In 1975, in his mid-30s, John Lennon put his career on hold, concentrating on raising his son Sean, who was born in October of that year. He released an album of ’50s and early ’60s covers, Rock ‘n’ Roll, in February 1975, but his next one, his Double Fantasy collaboration with Yoko Ono, didn’t come out until more than five and a half years later, in November 1980.
That’s an eternity for a major rock artist in an era when most of them were still releasing an album every year or so.
Lennon retreated from public view during that time, though not quite completely. As Jay Bergen explains in his new book “Lennon, the Mobster & the Lawyer: The Untold Story” (DeVault Graves Books, 338 pp., $28.95), Lennon was embroiled in a lawsuit against mob-connected record company owner Morris Levy from 1975 to 1977, and testified extensively.
Bergen, who was Lennon’s lawyer, writes in the book that he “was the best witness I ever represented or put on the stand in my forty-five year career. He was very easy to work with. John rarely forgot anything we discussed. He never let the questioner push him around or intimidate him, but he also never showed obvious anger.”
Bergen writes the book from his own point of view, though he quotes extensively from trial transcripts. A Long Island native who was a few years older than Lennon — and who is now retired and residing in Saluda, N.C. — he was living in Mendham at the time, and commuting into Manhattan daily.
He had kept documents from the trial with him for decades, but never really spent any time with them until about five years ago.
“They were stored in a storeroom in the back of our garage,” he says. “I was thinking about maybe donating them to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But I went out to the garage, and I started reading John’s testimony. And I realized that there might be a book here — and particularly a book that would try to convey who John Lennon was at this time.”
How did Lennon end up suing Levy? Well, it started with Levy, whose publishing company owned the rights to the Chuck Berry song “You Can’t Catch Me,” suing Lennon for copyright infringment: The Lennon-written Beatles song “Come Together” had one line that was nearly the same, and some musical similarities. They settled out of court in 1973, with Lennon agreeing, as compensation, to record three Levy-owned songs.
Later, Levy got his hands on a copy of unmastered Lennon recordings for the Rock ‘n’ Roll album, and had the audacity to release them as a poor-sounding, horrific-looking mail-order album titled Roots: John Lennon Sings the Great Rock & Roll Hits. That’s what Lennon was suing about.
Sounds like an open-and-shut case, right? Well, it was, and Lennon ultimately won, though there were a number of complications along the way. Bergen — who writes that he considered himself “a buttoned-down, ‘just the facts, ma’am’ lawyer” at the time — takes readers through the entire process, dwelling, as one would expect, on moments when Lennon was personally involved.
As Bergen tells the tale of the trial, there are some tidbits that Beatles/Lennon will appreciate, as when Lennon talks to him about songs he chose for the Rock ‘n’ Roll album.
“I really liked Larry Williams,” Bergen remembers Lennon saying. “I sang (Williams’ ‘Bony Moronie’) the only time my mother saw me perform. That’s the reason I wanted to sing it. There are others that I had specific reasons for wanting to sing. I’m the only one who knows these reasons. Like ‘Ain’t That a Shame.’ My mother taught me to
play that on the banjo.”
There there is the time Ono informed Bergen that her swami told her the trial would be interrupted that day. And indeed it was, with the opposing lawyer forcing a mistrial, which meant that the trial would have to start again with another judge and jury.
And then there is the time Lennon casually asks Bergen, “Do you know anything about a singer named Freddie Mercury? When I talk to Julian on the phone, he talks about Freddie Mercury. I have no idea who he’s talking about.”
After Bergen tells him a little about Mercury (then at more or less the height of his popularity with Queen), Lennon responds, “I’d better learn more about Freddie Mercury so I can talk intelligently to Julian.”
Photographer Bob Gruen wrote the foreword to the book, and also appears in one of its best stories. One day, Lennon asked Gruen to attend the trial and surreptitiously take a photo of him testifying, and Gruen was able to do so, hiding his camera underneath his coat.
When Bergen asked him why he asked Gruen to do that, Lennon responded: “Someday I’m going to write an album of songs about all my and The Beatles’ legal problems. That picture is going to be the album cover.”
For more on the book, visit lennonthemobsterandthelawyer.com.
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