My Old Pal, Charly, Visits John and Yoko at the Dakota

Music, Personalities, pic: 1968, John Lennon and Yoko Ono attend John's Art Exhibition and Happening  (Photo by Bentley Archi
Music, Personalities, pic: 1968, John Lennon and Yoko Ono attend John's Art Exhibition and Happening (Photo by Bentley Archive/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Christmas, 1978.

My dear old buddy, successful career-musician (grrrr!), Charly Roth (aka "CP") had been working at the genuinely legendary Manny's Music Store for a little over a year. He'd just been elevated to the position of (the first ever) "synth-keyboard sales guy" at the store (his green hair had actually helped land him the gig).

Yamaha had just introduced their legendary CP80: A "portable" 88-key electric piano that had real strings but no actual sound board. For the first time, you could get a proper piano sound on stage without having to hassle with the real instrument. Encouraging her husband to get his songwriter chops back in gear, Mrs. Yoko Ono Lennon bought one of these CP-80s from Manny's as a Christmas gift for John.

A few days after New Year's, Manny's son and now, owner, Mr. Henry Goldrich, a guy Charly and I still love like a favorite uncle, announced, "Charly, I need you to go to John Lennon's home! There's something wrong with the Yamaha we sold Yoko. Fix it."

Whoa, John Lennon, right!

But, Charly knew the rock star drill. Most things like this glitch were handled by minion-minders and such. Still! He got on the phone to discuss the problem with a guy who worked at Yoko's office at the Dakota. Trying his damnedest not sound like a frothing fan, Mr. Roth made the appointment.

The next day, Charly changed his clothes three times before deciding on the outfit that looked like he was actually capable of 'tech-y-ness,' while wearing spiky punk hair, now dyed purple.

Arriving at the Dakota, a doorman sent Charly to Yoko's ground floor office. He was told to have a seat while the Ono-Lennons were finishing breakfast upstairs.

As he sat opposite wall-to-wall floor-to-ceiling white file cabinets, our man from Manny's suddenly realized that most of them were tagged, "Royalties-BMI," and a few others said, "Petty Cash." Charly was duly impressed!

The "Send him up" call came and CP, assuming a lackey upstairs was gonna show him to the room where the piano was, got into a tiny private elevator. It went up five or six stories and opened onto a small foyer with a door on either side of the car. He'd been instructed to remove his boots in the elevator. Most of John and Yoko's apartment was fitted with white carpeting.

A foyer door opened, and there stood ... John and Yoko.


Charly was stunned (as in, stun gun!), but, regained his composure as fast as he was able.

To his distinct surprise, John was appreciably shorter than he'd believed, maybe even just 5' 9"... Charly being a strapping 6' 1". The three exchanged pleasantries. By now, after more than a year at Manny's, Charly had dealt with lots rock stars ... the sullen, the egomaniacs, the coked, the drunk, the "shhh I'm not here" types. Prepared for the most famous rock musician in the world that day having his own set of quirks, Charly was unprepared for what happened next. John started talking to Charly ... to Charly... full engagement... and kinda never stopped!

After sitting with Yoko in the kitchen for a few minutes (bigger than most NYC apartments, with every conceivable gadget), John was eager to get the repair started. So, off the two went, down a long hallway, walking fast, John yapping away.

The hallway was indeed fitted with white carpeting, white walls. There were doorways every eight feet or so on either side. The few open doors revealed some real oddness. One room was filled with a giant pyramid made from brushed aluminum tubing with vines growing all over it. The base of the thing was so big it had to rest one side on the wall 'cause it was too wide for the floor. Hmmm.

CP also noticed the many framed pictures on the walls of the hallway. All were photographs of John and Yoko, except for a notable few of John and ... Brian Epstein!

"We can't figure out what's wrong. You plug one speaker in, it sounds fine, you plug the other speaker in, it sounds fine. But, when you plug them both in, it sounds like the Rolling Stones rehearsing in somebody's basement!", groused John.

"I take it that's not good, John?" said Charly

He smiled, "No, not at all."

John opened the door at the end of the hall and they entered a large dark musty Dickensian room, light blocked by ancient curtains and filthy windows. This was in the long-empty adjacent apartment they'd just bought. In the middle of this, sat the wildly out-of-place Yamaha piano and its speakers. Even more incongruously, a fully functioning Wurlitzer jukebox sat in a corner. Yes, the kind with the bubbling liquid running through the detailing. It only played 78s and was lit up like a Christmas tree in this gloom.

Suddenly there was the sound of many small feet running towards the room. In burst about a dozen little girls, all maybe 4 or 5 years old. WTF?! They ran in and surrounded John, pleading, "Sing us a song, John, sing us a song!"

John, affecting grumpiness, "No, no, sorry, I've got work to do!"

But they were child-insistent.

He looked over at Charly, and said, "Sorry, man, I've got to do this."

John walked over to the jukebox, punched in a number, and started to sing along with a Rudy Vallee (!) number, while the wee gals happily danced.

Charles Roth felt like his head was exploding, viewing this utterly surreal scene. The performance ended, the mystery tots dispatched (who were they!?), work commenced.

After verifying what John had said about the ugly sound, Charly started taking the piano apart. While he was doing this, John was talking about this 'n' that, and then asked, "So, do you play in a band? You look like you play in a band."

Charly answered, "Yeah I just joined a band, Regina and the Red Hots. But, I'm doing recording my own music at this studio where some friends of mine engineer. We go in during the graveyard shift. I play drums, bass and keys. Then, I get guitarists and singers to finish it off. It's kinda wacky stuff. Very Zappa like."

