With “Lennon, the Mobster, & the Lawyer: The Untold Story,” Jay Bergen has authored a page-turner of a book about, of all things, a lawsuit. You may be drawn to the title as a Beatles fan, but you’ll leave having enjoyed a glimpse into the strategic core of a first-rate legal mind.
It is incredible to contemplate the sheer amount of time that John Lennon spent with various legal cases taking up his headspace, the most prominent of which was surely his longstanding immigration case. Lennon existed in public life for some 17 years, with fully a third of it living in fear of being deported from the United States. He had landed on President Richard M. Nixon’s notorious enemies list, which resulted in years of legal entanglements for the former Beatle as he fought to stay in the country. Fortunately, Lennon prevailed, earning his coveted Green Card in July 1976.
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But that’s another story. In “Lennon, the Mobster, & the Lawyer,” Bergen focuses on Lennon’s other case, his intellectual property dispute with Morris Levy, the publisher of Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me.” Lennon had lifted a key lyric from the song for Abbey Road’s “Come Together.” As with his one-time songwriting partner Paul McCartney, who described the Beatles as “plagiarists extraordinaires,” Lennon quipped that “the trick is to steal from the best.” When it came to Levy, John was initially forced to settle the lawsuit out of court, promising to record three tunes from Levy’s back catalog as recompense.
Love the Beatles? Listen to Ken’s podcast “Everything Fab Four.”
But it did not end there, of course. In the meantime, Lennon set to work on an oldies LP that went under the working title of “Back to Mono.” Eventually released as “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Lennon’s throwback album became its own saga when Phil Spector absconded with the album’s master tapes. Capitol Records paid some $ 90,000 in ransom to the eccentric producer for their return.
Meanwhile, impatient with Lennon over the disposition of the out-of-court settlement, Levy marketed a television mail-order version of the album’s rough mix, which the ex-Beatle had inadvisably shared with him, entitled “Roots: John Lennon Sings the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hits “and released on the Adam VIII label.
Here’s the TV commercial for “Roots”:
In fascinating detail, Bergen’s book traces the story of Capitol Records’ subsequent lawsuit against Levy. The behind-the-scenes tale of having a legendary client of Lennon’s ilk makes for a riveting read, to be sure, but Bergen’s narrative hits even higher notes as he paints a picture of music’s ties to the Mafia and the ways in which folks like Levy would exploit the threat of a federal case as a backroom shakedown.
Beatles fans – and Lennon aficionados in particular – will revel in John’s descriptions of the musician’s approach to the recording process, which Bergen skillfully redeployed in his courtroom strategy. The book offers a powerful glimpse into the seamy side of 1970s rock ‘n’ roll, a time capsule-like rendering of a bygone age. Bergen’s “Lennon, the Mobster, & the Lawyer” is not to be missed.
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Read more stories by Beatles scholar Ken Womack about John Lennon: