For millions around the world, December 8, 1980 has became synonymous with the murder of John Lennon in New York City. But unlike those millions, one person's story of that tragic day is both distinctive and culturally important. Laurie Kaye had sat down with Lennon and Yoko Ono in the street-level offices at their residence at the Dakota that very morning to talk about Double Fantasy, their first musical offering since 1975.
Kaye was in her early 20s and already a seasoned professional in the world of radio journalism. Yet her joy at literally sitting next to Lennon on a loveseat and connecting over shared interests is laced with both hope and heartbreak. With the publication of Confessions of a Rock 'N' Roll Name Dropper: My Life Leading Up To John Lennon's Last Interview, Kaye not only captures that precious conversation, but she also gives a no-holds barred reading of her struggles, her gutsy, take-charge nature when it came to a career in the music industry and all of the life-changing events that led to that fateful day.
Have you been thinking about doing this book for a long time?
Absolutely. I actually told John Lennon that I was going to write a book, and he was excited at the idea of having me send it to him and autograph it for me. But the thing is that I never did, because the tragedy just gave me so much guilt and so much horror, that there was no way I could sit down and write anything other than the final special which was called John Lennon: The Man, The Memory. It aired on RKO stations and stations all over the world six days after he was shot and killed. After that, I couldn't. I was just carrying things too heavy in my head. It was just too tragic.
For decades after that, I was working so much. Getting into TV production and interviews for music video magazines, writing for TV shows. So no, I couldn't write basically until Covid hit, because suddenly there was no more TV production in 2020. And I thought, well, this must mean it's time. It's been 40 years. I can write now. It was incredibly hard not just getting all the memories together, but just dealing with all the guilt I still felt. I knew that I had to write the book.
You weren't supposed to be there, correct me if I'm wrong.
I was working for Drake-Chenault, a syndication company. I had left RKO as an on-air newscaster for a couple of reasons. I wasn't happy with the production director who had taken over. I was offered a job for more money by Drake-Chenault than I was making at KFRC-AM in San Francisco. I was going to produce and write a 48-hour special for Satcon, which was basically a phony live concert. I had trouble with the concept, but I still thought I could do it better than anybody else and I took the job, moved back to L.A., hired a couple of great people to be on my team with me and it turned out really well. While I was there I did have it in my contract that I was allowed to do freelance work for RKO still and do specials. And then, when Dave Sholan called and said, "You know, how about we go to New York and talk to John Lennon to do his first major U.S. radio interview after the release of Double Fantasy?" I said, of course, but I didn't tell the company I was working for. I told them I was going to New York for a family issue, and you know I figured they'd never know.
Except, of course, when John was killed and I was doing a lot of interviews, including one the next morning on the Today show on NBC, the executives at Drake-Chenault saw me and immediately realized that I was being advertised as an RKO employee, which pissed them off, and they ended up suing me, taking me to court.
It worked out in the long run, because I won. But it was still a horrifying experience in addition to what I had been there for. I was still in New York when John was killed. The rest of my team was not. They had all flown back, and I was staying an extra night, and I found out that John had been shot. I immediately went to Roosevelt Hospital and looked through the front door, which was glass, and saw Yoko, just sobbing hysterically. I wanted to go in and talk to her, but I realized she was just so horrified that it was more than John being shot. I thought, "Oh, my God, he's dead!" And sadly I was right.
I can hear the emotion in your voice, because obviously there's very few people on this planet who were there that day to speak to him at length.
There were only the four of us in with John and Yoko. Annie Leibovitz from Rolling Stone had been there that morning. And then there were some people outside taking pictures and hanging out.
And afterwards, John and Yoko didn't take their own car, so they went with Dave, Bert and Ron to The Record Plant.
There was something wrong with their car or their driver. So Yoko asked if we could give them a ride in our limo, as the guys had to go to catch their flight. And I was staying overnight, like I said in New York. We all walked out and hugged them and said goodbye. We made plans to all get together in San Francisco in the next couple of weeks. And it felt as though I'd made lifelong friends.
In your book, you mentioned you purchased a little wind-up toy before you came. You wanted to give it to Sean, and it sounded like John thought that was the greatest thing since sliced bread. And that you brought [Yoko's book] Grapefruit with you.
They both almost jumped up and down when I said, 'Look what I have!' And took out my copy of Grapefruit. I bought at my favorite bookstore in Berkeley as a student several years before. John and Yoko hadn't even seen a vintage copy in years, and they were so thrilled that I brought it. John looked at me and said, "Can I autograph it?" So they both autographed it, and it's the most treasured possession I have.
I had gone to Chinatown to get a toy that I thought Sean would love, even if I wasn't going to meet Sean. I thought I'll give it to John and Yoko to give to him. John and Yoko both looked at it and acted like, "We may keep it for ourselves." They turned it on and let it just romp up and down their long coffee table.
My impression was that you were like this breath of fresh air.
You know, I started at KFRC, writing specials and doing interviews when I had just turned 21. And so it was amazing for me to not just interview Paul McCartney the year before when I was 24, but then John Lennon a year later. I had so much to talk about with them, because as a kid, I'd seen the Beatles perform, and I'd been a fan of the Beatles. It was incredible.
