As John Meyer recalls, his first meeting with Judy Garland was incredibly bizarre. It was 1968, and Meyer, then a struggling, New York-based composer and musician, was being introduced to Garland by her then-roommate. Meyer was taken into an apartment, and the legendary performer was above him in a sleeping loft.
“Before I even saw her she threw her pantyhose at me,” he says. “And then her bra. If I hadn’t been so manic with anticipation, I would have responded as man to woman and said something appropriately suggestive, yet tasteful. I didn’t realize that romance was on her mind from the beginning.”
So would begin an epic, if fleeting, romance for Meyer with Garland, who was then in debt and virtually homeless. “I felt like I was suddenly swept up in a whirlwind, a tornado, just like Dorothy. And it didn’t let up for eight weeks.”
Meyer says that Garland was then in the throes of quite severe alcoholism and drug addiction. Being in a relationship with her meant going to the pharmacy and lying in order to get her another round of pills. “If you were with Judy, you were going to have to do that on her command. And you were also going to have to keep track of the dosage so she didn’t OD.”
But Meyer says that despite the hard times, Garland was also a helluva lot of fun. “On a day-to-day basis, it was balloons and lemonade. She loved to tell stories, I loved to hear them. She would tell stories about famous people. I loved the anecdotes.”
When Meyer met Garland, she complained of being suffocated by her then-roommate, a gay man called Richard. “Judy loved her gay fans, but this particular fellow was not an attractive specimen. Very flamboyant and lacking in his attention to personal hygiene. He wasn’t very clean and always seemed sweaty. He was always sniffing poppers from an inhaler. His carpet was filthy with dust. When I came along, Judy saw a chance to trade up. I was straight and didn’t smell.”
Meyer has compiled the memories of his time with the chanteuse in a book, Heartbreaker: A Memoir of Judy Garland, which includes a CD of a jam session with Garland and Meyer. For Judy buffs, it’s a real page-turner, recalling the tone of Robert Evans’ book and movie The Kid Stays in the Picture.
Heightening the surrealism of it all is that Meyer was then living with his parents — so the couple had to live with them. Really odd, given Garland’s considerable celebrity. “Judy was broke. She was happy that I could get her a gig singing for $100 a performance. My mom and dad prided themselves on being hip — they weren’t going to fall down just because there was a celebrity in the house. My mom started inviting people we hadn’t seen for years over to the apartment. My dad resented the disruption. She did create a wasteland wherever she landed. I tried to keep it confined to the bedroom, but Pop was particularly annoyed when Judy left the butter out overnight. He eventually asked us to leave.”
Within 24 hours of their first meeting, Garland asked to hear one of Meyer’s compositions. “I took her into the piano bar where I’d been playing so she could sing with me. Reading the lyrics from the printed page, she baptized “I’d Like to Hate Myself in the Morning.” [Shirley Bassey would later make this song famous.] As I’d always idolized the songs of Cole Porter, the Gershwins — the giants of show music — it was as if for a moment I’d suddenly joined their ranks. A total, overwhelming rush. Later, dancing with her, she sang Kurt Weill into my ear. I almost passed out.”
After a torrential eight weeks, Meyer and Garland split. She would have one more relationship, her final marriage, before her fatal 1969 overdose. Some have slammed Meyer for kissing and telling in his book. “Some won’t hear one dark word about Judy. But I tell it exactly as I saw it.”
The story begs for the big-screen treatment, and indeed Meyer has penned a screenplay version. He acknowledges it’s “a long shot,” but he’d like to see Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli play the role if and when it becomes a film.
On Tues, May 11, 6pm, John Meyer will perform and reminisce about Garland at Montreal’s Atwater Library. Tickets are SOLD OUT.