John was intrigued, "Wait, you play most of the instruments yourself! So, like, what do you do first? Do you play a pilot piano track, or a high hat tempo track?"

Charly explained, "Well, first we lay down a mechanical click track for tempo, and since I know the songs already, I'll do the drums, then I'll play pia- Hey! Aren't you the guy who made Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band?!?"

John chuckled, "Well, you know I've been away from it for a long time. I do know things have changed."

John talked about the old techniques and the limitations that had to be dealt with when they (his old band) were making those records. CP started talking about the new synth technology, offering to help John if he wanted to get into that. He gave Charly a stern look and said very plainly, "I don't like knobs." Knowing the other meaning for "knob" (arrogant asshole) in Britain, CP took the hint.

But, then, they got on the subject of the Mellotron. This was the instrument that you hear in "Strawberry Fields" and lots of other stuff from the late 60s/early 70s. The Moody Blues were addicted. It looked like a small organ. When a key was pressed, a playback head was mechanically run over a piece of recording tape with an 8-second loop of a note (or sound) of an instrument, or really anything that could be recorded. Wonderful sounds, but, Mellotrons were unusually fragile. Literally moving it across a room could actually bend and ruin the frame the tapes were enclosed in. Ones that worked were getting rare. John confided in Charly that still-working model #001 was currently languishing in the basement of The Record Plant...

"If you want it, Charly, just go and get it!"

Yes, of course... Thanks! No problem...

"Uh, yeah, my buddy, John Lennon? He said I could go down the basement and well, see, he wants me to have the Mellotr...Hey! Stop hitting me!"

Once he was inside the Yamaha piano, what Charly found was annoyingly beyond his own abilities to fix. So, he wrote down what had to be done and who to call. Okay. Then, back to the kitchen where Yoko was still waiting.

Charly Roth said his goodbyes, which, of course, had to include the must-have autograph. John obliged, muttering, "I hope this is the last one of these things I have to do this year."

Being the smart little self promoter, Charly got out a business card...

"John, I know you've been away from this for a while, but if you ever need the best bass player in New York, please give me a call!"

While he was talking, CP was writing down his new phone number on the back of the card.

John and Yoko both start laughing!

Charly said, "Jeez I didn't think it was that bad a pitch!"

Yoko giggled, "That's not why we're laughing"

They'd watched him as he'd written down his number...

John Lennon said, "That's just what I need, another left handed bass player!"

CP stammered, "Well, I'll take that as a compliment."

And with that, he made his way out of the Dakota and hailed "the first cloud" going by back downtown, as Charly put it.

Epilogue: Two weeks later, he was walking back into Manny's from lunch. One of the guitar sales guys said, "Hey, Charly, your boy Lennon is in the back with Henry trying out guitars." Yes, he actually called him, "your boy, Lennon."

John had a beautiful Gibson Hummingbird (Mick and Keef's favorite acoustic guitar) in his hands and was talking to Henry as CP walked up to them.

John turned, extended his hand, and enthusiastically asked, "Hey, Charly, how's your tape coming?"

Oh, man!

Two years later, Charly was in The Record Plant's Studio C, finally beginning the recording with Regina and the Red Hots. Just down the hall in Studio D, John and Yoko were mixing "Walking On Thin Ice."  It was December 8th, 1980.

Oh, man! 

Postscript: While nowhere near as intimate, I had my own brief encounter with the Beatle named John...

Heading to rehearsal one balmy evening in June of 1975, my singer, Tally, and I were walking to the downtown IRT 1 train. We were crossing W. 116th St., directly opposite the main entrance of Columbia University.

For some reason, I turned and looked into the big green Chrysler station wagon that was sitting at the red light on 116th, waiting to turn downtown on Broadway.

I noticed that the guy driving had long hair and a big bushy beard.

I noticed that the guy riding shotgun had long hair and a big bushy beard.

I noticed that between them sat a small Asian woman with long hair.

I looked away.

Then, my wee-small brain said...

"Uh, Binky, I hate to bother you as you're halfway across the street while the light is changing to red, but... uh... that Asian woman... that's fucking YOKO ONO! And, that would mean, most likely, one of those two bearded chaps she's with is your favorite fucking Beatle. You might want to look back into that big green Chrysler station wagon to confirm this semi-subliminal visual analysis on my part, you dipshit!"

I turned back, took another look, and...

"HOLY FUCK, Tally! That's John Lennon in that station wagon we just crossed in front of!!!"

The light had changed and the station wagon had just turned downtown onto Broadway.

Tal and I took off at top speed, guitar cases and all, chasing the station wagon down the block.

Just as we caught up to it, as it now sat at the red light on Broadway, John looked out the passenger window. In the space of two seconds, with his eyes and a quick hand gesture, Johnny Rhythm said...

"Guys, I see you. I see your guitar cases. I see that you're cool. But, you're about to start a fookin' riot if you persist in chasing me fookin' car down Broadway. So, I'm acknowledging you. I'm waving to you. But, I really would appreciate it if you resumed being cool musicians and not make a spectacle of yourselves, and consequently me, 'cause I really really hate this shit, know what I mean, lads?"

We stopped dead in our tracks, and with our eyes, said back...

"Oh, jeeez, John, you're right! Really sorry, man."

Just then, the light turned green in the big green Chrysler's favor.

As it pulled away, headed downtown, John gave us a solemn nod of thanks.