Sunday, May 07, 2017

My meeting with John Lennon

It wasn’t a long meeting. But it was memorable.

Winter 1973. I’m an engineer at KABC and KLOS radio in Los Angeles. Essentially I worked as a board op for KLOS. That meant I played the records and commercials. Union rules prohibited the disc jockeys from doing anything other than turning on and off their microphoness. Oh, and they could talk. They got that concession.

It was a cool job. KLOS played what today we call “classic rock.” Album cuts and Layla. I loved the music and the jocks were all terrific dudes. I’m still friends with Jim Ladd, Marc Driscoll, and Dion Jackson from that talented staff.

Occasionally I would have to go across the hall and handle KABC talk shows. That was fun too. Talk radio in those days welcomed different points of view, not just one. Imagine such a concept – a balance of ideas. I know. It was crazy.

I’m working one Saturday night on KLOS. I’m on my break. It’s about 9:45. The 10:00 KABC talk show host was Elliott Mintz. There was a long hallway at KABC/KLOS that led to the side entrance. I step out of our studio and happen to glance down the hallway. Holy shit! There’s John Lennon and Yoko Ono buzzing to be let in. They were Elliott’s scheduled guests. ( Elliott is still Yoko’s publicist, by the way.)

I duck my head into the KABC control room and say I’ll get them. Then I barrel down the hall and usher them in. I introduce myself and shake hands with them both. Yoko’s handshake is firmer than John’s.

He’s wearing a blue jean shirt and khakis. She’s wearing a huge black fur that must weigh sixty pounds.

I’ve got about twenty seconds alone with John & Yoko as I lead them down this long hall. What do you say to them?

At the time there was a very popular album by the National Lampoon that featured a very funny send-up of John called “Magical Misery Tour.” In that song he’s forever yelling, “I’m a fuckin’ genius!”

I don’t know what possessed me but I say to John, “So… what’s it like being a fuckin’ genius?” Without breaking stride he gives me a big grin and says, “Pretty nice, actually!”

That was it. We arrive at the studio and Elliott takes it from there. I couldn’t even hang back to watch the interview. I was due back at KLOS at 10:00.

But it brings up an interesting question. If you get to meet someone you idolize and you have time to ask him just one thing, what would it be? I’m sure had I known in advance that I would be meeting John I would have prepared something a little less – how should I say it? – obnoxious, but I just had the sense he would take the question in the spirit it was asked and in fact he did.

I didn’t have time to ask Yoko a question. Which is probably good. I don’t think she would have seen the whimsy in “What dead animal is that?”

So there’s my twenty second brush with greatness… and his wife.

Here's "Magical Misery Tour".

36 comments :

Boomska316 said...

Maybe be eating a nice steak sandwich when you greet her. Or ask her if she feels any guilt over breaking up The Beatles.

Douglas Trapasso said...

For Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll:

"Purely hypothetical question, Coach Carroll. It's second down, your team has the ball on the opponent's one yard line. Twenty seconds left. Run or pass?"

gottacook said...

I've had my copy of the Lampoon Radio Dinner LP since it was new - but it wasn't until years later that I learned that all the words sung by "John" (Tony Hendra) are taken pretty much verbatim from the long two-part "Lennon Remembers" Rolling Stone interview of early 1971, easily found online.

Roseann said...

I was taught a long time ago that one should treat famous people as if they were ordinary and ordinary people as if they were famous. It's the little things.....

David Schwartz said...

I met Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and made a complete fool of myself. About 20 years ago I was at a party that he and his wife Melinda were also attending. I was talking to a couple of people who saw him sitting alone with his wife, not talking to anyone. One of them said he wanted to meet Brian, but didn't know what to say and was afraid he'd make an ass of himself. I, in my most foolhardy bravado thought, "I won't have any trouble talking to him. I can talk to anybody." So, without really thinking, I walked over to Brian and his wife, sat down next to them and said, "It must be really weird to be here and know that everyone knows you and you don't really know anybody." He looked at me with a what I perceived as a perplexed look and nodded his head. He had responded, but it wasn't enough of a response that gave me anywhere to go with the conversation. So I sat there and froze. I didn't know what to say next. I probably was there for about 30 seconds (which felt like forever) just trying to desperately come up with something to continue the conversation. Luckily for me, my wife at the time bailed me out. She came over and started talking to them about their young child. Suddenly the conversation turned to babies and raising children and it flowed. I was never so grateful to my wife as I was at that moment! Whew! It took me years to be able to think of my bravado and the awkward silence that followed without wincing...

