Tuesday, October 9, 2018

MEETING LENNON...AGAIN



It's October 9th, what would have been John Lennon's 78th birthday, and in honor of the occasion I'm happy to once again tell the tale of my two encounters with my rock and roll hero.  I originally posted this story a few years back, in two installments, but I've taken the opportunity to edit them together.  Enjoy!  (And forgive the white text background that appears throughout most of this. I tried to correct this oddity, but couldn't.)  
***
In January of 1975, I was twenty-one years old, attending Brooklyn College (drifting through Brooklyn College is more like it; academics were never my strong suit), playing music, writing songs, dreaming of rock and roll glory—and, simultaneously, an equally-glorious writing career.  I’d been in and out of bands for years, partnered with some terrific players, but among our crowd of Brooklyn musicians, there was no one better than Jon Cobert.  Jonny was an extraordinary piano player—but he was also the kind of intuitive genius who could pick up just about any instrument and make memorable music.  I may not have been sure about my own rock and roll future, but I knew, we all knew, Jonny was headed for great things.  As noted, I was writing songs on my own—had been since I was fourteen or fifteen—but Jonny and I often wrote together, as well.  I crafted the lyrics—a few of them quite sublime, many of them truly atrocious (and, happily, long forgotten)—and Jon, with far more consistency, would provide the superb musical bedrock.  (Three of the songs we wrote together—"April Rainbow," "I Can Fly" and "Don't Wanna Live in Yesterday"—appeared on Jonny’s CD, Here’s Your Canoe, and you can listen to one of them here.)
In those ancient days, Jon was in a band that, at various times, was called Dog Soldier, Community Apple and, the name that seemed to stick, BOMF.  The band was managed by Roy Cicala, who ran one of one of Manhattan’s premier recording studios, Record Planet, East.  Roy was also a skilled engineer—one of the best in the business—who’d worked with John Lennon on Imagine, Some Time in New York City, Mind Games, Walls and Bridges and Rock and Roll.  Not surprising that RPE was Lennon’s studio of choice in New York or that BOMF’s destiny and Lennon’s became temporarily intertwined.  The band added hand claps and vocals to some Walls and Bridges tracks, appeared in now-classic videos for “Slippin’ and Slidin’” and “Stand By Me” (more about that later) and backed Lennon up for his last major television appearance—a very odd affair called “A Salute To Sir Lew Grade”—wearing outer space jumpsuits.  Lennon also provided lyrics for a song that BOMF recorded called “Incantation.”  (The song was never released, but I remember it as a throbbing, voodoo-inspired rocker, with lyrics in the “Come Together” vein.)
That night in January of ‘75—if I’m remembering correctly, it was a Tuesday or Wednesday, I know for sure it was a weeknight—my old friend (and brilliant drummer) Cliff Hochberg and I were bored and, looking for something to do, drove into the City—if you lived in Brooklyn, you never referred to it as Manhattan, it was just the City—to hang out at the Record Plant with Jonny.  (Something we did regularly because...well, wouldn’t you?)  There was nothing of any major (or even minor) import going on that night:  we were just drifting from the band’s rehearsal room to a little songwriting studio that had been set up for Jonny.  At one point, I was sitting alone in the hall when I saw Roy Cicala walk by.  A moment later, Cliff appeared, with an excited expression on his face.  “Do you know who’s here?” he asked.  “Yeah,” I replied, not sure why Roy’s appearance had Cliff so elated, “Mr. C.”  “No,” Cliff said; and then, after a suitably dramatic pause (hey, even if he didn’t pause, he should have), he added: “Mr. L.” 

Cue the thunder and lightning.  Cue the orchestra.  Cue the earth shaking beneath our feet.  John Lennon was in the building.  John Lennon:  the man whose music and wisdom, anger, wit, lunacy and honesty had fascinated and inspired me since the Beatles invaded America when I was ten years old. 

A moment later, Jonny appeared.  “Hey,” he said, casually (he, of course, knew there was nothing casual about it), “you guys wanna meet John?”  By the time he’d finished that sentence, Cliff and I were racing down the hall ahead of him, like two demented roadrunners.


Lennon was in Cicala’s office and that’s where we (along with several of the BOMF boys) were headed.  When we stepped into Roy’s outer office, we heard a distinctive nasal voice—a unique mixture of Liverpool and New York—from inside.  It was a voice I’d been hearing for most of my life, but always on television, on the radio, on the record player.  But now that voice—and the source of that voice—was on the other side of the wall.  I’m sure my cheeks drained of color:  it's a miracle the top of my head didn’t blow right off.  Cliff and I exchanged looks of wonder—he was as much a Beatles fanatic as I was and (almost) as big a Lennon fan—and then we filed into the main office.

