. But if you're gonna ask me for facts, then I'll give you the facts. It doesn't have to come along with anything else. But the book is not about her But I did a year and a half ago see her in, of all places, Reykjavik. In fact, I was the one who got up and went over to say hello to her. It was a year before the peace tower (in October, 2006). We happened to stay in the same hotel. How does fate play that one in, right? And it was on John's birthday. I said hello to her and I said, “I wish you a lot of luck,” and she said, “Fine,” and I just said “Thank you,” and I walked away.” And then it was only later that she came back again a couple of minutes later and started waving to me and said, “Hi, how are you?” A little strange, but after that I said, “I'm fine, thank you,” I then continued to have my breakfast, because I was getting ready to leave town. She didn't know what I was there for because it had nothing to do with what she was doing.

SM: And finally, did you hear about Neil? (Note: News had hit the wires a few hours earlier that Neil Aspinall had passed away.)

MP: Oh, God. I just felt so sad that he passed away. When I saw him last, we were sitting in London. He took me out to lunch.

SM: When was this?

MP: 2006? I'm trying to remember when I was in London. It was either 2005 or 2006. And he took me out to lunch to see what was happening and how I was doing. He was telling me about his wife, whom I'm very fond of ... Suzy. And I hadn't seen him since the “Concert For George” before that.

SM: You were there for that?

MP: And I went to Olivia's house the night before the concert. she had a Thanksgiving dinner for all the musicians that were playing in the concert….. a Traditional American Thanksgiving.. It was nice to see everyone.

SM: I think that's it. I really appreciate you talking to me. If there's anything I can do, please let me know. MP: Please let everyone know that they can find more info about Instamatic Karma and book signings from my website WWW.MAYPANG.COM. I'm also designing Feng Shui jewelry.

SM: Let's talk about that. You're designing jewelry.

MP: I'm doing that along with the furniture. Feng Shui is a way of living and to bring in good chi (energy.) I grew up with that all my life. And also I'm doing some gallery showings. I'm going to have nine prints this year that I'm going to sell from my collection. Fine art type prints from the book.. Everything's on the website…..www.maypang.com

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