Interview by John Wisniewski
AMFM: Why did you decide to write about the life of John Lennon?
JUDE KESSLER: Simple Answer: I was (and am) a First Gen fan, and in December of 1963, an elementary school friend (Pattie Singer) gave me until recess “to pick a Beatle to fall in love with.” Initially, I picked George, but after some deliberation, I “turned around” (as they say in Liverpool) and chose John. So, I’ve been a Lennon fan for 54 years. That being said, most fans don’t devote 31 years of their lives to writing a 9-volume biography of a rock star, even if he is a genius.
So, the more Complicated Answer kicks in: In college, I got two degrees in three years. One was in English and the other, in History. I went on to get a Master’s in English at The University of Maryland and a Specialists in Research. From early on, I was preparing myself to write an historical narrative about the life of a famous person. In fact, I knew from the time I was 10-years-old that I wanted to be a writer. I had the dream and then “put the foundations under it.”(With a nod to Thoreau)
After college, I married Rande Kessler, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, and we began a lifelong habit of moving every year or so. To date, we’ve been married 39 years and have moved 32 times. (Number 33 is coming up in the next six months.) So, making friends and being involved in community life was not possible; we trekked from Rhode Island to Pennsylvania to Virginia to California to Missouri to Alabama…and never once put down roots. Therefore, I decided to take on a major research and writing project as a way to combat change and loneliness. My work could travel with me wherever I traveled.
In 1986, I decided to research and write a comprehensive historical narrative on the person whom I thought I knew best, John Lennon. (Of course, almost immediately I discovered that I knew nothing about him at all. But more about that in the answer to the next question.) I wanted to tell John’s story in narrative form (like a novel or screenplay) so that people who were not “Beatles fans” per se would be interested, would be attracted to explore his biography. I wanted to tell his story for a larger audience.
Why? Two reasons:
1) John’s story is the story of a child no one wanted and for whom so many people Shoulda Been There (the title of Vol. 1 in the series) but sadly were not. For very complicated reasons, his parents abandoned John by age five. John was placed in the home of his Aunt Mimi and Uncle George Smith, and Mimi – though dutiful – was not a loving surrogate mom. When young John frequently asked her, “Why are you here for me when I come home from school?” she would always answer, “Because it is my duty to do so.” Very fortunately, John did receive love and care from his uncle, but John’s story is, at its core, the story of a child “at sea.” He was the little boy who sang himself to sleep. He was the child who wondered why he had been left behind. And, he was the young teen who vowed that one day he would do something great “to make them all sorry that they didn’t love me.” The John Lennon Series is the true story of the importance of parents and the child’s need for love.
2) John Lennon was the poster child for tenacity in the face of tragedy. John’s abandonment by his parents was only the tip of the tragic iceberg that ripped through his life. Quite briefly, John lost almost every single person he ever loved. When he was only 14, his beloved Uncle George died suddenly, and John was not even allowed to be at the funeral to say goodbye. At that point, his mother (Julia) came back into his life, not as a mother but as a best friend, and the two became inseparable. Constant companions. But just a couple of years later, she was hit by a drunk driver and killed instantly. And John was utterly destroyed. Several years later, when John found a best friend (a soul mate) at Liverpool College of Art, his friend died of a brain hemorrhage. John’s life was filled with grief and bitter, bitter disappointment. And nothing – not fame, power, wealth, drugs, mediation, big homes, new wives, books, a solo career, or even making bread could fill the hole in his heart.
But he never gave up. John pressed on, despite bitter conditions that would have left most people stymied. He achieved incredible things and turned his tragedy into the soundtrack of our lives. That is a story worth telling. That is a powerful, important message to share!
Finally in my list of “Why I Did This,” my husband and I have always had children in our home who are not our children. We have a wonderful son, Cliff, whom we adore. But we also always welcomed others into the fold…children in risky or unhappy circumstances. And John is the child who has lived with us the longest. He has always had a place here.
AMFM: What research went into writing your book?
JUDE KESSLER: In 1986, I had a very modest Lennon library, and I began adding to that library gradually. I now have about 500 books about The Beatles and John Lennon in my home. I have a devoted Lennon room, but the information and collectibles spill out into the whole house.
Early on, I began collecting audio tapes (the only thing available at that time) of rare Beatles and Lennon interviews and radio shows. I collected old periodicals, newspaper clippings…and later CDs, DVDs, and downloads. I put together an extensive Lennon research center in my residence. But all along, I knew that secondary research was not enough.
