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Ballad of the John and Yoko tapes

A postscript to the apparent end of a long battle over video footage of the ex-Beatle is bittersweet for two New Englanders

By Alex Beam
Globe Staff / February 8, 2011

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Talk about the long and winding road . . .

In 2000, two New England men, John Fallon and Bobby Grenier, paid Yoko Ono’s ex-husband Tony Cox $180,000 for 10 hours of videotape, mostly depicting 29-year-old John Lennon. In the grainy footage from 1969, Lennon discusses ending his heroin habit — though he tokes marijuana — and jokes about spiking Richard Nixon’s tea with LSD, according to people who have seen the tapes. “We had three days of him doing everything except going to the bathroom,’’ Fallon told me.

Why did they buy the footage? Fallon is a professional pile driver who worked on the Big Dig, and Grenier has worked in the movie business as a set rigger. “We didn’t really quite know,’’ Fallon said. “Sure, we wanted to make a buck, of course. But my desire was to show it to the world.’’

What happened is like a 1970s buddy movie gone bad. A business associate stole the tapes, which subsequently resurfaced in the hands of shadowy middlemen. Fallon and Grenier eventually bought back their own property, only to learn that copies of the tapes, and most importantly the copyright, had been sold to Ono, Lennon’s widow. Her lawyers brandished a bill of sale signed by Grenier and Fallon. The signatures were fake. Everybody sued everybody, everywhere, for six or seven years, until Boston District Court Judge Rya Zobel stiffed the duo and assigned the tapes’ copyright to Ono in 2009.

Why am I telling you this now? Because late last month Supreme Judicial Court Justice Francis Spina sanctioned one of the actors in this unholy mess — Lawrence lawyer John Buck, who helped broker the 2002 sale of the tapes to Ono. The SJC’s decision to indefinitely suspend Buck’s law license reported that he “participated in a fraudulent sale of certain videotapes, that he misrepresented his authority in the course of that sale, that he falsely notarized a document containing fraudulent signatures, and that he then made knowingly false statements regarding these activities.’’

A call to Buck’s law office was not returned.

Payback may be sweet, but that’s the only recompense Fallon and Grenier are likely to see from their 11-year-old investment. They have paid thousands of dollars in legal expenses, hired private investigators, and owe much more to the lawyers they have had to retain. They have won at least two monetary judgments against the people who rooked them, but everyone claims to be broke.

In a letter to Spina, Fallon asserts that the litigation has visited untold hardships on himself; on Grenier, who lost his home to foreclosure; and on their now-deceased partner Ray Thomas, who “died last year of an aneurysm in no small part aided and brought on by the stress he was under as leader of our group.’’ The 56-year-old Fallon is in tough shape. He spoke to me by phone from the cardiac unit of Tufts Medical Center, where he hopes to have a heart transplant.

Here is an irony: Fallon and Grenier still have a copy of the tapes, which have never been shown in public. What they don’t own is the copyright, meaning no one can use them in a movie or TV show without Ono’s permission. They could sell the tapes to a wealthy aficionado, for his or her private delectation. “We don’t want to sell them as collectibles,’’ Grenier said. “We want to get our property back.’’

Sign of the times The Great Books are books no longer. For decades after their introduction in 1952, the Great Books of the Western World, assembled by an all-star cast of University of Chicago academics, were available for purchase from their parent company, the Encyclopedia Britannica, for $1,100. No more. Britannica has taken the last of its product off the market, reserving them for its best customers. There are no current plans for another print run. “They sold at a rate of approximately 2,000 sets a years,’’ says Britannica senior vice president Michael Ross. “The question is, what’s the market for the print version?’’

The Great Books are available digitally. Sort of. Nashville-based book distributor Ingram has something called MyiLibrary, a — jargon alert! — “dedicated e-content aggregation platform for public, academic, and professional libraries around the world.’’ Massachusetts libraries do subscribe to MyiLibrary, but they haven’t ponied up for the Great e-Books.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.