MY VISIT WITH JOHN LENNON AT THE DAKOTA, 1978
by C.P. Roth
Christmas 1978, I'd been working at Manny's Music Store for a little over a year and my 22 year old punk rock ass had been elevated to the position of (the first ever) "synth-keyboard guy" at the store just as Yamaha had introduced the mighty CP-80: A "portable" (yeah, tell that to the road crew!) 88-key electric piano that had real strings but no actual sound board. It was the first time bands could get a proper piano sound on stage without having to hassle with the real instrument. Great!
Encouraging her husband to get his songwriter's cap back on, Mrs. Yoko Ono Lennon bought one of these CP-80 beasties from Manny's along with two self powered high-end speakers, and for the only time I can remember it ever happening, we did an in-the-city shipment to the Dakota.
A few days after New Year's, Manny's owner, Mr. Henry Goldrich, of whom I cannot say enough good things about, announced, "Charly, I need you to go to John Lennon's home! There's something wrong with the Yamaha we sold Yoko."
Whoa, John Lennon, right! But, I'd kinda gotten used to the rock star drill. While they definitely regularly showed up at Manny's in person, most things like this glitch were handled by minders and such. So I got on the phone to discuss the problem with a guy who worked at Yoko's office at the Dakota.
"Oh, and John wants to be there while you're fixing this."
Inwardly gasping, and trying my best to not sound like the girls on the train in "A Hard Day's Night," I made the appointment.
The next day I changed my clothes three times before deciding on the outfit that looked like I was 'tech-y,' while wearing spiky punk hair dyed henna purple.
The Dakota doorman sent me to Yoko's ground floor office. I was told to have a seat while the Ono-Lennons were finishing breakfast upstairs. I sat opposite wall-to-wall floor-to-ceiling white file cabinets. Most of them said "Royalties-BMI," and a few others said "Petty Cash." Now, that's the way to run a rodeo!
The "send him up" call came and I got into a tiny private elevator and went up five or six stories to a foyer with a door on either side. I'd been instructed to remove my boots as most of the apartment was fitted with white carpeting.
One of the foyer doors opened, and there stood ... John and Yoko.
To my surprise, John was appreciably shorter than I was (I'm 6' 1"... John seemed to be 5' 9"), Yoko looked a bit big but Sean had recently been born so there was that. We exchanged pleasantries. By now, I'd dealt with lots rock stars ... the sullen, the egomaniacs, the coked, the drunk, the "shhh I'm not here" types. I was prepared for the most famous rock musician in the world that day having his own set of quirks. But John just started talking ... and never stopped!
We three sat in the kitchen for a few minutes. It was bigger than most NYC apartments, with every conceivable gadget for industrial strength cookin'! After some more small talk, John was eager to get the repair started. So off the two of us went down a long hallway. We were walking fast and he was yappin' a mile a minute.
The hallway was indeed fitted with all white carpeting, all white walls. There were doorways every eight feet or so on either side. The open doors were showing me some oddball shit. There was a room with a giant pyramid made from brushed aluminum tubing with vines growing all over it. The base of the thing was so big it had to rest one side on the wall 'cause it was too wide for the floor. Okay. I also noticed the pictures on the walls of the hallway. All were photographs of John and Yoko, except for a notable few of John and ... Brian Epstein!
But no time for that, dude, effin' John Lennon is tawkin' to me!
"We can't figure out what's wrong. You plug one speaker in, it sounds fine, you plug the other speaker in, it sounds fine. But, when you plug them both in, it sounds like the Rolling Stones rehearsing in somebody's basement!"
"I take it that's not good, John?"
He smiled, "No, not at all."
John opened the door at the end of the hall and ... Great Expectations! a large dark musty room, light blocked by ancient curtains and filthy windows. In the middle of this, sat the Yamaha piano and speakers, just insanely out of place. There was also, even more incongruously, a fully functioning Wurlitzer jukebox! Yes, the kind with the bubbling liquid running through the detailing. It only played 78s and was lit up like a Christmas tree in this gloom.
