(The second part of a two-part post.)
So what are we to make of the story told over and over by John Lennon and his lover May Pang, always with essentially the same details, of seeing a UFO at close range over their Manhattan apartment on the evening of August 23, 1974?
Tell anybody about Lennon’s having seen a UFO, and the first question you’re likely to get is, “What drug was he on?”
None, according to him. His biographer Ray Coleman describes how “John regaled me and photographer Gruen with the bizarre story that he had seen flying saucers from his window. He was serious. … ‘And you’d not been smoking or drinking?’ I said.” Lennon’s reply: “No, God’s honest truth. I only do that at weekends or when I see Harry Nilsson.” (My thanks to the ever-generous Martin Kottmeyer for sending me this extract from Coleman’s 1985 biography.)
Should we believe him? And–this is a question for the Lennon aficionados out there–was May Pang as given to chemical indulgence as Lennon famously was? She saw the UFO too, just as close-up as he did. Or at least that’s what she says.
I don’t know the answers, but the question doesn’t disturb me as much as you might expect. In fact, it hardly disturbs me at all. I take for granted that what the couple saw was something that came from inside them. We might call it a shared hallucination, first taking care to strip that word of any pejorative connotations. Or if you prefer, call it a religious vision, as I’d be inclined to do. It’s still the same thing: a vividly experienced encounter with something that, in the external physical realm, doesn’t exist.
“Hallucinations–they’re not just for the crazy anymore.” That’s my takeaway from the 2013 book Hallucinations by the distinguished, recently deceased neurologist Oliver Sacks; and we might add, “nor just for the drugged-out.” If UFOlogy has taught me anything, it is that normal, sane people are capable of seeing amazing visions in the skies that indeed are triggered by something externally there, yet transform the stimulus beyond all recognition. For examples from my blog, click here and here.
If Lennon was right when he told Coleman and others that NYC police received other reports that August evening, it seems likely (as Marty Kottmeyer has pointed out to me) that there was indeed something in the sky that Lennon and Pang transformed into their UFO. But I don’t care much about the external trigger. I care about the vision, especially since I’m convinced that it’s always a vehicle for meaning for those who experience it.
That meaning will be the same whether or not the experiencers have chemical assistance in creating their vision. This is why the drug use question doesn’t concern me.
There’s a different question, though, that does trouble me. Is it possible that Lennon (and I guess Pang) deliberately made the whole thing up? Not, obviously, for money or notoriety; there can have been few people in the 20th century with less need for those goodies than John Lennon. But maybe just to thumb their noses at people (like me) dumb enough to take them at their word? To chortle to each other about how smart they are to have put one over?
Possible, I guess. You have to be nasty to pull a trick like that, and everything I’ve read about Lennon suggests to me he was a pretty nasty character. And Pang? She might have played along, and then been too embarrassed to back out even after Lennon was dead.
But I really, really doubt it. The unobtrusive note in the corner of the inside leaflet of Lennon’s “Walls and Bridges” album, issued a little over a month after the sighting, argues against it. “On the 23rd Aug. 1974 at 9 o’clock I saw a U.F.O. J.L.” This feels to me like the sincere testimony of a man who’s had an experience he doesn’t want to trumpet, but to which he needs to bear witness.
Or the sketch Lennon did on an album sleeve and afterward gave to Jesse Ed Davis, lead guitarist for “Walls and Bridges.” (The sketch was auctioned in London in March 2014 for the British equivalent of $16,600.) From the title in the upper left it would seem Lennon was considering this as the jacket illustration for the album, which means it had to have been done very shortly after August 23, and also that it and its contents were in some way important to him. The UFO, strangely labeled “UFOer,” figures prominently. Not something you’d expect from someone who made the UFO story up for a joke.
I had to admit: I don’t understand the sketch. It doesn’t depict Lennon’s actual (or alleged) experience, at least the way he and Pang described it. The UFO soars over, not a solitary couple but a throng of people–including a smiling woman with prominent breasts, a man wearing a sombrero labeled “Poncho VIA” (Pancho Villa?)–all seemingly oblivious to what’s over their heads. Above the UFO there’s an enormous vertical-tilted eye, with an iris that looks faintly fish-like and a pupil that’s a smaller, horizontal eye. If the big eye were rotated clockwise 90 degrees it would look a lot like the UFO.
