In 1972, The Mike Douglas Show was the kitschiest thing on television. Douglas was a second tier Big Band crooner who hosted a live talk show that originated out of Philadelphia, a low budget affair that aired every weekday afternoon from 4:30 to 6:00. For those of us who grew up in that era, it was mainly the background entertainment your mother listened to while she prepared dinner.
But for the week of February 14th, The Mike Douglas Show suddenly became the center of the entertainment universe. Part of Douglas’ unique schtick was to feature a different cohost each week, usually an actor who hadn’t made a film in a few years or a comedian who’d just finished a gig somewhere in the Borsht Belt. This week, however, was different. For reasons that no one could even begin to comprehend, Mike Douglas’ cohosts were going to be John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
Mike Douglas was the embodiment of everything that was conventional, comfortable, and patriotic. John Lennon was the most famous radical on the planet, grudgingly tolerated by the cultural cognoscenti but actively despised by the political establishment. It was difficult to envision Douglas and Lennon making even five minutes’ worth of small talk at a party. Imagining the two of them sharing bon mots for ninety minutes every day over the course of a week was basically impossible.
For an insecure, irresolute seventeen year old, the whole thing had an irresistible appeal. Spending a week’s worth of afternoons watching John and Yoko on television seemed infinitely more appealing than wrestling with the incomprehensible social and academic environment that was Columbia University, especially when flunking out ignominiously already seemed like a forgone conclusion. Of course, that seventeen year old was me and that was how I came to be watching The Mike Douglas Show in the common area of my dorm in the middle of a Monday afternoon, smoking a joint and musing about John Lennon.
Smoking a joint in the middle of the afternoon was nothing new for me. I’d begun smoking “grass” during the summer of 1967 with an older cousin. He and I would stroll down Crescent Street in East New York and “smoke a reefer” before returning to his house to listen to music. We’d usually alternate between Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Are You Experienced?, the two most mind boggling releases in a year that was already defined for us by mind boggling music.
I smoked through three years of high school that were marked by a disastrous family situation, paralyzing social anxiety, and a decent level of academic achievement in the midst of it all. My first two years of high school were spent in a Catholic military boarding school. With the Vietnam War raging on in the daily headlines, my disdain for the military trappings became overwhelming. I had the second highest GPA in my class but when I began circulating a petition that called for transforming our vaunted ROTC Honor School into a co-ed non-military prep school, the Commandant of Cadets (Brother James, a short, laconic man and a member of the Christian Brothers who was known among cadets as “The Rat”) coolly informed me that I’d be summarily and permanently sent home if I persisted.
Most afternoons, a select few of us would convene on the edge of the campus on a small beach area that peered out onto Long Island’s Great South Bay to smoke a joint or two and muse about how fucked-up life and school were. Sufficiently stoned to negotiate the rest of the evening, we’d return to the residential hall where I’d kill time by playing the guitar and singing. My repertoire included Alice’s Restaurant (yes, I’d play the whole thing!) and I Like Marijuana, a classic anthem by David Peel and the Lower East Side. David Peel was a New York City street musician, not a big star but to counter-culture types in high school who smoked pot—my particular demographic at the time—he was a real hero. He unapologetically shouted on vinyl all those things we weren’t even able to whisper at home or at school.
After two years, I’d had enough of military school and lobbied my mother to let me move back home in order to spend the remainder of high school in public school. I wanted to grow my hair out (ironic for those of you who know me now), wear regular clothes, and sit in class with… girls! She relented and I began my junior year at the local high school, an experiment that failed in almost every way possible. I continued to do well academically but living with my mother made me nostalgic for the relative emotional warmth of marching with rifles and undergoing locker inspections. My good grades notwithstanding, I hated everything about my life and needed to make a change.
I visited my guidance counselor one afternoon and told her that there weren’t any circumstances under which I was going to return to school in September. When it became clear that she wasn’t going to change my mind, we put a plan together: I’d pack my schedule for my last semester, graduate at the end of my junior year, and head off to college. And that’s how I found myself attending Columbia University in 1971 at sixteen years old, out of the house again but no more well-adjusted or less insecure than I’d been in high school.
I turned seventeen in December of 1971 and finished up my first semester with a spate of “Incompletes” and little hope that the second semester was going to be any better. So when February rolled around, watching John Lennon on television for five days in a row—even if it was on The Mike Douglas Show—didn’t seem like an unreasonable way to spend my time.
As I watched the first show on Monday, I found myself thumbing through a recent issue of The Village Voice and noticed an article about David Peel, the same guy whose ode to smoking pot I sang in high school. The article detailed how he and John Lennon had become running buddies when Lennon moved to New York. It seemed to me that David had reached some unimaginable level of counter-cultural hippie nirvana: Leading a life that consisted of singing about marijuana and hanging out with John Lennon. As I watched Lennon on television and perused the article, I wondered if David was watching. And then a wonderfully weird idea occurred to me in my smoke-induced reverie.
