Cover Art – John Lennon
John Lennon and Me
as always, for Marcia
My first father-in-law, like my second, was not too keen on my appearance. While my second dislikes my personal barbering (I've cut my own hair the last forty years), Al Rossi, a union garment worker, thought I ought to dress better, and, man of action that he was, Al informed me in 1974 that he had purchased for me a three-piece suit. All I had to do was pick it out and up. I arrive at the address of the clothing manufacturer and enter. A salesman greets me and is apparently aware of the arrangements Al had made. “One of these, please,” he tells me with a gesture indicating I should pick from about a hundred different suits that hang nearby. “Pick what you like and I’ll find it in your size.” When he returns with my choice of style and color, so that I can try on the suit coat, I ask him to hold the book I carry, Daniel Kramer’s pictorial essay of a young Bob Dylan. “Are you a Bob Dylan fan?” he asks. When I tell him that I am and that I even teach a high school English class about Dylan, all salesman propriety evaporates as he bellows, “Hey, Marty, come on down. There’s another Dylan freak here.”
Well, Marty is the owner of the clothing company and an insanely serious Bob Dylan fanatic. He asks about my class and what Dylan bootlegs I might own. Satisfied that he has what I have, he takes me to his office, a cluttered room, the rear wall of which is covered with clothing swatches, a couple hundred or so. He asks me to take a peek at what’s under the more colorful swatches as he tells me of his Dylan fanaticism. He owns a dozen copies (with shrink wrap in tact) of every Dylan album; three copies of every book about Dylan, one of every brand and style guitar Dylan has been known to play (including three Stratocasters like the one Dylan went electric with at Newport); five original copies of the New York Times containing the Robert Sheldon review of Bobby D that helped launch his star; and other artifacts that add up to an overwhelming litany of Dylan memorabilia. He also speaks about his home recording studio where he has rerecorded every published Dylan song with the help of Philadelphia’s folk and rock and roll elite. He calls himself a Dylan parrot with perfect pitch. But the most telling indictment of his kookiness is what I find when I lift up my first clothing swatch: a photo of a teenage Dylan at a birthday party! In fact under every colorful swatch I lift is a very personal Dylan photograph. All are obviously not publicity photos. He goes on to explain that he hired a couple of professional burglars to steal the photos from Dylan’s Woodstock home, a photographer to reproduce them, and the US mail to return the originals to Dylan. “Only a week from heist to home again!” he quips. To buy my silence, he ends our meeting with “On your way out, pick out a winter coat, on me!” which I did. I was still wearing that coat in 1977 when I met another rock and roll fanatic by the name of Nicki Indigo.
When I left the East Coast and settled in Denver in 1975, I bought a house on Pearl Street in the Washington Park neighborhood. It was the consummate 70’s bachelor’s abode. I generally had at least two roommates, and a card game or backgammon game was in the offing twenty-four seven. One night my housemate David returned home from work with a boyhood pal, Nicki. Nicki was deep into an On The Road adventure and had crossed paths with David in La Place Pigalle, a cocktail lounge/party bar in Brooks Tower adjacent to The Boston Half Shell where David and I worked. David hoped that I wouldn’t mind if Nicki spent the night and crashed on our living room couch. I was agreeable and we spent the night listening to records, mostly Dylan bootlegs, smoking ganja and tobacco, drinking Heineken and Grand Marnier, and telling stories, one story of which was the story of my winter coat. Nicki left in the morning but not without telling me that the previous evening had been one of the highlights of his travels: crossing paths with David, meeting me, and listening to my tall tales. “I didn’t come across the ghost of Neal Cassady as I had hoped, but I found you. Guess I’ll head back now to New York,” were his parting words.
A couple of years later, long after David had moved on, I received a letter from Nicki addressed to David. Because I had no forwarding address for David, I kept the letter as there was no return address on the envelope, just the words Nicki Eye. Once a month for a year or so, another Nicki Eye letter would appear in my mailbox. After the thirteenth epistle arrived, I decided to open one in the hope of finding a return address where I might send them. The address I found was for a mental institution in upstate New York. I gathered up all the Nicki Eye letters, added a note of my own informing Nicki that I had no idea of David’s whereabouts, and mailed the package to Utica State Hospital.
In the fall of 1980, my wife Marcia was pregnant with our first child. On an Indian summer November day, we were in the backyard of our Pearl Street home putting our first summer garden to bed, turning over the soil and spreading the year’s compost, when the door bell rang. Marcia and our three dogs scampered into the house to see who had come calling. No sooner had Marcia disappeared into the house than she reappeared. “You had better answer the door. I have no idea who he is, but I don’t like his looks.”
When I arrive at the front door, my usually docile Malamute is barking insanely. A translation from Malamute to English would be something like “Come through that door and I will devour you like a snow shoe hare, balls, ears, eyes and hair!” After quieting all three dogs, Maku, Dylan Dog, and Cheiba Chieba, I step outside and greet an exceedingly strange looking young man, strange because half of his head is shaved and the other half flows to his shoulders, he’s wearing jump boots and camouflage, and tattoos seem to bubble up his neck and onto his cheeks. For a third eye he sports a Hindu swastika, and he’s holding in his left hand a duct taped cardboard portfolio that has a shoelace for a handle.
His rapid-fire speech must be pharmacologically induced: “Hello Ed. Remember me? I’m David’s friend Nicki. You put me up one night a few years ago. You told the story of the Dylan burglary and your coat. I still have those Bobby bootleg songs in my head. For three years I sung myself to sleep with them in Utica. Upon release after winning my lawsuit I knew I had to come and tell you “Thank You.” Thanks for returning my letters and thanks for letting me sleep on your couch. No one has ever shown me such kindness. Not even my lawyer who got me sprung and got me my small fortune. Really. Two days ago I was in a mental institution and now I’m here to say ‘Thank you.’ I even brought you a present.”