“Nobody Told Me,” one of the last songs Lennon recorded before he was killed in December 1980, contains the lines:
“Everybody’s smoking and no one’s getting high
Everybody’s flying and never touch the sky
There’s UFOs over New York and I ain’t too surprised …
Nobody told me there’d be days like these
Strange days indeed …“
–which, as many have pointed out, is surely an allusion to Lennon’s UFO experience six years earlier. Which makes a lot more sense if we assume that experience was something real, at least to him and May Pang.
So what was it?
The first thing that strikes me is that three years earlier, in 1971, Lennon recorded “Imagine,” his best-known song of the post-Beatle era. The song “imagines” an ideal world free of nationalities. This is a world without religion, without any heaven above or hell beneath. “Above us only sky.”
This “sky” is completely “disenchanted,” to borrow the language of sociologist Max Weber–stripped of religious or spiritual significance. That’s as it should be in a perfect, religion-free world, Lennon seems to be saying. I suppose most scientists would agree. After all, as Nikita Khrushchev crowed in 1961, once you soar up through the sky as the Soviet astronauts did you find only “pitch dark … no Garden of Eden, nothing like heaven.”
Yet spend a lifetime studying religion, as I have, and you may be led to the conviction that the world’s “enchantment” is part of our bedrock human reality. I’m not saying it’s a viable scientific hypothesis. Call it ingrained illusion, or call it a genuine awareness transcending science’s limitations. I myself waver on how to regard it. What seems certain to me is that enchantment—or “numinosity,” as the Jungians prefer to call it—is an essential part of who we are as human beings. It can be debunked or ignored or repressed, which is to say forced out of conscious awareness. It will not be permanently banished.
And so the enchanted heaven, dismissed by Lennon in what many consider his signature song, reasserted itself three years later in his felt experience. In the form of a UFO.
To a naked John Lennon. And a naked May Pang.
In the first installment of this post, I noted how the seemingly tangential detail of the witnesses’ nudity crops up again and again in their stories, in a way that suggests it had considerable emotional weight for them both. As if the UFO was not only seen by them, but also saw them. (Take another look at that gigantic eye in the Lennon sketch.)
My mind skitters back centuries, to the prototype man (“Adam”) and the prototype woman (“Eve”) who similarly stood naked before a numinous entity that crashed into their solitude.
“And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden. And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou? And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself. And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat?” (Genesis 3:7-11)
There are differences. Adam and Eve are ashamed of their nakedness and try to hide it; John and May seem almost to flaunt it. (Though take a look at Pang’s expression in a 1997 interview when she says of Lennon, “Now mind you, he’s nude,” and tell me if you don’t see some awkwardness there.) The numinous entity in 1974 Manhattan doesn’t come as judge or inquisitor, though some condemnation may be implied in its ignoring Lennon’s frantic pleas to “Wait for me, wait for me!”
Still the two scenes, separated by at least 2500 years, are remarkably similar. Even the time of day of the entity’s appearance is the same: “the cool of the day” in Genesis, and “May Pang recalls that … 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” (from an interview by British UFOlogist Larry Warren).
The huge eye in the Lennon sketch will then translate into the ever-watchful eye of God. Or–bringing the episode back into the tangled network of human relationships in which it was embedded–it’s the eye of Lennon’s wife Yoko Ono, endlessly prying into the affair she’d engineered between her husband and his young, inexperienced assistant. (And when she found out Lennon and Pang had seen the UFO without her, was she mad!)
Am I trying to say that Lennon and Pang were consciously reproducing the action of the Bible story? Hardly. This seems to me far less plausible and also less interesting than the alternative: that they were enacting, entirely unaware of it, an archetypal scenario hardwired into the human unconscious, which had spilled out many centuries before them onto the pages of the Book of Genesis.
This is what I think the Lennon-Pang UFO sighting was about. And why I think it may turn out to be one of the most important and instructive cases in the annals of UFOlogy.
by David Halperin
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