The ballad of John and Yoko's secretary

When Lennon split up with his partner in 1973, May Pang became his lover. She tells Spencer Leigh how Ono gave her blessing to the relationship
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If a soap writer suggested that a boss's wife might urge the secretary to get friendly with the boss, it might be dismissed as far-fetched. Welcome to the world of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, where nothing was real, nothing to get hung about.

If a soap writer suggested that a boss's wife might urge the secretary to get friendly with the boss, it might be dismissed as far-fetched. Welcome to the world of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, where nothing was real, nothing to get hung about.

May Pang was that "secretary" - and we're sitting on a sofa in a Liverpool hotel. Considering her background, she seems, well, almost too normal. What is most refreshing is that she seems an honest interviewee (not common in Beatleland) with no desire to magnify her own role.

Pang is visiting the UK to prepare for a launch of her feng shui jewellery - small pieces of stainless steel, worn as pendants, displaying Chinese symbols and her signature.

"I grew up with feng shui," says Pang, "but I never saw any jewellery that would give me the energy I needed and also looked good. The one I'm wearing says 'happiness' and the others are for harmony, infinity and enlightenment. Isaac Hayes wears one, and so do Nile Rodgers from Chic and Phoebe Snow."

Pang will launch the range officially at the Beatles festival in Liverpool in August, and she'll also be exhibiting her private collection of about 100 photographs of Lennon. The pictures of the musician eating soup or playing with his cats lack finesse, but they do show how extraordinarily photogenic he was.

May Pang's celebrity lies in the fact that when she was 22, she became Lennon's girlfriend. She was his travelling companion from June 1973 to February 1975 in the time known to Beatles fans as John's "lost weekend".

"I was born to Chinese immigrant parents, who came from Taiyuan," she says. "My father arrived in America first and sent for my mother. My parents worked in a laundry in Harlem. I have a brother and sister, but I was the only one born in America."

Pang did well at school, but soon tired of college. She failed an interview as a receptionist for a Japanese bicycle company, but noting that The Beatles' Apple Records had an office in the same building, she asked for a job. She was soon working for Allen Klein, the megalomaniac accountant sorting out The Beatles' affairs. "He's had a bad press," says Pang. "He genuinely loved the music. He did a lot of good because Apple was in such disarray before he came along and renegotiated The Beatles' contracts. I loved working for the music publishing side of his business."

John and Yoko arrived in New York in December 1970. Pang's first mission was to call up celebrities and ask if they would "donate their legs for peace" for an avant-garde film to be called Up Your Legs Forever. She must have been persuasive; the film features 365 pairs of legs from thigh to foot. Few saw it, or subsequent works, such as Fly and Erection, that Pang was involved with. "I particularly like Apotheosis, one of John's," she says. "For five minutes you are watching nothing but a blank screen and then the blue rises above the top of the clouds and you see the sun shine."

In 1973, John and Yoko acquired the lease of an apartment in the Dakota building, where they could also house their staff, including Pang. But Lennon was in artistic crisis. In 1972, he and Ono had released an agitprop double album, Some Time in New York City. Reviews and sales were abysmal. "Weird and tuneless," was Robert Christgau's verdict in Village Voice. "John was hurt by the reviews and went into hiding," Pang says. "I didn't see him much for some time. He was in the back somewhere and he never went out."

When Ono hired some top New York musicians for her own album, Feeling the Space, John told Pang that he had the urge to work again. "John said he wanted to go into the studio, but he was unsure about it. He said, 'You've got to book it or I'll never do it.' I booked it for two weeks' time and in that fortnight, he wrote the whole of Mind Games."

Mind Games was successful and Lennon was back on track, but his relationship with the manipulative Ono was crumbling. Pang gives her version of events: "Yoko came to me at 9.30 in the morning - I hadn't even had my first cup of coffee - and said, 'May, I've got to talk to you. John and I are not getting along,' which I knew because the tension was thick. She said, 'He's going to start going out with other people.'

"She said, 'I know you don't have a boyfriend and I know you are not after John, but you need a boyfriend and you would be good for him.' I said I didn't think so, but she said, 'You don't want him to go out with somebody who is going to be nasty to him, do you?' I said, 'Of course not,' and she said, 'You will be perfect,' and walked out."

