Monday, December 13, 2010


Between the celebration of John Lennon’s 70th birthday in October—which included the release of the wonderful Double Fantasy Stripped Down and Ken Sharp’s equally-wonderful book on the making of that classic album—and the thirtieth anniversary of JL’s assassination last week (capped by Paul McCartney singing a memorable medley of "A Day in the Life" and “Give Peace A Chance” on Saturday Night Live), the pop culture world has been in a state of renewed Lennonmania for months now.  Seems like the perfect time to chronicle my second encounter with my one true rock and roll hero. 

Back in April, I wrote about that magical night in January of 1975, when I found myself sitting on the floor of a small rehearsal room in New York’s famous Record Plant East recording studio, watching Lennon, who was standing perhaps four feet away, teaching my old friend—and master piano player—Jon Cobert’s band, BOMF, the basics of a then-new musical style called disco.  (We’d never heard of disco before that night—but Lennon was predicting, correctly, that it would be “the next big thing.”)  Unforgettable?  Absolutely.  But a few months later—March 18th according to Wikipedia (although they got the name of the recording studio wrong, so who can say for sure?)—thanks to Jonny C’s gracious invitation, I got to spend the good part of a day in JL’s presence, watching him film—again accompanied by BOMF—videos for the recently released Rock 'n' Roll tracks “Slippin’ and Slidin’” and “Stand By Me.”  (The videos were intended for a British television show called The Old Grey Whistle Test.  You can see one of the clips—along with a short interview Lennon did for the show—at the end of this post.)

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 (Jon provided the music, I provided the lyrics):  a number of songs we created together were part of BOMF’s repertoire and, as a result, we were both under contract to Roy Cicala:  BOMF’s manager, Lennon’s principal engineer and the man who ran the ship at the Record Plant.  (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.  (In 1972 I’d seen John and Yoko at the One-to-One concert at Madison Square Garden.  I was way up, in the cheap seats, and he was a small figure, haloed in light, on a stage that seemed miles away.  Now I had the best seats in the house.  Maybe in the universe.)

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 a television special called A Salute to Sir Lew Grade.  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.   Have a look.  (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 2010 J.M. DeMatteis


  1. Damn cool. Thanks so much for sharing that. On behalf of all of us who never had a chance to spend time with Lennon, this glimpse (and the one from ealier this year) was wonderful. I shook hands with Yoko (who was promoting lithographs of John's drawings and shook hands in lieu of signing anything) around 1986 but for some reason it wasn't quite the same thing...

  2. Happy to finally get the story posted, Jeff. It was great fun to relive it as I wrote it.

  3. Great story J.M., thanks for sharing it with us.

  4. Think it would've gone better had you said "my working class hero"?

  5. That might have worked, Jeff. Or maybe "my working class walrus"?

  6. Great story, JMD. Glad you came to understand your perceived humiliation as the grace it truly was.

    I always thought walruses were more elitist than working class. They have tusks, after all, which are the animal kindgom equivalent of diamond-studded dental implants...

  7. What's interesting, David, is that Lennon came to the same conclusion. A few years after writing "I Am The Walrus" -- partially in tribute to Lewis Carroll, a writer he loved -- Lennon realized that the Walrus was the bad guy in the story of the walrus and the carpenter. But he also realized that "I Am The Carpenter" wouldn't have worked as well as a lyric!

  8. I remember reading Aldous Huxley's preface to "Brave New World," where he talked about how he might change the text had he written it more recently. But then he went on to conclude how that would probably be a bad thing, because he would inevitably rid the work of what made it special.

    I'm a big fan of Hawthorne's short story "The Birthmark." It tells the story of a scientist with a beautiful wife who has a single defect. The scientist dedicates himself to ridding her of it, but she dies in the surgery!

    With an artist like Lennon, who seems to have constantly expanded his horizons, it's always interesting to see what they think of earlier material that resonated with the public. There's something magical about the way an audience receives a text or a song, even when the author feels he or she has long since moved past it. Something about that dynamic fascinates me.

  9. I know from personal experience, David, that the creator is sometimes the worst judge of his own material.

    As tough as Lennon sometimes was on McCartney and the Beatles, he was an even more harsh when it came to his own work, often dismissive of truly brilliant songs. And, to the day he died, he wanted to re-record Beatles classics like "Strawberry Fields" and "Help" because he thought they'd been botched in the original versions. Amazing, huh?

  10. Isn't it?

    I suppose it's because the artist has that Ideal in mind, so that no matter how good their work is, they are painfully conscious of where it departed from their original Vision.

  11. Beautiful story JM, really enjoyed reading it. Big smile on my face the whole time. Even though I'm not the biggest Beatles/Lennon fan in the world (am I still allowed to read & post on your blog?), I can appreciate it from the standpoint of meeting people you admire.

    The only 2 people I would ever put the moniker "hero" on are George Carlin & Bill Hicks...but there are plenty of folks whose work I admire & respect & really enjoy, & I'm always grateful for the opportunity to be able to thank them in person. That's one of the reasons I still go to comic book conventions here & there, so I can talk with artists & writers who I admire, and get to thank them personally for some of the hours of enjoyment they've provided me with thru their work.

