My interview with John Lennon biographer, Jude Southerland Kessler: part one.

How's this for dedication? You spend two decades doing research for an extended biography of John Lennon, then plan to spend two more decades writing it—in nine volumes!

That's been Jude Southerland Kessler's project. And if that's not audacious enough, you decide to make the books historical novels (sort of), full of anecdotes by Lennon and the Beatles—most of which are so well documented that it can't really be called fiction. In fact it defies categorization.

Well, two of the volumes are available, so you can decide for yourself what they are: Shoulda Been There (2008) and Shivering Inside (2010), covering Lennon's life up through April, 1963. (The latter is simply the most compelling Beatles book I've ever read.)

Here's the first half of my interview with Jude, edited for blog brevity.

JOL: What's the term of art for your kind of book?

JK: An expanded or augmented biography.

JOL: It's meticulously researched. When do you expect to be complete [with the entire suite of Lennon volumes]?

JK: I've story-boarded it out. It should be twenty-one more years. It has taken twenty-six years up until now, so we're looking at forty-seven years for the whole project.

JOL: Maybe you could set the bar higher for your next project? Hey, one of the things that amazes me about the Beatles is their prodigious creativity. Where do you think that came from?

JK: I think that's something you're born with, that's a gift you're given… They had no musical training, they had no formal education, so they were free to break the rules.

JOL: Even before their manager Brian Epstein came along, they actually had a very distinct brand. It wasn't the moptops in suits yet, but they had something very distinct when they came back from Hamburg in December 1960. How did that happen?

JK: At first they were not distinct. When they go to the Empire Theatre to compete in an audition they're horrible… and John is humiliated because when they go up on stage they stand there like stick figures. And he watched Nicky Cuff and the Sunnyside Skiffle Group [go crazy on stage and win the talent contest]. John told the band: 'No more. We're going to put on a show. We're going to do strange things.' And he followed up in Hamburg [by having the Beatles put on wild performances]. So they learned to be different.

JOL: And there was the artistic sensibility via Stu Sutcliffe [the Beatles' first bassist] and John to have a different appearance as well.

JK: John's an artist. Stu's an artist. They're not just thinking about what they're doing as rock & roll. They're thinking about it as a creation, as art for the ear. John modeled himself after these people who were artsy, out of the box, like Julia [his mother]. And that's what the Beatles became.

Ah, one can only wish that more individuals, teams, and businesses would be thinking what they could be doing to stand out from the pack—as Jude Southerland Kessler herself is doing, with her nine volumes on John Lennon.

[Read my follow-up interview with Jude here.]

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  1. You have got to be kidding! 2 decades of research? I like John Lennon and all, but 47 years???

    Interesting to hear about Stu Sutcliffe, the forgotten man. Didn't know Lennon's mother was artistic, but it figures.

    The businesses that dare to stand out are usually the ones still standing in the end.

  2. Yeah, 47 years is a pretty impressive commitment. It's more than two Eddie Cochran lifetimes — or nearly two James Dean lifetimes. And 9 volumes is a mind-blower! (This one book I'm writing is taking me almost 47 years.)

    Stu Sutcliffe is a major character in both of Jude's books. John never got over Stu's death in 1962. Julia Lennon's influence on John is covered as well. Though John was raised by his aunt Mimi, Julia was the major inspiration for his life.

    Yeah, my feeling is if you're not going to offer something distinct, why be a band or a business?

  3. A 47 year book project about a dude who lived only 40 years. That's amazing by itself. The Beatles were an exceptional band but I don't remember them being that wild as performers. There were other bands of that time who put on a better show, like the Stones. But the Beatles were the biggest. And they had the songs...
    - cc

  4. CC, the Beatles WERE wild in their early days, especially in Hamburg. They were louder, tougher, and raunchier than any of the competition before Brian Epstein took over management and "cleaned them up." That was when Pete Best was on drums, with a cannon of a bass drum. Lennon often reminisced about the good old days when they were the baddest rock band around.



  7. Thanks yet again for bringing these great stories out for the rest of us to learn from. Jude is an inspiration for the persistence business leaders need to continue researching and "writing" (creating) for their "readers" (customers). And the Beatles were masters at differentiating in ways their fans appreciated.

