Monday, October 6, 2008
"I Met the Walrus"
In 1969, a 14-year-old Beatle fan named Jerry Levitan, armed with a reel-to-reel tape deck, snuck into John Lennon's hotel room in Toronto and convinced John to do an interview about peace. 38 years later, Jerry has produced a film about it. Using the original interview recording as the soundtrack, director Josh Raskin has woven a visual narrative in which Raskin marries the terrifyingly genius pen work of James Braithwaite with masterful digital illustration by Alex Kurina, resulting in a spell-binding vehicle for Lennon's message.
Here is the story:
I HAD BEEN A BEATLES fan since the age of nine and when the White Album came out in ‘68 it immediately became my favourite record – it still is to this day. There was just such a wealth of information, images and sound. It was a real treasure trove. In fact, I was obsessed with those songs. I listened to them incessantly. I didn’t have headphones, so I’d lie in bed with the stereo speakers pressed to my ears.
If I had to pick a favourite Beatle, it would have been John. As a 14-year old, I looked to him for leadership. He was outspoken and exuded confidence in the way he talked and in his ideas. You got the sense that he was the guy in charge. I remember writing a letter to him at Apple. I’d drawn a picture of Canada with an arrow pointing towards Toronto saying “I live here” adding something like “I’m your greatest fan, please come and visit Toronto!” Then one day I was listening to the local FM station and somebody called in to say they thought they’d seen John and Yoko at Toronto airport. That was all I needed to hear. I ran to my room and started calling all the hotels in the city. Most thought I was mad, but when I called the King Edward and asked “is John Lennon there?” they hung up. I knew he was there and quickly made a plan to go and find him. It was Sunday, May 25th 1969. John Lennon had come to my hometown. I had to do something.
The next day I woke up at 6am and tried to dress as I thought a news reporter might dress. I crept into my brother’s bedroom and stuffed his Super 8 camera into my bag. I’d managed to get a copy of John and Yoko’s Two Virgins album before the Mounties confiscated all the stock. I took the record with me in the hope of getting an autograph. Of course, I didn’t share my plans with anyone. I didn’t tell my friends, I didn’t tell my siblings and I certainly didn’t tell my school or my parents. I hit downtown Toronto at about 7am.
I got to the top level of the King Edward Hotel and started knocking on every door, waking up all the guests in the process. I must have covered three floors before I bumped into a cleaning lady with an Irish accent who asked me whether I was “looking for the Beatle”. She mentioned the number of a room on the floor below; “He’s in that one,” she whispered, “but don’t tell anyone I told you!” I went down the fire escape, turned the corner, looked down the corridor and saw Kyoko [Yoko’s daughter] lying on the floor in front of a door with a colouring book and crayons. I knew I’d found them. It was an electric feeling. My heart was beating fast. I remember gulping. This was it.
I hadn’t planned to do anything. I just had to see John. Talking to him never came into the equation. I stood in front of the door with my heart racing. A CBC cameraman and reporter suddenly appeared, knocked on the door and went in. After about 10 or 15 minutes I did the same. The door opened up and, in what must have been a very lame deep voice, I introduced myself as a Canadian newsman. I barged my way in, shuffling through the suite just staring at my shoes. Then I looked up and four feet from me sat John and Yoko. They were in the middle filming an interview. John saw me and laughed.
I took out my brother’s Super 8 camera, got the thing rolling and pointed it at John and Yoko who were still talking on the bed. When the CBS interview finished I took out my Two Virgins vinyl for him to sign. He was really surprised I had it. He wrote “To Jerry, love and peace, John Lennon” and Yoko signed her name. Derek Taylor [The Beatles’ Press Officer] then came in and informed everybody it was time to leave. So, the press left, John and Yoko disappeared, but I really took my time. Eventually I took the wrong turn out of the room and ended up in another part of the suite where John was trying to push a large tea chest onto the bed. “You wanna give me a hand with this?” he asked. I thought to myself, “You gotta do something”. So I asked him whether I could “come back later with a tape recorder and do an interview about peace”. He got so excited and said, “Great, yeah, Yoko! Derek! Great idea, let’s do an interview with him, talk about peace and he can take it to the kids!” I looked at Derek Taylor, who turned to me and said, “Why don’t you come back at 6pm?”
