The friendship between John Lennon and Elton John is one of the greats of rock and roll. In the 1970s, right in the middle of Lennon’s epic mid-life crisis, Elton turned up, played and sang on Lennon’s first number one single as a solo artist. He also persuaded him to perform live again with him at Madison Square Garden and reunited him with Yoko Ono. If that’s not true friendship, who knows what is.
Lennon called this infamous period his “lost weekend” but it was actually a little more than 18 months – from spring 1973 to November 1974 — of drinking, debauchery, and spurts of creativity that resulted in three new solo albums.
The former Beatle’s mid-life crisis began the way most midlife crises do. In the summer of 1973, with his marriage to Yoko in some difficulty, the then 32- year-old Lennon went out for a pack of cigarettes and just didn’t come back. Lennon had decamped for Los Angeles along with his assistant and girlfriend May Pang. For the next year and a half, bewildered fans were treated to a series of headline-grabbing news of drunken escapades featuring Lennon and an entourage that included Pang and singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson among others.
The most legendary incidents were two infamous nights at Los Angeles’ legendary Troubadour nightclub. According to reports at the time, the first time Lennon showed up, he was wearing a sanitary napkin on his head, ordered round after round of drinks on his record label’s tab, and left without leaving a tip. (When the seen-it-all waitress in the VIP section asked about her tip, Lennon snapped “Don’t you know who I am?” “Sure,” she responded, “You’re a jerk with a Kotex on your head.”) On another visit to the Troubadour, Lennon and his entourage shouted obscenities at the Smothers Brothers comedy team performing on stage. After throwing punches and drinks at the Brothers’ manager, a waitress, a female patron taking a photo, and knocking over several tables, Lennon and company were forcibly ejected from the club. It wasn’t really the best look for the former Beatle and composer of songs such as “Imagine,” “All You Need is Love” and “Give Peace a Chance.”
Drink and debauchery stole the headlines, but there was some music, too. In a 2008 interview with the New York Times, Pang reminded readers and fans that this was also a productive time musically. Lennon recorded three of his best-known solo albums, Mind Games, Rock n’ Roll with Phil Spector and Walls and Bridges. (Lennon’s work with Spector was also fueled by alcohol and wild antics, including Specter arriving at the studio one night with a loaded gun which he proceeded to fire into the ceiling.) However, It was during the recording of Walls and Bridges that Lennon and rock superstar Elton John performed together and formed a lasting friendship.
Elton came to the studio while Lennon was recording “Whatever Gets You Through the Night.” and joined in on piano and vocals. “I was fiddling about one night, and Elton John walked in with Tony King of Apple — you know, we’re all good friends — and the next minute Elton said, ‘Say, can I put a bit of piano on that?’ Lennon said at the time. “I said, ‘Sure, love it!’ He zapped in. I was amazed at his ability: I knew him, but I’d never seen him play … And then he sang with me. We had a great time.”
Elton was so sure the song was a hit that he bet Lennon that if it went to number one, Lennon would have to join him on stage at Madison Square Garden in the fall. “I sort of half-heartedly promised if [the song] became number one, which I had no reason to expect, I’d do Madison Square Garden with him, Lennon recalled in 1980. “So one day Elton called and said, ‘Remember when you promised…’ It wasn’t like I promised some agent or something, so I was suddenly stuck.”
Lennon came on stage midway through Elton’s Thanksgiving Day concert on November 28, 1974. Elton introduced him by saying he wanted to make things a bit more special by bringing a guest to the stage. “It’s my great privilege and it’s your great privilege for me to introduce Mr. John Lennon!” Lennon bounded onto the stage and the pair launched into the number one hit single, followed by “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (which Elton had recently covered) and the early Beatles favorite “I Saw Her Standing There,” that Lennon reminded the crowd was originally sung by “an old estranged fiancee of mine – called Paul.”
After the show, Elton had a surprise waiting for Lennon backstage. Elton had arranged for Yoko Ono to be in the audience that night and she and Lennon saw each other for the first time in the more than 18 months since Lennon had left. He later told a reporter, “She was backstage afterward, and there was just that moment when we saw each other and like, it’s like in the movies, you know, when time stands still?” The couple reconciled and in October 1975, their son Sean was born. They asked Elton to be his godfather.
Lennon’s appearance with Elton John was his last ever live performance. After Lennon’s assassination in December 1980, Elton and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin wrote one of the most moving musical tributes to Lennon, “Empty Garden, (Hey Hey Johnny).” In the summer of 1982, Elton returned to play Madison Square Garden, and as he played the song, the crowd of about 20,000 fans lit candles and held up matches and lighters in Lennon’s memory. Just before the song ended, a petite woman and a little boy walked on stage and the crowd eventually realized it was Yoko and six-year-old Sean. She hugged Elton and thanked the crowd. “I really feel you are all my family.” It was — and still is — a moving tribute to a brief but valuable friendship.
Photo of Elton John and John Lennon, Madison Square Garden, 1974.