Roy was there, along with his then-wife, Lori Burton.  May Pang—John’s girlfriend (this was during the infamous “Lost Weekend,” when John and Yoko were separated)—was, too.  And Lennon was there—right there—looking...well, real.  The only time I’d ever seen him in person was in 1972, at the Madison Square Garden “One to One’ concert—and I was way up in the cheap seats, under the influence of...well, that doesn’t matter.  But this wasn’t some distant figure on a stage or a flickering image on the television.  This was an actual human being—looking somehow more fragile, thinner, and shorter than I’d imagined.   And yet, somehow, larger, too:  every inch the rock legend; wearing a long black coat, a white scarf tossed across his shoulder, a bottle of Kahlua in his hand, all topped—or perhaps bottomed—by cowboy boots with spurs (yes, spurs).  He’d been out to dinner with Pang and afterwards they’d haunted some record stores, where Lennon had purchased a pile of 45s that he’d stacked up on Roy’s turntable.   “Disco,” Lennon said, indicating the new and unfamiliar sounds coming from the speakers.  “Gonna be the next big thing.  It’s all you’re gonna hear for the next ten years.”  None of us had ever heard the word disco, let alone the music, but this was John Lennon, after all, so we took it as gospel (good thing.  Turned out he was right).  There was some more chit-chat and the bottle of Kahlua was passed around (I wasn’t a drinker, so I can’t comment on the quality) and then, soon after, it became clear that Roy, John and their partners wanted to be alone.  The audience with the Pope of Rock was over.  As we all filed out of the office (well, the other guys filed out, I’m pretty sure Cliff and I floated, five feet off the ground), someone inside put on John’s exquisite Walls and Bridges track “Number Nine Dream,” which had just been released as a single.  “No, no,” we heard an agitated Lennon bark, and it was very clear that he meant it, “get it off, get it off.”  (So much for the Great Lennon Ego).

We regrouped back in BOMF’s rehearsal room, Cliff and I sharing our amazement, shock and wonder at what we’d just stumbled into; Jonny delighted by our jaw-dropped stupefaction.  (And  let’s face it, despite the fact that the BOMF boys already knew Lennon, each new encounter was something special for them.)  I don’t think we’d been in the room for more than ten minutes when a figure appeared in the doorway, holding a guitar:  Lennon.  He wanted to play some of this new disco music that had so captured him and wondered if the guys were up for it.  Needless to say they were.  There was only one problem:  Lennon didn’t have a guitar pick.  Cliff quickly offered up his Brooklyn College ID card.  It was a clumsy substitute, but Lennon didn’t seem to mind.

So there I was, on a random weeknight, sitting on the floor of this small rehearsal room in the middle of New York City, while—maybe three or four feet away from me—John Lennon was playing guitar, urging the band on, jamming away.  It was completely surreal.  I mean, what were the odds of this happening?  Cliff and I exchanged occasional looks of astonishment—but not for too long, because we didn’t want to take our eyes off the magician in front of us, perhaps for fear that, if we looked away too long, he’d just disappear in a puff of smoke.  (Five years later, he did.)

BOMF's drummer was having a little trouble getting the distinctive disco beat down—not surprising, since it was a very specific, and, at the time, very new, rhythm—and Cliff, I later found out, had to restrain himself from leaping up, knocking the guy to the floor and taking over.  (And I’m sure Cliffy would have nailed that beat instantly, too.)  I, meanwhile, was watching Lennon’s hands fly across the guitar neck, studying his every move (there was a rhythmic effect he got by muting the strings and using the pick percussively:  I’ve been doing the same trick ever since).

I don’t know how long this off-the-cuff, extraordinarily private concert went on—time, as you may suspect, had taken on a very distorted, other-dimensional quality—it might have been fifteen minutes, it might have been forty-five; but, eventually, Lennon satisfied his disco-craving and was done.  That’s when he turned to me, offering Cliff’s ID badge.  “Here’s your credit card,” he said, assuming I was the guy who’d given it to him.

You might think this was my opportunity to be witty, profound or, at the very least, gushingly fannish.  It was certainly a chance to say something to this man whose life and work had meant so much to me for so long.