It was great. I was shown such respect. I arrived home, fell on my bed and crashed out utterly exhausted, waking up in a pool of sweat around 4pm with a feeling of abject horror - I didn’t have a tape recorder. I called up radio station CHUM and said I had an interview with John lined up for 6pm and I needed a recording device. They obviously didn’t believe me, but after speaking to Derek Taylor at the hotel, they all became my best friends. The radio producer said there’d be someone at the hotel bar at 5:30pm. I should meet him there. I got the bus back to the King Edward and it was pandemonium. Police, crazy people, protesters, hundreds of kids – everybody was trying to get a glimpse of John. I somehow got through the crowds and headed for the bar, where I met the guy from CHUM. We got to the correct floor and saw a row of reporters – mostly American press – sitting in single file against the wall of the corridor. As I turned the corner, one of the American reporters grabbed my arm and asked where I was going. I told him I had an interview at 6pm and he said, “Yeah, right, like the rest of us!” Then the door opened up – it was Derek Taylor. He asked, “Where’s the lad?” I raised my hand, and to the amazement of all those journalists, I walked in. Then it dawned on me – I hadn’t prepared a single question. John and Yoko appeared from around the corner. The mood was very tranquil. They both seemed very happy and at ease. I started telling them how I much I loved Two Virgins and he said, “Well we’ve just recorded another one called Life With the Lions. I have a copy here” Then Yoko offered me the record. At the end of the interview, you can hear John remind me not to forget the album.
He loved the fact that I wanted to talk about the White Album. I told him my theories about the songs and he just kept batting them back in a brotherly way saying, “No no, you know, there’s messages everywhere, but we’re just four guys. We wake up in the morning, have a cup of tea and a smoke – we’re just normal guys!” Throughout the interview he was constantly trying to take the shimmer off The Beatles, saying things like “I’m just writing about myself”. I mentioned how I was obsessed with Revolution 9 and how I thought I could hear him telling George to fuck off at the beginning and he said, “I may have told George to do whatever but I don’t remember saying it on the album!” There was a lot of talk in the press about The Beatles being on the verge of splitting up. He didn’t show any signs that a break-up was on the cards but I did get the sense that John And Yoko was a far more important entity than The Beatles.
It’s worth noting that I stopped the interview. I thought, “I can’t take any more of this man’s time. He’s an important guy!” So that’s why you hear the stumbling at the end of the tape. Derek Taylor then entered the room and told John that Mary Hopkin [Apple’s latest signing] had just arrived in town to play a show and she sends her love. John simply replied: “Send it back!”
He asked me if I wanted to go to the gig using his ticket. I said yes and he immediately called up Capitol Records and told them to give me the VIP treatment for the entire evening. John flashed a peace sign at me and closed the door. I left that room on cloud nine. Not only that, I left transformed forever. I knew it from the moment I lifted up my head and looked at the two of them on the couch. I knew it was a life-altering experience, I could feel it.
Over the years I’ve been approached by various people, all wanting to do something with the material. Up until recently I’ve never been happy with any of the approaches. I never wanted to do something cheesy or exploitive. It was always such a personal experience. So about thee years ago I thought I’d bring all this to an end. I’ll find some young Toronto artists and have them interpret my story in whichever way they see fit. I met Josh Raskin and he came up with the idea to do a five minute animated short. He introduced me to James Braithwaite, an illustrator who had a style very similar to John’s own drawings. It was a perfect fit.
I did see John again at the Rock‘N’Roll Revival Concert in Toronto in September ‘69. The guy at the record label made sure I got a seat in the front row and I got backstage where John held an impromptu press conference. He looked terrible – almost green. He looked up, whispered something to Yoko, caught my eye and waved. I couldn’t get to him after that. The last time I saw him was when he came to town to announce another concert for peace, which was later scrapped. But the memories I really cherish are all from the day of the interview.
He was part of everybody’s life, but I often felt I had the edge. I was shown such respect that day. He didn’t ask me who I was; he didn’t ask me any questions at all. I left that room and floated out of the hotel. In the rush to see him, I never questioned whether he was going to be cool or not. It never dawned on me that John Lennon would not be cool.