On May 26th, 1969, 14-year-old Jerry Levitan did something that many people only dream about. He interviewed John Lennon. The interview was done in John's Toronto hotel room one day before John and Yoko's famous "Bed In" for peace in Montreal. The interview was filmed and nominated for an Oscar by the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences. Jerry Levitan's interview is also the subject of the book I Met The Walrus (Collins Design), which includes the DVD of his interview with John Lennon.
Jerry Levitan spoke with us about the experience of interviewing John Lennon.
Q - Jerry, the title of your book is I Met The Walrus.
A - Yeah.
Q - But wait a minute, didn't John sing "Here's another clue for you all. The Walrus was Paul"?
A - He did. But he also sang in the song "God" on the "Plastic Ono" album, he said "I was the Walrus," and in subsequent interviews he said he always was the Walrus. The song was about him. In "Glass Onion", as he put it, he was feeling badly for Paul because now he had Yoko in his life and he threw Paul a bone. So John was the Walrus, man.
Q - In the book you say meeting and interviewing John Lennon changed your life forever. I don't know that that idea was clearly established in I Met The Walrus. So, how did meeting and interviewing John change your life forever? You're an attorney now?
A - I'm many things. I'm a film maker, obviously. I was nominated for an Oscar, won and Emmy. I'm doing other films now. I'm publishing animation based on Yoko Ono poems. I'm doing a live-action film based on my story. I'm also a children's entertainer known in Canada as Sir Jerry. You go to
www.Sir-Jerry.com, you'll get all the information you'll need on that. I write my own music. I've produced three CDs of original stuff for kids. And I'm also an actor, so I do all kinds of stuff.
Q - You are a busy guy!
A - I am.
Q - Page 84 of your book, you write just before you start the interview with John, you realize you hadn't prepared any questions. So now, what goes through your mind? Were you trying to figure out what some other interviewer might ask him?
A - I didn't really have time to think about it. I was sat down and told John and Yoko were going to come out in a second. And that's when I panicked, but the panic only lasted a few seconds 'cause John came in and said "Hey, would you like a photo, man?" And I said "Sure!" (laughs) Yoko took a picture of me and John and he said "Ask away." So, I just started talking with him and he was so kind and generous and gave me such attention that it was pretty easy.
Q - John says "Do everything for peace. You can't blame it on the government and say, oh, they're doing this, they're going to put us into war. We put them there, we allow it, and we can change it." Looking at that statement today, it seems a little naive, doesn't it?
A - Not really, basically he was saying a classic democratic statement, which is that if you rely on governments to take care of business and make decisions without input, then you get the government you deserve. I forget what philosopher said many years ago, some political philosopher said people get the government they deserve. Basically he was saying you can change the world by changing yourself and doing things you think are right and the older you get, you can run for office. You can write. You can do all kinds of stuff and in that way change the world and your government. You can also vote them out of office.
Q - Again, my initial thought when I read John's statement is, it's too simplistic.
A - Well, I would disagree. Actually what he was saying is, if you're just going to vote for somebody and let them take care of business, things aren't going to get done. You still have to be active. You still have to help in your local communities, or take a stand on small and big issues. People made fun of John at the time with his peace campaign, but if you listen to what he said and you read what he said, maybe there are some elements of naivety because of his positivness, but he wasn't just saying silly things. Basically his message to me, which was his basic message to all young people at the time, is "Look, if you're gonna run around violating and throw rocks, guns and bombs and stuff, you're gonna get hurt. Other people are gonna get hurt and that's not going to solve anything." And I think he was right.
Q - You ask if Ed Sullivan was a friend of his. John says "He's no friend. He was just somebody who put us on his show and we were happy to be on it. There's always going to be Ed Sullivan's on TV."
A - (laughs)
Q - When I read that, I immediately thought John was to dismissive of Ed Sullivan. After all, Ed Sullivan was at London's Heathrow Airport in 1963 and saw all these Beatle fans waiting for The Beatles to either arrive or depart, he asked what was going on. He was told people are waiting for The Beatles. He could've said "Oh" and that would've been the end of it. But that's not what he did. There are no Ed Sullivans on TV today and I wish there were.