Didn’t happen.

In the movie version of Woody Allen’s Broadway play, Play It Again, Sam, there’s a scene where Woody’s character, Allan Felix, is on his first post-divorce blind date.  Felix is a barely-functional, sputtering, jittery nervous wreck, a walking disaster, and, when he’s introduced to his date, the only thing he can do is wave like a moron and emit a guttural caveman grunt:  “Nugh!”  That’s pretty much what I choked out at Lennon—”Nugh!”—as, bug-eyed, I pointed to Cliff, clumsily indicating that it was his “credit card” and not mine.  Lennon returned the ID badge, then quickly vanished back into the land of myth and Kahlua.

And that, in and of itself, would have been as memorable, and embarrassing, an encounter as I could have ever asked for.  But this was just a set-up for the second, even more memorable and far-more embarrassing, encounter that would come, a few months later, on a sunny afternoon in March (
the 18th according to Wikipedia—although they got the name of the recording studio wrong, so who can say for sure?) when I got to spend a day watching Lennon and BOMF film videos for the recently released Rock 'n' Roll tracks “Slippin’ and Slidin’” and “Stand By Me”—both intended for a British television show called The Old Grey Whistle Test.

Looking back, it’s amazing that I was allowed in at all.  Jonny C and I were good friends, of course, but I suspect it helped that we were also songwriting partners:  a number of songs we created together were part of BOMF’s repertoire and, as a result, we were both under contract to the aforementioned Roy Cicala.  (The contract sounds impressive, but it didn’t lead me to rock and roll fame and fortune.  Jonny, on the other hand, has had a long, successful—and well-deserved—musical career.)  In any case, on that sunny March day, I skipped my classes at Brooklyn College (something I was in the habit of doing, anyway), hopped the subway into Manhattan and hustled over to West 44th Street, where the Record Plant was located.

As I recall—and, in retrospect, it’s fairly astonishing—there was no security detail to pass through:  I just walked in, headed straight for the studio and opened the door.   There, leaning over the sound board was John Lennon, who looked up, peered over his glasses and said, in that sharp, utterly distinctive Liverpudlian voice, “Is this the place?”  I scanned the room, looking for Jonny C—who was my ticket in—but he wasn’t there; so, utterly intimidated (just because I’d encountered Lennon before didn’t mean I was any less overwhelmed by his flesh-and-blood presence), I muttered, “Uh...yeah, it is, but I’ll wait outside...”, closed the door and retreated to a nearby couch.  I probably would have sat out there all day if a couple of the BOMF boys hadn’t come by, noticed me and alerted Jon to my presence.

Jonny C promptly appeared and ushered me into the studio—where I was soon sitting comfortably in a chair in the engineer’s booth while, on the other side of the glass, John Lennon and the band ran through take after take of “Slippin’ and Slidin’” and  “Stand By Me” for the film crew.  (BOMF was actually miming to prerecorded tracks from the Rock ‘n’ Roll album.  Lennon, though, was doing a live vocal.)  Anyone who’s followed this blog for more than five minutes understands how profoundly JL—as a Beatle, as a solo artist, as a human on the planet—has inspired me; so I think you can imagine what it was like for me to sit there, for hours, watching him perform, running the band through their paces (miming, as I learned that day, isn’t as easy as you’d think); one of the greatest vocalists in the history of rock and roll singing take after take:  laughing, joking and, well, being John Lennon.

And yet as I watched Lennon work, it seemed as if—despite more than a decade as one of the most famous, admired men on Earth—being on camera, the center of all that attention, made him uncomfortable.  His attitude, his bearing, wasn’t that of the Clever Beatle, the peacenik sage, the political firebrand:  it felt as if he’d retreated into Hamburg John, the young, rock and roll tough guy.  It was a subtle thing and there was certainly none of the aggression or anger that often got him in trouble:  he was, as expected, charismatic and charming.  Still it seemed to me that he was wearing a mask to protect himself and keep the world at bay.  In a few short months he’d retire completely from music to concentrate on being a husband and father (by March of ’75 “Lost Weekend” girlfriend May Pang was gone and Lennon had reunited with Yoko, who was pregnant with Sean) and it’s clear—in retrospect, at least—that he was, in fact, sick of "riding on the merry-go-round" (as he sang in "Watching the Wheels") and was preparing for his retreat.  Soon he’d be shedding all his personas and reconnecting with the person he’d been before the Beatles.  Until then, he’d keep pretending to be some version of Famous John Lennon.

