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John Lennon’s Bassist Gary Van Scyoc Discusses Life With John And Yoko

After The Beatles broke up in 1970, John Lennon tried everything he could to separate himself from that part of his life. He had grown a beard and changed his appearance to look anything but ‘Beatley cute’, distancing himself from the shell shock of the group’s tremendous fame. He was also struggling to break the vice of a drug habit, one that he sang about in “Cold Turkey,” a controversial tune the Beatles passed on recording. Lennon was also speaking out loudly about politics, so much so that he would become the target of a tremendous FBI surveillance effort and deportation efforts from the federal government.

Around this time, Lennon was also playing with The Elephant’s Memory Band. Surprisingly, the group were jam packed with sharpened musicians, including the bassist Gary Van Scyoc. He joined the Elephants in time to be swept up into the world of John and Yoko, who recruited the group between 1971 and 1973. 

Van Scyoc will be playing his bass at a Beatles Tribute with Mark Hudson at the Iridium in New York on Dec. 21st, and he related some wild memories to L4LM’s Bob Wilson about the glory days he remembers so well.

L4LM: How did you come to play with Elephant’s Memory, and then with John and Yoko?

Gary Van Scyoc: I was only 24 or 25 years at most old when I joined Elephant’s Memory. They were a politically active street-wise band.  I answered an ad they placed in the Village Voice. I auditioned at Max’s Kansas City during an actual show, and I was in. I had had a hit with the Fife Piper, and gone to Salem University Music School. The Elephant’s had a gold record on the wall, and they were known from playing the Anderson and the Fillmore Theaters in New York City.

L4LM: How did John and Yoko learn of you, and be impressed enough to play with you for several years?

GVS: John and Yoko were living in an apartment on Bank Street in Greenwich Village, and we recorded and rehearsed about a block and a half away.  Yippie Jerry Rubin had told them about us, and been to many of our gigs. So did Tom Fortin of High Times Magazine. Jerry Rubin gave them a tape we had recorded live on WLIR. It’s strange the way that fate intervenes.  John came down to Magna Graphics Studio with Yoko, one night they just popped in.  We actually kept them waiting for far too long (laughs). He had a white suit on, which may have been the actual one from the Abbey Road album cover. We just hit it off, and Yoko liked that Plastic Ono Elephant’s Memory was P.O.E.M.  

L4LM: John pops in wearing possibly the Abbey Road suit, with Yoko at his side.  And then you talk for a while, and what happens next?

GVS: We jammed together from 10PM to about 4AM, after John just asked if we could all play. We did many classics like Dizzy Miss Lizzy, Elvis songs, and Little Richard songs.  Then when we were done, he asked if they could join the band. I was thinking, is this really happening?

L4LM: How long did it take you to decide?

GVS: Well, I was the one to have some pause.  Apple was not based in New York, and I thought we might be better off with a local label.  And I had been doing jingles, like Uncle Ben’s Rice, and had been making good money.  With John and Yoko, we would need to hit the road, and that would be the end of the commercials for me.  Will Lee had come to town by that point, though.  He was the next player to be en vogue. 

L4LM: What were John and Yoko like to play alongside? Were they demanding, or did they allow some leeway for the Elephant’s Memory?

GVS: You couldn’t have asked for anything better, as they trusted us.  John gave us carte blanche, and couldn’t have been sweeter.  I don’t remember any of us complaining.  We were seasoned studio musicians, and not street musicians like David Peel, as an act and not an entity.  I’m not knocking David here, but rather making a distinction.  I love David dearly.

L4LM: Now that you had joined together, how did you start actually playing?

GVS: We would show up at the Record Plant at 7PM every day for two weeks.  We would record one track per day.  At the most, John would want to do three takes of any song, as he liked to keep it fresh.  That is how we recorded the Some Time In New York City album.

L4LM: Did John and Yoko attract any attention during the time you were recording.

GVS: Carly Simon stopped by, who had been with Elephant’s Memory as vocalist for a time.  Rudolf Nureyev came in, and also Jackie Kennedy.

L4LM: John and Yoko took over the Mike Douglas Show for a week? What was it like participating in that, and being a ‘fly on the wall’?

GVS: It was the first time John had met Chuck Berry.  We stayed at the Ben Franklin Hotel in Philadelphia, and ran up an enormous bill (laughs).  Chuck was a little aggravated about royalties he hadn’t been paid when the Beatles had done some of his tunes, but he got over that quickly.  It was amazing to see two superstars get together.  Chuck was John’s idol, and he was like a little kid.  It was exciting.

L4LM: What other memories do you have of Chuck Berry?

