My Yoko "Moment"



I was hesitant to post this personal anecdote for fear of coming across as self-aggrandizing. However, as Dusty reminded me, "a good story is a good story." So....

Sometime between 1982 and 1984, I wrote some music for a memorial song for John Lennon. I had no lyrics yet, but I felt the music was pretty solid: very Beatle/Lennon-esque. In early 1985, while waiting for class in the cafeteria of City College, the lyrics suddenly came pouring out -- all at once. I skipped class, went home, put the lyrics to the music, tweaked it a little, and the song was done: "song for John" was complete.

As many will remember, in March 1985, "We Are the World" was released. You may also remember that, in addition to the video being featured on MTV, the song was played simultaneously on perhaps 50 radio stations around the country.

In October of that year, I fantasized recording "song for John" and attempting to have it played simultaneously on multiple radio stations on the fifth anniversary of John's death. I went into the studio in late November 1985 and, along with my friend Josh (who played bass and sang with me), my brother Eric (who played the lead guitar solo), and two additional back-up singers, I recorded the song. I then sent the song (on reel-to-reel tape!) -- in a package that included the lyrics, recording info, a brief intro, and a postcard of John -- to 11 radio stations in three markets (NYC, Philly, DC), requesting that they all play the song at 11 PM on December 8th.

On December 3rd, I got a call from "Bob Reid, at CBS." He told me that he had heard the song and really liked it, and that he wanted me to be part of a brief special they were doing for the anniversary of John's death. He asked me if I'd heard from anyone at WPLJ (at that time the #2 rock radio station after WNEW). I said no. He told me that they were planning to play it. He then asked if he could take some "footage" of me at work the next day. I asked why a radio station would need video. He said, "Oh, I'm sorry, I should have explained: I'm Director of Evening News for CBS television." I had to assume that he had somehow heard the song via WCBS radio. He came to my office the next day to shoot some video, and told me that the station manager at WPLJ (Larry Berger) -- as well as much of the staff -- had listened to the song and were excited about it. He also told me that, by chance, Yoko was at the WPLJ studio that morning, had heard the song, and also liked it. He then asked if he could come to my home later that evening for some footage of me actually playing the song.

I called WPLJ, and a receptionist answered. I asked for Larry Berger. She asked who I was. I said, Ian Alterman. She got excited and said, "Oh! Mr. Alterman! We've been listening to your song all day. It's wonderful!" She then connected me to Mr. Berger, who said, "Mr. Alterman, it is nice to speak with you. As you may know, everyone here really loves your song. We had Yoko Ono in the studio earlier and she also loved it. I want you to know that we are going to play your song twice on Sunday: first at 8:55 am, and then as the lead-in to our John Lennon Memorial program that evening at 11pm, as you requested." We chatted for a couple more minutes.

That evening, Bob Reid showed up at my apartment, took some footage, and then asked if he could interview me. I told him I had never been interviewed before and didn't want to come across foolishly. He gave me some quick tips on interviewing. We then did a short interview. He then asked if I had spoken with Larry Berger. I told him about the conversation, but said I was mystified by the 8:55 AM air time. He looked at me like I was a Martian. He asked, "Mr. Alterman, what comes on at 9 AM on Sunday morning?" I couldn't think. He said, "Casey Kasem's Top 40. By putting your song as the lead-in, Larry is essentially making your song #41." Needless to say, I was shocked. Mr. Reid then invited me to join him at CBS-TV on Sunday evening for the airing of the five-minute special on John, of which my song and I were a part.

Sunday evening, I went to CBS and watched as they aired the piece, of which the song and I were almost a full minute. I then rushed home where my brother and a handful of friends were gathered to listen with me to the 11 PM airing on WPLJ. At 10:55 PM, an announcer came on to mention the special, mentioned a song that the station had received earlier that week, and then said, "This is 'song for John' by Ian Ackerman." I was livid! I immediately picked up the phone and dialed WPLJ. Now, anyone who has ever tried to get through to a radio station on air knows how difficult it is even at the most normal of times. It never occurred to me that this was a night when thousands of people would be calling in. Yet my call was picked up on the third ring. I did not even say "hello." I simply said, quite angrily, "My name is 'Alterman' not 'Ackerman!'" The man on the other end apologized profusely and asked me to hold. Father Bill Ayres (the DJ and minister who was doing the memorial show) got on the line and said, "Mr. Alterman. This is Father Bill Ayres. I want to apologize for the mistake. I will correct it as soon as I am on air. Meanwhile, since I have you on the phone, would you like to be my first on-air caller?" As an aside, what are the statistical probabilities of that?!! I.e., that they would misstate my name, that I would get through on that night, and that I would end up on air? After all, if they had stated my name correctly, I never even would have called!

I took the phone into a hallway (since there would have been an echo from the radio), so I was alone, with everyone else in the other room. I was on hold, listening to Father Bill's intro, during which he actually (and very subtly, I might add) corrected the mistake not once, but three times. He then put me on air. Now, keep in mind that he had no idea who I was; i.e., for all he knew, I might be a complete bozo who simply wrote a good song. So he was taking a chance by putting me on the air. However, I remembered what Bob Reid had taught me, and simply stayed calm. Father Bill asked a question, and I answered. no tangents, no elaborations. When he realized that I "knew" how to be interviewed -- and was at least reasonably articulate -- he interviewed me for three or four minutes.

When we were done, I went into the other room and asked how I had come across. My brother was mock furious. He said, "You stinker! Don't you realize what just happened? From the audience point of view, WPLJ had arranged for you to be interviewed! They had no idea it was an accident!" I had not actually thought of that.

Anyway, it turned out later that the song had, in fact, been played on five stations simultaneously that evening in all three markets: WPLJ, WBAI and WLIR in NY, WAVA in DC and WMMR in Philly. (Oddly, despite the fact that WMMR was WNEW's "sister" station, WNEW -- the self-proclaimed Beatles and Lennon station -- never picked up on the song. And although WLIR played it every year on the anniversary until they were sold, and WBAI played it on and off during the years, WNEW never did.)

Now for the "punch line." I was serving as Business Manager for an afterschool program on the Upper West Side (where I live), and we had quite a few "famous" children, including Sean Lennon, who was in the musical theater class. (He was 10 at the time.) I used to see him quite a bit, as he used to come into the office and the staff would chat with him. When the class did its end-of-term performance, Yoko attended. I was able to say hello to her, introduce myself, and hand her a copy of the cassette of "song for John." She was quite gracious, and thanked me for my having written it.

I saw Yoko a couple of more times in later years, at fundraising events. She was always quite gracious, and I have always cherished knowing that she has a copy of "song for John," and actually likes it.

Happy Birthday, Yoko. And thank you for being there for John.