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Paul McCartney: Nine Days In a Tokyo Jail

| January 16, 2011 | 4 Comments

On Jan. 16, 1980, Paul McCartney and his wife Linda arrived at Tokyo International Airport for a week-long Japanese tour with Wings. But the tour ended before it began when a customs officer rummaging through their carry-on luggage lifted out a fist-sized bag of marijuana.

“When the fellow pulled it out of the suitcase, he looked more embarrassed than me,” McCartney recalled. “I think he just wanted to put it back in and forget the whole thing, you know, but there it was.

“I didn’t try to hide it. I had just come from America and still had the American attitude that marijuana isn’t that bad. I didn’t realize just how strict the Japanese attitude is.”

A senior customs official ordered McCartney detained and radioed the Narcotics Control Bureau.

“It’s all a mistake,” McCartney protested, as the NCB agents handcuffed him. He was taken to the Drug Supervisory Center for interrogation. Within 11 hours, the Wings tour was canceled and McCartney found himself squeezed into a 4-by-8 cell in a Tokyo prison.

He was soon visited by the British vice-consul, who told the former Beatle that the sentence could be up to eight years.

“My first night was the worst,” McCartney said. “I couldn’t sleep. I was frightened about the possibility of not seeing my family for years.”

Prior to his arrest in Tokyo, Macca had been busted three times. In 1972, he paid a $2,000 fine for smuggling hashish into Sweden. The same year, he was fined for pot possession in Scotland, and in 1973, he was fined again for growing cannabis on his Scottish highlands farm. The story goes that before the Japanese tour, Paul was made to sign an affidavit stating that he no longer smoked dope, as a condition for receiving his visa. When the pot was found, Japanese authorities felt that they’d “lost face” and had no choice but to arrest him.

While behind bars, Inmate #22—as Paul was known—impressed the guards with his politeness. He wasn’t allowed a guitar or writing implement, so he passed his time by exercising and talking to other prisoners. Paul later said that overall, he was treated very well, except for the morning interrogations.

“I made a confession on the night I was arrested and apologized for breaking Japanese law, but they still wanted to know everything. I had to go through my whole life story—school, father’s name, income, even my medal from the Queen.”

On the sixth day, Linda was allowed to visit. She brought him a cheese sandwich, a change of clothes and a few sci-fi paperbacks. By day eight, the situation had eased and the authorities decided that Paul had suffered enough. Released the following day, he was taken directly to the airport. As a gesture to the many disappointed Japanese fans, Paul grabbed an acoustic guitar in the departure lounge and improvised a quick tune for the television cameras.

In the 2000 TV special Wingspan, McCartney reflected to his daughter Mary, “I don’t know what possessed me to just stick this bloody great bag of grass in my suitcase. Thinking back on it, it almost makes me shudder.”

Since returning to Japan for a tour in 1990, McCartney has performed in the country several times without further incident.

There are two noteworthy footnotes to this tale, the first one tragic. A few days into Paul’s jail stay, a 29-year-old man named Kenneth Lambert turned up at a Miami Airport reservation counter and demanded a ticket to fly to Japan to “free Paul.” He had no money or identification. An argument ensued, with Lambert pulling a realistic-looking toy gun from his pocket. A policeman on the scene shot the young man dead.

The second has to do with John Lennon’s reaction to his former partner’s imprisonment. According to a housekeeper who worked for him at the Dakota, upon hearing the news John supposedly said, “If he really needs weed, surely there’s enough people who can carry it for him. You’re a Beatle, boy, a Beatle. Your face is in every damn corner of the planet. How could you have been so stupid?”

—By Bill DeMain

From Performing Songwriter Issue 94 article: Rock Stars Behind Bars

Photos © Life and Corbis

Category: Best of PS

Comments (4)

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  1. Jack Reilly says:

    John Lennon called the Tokyo police about Paul McCartney’ weed. This is why John “didn’t live to see 1981”

  2. Virginia Abreu de Paula says:

    Well,I am not sure if he really settled down. Impossible to know for sure. But I love him anyway.

  3. Farrah Teague says:

    I love Paul with a hot passion, but even I know that this was way, way stupid. I’m glad that he’s settled down these days.

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