Original publish date: August 18, 2013
If you haven’t noticed, I like trivia. In my lifetime, I’ve watched as trivia has leapt from the pages of obscure library books to become popular board games and highly rated TV game shows. I try hard not to replace or confuse trivia for history, but I think trivia has a place in our history books nonetheless. Sometimes, trivia about a historical person or event helps rationalize or humanize that person, place or thing allowing us to relate to it in a more down-to-earth fashion. So, since I can’t find anything else to write about this week, I’ll share with you a trivial story that I’m betting you’ve never heard of before.
39 years ago this Friday (August 23, 1974) was a typical hot summer night in New York City. Beatle-gone-solo John Lennon was on what he would later call his “Lost Weekend”, an 18-month-long fling with former assistant May Pang during his break-up with Yoko Ono lasting from the summer of 1973 to the winter of 1975. John and May had just returned home to their East 52nd street apartment, after spending the day at the Record Plant East recording studio, where John was in the final stages of his Walls and Bridges album. Lennon loved the location of the 52nd street address as it was only one building away from the East River. The view from his top floor apartment, overlooking Brooklyn’s navy shipyard docks, reminded him of Liverpool. Another draw for Lennon was the fact that reclusive actress Greta Garbo also lived on the block and he counted himself among the legion of her fans who tried daily to catch glimpse of her.
That August night began no differently from any other evening for John and May. John made and received phone calls, watched TV and listened to the day’s recorded studio work while making notes. The 52nd Street apartment was hot that night, but by 8 O’ Clock the air had cooled off enough for May to turn off the air conditioner and open the windows to catch the breeze coming off the river. Just a few feet off the apartment’s living room was the building’s roof, accessible through a side window. This rooftop acted as the couple’s private observation deck, offering a million dollar view of New York’s Eastside. The haze had now cleared over the cityscape and around 8:30 p.m., May decided to take a shower, leaving Lennon alone in the living room reviewing mock-ups of his new record’s cover. The cover art on the final product would be a painting by a 12-year-old John Lennon.
As May was drying off, she heard John yell from the outside roof, “May come here right now!” Startled, she ran out to find him completely nude standing on the roof and pointing wildly at the southeastern sky. May wasn’t surprised by finding John naked on the roof, (John was a closet nudist: if you need proof, Google “Two Virgins” and you’ll understand), what surprised her was what he was pointing at. Just south of the building was a brightly lit “textbook” circular UFO, hovering silently less than 100 feet away from the couple.
As John Lennon would later describe, “I wasn’t surprised to see the UFO really, as it looked just like the spaceships we’ve all seen on the cinema growing up, but then I realized this thing was real and so close, that I could almost touch it!”. As they watched in astonishment, the UFO glided silently out of sight. May later told a reporter, “the lighting on the thing left us awe-struck, as it would change its configuration with every rotation”. According to May, the object made no sound and the main structure of the craft could be clearly seen for the duration of the event; lit by the dying rays of the setting sun. May ran back into the apartment and grabbed her ever-present 35mm camera (Her mountain of photos of John Lennon and their “lost weekend” are legendary).
Once back on the roof both she and John took numerous pictures of the craft. May recalls how John stood screaming at the UFO, arms outstretched, to come back and take him away. She said, “He was very serious and I believe he really wanted that thing to take him with it back to wherever it came from, but then that was John Lennon, always looking for the next big adventure”. The couple watched as the object glided past the United Nations building and slowly veered left, crossing over the East River, then over Brooklyn before simply blending in with the heavy commercial air traffic found over southern Long Island. The couple climbed back into the apartment and John picked up the phone to call his friend, noted rock photographer Bob Gruen. Lennon told Gruen to get over there as soon as possible as he had some film he needed developed immediately. As they waited for Gruen to arrive, John began drawing sketches of what he had seen, noting its size and distance. John then called Yoko Ono at the Dakota apartment to tell her about the UFO. May remembers that Yoko became upset at John because she hadn’t seen it too and felt that he had “left her out of all the excitement”.