A - Yeah, I agree with you.
Q - If he were alive today and giving interviews, I'd definitely confront him with that statement.
A - You know what? Think about it. He was 29 when I met him. I bet you today he would speak differently.
Q - On page 137, John talked openly about kicking heroin addiction. "Was he using heroin when I met him, I wondered." Looking back on it, do you think John was on some kind of drug when you met him?
A - I spent most of the day with him and Yoko. They were clean-headed. They were with it. They were active. They weren't manic at all. So in retrospect, he seemed pretty clean at the time. What I meant was, it was at the time of his life when he was doing that stuff. I mean, he and Yoko talked openly about that. They definitely used drugs here and there and at some point in their life, heroin. They wouldn't inject it. They would snort it. But when I was with them that day, he was not high. He didn't seem high at all.
Q - You told John, "I'm not too keen on George." Why didn't you like George?
A - Hey, I was a kid. In those days, you had your favorite Beatle, right? You were very loyal to your favorite Beatle and you'd argue about it. (laughs) I had a friend at the time who said George was the best Beatle. I would argue with this guy day and night for years about who was the better Beatle. (laughs)
Q - I always thought that kind of talk was reserved for teenage girls. I didn't think teenage boys talked like that.
A - Oh, sure they did.
Q - Why didn't you ever get a job with CHUM? Did they ask you? Did you approach them?
A - They didn't. I didn't approach them, but in retrospect it would've been a smart marketing thing.
Q - For you or for them?
A - For them to ask me. I scored the biggest exclusive interview they ever had.
Q - After you did the interview, your school had an assembly and your interview tape was played. You must've been the big man on campus after that.
A - Yeah. For sure.
Q - On April 8th, 1970, Paul announced that he quit The Beatles and you took it very hard.
A - Yeah.
Q - Why did you take it so hard?
A - Well, for me, like millions of other kids around the world, The Beatles meant everything. You couldn't wait to get a new Beatle record. You couldn't wait to see what they had to say, what kind of clothes they were wearing, what their hair style was. It was one of the most important things in your life. It was in mine. I know it was for many, many people. I get e-mails from people, kids and adults, younger and older than me from around the world. There isn't a week that passes that I don't get something. I got something from a 13 year old in Australia just a few days ago saying she loved The Beatles and was doing a project on The Beatles. They were so important in so many ways for so many of us. The idea that there would be no more Beatle records was a hard pill to swallow.
Q - John did make the statement that if you want to re-live Beatlemania, you have all the records.
A - Yeah.
Q - I also recognize the fact that in the time The Beatles were together, recording and touring, they really pushed themselves. Had they taken some time off, maybe thy could have worked out their differences.
A - I think that's very true, Gary. Those guys were under a lot of pressure from the ages of 17 on. Look at the surviving Beatles now. Ringo and Paul get it constantly. It's hard for Ringo to say "Hey, I'm just Ringo." It has to be pretty hard. They were kids.
Q - That mass adulation probably caused them to prematurely age. You can't live your life like they did.
A - Right.
Q - At the Toronto Rock and Roll Festival in 1969, you also saw Jim Morrison.
A - Yeah.
Q - You write: "His skin was weirdly translucent."
A - Right.
Q - What does that mean? He had no color to his skin?
A - Yeah. It was like pale, light green.
Q - I take it you weren't a fan of Jim Morrison or The Doors at the time.
A - I don't hate them, but didn't buy their records. I liked some of their stuff.
Q - Is there another book in the works about your Lennon experience or does I Met The Walrus pretty much say everything?
A - Well, I'm not planning one right now. I'm pretty busy with doing the movie. I'm starting a movie, waiting to finalize the script. So, I'm not really planning another book on John right now. Maybe in the future. We'll see how it goes.
Q - Have you ever talked with anyone who ever did what you did?
A - No one that I know of. That's why I think my story is so powerful. There's no record of any kid having a long interview with John Lennon when John was a Beatle and even afterwards. That's why it's treated so importantly around the world. The British Museum has a copy of my tape 'cause they consider it historic. So, it was a pretty unusual thing.