With “Lennon, the Gangster and the Lawyer: The Untold Story,” Jay Bergen has written a book-turner about, of all things, a trial. You might be drawn to the title as a Beatles fan, but you’ll come away having glimpsed the strategic core of a top-notch legal mind.
It is amazing to contemplate the considerable amount of time John Lennon spent with various legal cases that occupied his head, the most important of which was surely his long-running immigration case. Lennon existed in public life for about 17 years, a full third of which lived in fear of being deported from the United States. He had landed on President Richard M. Nixon’s list of notorious enemies, leading to years of legal entanglements for the former Beatle as he fought to stay in the country. Fortunately, Lennon prevailed, earning his coveted Green Card in July 1976.
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But this is another story. In “Lennon, the Gangster and the Lawyer”, Bergen focuses on Lennon’s other case, his intellectual property dispute with Morris Levy, the publisher of Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me”. Lennon had pulled a key lyric from Abbey Road’s song “Come Together.” As with his former songwriting partner Paul McCartney, who described the Beatles as “extraordinary plagiarists”, Lennon joked that “the trick is to steal the best”. As for Levy, John was initially forced to settle the lawsuit out of court, promising to record three tracks from Levy’s catalog as a reward.
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But it didn’t stop there, of course. In the meantime, Lennon got to work on an oldies LP which bore the working title of “Back to Mono”. Eventually released as “Rock ‘n’ Roll”, Lennon’s comeback album became its own saga when Phil Spector ran away with the album’s master tapes. Capitol Records paid the eccentric producer a ransom of around $90,000 for their comeback.
Meanwhile, impatient with Lennon over the settlement arrangement, Levy marketed a mail-order TV version of the rough mix from the album, which the ex-Beatle had inadvertently shared with him, titled “Roots: John Lennon Sings the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hits” and released on the Adam VIII label.
Here’s the TV commercial for “Roots”:
In fascinating detail, Bergen’s book traces the story of Capitol Records’ subsequent lawsuit against Levy. The behind-the-scenes story of having a legendary Lennon-like client is fascinating reading, sure, but Bergen’s account hits even higher notes as he paints a picture of music’s ties to the Mafia and of how people like Levy would exploit the threat of a federal case as a backstage jerk.
Beatles fans – and Lennon aficionados in particular – will revel in John’s descriptions of the musician’s approach to the recording process, which Bergen deftly redeployed into his courtroom strategy. The book offers a powerful insight into the sordid side of 1970s rock ‘n’ roll, a time capsule-like rendering of a bygone era. Bergen’s “Lennon, the Gangster and the Lawyer” is not to be missed.
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Read more stories from Beatles scholar Ken Womack about John Lennon: