I MET THE WALRUS. On 26 May 1969, 14 year old Jerry Levitan interviewed John & Yoko in Toronto
In May 1969, John & Yoko were staying in Toronto when 14-yr-old Beatle fan Jerry Levitan convinced them to grant him an interview about peace.
Jerry Levitan is a musician, actor, filmmaker, writer and lawyer living in Toronto, and the Ontario Liberal Candidate for the Toronto riding of Davenport for the next Ontario election.
In May 1969, Jerry was a fourteen-year-old Beatle fan, who, armed with a reel-to-reel tape recorder, tracked down John Lennon & Yoko Ono at their Toronto Hotel Room and convinced them to do an interview with him about peace.
Jerry’s autobiographical 168-page book, I Met the Walrus: How One Day With John Lennon Changed My Life Forever, containing the text of the full interview, and Jerry’s stories about the event, was published by Harper Collins in 2009. An excerpt is published below.
25 MAY 1969: I MET THE WALRUS.
It was still pretty early when I got there at about 6:30. Rush hour had not even begun. I nonchalantly walked through the regal stone doorway of the King Edward Hotel, into the grand lobby, and towards the elevators. Pressing the top floor button seemed like the right thing to do. I got out and just started knocking on doors. Most of my victims were awakened and went right back to sleep after I politely apologized. One room had a tray on the floor in the hall, the remnants of last night’s room service. A bottle of soy sauce was lying on its side amidst the dirty plates and uneaten food. “He must be here!” My innocent fourteen-year-old mind presumed that Yoko’s influence with John included his seasonings. Knocking with pride and a sense of accomplishment, I was taken aback when a man with a large belly held in place by a white cotton sleeveless undershirt and striped boxers opened the door and yelled at me. Clearly not John Lennon.
It did not deter me, though, and I kept knocking on doors. I must have completed three or four floors when a grandmotherly maid with white hair tied in a bun walked up to me. My nerves dissipated when she bent down and whispered in my ear with her Scottish accent, “You looking for the Beatle?” “I am,” I said. “He’s in room 869. Don’t tell anyone I told you, now.” With that she patted me on the back as I swiftly made my way to the stairs. Once on the eighth floor, I turned the corner of the corridor, looking at the numbers, until I saw at the very end a little girl lying on her stomach on the floor in front of a closed door, coloring. I recognized her immediately. It was Yoko’s five-year-old daughter, Kyoko, from her previous marriage to American filmmaker Tony Cox.
Walking up to her, I asked if her mommy was in the room. She said yes and continued to color. My heart beat fast. For the first time I began to question whether I had the nerve to go in. What if he didn’t like me and sent me away? How crushing would that be? About three or four minutes must have passed by when a television cameraman and a reporter abruptly pushed me aside. The reporter knocked on the door. It opened a couple of inches. He mentioned the broadcaster’s name, the door opened a bit more, and the two were sucked into the chamber with a thump.
I took a deep breath. I looked around. I waited about ten more minutes, slung the Brownie around my neck, took another deep breath, and knocked. “Canadian News.” The door opened in the same manner as before. Then it opened more. I marched right in staring at my feet as I followed the carpet of the suite into the living room. If I made eye contact I was afraid I would be thrown out. The base of a tripod was where I decided to sit down. When I slowly looked up, there about four feet in front of me sat John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
They were in the middle of an interview and no one stopped me or said anything. John looked down and smiled. It did not faze him. He was dressed all in white—white loose cotton pants and a short-sleeved tight-fitted shirt. Yoko had a black sweater on with white pants and white stockings. John was barefoot and had a big bushy beard, exactly like the Abbey Road cover. Right then and there I knew that my life would be changed forever.
John and Yoko were giving interviews to the few Canadian reporters who’d been invited into the suite. They were talking about peace and their plans for a bigger and better bed-in for peace in Montreal. The Lennons had almost flown into the U.S., but John’s earlier drug conviction posed problems. Canada, with its proximity to the American media, was the next best thing. They were sitting on a couch in front of two bright windows. John was cross-legged and tugged at his beard often. There were several people in the room, but not too many. One fellow grimaced at me and so I thought I should play my part. I took the Super 8 camera out of my bag and started pretending I was a photographer. I did not know if there was film in it and I did not know how to operate it. It was basically a prop. I bounded up to John and Yoko, placed it to my eye and played with the zoom button. John alternated between smiling and frowning as I approached his face. He was drumming his hands on his legs. I pointed there. He played with his feet. I focused on that. Yoko was beside him, held lovingly and close. I remember thinking that she was beautiful. The photos I had seen had not done her justice.
