Imagine what it would have been like to spend a couple of years with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the mid-1970s. That’s what Saluda resident Jay Bergen got to do. He was representing Lennon in his court fight with Morris Levy, a man Variety once called “The Octopus” because of the long tentacles his multiple businesses wrapped around the music industry. Bergen says Levy, quite simply, was a gangster with close ties to the mob. “Levy was said to be the model for ‘Hesh’ Rabkin on The Sopranos television series,” says Bergen.
The trial, explains Bergen, stemmed from discord over an oral agreement where “John would record three rock-and-roll oldies from the 1950s that Morris would sell on a worldwide basis.” This was the result of an effort to settle an earlier claim of plagiarism in which Lennon, in writing “Come Together,” was accused of stealing the intellectual property (owned by Levy) of Chuck Berry’s song, “You Can’t Catch Me.” The trial was finally resolved in 1977.
And what was the resolution? “Ah, that’s what my show is about,” says Bergen, who’s presenting his multimedia production, John Lennon, the Mobster, & the Lawyer, at the Peace Center’s Gunter Theatre on August 2. In it, Bergen will share personal anecdotes and photos from his relationship with Lennon (many taken by famed rock photographer Bob Gruen). Naturally, there will be a Lennon soundtrack, including “Slippin and Slidin,” and, afterward, an opportunity for the audience to ask questions.
Though he won’t reveal details before the show, Bergen does say, “I spent a lot of time with John.” He notes that “John and Yoko came to the trial every day. They’d pick me up in the morning in their limousine, we’d go to the courthouse, out for lunch, and then they’d take me home at night.” He says they also introduced him to several of their music-industry friends, including Jesse Ed Davis and Eddie Mottau — both were witnesses in the trial — Jim Keltner, Klaus Voormann (who designed the album cover for the Beatles’ Revolver), Bobby Keys, and others.
Lennon and Ono loved New York City, says Bergen. They could go out and about and most people wouldn’t bother them. Bergen says he loved the city, too, where he was a trial lawyer for 45 years. Upon his retirement in 2008, he says he and his wife moved to Saluda for a welcome change of pace.
For the past four decades, Bergen has kept the entire court record of the trial, some 5,000+ pages in all. He thought he’d write a book about the experience but was persuaded to first present his story in theaters in front of live audiences. John Lennon, the Mobster, & the Lawyer premiered in March at the Tryon Fine Arts Center, where it sold out three performances.
“The show will give you a completely different look at who John Lennon was at that time of his life,” says Bergen.
John Lennon, the Mobster, & The Lawyer, directed by Catherine Gillet, shows at 7pm on Thursday, August 2, at the Peace Center’s Gunter Theatre in Greenville, SC (300 South Main St.). Tickets are $20, available online at peacecenter.org.