Thanks Randy for the nomodeset flag suggestion. It didn't work. The laptop couldn't complete booting and just hung.
Thanks birdmun for the links. Combed through and tried everything I could but couldn't add any other modes in xrandr. I think the commands need to be in a script but that's beyond my ability in linux now. Entering commands one at a time - I just couldn't get past the "gamma" error. Was getting frustrated and gave up. Tried to boot a live Linux Lite and had the same problem. The laptop would just suspend every 20-30 secs and I had to press the power button to wake it up each time. It was ridiculous. Turn acpi off stopped it but the display was stuck at 1024x768 as the only mode. Would live with it except that the aspect ratio was not correct for the widescreen lcd.
Google more and more and found this and it worked! I'm happy it's solved - mostly cos apparently it's kinda a workaround setting "HandleSuspendKey" and "HandleLidSwitch" to ignore in the logind.conf file. Thanks all.