This is the first installment of a two-part post. It would be a better post if I knew more about John Lennon. Truth is, I don’t want to know more about John Lennon. I regard him as having been a singularly repellent human being, and I desire to spend as little time in his company as possible.
Yet he was an artist of no small genius, who impacted his generation way beyond what most artists through history have even dreamed of doing. In August 1974, together with his girlfriend May Pang, he experienced a UFO sighting which we’d now call a “close encounter of the first kind.” He inscribed the sighting in the liner notes of his Walls and Bridges album, issued the following month. He alluded to it in one of the last songs he wrote before his death in 1980. For anyone interested in UFOs and what they mean to their human experiencers, this is important information. Attention must be paid.
Strangely, very little has.
This, for me, is the most puzzling aspect of the Lennon-Pang sighting: UFOlogy’s near-total neglect of it. Most UFO writers never mention it. Even Jerry Clark’s UFO Encyclopedia, that monumental treasure house of practically every aspect of the UFO phenomenon, omits it entirely. I myself never heard of it until a little under two years ago, when I discovered on the Web that a sketch Lennon did based on his UFO encounter, perhaps intended for the cover of Walls and Bridges, had just been auctioned in London for the equivalent of $16,600.
I was fortunate. The vastly knowledgeable Martin Kottmeyer, with his characteristic generosity, shared with me a collection of sources he’d gathered on the episode. Most of what I say in this two-part post is based on these sources. Any errors of interpretation, I hardly need say–but I’m saying it anyway–are my own.
The sighting happened in New York City on the evening of August 23, 1974. Lennon was separated from his wife Yoko Ono, living in a penthouse apartment on East 52nd Street with his one-time assistant and current lover May Pang. Both he and Pang have related the incident numerous times, mostly in media interviews. Their stories have a well-worn quality, as if multiple tellings and retellings to a faceless public, and I imagine to each other, had eroded whatever idiosyncratic features their recollections may once have had.
Naturally there are very few inconsistencies. Lennon sometimes said the object he saw was 100 feet away, sometimes 100 yards, as if the figure “100” was fixed in his mind but he wasn’t sure 100 what. He said in one radio interview, “I could have hit it with a brick if I’d thrown a stone at it,” which on the face of it makes little sense. I assume that sometimes he told the story with a “brick,” sometimes with a “stone,” and here he mixed the two variants.
British UFOlogist Larry Warren interviewed May Pang in 1988 for The Researcher, the magazine of the Merseyside Anomalies Research Association (MARA). Here’s how he reported what she told him:
“It was a typically repressive [sic] late summer evening in New York City, with air so heavy you could almost cut it with a knife. …
“May Pang recalls that the apartment was hot that night, but by 8 O’ Clock the night air had cooled off enough for her to have turned off the air conditioning and opened the windows to get a breeze off the river. Just off the apartment’s living room was a part of the building’s roof which also acted as a private observation deck, with a great view of east New York. Access was only granted by climbing out of a window, which Lennon often did. The haze had now cleared over New York’s skyline. At about 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. … A short time later, as May was drying off, she heard John yell to her from the outside roof, ‘May come here right now!’ Startled, she ran to John’s aid finding him standing on the roof nude and pointing wildly southeastward.”
Pang, just having showered, was naked also. She makes this point, laughing, in another interview: “I drop the clothes and now I’m nude (laughs) and running out there.” Again and again, the nudity of both participants comes up in their narratives, until I begin to suspect that this was an important part of their experience for reasons that we don’t yet understand, and perhaps they never did either. If we imagine them as passive witnesses to a space vehicle that just happened to fly over their apartment, their state of dress or undress is irrelevant. But assume that the observers may be an essential component of what they observe, and we can at least begin to consider the possibility that their nakedness conveys some vital meaning.
I’ll come back to this in the second installment of this post. For now, check out this video of a 1997 interview with Pang; watch her expression as she says, “Now mind you, he’s nude.”
