The rock legend used many legal and illegal substances, producing music, mischief and myths under the influence.
By Ed Murrieta
John Lennon, the smart Beatle, had a head for drugs.
Speed from a hacked Vick’s inhaler in Liverpool. Slimming pills pushed by waiters in Hamburg. Pot thanks to Dylan. Acid from a London dentist. Heroin with Yoko to everyone’s decline. Booze with Harry Nilsson. Chinese herbs to have a baby. Cocaine that allegedly ruined his nose by his last album. Even magic mushrooms and peyote occasionally until the end.
Lennon was murdered 40 years ago on Dec. 8, 1980. Had he lived to today, he’d be 80 years old. You’d hope he’d have his own legal cannabis brand by now.
Here’s a history of Lennon’s drug use and the music, mischief and myths produced.
1960–1962: Speed and Booze
While in art school and leading the Liverpool rock ’n’ roll band that would become the Beatles and downing beer, Lennon chewed speedy spitballs — wadded-up cardboard strips from inside over-the-counter Vick’s inhalers, which contained the amphetamine Benzedrine, a central nervous system stimulant commonly known as Bennies. “Everybody thought, ‘Wow! What’s this?’ and talked their mouths off for a night,” Lennon recalled.
In Hamburg, waiters in all-night clubs served Preludin, the German slimming pills called “Prellies,” giving Lennon the energy to play marathon sets and carry on with groupies. “You’d take the pill, you’d be talking, you’d sober up, you could work almost endlessly,” Lennon said, “until the pill wore off, then you’d have to have another.” Prellies cause dry mouth, which Lennon cured with beer.
1963–1964: More Uppers
As Beatlemania’s fame, tours, recording sessions, money and marital infidelities intensified, dexies, black bombers, purple hearts and other amphetamines supplanted spitballs and Prellies.
Uppers bolstered Lennon’s toxic macho bravado, punctuated his pugnacious pose in press conferences, propped his bent-knee, heel-rocking, jaw-jutting guitar stance in live concerts and on The Ed Sullivan and energized electrified rhythms and insecurities that defined early rock ’n’ roll.
Lennon said the Beatles’ first movie, “A Hard Day’s Night” in 1964, was the band’s amphetamines movie, hinted at by a scene in which Lennon mock-snorts a soda, aka Coke, bottle.
“I was the one that carried all the pills on tour,” Lennon said. “Well, in the early days. Later on the roadies did it. We just kept them in our pockets loose. In case of trouble.”
1964–1965: Pot and Acid
Stories about the Beatles and cannabis waft back to the Fab Four’s first trip to Hamburg in 1960. But the one that stuck is that Bob Dylan turned the moptops into potheads.
Introduced by a mutual friend, Dylan introduced the Beatles to weed on Aug. 28, 1964. When the enigmatic folk singer passed him a joint, Lennon hesitated and passed it to Beatles drummer Ringo Starr for inspection. Ringo approved, John partook and the pill-popping pop stars were pot-smoking stoners.
By February 1965, when the Beatles arrived in the Bahamas to shoot their second rock ’n’ roll movie farce, “Help!,” Lennon told a reporter the Beatles had smoked pot on the plane ride from London. The reporter ignored Lennon but there was no ignoring glazed eyes and forgotten lines.
“The Beatles had gone beyond comprehension,” Lennon said. “We were smoking marijuana for breakfast. We were well into marijuana and nobody could communicate with us, because we were just glazed eyes, giggling all the time.”
Then a dentist turned him on to acid at a dinner party punctuated by LSD-laced sugar cubes in coffee, followed by clubbing in London.