There was a telling moment when, during one break between songs, he muttered—it was more like a discussion with himself than a request to the group—”Anybody got any coke?”  (And, no, he wasn’t talking about Coca Cola.)  A second later he shook his head.  “Nah,” he said, retracting the request, “if I do that, I’ll probably bite Tom Snyder’s head off.”  (He was scheduled to tape an interview for Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow Show that night.  You can watch it here.)  The coke request seemed like an old reflex, the immediate denial of the request reflecting a high level of post-”Lost Weekend” self-awareness—and a signpost to the new, family-centered life that was waiting for him at the Dakota.  (It’s very possible I’m reading into this—after all, I didn’t know the man, who am I to analyze him?—and yet, given my own intuition and the insights Lennon himself provided in interviews he gave after his emergence from his five years of House Husbanding, it feels true.)

After they ran through both songs a number of times, Lennon and the band took a break and the musicians filed back into the engineer’s booth.  Everyone was standing around chatting, the vibe amiable and low-key (well, I was low-key on the outside, but in my head I was doing backflips and screaming “John Lennon!  I’m standing here with John Lennon!  Dear God—how is this even possible?!”).  Jonny C took this opportunity to formally introduce me to Lennon.  “John,” he said, trying hard to sound casual (yet knowing full well what a Momentous Occasion this was for me), “have you met Marc, my lyricist?”

Lennon quickly looked me over and then offered a perfect, deadpan Lennon greeting.  “Hello, Marc my lyricist,” he said, as if "my lyricist" wasn't a description, but my last name.

So there I was, standing  face to face with John Winston Ono Lennon.  He’d just greeted me with a clever quip and I desperately needed something to say in reply.  It was like flash cards were flipping over in my mind, each one stamped with a possible answer:  I could tell him, I thought, studying the cards, how much he means to me; how his Beatles music—from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to “I Am The Walrus”—completely rocked my world and my consciousness; how John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band—aside from being one of the greatest albums in the history of popular music—helped get me through an incredibly difficult period in my life; how brilliant I think Walls and Bridges is.  There were so many things I could have said, but I rejected them all.  I kept returning to the fact that Lennon had greeted me with “Hello, Marc my lyricist”—and I knew I needed to come up with a matching quip, something sharp and witty.  In the name of symmetry, it had to begin with “Hello, John my...”  But “John my” what?  My internal computer frantically scanned the Lennon archives, recalling a story about JL meeting Chuck Berry, during the taping of a Mike Douglas Show; how Lennon—always a teenaged rock and roll fan at heart—greeted Berry by calling him his hero.  (Keep in mind that all of these mental acrobatics actually happened in a matter of, at best, two or three seconds.  Subjectively, it felt like an eternity.)

And then it clicked—and I had my reply.

“Hello, John, my hero,” I said.  As soon as it came out of my mouth I felt like a total fool.  This wasn’t cleverness, this was revealing myself as a transparent Beatles fanboy.  I was certain my idiocy would get me ejected from the building, unceremoniously tossed out onto 44th Street and banned from the Record Plant for life.  To my immense relief, the group laughed—not at me, they actually seemed to find my answer amusing (or perhaps they were just acknowledging the unspoken fact that they all felt the same way)—but Lennon had an odd reaction.  For a  moment—just for a moment—he pulled back, as if he couldn’t believe One Of Them had gotten in:  another wide-eyed, open-mouthed Beatlemaniac trying to make him into the god he didn’t want to be.  He recovered quickly, but I’d noticed—and it underlined the sense I had about how uncomfortable he was wearing the fame he’d been cloaked in since 1964.

Soon after that, Lennon and the band went back to work, finishing up the videos.  The last bit of filming was of the musicians in the booth, gathered around the sound board, listening back to the tracks.  I was hoping no one would realize I was still there and I’d get myself immortalized on film with John Lennon—but Jonny C quickly gave me A Look and I knew I had to retreat.  In the end it didn’t matter:  the film of that day had been forever imprinted on my mind.

A little later, Jonny and I were heading upstairs to the band’s rehearsal room and we found ourselves standing in the elevator with Lennon, who was also heading up.  This would have been the perfect chance to say something, anything, else and perhaps atone for my humiliating “my hero!” outburst—but I couldn’t get a word out.  The elevator stopped, Lennon went his way and we went ours.

