Christ, You Know It Ain’t Easy
(unless you really wanted to meet John & Yoko)
By Jay Jay French
Over the last year or or so, I have run across two people with incredible stories about how they planned and met John Lennon and Yoko Ono. One story took place in 1969 and the other 10 years later in 1979.
Both showed a side of J&Y that, while on one hand showed perhaps surprising empathy, also showed an almost shocking hippie-like naivete.
Montreal, Canada, 1969
This is a story about legendary Canadian radio talk-show host Tommy Schnurmacher, who, at the age of 18, wanted to get John Lennon’s autograph.
On May 26 of 1969, John, Yoko and Yoko’s daughter Kyoko, and a small entourage which included their press agent Derek Taylor, booked themselves into the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, Canada to commence their “Bed-in for Peace.” On June 1, they recorded live from their hotel bedroom, surrounded by various characters, the song “Give Peace A Chance.” The song was still being written up to the time that it was recorded.
Much has been written about that visit and all the personalities who had arrived to pay respects to John and Yoko (comedians Tommy Smothers and Dick Gregory, LSD guru Dr. Timothy Leary, pop star Petula Clark and Li’l Abner cartoonist Al Capp) and attend the recording of the song. What you probably don’t know, however, is this sidebar to the entire eight-day experience.
The fact that J&Y chose Montreal was broadcast over a local radio station, and 18-year-old high school student, Tommy Schnurmacher, along with a female friend, decided to get John’s autograph. To make it easier to get to John, Tommy planned on showing up as a member of the press (the high school press, you understand) with a tape recorder and “interviewing” John. That, he felt, was sure to lead to an autograph. When Tommy and his friend arrived at the hotel they were shocked that there didn’t seem to be any security in the lobby. They quickly learned that J&Y were in suite 1738 (17th floor), got in the elevator, went up to 18 (to avoid any suspicion) and walked down one flight of stairs to the 17th floor. Down the hall they saw a small group of people outside the room. Tommy, knowing that Kyoko was there, had brought a box of crayons. When they walked into the hotel room, a security guard in the room started to question Tommy, but Kyoko saw the crayons and wanted to use them, so Tommy said that if he was thrown out he would take the crayons with him. Yoko interceded, Tommy gave the crayons to Kyoko, and Yoko asked if they wanted to meet John, who was in the bedroom. Tommy was told that he could not ask John questions about The Beatles. The questions had to center around the bed-in and J&Y’s quest to bring peace to the planet. At some point, Yoko asked why he had crayons. Tommy said that he had a sister Kyoko’s age, and he was going back to his house to see her. Yoko asked if they wanted to take Kyoko to their house to meet Tommy’s sister. Tommy, stunned, said “sure,” and Yoko handed Kyoko over to Tommy and his friend. They took Kyoko back to Tommy’s house to meet his sister and fed Kyoko as well.
Thus began a daily ritual which went on for seven straight days!
Tommy and friend would come to the hotel, Yoko would give them Kyoko, and off they would go—bringing Kyoko back later in the afternoon. Yoko never asked for any ID. Never even asked for their last names!
The temptation to ask Kyoko questions about The Beatles, and especially “Uncle Paul,” was strong, but in the end it was decided that if they did and Kyoko told either John or Yoko, that circle of trust would probably be broken—and so they kept silent.
On day eight, Tommy again went back to the hotel, only to find that John, Yoko and Kyoko had left. They left behind signed autographed albums (personally signed to Tommy and his friend), as well as publicity photos and $150 to cover their “nanny time.” Tommy’s friend found the hand-written lyrics to “Give Peace a Chance” that were left behind and took them.
I asked Tommy if he ever did write up an interview for the school paper. The answer was that the interview was recorded, but he never did write about the interview; moreover, the tape disintegrated after years of storage. I ended this interview with Tommy by asking him if his friends believed his story and he said that most of them didn’t at the time. Finally, I asked if, looking back, the hippie naivete they showed was unreal. He said, the fact that they never even asked for ID was pretty amazing.