I knew that in order to write John’s story as a vivid, realistic narrative, I would have to know much more than “the facts.” I would have to be able to make the reader feel as if he or she had actually been in The Grapes or The White Star in Liverpool. I would have to actually have been in John’s high school, Quarrybank. I would have to have sat in his college haunt, Ye Cracke. I would have to have been to Litherland Hall or The Casbah in West Derby. So I began repeatedly traveling to Liverpool (7 times), to London, and to any location in America where John had lived or performed.
Additionally, I began conducting personal interviews with primary sources who had touched John’s life: his uncle, Charlie; his sister, Julia Baird; his college flat mate, Rod Murray; The Beatles first manager, Allan Williams; the DJ at the Cavern Club, Bob Wooler; John’s best friend in art school, Helen Anderson; the life model at art college whom John idolized, June Furlong; professors who taught John such at George Jardine; John’s college mate and the founder of Mersey Beat, Bill Harry; Merseyside promoter, Sam Leach; Beatles Fan Club Secretary, Freda Kelly; NEMS employee and Brian Epstein’s assistant, Beryl Adams; former Beatles, Chas Newby and Pete Best, and on and on. I talked to anyone in Liverpool who knew John and would share his or her stories.
In America, I interviewed Larry Kane and Ivor Davis who traveled with The Beatles on the North American Tour of 1964. I spoke with one of the stewardesses who was on John’s plane for 34 days in America and knew him well. (She does not want me to use her name.) I interviewed countless Baby Boomers who as teens had seen The Beatles in concert and were willing to share stories and photos. And I talked with May Pang, Fred Seaman, and many others who have agreed to help me with the events of John’s later life.
As far as chronicling the things that happened in EMI, I’ve used the transcripts of tapes that were running when The Beatles were recording as faithfully transcribed by my colleague, John C. Winn, and I’ve worked hand-in-hand with Second Engineer, Richard Langham, who reviewed all of my chapters on the recording sessions in both Vols. 2 and 3. Richard is currently working with me on Book 4, and I recently completed an interview with Engineer, Geoff Emerick.
This is just some of the research I’ve undertaken for the book…six days a week since 1986! It’s an ongoing process that consumes my entire life.
To complete the series, I will spend a total of 44 years. Of course, that’s not all I do. On top of writing The John Lennon Series, I speak about John all over the United States. I have been a presenter at university symposiums, The Fest for Beatles Fans, Beatles at the Ridge, and other conventions. I hosted “The John Lennon Hour” radio show for three years, and I write the Fest for Beatles Fans blog bi-monthly. Last year, I chaired the first Beatles Symposium for the GRAMMY Museum of Mississippi, and I have been the Chairperson for the Authors and Artists Symposium for Beatles at the Ridge (Walnut Ridge, AR) for the last five years. It has been a wonderful way to spend a life. I’ve met so many people that I never dreamed I would ever meet!! And learning about John’s life and genius has been an experience I wouldn’t trade for the world.
AMFM: 3. What period in John Lennon’s life did you like best?
JUDE KESSLER: My favorite period in John’s life occurs between 10 December 1961 and 6 February 1964 (the eras covered by Vol. 2 in The John Lennon Series, Shivering Inside and Vol. 3, She Loves You). To my mind, this was the time frame that best revealed John’s character, that best illustrated John’s utter heroism – his strength of spirit which inspired me to spend 44 years researching and writing his life’s story.
On 10 December 1961, Brian Epstein made a loose managerial agreement with four Liverpool lads: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Pete Best. Epstein promised the Merseyside band to make John’s dream of getting to the “toppermost of the poppermost” come true. However, over the next two-and-a-half-years, that vision became a “dream deferred.” Fame eventually came to be – but very slowly and painfully – and in the interim, John and his band experienced setbacks and difficult moments. Sometimes, the wounds inflicted were quite personal.
It was an era in which John could easily have given up and decided that his vision of becoming a famous rock’n’roll star was ludicrous. He had at his disposal (as we all do) the choices of fight or flight. But consistently during those rocky years, John chose to fight. He chose to sacrifice anything and everything to achieve his goal of becoming “Bigger than Elvis.”
