In March 1975, Jay Bergen stepped off an elevator on the seventh floor of The Dakota, New York’s famous luxury co-op on the Upper West Side. He was greeted by a young man who escorted him to an apartment. Bergen was in John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s living room. A white Steinway grand piano sat in the space. The view of Central Park was spectacular.
A few minutes later, Ono walked in and the two introduced themselves. For the next hour, Bergen tells me he was “politely grilled” by the Beatles’ former wife.
Bergen’s partner at Marshall, Bratter, Greene, Allison & Tucker was Lennon’s attorney in the breakup of the Beatles. Bergen had recently been asked to represent the musician in a dispute unrelated to a breach of contract.
It was an “audition,” Bergen recalled of meeting Ono. She wanted to be sure he was the right lawyer to handle the case. “If she didn’t love me,” he explains, “I would have walked out.”
Bergen passed the test and, for the next two years, had a ticket to become Lennon’s attorney in the matter. The representation included a lengthy bench trial in the Southern District of New York and culminated in a published opinion of the New York-based 2nd United States Circuit Court of Appeals.
Lennon and Bergen separated after this, and Bergen went on to a long career as a litigator for various Manhattan businesses. He retired in 2008. While his portrayal of Lennon has always made a good story, last month the Long Island native shared the affair on a larger scale. He published Lennon, the Gangster and the Lawyer – The Untold Storywhich chronicles his portrayal of Lennon in this little-known case.
In a phone interview from his home in Saluda, southwestern North Carolina, Bergen, 84, opened up about his five-year efforts as a paperback writer to share Lennon’s story.
Lennon’s troubles began in 1973, after a case was settled alleging his song “Come Together” infringed the four-word copyright of Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me.” The rights to the song belonged to Big Seven Music Corp., a publishing company owned by Morris Levy, a music industry executive with alleged Mafia ties. For Levy, the situation was not so good that Johnny was good, and he sued Lennon.
In resolving the copyright claim, Lennon agreed to include a trio of songs owned by Big Seven on a compilation album he was making in which he performed 1950s rock ‘n’ roll hits. Levy was to receive certain royalties. Lennon shared a working copy of the file with Levy. Although it was a demo—a so-called rough mix—which was not yet of record quality, Levy proceeded to sell it through mail-order television commercials.
With the bootleg now on the street, Lennon was forced to quickly finish and release the LP he called rock n roll. Lennon’s record company sent stern warnings to TV stations that they were advertising an unauthorized album. Levy has stopped selling Roots: John Lennon sings rock’n’roll hits and sued Lennon for breach of contract. At the heart of the dispute was who had the right to distribute the compilation album.
Bergen’s work is a mix of play-by-play trials – including excerpts from the 5,000-page trial transcript – and anecdotes from his many encounters with Lennon that led to a close personal relationship between the two.
Bergen describes himself as a “huge Beatles fan”, including seeing the Fab Four when they appeared at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens in 1964. Lennon was also one of America’s most famous people at the time . Surely there were challenges in having a client like that.
“Once I got over the shock of seeing John Lennon walk into the conference room and sit there and talk to me,” Bergen says, recalling their first meeting, “it turned out he was a client, and I treated him like any other client I’ve ever had.
A nice customer
Bergen has a lot to say about Lennon’s dedication to the case. “John was really determined not to let Morris intimidate him,” Bergen tells me, explaining the reason for his client’s intense interest in the case. “I think he realized he had made a mistake when he settled the ‘Come Together’ case. He had now fallen into the clutches of Morris, and I think he decided” I’m not going to settle this case.” We’re really going to be involved.
“John and Yoko were [in the courtroom] every day,” Bergen says of the weeks-long trial before Judge Thomas Griesa.
Bergen also calls Lennon “the best witness I have ever represented or put on the stand in my 45-year career.” He describes Lennon as “very comfortable on the witness stand”, adding “I don’t think he was even a little nervous”.
“I can’t think of a single mistake he made,” Bergen said. “Witnesses get nervous. They start to volunteer. We are past that. John did not volunteer. If he was asked a question, either in examination-in-chief or in cross-examination, he answered it. And that was it.
Judge with a musical ear
Bergen credits part of his success in the case – no contract was found between Lennon and Levy (upheld on appeal); Lennon awarded contractual damages on his counterclaim (reduced on appeal) – to Judge Griesa being a musician who played piano and harpsichord in a classical music band.
Lennon also sought damages from Levy for damage to his reputation caused by the release of the wrong Roots album. As a musician, according to Bergen, Judge had a trained ear and appreciated Lennon’s creative process, which he testified to in detail.
After a public hearing on “Ain’t That a Shame” by Fats Domino, the two Roots and rock n roll versions — the judge made the following conclusion:
“I don’t think there is any comparison. The rock n roll is so much clearer; the voice was very weak and indistinct on Roots, he was almost hidden there. I couldn’t tell it was John Lennon singing or whoever was singing; it was a voice. The elements, whatever they are, have all been confused in Roots, and I don’t know if you call it surface noise or what kind of noise, but it was blurry, and I wouldn’t get much out of it. Now the rock n rollit seems to me, the voice was clear and distinct, and all the other elements were distinct.
In later awarding Lennon $35,000 for damage to his reputation (upheld on appeal), the court observed that “Lennon attempted a variety of endeavors in both popular and avant-garde music. Lennon’s product tends to be a bit more intellectual than the product of other artists. In my view, this means that Lennon’s reputation and position is a sensitive issue and that any unlawful interference with Lennon in the way that Levy and the Roots accomplished album should be taken seriously.
On December 8, 1980, Lennon was killed by a gunman outside Dakota. Early the next morning, Bergen drove to the scene of the tragedy. “I passed by places where John and I had walked together,” Bergen says. “I didn’t bother to remember. I felt the urge to be where John had last spoken, breathed, laughed, where he had most recently been alive.
Bergen’s work dates back almost half a century since he exposed Lennon’s creative process in a lower Manhattan courtroom. The many bankers’ cases in the file could have remained buried in the lawyer’s garage. But Bergen just couldn’t let it happen.
Randy Maniloff is an attorney at White and Williams in Philadelphia and an adjunct professor at Temple University Beasley School of Law. He runs the CoverageOpinions.info website.
This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal or the American Bar Association.