  8. Paul, lots of bands have relocated some or all of their operation for tax purposes. U2 created some controversy for moving their publishing company from Ireland to Holland a few years back. The Stones have been there for decades, though nobody seems to have noticed. Holland doesn't charge corporate tax on royalty income so it's quite a magnet for entertainment businesses. (In fact I may have to move my operation to Amsterdam any day now.) Afscheid!

  9. Thanks, RB. If you want to know how Lennon's upbringing shaped him, buy "Shoulda Been There." If you want to get an inside glimpse of Lennon's life as the Fab Four begin to take over England, buy "Shivering Inside."

  10. Impressive commitment to a project on her part, and we are all better for it. My understandingis that all four Beatles were/are vegetarian, which I admire for health, environment and animal rights reasons, but I have also observed that vegetarians also tend to show a great deal of creativity.

    Great book, great blog!

    David L. Kagan

  11. David, I think George was vegan, and I think Paul is either vegan or vegetarian, but didn't know that about John or Ringo. John went through a macrobiotic phase in the early 70s but I don't know if he kept up with it. As much as I admire veganism (for health, humanitarian, and environmental reasons) I doubt the Beatles were eating that way during their creative peak (say, between 1965 & 1968). Maybe Jude would know.

  12. All that artsy/creative performance art shtick is all very nice, but the lads agreed to dress up like fuckin butlers as Beatles under the thumb of Epstein. That was hardly "artsy". Nor was "Til There Was You" with the cha-cha-cha ending. Pure commercial crap (though beautifully sung and performed).

    There's a breakdown there during the nancy-boy Epstein cleanup of the Beatles from punks to prisses between iconoclasm and the Beatles agreeing to be a generic clockwork orange product. And that's an interesting dichotomy since it was necessary to launch them. The Hamburg Hoods were going nowhere, man.

  13. I always enjoy your uplifting comments, Ken. But how quickly we forget. In January 1964 the Beatles — even in suits — were the most radical thing to grace the entertainment airwaves. (Presley shook up the establishment with his pelvic gyrations in the 50s but his basic appearance didn't shock the world.) The Beatles' hair alone was seen as a cultural threat. (They were FRONT PAGE news in the major metro papers in early '64, which hasn't happened since for a pop music act.) So their look was VERY outside the box (yes, "artsy") by American standards. Epstein had to balance it off with the suits (but even then the tight pants and boots were considered rad).

    Meanwhile they broke new ground on the charts starting with Please Please Me: bluesy harmonica, modal harmonies, suggestive lyrics. Remember they cut this in November, 1962!! This is BEFORE Leslie Gore, the Singing Nun, etc. Yes, they balanced off "Twist & Shout," "You Really Got a Hold of Me," "Money," etc. with "Til There Was You" but it was an acceptable tradeoff because it won them an international audience.

    It's fun to think what might have happened if they found a different manager and stuck to the tough image & loud, raunchy R&R. They might have actually become an influential Brit band, but they wouldn't have changed the future of popular music.

  14. Does there comes a point where dedication becomes obsession? Is this an augmented biography or posthumous stalking?

  15. You know, the most under-analyzed aspect of the Beatles by far is their actual musicianship. When did McCartney and Lennon learn to play the piano??? Hell if I know. Did George practice? Have teachers? How did Lennon & McCartney write songs? On guitar or piano? And who did their arrangements? I mean, we know Martin did most of that, but these are aspects almost never discussed, it's all taken as deus ex machina when in reality, these guys were just musicians struggling with learning better chords and getting better chops same as everybody else in the field.

    And the whole George as third wheel thing is mentioned in passing in books, but it was a pretty big deal in the band, and by the time you see him in "Let It Be" George had become endlessly sarcastic and bitter about the way he was being treated as a bloody sideman.

  16. Ken, good questions. Some of what you asked is covered pretty well in the deeper Beatles lit (and Jude Kessler's books are a treasure trove for this). Paul had a piano in his home growing up and apparently took a few lessons. In fact, he wrote "When I'm 64" on piano while still living with his father. He played a lot of piano (as well as guitar) with the early Beatles (e.g. in Hamburg) while Stu Sutcliffe played bass. And he took formal piano lessons later when he was living with Jane Asher in London. Lennon used piano mainly as a songwriting tool in the early days. ("I Want to Hold Your Hand" was partially written on piano, for instance.)