    Thanks, JM.

  12. Hi Mr. DeMatteis: Was wondering if you read the article written by Dick Cavett remembering when he first met John and Yoko. I quite enjoyed it. (How stupendous it would be if someday you could write a Dr. Strange story of him recalling the time he was on Dick Cavett with John and Yoko. And I totally give up all rights to the idea, it's yours. Namaste AKA Keep On Trukin'.)

    With your permission of course, I will include the link to the interview for you:

  13. JM, all things considered, that wasn't such a bad response. What would any of us have done in the same situation, after all?

    I'd like to think that I'd have said something like, "Thanks for the music, and thanks for helping me to open up my mind."

    But what I probably would have said is something like a bad Ralph Kramden impression: "Homina-homina-homina!" :)

    You know, on second thought, I might have made it a simple, "Thanks for the honesty."

    Damn, I miss him.

  14. I just read that column yesterday, Namaste, and enjoyed it very much. I especially enjoyed the clip of the actual interview. I remember when it first aired and it was a big deal. A Beatle -- sitting down for 90 minute television interview? It was unheard of!

  15. Yes, Ken, you're still allowed to enter the sanctity of Creation Point -- but as penance you must listen to JOHN LENNON/PLASTIC ONO BAND repeatedly for two days!

    Funny you mention George Carlin and Bill Hicks as two of your heroes. My son feels the same way...especially about Hicks.

  16. You and me both, Tim.

    Many times over the years I've thought about the many things I could have said that day; but, really, the words that came out were the truest and most appropriate.

    But WHY DIDN'T I BRING AN ALBUM FOR HIM TO SIGN? Now that would have been a treasure.

  17. J.M.--

    Thanks for sharing that story! For the record, I'm really glad that I got to thank you in person (at WonderCon a few years back) for writing so many of my favorite comic books.

    I write comic books and cartoon books on occasion, and while I can't say that you're the only reason I went into that line of writing, I'm sure you're a big part of why I did. Thanks very much for that.

    Best wishes for a happy birthday and a great holiday season.

    --Andrew Farago

  18. If I inspired you in any small way, Andrew, I'm INCREDIBLY grateful. And thanks so much for the birthday wishes! All the best -- JMD

  19. Happy birthday!! Hope it's as delightful as the one you gave to Hal Jordan's niece (what the hell ever happened to her??)!

  20. Y'know, Jeff, now that I think about it, I haven't had a postcard from Helen Jordan for YEARS now. And I really liked that kid!

    Thanks so much for the birthday greeting. It's been a great, low-key, family kind of day. And I've enjoyed it all.

  21. Hot damn, didn't even realize it was your birthday today...Happy Birthday! What anniversary of your 39th birthday is it? (For the record, I'm well aware of how old you actually are, but I'm giving you the chance to graciously go the Jack Benny route...)

    And as far as your son being a big fan of Carlin & Hicks...good for him. Does he have Carlin's posthumous autobiography (which in itself seems like the biggest joke he could have many people have their own life story, written by themself, come out AFTER they die?!?), Last Words?

    I'll see if I can get Plastic Ono from the library on my route...

  22. Didn't know it was your birthday, Marc! Happy B-day! Have you read the latest ROLLING STONE, with the last interview John gave to the magazine? It was recorded 5 days before his death, and he comes off as very witty, very quick, very self-aware, and very enthusiastic about his present and (never to be fulfilled) future. It's not all that different from the PLAYBOY interview conducted around the same time, thought that went into far greater depth. But definitely worth a read.

  23. Happy belated birthday, JMD.

    Glad you had a great day.

  24. Thanks for the birthday greeting, Ken. Jack Benny certainly knew what he was doing: 39 it is!

    Yes, I'm pretty sure Cody owns Carlin's book.

    PLASTIC ONO BAND isn't the easiest album in the world to listen to -- it's pretty intense -- but if you can handle Bill Hicks, you can certainly handle this!

  25. Thanks, Glenn! Around here we pretty much keep celebrating my birthday until Christmas, so I'm still in Prime Birthday Mode. (You, of all, people will appreciate the birthday gift my wife gave me: all five seasons of BOSTON LEGAL on DVD.)

    I've read the online ROLLING STONE material (but they're one of those sites that won't give you access to the whole issue unless you subscribe). The good news is a friend of mine is sending me the issue as a birthday present, so I'll
    be reading it soon enough.

    RS has several audio clips from the interview on their site and it's wonderful -- and simultaneously sad -- to hear that voice again, full of confidence and ready to rock.

  26. Thanks, David! As I told Glenn, we keep celebrating around here till Christmas Day, so your greeting isn't belated at all. It's STILL a great day!

  27. I think you should have said, "WOW! I can't believe I'm meeting... wait you are George Harrison right? The talented one?" or "Hey teacup, where are the bagels?" or "by the way your welcome for that whole beating the Nazis thing." But that's just me. Any way totally dug the second half of "Chaos War: Thor," though I will say the first issue was better in my eyes... love that crazy characterization. I especially liked the end of issue 2, it seemed like an accidental allusion to "Going Sane." A great, solid story all around. Here's hoping to see more solo Dematteis stories in the near future, even if I do love the Giffen team-ups.