Chris said...

I'd ask Ken Levine “So… what’s it like being a fuckin’ genius?”

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Roseann...

...wise advice!

Mike Barer said...

As a kid, I was a huge fan of Batman. He happened to hail from my home town of Walla Walla, but the first time that I met him was in San Diego. My brother went to the Comic Con and my Dad and I went along for the ride.
Well,my dad who knew Adam West from school, bumped into him in the hotel lobby and invited him to a cocktail reception in the evening.
Well my dad brought both of us to the reception, and surprised me by introducing me to him. Adam introduced himself as Adam West and his real name Bill Anderson.
I could not think of a word to say so I asked a question that I already knew. How he could get on a pole in a suit and tie and get off the pole in his Batman costume.
He started to answer in his Batman talk and then just told me about the film splice, which of course I knew all along.

cityslkrz said...

Living in NYC I run into the famous all the time. If it's someone I genuinely like, I'm stymied. Still looking for that perfect response!
"I'm your biggest fan" just sounds stalky.

Steve Lanzi (formerly known as qdpsteve) said...

Good topic Ken. For my whole life I've always loved the Peanuts comic strip-- it helped get me through a rough childhood-- and dreamt of meeting Charles Schulz, so I could tell him that. Then about 1990, I found out it was fairly easy to meet him, because he would almost always have breakfast at the coffee shop inside his ice skating rink in Santa Rosa (which was itself not far from his studio, One Snoopy Place.) I read that so long as you weren't obnoxious and didn't have a billion strip-themed knickknacks for him to sign, Schulz was pretty much okay with meeting fans and answering questions. I so wish I had taken the opportunity, because of course now Schulz has passed.

I also very much wanted to meet Stanley Kubrick, but always dismissed it as impossible as he was well-known to be a hermit living in a tiny suburb of London.

Jim Grey said...

I met Ann Wilson of Heart once. I've always loved that band and her voice. I had about fifteen seconds with her, and she was busy; clearly, her head was elsewhere. So I looked her in the eye and told her how much I've enjoyed her music for all these years. Her eyes focused in on me, and she caught a breath, and softened a bit. Then she said, "Why thank you very much!" And then she had to move on.

Brad Apling said...

This brings up a good thought - preparation. How prepared are we (without rehearsing) for speaking with anyone well-known or even the less well-known? Sometimes it's gotta be quicker than the 'elevator pitch'.
Writers are either writing in their head or on paper or computer. Why? They're always preparing and practicing for the 5 minutes, 10 minutes (help me out here, Ken!) they get to sell someone on their idea for a TV show, film or novel. Rod Serling was mentioned the other day in this column. He wrote even when there wasn't a buyer. I bet Ken and David also wrote quite a number of scripts in unknowing preparation for that first job, that first series that sold.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Great story David

VP81955 said...

Ken, I hope instant karma never gets you. Shine on!

Cap'n Bob said...

I was in the men's room at Radio City and Joe Garagiola came in. As he stood at the urinal I said, "You'd think a big star would get better facilities."

He replied, "When you gotta go, you gotta go." He was cheerful and down-to-earth.

I wonder what John Lennon would have said.

Pat Reeder said...

Working in radio, I've managed to meet a lot of famous people I've looked up to over the years. But I have to say that the two I most admired and who turned out to be the nicest -- both of them went way out of their way to help me when I was just a struggling young writer they didn't know from Adam -- were Tony Randall and Steve Allen. The biggest idols I wish I could have met were George S. Kaufman, Groucho, Robert Benchley and James Thurber. But Tony Randall did briefly meet Kaufman, and I asked him what he was like (he said he was surprised that Kaufman seemed to be a very sad man.)