My time with John Lennon was over that day, but Jonny’s wasn’t.  Not long after the Rock ‘n’ Roll videos were filmed, Lennon recruited BOMF to appear with him on the Salute to Sir Lew Grade television special.  This time the band didn’t just mime, they actually got to record—and perform—a new version of “Imagine.”  This turned out to be the last public performance of John Lennon’s lifetime.  (If you’re wondering about the two-headed masks BOMF had on, this was apparently Lennon’s way of commenting on Sir Lew’s two-faced business dealings.)


As for me, looking back with the wisdom of hindsight, and the knowledge of the tragic fate that awaited Lennon outside the Dakota in 1980, I’m far less embarrassed by what I said to him at the Record Plant that day—and far more grateful.  He was my hero and I got to tell him that.

That’s not humiliation, that’s grace.

copyright © 2018 J.M. DeMatteis




Sunday, October 7, 2018

BERGER BOOKING



Thursday at New York Comic Con was Berger Books day, the main focus of which was a great panel, hosted by my old friend, and legendary editor, Karen Berger and featuring (among others) Ann Nocenti, Dean Haspiel, Christopher Cantwell and Corin Howell.  And speaking of Corin...

The reason we were on the panel was to announce our new, four issue mini-series The Girl in the Bay.  Here's a description from the Berger Books press release:

In 1969, seventeen-year-old Kathy Sartori was brutally attacked, her body hurled into Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay. Miraculously, she survives, fights her way back to the surface, only to discover that 50 years have passed, and an eerie doppelganger has lived out an entire life in her place. Kathy soon confronts not just this strange double, but the madman who "murdered" her five decades earlier. Will he, and the dark entity that lives inside him, hold the key to Kathy's missing years? Or will Kathy become a ghost of herself and be forced to live out what remains of her life on the edge of the world that she desperately wants to be a part of?



Karen and I have been friends for many years (how many?  She was seventeen and I was twenty-one when we met).  We've worked together on multiple DC and Vertigo projects and it's a true joy to be collaborating with her again.  And having an artist as talented as Corin Howell (that's her in the picture above) along for the ride is the icing on the cake.

The Girl in the Bay will be out in February.  Hope you all come along for the ride, too.








Saturday, October 6, 2018

CONSTANTINE AT THE CON

Just got back from a couple of packed days at the New York Comic Con.  Day One was spent promoting the new Constantine:  City of Demons—The Movie, which is coming out on DVD, BluRay and other formats on October 9th.  We had a great panel, with a huge enthusiastic crowd, and you can watch the entire thing below...



And here are a few more photos from Constantine Day.  That's Rachel Kimsey (the voice of Angela) on the left, followed by producer Butch Lukic, designer Phil Bourassa, actor Damian O'Hare (the voice of Chas), JMD and the CW Seed's Peter Girardi in the picture below.




Huge thanks to the amazing Gary Miereanu and his equally-amazing Warner Brothers team for making it a memorable day.

(Be back tomorrow with some photos from Friday's Berger Books panel.)

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

REMEMBERING BREYFOGLE



I just heard that Norm Breyfogle, one of the definitive Batman artists of all time, has passed away.

I had the pleasure of working with Norm on The Spectre and he was a wonderful collaborator:  his drawing was powerful, his storytelling impeccable and he really thought about the stories.

Norm would call me up just to ask questions and discuss the philosophy underlying my scripts.  He had a questing mind that dug deep—and that depth was reflected in his dynamic artwork.

A terrible loss and, at only 58, way too young.

My heartfelt condolences to Norm's family and friends.



Tuesday, September 18, 2018

IT'S HERE!

A box just landed on my front porch stuffed with copies of Impossible Incorporated #1. My buddy Mike Cavallaro and I have been developing this project—which tells the tale of seventeen year old Number Horowitz and her band of cosmic adventurers—for years now and it's profoundly gratifying to finally hold the book in my hands.

The first issue is on sale tomorrow and I hope you all buy it and, of course,  enjoy it!

THE JOY OF ZECK

Here's a clip from Sunday's Kraven's Last Hunt panel where I talk about the joy of working with an artist and visual storyteller as gifted as Mike Zeck.  You can find more videos from Cincinnati, and other interesting things, on my recently launched Youtube Channel.

Enjoy!

ALERT

If you've posted a comment to the blog today and haven't received a response it's because Google is having some kind of issue that's preventing me from replying.  As soon as it's fixed, you'll hear from me.  Thanks!