“When we entered the club, we thought it was on fire,” Lennon recalled. “And then we thought it was a premiere, but it was just an ordinary light outside. We thought, ‘Shit, what’s going on here?’ And we were cackling in the street, and then people were shouting, ‘Let’s break a window.’ We were just insane. We were just out of our heads. We finally got in the lift and we all thought there was a fire in the lift. It was just a little red light, and we were all screaming — it was hysterical. We all arrived on the floor, ’cause this was a discotheque that was up a building. The lift stops and the door opens and we’re all going ‘Aaahhhh,’ and we just see that it’s the club, and then we walk in, sit down, and the table’s elongating. I think we went to eat before that, where the table went this long, just like I’d read somebody — who is it, Blake, is it? — somebody describing the effects of the opium in the old days. And I thought, ‘Fuck, it’s happening.’ And then we went to the Ad Lib and all that. And then some singer came up to me and said, ‘Can I sit next to you?’ And I was going, ‘Only if you don’t talk,’ ’cause I just couldn’t think.”
Lennon’s second famous acid trip occurred on Aug. 24, 1965 at a party in Los Angeles, where he met actor Peter Fonda, who told the story of shooting himself and knowing what it’s like to be dead.
Pot had already propelled Lennon’s songwriting to introspective, mesmeric heights of “In My Life,” “Nowhere Man,” “Girl” and “Norwegian Wood” on “Rubber Soul,” the Beatles’ 1965 release that Lennon called the band’s pot album.
The Beatles’ acid album was still to come but the band’s first acid song, “Day Tripper,” was released as the B-side of a single in December 1965.
“Day trippers are people who go on a day trip, right? Usually on a ferryboat or something,” Lennon said. “But [the song] was kind of … ‘you’re just a weekend hippie.’ Get it?”
1966: More Pot and Acid
The Beatles’ first acid album was 1966’s “Revolver.”
Fonda’s 1965 acid-trip line about knowing what it’s like to be dead inspired one of Lennon’s trippiest songs, “She Said She Said.”
“He was describing an acid trip he’d been on,” Lennon said. “We didn’t want to hear about that! We were on an acid trip and the sun was shining and the girls were dancing and the whole thing was beautiful and Sixties, and this guy — who I really didn’t know; he hadn’t made ‘Easy Rider’ or anything — kept coming over, wearing shades, saying, ‘I know what it’s like to be dead,’ and we kept leaving him because he was so boring! … Don’t tell me about it! I don’t want to know what it’s like to be dead!”
“Revolver” also features Lennon’s LSD elegy, “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
“Rain” was recorded for “Revolver” but was released on a single. It was more of a pot song than an acid-album song.
“That one was the gift of God — of Jah, actually, the god of marijuana,” Lennon said. “Jah gave me that one. The first backwards tape on my record anywhere. Before Hendrix, before The Who, before any fucker.”
1967: Pot But Less Acid
Two months after the Beatles released their most visually and sonically acid-influenced album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Clubs Band,” in June 1967 — on which Lennon cooed, “I’d love to turn you on” in the coda, “A Day in the Life” — Lennon and the lads renounced LSD in favor of TM, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation system.
“I got a message on acid that you should destroy your ego, and I did,” Lennon recalled. “I was reading that stupid book of Leary’s and all that shit. We were going through a whole game that everybody went through. … And then I destroyed me ego and I didn’t believe I could do anything.”
Lennon insisted his “Sgt. Pepper” song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” did not spell out LSD, but the British Broadcasting Corporation disagreed and banned it from the radio, along with “A Day in the Life” for “I’d love to turn you on.”
The Beatles were not done with pot. A month after “Sgt. Pepper” was released, the Beatles, along with members of British society and Parliament, signed their names to a full-page Sunday Times newspaper advertisement advocating for cannabis legalization in England.
Later in 1967, the BBC banned Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus” — not for the mistakenly heard chant of “got one” as “smoke pot” (which Lennon said he liked better than his lyric) but because of the visually provocative lyric, “Boy, you’ve been a naughty girl, you let your knickers down.”
1968–1969: Heroin and Hash(?)
As the Sixties grew darker, Lennon embraced the darkest of drugs: heroin. From his first sniff of smack during “White Album” recording sessions in mid-1968 through his peak addiction during “Let It Be” album and movie production in late-1969, heroin took hold of Lennon’s life and music.
