Sometimes when you research a book, you get lucky. That’s how this story began.
I got lucky last June, just not in quite the way I’d hoped, as you’ll read. But my pursuit of a long-lost audiotape eventually opened the door (literally) and allowed me to take possession of a storage locker owned by a lawyer named Nat Weiss and, for those who don’t know, Nat just happened to represent The Beatles over on this side of the pond.
It all started when I was doing research for a non-fiction book on The Beatles manager Brian Epstein. (It’s questionable that anyone would ever have heard of The Beatles outside Liverpool if not for Epstein.) The book never got off the ground but, at the time, I was poking around for some audiotapes of a phone conversation that I know existed at one time. Whether those tapes still exist, I do not know. But I was hoping they might still be around and, if anyone had them, it was Nat. After all, he was the person who ordered a phone line to be tapped in the first place.
I should back up and tell you that Nat was very good friends with Brian Epstein. They were gay men in an era when being gay was a crime. The audiotapes had to do with a blackmail attempt against Brian. Nat was furious and had ordered all calls from the blackmailer to be taped. I know for a fact that those tapes existed and wanted to listen to them if they were still available.
Nat had bonded with Brian by showing him around the gay scene in New York back in the Swinging ’60s. Brian trusted Nat so much that, in 1966, they formed a company together called Nemperor to manage musical artists aside from The Beatles. Brian died of a drug overdose in 1967 but Nat carried on, eventually providing legal advice to James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Stanley Clarke, The Mahavishnu Orchestra and Steve Forbert, among others.
I spoke to Nat a few times by phone in 2012 but he was ill, and I wasn’t surprised to read that he died last summer. I figured whoever his heirs were might have the tapes I was looking for and so I began my search. I didn’t have much to go on, just the building where he had lived on E. 68th Street in Manhattan. It was not a co-op so records were scarce. I badgered the building management company and, after repeated calls, someone finally passed along the phone number of Nat’s estate lawyer. I wasn’t overly hopeful he would talk to me but he proved to be surprisingly open and friendly. He told me that most of the contents of Nat’s apartment had been auctioned already but there was this storage locker down in Chelsea that had never been opened.
“What you’re looking for might be in there,” he said.
Well, this was like sticking a giant ball of catnip in front of a cat’s nose. I desperately wanted to take a look inside that locker but how? It was a longshot but I told the lawyer I’d be happy to help Nat’s heir go through the files. He said he’d pass along my name and number.
Months went by but incredibly, in May, Nat’s niece finally called me and asked if I wanted to meet her the next day in Chelsea to help clean out the locker. It took me half a second to say ‘yes.’
She said she had taken one quick look inside and had become overwhelmed. “There’s lot of records there and a lot of his old files,” she said. “Some of the filing cabinets are locked so we may have to hire a locksmith.”
I told her I might be able to pick the lock (as I had done in the past when the need arose) and we arranged to meet. She was a very nice woman who, from the start, let me know that she wasn’t all that interested in the contents of the locker. Her priorities were elsewhere and it was a schlep to drive in from the far reaches of Brooklyn, yada, yada.
“Well,” I said, “I’m happy to help.”
I cannot tell you how exciting it was the first time we opened that locker. We had no idea if we’d find hidden treasure or junk. It was very much like the reality television program “Storage Wars” except I wasn’t bidding against anyone else and I could just go in and check it out. The locker was very dusty but that was a good thing — it had not been touched in a very long time.
There were 11 very large boxes of records but they were sealed shut with a lot of heavy duty tape. I had my picking tool but had neglected to bring my knife. The records would have to wait for another day. There were also five large filing cabinets stuffed with files. On top and around the cabinets were assorted master tapes, recordings of live concerts, Nat’s Rolodex and many other odds and ends, like a glass table with brass cobra legs.
We began to go through what we could access, including the two filing cabinets that were not locked and a bunch of other materials that were just loose. It was clear from a cursory search that there were many interesting items in the locker and who knew what was in those locked cabinets and what records were in those boxes?
It turns out that my lock picking skills were not up to the task so we called a locksmith and, while we waited, we poked around. Immediately, I noticed a tape marked “Mahavishnu Orchestra.” There was a lot of material or ephemera from that jazz-rock fusion band that toured during the early ’70s.
Nat’s niece wasn’t interested in any of it so I asked if I could have the Mahavishu tapes, photographs, files, touring book etc. I was never a fan of the band but I knew someone who was. At a grammar school reunion a few years before, a former classmate — a drummer by the name of Ted McCallion — mentioned how much he loved the Mahavishnu Orchestra. He’d even sent me a book about the group: Power, Passion and Beauty-The Story of the Legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra. I knew he’d like to see some of the ephemera that was now sitting in front of me.
With permission, I carried out the concert tape, had it transferred to a DVD and sent it on to my old grammar school buddy. To say he liked it is an understatement — he was over the moon.
The tape was from a long-forgotten west coast television show called Telerock. On the tape were concert performances from The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Beautiful Day (does anyone remember them?) and Taj Mahal. It turns out that there are only six tapes of the The Mahavishnu Orchestra performing live. This was No. 7. In the Maha community (as it’s called), that is a very big deal and the tape will be released Monday on this website.
I was thrilled that I had made someone happy but of course I wanted to know what else was in that locker. It wasn’t so easy to know. It was dark and the locker and cabinets were stuffed and the boxes of records were taped shut. The locksmith had gotten the filing cabinets opened but, even after four hours, we had barely made a dent.
We made a date to meet back there in about a week. And Nat’s niece told me in no uncertain terms that she wanted everything gone by the end of May even if everything got thrown away. It was already mid-May. The clock was ticking, loudly…..(to be continued)