Suddenly the sound of many small feet running came towards us. It was a dozen little girls! What the...?! They ran in and surrounded John, pleading, "Sing us a song, John, sing us a song!" And he was all, "No no, sorry, I've got work to do!" But they were child-insistent. He looked over at me, shrugged and said "Sorry, I've got to do this." He turned to the jukebox, punched in a number, and started to sing along with a Rudy Vallee number while the kids happily danced. I could feel my mouth open, my head exploding! I'd been there less than 10 minutes!
The performance ended, the mystery tots dispatched (who were they?), work commenced. I so wish I had had a Walkman that could record our chatting, but alas, they were four years from being invented so I can only relate what I remember.
After verifying what John had said about the ugly sound, I started to take the piano apart. While I was doing this, John was talking about this 'n' that and then went silent. I turned to him -- he was sizing me up. Old school Brit rock stars would often take a really long frank look at you to see if you were OK or some sorta prat. So I'm tinkering away and John says, "So, do you play in a band? You look like you play in a band."
I answered, "Yeah I just joined a band, Regina and the Red Hots. But, I'm doing recording my own music at this studio where some friends of mine engineer. We go in on the graveyard shift. I play drums, bass and keys, then get guitarists and singers to finish it off. It's kinda wacky stuff. Very Zappa like."
John was intrigued, "Wait, you play most of the instruments yourself! So like, what do you do first? Do you play a pilot piano track, or a high hat tempo track?"
I explained, "Well, first we lay down a mechanical click track for tempo, and since I know the songs already, I'll do the drums, then I'll play pia- Hey! Aren't you the guy who made Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band?!?"
John chuckled, "Well, you know I've been away from it for a long time. I do know things have changed."
We talked about the old techniques and the limitations that had to be dealt with when they (his old band) were making those records. I started talking about the new synth technology. I'd already done some programming stints with Ace Frehley, Ray Davies, and Harry Belafonte (!), and offered the same services to John if he wanted to get into that. He gave me a stern look and said plainly, "I don't like knobs." Knowing the other meaning for "knob" in Britain, I dropped the subject.
We got on the subject of the Mellotron. This was the instrument that you hear in "Strawberry Fields" and lots of other stuff from the late 60s/early 70s. It looked like a small organ. When a key was pressed, a playback head was mechanically run over a piece of recording tape with an 8-second note (or sound) of an instrument, or really anything that could be recorded. Wonderful sounds, but unusually fragile. Literally moving it across a room could actually bend and ruin the frame the tapes were enclosed in.
John confided in me that model #001 was currently languishing in the basement of The Record Plant. If I wanted it, I could just go and get it! Yes, of course... "Uh, my buddy, John Lennon? He said I could go down the basement and well, see, he wants me to have the Mellotr...Hey! Stop hitting me!"
Once I was inside the Yamaha piano, what I found was annoyingly beyond my abilities to fix. So, I wrote down what had to be done and who to call. Okay. Back to the kitchen we went where Yoko was waiting.
I said my goodbyes, which, of course, had to include the must-have autograph. John obliged, muttering, "I hope this is the last one of these things I have to do this year."
Me being the self promoting fool that I was/am, I had to take the shot. I got out a business card, "John, I know you've been away from this for a while, but if you ever need the best bass player in New York, please give me a call!"
While I was pitching him, I was writing down my new phone number on the back of the card, John and Yoko both start laughing! I said, "Jeez I didn't think it was that bad a pitch!"
Yoko giggled, "That's not why we're laughing"
They'd watched me as I wrote down my number ... John Lennon said, "That's just what I need, another left handed bass player!"
I stammered, "Well, I'll take that as a compliment." And with that, made my way out of the Dakota and hailed the first cloud back downtown.
Epilogue: Two weeks later, I was walking back into Manny's from lunch. One of the guitar sales guys said "Hey, Charly, your boy Lennon is in the back with Henry trying out guitars." Yes, he actually said "your boy, Lennon."
John had a beautiful Gibson Hummingbird acoustic guitar in his hands and was talking to Henry as I walked up. John turned, saw me, extended his hand, and enthusiastically asked, "Hey Charly, how's your tape coming?"
Two years later, I was in The Record Plant's Studio C. We'd finally begun recording with Regina and the Red Hots. We didn't know it, but just down the hall in Studio D, John and Yoko were mixing "Walking on Thin Ice." It was December 8th, 1980.
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