With regards to your John interview, you spoke to Yoko first for a while. And so that shows a little bit more of a connection. She could come off kind of hard to the general public if they hadn't heard from her.
Well, some people had problems with Yoko. They kept blaming her for the Beatles break up, which is not true at all. The reason that I got to talk to Yoko was they had finished with Annie Leibowitz doing photos upstairs. But Annie wanted to take photos of just John. By the time he came down, we'd already been with Yoko on our own for almost half an hour and it was great, because I got to relate to her and ask her woman-to-woman questions. She had so much incredible stuff to say about Double Fantasy being helpful in getting men and women to have a dialogue and improve their relationships over the years, from the '70s into the '80s. They wanted to turn the '80s into a great decade for relationships, which the '70s hadn't been, because that's when she and John split up, and, spent 18 months apart. So now they've been together for five years, had a wonderful son, and a great relationship. They wanted to share that.
It's hard not to focus on the tragedy of John. But you have a spectacular back story. It's so multi-faceted — how would you describe it?
Well, I was raised by a dysfunctional family. Problems not just with mother and grandparents, but my mother's second husband, as I call him, the disgusting stepfather, was a huge issue. The fact that, much like John Lennon, I never was raised by my real father. I never even met mine and only talked to him once, maybe twice, on the phone, in my entire life. And he's not around anymore. It was an upbringing that was very, very difficult and turned me into a teenage runaway. And also someone who appreciated my friends and their families a lot, because they were very important to me in a lot of ways. Some even more important than my own.
But a lot of that reflected on what you were seeking. There was no supportive framework. So how did you find that?
I had a transistor when I was very young, and I would lay there in bed all night with the earphones connected, listening to music, and that's what helped me grow up. It just played such an important part of my life and was responsible for making things work out for me, that it was almost no surprise that that ended up being my career.
I loved AM radio. Of course, seeing the Beatles play at Dodger's Stadium back in 1966 for somebody's birthday. Her mother got tickets for a few of us and took us, and it wasn't a great concert, technically, because you could barely hear the music because everybody was screaming and standing up and jumping, but I got to do that, too.
Another one of my favorite stories is how you entered a dance contest and met Chubby Checker.
Well, I had been a teenage runaway for a few months at that point, and when I was going to where I was living, I lied about my age, and even though I was only 17, I ended up getting a place at UCLA in their co-op apartments. I met somebody when I was coming home from my daytime job one day after graduating high school, and the guy said to me, 'Wow, you look great. You look like a dancer. I need somebody to dance with me because I'm gonna be part of a dance contest.' And I said, 'Okay, sure, why not?' And it was for Dick Clark. So I went with this guy Dana and he told me that he was an actor and that his agent had rigged it so whoever he was dancing with would win. I was kind of disappointed, but I still thought we danced great, and sure enough, Dick Clark and Chubby Checker came up afterward and named us the winners. Years later, when I ended up working for Dick Clark, I introduced myself. He said, 'You look really familiar.' And I said, 'Well, yeah, I was part of your dance contest.' And he went, 'Wait a minute.' He turned around, went over to his file cabinet, came back and he had the picture. He said, 'There we are!'
How long did you work for him?
A couple of years. I left to go to New York to write a TV show. But for Dick, I was writing his weekly radio show and his weekly syndicated newspaper column. I ghost-wrote for him, which was incredible, even though my name, of course, wasn't on it.
I wrote a show for the USA Network called TV 2000 for a short time. It was a show that ranked the top videos of the week.
How did that go over?
Ever since the John Lennon tragedy, I just didn't think that I wanted to be in radio anymore. It was all right, you know it was fine.
John's death seems to have affected people almost nearly the same. Those who were with him in that year, or the last couple of weeks, feel that they wished that they could have done something different.
I still feel guilt. It's sitting on my shoulders very heavy even up to this day, and a lot of it has to do with the confrontation with the a--hole who ended up killing him; who confronted us when we left the Dakota. And then, when the guys took John and Yoko to the recording studio, I just felt afterward when I found out unsurprisingly that it was him that ended up killing John, had I gone to the security department at the Dakota and complained about this guy. You need to get rid of him. He's bothering people that maybe they could have gotten rid of him, and John wouldn't have been shot, or maybe they would have called the police, or maybe they would have looked at him and realized what he had in his coat pocket was a gun.
Before the interview, Yoko was working with her astrologer, and she had, or the astrologer had, somebody call us to get our birthdates. That sort of information about me, Dave Sholan, Ron Hummel, and Bert Keane — they were going to use that to figure out what would be the best day to book the interview. So I blamed myself for being born on the day I was born and the year I was born, and the time I was born, because I kept thinking if I'd been born on a different day, if it wasn't me, then maybe the date would have been booked differently.
When did you reach a point where you felt more comfortable talking about this?
It took me several years to even want to talk to people about it. It just was too hard on me.
Your book is so truthful and the people that you've spoken to, in the lives that you've touched, the path that you led. I mean, it sounds like you wouldn't change anything.
A lot of people would probably say that I made some bad decisions. Looking back, I've done things for a reason, and it worked out as it's supposed to.