Lennon hinted at heroin on the languid, rootsy-blues “White Album,” singing, “I need a fix ’cause I’m going down” in the song “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” and droning desperately about wanting to die in heroin-heavy “Yer Blues.”
Lennon recorded his most explicit heroin song, “Cold Turkey,” in September 1969. Without naming the drug, Lennon detailed an excruciating withdrawal from heroin.
“Thirty-six hours / Rolling in pain / Praying to someone/ Free me again / Oh, I’ll be a good boy / Please make me well / I promise you anything / Get me out of this hell …”
A day after writing “Cold Turkey,” Lennon debuted the song for Bob Dylan, his old pot pal and fellow junkie.
“We were both in shades and both on fucking junk,” Lennon recalled.
While the song would be banned by the BBC, Lennon’s bandmate Paul McCartney stung Lennon the hardest, refusing to release “Cold Turkey” as a Beatles’ song. It was released on a single under the name Plastic Ono Band.
The cure of “Cold Turkey” didn’t take. Lennon performed “Cold Turkey” under heroin’s grip at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival festival.
“We were full of junk too,” Lennon recalled. “I just threw up for hours till I went on. … And I was throwing up nearly in the number. I could hardly sing any of them, I was full of shit.”
Lennon blamed his heroin use, erratic behavior and creative withdrawal from the Beatles on snubs against him and his wife, Yoko Ono, by McCartney and others within the Beatles’ orbit.
“I’ve had so much shit thrown at me and especially at Yoko,” Lennon said. “People like Peter Brown in our office, he comes down and shakes my hand and doesn’t even say hello to her. Now that’s going on all the time. And we get in so much pain that we have to do something about it. And that’s what happened to us. We took H because of what the Beatles and their pals were doing to us.”
While heroin dominated Lennon’s life during this period, hashish put Lennon on front pages and the evening news in October 1968 when he and Yoko were arrested on possession charges. Lennon maintained he was entrapped by Scotland Yard Detective Sergeant Norman Pilcher, a notoriously anti-drug zealot who eventually disgraced himself in a drugs-planting scandal.
To avoid jail and absolve Yoko, Lennon pleaded guilty to hash possession, an agreement that would complicate his immigration application in the United States in a few years.
Lennon’s highly publicized March 1969 bed-in with Yoko promoted peace and love but Lennon wasn’t finished preaching about pot. In December 1969, Lennon testified for nearly 2 hours on behalf of legalization before Canada’s Royal (LeDain) Commission on Cannabis & Non-Medicinal Drugs.
“We had an answer to Britain’s problem,” Lennon said. “It was to legalize pot and let homosexuals marry and Britain would be the richest nation on earth. It’s as simple as that.”
Lennon’s drug-use and legend-making continued into a new decade.
After returning his Member of the British Empire medal, which he was awarded by the Queen of England in 1965 along with the other Beatles, to protest Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra war Lennon claimed in 1970 that he and his bandmates had smoked pot at Buckingham Palace before the Beatles’ investiture. George Harrison, the nominally quiet Beatle, spoke up and said the Beatles had smoked tobacco in the toilet.
Lennon’s pot politics continued in December 1971 when he and Yoko hosted a concert to free John Sinclair, the Michigan radical who’d been sentenced to 10 years in prison for possessing two joints. The event precipitated Sinclair’s release. Lennon memorialized Sinclair’s pot plight in the song “John Sinclair,” on Lennon’s most political album, 1972’s “Some Time in New York City.”
There’s another storied Lennon ganga gem from 1970: Footage filmed by Yoko’s ex-husband reportedly shows Lennon smoking pot (a rarity for the image-conscious superstar), composing “Mind Games” and “Remember,” discussing his drug use and musing on a plan to put LSD in Richard Nixon’s tea. (The footage was allegedly stolen and its ownership has been litigated into this century.)
Musically this period was Lennon’s peak. He wrote, recorded and released his two strongest solo albums in 1970 and 1971. “John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band” featured raw emotions of “Mother” and the orchestral spirituality of “God.” “Imagine” stands as Lennon’s most introspective song and album.
