The storage locker belonging to Nat Weiss, The Beatles’ American lawyer, could not have been in a more mundane place. It was on the 6th floor of the Manhattan Mini-Storage at 29th Street and 10th Avenue. It’s a strange world where vendors store their wares, where musicians store their drum kits and other instruments, and where, I had a feeling, some people actually lived. One perk is the free on-site parking and free carts to haul stuff up and down the elevators. But it’s airless and hot, even in May.
The second time I entered the locker with Nat’s niece, heir to his estate, we had unfettered access to everything. The locks on the filing cabinets had been popped open by a locksmith — we were in. But that didn’t mean it was easy to examine everything. The locker was jam-packed. First, we had to drag some boxes into the narrow corridor so we’d be able to squeeze into a very small space and look carefully at the contents. I began to separate out some of the more interesting items and anything I thought was vaguely interesting, I showed to Nat’s niece.
First up was a large brown package (see photo) that had a warning scrawled in magic marker on the outside:
Property of Cat Stevens – Enclosed are demo tapes to be used as instructed later and reference lacquers of new single and B side and medley cassette for Nat’s listening pleasure! Keep until the Cat returns!
I couldn’t help but laugh. The funny thing about this rather stern warning is that The Cat never really did return. Soon after this was written in 1977, he gave up his pop music career, sold all his guitars and chose to become a strict disciple of Islam, even changing his name Yusuf Islam. It’s only in the last few years that he’s begun singing again.
But back in 1977, The Cat was gone for good which probably explains why he never came back to retrieve this package. The other reason might be that this single had to be the worst of Cat’s career. I was a Cat Stevens fan and I had never heard of it. It was called — and I’m serious — “Was Dog a Doughnut?” It’s an electo-pop melody with a dog barking in the background. Very weird and, looking back, you have to wonder if it was time for Cat to take a break.
But no matter what, this was a one-of-a-kind item. Record companies make a handful of reference lacquers; the single was the size of a 33 LP. In addition to the doomed single, the package also contained two cassettes of Cat singing songs from a musical written by his brother. How do I know this? Because Nat’s niece said I could take it and I did and I listened. On the cassettes, which have to be incredibly rare, Cat sounds like his old self. I now owned this piece of rock memorabilia but what to do with it? Somehow, given the sentiment on the envelope, it didn’t feel right to sell it so I tracked down a person who knew The Cat and he promised to send it to Yusuf where he lives in Dubai. I haven’t heard back yet but I’m hopeful he received it.
On that second visit, I came across other tapes belonging to groups like Shy Talk, Motivation and The Romantics. I knew very little about those bands but I did know about folk singer Steve Forbert and have always admired his raw energy. I found a reel-to-reel audiotape of one of his live concerts out in Berkeley. It was fairly easy to locate Steve so, after an exchange of emails, I shipped the tape off to a Post Office Box number he gave me down in Nashville. Steve was a gentleman and rang me up to thank me.
But before we go on, I should say that it was again crystal clear on this second visit that Nat’s niece didn’t care what happened to the contents of the locker. Her concern was not paying any more of the monthly storage fees and was worried about getting rid of the filing cabinets and all those old files. In fairness to her, there was a lot in those cabinets — like old financial records (like receipts from hotels bands had stayed at on the road) — that no one would want. But there were also some gems tucked away. It was a matter of separating the wheat from the chaff.
You had to dig for it and pay attention. It was easy, I found, to begin tossing files away with a cursory glance and that was dangerous. For instance, in a file marked “Christmas,” we found a dozen of so pristine 8 x 10 black and white photos of The Beatles that they had sent out to members of their fan club. They were a nice find but who knew it would be a file marked “Christmas?”
Was Nat’s niece willing to take the chance that there was nothing else tucked away, something with potentially far more value? She was willing to take that chance.
I on the other hand wanted to go through everything with a fine tooth comb even if it was a pain in the ass and hot and dirty in the locker. Truth be told, I was now in it for the thrill of the hunt. This was fun!
We had not even cut open all the taped record boxes at that point so I made Nat’s niece a proposition. I would pay for the June storage fee and go through everything and if I found anything of incredible value, I would split it with her 50-50. She agreed but only if i took a bigger cut, and then she handed me the key and disappeared from the scene.
Now I had time, at least a month or for as long as I wanted to pay the fee which was about $350 a month.
Over the next few weeks, I went through everything in those filing cabinets and 90 percent of it was junk. But I also found some treasures. There were reel-to-reel recordings of long lost concerts by James Taylor and Carly Simon. There was a whole box of black and white photos of Cat Stevens at a Madison Square Garden concert.
There was one large box in particular that I needed to go through slowly — the box marked James Taylor. There were some very interesting and historically significant papers in there pertaining to James’ career, including a copy of the letter his lawyer sent to Apple records informing Beatles executive Allen Klein that James was terminating his contract with The Beatles’ label. The letter was cc’d to John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. And that was just the beginning….(more to come on the contents of that box in Part 3).
There were also those 11 large boxes of record albums from the ’60s, ’70’s and ’80s. Most of the records were used but there were some new, mint condition LPs that had never been played. And the boxes contained all the classics, from The Beatles to Cat Stevens to Bob Dylan to Joni Mitchell to you name it. I had never seen a Beatles LP on the original English label Parlophone.
I began to move those boxes home to make more room in the locker. And I made a decision — my record collection had been destroyed in a flood and I had gotten rid of my turntable but I would now use Nat’s old LPs to restore my collection. All I needed was a new turntable and I would pay for that by selling the records I did not want.
In Part 3 of this journey, I’ll tell you about my biggest finds and what I decided to do with everything….