Nicki hands me the portfolio and asks after David. My only suggestion is that David liked the ladies at La Place Pigalle and perhaps one of them might know of his whereabouts, a suggestion Nicki takes in earnest. “Well thanks again. Bye, I’m off to La Place Pigalle.”
“Hey, Nicki, what about your portfolio?”
“It’s my gift to you. Last night, after my lawyer doled out my first ten grand in cash I went in search of a good time. Eventually I wound up in lower Manhattan, Greenwich Village to be exact, in the wee hours of morning. Even New York City is quiet and dark at 3 AM. That’s when I saw this bookstore with its lights on with two men inside. Inside the windows I could see that many of the bookshelves were covered in white butcher block paper and one of the guys was pinning artwork to the paper. The door was locked but when I knocked I was let in. Well, damn, you’ll never guess who the artist was. No, it wasn’t Bob Dylan, but it was someone just as famous. It was John Lennon! The owner of the store and John were good friends and both were extremely friendly to me, despite my De Niro-does-Travis Bickle hairdo and duds. Apparently John Lennon buys his books there because the proprietor guy was Lennon’s go-to-man for reading recommendations. And because the bookstore was in dire need of a financial infusion, Lennon was hosting on the very very down-lo a sale of left over lithographs from his Bag Series, the series of fourteen lithographs he created as a wedding present for Yoko Ono. No advertisements of the exhibition and sale; just a chance for the regulars of the bookstore to obtain some Lennon art and for the bookstore to obtain the funds necessary to avoid bankruptcy. Hell, I bought two lithographs on the spot and John signed them: one of John, Yoko, and the minister who married them, and one of John, Yoko, and their lawyer in bed. I took a cab to Kennedy, bought a ticket to Stapleton, flew here, and now I’ve said my ‘Thank you.’ Enjoy!” And off Nicki raced to catch the Number 5 on his way to La Place Pigalle. My last image of Nicki is a half a head of hair flowing out the open window of a bus.
Now, all through my meeting with Nicki on the porch I could hear Marcia, who stood just inside the door, repeating a mantra of sorts in a low voice. “Don’t let him in. Don’t let him in. Don’t let him in.” Now that Nicki was gone she had changed the mantra to “Leave it on the porch; don’t bring it in. Leave it on the porch; don’t bring it in.” Her pregnant woman’s intuition - which I discount – proves, however, to be right on when I open the portfolio. There are, indeed, two signed John Lennon lithographs inside; they have, however, apparently been “altered” by Nicki. Defaced and ruined might be more accurate, for sometime between last night’s 3 AM purchase in Manhattan and their 3 PM delivery to me in Denver, Nicki had taken liberties with Lennon’s art, so much so that I couldn’t tell what was Nicki’s art and what was John’s. Nicki had Magic Marker-ed the lithographs and glued instamatic photographs of himself and the pornography of others all over the imagery. Magazine cutouts of vaginas and David Bowie were glued helter skelter. Simply said: the devil was in the added details.
Marcia’s response to our viewing was reasonable: “Get them out of the house. Now!”
Now, I’m Irish. I never gave the Beatles much credence as superstars – they weren’t even in the same universe as Dylan – and, besides, they are English, and my prejudice against the British Empire runs generational-ly deep. Still, I was not about to throw the destroyed lithographs away. After all, they had been a Thank You present, no matter how perverse. And because I believe there is a solution to every problem, I wracked my brain and came up with an inspired one: I took the next Number 5 downtown, walked two blocks east on Colfax Avenue to Jerry’s Records that was owned by a poet friend of mine, John Loquidis, and pinned the lithographs to the ceiling of the record store where they remained for the next twenty-five years.
In 1988, some eight years after the murder of John Lennon, a Public Radio announcement caught my ear. Apparently Yoko Ono, whose daughter lived in the Denver area, was hosting an art exhibition, “the first sale ever in America of John Lennon artwork.” Well stickler for detail that I am, I knew the hype to be false because I was privy to Lennon’s bookstore lithograph sale that had occurred the month before his murder. And since the John Lennon Art Show at The Oxford Hotel was but a short walk from my Wazee Street loft, I decided to go and check it out in the hopes of learning what the lithographs had looked like before Nicki Eye had enhanced them. So into the lobby of the Oxford Hotel I go. It is summer and I’m sporting my Stetson Panama, karate pants, Birkenstocks, and a Hawaiian shirt. I ask after Yoko. She’s not there. I ask after the curator and I’m directed to a guy in a three-piece suit. In the hopes of having a little fun, I begin by telling the curator that his advertisement for the show is a wee bit misleading. “This is not the first John Lennon Art show ever to be held in America.” He’s not simply defensive in his rebuttal but angry as well: “This most certainly is and who are you to say it’s not.” For the next minute or so I attempt to calm him down with my tale of the lithographs I own ending with “They’re hanging on the ceiling of Jerry’s Records, if you don’t believe me,” to which he responds with the snap of his fingers and a mean-spirited directive, “Kick his ass to the sidewalk.” Two very large men, body-guard types, appear out of nowhere and do as directed. My arms are twisted behind my back and I am removed from the Sage Room on whose walls hang the fourteen different lithographs comprising the Bag Series, guided through the lobby, past the Cruise Bar, to the front door, and I am tossed to the sidewalk by the two thugs who grin like Cheshire cats, their smile intimating that the sidewalk burns on my face are nothing compared to the harm I’ll suffer should I attempt re-entry. A fun-ster I may be but a fool I am not. I returned to my loft and my family secure in my belief that someday I would get to tell this story, and look here, I even brought along the lithographs!