Thursday, September 29, 2022

Lennon, the Mobster and the lawyer - a book review


January 22, 1976 - having lunch at Sloppy Louie's seafood restaurant with Howard Roy, Harold Seider, Yoko, and Jay Bergen (author of this book). Photo By Bob Gruen.

It is Wednesday Review!  And tonight's review is a book I bought directly from one of John Lennon's lawyers, Jay Bergen, at the Fest for Beatle Fans this past August.   ,

I am always on the lookout for what I deem the "best Beatles book of the year," and Lennon, The Mobster and the Lawyer might be that book.   It tells the story behind John's lawsuit in 1976 with Morris Levy over Levy's "Roots" albums vs. John's Rock n Roll album. 

If you are a John Lennon fan, then I am sure you are familiar with the story.  John had recorded what was to be his "Rock n Roll" album in part because he owed Morris Levy three songs from the catalog of music he owned as an agreement made due to John's song "Come Together" sounding too similar to "You Can't Catch Me."    This wasn't a punishment for John because he loved to sing 1950s rock n roll and wanted to make an oldies album.  

He started making the album in L.A. with Phil Spector, and then Phil ran off with the tapes, and John didn't know where they were.  So he recorded and put out the "Walls and Bridges" album, and the "Rock n Roll" tapes returned to him.   John listened to them and realized that some of the tracks were bad.   Lots of drunk/high musicians all performing in different keys.   Some of the tracks were alright and just needed the typical cleaning up, but others needed to be re-recorded or removed altogether.  Morris Levy was pestering John about wanting to hear the tapes he had made with Spector.  He would not drop it, and John being who he was, finally gave in and handed the tapes over to Levy.   These were not rough tapes and were not meant for public listening.   Well, Levy took those and made his own John Lennon album, Roots, and sold it on TV through one of those cheesy commercials (Hear John Lennon sing all of the old rock n roll hits including  Peggy Sue, Angel Baby....but wait, there, is more!  Hear, him sing You Can't Catch Me and many more if you just call now!)   He slapped a terrible photo of John from the 1968 Rock n Roll Circus on the cover, and as you can guess, John fans were calling the number and ordering the album.  I mean -- wouldn't you?   If a brand new John Lennon album came out and the only way you could get it was through the telephone, I am sure you would have ordered it too.  I don't think at that time I would have really thought about what record company was putting it out.  I just would want to hear the music. 

There was a lot of confusion with the fans, and John had to rush and get the REAL Rock n Roll album released.   Obviously, what Levy did was completely illegal.  You can't just take tapes that someone gives you and make an album from that and sell them on TV without the record company and the artist's permission.   John didn't work like that.  He was into putting together the whole album package, and the Roots album was an embarrassment to him. 

That is where this book picks up.   The legal case against Morris Levy and told by his lawyer in the case, Jay Bergen.    And while I have always known the outcome of the case (spoiler alert -  John totally wins!), I did not know the ins and out because Bergan had never really told the story before. 

The book is SO much more than just the story of this case.   Bergan uses the actual court transcripts to tell the story, and you get to read John's exact words where he tells the judge precisely how he makes an album.   I don't know any other place where you get to learn from John the process he used to produce albums and how much he put into each project.   He also explains why he chose each song on the Rock n Roll album.   They weren't just random 1950's rock n roll numbers that he liked, but he put some profound thought into recording the songs on that album and told the judge his reasoning.   His reason for including Bony Maronie put a lump in my throat.   Rock n Roll has always been one of my favorite John albums, so this really was cool.   He also talks about his ideas for promoting the album, including what would have been a fun commercial that included Ringo and Harry.  He couldn't make the commercial or do most of the promoting that he wanted to do because of Roots and having to rush to get the real album produced.  

The chapters of the book are short, and the story moves quickly.   It isn't bogged down with legal jargon and is a fun book to read.  

I only had a couple of issues with the book, and neither one was a huge deal.  The first was when Bergan tells the story without quoting from the transcript, such as when he is meeting with John in the Dakota or having lunch with John and Yoko at Sloppy Louie's, he quotes what John and others said.  Does he really remember the exact words of the conversations they were having 40-something years ago?   I wasn't sure if he had kept a journal and written down exactly what John said or if he was going by memory, recalling the conversation, and guessing the exact wording.   Again --  not a huge deal, but something that stood out. 

Julian, Morris, and Adam outside of the Emporium on Main Street U.S.A. at Walt Disney World 1974

The other thing is something that Bergen might not have quite known the answer to himself.   If John disliked Morris Levy so much, why did he, May, Julian, Morris, and Morris's son, Adam, all go to Disney World together at the end of 1974?   Was it just because they both had sons the same age?   The book explained that John refused to talk "business" with Levy during the trip, but I still don't understand why John would want to go on a trip with him in the first place.   Really, all I can think is that he must have wanted Julian to have someone his own age to hang around while in Florida.  Because of that trip, I was under the impression that they were all really good friends until Morris did the Roots thing, and then the friendship ended, but they were never friends.   I just find it confusing. 

I highly recommend this book to anyone who considers themselves a fan of John Lennon and his music.  You don't just learn about an interesting court case where John was the star witness.  You also get to learn about how John made his albums, his thought process, and what a great guy he was.  You don't want to miss out on this great book!


  1. This sounds great! Thanks for the review.

  2. his rockn'roll lp was always my favourite