Lennon’s lawyer tells the story of his almost forgotten rights battles with mobster Morris Levy
There have been loads of books about The Beatles in general and John Lennon in particular. Paul McCartney carries forward the legacy of The Beatles, playing stadiums across America, ringing nostalgic bells in a live setting, and, to a lesser extent, Ringo Starr, with his All-Starr Band tours, where I think still, “C” my, Ringo, more Beatles, less hits from a long time ago by your B-grade rock buddies.”
But it’s Lennon – well, those who write about Lennon – who rule the shelves. This is obviously due to the fact that there was an end point to his career, a very bloody end point in December 1980 which needs no further elaboration here. And the ever lingering question of “What if?” that hovers around any artist taken away too soon.
One of Lennon-alia’s smaller slices gets the full treatment in Lennon, the gangster and the lawyer: the untold story by Jay Bergen, which was released on May 1. (Bergen is the lawyer, Morris Levy is the mobster, and Lennon is the aggrieved rock star.) This is a trial that many of us vaguely remember from the tumultuous days of the middle, but, for me, at the less it was a vague memory of, “Oh, yeah, weren’t there two versions of that oldies record that Lennon made, one peddled on late-night TV. How the hell did that happen?”
As famous causes, it was pretty minor at the time, but it was at different times. Imagine the hubbub in today’s world.
Bergen, 83 and living in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, is here now to explain the twisted story. He worked on the book for four years and had originally produced some of the material which would appear seven times as a lecture with video presentation. Famed New York photographer and Lennon’s pal Bob Gruen, who wrote the foreword, encouraged him to print it for posterity.
Bergen’s book is both fascinating (the curtain is up!) and numbing (enough is enough!) and it certainly made me think: 1) I would hate to be a lawyer and 2) I hope I don’t end up in litigation. The wheels of justice turn slowly and painfully and there is an excess of repetition in the testimony. There are also a lot of repetitions in the book. Bergen lays out the puzzling details of the dispute, then reiterates it later, to follow it up with Q/A testimony from Lennon. Bergen needed a better publisher; it didn’t need to be 317 pages.
In Lennon, The Mobster & The Lawyer, the difference in sound quality between recording a tape at 7½ fps and 15 fps is so explained that I was ready to shout, “Stop! We already know that!” If you’re curious, the former is okay for rough demos; the latter is for the finished product. Sounds better at the faster speed.
When asked if he was qualified to understand how confused the public was by Roots, the album of old rock ‘n’ roll songs that Lennon recorded and Levy peddled illegally and Rock ‘n’ Roll , the official Lennon, Capitol Records release with two fewer songs and a much better sound, Lennon replied, “I am. I met the public who told me about my product. I met a taxi driver who said to me: “Sorry, I already bought the wrong vehicle”. They talk about me in the street. I know what they are thinking. I don’t live in an ivory tower. I walk the streets. I get in taxis and I know what they’re thinking.
Ok, so it’s clear: Both versions combined at least one Taxi driver. I guess it also confused the general public. The delight of Bergen’s book comes from hearing Lennon talk about the recording process, all the steps it takes to get from song to studio, mixing, mastering, lacquering and press testing to distribution. At least what is its process. The care he took to put together the right package, from the music to the cover. The Beatles were among the first, if not the first, to demand and control their cover art. At times, it borders on “how the sausage is made” territory as Lennon goes over and over again about the process.
Lennon, according to Bergen, was all-out on it, wanting victory in the first trial and appropriate damages assessed in the second.
Levy released the Roots record a week before Capitol Rock ‘n’ Roll; Capitol rushed to put it on the market and stifle sales of Levy’s LP.
How did Levy get it? It seems that at one time Lennon and Levy were friends or at least friendly acquaintances. Their families went to Disney World together, and Lennon agreed to go to Levy’s Farm in upstate New York to rehearse. Wasn’t Lennon aware of Levy’s bad reputation and unscrupulous business practices? For all his worldliness, was he so naive, unaware of what Levy wanted out of him? Obviously.
The backstory: Levy claimed that The Beatles’ Lennon-penned “Come Together” infringed copyright on Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me,” which Levy’s publishing company, Big Seven Music, possessed. He typed in a few words on “flat-top” and it looks ridiculous from afar but I guess for Levy it was a way to get into Lennon’s headspace and work his way to a settlement .
It worked, until appointment. To avoid legal action, Lennon agreed to record three songs owned by Levy on his album oldies, so that Levy would get publishing cash back. Levy kept nagging him about it and Lennon eventually gave him a batch of those 7 ½ fps recordings, telling him they weren’t final and he’d like to get rid of some “crappy” songs. .
Jackpot! thought Levy. He claimed that he and Lennon had a “verbal agreement” to release the record – all tracks, presumably – which, to use that word, was ridiculous. Capitol owned what Lennon did. He couldn’t have given the record to Levy if he wanted to, and besides, Lennon made it a point never to talk business. That’s what his people did. And so, in 1976 and 1977… lawsuit and countersuit.
Bergen says Lennon was his best client ever – not because of his fame (Bergen was only vaguely aware of Beatles music before taking on the case, oddly enough) but because he paid close attention to detail and gave sharp and precise testimony, not without wit at times.
For fans, the details about the recording process are probably the most interesting. Least interesting? All the legal gibberish, fine-tuning and finicky back and forth that sometimes makes you feel like you’re reading one of those terms and conditions we all get.
That, I didn’t know. Lennon love the idea of the TV commercials to sell the record, presenting the package as an LP of old hits from someone who was no longer with us – like they did on the late night TV commercials for the albums of successful collection at the time. So his idea was to be playful with the marketing, but when Levy did his part, it wasn’t just illegal but cheesy in a way that Lennon hated, just like he hated the shitty, fuzzy cover.
Of course, in the crazy collectible world we live in, because they’ve only pressed 3,000 of these Roots albums, a copy can now fetch $2,000; Rock ‘n’ Roll costs around $82.
Bergen and Lennon (and Yoko) basically had a business relationship that also spanned a lower level of friendship. They had dinner together, shared a few jokes, mostly about Levy’s lawyer. But when it was over, it was over. And that suited all parties, it seems. We’ve all had these intense encounters for some reason, when they happen, but then the relationships fade away. It’s part of life.
A lingering question: Why did Levy think he could get away with it? The likely answer is because he had it in the past. (See my Rock and Roll Globe story April 29 about Tommy James, and his infamous dealings with Levy.) He calculated that Lennon would rather pay him off than bother with a detailed lawsuit. It was his standard business ploy.
I also wondered, given Levy’s history – a crook with mob connections (Richard Carlin’s biography called him “The Godfather of the Music Industry”) – if Bergen or Lennon s worried about a violent return of him or his compatriots outside to seek? Obviously not, according to Bergen’s accounting. Levy was a villain, but not that evil.
Postscript: Levy was convicted in December 1988 by a federal jury of two counts of conspiracy to extort. Howard Fisher, an executive at Levy’s Roulette record label, and Dominick Canterino, a Genovese family cop, were also convicted.
During his sentencing hearing, his attorneys cited his philanthropic work, while FBI agents testified that Levy had also been a major supplier of heroin to a convicted drug dealer in Philadelphia. In 1988, Levy was sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined $200,000. He appealed and remained free on bail. It’s been confirmed. He asked for his sentence to be canceled because of the cancer that was killing him. The court granted him a 90-day reprieve, but he died just before reporting to jail.
As for Lennon, well, we know what happened there. Life as a stay-at-home husband, raising Sean, then returning to the studio to record Double Fantasy with Yoko, Jack Douglas, Rick Nielsen and others. And then the meeting with Mark David Chapman.