On the subject of the National Lampoon, a friend of mine in the comedy syndication field was recently approached about buying the National Lampoon Radio Hour archives. He remembered loving it at the time, but they wanted a lot of money. He told me he listened anew and was stunned by how much of it was too dated to be usable anymore. Half the sketches were about Nixon and various now-obscure Watergate figures (and, I'm sure, John Lennon jokes). It shows the dangers of topicality if you want your comedy to last. Also why "Cheers" and "Frasier" are still going strong while "Murphy Brown" is in Purgatory.

Wally said...

@Capn Bob

"Imagine all the pee, sharing all the world, you
You may say I'm a streamer
But I'm not the only one."

Thank you, try the veal

D. McEwan said...

Great story.

Magical Misery Tour is not just performed by Tony Hendra, he wrote it, as noted above, mostly from genuine Lennon quotes. I've known it by heart for over 40 years. My friend Rodger Bumpass, with whom I had a sketch comedy troupe 35 years ago, performed Magical Misery Tour onstage in the 1978 National Lampoon Stage Show Tour every night for months.

In 1974 I was seated at the table next to John Lennon's table at the Roxy for the premiere of The Rocky Horror Show onstage, well before they made the movie. We watched him as much as we did the show. (Like the time, two years earlier, when I was seated in front and slightly to the right of Alfred Hitchcock at a screening of Rear Window, I spent more time watching the celeb seated a yard and a half away than I did the show.) I did not work up the nerve to speak to Lennon (Where as, at the party after the screening, I did talk with Hitchcock), neither then, nor at the party afterwards, which I also attended. (The only famous person there I knew well enough to chat with was Leonard Nimoy, since we'd worked together on radio only a month earlier.)

That evening was star-studded: Cher was there, Jack Nicholson, the aforementioned Nimoy, but there was no doubt who the biggest star in the room was, John Lennon.

When I met Bill Clinton during the 1994 presidential campaign, I knew I'd have time with him for at most two sentences. So I edited it down to what was most important to me, and said to him, "If you get elected, the thing we need most are some more liberals on the Supreme Court. Did no good.

Ralph C. said...

I met Graig Nettles at a card show in the mid-1990s and I told him that I always drafted him first every time I played Strat-O-Matic. He just looked at me like I was weird. His reaction was proper.

Anonymous said...

If I ever met Kirk Douglas, I'd ask him, "Are you Spartacus?"

-30-

Edward said...

If you get to meet someone you idolize and you have time to ask him just one thing, what would it be?

---------

Milton Berle it's nice to meet you...How big is your......?

Barry Traylor said...

Ken, I really envy you that 20 seconds.

ScottyB said...

If I was a celebrity -- no, scratch that; a cultural icon -- on par with John Lennon, I would actually appreciate an off the cuff question like that. Because it would drip of humanity, rather than the prepared, fawning bullshit I'd be getting from everyone, including stupid radio-interview DJs. Same crap day after day after day, which ranks right up there with painful -- and that's your life day after endless day after day. It's kinda hard to fault Kurt Cobain for pulling the plug. I think it's called "being human," Ken Levine. Well played, sir. Well played.

ScottyB said...

>> But it brings up an interesting question. If you get to meet someone you idolize and you have time to ask him just one thing, what would it be? << I've never idolized Albert Einstein, but I'd still ask him "So what's the deal with the hair?"

ScottyB said...