Lennon and Pang moved to Los Angeles. Pang says it wasn't the drink-and-drugs-fest many believe. "John wasn't into many drugs, although he would have coke if he was offered it. There was a lot of drink, but that was down to Harry Nilsson. There were nights where we ran into problems. We got thrown out of the Troubadour, and something else happened, and the press kept bringing it up. It was Harry who started the trouble, but it made better copy when you read it was John. In fact, he was telling Harry to stop."

Lennon decided to record an album of rock'n'roll favourites, but made the mistake of telling the producer Phil Spector he could have full control. "I will never forget that first night," says Pang. "I remember counting a lot of musicians. There were 27 there - some brilliant ones, like Barry Mann, Leon Russell, Hal Blaine and Jim Keltner."

The main concern was Spector's love of firearms. "Phil carried guns all the time, but John didn't think they were real. One night he irritated [the former Beatles roadie] Mal Evans, and Phil didn't take kindly to Mal telling him to stop. He reached for his gun and it went off. Next day Mal showed us the bullet, so it was real."

The album, to be called Rock'n'Roll and crediting Pang as "Mother Superior", ground to a halt. "Then Nilsson said, 'I wish you'd produce me,' and John said, 'What a great idea.'"

Nilsson had a remarkable voice, although the drinking had left its mark and he rasped his way through the sessions. Lennon decided to take the tracks to New York and re-record Nilsson's voice there, where at least Nilsson would be separated from his buddies.

Pang recalls: "That album includes 'Many Rivers to Cross', with a great orchestral arrangement in the middle by John. He thought it was too good for the record and said, 'I'm going to write another song and use that.' He had a dream and that led to the lyric, 'No 9 Dream'. I'm whispering 'John' on that record and singing in the background."

"No 9 Dream" was a key track on Lennon's 1974 album Walls and Bridges. Pang recalls: "The first song written for that album was 'Surprise Surprise'. It was written on the first night John and I had been intimate with each other. The next morning he said, 'I want you to hear something, I wrote this for you,' and he sat there with an acoustic guitar and just played it for me. It was lovely."

Lennon and Paul McCartney had been sounding-boards for each other's ideas, and Lennon missed that. Pang says: "He was always saying, 'I wonder what Paul is doing.' When John and I were together, and this is about a week or two before our relationship ended, I remember him saying, 'Do you think I should write with Paul again?' I said, 'Absolutely. You should because you want to. The two of you as solo performers are good, but together you can't be beaten. We thought of going to New Orleans to see Paul and Linda, who were making Venus and Mars there."

But Lennon did collaborate with David Bowie, and in an unexpected way. "John had heard a disco hit he liked - 'Shame Shame Shame' by Shirley and Company - and he couldn't get the riff out of his head. We were visiting Bowie when he was recording [Lennon's song] 'Across the Universe' and John was talking to the guitarist Carlos Alomar about the riff. They went into the lounge area of the studio and were fooling around with it. Bowie walked in and said, 'What are you guys doing?'

"He felt left out. He said, 'Do you have any words for it yet?' John said, 'No.' He went off and 20 minutes later, he came back with 'Fame' and it turned out to be a wonderful record."

Lennon and Pang returned to New York, and would regularly see Ono. Around March 1975, John and Yoko reunited. Pang did some work for them, and occasionally saw Lennon surreptitiously, but the relationship was over. She worked for Island Records, promoting Bob Marley, and then in music publishing. Pang had earlier met her future husband, the record producer Tony Visconti. They had two children. Pang is now single again.

John Lennon was killed in December 1980, possibly because he wasn't surrounded by bodyguards. "John never liked that. He thought that if you could go out low-key, you wouldn't get in any trouble. If someone asked him for an autograph, he'd say yes. He didn't put a wall around himself.

"John loved celebrity. We attended an American Film Institute dinner honouring James Cagney, and the room was filled with famous actors like Mae West, Kirk Douglas, John Wayne and Steve McQueen. John was like a kid in a candy store."