I’ve wandered off the list again. A visit to a used bookstore over the weekend (always a dangerous idea for a book nut) ended with a new book joining the 2013 extended reading list. This is another in one of my favorite “genres,” the rock and roll book. Jerry Levitan’s I Met the Walrus recounts the author’s nearly unbelievable story of, as a 14 year old, not simply meeting but interviewing John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their Toronto “bed-in” for peace in 1969.
Levitan, a self-described “aficionado” (in the Hemingway sense of the word) of The Beatles, especially John Lennon, Pierre Trudeau, and Jerry Lewis (don’t ask me why – but Levitan mentions that Lennon liked him, too) is one of those kids who are always “in the know.” He gets copies of the hippest new record albums before anyone else, and, in a prelude to his meeting with Lennon, he visits New York during the 1968 Muscular Dystrophy Labor Day Telethon and somehow meets Jerry Lewis.
He’s that kid you’d make fun of because you are trying too hard not to admire him, in other words.
The book itself has a great deal of charm. While written somewhat guilelessly. Levitan’s three main sections – “Meet The Beatles,” “I Met the Walrus,” and “In My Life” are successively a fan letter, the sort of interview a gifted 14 year old would conduct with a rock legend, and a reflection about how that interview changed Levitan’s life. The first part is a retelling of an experience an entire generation shares: discovering The Fabs via the Ed Sullivan Show, not just learning but absorbing their music, and, at least in Levitan’s case, finding oneself with the chance of a lifetime and the moxie to take it. Part 2 will disappoint those who are not Beatle fans or who have never been 14 and completely enamored of someone/something. The interview itself is uneven; good questions that allow Lennon to offer his reasons for his and Yoko’s peace crusade alternate with asinine “fanboy” queries more suitable for a private audience with a Beatle. What is most interesting to read is Lennon’s patience and kindness with Levitan – he answers every question as thoughtfully and completely as he can.
Then there’s Part 3. The effects on Levitan’s life as a result of his “magical mystery” experience are almost immediate. A friendship with a record company rep as a result of Lennon’s introduction results in Levitan meeting McCartney protégé Mary Hopkin , then actually getting to go on a sort of date with her. His school allows Levitan an assembly where he gets to play his interview with Lennon and Ono as well as part of the new album he was given, Life With the Lions. (It’s an “interesting” record – take that how you will.) He also gets to attend the “Live Peace” Toronto show and gets to see not only The Plastic Ono Band (with Eric Clapton on lead guitar), he sees Little Richard and (sort of) meets Jerry Lee Lewis who clarifies in no uncertain terms that he is NOT Jerry Lewis. Pretty heady stuff for any rock fan – much less for a kid just turning 15.
The Epilogue is brief – and not unlike the story of the Boomer generation of whom Levitan is a member. He is tending his infant son Daniel when he hears the news reports of John Lennon’s murder. He has become a lawyer, driven and focused. It costs him his marriage, his sanity for a time – and nearly his life. Then, through the love of his children and his recognition of the connection he has to rock history, he figures out what he wants to do when he grows up. He becomes a well known children’s music composer/performer (a sort of rockin’ Raffi), and, with the assistance of gifted illustrator James Braithwaite and talented filmmaker Josh Raskin his interview with John Lennon becomes both an Academy Award nominated/Emmy winning animated film – and an engrossing, moving book that speaks to what Beatlemania and being a Boomer both mean in a way that, for anyone who can remember, will make it feel like those remarkable days really did matter.
For all of you who missed the magic, as the Walrus himself said, “Imagine….”