I was 10 on February 9, 1964, that fateful night The Beatles appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show." The night I fell in love with John Lennon.
I'd had crushes before—minor ones on Illya Kuryakin, the Russian spy on "The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and Rod Serling of "The Twilight Zone."
But John Lennon? This was EPIC.
He was funny, smart, irreverent and kind. And that sexy English accent! Swoon. I didn't care that a billion other teenage girls felt exactly the same way. I didn't care that he was old. I didn't care that I had a much better chance of being abducted by aliens than meeting him in person. Even at that tender age, I knew instinctively that meeting a crush could be dangerous. They could hate dogs; have hair on their back or watch "Sing Along With Mitch" or "The Lawrence Welk Show."
No one should ever, ever meet a crush.
The word itself holds a warning: crush (verb). Press something, as to squash, squeeze or break it—like someone's heart when the object of desire turns out to be a total dick causing intense feelings of betrayal and embarrassment in front of friends and family.
This was in the back of my mind as I stared, 10 years later, at John Lennon sitting in a private box at The Roxy Theater. It was October 23, 1973, and Jerry Lee Lewis was performing at the popular venue on the Sunset Strip. Now a sophomore at UCLA, I was there to interview Lewis for the campus television station with two fellow students. The show was late getting started and I scanned the restless audience, bored as hell, my feet propped up on my camera equipment.
Tucked into a corner across the room, the private VIP box floated above the main floor. A small group of people chatted waiting for the show to start. One of them looked familiar. He was slim with shaggy hair and wore quirky round glasses.
It was John Lennon.
He sat with a few friends and a beautiful Chinese girl who I assumed was May Pang. His break up with Yoko was big news and everyone in L.A. knew about May (his assistant and now his lover).
"Oh, my God! That's John Lennon up there!" I said.
"Holy shit," my producer said, craning his neck to see.
"Damn," his assistant said. "It really is him."
We stared openly and rudely and when Jerry Lee Lewis finally burst on stage to wild applause our eyes didn't leave John. The moment had a dreamlike quality. I was suddenly that besotted kid again—the one who owned 250 Beatles bubblegum cards; the one who walked three miles on a rainy Saturday afternoon to buy the newly released "White Album," the one who played the album "Revolver" so much she had to replace it twice.
"Let's ask him for an interview," my producer said.
"What? How?" I said.
"I'll go backstage during intermission and ask somebody."
"You're crazy," I said. "He's not going to talk to us."
"We won't know if we don't ask."
As soon as the lights went up he took off, fighting his way through the noisy crowd.
The party in the VIP box was in full swing now. Champagne corks popped. Glasses overflowed. People floated in and out laughing, hugging, kissing—beautiful people with sleek hair and cool clothes, relaxed in the presence of rock and roll royalty. I wondered who they were. I wondered if May was in love with John. I wondered if he was really as nice as he looked goofing around with his friends.
Fifteen minutes later, my producer reappeared.
"We're on," he said, flinging himself into his seat, grinning like an idiot.
"You're kidding me," I said.
"We're meeting him in the stairwell after the show."
"You actually talked to him?"
"No. Some guy backstage organized it."
I have no memory of the rest of the show. I don't remember how it ended, how we found that stairwell or setting up my camera. All I can remember is standing on the landing below, my clunky beige Teac video camera pointed up at my producer and his assistant, jumpy and nervous, waiting for the heavy metal door to swing open.
A single bulb was the only source of light—it would be lousy footage. Video tape was crap on a good day and this was basically a dungeon. I'd like to say our collective heartbeats echoed in that dingy stairwell that smelled of rust and damp but, of course, that's impossible. It just seemed like it. We waited in silence and just when we thought we'd been forgotten, the door opened.
John Lennon stood there.
He was dressed in jeans, T-shirt and a light jacket. I turned my camera on, peered through the viewfinder, framed the shot and took a deep breath.
My producer raised the microphone to his mouth but could not form a sentence. The silence pounded in my ears. John stood there for a moment, expressionless, then turned.
Oh, man, I thought. He's going to leave. But he grabbed the microphone and pointed it at my producer.
"Hi. I'm John Lennon and I'm here with ..." He grinned at my producer.
"Greg McKinley," my producer said.
"So what's happening at UCLA, Greg?"
"We're in the film department," Greg said, slaphappy with joy.
"How'd you like the show?" John asked all of us.
John Lennon was interviewing us.
He questioned us about school, cracked some jokes, blathered on about some crazy thing—I can't remember what exactly—but there he stood, my first crush, possibly the most famous person in rock and roll history, holding a microphone in front of a group of star-struck kids, being funny, sweet, and kind.
He totally crushed it.