On a whim, I bounded back to my dorm room and grabbed the White Pages directory that was sitting in my closet. I navigated to the appropriate page and there it was: A listing for Peel, David.
I dialed the number, heard the phone ring a couple of times, and then David Peel’s unmistakable voice came across the line: “Hello?” All these years later, I can’t really explain what happened next. It wasn’t planned or thought out in any coherent way whatsoever. All I can tell you for sure is that it just happened.
“Hi. My name is George Colombo. I’m a free lance writer working on a story for New York Magazine about the counter-culture in New York City. I was hoping that I might be able to stop by and ask you a few questions.”
WTF?! I was stunned by the words that were coming out of my mouth. It was too late to make myself stop them but it didn’t matter. Surely, my crude duplicity was obvious even over the phone. David could certainly see through my flimsy story and could certainly hear that the voice on the other end of the line belonged to a seventeen year old kid who all of a sudden was scared shitless.
“That’s cool, man. Sure. So you want to come by here tomorrow night?”
I can’t tell you much about the rest of the conversation except that I could feel the pulse of my heart in my temple and wanted nothing in the world as much as I wanted to get off the phone before I was unmasked. I got his address and made arrangements to meet him there the following night.
The next day, February 15th, moved as slowly as molasses would have run in the cold that was enveloping New York that week. I watched John Lennon on The Mike Douglas Show again that afternoon (toking up as I did, of course) and was a bit surprised that Jerry Rubin turned up as a guest. Rubin was a yippie and a member of the Chicago Seven. He was as radical as it was possible to get. If Douglas and Rubin had met under any other circumstances, they might have tried to kill one another. On television, though, the encounter seemed surreal in its apparent normalcy.
By the time I took the subway downtown that night, it was freezing cold. I wasn’t at all familiar with the East Village and remember being surprised when I stumbled across The Fillmore East on my way to David’s apartment. He opened the door and was extremely gracious as he welcomed me into an apartment that was small and disheveled. The apartment’s only heat came from the open oven in the kitchen. If David was on to me, he was keeping it to himself.
I asked questions about counter-culture in New York and the political movement that was emanating from the streets and then dutifully recorded David’s answers on the clipboard I’d brought. He wasn’t impatient but was distinctly fidgety. After a respectable amount of time chatting, I worked up the nerve to ask the question that really mattered to me, the one I’d imagined myself asking since we’d gotten off the phone the day before: “Hey, would you like to smoke a joint?”
A moment later, I’d pulled a joint out of my coat pocket, fired it up, and was passing it back and forth with a guy whose songs about pot I sang almost every day in high school! Surely, I thought, this was going to be the highlight of the night. But, as it turned out, things were just getting started.
As he crushed the roach in the ashtray, David asked suddenly and without explanation, “Do you want to take a ride?” I had no idea what that meant but it didn’t matter. I was hanging out with David Peel, smoking pot in the Village, and all was right with the world. Whatever might keep the evening going was going to be fine with me.
I followed his lead as we worked our way over to the IRT and took a train uptown. I thought we were going to get off at Times Square but we continued up to 50th Street where we disembarked and walked a few blocks back downtown. David was pretty intent and there wasn’t a lot of banter going on. I kept my head down, my mouth shut, and just followed along.
Suddenly, we were standing in front of a nondescript wall that comprised the side of a building. There were no signs and no windows, only a solitary door in the middle of the wall. David pushed a doorbell next to the door but no sound seemed to emanate. We waited a moment and then the door opened. A very big guy opened the door, leaned out to survey the street, and then turned his attention to David. Wordlessly, almost imperceptibly, he motioned for David to come in. When I started following him inside, the big guy reached out and put his hand on my chest. He didn’t need to say the words, the message was perfectly clear: I wasn’t coming in.
From inside, David looked back and yelled back, “It’s okay, man. He’s with me.” Big guy said nothing and his face betrayed nothing. He simply removed his hand from my chest and stepped aside to let me pass.
Silently, I followed David down a hall and into an anteroom where he planted me in a chair near a side table and then disappeared. There was a large, upholstered door that was caddy corner from where we’d entered and over the next ten minutes or so, I watched people emerging and entering including, at one point, David. Whenever the door opened, I’d hear a voice inside booming over what sounded like a public address system: “We mayka payna fazen danz…” Even though I could only hear it in disjointed snippets, the voice seemed to just keep repeating the same thing over and over again. Weirdly, the voice sounded remarkably like John Lennon… or, at least, someone who was doing a great job of imitating John Lennon. There was no music, though, just the voice singing/yelling the same indecipherable incantation repeatedly. It was nothing I’d ever heard from Lennon before and I’d listened to every bit of his music including esoterica like Two Virgins.