GVS: It was a little weird, as Chuck had this dominance thing.  We would rehearse in one key, and Chuck would change key.  That was not good for John, and it threw him. John was a trooper, though, and he played through it.  Chuck loved the Elephant’s Memory.  We went on tour with Chuck, as John had no work visa.  We also recorded the record ‘Bio’ with Chuck.  Wayne ‘Tex’ Gabriel played a lead guitar solo on that album.  It was the only time Chuck ever let anyone ever do that on a studio track with on one of hi records.  It was a song called Woodpecker, an instrumental.  Chuck just loved jamming with us.

L4LM: Did John mind that his band had been commandeered?

GVS: John had no problem with it.  John could only do television, benefit concerts and things of that nature because he didn’t have that work visa.  When we played at the Anderson Theater with Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, John and Yoko were in the second row.  

L4LM: When did the political associations start to cause real problems for John and Yoko? Until then, he had somewhat gotten away with the anti-war protests, but then he brought some serious radicals onto the Mike Douglas Show and things like that. Did that upset the powers that be?

GVS: By 1972, John had made many political associations.  My own phone had been tapped nearly the whole time that I knew them.  The FBI brought a reel to reel taping system into my building to tap my phones, and you could hear the ‘click’ on the line.  G-Men with their little hats would follow us.  They really had gotten on Bob Gruen’s ass.  We laugh about it now, the G-Men days.  They were not happy with John, and they would do everything to get him out of the country.  

L4LM: Were you aware of any other tactics against you at the time?

GVS: I was busy working at the time, so I would go about my business and not dwell on it.  In Denver, though, we were arrested as bank robbers.  They let us go, but there was something fishy about it.  It seems like it was a set-up.

L4LM: How did the bootlegs of the One-To-One Concert get out to the public?

GVS: I have no idea.  Butterfly Studios had mobile trucks recording everything, including the rehearsals.  I would guess that someone from there gave tapes out to someone.

L4LM: The One-To-One benefit is really the only full recording we have of John live post Beatles. That is really historical.  How does it feel to be a part of that?

GVS: Well, now it is a DVD and a compact disc, but they are out of print.  I am hoping that they re-release those things.  Sometimes Yoko drags her feet (laughs).  She seems to move at five year intervals.  

L4LM: What was it like recording Yoko’s Approximately Infinite Universe?

GVS: Approximately Infinite Universe is Yoko’s best work ever.  John was in the control room the whole time.  It was not just a pop record, but serious studio players.  I think it is “the” record.

L4LM: Do you ever see Yoko much these days?

GVS: Once in a while.  In 2010, I saw her at the premiere of the LENNONYC movie, that was done by Michael Epstein.  We have no problem with each other.  

L4LM: Do you like or support Michael Santo and Laura Lian’s effort to place a memorial peace statue of John into Central Park where there are none of him to date? I think John would like it, as it celebrates his peace efforts, and does not simply make him an icon.

Gary: I really like that idea very much.  And the idea seems to be creating a buzz.  I hope it comes to fruition.  

John Lennon NYC Statue Project for Central Park Needs Support

L4LM: When you worked closely with John, what did his relationship seem to be like with the former Beatles?

GVS: Well, the media would be reporting on this huge Lennon and McCartney feud.  The Village Voice had them at each others throats. Then as we recorded Sometime In New York City album, Paul called two or three times, and everything would just come to a halt.  They would be yukking it up, and laughing for over an hour at a time.  You argue with your brother, but he is still your brother.

L4LM: Elephant’s Memory played with the Jerry Garcia Band on a Cruise in 1973. What was that like?

GVS: It was a ‘Hell’s Angel’s Pirates Party’, aboard the S.S. Bay Belle.  We brought the wives along for the musical boat ride.  Willie Nelson also came along and performed.  We cruised around Manhattan about ten times.  Footage wound up in the documentary film, ‘Hell’s Angels Forever’ (released in 1983).  We had a great time smoking ‘doobies’.  The Angels sponsored the trip, and they treated us like gold.  

L4LM: What caused The Elephant’s Memory to break with John and Yoko?

GVS: It wasn’t really a break-up with the Elephant’s Memory, as such.  It was more that John and Yoko split up, and John went on his ‘Lost Weekend’.  When Nixon won re-election, John was simply crushed, and it took the wind right out of him.  John sent me a letter, and people publish fakes of it sometimes online.  I have the original framed.  Apple would be taking back about $100,000 worth of equipment, as John was in Los Angeles.  John told me not to be depressed, as ‘life is as long as an elephant’s memory’.

Gary Van Scyoc will be appearing on December 21st at the Iridium in New York, NY with Mark Hudson. Tickets are available here. For more about Van Scyoc’s doings, including his recent album Pop Goes The Elephant, head to his official website.