And sometimes your do get the opportunity to meet the rich and famous, but you *don't* ask them that "one question" -- just because. As a professional journalist, I've had the opportunity to interview a few notable people in a one-on-one setting. One of those people was Ralph Nader, who did a speech at a local college during the early 1980s. I kept wanting to ask him why he kept wearing the same damn wrinkled suit all the time and why he didn't just get the damn thing pressed in the mornings. Some questions you just can't ask, no matter how much you reallyreally want to. And sometimes, you just don't want to ask "one" questions of notable people. I met Wendy O. Williams, the singer for The Plasmatics, in a suburban police station when she was arrested after a band performance during the very early 1980s for clocking a photographer while she was out jogging earlier that day. I wanted to ask her the usual journalist questions, like "What's the deal with the chainsaw and shaving cream all over your tits?", but instead, we had a very pleasant conversation about this and that and the other thing while she was handcuffed to the police bench. To this day, I don't recall at all what those topics were, but I learned a lot in those 15 minutes about celebrities and their appreciation for people who just treat them like people and talk to them like two people just sitting there on a bench waiting for the bus. I learned from our short time together that celebrities quickly get tired of being asked the same stupid goddamn questions over and over, and someone asking them "So what's it like to be a fucking genius?" out of the blue actually makes them feel just ordinary everyday human again for a few seconds. Wendy O. Williams' fame would eventually fade and she would end up working for an animal shelter (animals were a passion of hers) and walk off into the woods and commit suicide, and her death would strike a chord in me because, well, that 15 minutes or so in a police station just associating with her as an ordinary average everyday person, was something extraordinary while being just ordinary.

Robert Fitzpatrick said...

I met Kurt Vonnegut sitting on his stoop near U.N. building, he had a very young child with him and I casually remarked what an adorable child and is that his granddaughter, he's pushing 70 at the time,no he replied, it's his daughter

ScottyB said...

And maybe it's that "one question" you don't ask, or make a comment you just want to make. I'm 5-foot-5. I was working in downtown Chicago when I briefly stood face to face with George Clooney when he was filming an episode of 'ER' when the show was a hit. It was one of those split-second happenstance moments when he was walking up a stairway. Our eyes met, and we both just nodded to each other in one of those totally-guy "Hey" moments where you just nod your head to each other and go on your way. I just wanted to say "Holy shit, dude. I didn't know you were so short" because in my mind from TV, I always pictured George Clooney to be somewhere around 6 feet tall. Interestingly enough on the day of our brush, Anthony Edwards was right behind Clooney. I didn't ask or say anything to him or even acknowledge his presence. I always imagine Anthony Edwards thinking "What the fuck, man? I'm on the same show as George Clooney and recognizable as him, but you didn't nod at me?? What the fuck, man." Cracks me up whenever I think of that moment.

ScottyB said...

Personal note to Ken Levine, not for blog publication, unless you react the name of the celebrity and his TV show: And sometimes you just don't want to ask celebrities anything. I met Ken Olin twice, back when the TV show "thirtysomething" was a thing. He filming a TV movie in our neighborhood about that guy in Boston who killed his wife and blamed everything on some black guy and it turned into a national sensation. He was just a pretentious dick. Maybe he's not a pretentious dick anymore, but he was that day, and I didn't want to to ask him anything.

Bob Zirunkel said...

For anyone who didn't notice, Steven Moffat replied to Ken's Friday post.
I'm still stuck for something to say...

Johnny Walker said...

I met Ken Levine once. I was very nervous :( Thankfully he couldn't have been nicer. I don't *think* I made a fool of myself...

Bonnie Chinn-Redmond said...

Hi Sean, I'm Aunt Bonnie. Reply, "Oh Hi" we hugged. There's a story. Anyway he wanted to meet my niece because I asked. He was very gracious and down to earth. It's really too bad that there's such a divide after becoming famous. We put them on pedals and of course they look down. LovelyRitaah.

Jahn Ghalt said...

Idolize? Not lately. As a child I idolized Willie Mays and perhaps a few other hall-of-famers.

While driving home during the lead in for a late-20th-Century All-Star Game I got excited to hear Joe D in the broadcast booth. I didn't know I would react like that - given that he'd retired before I was born.

If I ran into Charles Barkley, I might say how much I like the yak yak on Inside with Ernie, Shaq, and Kenny, wish him well - and then suggest he get over that the Warriors are historically great - that they are the best defensive team and get a lot of layups and dunks for a "jump shooting team".

