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The Beatle and the skin mag



Last modified: Sunday, December 05, 2010
This was the situation. It was November 1980. John Lennon had just come out of a self-imposed, five-year exile, and he had an album coming out. More important, though, for most of those in my household - Beatle fans one and all - Lennon had participated in a long, long interview with Playboy magazine, and he had, for the first time, agreed to tell the stories behind a ton of Beatles songs.

Most of us in the house agreed that we needed that issue of Playboy. No argument. We needed to know the story behind 'Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,' the whole 'Paul is Dead' mystery, the secrets behind Lennon's prolific and perfect songwriting partnership with Paul McCartney.

What we didn't need were oft-repeated speeches about the subjugation of women or the long version of the speech that began, 'I will never have a Playboy magazine in this house,' as presented by my mother on numerous occasions in November and December 1980.

So here were the players: my older brother Michael and I wanted, no, needed, to read that Playboy interview. For various reasons of dysfunction, economic chaos and bad luck, Michael had not lived at home very much while I was growing up. But when he was around, he and my mother had shared with each other and then with me a deep passion for music - it was a uniting force for the three of us. By this time I was in high school and had fully come to appreciate the music I'd been exposed to in my youngest days, and by then, there was a perfect, collective affection for The Beatles.

Mike and I both fully understood Ma's objection - and objection, really, is not nearly strong enough - to having Playboy in the house. Our mother was a proud, card-carrying, 1970s feminist, with a subscription to Ms. magazine and an undying love for Bella Abzug. She felt that skin magazines like Playboy were

exploitative of women and helped reinforce the notion that women should not be taken seriously. And you know what? She was right. But still. This was John Lennon we were talking about.

Then came the horror. Dec. 8, 1980. Lennon was murdered outside his home at the Dakota. I can't quite describe, even now, how much that event affected me, my family, almost everyone I knew. It was, I suppose, my generation's take on the Kennedy assassination. We lived in Staten Island then, and it seemed like everybody in the world was in mutual, connected, mourning. John had felt like a friend, especially if you lived in New York when he did.

And in my house, we now needed that Playboy. It was not just a want. It was a moral imperative. This was John's last in-depth interview.

Ma began to waver - after all, she was a Beatle fan too, and she had had a special fondness for Lennon's puns and related to some of his personal struggles. Finally, she was worn down enough, and Mike went out and bought it. My mother made him promise to bring it home in a brown paper bag and to tell no one what he was carrying. If asked, I believe he was instructed to say he was carrying a copy of Good Housekeeping. As if.

Finally, we had the magazine. And we had rules. We had to take turns and sort of sign out the magazine, as if my mother was a one-woman X-rated periodical library.

She read the interview first and thought it was great. But she was still extremely disturbed about all those naked ladies. So she dug out the x-acto knife. And by the time it was my turn to read the article, it was no longer the whole magazine, but a thick sheaf of pages of Playboy containing the article, except for the last word or so from the last column on every page because, you know, the x-acto knife was dull and the cut not quite perfect. But you could kind of figure out the missing word, mostly, so it was okay.

In the meantime, after surgery, she placed the offending magazine in the trash, where I am certain it was rescued and given a secret, loving home by my brother.

I finally got to read the article, and it was amazing. Still wasn't entirely truthful - John was still insisting that it hadn't occurred to him that 'Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds' would be seen as a reference to LSD. But throughout, John's sense of humor, self-deprecation, profane vibrancy came through loud and clear. You read the interview, and you missed him all the more. It even made you okay with Yoko - you didn't love her, but you understand why he did, and you got over the 'Yoko broke up the Beatles' thing.

But here's the thing. I was the designated good kid in the house, but I was a smart ass. So after I finished reading the article and returned it to my mother as ordered, I couldn't help but point out to her that while she had gotten rid of the offending magazine, we still had all these pages from Playboy. And while one side of all those pages contained the Lennon interview, the other side of many of those pages contained pictures of casual, subjugated, naked ladies: naked lady pouring coffee, naked lady walking along the beach, naked lady tending the fire (this, to me, seemed outright dangerous. But I guessed that naked ladies were well-used to such inherent risks.)

Until I spoke up, my mother had somehow not noticed how the pages of the Lennon interview still left us with a lot of naked, exploited, subjugated women in the house. So she thought it over, and came up with a solution.

The next day, Ma handed me the Lennon interview - now kept in a file folder to block exposed naughty bits - and told me to take it to school with me and photocopy the interview. That way we could keep the interview for handy Beatle reference, but toss away the actual Playboy pages.

I looked at my mother as I, with increasing incredulity, considered her plan. I was to take pages from Playboy to school with me. I was to copy them. In this way, I could, no doubt, violate some school pornography rule as well as violate copyright law. What could go wrong?

With that, Ma surrendered. And for many years, we kept that interview - still in its protective file folder, still with the last word of the last column chopped off inexactly on every page - and used it for occasional Beatle reference. We were an imperfect family. We were a Beatles family. We were family.