Entertainment

How a Toronto teen got an exclusive interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1969

Nearly 52 years after Torontonian Jerry Levitan conducted an impromptu interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono at the King Edward Hotel, it’s the gift that has kept giving.

The 40-minute May 26, 1969 exclusive conversation that Levitan conducted in Toronto just a few days before the couple’s famous Montreal bed-in campaign for peace, has spawned a number of projects: a 2007, five-minute Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning animated short called “I Met the Walrus”; a 168-page Levitan-authored book of the same name published by HarperCollins in 2009, an animated short of the Yoko Ono poem “My Hometown” in 2011 and, this year, “I Am the Egbert,” an animated series of 14 canvases directed by Sean Ono Lennon for Spotify for the recently released “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band — The Ultimate Collection.”

Levitan, a lawyer and a children’s entertainer who goes by the name Sir Jerry, said the memory of first meeting one of the original Beatles and his wife is as fresh as yesterday.

“I was 14 in 1969 and the Beatles just meant everything to me,” said Levitan during a Zoom interview that included Sean Ono Lennon on Tuesday.

“John was my hero for a whole bunch of reasons.”

A student at Dufferin Heights Junior High School at the time, Levitan said he was listening to CHUM-FM on a Sunday night while taking a shower when the radio host mentioned that a listener had called in swearing that they’d seen the Lennons at the airport.

At 7 a.m. the next morning, Levitan skipped school and made his way to the King Edward, where “I went to the top floor and knocked on every door till I found John and Yoko in a suite.”

Levitan was grasping a copy of the controversial “Two Virgins” album, the first collaborative John-and-Yoko album that had them posing full-frontal on the cover — he managed to snag the copy from Sam the Record Man before the police confiscated the shipment from the store.

“I think that sort of blew him away,” Levitan recalls. “He said, ‘I thought the Mounties came in and took them all.’

“That probably put me in his good graces and I hung out for much of the morning.”

As he went to exit the hotel suite, Levitan says he happened to pass Lennon struggling to move a sea chest of luggage onto a bed.

“And Sean, for your benefit, more than anything, as I was leaving the suite, I took the long way out and your Dad was trying to push a chest onto the bed and asked, ‘Do you want to give me a hand here?’” Levitan addressed Sean Ono Lennon during the Zoom call.

“And I helped him with the chest and, in that moment, I asked him if I could come back later and talk about peace, and interview him and Yoko and bring it to my school. And he said, ‘Yeah yeah yeah!’ and called your Mom in … and she said, ‘That’s a great idea, that’s why we’re doing it!’ We set it up with Derek Taylor (the Beatles and Lennon publicist at the time).”

Ono Lennon was clearly charmed about hearing this tale about his father, whom he tragically lost at the age of five.

“That’s a great story, I love hearing that,” responded Ono Lennon.

Levitan said he returned to school at lunchtime, clutching his autographed album cover that included a small cartoon doodle of John Lennon and caused “a miniriot.”

“The girls all believed me; the guys didn’t,” Levitan recalls.

Sent home from school, Levitan took a nap but woke up at 4 p.m. in a panic — he realized he didn’t have a recording device to use for the interview.

So he called up CHUM and asked to borrow one. He met a station employee brandishing a reel-to-reel at the King Edward bar, but when the two reached the floor where the Lennons were located, they found a long line of journalists waiting for their turn to speak to the superstar couple.

Levitan said he was accosted by one who asked him where he was headed.

“I have an interview at 6 p.m.,” Levitan replied. The reporter laughed … until Derek Taylor opened the door, said, “Where’s the lad?” and beckoned Levitan inside.

Not only were the next 40 minutes spent discussing a number of issues ranging from war and peace to politics, but the interview did turn out to be truly exclusive: after it was done, Levitan said Lennon refused to speak to any other reporter.

“That to me just tells you the genuineness of what they did.”

Levitan explained that as they sat down for the interview, a nearby record player was spinning what Levitan says “was clearly a Beatles song.”

“I had never heard it before,” he recalls. “And I asked, ‘Is that a new Beatles record?’ And John replied, ‘Yes, it’s ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ — it’s coming out in two weeks.’

“I heard ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ for the first time in front of Sean’s dad.”

On Zoom, Ono Lennon was thrilled to hear that tale for what appeared to be the first time.