As I sat there, trying to figure out exactly what was going on, an energetic figure bounded in from down the hall and deposited himself in a chair that was on the other side of the table next to me. I only saw the top of his head as he picked up the desk phone that was on the table and began dialing. When he looked up, though, the face was familiar and unmistakable. It was Jerry Rubin, the same guy I was watching on TV just a few hours earlier. I was too stunned to catch the beginning of the conversation. By the time I regained my composure, his end of the conversation was easy to discern (even as I looked away and pretended to be nonplussed). “Did you catch me this afternoon? How did I look? Did I look alright?” It wasn’t the kind of post-game analysis I’d have expected from one of the counter-culture’s most famous proponents but a more pressing question was occupying my attention: Where the hell was I?
Just then, David peeked out from behind the upholstered door and motioned for me to come inside. On the other side of the door, the answer to my question quickly came into focus. I was in a large room and in front of me was an enormous audio console facing out towards an empty recording studio. A couple of huge speakers were mounted on the ceiling in front of the console, the source of the obscure mantra that was once again repeating. While I was taking all of that in, David motioned for me to be quiet and take a seat in a chair in the back of the room. It was only after I sat down that I was able to turn my attention towards the three figures seated at the console with their backs to me.
Neither of the two men’s faces was visible but the woman sitting onthe right was turned slightly to face towards her companions on her left. The lightbulb of recognition brightened in two distinct steps:
One: “She looks Japanese.”
Two: “That’s Yoko Ono.”
I still couldn’t see the faces of the two men sitting next to her but it didn’t matter. I suddenly knew who at least one of them was. And I realized why the voice booming through the speakers sounded just like John Lennon. There must have been a tape machine somewhere but I don’t remember seeing it. The man next to Yoko reached for a bottle that was sitting in front of him on the console, took a long swig, and put it down, a gesture he repeated several times over the next half hour or so until, apparently, the contents of the bottle were gone. The now familiar incantation kept repeating. Sometimes the entire phrase several times in a row, sometimes just a word or two. “We mayka payna fazen danz, we mayka payna fazen danz…”
As I took everything in, my urgent objective was to stay as quite and unobtrusive as possible. A disturbing vision kept intruding on my consciousness, the big guy from the front door bursting into the room, pointing at me, and shouting, “Grab that kid! He’s not from New York Magazine!”
Suddenly, there was a break in the proceedings. The guy sitting on the far left of the console got up and left the room. When he did, David walked over (I hadn’t even realized that he’d left) and motioned for me to join him. We walked up to the console and the guy sitting next to Yoko turned around. The fact that I knew it was going to be John Lennon didn’t mitigate the palpable electric shock of recognition even a little bit. My mind immediately flashed to another February night, almost exactly eight years before, when I saw his face for the first time on my grandmother’s television set. It took all the will I could summon to keep the atoms of my body from disintegrating and floating away to mix with the cigarette smoke that filled the air.
David positioned me behind John’s chair and repeated almost verbatim the fraudulent biography I’d given him on the phone the night before. (“This is George. He’s a freelance writer working on an article for New York Magazine.”) John considered me for a second and said something that might have been perfectly decipherable under other circumstances but I was not processing sensory input very well at that particular moment. My impression was not of someone being deliberately rude or dismissive but it was clear that the second of his attention I’d already consumed was all I was going to get.
I turned towards Yoko who seemed to plumb the depths of my soul with the most intense gaze I’d ever experienced. She’d heard David’s introduction and simply nodded. My abiding impression was that she was beautiful in a way that transcended any image of her I’d ever seen. Like most other Beatles fans, I had always wondered what it was that John saw in her. Seeing her in person, I never wondered that again.
David led me away from her, not back to my chair but out the big upholstered door. My time was up. As I left the room, the third figure who’d been sitting at the console walked back in. It was Phil Spector.
David and I said our goodbyes and I promised to let him know when the article was going to hit the newsstands. He didn’t seem very concerned about that but he had one last item to run down with me. “Yoko wanted to know if you had an extra joint you could leave for her.” As it happened, I did. I reached into my coat pocket and handed it over to David. I’ve often wondered if the joint really made its way to Yoko or if David kept it for himself. For a long time, I whimsically hoped that wound up with Yoko. Now, I find myself thinking that I’d be just as happy—maybe even happier—if David had kept it for himself. It would be a small bit of payback for a guy who graciously orchestrated the most improbable, unbelievable night of my life.
Postscript: On June 12, 1972, John and Yoko released Sometime in New York City, John’s third solo album, produced by Phil Spector. The album’s first song was “Woman Is the Nigger of the World,” Lennon’s attempt at a feminist anthem that ended with the repeating refrain, “We make her paint her face and dance.”