Getting back to Larry Warren’s interview …
“As May remembered, finding John Lennon nude on the roof was not a surprise, as he had no aversion to wallowing around in that condition. What did surprise her was what he was pointing at. Just south of the building now was a brightly lit ‘classic’ circular UFO, floating silently and 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 realised this thing was real and so close, that I could almost touch it!’. As they watched, the UFO moved silently away. May told me that the lighting on the thing left them awe-struck, as it would change its configuration with every rotation. The object made no sound. The main structure of the craft could also be clearly seen for the duration of the event, due to the last remnants of the still setting sun.”
They tried to photograph the object. Their photos, developed afterwards, turned out blank, overexposed. I’m not astonished; I wouldn’t have expected there to be anything that could be photographed. The UFO came from inside. Which may give a fresh dimension to Lennon’s remark, in one radio interview, that “I could have seen it even without my glasses, and I’m very short-sighted.” We don’t need glasses to see things in our dreams.
And now a bombshell:
“May remembers John’s arms outstretched as he yelled at the UFO to come back and take him away! ‘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’.”
It wasn’t just Pang who remembered Lennon crying out to the flying saucer to take him with it, get him out of there. He told his biographer Ray Coleman much the same thing. “I was standing, naked, by this window leading on to that roof when an oval-shaped object started flying left to right. It had a red light on top. … They all think I’m potty, but it’s true. I shouted after it, ‘Wait for me, wait for me!'”
That’s a pretty terrible thing to holler to a passing UFO, in front of a lover with whom you share your home and your life. I can only imagine the anguish covered over by Pang’s cheery rationalization that, well, “that was John Lennon, always looking for the next big adventure.” Warren’s error in saying the sighting happened on “a typically repressive late summer evening,” when “oppressive” was surely the word he was looking for, may not have been random or accidental. Freud taught us to pay attention to such things.
And the repressed, as Freud also taught us, has a certain tendency to return.
It’s hard to read about the Lennon-Pang-Ono triangle in the “Pang” entry of Bill Harry’s The John Lennon Encyclopedia, which Marty Kottmeyer was kind enough to send me, without being overwhelmed by its nightmarish unhappiness. Lennon lived with one woman, was dominated by another. Yoko Ono had orchestrated his affair with his young, virginal assistant, over the initial objections of both. Once it was launched, she would not cease to meddle in it. Lennon was apparently afraid to tell her no. He and Pang, says Bill Harry, “had to report all their activities to Yoko” who “was initially phoning John twice a day, but the calls increased to six a day.”
No wonder there were tensions, “air so heavy you could almost cut it with a knife” as Larry Warren says. Bill Harry mentions an incident in which Lennon “misinterpreted something May said and attempted to strangle her. He seemed to be succeeding until his friend Harry Nilsson pulled him off.”
I set aside the question of whether a man who does something like that can properly be called a man at all. A man who’s happy in love certainly doesn’t do it. Nor does he plead for rescue to an unidentified flying object.
Years later, Pang recalled that “John called Yoko Ono at the Dakota apartments to tell her about the UFO and as May remembers it, Yoko became upset at John, because she hadn’t seen it too, and felt that he had ‘left her out of all the excitement.'” Look at a New York City map: Lennon and Pang lived on East 52nd Street, one building removed from the East River; the UFO, as Pang described it to Larry Warren, “passed the United Nations building and slowly veered left, crossing over the East River, then over Brooklyn and … southern Long Island.”
No way that flight path could have brought the UFO anywhere near the Dakota apartments on West 72nd Street, where Ono lived. So there’s no way, in the external world of physical objects, that Lennon could have failed to leave her “out of all the excitement.” So what was her “upset” about?
The answer is almost too obvious to be stated. The UFO was a representation of something going on in the troubled relationships among the three, a representation that brought Lennon and Pang together (in that they both saw it) and also drove them apart (in Lennon’s plea to be carried away). Ono intuitively understood this and felt threatened. I’m tempted to say: the Lennon-Pang-Ono triangle was replaced by a Lennon-Pang-UFO triangle, with Ono left outside. Which understandably enraged her.
Is this as far as we can go? Can we come to no clearer picture of what it was that May Pang and her lover experienced that August night in New York City? The flying saucer that was seen at close enough range to be hit with a stone, yet refused to appear on film?
In the second part of this post, the week after next, I’ll suggest–I won’t say answers, but some ways of thinking about these questions.
by David Halperin
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