Someone coughed behind me, and I realized that I was blocking the real cameraman. John laughed as I got out of the way and sat down reverentially. No one seemed to take the initiative to remove me and certainly John gave no direction to do that. John would glance over at me occasionally, smile, and tug on his beard. Clearly used to an audience of wide-eyed admirers, he carried on with interviews and talking to Yoko in intervals. They would touch each other affectionately and whisper to each other constantly. I sat there watching all this for about an hour when a tall, long-haired man with spectacles and a mustache, dressed in a double-breasted black suit and multicolored tie, came into the room and announced to the five or six people present: “I beg your pardon but you all will have to leave now. Mr. and Mrs. Lennon have to go to customs for a chat.” It was Derek Taylor, the public relations man for Apple. He was handsome, dignified, and very British.
The few reporters and photographers there started to gather up their note pads and equipment. I jumped up from the floor to where John and Yoko were sitting. He was about to get up. I took out my copy of Two Virgins and my hero spoke to me for the first time: “How did you get that? I thought the Mounties had come in on horses and took them all.” I caught Yoko’s attention as I told him how I had been at Sam’s and got it out of the box. “Who is Sam?” he asked. As I explained and went on to tell him how diligent I was in getting the record, he took a marker and drew in the top left corner of the album:
To Jerry, Love and Peace from John Lennon & Yoko Ono.
He then drew a caricature of himself and Yoko. While I was witnessing this monumental moment in my life, I took everything in, thinking it was to be my last encounter with my hero. There was a pack of Gitanes, the powerful French cigarettes, next to a glass ashtray full of butts. Next to the cigarettes was a package of spearmint gum. I noticed how trim John’s toenails were. I looked at his long fingers with calluses on them. These were the fingers that plucked away on “Dear Prudence” and “Julia,” I thought.
Yoko offered to sign too and I was elated. There I was watching my hero and his new bride personalize my album. The irony of it being a naked photo of the two of them escaped me at the time. I was so innocent and they were so carefree. A photographer for a local newspaper took out his camera and immortalized the scene of the megastar signing the record while his fan witnessed the life-altering moment. “Thanks so much, John,” I said. “Pleasure, man,” he replied. Mr. and Mrs. Lennon got up from the couch and disappeared into the suite. All the others were gone and I was alone in the room. I took my time pretending to collect my things.
I dawdled for as long as I could and then decided to leave the suite by a circuitous route and go past the bedroom. There was Beatle John Lennon, alone, trying to push a large sea chest onto the bed. “Give me a hand, lad,” he said, huffing and puffing. I bounded into the room and grasped the chest along with my hero. Our noses were inches away from each other. He was taller and thinner than I thought and had a clean, almost antiseptic smell about him. Suddenly an inspiration flashed into my mind. We were still pushing that heavy chest when I said, looking directly into his eyes, “John, can I come back later and tape an interview with you about peace and stuff and let kids listen to it?” As the chest landed on the bed he said, “Great idea! Great.” Standing up straight, he shouted, “Yoko, Derek!” They both arrived within seconds to see what the fuss was about, no doubt surprised to see that the kid was still there. “Kid’s got a great idea. He’ll come back later and tape an interview,” he said. “We’ll talk about peace and he’ll take it to his school, let kids hear it. It’s great! It’s why we’re doing this!” Yoko voiced her approval and told Derek to set it up and show me out. I waved good-bye to John and thanked him. “Come back at 6:00, then,” he told me paternally as the door shut behind me. I walked a few feet down the hall. It was quiet and empty. I stopped suddenly and took a deep breath. “My God,” I thought. Transformed and stunned by what I had accomplished, I exited the King Edward Hotel floating on air.