“I think that story in itself we need to make into a little animated film,” Ono Lennon said. “It’s pretty great. It’s like you’re on a hero’s journey because when you get to the door and Derek Taylor lets you in, you think, ‘Wow, all is lost in that moment.’ And then the door opens and boom, it sounds almost miraculous, like it was fated to be.

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“Honestly, that’s one of my favourite interviews of Dad, even without the animation, because it’s so candid and so relaxed and it’s really clear that he’s in a certain mood because he’s speaking to you — and he’s speaking to a kid — so there’s nothing performative about it. He doesn’t feel like he’s trying to be Beatle John or deep thinker John or anything — it just seems like he’s talking to a kid and he sincerely wants to tell you things that are important and he’s doing it in such an unguarded way.”

Levitan held off doing anything with the interview until 2007, when he recruited Josh Raskin, his director of animation, and illustrator James Braithwaite. He secured a BravoFACT grant to help finance the project.

The same team was reunited for the Spotify “Egbert” canvases directed by Ono Lennon.

“I first saw ‘I Met the Walrus’ when it came out. For me, it was special,” Ono Lennon explained. “There’s a lot of stuff about my dad — books, documentaries and pieces — and a lot of them are great, but I just felt like ‘I Met the Walrus’ stood out as being something unique. The interview itself was more candid and was a different side of my dad than I think we’re used to hearing. When he’d say something off the cuff on a TV show, it almost felt like he was a comedian or an actor — he was so snarky and funny and smart at the same time.

“But with Jerry, he sounded relaxed, almost like he was mentoring the next generation. There’s a lot of care and thought in what he’s saying. It sounds like it’s truly coming from a sincere and real place deep inside of him.”

“I Am the Egbert” is mainly a series of black-and-white animation loops created especially for this new compilation.

“It’s a fairly simple format, but it turned out to be pretty intense because there were so many clips,” Ono Lennon said. “Just figuring out how to pair scenes with my dad’s songs took some work. People know my dad drew a lot, too, so I looked into making something as a team.

“It happened at the right moment: we had an opportunity to create content, these little 15- to 30-second loops, and that seemed like a perfect way to introduce an animated project.”

As for pairing those songs, which included the original 11 tracks that comprised “The John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band” album — including “Working Class Hero” and “Love,” plus three bonus hits, “Give Peace a Chance,” “Cold Turkey” and “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)” — Ono Lennon said it was a pronounced departure from his father’s work with the Beatles.

“A lot of people think this is my dad’s best solo album and I think there’s an argument for that, because it’s so visceral and kind of primal,” said Ono Lennon. “It’s not over-thought; the production is so simple and raw.

“I feel like it’s a direct reaction to what he was going through at the time: he was pulling himself away from what was a really overwhelming music career as a Beatle. I think it was really hard for him and really hard for all the Beatles.

“I get the sense that he was tired of the artifice, tired of being treated like some kind of Godlike character that represented four boys, and he was looking for other things. He was finding solace in my mom, who represented a completely different universe.

“She was hanging out with (experimental composer) John Cage, doing exhibitions with films about bottoms and conceptual art. He loved that: he dove headfirst into it — he fell deeply in love with my mom and I think he was starving for relief and release from what was kind of the gilded cage of the Beatles.”

Ono Lennon said by that point, his father was ready to move on and that the “Plastic Ono Band” album was the “big bang moment of him exploding into post-Beatle John and a totally new sound.”

“It’s him not writing surrealist poems and not sort of creating fantastical worlds: it’s him almost plugging a microphone into his veins and just letting his internal universe be there for you to see — his emotions and his feelings, like a diary, but plugged directly into his brain.

“It’s very intimate, very raw and very emotional, and obviously a result of the primal scream therapy that they had been going through.

“He says it all in the song ‘God’ when he says, ‘I don’t believe in Beatles, I don’t believe in all these things. I just believe in Yoko and me.’ That sort of summarizes the entire album, that it was more real to be in love with this woman now than any of those things he’d ever thought were maybe more important in the past.

“Whether you’re listening to ‘Isolation’ or ‘Mother,’ those songs really feel like all artifice or pretence has been washed away and you’re just left with a kernel of truth: the bare bones of man. I would say that’s what Plastic Ono Band is about.”

“The Plastic Ono Band album — The Ultimate Collection” is available as an eight-disc super deluxe set of six CDs and two Blu-rays packed with rarities; a two-LP set and a two-CD collection called “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (The Ultimate Mixes).”.

Nick Krewen is a Toronto-based freelance contributor for the Star. Reach him via email: [email protected]



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