Lennon’s pro-drugs songs and stance spooked President Nixon. Fearing Lennon influenced young voters who already had reasons to hate Nixon, Nixon initiated Lennon’s deportation to England. The U.S. government presented his guilty plea to hash possession — which Lennon agreed to to assist Yoko and settle the case — as a basis for denying his application to live in America.
1973–1974: Everything Plus Booze
Cast out of his marriage by Yoko (who also fixed him up with a connubial stand-in), Lennon moved from New York to Los Angeles and re-kindled an affair with his oldest drug love: alcohol.
“I was just insane,” Lennon recalled. “I’ve never drunk so much in my life, and I’ve been drinking since I was 15. … I made a big fool of myself.”
Lennon’s foolishness is known as his “Lost Weekend,” an 18-month period in which he drank and partied with infamous rock ’n’ roll boozers Keith Moon, Ringo Starr and Harry Nilsson.
Lennon’s most notorious foolishness happened in 1974 when he and Nilsson put feminine napkins on their foreheads and heckled the Smothers Brothers during their comedy act at L.A.’s Troubadour Club before being thrown out onto the street — booze-fueled behavior reminiscent of his days in Liverpool art school and nights in Hamburg clubs.
Lennon produced his weakest solo albums, “Mind Games” and “Walls and Bridges,” during this period. He also produced Nilsson’s tepid “Pussy Cats” album.
“I was just hanging out with guys, and all we were doing was getting drunk and waking up,” Lennon said. “It was sick. … That’s when I straightened out, in the middle of that album. That’s when I realized, ‘There’s something wrong here. Y’know, this is crazy man!’ So then I suddenly was the straight one in the middle of all these mad, mad people. I suddenly was not one of them, and I pulled myself back and finished off the album as best I could.”
Lennon eventually reunited with Yoko but renounced alcohol.
“I had a lot of it in my day, but I don’t like it,” Lennon said. “It’s a dumb drug. Your whole concentration goes on getting the next fix. I find caffeine easier to deal with.”
1975: Chinese Herbs
After suffering a miscarriage following John and Yoko’s 1968 hash bust, Yoko was not conceiving. Lennon said a Chinese herbalist told the couple to give up drink and drugs and consume his herbs instead. Their son, Sean, was conceived and born that year.
Fertile sperm was Lennon’s only significant output in 1975, a year he rang in with “Rock ’n’ Roll,” an album of oldies covers, his final record of the decade.
1976: Green Card High
After five years of immigration hassles and being deemed a subversive political threat to Nixon’s establishment, Lennon was ultimately seen as a benign, drug-addled annoyance and received his green card.
1977–1980: Pot, Psychedelics and (Rumored) Heroin and Cocaine
Out of the public eye, Lennon’s final years of drug use is less documented.
Lennon said he baked bread during his house-husband, baby-rearing years but according to his former personal assistant, Lennon still got baked on weed until his death.
Albert Goldman, the National Enquirer of unauthorized biographers, said cocaine fueled Lennon’s last recording sessions and necessitated nasal surgery.
Heroin — or at least rumors of heroin — persisted. Some Lennon watchers said Yoko kept him hooked on heroin as a way to control him.
If heroin influenced “Double Fantasy,” Lennon’s last album, it’s evident in the dreamy, detached shadows-on-the-wall laziness of “Watching the Wheels.”
Four months before his murder, Lennon, a macrobiotic eater who’d stopped taking LSD because it’s a chemical, copped to organic psychedelics.
“A little mushroom or peyote is not beyond my scope, you know, maybe twice a year or something,” Lennon said.
Sources: “The Beatles Anthology,” “Lennon Remembers,” “The Love You Make,” “All We Are Saying,” Playboy, BeatlesBible.com, the British Broadcasting Corporation, “The Dick Cavett Show,” Tom Snyder’s “Tomorrow Show,” news reports and Internet video.