(if there was time, I might agree with him that there are a lot of "damn fools" on social media - I know a fellow curmudgeon when I see one)

There are a number of lovely TV actresses that I'd like to meet - and try not to go all tongue-tied Cliff and Norm on them.

(Siff, Moss, Cardellini, Caplan)

I might tell Bryan Cranston that I still have All The Way on my DVR - and how much fun was it to chew ass on Hubert Humphrey in every scene?

If I ran into Ichiro, I'd try the manners I never practice - including a respectful bow and (remembering that his English is very good) tell him he became my favorite ballplayer the first time I saw him bat (who has a better ritual at the plate?)


Don't be too sure about "preparing" being the better way to go, Ken. When Dave Niehaus called to chew your ass that first time, your off-the-cuff reply was hard to beat:

This is the lizard residence

Dave knew he had a "live one" on the phone.

If I met you, Mr. Levine, I'd say how much I'd love to hear you do a Mariners guest announcing spot - and not just a cuppa coffee.




Johnny Walker said...

Are they really actual quotes from John Lennon in that National Lampoon's song, btw? As I was listening to it I was thinking, "Wow, this person seems to really hate John Lennon, but some of the satire is pretty on the mark, although he's maybe not quite THAT bad." Yikes. John Lennon was a bit of a dick, huh?

D. McEwan said...

"Anonymous said...
If I ever met Kirk Douglas, I'd ask him, 'Are you Spartacus?'"


After which Kirk would give you a booby prize for being the One Millionth Person to make that banal joke at him in the 67 years since Spartacus was released. I'd post anonymously also if I were making such a grossly unoriginal and tedious "joke."

"Johnny Walker said...
Are they really actual quotes from John Lennon in that National Lampoon's song, btw? As I was listening to it I was thinking, "Wow, this person seems to really hate John Lennon, but some of the satire is pretty on the mark, although he's maybe not quite THAT bad." Yikes. John Lennon was a bit of a dick, huh?"


As two posters above, one of them me, have already noted, yes, Tony Hendra created Magical Misery Tour from actual quotes from Lennon, but it doesn't make Lennon a dick. If you assembled everything awful a person said over ten years into a two minute bit, you could make anyone sound like a dick. And Tony's ranting inflections in the song intentionally make it worse, when some of the quotes performed angrily were actually from Lennon joking.

It's a satirical comedy piece. Don't read too much into it. Deducing a writer/performer hates his subject because he's portrayed him negatively FOR LAUGHS doesn't mean he hates his subject. He might, but then again, he might not. Putting a piece together of John Lennon's altruistic positive statements would not be very funny now, would it?

I had this problem when I was writing comedy recaps of Survivor, Big Brother and various award shows for The Huffington Post. I would always get a few clueless commenters who asked why I watched the shows I covered when I hated them so much. I had to point out that I did not hate the shows I satirized, just the opposite, but I was writing COMEDY pieces, and complimenting the good stuff on the shows wouldn't get any laughs, now would it?

Pete Grossman said...

Man, so glad Lennon was cool with your comment. Thanks for posting the video put together for this song. Brought back great memories. John's "misery," our delight.

suek2001 said...

Two stories...I met Bob Shane..one of the founding members of The Kingston Trio...and THE voice on their hit "Scotch and Soda". This was 1998...I met him after a Kingston Trio concert and said "oh my God, I've been telling my friends all week, this is just like meeting the Beatles"..and I wanted to die....He smiled and said nothing for two minutes....I met the banjo player, George Grove..a few moments later..and he couldn't have been nicer...

I told a friend that story and the fact that Shane didn't say anything amazed him..Apparently, it's one of the few times Shane didn't have a comeback..so I feel honored...and embarrassed.
Second story, I met John Denver at a book signing and all I could think of to say was "I love your song "Stonehaven Sunset"..and nothing else..He smiled and said "Really? No one ever mentions that song"..and I said nothing and then was ushered away...

If I could ask Tom Hanks anything...I would be really obscure and ask him how vanilla extract tastes..(Family Ties reference)