    I'm not sure how George originally learned guitar, but he took lessons from Tony Sheridan when the Beatles were in Hamburg. He was known to practice his parts for hours in the studio during the "middle years."

    Lennon-McCartney wrote on guitar AND piano — depending on what was around. On tour it had to be guitar mostly, but at home they used piano too.

    The arrangements were mostly Lennon-McCartney-Harrison until they started to record with George Martin, who added his ideas. (Of course the classical arrangements were heavily Martin-influenced).

    Yeah, George Harrison started to disconnect during the Pepper recordings and even more later. By the time of the White Album, the writer of the song took control and used the other Beatles mainly as backup musicians, so Harrison felt further left out by then, because John & especially Paul were cranking out the songs in the studio.

  17. Creativity can be taught -- and learned. Granted: some of us have a predisposition for creativity -- but it's an oversimplification to say it's just "something you're born with". Didn't Lennon attend art school? Wasn't McCartney heavily exposed to music as the son of a professional musician? Environmental factors surely played a role in the Beatles' inventiveness.

  18. A fair point, shivra. Lennon (and original bassist Stu Sutcliffe) studied at the Liverpool College of Art and McCartney's dad played trumpet and piano (part-time) in a working band. I do believe creativity can be taught (and have conducted workshops to encourage team and organizational creativity) though some individuals clearly have a head start in that regard.

    In the Beatles' case there was an external "business imperative" for them to be creative: they realized when performing shows with several other bands at the Cavern Club and elsewhere that all the bands were performing the very same American rock & roll songs (by Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, etc.). They realized that they could put on a performance that was wilder than the competition (which they eventually learned to do), they could invent their own image (initially with leather jackets and long hair, later with suits & mop-top haircuts), and—most importantly—they could also create their own material, which they began to focus on with their Lennon-McCartney compositions. In the following years, there were other bands that could "out peform" them in concert but nobody could "out innovate" them in the recording studio.

  19. Yeah, I just read the old Goldman book on Lennon and have the Beatles Studio Book I think. About the sessions and all, also quite old. I should read those Kesslers when I get the chance. Wonder when Lennon first picked up piano? You know, it's a real shame we never got to see George playing slide and all those amazing distorted leads he played on the later Beatles albums since they stopped touring. It would really have changed his image. I guess he did all that stuff on his own personal tours but his songs were so weak and fruity. Though I did really enjoy the GH tribute concert--beautifully recorded and played with stellar cast.If you missed that, a must see.

  20. Ken, I wouldn't put much stock in Goldman's bios of anyone. He has a well earned reputation as a biographical hit man with a tabloid approach to facts. But fortunately there is no dearth of well-researched books on Lennon and the boys. For starters, Ray Coleman's books on Lennon are solid; Spitz's book, "The Beatles," is a classic (though knowledgeable Beatlephiles like to pick it apart for minor inaccuracies), and Jude Kessler's two volumes (so far) on Lennon are must-reads. The second one, "Shivering Inside," (which focuses on 1962 and early 1963 when they were just about to explode in England) I especially recommend. One of my personal faves is "Beatlesongs" by William Dowlding which breaks down who wrote which part of which song.

    Scorsese's upcoming documentary on George should be interesting. He was coming into his own as a songwriter in the final Beatle years. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" was certainly one of the highlights of the White Album and his two contributions to Abbey Road ("Something" and "Here Comes the Sun") were as strong as any of the Lennon-McCartney tracks. Yeah, the tribute concert was well done.

  21. Yeah, I seem to remember hearing the Goldman book was highly suspect.
    That Beatlesongs sounds like a good read in particular. Since Lennon has been done to death and there's so much not to like in the later years, the George doc sounds fascinating. BTW, ever see the Lennon doc where he talks a long time to the crazy stalker guy he found inside his grounds? Pretty interesting.

  22. Yeah, Ken, I saw Lennon doing that. The guy paid the ultimate price for being available to his customers.

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