Posted: 01/16/08 2:02PM
Filed Under: Film
Jerry Levitan met John Lennon in 1969. Almost forty years later, he’s taking his story to Sundance
By SORAYA ROBERTS
It’s just a bunch of songs. I wake up in the morning, I have a cigarette and a coffee and I write about my day. We’re just four guys singing about things, it’s either profound or trivial, but there’s no secret message – John Lennon, 1969
As normal as they are, as banal as they claim to be, our idols never fail to thrill us in person. Meeting them sends sparks through our bodies and ties our tongues the way only our first loves could ever do. Perhaps its chemical, but many of us would like to think it’s something inherent in Them.
John Lennon had that granola smell, according to Jerry Levitan. He was also pretty physically weak and wasn’t wearing shoes. He swore a lot and had a good sense of humour and he made Levitan’s 14-year-old heart beat like Al Pacino’s in ‘The Godfather,’ whether he was in pyjamas or not.
Levitan met Lennon in May 1969. He was in town briefly to extol the virtues of a peaceful life with his new bride, an artist named Yoko Ono, and the Beatles were on the way out. “They were in the middle of recording Abbey Road, it was their swan song,” says Levitan. “It was [Lennon and Ono’s] honeymoon and he realised that since there was so much press with everything they did that he may as well use that to spread the concept of peace, an advertisement for peace as he would call it.”
Lennon wanted to be as close to the American media as possible, so he decided to start spreading his message in the Bahamas, as he couldn’t get into the States due to his drug convictions. Then he changed his mind and decided on Toronto (ultimately he recorded the bed-in in Montreal, which he considered “more cosmopolitan,” says Levitan). That’s where Jerry comes in.
At the time of Lennon’s arrival, Levitan was the Beatles' biggest fan. Many of his peers preferred the disco dancing tunes of the Bee Gees, but Levitan was loyal to the Liverpudlians, admiring particularly their 1968 White Album (it remains his favourite to this day). When he heard Lennon was in town, he seized the day and, ahead of the entire Canadian media, found his way into the musician’s hotel and spoke with the man himself. (For the full story, go here.)
Levitan’s original material from that day includes a 40-minute interview tape, a five-minute Super 8 home video of John and Yoko, photos and albums. Funnily enough, he has a hard time finding a copy of the video he took when I ask for it. He roots around in his office for more than a couple of minutes, finally coming up for air victorious.
“I’m told that my experience and the archival material I have are unparalleled in rock history, and you couldn’t get more important rock history than John Lennon at the time of the Beatles,” he says. Levitan has recently agreed to temporarily give up his collection to the Liverpool Museum, which is creating a permanent Beatles installation.
These days Levitan has his own law firm, but he hasn’t given up the passion for music he had as a kid. As Sir Jerry, Levitan moonlights as a magician and singer-songwriter for kids. He adopts a very Lennon-esque accent for the character and his sound is reminiscent of the Beatles. “This is what meeting John Lennon does to you,” he says, laughing.
Levitan’s house is a two-storey heritage building near Queen street east. It’s filled with threadbare Persian rugs and knick knacks from his various travels. On the top of his piano sit a string of family photos, in addition to a snapshot of him as a 14-year-old with his idol. The fact that this picture is separate from the rest of his Lennon memorabilia highlights its personal meaning. The meeting is an integral part of who Levitan is today.
In his office, papers and books and posters are strewn everywhere. The phone rings virtually off the hook. But Levitan’s “Lennon” corner is strangely clean and calm, devoid of chaos. The wall is covered in snapshots Levitan took the day he met Lennon in his hotel room. It also has the signed Two Virgins album from the same meeting, in addition to an album Lennon gave him at the time. The wall is also covered with sepia snapshots of Levitan interviewing Lennon, taken by the reporters who witnessed their interaction. “A friend of mine found those in an archive and sent them to me,” he says.
Jerry Levitan conducted the interview almost 40 years ago, but did not talk about it publicly until 1980. “The interview is as much about me as it is about him,” explains Levitan. “I talk about how kids are dumping on the Beatles at school and he’s calming me down –it’s not like I wanted to capitalise on that.”
When John Lennon died, Levitan decided it was time to at least write about the Lennon interview. “I wanted to put down my story in writing, as much for myself as for everyone else, to remember every minutiae,” he says. The story was published in TO magazine, now defunct, whose publisher had contacted Levitan for a first-person account of his story. “The title I always had for my story, it was a personal title, was ‘I Met the Walrus.’ ”
The same name has been adopted by the film about the Levitan-Lennon meeting, which premieres at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The 5-minute short by Josh Raskin takes a clip from Levitan’s interview and juxtaposes it with dynamic animated sketches of images and characters. “I always thought if I did something I would want it to be artistic and meaningful, as much for myself as for anybody,” says Levitan. He met the film’s eventual animator, Josh Raskin, through comedian Mike Myers. “I bumped into Mike Myers at the Drake hotel one early Sunday morning,” says Levitan. “He had the TO magazine article and said he keeps it next to his bed. He compared it to 'Almost Famous,' except with the Beatles.”
Josh Raskin proceeded to cut down Levitan’s precious 40 minute audio tape to six minutes for his film. “Every word that I say and John says morphs into an image with some meaning,” explains Levitan. “If it went on for 10, 15, 20 minutes you would just be bombarded with too much information.” Levitan recalls a moment from the film in which an animated rose blooms, which refers to how Lennon described his music to the young boy: “It’s like a flower, it’s all there and you take what you want from it.”
‘I Met the Walrus’ premieres at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah on January 20.