"You're not going to cash that, are you? That's John Lennon's check!"
In the fall of 1974, Yoko Ono gave a lecture at my school, Colgate University. As a senior, I had the unique privilege of being the only student in the college staff directory as Director of Video Services for the Education Department. I had my own office and a full complement of the first generation of consumer video equipment that was primarily used for taping student teachers in the summer Masters of Education program. For the rest of the year I would also tape this and that around campus for my department and others as well as some sports teams. But largely, I had the Sony half-inch reel-to-reel recorders, editing equipment, cameras and Portapaks to play with.
When the Ono lecture was announced, I knew I had to do a multi-camera shoot of her speaking in the campus chapel. About a month after my 10th birthday in January 1964, The Beatles made their American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. It changed my life, and now, nearly 47 years later, rock 'n' roll remains the backbeat that drives my existence -- and a substantial part of my professional career.
I never felt it was Yoko who broke up The Beatles. She had also been a collaborator with video art pioneer Nam June Paik and cellist Charlotte Moorman in the piece "TV Bra for Living Sculpture" in which Moorman had two small video monitors mounted atop her breasts as she played. It seemed utterly fitting to tape Ono as she spoke. Plus it was a chance to get a nearby brush with the man who was and remains one of my few true icons.
Following the lecture I was approached by Yoko's assistant (who bore the aptly au courant for the times and very memorable name of Sara Seagull). She asked if I could send them a copy of the taping and offered to pay for the tape.
A few weeks later I got a check for $15 written on the account of John Lennon, One West 72nd Street, New York, NY. It was signed by two of his accountants.
As I proudly showed it to my friends, they were mightily impressed. And most all of them insisted that I couldn't cash it because it was from Lennon.
I found that odd. It didn't have his signature on it. (Friends would later tell me how Ringo during that same time, living in Los Angeles, would pay for most every purchase he made with a signed personal check because they were rarely cashed, allowing him to largely shop free of charge.) I surmised that the Lennon check had probably never even passed through the Lennono home and offices at The Dakota.
I kept telling friends as they insisted I save it: "He didn't sign it! It was never even in his presence! Why shouldn't I cash it?" When I finally did deposit the check (after making a photocopy I later lost), the teller's eyes all but literally bugged out as she looked it over.
I imagine my less than obsessive feelings about even a tangential contact with massive worldwide fame helped qualify me for my career as a popular music journalist that started soon after my college graduation. Sure, fame impressed me. But it has never left me gobsmacked and all wacky like so many others. After all, celebrities are still only human.
When Lennon was killed by Mark David Chapman on December 8, 1980, I was also living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. One aspect I loved about his living there was how John was a part of my neighborhood, and he was able to live there and largely be left alone and unbothered. He was just one of us in a city where sightings and even encounters with the famous were so common that any true New Yorker was blasé about such things. I was happy for my working class hero who had scaled the heights of superstardom that he was later able to shrug it off and just be himself among the people, but also chuffed that he lived nearby.
For a good dozen later years, on my bedroom wall I had a poster of John in his "New York City" t-shirt taken by and given to me by my friend and noted rock photographer Bob Gruen. Of course I wish I'd spotted Lennon around town, maybe met and even interviewed him. But I am content to have simply lived 13 blocks away.
Mixed into my profound sorrow over his murder was the nagging question of why Chapman couldn't have just left John alone like so many of us New Yorkers did. The way I see it, Chapman never did (metaphorically) cash John's check. The killing was a fixation on someone famous gone homicidally septic. He couldn't just let John be. It was an early sign of the dysfunctional worship of and lust for fame in our culture that I find rather distasteful. One reason why is that it killed John after he had largely escaped its binding and soul sucking grip.
Now, 30 years after Lennon was shot and killed, I still don't regret cashing that check. But I cherish the memory of opening the envelope and seeing his name and address on it. And happily recall how when I did a phone interview with Yoko in the 1990s about the Bag One touring exhibit of Lennon's artwork, she twice said to me: "You must have really loved John because you know so much about him."
Yes, Yoko, I loved him dearly. I loved him because he was real. I loved him because he was the embodiment of all that I love about rock 'n' roll. I loved him because he was an idealist who held onto the best values of the late 1960s counter-cultural revolution, yet was also all too human with his many warts, foibles and even seeming hypocrisies that prompted Chapman to hunt John down and kill him. And today, I love John Lennon more than ever. And thank he and Yoko for the 15 bucks.
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