    Wishing you nothing but goodwill and hipness from here to he stars,

    P.S. When Stan Lee came to Detroit, well Dearborn technically, I asked him his favorite Marx Brothers movie. It was Duck Soup. the point is I had a long, though quick moving line to think that question over, I get the pressure to not look like a jackass, when you have one attempt to talk to a legend.

  28. In conjunction with the piece you want to do on comics you loved before you went pro: if anyone out there still has old issues and can pull quotes from JMD letters of comment it might be fun to see if these quotes stir up any additional recollections. If you enter dematteis in the Marvel search on it not only pulls up the inventory of JMD written issues, but also shows lots of ones with JMD missives. I recall one sent to Master of Kung Fu (if memory serves) that described a road trip taken with friends in the mid-70s. Of course it's been forever since I had that issue, so I might be completely misremembering. By the way, at the same time that you were engaging Steve Gerber with your thoughts (he was handling most of the letters pages from '72-'74, I believe), I had my one-and-only showing in the back of Jimmy Olsen #162! Do you have a rough number of how many you had printed?

  29. Stan's choice of DUCK SOUP -- for my money one of the two or three greatest comedies every made -- is further proof of the man's genius.

    Glad you enjoyed part two of CHAOS WAR: THOR, Jack. I had a wonderful time writing it. Not sure when my next THOR project is coming out -- or in what format -- but it's big and cosmic and features Thor, Silver Surfer, Galactus, Oblivion and the Other.

    Wishing you Christmas goodwill and New Year's hipness from here to the stars!

  30. No specific number, Jeff, but I had quite a few letters published back in the day (in a variety of Marvel books; and, sadly, I don't own most of the issues they were published in). I do recall that MOKF letter -- I think it was one of the last ones I ever wrote -- and you're right, it did talk about a road trip I'd taken across the country.

    When these letter pop up I find them simultaneously embarrassing and delightful, which I guess is as it should be!

  31. I'm going to try and keep my internet activity at a minimum for the next week to prepare for the holiday, so I wanted to take this opporunity to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas.

    Here's to a wonderful holiday filled with friends, family, and a DeMatteis penned stocking stuffer or two. It's common knowledge Santa's a big BOOSTER GOLD fan, after all.

  32. Happiest of holidays to you, too, David. Hope the season is everything you want...and more.

    And I hear that Santa really loves IMAGINALIS, too!

  33. I love the honesty of your writing. You don't make yourself extra cool--just you.

    Thought you might enjoy my thoughts as a first time Beatles mono listener:

  34. Thanks, Nicholas. I'll zip over and read your blog right now!

  35. Out of topic, but I saw this very nice review of your Chaos War: Thor miniseries that I thought you would like reading. It is in the Robot 6 blog at CBR:

  36. Thanks for pointing that out, Quique. It's always wonderful, and deeply gratifying, when someone genuinely gets a story in the way it was intended -- and the writer of this review clearly did.

    It's also funny -- because yesterday the same site had a review that was as negative as this one was positive. Keeping the cosmos in balance, I guess!

  37. You'll get no argument from me about Duck Soup's quality, I was stoked Stan and I had the same opinion, and he was stoked someone asked him a question not about comics...I like to imagine anyway. But hey don't let Thor constrain you, there is a whole world of comic properties to work on. A return to Silver Surfer or Doc Strange (my personal favorite) maybe. Fantastic Four, Tales of the Zombie, Nighthawk, you can't tell me your hippie nature doesn't cry out to do Green Arrow, or oh oh Brother Power the Geek. Hey how about the Punisher, that would be a story to remember. Or a Frog-man limited series. The point is, don't limit yourself. Oh I've got it, recast the Brothers Karamazov with marvel characters... now that is a top seller.

    Wishing you nothing, but goodwill and hipness from here to the stars,

  38. Recast THE BROTHERS K with Marvel characters? Now that's an interesting one, Jack. I know that the Silver Surfer would be Alyosha (with the Ancient One as Alyosha's spiritual guide, Father Zosima), and the Chameleon would be a perfect Smerdyakov (since that's the name I gave him when I added to his back story)...perhaps Wolverine as Ivan? But who would be the elder Karamozov? What Marvel character is an out of control, sensualist hothead?

    Next we'll recast DUCK SOUP!

  39. before nothing, sorry for my english is not soo good!!
    thanks for bring your words to make magics worlds! i enjoy a lot with the comics from you that i can found in spanish(what i speak)
    ...since the time that i read Blood, my point of view about comics change, i was reading before... but after it was different.. thanks!
    congratulation for your works!!

  40. Your English is just fine. Heartfelt thanks for your kind words. If my work has touched you in any small way, I am deeply grateful.

    Just one question: What's your name? Or should I just call you Flip?

  41. The elder Karamazov: Norman Osborn??