Monday, April 5, 2010

MEETING LENNON, PART ONE

Here, at long last, is the tale of my two historic (well, historic to me) meetings with my one true rock and roll hero, John Winston Ono Lennon.  I can’t swear that I’ve got all the details right—memory’s a tricky thing, at best—but the essence of the story is absolutely true.

***


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 recent CD, Here’s Your Canoe, and you can stream 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 (I’d tell you what the letters stood for, but I am a children’s book author, after all).  BOMF was managed by a man named 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 in Part Two) 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 and (in a nod to what Lennon perceived as Sir Lew’s duplicitous nature) two faces.  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 a 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 Kalua 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 Kalua 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 Kalua.

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 when I got to spend a day watching Lennon and BOMF film this:



And here’s hoping it doesn’t take me as long to write “Meeting Lennon, Part Two” as it’s taken me to write this.

© copyright 2010 J.M. DeMatteis


12 comments:

  1. That's an awesome story.

    I can kind of relate to the whole speechlessness thing. When I knew I was going to meet Peter David at a comicon, I had all these clever things in mind that I was going to say. I was sixteen, so it probably wasn't as clever as I even imagined it, but I ended up stuttering, "I really enjoy what you'rd doing with the Hulk," as best I could! And he said, "Great things coming the book, keep reading," and that was the sum of it.

    I'm always thankful for the internet, because I tend to express myself better in writing than in person. I imagine if I met you in person I'd be lucky to get out as much as I did at the comic-con!

    Look forward to part two.

    Best,

    David

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  2. Glad you enjoyed the story, David. And, if we ever meet at a convention, I suspect we'll be able to have a terrific conversation.

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  3. Yeah, I think so, too.

    One of these days I'll make it out to California or another convention hotspot, or perhaps you'll get around to a Texas con.

    David

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  4. That would be nice, David. Till then, cyberspace will have to do!

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  5. Great story. Very nice to get to see a hero perform so close.
    I get lucky in my profession by meeting my heroes and see them in action. I am a mathematician and it is a pleasure seeing the greats give talks at conferences or as visitors to nearby universities. However, seeing them give talks is kind of like watching a concert, in the sense that you are a bit removed. When it gets really nice is when you do mathematics together. It probably sounds weird to non-mathematicians, but doing mathematics is a very creative, fulfilling exercise.

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  6. I love the idea of mathematical rock stars, Quique. And I'm delighted that you sometimes get to, essentially, play in a band with your math heroes.

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  7. I don't know if it was the long wait or what (I nagged you a few times on Amazon for this very entry), but while reading this I could actually feel the nervous thrill as you came closer to the encounter and the crackle of amazement which followed as you shared time and space with the guy. What a great description- I can see why you wanted to take all that time for the exact right words to fall into place so you could bring it to life for us. Next best thing to it happening first hand.. my sincere thanks! Did I ever tell you about the time I met G'nort? It was raining and he smelled really rank...

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  8. Glad you thought it was worth the wait, Jeff. The second meeting was equally amazing -- but I'm sure it can't compare to meeting G'nort. I've spoken to him on the phone a few times, but never had the pleasure of a face-to-whisker encounter!

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  9. A GREAT story and as others have said, well worth the wait. You always hear "don't meet your heroes, they'll only disappoint you", but I've found the opposite to be true. Jack Kirby was wonderfully enthusiastic about everything around him when I met him, I got to talk to Stan Lee about the comics he worked on in the 50's with Joe Maneely, Don McGregor was exactly how I envisioned him and Steve Gerber was (who I sadly never met in person) was an excellent e-mail pal who did nothing but encourage me.

    Then again, I've only been starstruck once (of course, she was an amazingly beautiful woman) who told me, "It's OK, you can say something."

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  10. Nothing wrong with being starstruck now and then, Cory. That said, I've been re-living my conversations with John Lennon (yes, in Part Two you'll learn that I was able to form actual words) for many years, thinking about the things I SHOULD have said. But, in the end, I have to believe that everything played out exactly the way it was supposed to.

    I never got to meet Jack Kirby. That would really have been a treat.

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  11. A wonderful story. I'd have been more than happy for an embarrassing encounter rather than no encounter at all. That's great!

    I hope it isn't odd throwing a promo in here, but Tom Hartman of The Aerovons recently supplied me a story about meeting John Lennon, as well. You can find it on my site, A Bit Like You And Me, if you're interested.

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    1. Definitely interested, Zolland. I'll check it out ASAP! And you're right, the embarrassment has faded, but the memory of that encounter grows brighter every year.

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