Luckily, Yoko trusted the right person. Thank you, Tommy!
New York, NY, 1979
This one really came out of left field, as the person who told me the story is also a friend of mine. The friend, Doug Kleiman, casually mentioned to me one afternoon that he snuck into the Dakota a year before Lennon was killed.
In 1979, New Yorker Doug Kleiman was 14 years old and, along with his friend Joe, snuck into the Dakota.
They were interested in meeting John Lennon because they thought he could provide answers to the many questions that they had about life, religion, spirituality, politics, Beatles and more. Answers that his teachers, friends and family were unable to provide (or at least they were more willing to hear and accept wisdom from John).
Jay Jay French:Was the experience what you imagined?
Doug Kleiman It was beyond what I imagined. John was as cool, inspiring, poetic and witty as the world came to know... He was also funny, kind and encouraging, and he was generous with his time and advice to us.
JJF: How much total time were you with them?
DK: We were with John for about two hours and then Yoko joined us later for another 45 minutes to an hour or so.
JJF: Thinking back now, would you say that there was a kind of hippie-like trust vibe to how you were treated?
DK: John trusted us enough to invite us into their apartment. Yoko was initially more protective and wary. Of course we were young, slight and certainly not intimidating. Our intentions were pure, so I assume that our vibes were rather “hippie-trusting,” too. Looking back, the irony of what was to happen to John a little more than a year later is haunting.
JJF: Did you ask any questions or did John surprise you with his comments?
DK: Both! We asked John a lot of questions, and he answered them thoroughly. He also asked us a lot of questions about what we were interested in—where we went to school, etc. I believe that at least part of his reason for asking these questions was to learn more about what kids close to Julian’s age were into. We asked questions that generally required a lot of explanation and he really took his time to answer them carefully and thoughtfully. He most certainly surprised us with words of advice, inspiration, and wisdom... he was also quite poetic at times.
We did ask questions about The Beatles... Would they ever get back together? John said, “Well, never say never, but probably not.” I asked, “Why not?” He said, “Because that was then and this is now.” I told him that I had heard a reporter say that he was the only Beatle who didn’t want to get back together for a performance. He replied, “Yeah, is that what you heard? Well, that’s funny because I haven’t spoken to any reporters about it for a very long time... It’s important to know that people write a lot of rubbish to sell newspapers and magazines, and that you can’t believe everything that you read and hear.”
I asked if he would consider doing it if it was for charity. He said, “Concerts for
charities are great in theory, but the problem is that they don’t always get the money to the people or causes that they’re intended for... There’s always someone taking a percentage of this and a piece of that, and by the time it’s all done, there’s barely enough money left to buy a cup a coffee.”
JJF: Did you walk away feeling that the experience brought you closer to knowing what kind of person John was?
DK: Yes, absolutely. But equally, and perhaps more importantly, we learned about ourselves, too. The time we spent with him instilled us with a new self confidence. After all, if John Lennon says you’re cool, it goes a long way as an adolescent and beyond! From that point on, high school got a little easier.
John and Yoko were very kind, generous and hospitable to allow us into their home. They gave us wholesome and practical advice, too—to stay away from drugs, to follow our dreams and passions. In fact, when I told John that I was interested in becoming a photographer, he said,“Photography is great, you know... There are many different kinds of photography you can do: artistic, journalism, portraits. I have some friends who are photographers. Some photographers tend to be very compulsive...constantly taking pictures of everything. If you become a photographer, remember to put the camera down sometimes, and just look at the subject—a sunset or whatever. If you don’t put the camera down at least some of the time, then at the end of your life you will have a million pictures of everything, but you will have seen nothing.”
JJF: Lastly, did your friends believe you when you told them what happened?
DK: John and Yoko asked us not to tell many friends about our meeting, because they didn’t want to encourage more people sneaking into the (Dakota) building. So I only told a few select friends and family. After John was killed, I told more people... because I was grieving so deeply that I felt compelled to explain why.