26 MAY 1969: THE INTERVIEW.
It was a minute or two before 6:00 P.M. and I strutted to the door, the deejay deferentially behind. All of them sitting there were hoping for an audience. No one had been let in. John and Yoko had been at Canadian customs for hours in the afternoon and had just recently returned to the hotel. A seasoned reporter grabbed my arm and stopped me. “Where you going, Buster?” he muttered, clearly not wanting to give up his place in the pecking order. “I have an appointment at 6:00,” I said, trying to break free to the laughter of everyone there. The door opened. Derek Taylor appeared, immaculate and proper as always. “Where is the lad?” he spoke in the Queen’s English. I waved and broke free from the reporter and walked by them all to gasps of astonishment.
Derek led me to a chair placed in front of an empty couch. He directed the deejay to set up his equipment. Kyoko was in the room dancing around in front of a record player that played a new Beatle single. There was no mistaking the sound and the voice of John Lennon singing in harmony with Paul McCartney. It was “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” I heard this single for the first time, before anyone, in John’s hotel room. It would be released within days.
“John and Yoko will be out in a few minutes. They are getting dressed,” Derek told me and walked away. It was at that moment— with only the deejay, Kyoko, and I in the room—that I realized I had not prepared a single question. My panic was interrupted when John and Yoko plopped down right in front of me. His long hair had brushed my cheek. He moved fast in a bouncy, excited, childlike sort of way. “Do you want a photo then?” he said softly, eyeing the Brownie around my neck. “Sure,” I answered. The deejay took the camera off my neck and said, “I’ll take it.” It would be weeks before I would see the photograph: John and I looking into each other’s eyes, just inches away from each other.
“Ask away,” John said, and I began to talk.
I MET THE WALRUS – THE FILM.
In 2007, Jerry produced the animated short film I Met The Walrus, corralling the talents of director/animator Josh Raskin and illustrators James Braithwaite and Alex Kurina, using excerpts of the original interview audio recording as the soundtrack.
The film was nominated for the 2008 Academy Award for Animated Short and won the 2009 Emmy for ‘New Approaches’ as well as a host of other awards.
Jerry Levitan: Could you please tell me what the situation is with you entering the United States?
John: Uh… Well there’s a lot of people that don’t want me in, you know, they think I’m going to cause a violent revolution, which I’m not. And they… the others don’t want me in because they don’t want me to cause peace either, you know. Because peace is big. And war is big business, you know, and they like war because it keeps them fat and happy. And… I’m anti-war, so they’re trying to keep me out. But I’ll get in. you know, cause they’ll have to own up in public that they’re against peace, you know.
Jerry Levitan: Uh, what can we, as the youth of Toronto… like what can we do to try and help you?
John: Uh, help me by helping yourselves, you know, and uh, the militant revolutionary is ask them to show you one revolution that turned out to be what it promised, militantly. Take Russia, France, anywhere they’re at it. What they do is they smash the place down, and they build it up again and the people that build it up, hang on to it and then they become the establishment. And you guys are going to be the establishment, in a few years. And it’s not worth knocking it down because it’s convenient to have the rooms and the machinery. The thing is to protest but protest non-violently. Because violence begets violence, you know, and if you run around a while you get smacked, and that’s it, you know that’s the laws of the universe. And they’ve got all the weapons, they’ve got all the money. And they know how to fight violence because they’ve been doing it for how many years, suppressing us. And they only thing they don’t know about is non-violence… and humour. And there’s many ways of promoting peace, do everything for peace; Piss for peace, or smile for peace, or go to school for peace, or don’t go to school for peace, whatever you do just do it for peace, you know. It’s up to the people, you can’t blame it on the government, say they’re doing this and they’re, oh they’re going to put us into war. We put them there, and we allow it, you know, and we can change it, if we really want to change it, we can change it.
Jerry Levitan: Uh, what about the.. uh Paul, Ringo, and let’s see, G…
Jerry Levitan: George.
John: Uh, we’re all four individuals and George is saying to me, George is doing it in his own way with the way he goes about his life. It’s not that they’re shouting on the street corner “I want peace” and then beating up your mates, like that so… You’ve got to try and work your own head out, you know, and get non-violent. And that’s pretty hard cause we’re all violent, inside, we’re all Hitler inside and we’re all Christ inside. And it’s just to try and work on the good bit of you.
