If I have a type, it's nerd. Last Friday, Dinah's house overflowed with heapin' helpin's of 'em, turning out to gawk at keys that typed "A Hard Day's Night," "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "For Whom the Bell Tolls." It tolls with a carriage-return crrrnch, and added ding, if electric.
Yes, hundreds showed up to stare at typewriters, to learn more about them, to long to touch the untouchable. So many nerds, so engaged: My peeps. And not the diabetes-giving kind.
I docented (aka hovered over) the John Lennon exhibit, which features (the "Alabama Types" exhibit stays up through Dec. 7, in the University of Alabama Gallery at the Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center) his 1951 Imperial Good Companion, under lucite cover, because as the collector noted, it's one of those people most crave to touch. In promo photos for "A Hard Day's Night," you can see that machine sitting on his lap, just about as often as a Gibson or Rickenbacker. It was displayed on a tiny desk with chair, meant to represent his Aunt Mimi's house, where Lennon grew up. We had the display, and a lovely black and white photo of Lennon and Yoko Ono, taken in 1980, meant to be their Christmas card photo that year.
To one side of the compact Good Companion lay a paperback reader of "The John Lennon Letters," a massive collection of both typed and hand-scrawled notes, letters, set lists, song lyrics and so on. To the other side lay a single. If you ask "a single what?," I'm mildly appalled, but happy to explain, though not even the youngest of First Friday opening visitors needed to be clued in to who that Elvis-loving punk was, the greaser on the poster above the typewriter display. But they did seem shocked by the 45 -- and I'm sure two or three did not recognize a 45 -- featuring an extremely hirsute -- shirts chafed, in the '70s -- Elton John hugging John Lennon at their 1974 concert appearance.
About the same time Elton cut his version of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" -- with one Dr. Winston O' Boogie, a Lennon pseudonym, on guitar and vocals -- the pair recorded a bouncy new song titled "Whatever Gets You Through the Night." Lennon wrote it for his "Walls and Bridges" albums; the piano player sang harmonies, and keyed the boards.
Elton saw a hit. Lennon, mired in his heavy drinking days, saw it as more, um, not a hit. They made a bet: If "Whatever Gets You Through the Night" went to No. 1, John would join Elton on stage. So Nov. 28, 1974, John Lennon appeared on a major concert stage for the last time, to perform what would be his only No. 1 as a solo artist. (Though it's shown greater legs over the long run, "Imagine" somehow peaked at No. 2.)
Elton was atop the world, with his 1973 "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" sprawling No. 1 everywhere, spinning off iconic hits such as "Bennie and the Jets," "Candle in the Wind," "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" and the title track. He and the band toured incessantly; in that mid-70s heyday, Elton played Tuscaloosa's Memorial Coliseum twice.
Lennon, meanwhile, hadn't played live in about four years. The Beatles had stopped playing live in 1966, though they did play that one gig high atop Apple HQ in 1969. To knock the cobwebs off, he'd stepped up for an earlier Elton show in Boston, but it was the Madison Square Garden gig that drove an audience to near-Beatlemania-level frenzy. Recordings of the night, of the three songs the Johns performed together, were released both as the single, and as an EP.
"I wanna say it's our great privilege, and your great privilege," Elton says, "to see and hear Mr. John Lennon!" Someone -- probably Lennon on his black Telecaster, though possibly Elton's guitarist Davey Johnstone -- picks out a bit of the opening riff to "I Feel Fine" as the crowd goes, to put it mildly, wild. The boys rave through "Whatever Gets You Through the Night," highlighted by a raucous sax solo, and here's where the Alabama connection hooks in: The studio sax version was wailed by Bobby Keys, a Muscle Shoals Sound Studio vet, who also cut "Brown Sugar" and other "Sticky Fingers" cuts with the Rolling Stones. But for that tour, Elton had brought along the Muscle Shoals Horns, probably (because I can't find a definitive track listing) featuring Harrison Calloway Jr. on trumpet, Ronnie Eades on baritone saxophone, Harvey Thompson on sax and flute, and Charles Rose on trombone.
That was followed with "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," which Elton called one of the greatest songs ever written, and yes, possibly written on the very typewriter I guarded. After that came the second-biggest surprise of the night.
"We tried to think of a number to finish off with so's I can get out of here and be sick," Lennon says, "and we thought we'd do a number of an old, estranged fiance of mine, called Paul (McCartney). This is one I never sang, it's an old Beatle number, and we just about know it."
Cue a thoroughly rowdy "I Saw Her Standing There." If you know Beatles lore, you catch the import: Yoko didn't break up the Beatles. Only the Beatles could break up the Beatles. And Paul and John falling out, that was the heartquake felt by a generation. Elton wasn't the only one in tears that night. Probably everyone at the show, and then millions who read about it later, and heard the live recordings, murmured a thought along these lines: "John sang a Paul song. They're getting back together!"
Alas, that was not the last ache tied to that show. Yoko Ono was in the crowd that night, and though Lennon left, afterward, with his current squeeze, May Pang, the couple later patched it up -- with a boost from old friends named Paul and Linda, who urged her to save Lennon from his self-destructive bent -- and had their son Sean. For the next four years, things went quiet at the Dakota, as they cleaned house, literally and metaphorically. In the May 27, 1979 New York Times, a full-page ad appeared, headed "A Love Letter From John and Yoko. To People Who Ask Us What, When and Why," painting a tranquil picture: "The house is getting very comfortable now. Sean is beautiful. The plants are growing. The cats are purring. The town is shining, sun, rain or snow."
The letter -- probably not typed on this 1951 machine, as Lennon had stepped up to an electric Imperial, fancy rich man, sometime in the later '60s -- goes on to say "When somebody is angry with us, we draw a halo around his or her head in our minds. ... suddenly the person starts to look like an angel to us. This helps us feel warm towards the person, reminds us that everyone has goodness inside, and that all people who come to us are angels in disguise, carrying messages and gifts to us from the Universe."
It ends with "...our silence is a silence of love and not of indifference," and in what's likely a wry John tease: "We noticed that three angels were looking over our shoulders when we wrote this!''
Though John and Yoko did complete what would be both his comeback and swan song, in "Double Fantasy," the generational fantasy of four angels reuniting was cut short by an assassin.
The last real-life look at Lennon that most New Yorkers got lasted less than 20 minutes on a Thanksgiving night in Madison Square Garden. In an interview that would appear in Playboy two days before the murder, Lennon talked about that show to writer David Sheff: "When I came off stage, I said to the waiting journalists, 'It was good fun, but I wouldn't like to do it for a living.' "
And that's just from the one display. Every typewriter spins off tales.
Reach Tusk Editor Mark Hughes Cobb at email@example.com or 205-722-0201.