Bob Gruen arrived and John excitedly told the photographer what had transpired. Gruen later recalled “I took the film home and put John’s roll between two rolls of film I’d taken earlier that day and developed them”. “My two rolls of film came out perfectly but John’s roll was blank. Later I asked him ” did you call the newspaper?” and he said “I’m not going to call up the newspaper and say, This is John Lennon and I saw a flying saucer last night”… So Bob Gruen called up the local police precinct and asked if anyone had reported a UFO or flying saucer. The police responded with “Where? Up on the East Side? You’re the third call on it”. Then Bob called the Daily News and they said, “On the East Side? Five people reported it”. Finally, Gruen called the ultra-conservative New York Times and asked a reporter if anybody had reported a flying saucer? The reporter hung up on him.
Neither John Lennon nor May Pang would ever forget their UFO experience. John even mentions the encounter in the booklet that accompanied the Walls & Bridges album released in the autumn of 1974. On the bottom right of the back cover it reads “On 23 August 1974, I saw a UFO J.L.”. May Pang has an audio tape of John, recorded just a few weeks after their experience, where Lennon discusses his thoughts on UFO’s in general. Lennon states that he had “no doubt that the craft he saw was from another world” and nixed the idea that it could have been a “secret government test plane”. John Lennon believed the craft he saw was part of a much larger fleet stationed just north of New York City, near the Indian Point nuclear power plant.
In the tape, Lennon expressed his personal theory of how these craft use the earth’s gravitational field and take energy from our nuclear plants to counter the earth’s gravity. John also voiced his opinion and suspicion of a high level conspiracy to cover up verifiable UFO sightings and close encounters with aliens. He continued that “if the masses started to accept UFO’s, it would profoundly affect their attitudes towards life, politics, everything”. He added, “It would threaten the status quo…Whenever people come to realize that there are larger considerations than their own petty little lives, they are ripe to make radical changes on a personal level, which would eventually lead to a political revolution in society as a whole”.Hand drawn, autographed UFO sketch by John Lennon.
However, John Lennon was not a newcomer to the “UFO Phenomenon”. He was a known subscriber to the British UFO journal “Flying Saucer Review”, aka “FSR”, as far back as his years with The Beatles in the late 1960s. Several copies of “FSR” have been found, and subsequently auctioned off, addressed to John Lennon. May Pang reports, “Oh no, 74 wasn’t John’s first sighting… In fact he told me that more than once he suspected he had been “abducted” as a child back in Liverpool!…She continues, “And he felt that experience was responsible for making him feel different from other people for the rest of his life”. Yes, according to May Pang, John Lennon believed he had been “Abducted” by aliens as a lad in Liverpool, but he didn’t like to talk about it.
The more you know about John Lennon, the less you understand. He was a walking contradiction. He was fiercely anti-Capitalism but lorded over nearly every “Beatle” mass marketing scheme during his early days with the Fab Four. He was deeply spiritual, but averse to organized religion. He was an intensely private person, yet readily greeted and signed autographs for fans outside his Dakota apartment. Those last two contradictions contributed to his untimely assassination by a crazed, mentally disturbed fan in December of 1980. Knowing this, can it come as any real surprise that John Lennon believed he had seen a UFO 39 years ago? I suspect not. When dealing with John Lennon, one need only refer to John’s own words, spoken only hours before his death, to San Francisco DJ David Sholin of RKO radio, “Who knows what’s going to happen next?”
A drawing of that 1974 sighting, sketched for his “Walls and Bridges” album, depicts what appears to be a classic flying saucer with the word “UFOer” written on the bottom of the object. On the album’s liner notes, the famed musician wrote: “On the 23rd Aug. 1974 at 9 o’clock I saw a U.F.O. J.L.” Drawing was auctioned on March 21, 2017 by CooperOwen Auctions of London. The album sleeve was originally expected to bring in between $1600 to $2500, but ended up selling for just over $16,600.