It was, looking back, a stretch for the Weekly, something better suited to the National Enquirer. But it struck me as a good idea at the time, and after hearing a tape I brought in of a man named Bill Tinuto supposedly channeling Lennon, the paper's founding editor, Jay Levin, seemed to like the idea too. I saw Levin's big grin and knew it had a chance, despite his first comment. "Our credibility is on the line here," he said. "I'm trying to get the public to buy our reports from El Salvador. Printing interviews with dead guys ain't gonna help."
I agreed, explaining that this was not a story I had investigated, but one I simply stumbled across. I brought it to him not necessarily because I thought he should print it, but because I knew he would dig it. Maybe he saw it as an actual news story. Maybe he thought John Lennon was really giving us a message from beyond. Maybe he was just out of his goddamn mind. "I'll print it," he said, "but only if you do the transcription, write the intro and take full responsibility."
That I did, and that I do. Why was I willing to do so for a piece that did as much to jeopardize the paper's reputation as anything it ever ran? Because of the source.
Lieutenant Colonel Jim Channon was the Pentagon's technical adviser to Hollywood. He read scripts and met with producers in order to consider whether the Pentagon would bless a project and give support, which could include loans of equipment and permission to shoot on government locations.
I'd met Channon some years earlier while writing a Weekly cover story on how the Pentagon was busy preparing plans for the world just in case peace broke out. The plans were laid out in a document called the "First Earth Battalion Manual." Channon was not your typical military man. He personified a type described in his "Earth Battalion Manual" as a "Warrior Monk" and was dressed, the first time I met him, as a cross between Robin Hood and Obi-Wan Kenobi. He once described his army assignment to the Washington Post as that of a "one-man patrol going out to the far-flung, more esoteric domains. I gathered everything that was there and brought it back like a reconnaissance team would." The Pentagon, he told me back then, was extensively investigating alternate states of consciousness. Control the state of consciousness of your enemy and he is yours, went the theory. This investigation was ongoing, well financed and had achieved varying degrees of success. He claimed there was a meditation room in the Pentagon and that generals were going off for training in out-of-body experiences.
When Channon called me in the fall of '85, having by then left the army, and suggested we get together, I jumped in my car and headed off to meet him and his friends.
We met at someone's apartment in the Valley. Don't ask me who or where, or I'll have to kill you. This person had something for us to try, something he billed as a group mind drug with profound psychological and spiritual effects. Take it alone, he said, and you experience a uniquely pleasurable high, like weak LSD with a hint of peyote. But take it with a group and something like a group mind emerges. He described it as an empathic drug that induced a sort of astral projection among groups, who would then share emotional reactions while communicating with the cosmos and each other. (Variations of this drug eventually made it to the street, where it was called Ecstasy.) Did we want to give it a go?
He then brought out six large white pills which we took together. Half an hour later, most of us were on a remarkable spiritual sojourn. The drug came in waves. You would feel normal, then suddenly skyrocket higher and higher toward orgasmic bliss, then gravity would coast you back to Earth. The most remarkable thing was how it worked on all of us simultaneously. We would look at each other, going "Whoa" as we all went up together, then "Aaah" as we glided back down. It was like a cosmic amusement-park ride.
Later on, Channon asked Chuck Alton, a DJ at U.S. Radio, to play a tape he'd made of a guy named Bill Tinuto. He explained that there was this new thing called "channeling," where people turn off their egos and become pure cosmic radio receivers for any spirits that might be broadcasting nearby. Some people tune in better than others. This type of extrasensory perception was part of the ongoing Pentagon research. A soldier who could pick up messages without a radio would certainly be useful. This tape was an example of how it could work. He started it.
At first, it was just two normal guys having a chat. Alton asked Tinuto how long he had been channeling John Lennon, and Tinuto said since about a month after he died. Then, in the middle of a sentence, he became unintelligible and then asked, "John?" All of a sudden, the voice of John Lennon was coming from the tape. "Hello. Just a minute . . . because I'm not quite with you. Just sort of pushing, pushing it through right now. But I'll be with you in a moment. All right then, I'm settling in . . . In the meantime, what's going on . . . I mean what's happening? Where are we and what's happening?" We all laughed hysterically. It seemed so mundane.
Alton proceeded to ask Lennon questions, not stupid ones like, "Who was the walrus?" but things like how it felt to be dead. Lennon was "damn upset about it," the Liverpudlian voice said, "because I didn't want to leave my body, not when it happened. It pissed me off is what it did. You can't imagine the abruptness, the sudden surprise of being shot like that by somebody who I thought wanted my autograph. It wasn't as painful physically as you might think it would be, but emotionally it gave me a devil of a time because I did not want to let go of my body."
I don't know if we actually believed what we were hearing, but we were certainly enjoying it. Lennon's descriptions of what it's like to be dead were touching and seemed to us to be full of cosmic information that Tinuto couldn't know unless he really was in touch with something outside of his body.
The tape ended, and Channon brought out another challenge. We would channel a composer and write a piece of music together. He brought out a touch-sensitive electronic keyboard, and, as I was the only musician in the room, led me to it. I started playing. A symphony poured out, based on a 14-note theme that resonated with heartfelt longing. I don't know where it came from. I played variation after variation, then stopped and turned around. The others in the room were gathered behind me with tears in their eyes. I know it sounds strange, but I believed that we had all channeled/composed this piece of music together, and that it just happened to have been my fingers that did the work.
After I played Jay the Lennon interview, I played him the tape of our symphony. Channeling must be real, I reasoned, or I could never have instantly composed such a complex and beautiful piece of music. The symphony sold the article. I'm not embarrassed at all. John Lennon is still dead, and Jim Channon isn't president of the United States. Too bad.