Kenneth Womack

Inside the untold story of John Lennon's legal war with a Mafia-connected label owner

With "Lennon, the Mobster, & the Lawyer: The Untold Story," Jay Bergen has authored a page-turner of a book about, of all things, a lawsuit. You may be drawn to the title as a Beatles fan, but you'll leave having enjoyed a glimpse into the strategic core of a first-rate legal mind.

It is incredible to contemplate the sheer amount of time that John Lennon spent with various legal cases taking up his headspace, the most prominent of which was surely his longstanding immigration case. Lennon existed in public life for some 17 years, with fully a third of it living in fear of being deported from the United States. He had landed on President Richard M. Nixon's notorious enemies list, which resulted in 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.

But that's another story. In "Lennon, the Mobster, & 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 lifted a key lyric from the song for Abbey Road's "Come Together." As with his one-time songwriting partner Paul McCartney, who described the Beatles as "plagiarists extraordinaires," Lennon quipped that "the trick is to steal from the best." When it came to Levy, John was initially forced to settle the lawsuit out of court, promising to record three tunes from Levy's back catalog as recompense.

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But it didn't end there, of course. In the meantime, Lennon set to work on an oldies LP that went under the working title of "Back to Mono." Eventually released as "Rock 'n' Roll," Lennon's throwback album became its own saga when Phil Spector absconded with the album's master tapes. Capitol Records paid some $90,000 in ransom to the eccentric producer for their return.

Meanwhile, impatient with Lennon over the disposition of the out-of-court settlement, Levy marketed a television mail-order version of the album's rough mix, which the ex-Beatle had inadvisably shared with him, entitled "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 tale of having a legendary client of Lennon's ilk makes for a riveting read, to be sure, but Bergen's narrative hits even higher notes as he paints a picture of music's ties to the Mafia and the ways in which folks like Levy would exploit the threat of a federal case as a backroom shakedown.

Beatles fans — and Lennon aficionados in particular — will revel in John's descriptions of the musician's approach to the recording process, which Bergen skillfully redeployed in his courtroom strategy. The book offers a powerful glimpse into the seamy side of 1970s rock 'n' roll, a time capsule-like rendering of a bygone age. Bergen's "Lennon, the Mobster, & the Lawyer" is not to be missed.

John Lennon’s brilliant 'Gimme Some Truth' is an urgent plea for 2020, too

It may be the latest in a long line of compilation packages devoted to the former Beatle, but John Lennon's "Gimme Some Truth" picks up where 2018's impressive "Imagine" box set left off in terms of high-quality mixes and supplemental materials.

In the multi-disc album's title track, Lennon's searing indictment of self-serving politicians and all around anti-humanists couldn't be any more timely as 2020 slouches towards a (hopefully) merciful end. "I'm sick and tired of hearing things," John sings in "Gimme Some Truth," "from uptight, short-sighted, narrow-minded hypocritics / All I want is the truth / Just give me some truth." On its face, Lennon's plea for honesty seems ineluctably simple. But as decade after decade pile up in the years since his senseless murder, Lennon's dictum seems even more prescient.

As the "Gimme Some Truth" collection demonstrates so emphatically, Lennon's rage for authenticity typified much of his solo output, ranging from 1970's "Plastic Ono Band" through "Double Fantasy" (1980) and the posthumous "Milk and Honey" (1984). Curated by Yoko and Sean Lennon, "Gimme Some Truth" offers a wide array of the legendary songwriter's standout tracks — hits and non-hits alike. As with recent installments in the Beatles and solo Beatles remixes, "Gimme Some Truth" benefits from contemporary technology's capacity for creating greater separation among the original recordings.

Take "Nobody Told Me," for instance. Listeners will marvel at the quality of instrumental definition afforded by the edition's remix. The same can be said for the quasi-rock spiritual "God," which screeches and pops like never before as Lennon excoriates his Beatles past. From early entries like "Instant Karma" and "Love" through selections from "Double Fantasy," "Gimme Some Truth" provides a top-flight audio experience, particularly in the age of earbuds and all their attendant ubiquity.

"Gimme Some Truth" deserves special marks for its top-drawer commemorative book and liner notes, which place the 36 tracks in a valuable historical context. Again, as with the "Imagine" deluxe edition, the present compilation takes great pains to elevate Lennon's life and work—not as staid museum pieces, but rather, as vital cultural artifacts that continue to resonate even decades later as powerfully and refreshingly as they did all those years ago.

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