Here are just some of the obstacles John endured with grace and equanimity during the days from Dec. 1961-Feb. 1963:
- The Illusive Recording Contract – Securing a recording contract for The Beatles was no easy task for Brian Epstein; for months, he went door-to-door in London, with little success. And, his failure to put The Beatles “on the world stage” was depressing for them all. The boys would be waiting for Brian when he got off the train in Liverpool’s City Centre from “The Smoke.” Time after time, they’d walk around the corner to the local milk bar to hear the bad news and lick their wounds. But at last, in June of 1962, Brian got the boys “an audition” with George Martin at Parlophone, a subsidiary of EMI Records. The rest, as they famously say, is history. All spring long, John had trusted that “No” would not be the final answer to Brian’s pleas, and despite one discouragement after another, John kept plugging away – “wishing, hoping, praying.”
- The Rejection by Capitol Records in the United States – Once he had signed The Beatles to Parlophone (EMI) and realized their considerable talents, producer George Martin approached his U.S. counterparts at Capitol Records to market The Beatles’ music. However, after listening to “Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me,” the boys were summarily rejected by the Americans. Not until late in 1963 did Capitol finally perk up its ears and give the lads a chance. The loss of the American market must have been crushing to John’s ego and his hopes, but he never quit believing that he’d make it…one day.
- George and Paul’s Discontent with Drummer, Pete Best – John and the drummer that The Beatles took to Hamburg, Pete Best, were congenial – good mates. And John was completely content with Best’s work in the band. Paul’s father, however, resented Best’s extreme good looks and his overlarge share of attention from the female fans. And, both Paul and George thought Best only an average technician. So, in the spring of 1962, McCartney and Harrison began a passionate campaign to have Best removed from the group. That summer, George went so far as to visit the mother of another talented drummer, Ringo Starr, to ask if she thought Ringo might want to join The Beatles. Hearing about this, band leader John pushed back, insisting that Best was good enough for him. But when EMI producer George Martin suggested using a studio drummer for The Beatles’ records, the nail was hammered into the proverbial coffin. Paul and George now had the professional backing they needed to move ahead, ousting Best and bringing Ringo Starr into the band. Not only did John lose a friend in the process, but his leadership had, for the first time, been successfully challenged.
- John’s Unexpected Wedding – As John was struggling for control of his group, his long-time girlfriend, Cynthia Powell, announced that she was expecting John’s baby. Without batting an eye or even anticipating “flight,” John immediately suggested that the two of them get married. John loved Cynthia, and although he thought himself “too young” to be married, he wanted to be there for his child, especially since his parents (for complicated reasons) had not been there for him. Brian Epstein was destroyed at the thought of the Leader Beatle being married; similarly, John’s family were so upset that his Aunt Mimi (who had reared him) refused to attend the wedding. But John fought for his girl, Cyn, and for his child. On 23 August 1962, John and Cyn were married. (Paul and George used this opportunity to convince John to have Best released…and at long last, John acquiesced.)
- The Death of Stu Sutcliffe – One of the most traumatic events during this time frame was the unanticipated death of John’s soul mate, Stu Sutcliffe. When The Beatles exited Hamburg after their second tour there, Stu left the band and stayed in Germany to study art under Eduardo Paolozzi. But, physical separation aside, John and Stu remained extremely close. They wrote 14-page letters back and forth to one another, and Stu had visited John in Liverpool in early 1962. The two friends were looking forward to a reunion when The Beatles returned to Hamburg for a lengthy stay in April 1962. Sadly, only one day before John’s long-awaited arrival, Stu suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage and died. Just as John had lost his father figure – his beloved Uncle George – and then his mother, Julia…so now John lost the only friend who truly understood him. It was a crushing blow, a catastrophe that left John inebriated for months. More than any other event in this period, the loss of Stu Sutcliffe could have ended John’s career permanently. But in a valiant rallying effort, he told Stu’s fiancé, Astrid Kirchherr, “Live or die…you decide.” Personally, John decided to live on, to fight, to keep going, for Stu’s sake.
There are so many other events during 1961-early 1963 that threatened to stop John dead in his tracks – the unpredicted violence of Beatlemania, a touring/interviewing/performing schedule that never stopped, the ugly rumors of an affair with Brian Epstein, and John’s loss of freedom and autonomy – but through it all, John remained focused and intent on fulfilling his pledge to his mother, Julia Lennon, to play the “music in his bones.” Unwittingly serving as a role model for all who endure hardships, John elected to turn the pain inside of him into the soundtrack of the 1960s. It was an incredible instance of sheer stamina and courage. I have always been amazed by his strength during this time. Remarkable.