Jerry Levitan: Um… Like I read in the paper that um, you know everyone seems to think that George is the… nice guitarist and stuff like that but, I’m not too keen on George, I like him and that but um, I have this feeling that you’re sort of drifting away from people you know, you’re still like, sort of like a symbol, I mean, you know like The Beatles, like god… stuff like that and… But no one in school like, if you ask them, what’s your favorite group they’ll say, The Beegees, you know, like I’ll ask them, why don’t you like The Beatles, they’re fantasic, great, except that they’ll say like, um, for example the marijuana charges, and they’re all, they’re all hippes, they’re gone from us, they’re dirty now.
John: Oh, I see well, those kids… they sound like.. sort of square, they’ve just got to get from their parents… wings, you know, I know, they’re like… robots, not… like..
Jerry Levitan: Once um, I just got this feeling out of your double LP after I was listening to it for a long time, I started getting this feeling that they’re a message in it, you know?
John: Yeah, messages are there on all levels, on all, in all music, and whatever level you get it on, I have added to when I wrote it or sung it, but some of that stuff, I… write it, record it, and play it, and I still don’t hear it at all, few months later I’m lying down, and I say “I think I’ll listen to The Beatles album, and try and hear it in retrospect and not objectively.” And it’s about everything, so, It’s about UK, it’s about USSR, it’s about nothing and it’s about USA; anything you hear is there, you know, it’s all there either trival or profound, whatever. It’s all there, you know, and it’s the same as in a flower, everything’s there. you know, it just is, and if you look long enough, all answers are in it, you know, and same with the music. oh, keep the big box… I’ don’t know, I’ve no idea where it is… ok well that’s… I’ve just shoved that in the black case … no not the black case, my (inaudible)’s in there… that’s my white jacket… bye bye… play that to ’em, yeah, peace.
Yoko Ono: I remember fondly how young Jerry came to us and did the interview when so many journalists were trying to speak to us. He was not only brave but very clear and intelligent. Both John and I thought it was a very pleasant experience.
SEAN ONO LENNON.
Sean Ono Lennon: Honestly, that’s one of my favourite interviews of Dad, even without the animation, because it’s so candid and so relaxed and it’s really clear that he’s in a certain mood because he’s speaking to you — and he’s speaking to a kid — so there’s nothing performative about it. He doesn’t feel like he’s trying to be Beatle John or deep thinker John or anything — it just seems like he’s talking to a kid and he sincerely wants to tell you things that are important and he’s doing it in such an unguarded way.
Read more in Nick Krewen’s Toronto Star interview with Jerry Levitan and Sean Ono Lennon about I Met The Walrus and I Am The Egbert: How a Toronto teen got an exclusive interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1969.
Jerry’s autobiographical 168-page book, I Met the Walrus: How One Day With John Lennon Changed My Life Forever, containing the full forty-minute interview, was published by Harper Collins in 2009, featuring photographs by Jeff Goode and Jerry Levitan and illustrations by James Braithwaite.
In 2011, Jerry produced and directed, with Terry Tompkins, an animated short of the Yoko Ono poem My Hometown, narrated by Yoko, illustrated by his daughter Rebecca Levitan and animated by Sharmil Halaldeen, and featuring Yoko’s song recorded at the Montreal Bed-In, ‘Remember Love’.
In 2021, Jerry co-produced I Am the Egbert, a series of 14 short animated vignettes for Spotify Canvasses, written and directed by Sean Ono Lennon for the recently released John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band — The Ultimate Collection, reuniting with James Braithwaite and Josh Raskin from the I Am The Walrus team.
Under the persona Sir Jerry, he has been described as “one of Canada’s most innovative children’s performers” and has produced four critically acclaimed children’s albums: Bees, Butterflies & Bugs, Sir Jerry’s World, Time Machine and Sir Jerry Scared Silly.
As a litigation lawyer, Jerry has set precedents in the fields of constitutional, human rights and administrative law. As an actor, he has appeared in film and television including an appearance on The West Wing.
Jerry is the Ontario Liberal Candidate for the Toronto riding of Davenport for the next Ontario election.