Part two of my interview with Lennon historian Jude Southerland Kessler

JWL As mentioned earlier this month, Jude Southerland Kessler has just released her latest book, She Loves You. It’s the third volume of her expanded biography of John Lennon—well-timed to take advantage of the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first live appearance in the US. Jude’s project should keep her occupied for a while. She’s committed to six more Lennon books over the next twenty years.

Here’s the second half of my interview with Jude.

JOL: The goal of The Beatles, dating back at least to 1961, was to be “bigger than Elvis”—which was pretty outrageous for a band making chump change in small clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg. I know their manager, Brian Epstein, used those words a lot. That phrase was the band’s compass, wasn’t it?

JSK: Well, as you know, John had claimed he’d be “bigger’n Elvis” long before Brian picked up the mantra. John alternated it with his vow to “get to the toppermost of the poppermost.” And it was that yardstick which convinced John to choose Brian as their manager.

JOL: John wanted a professional manager like Brian. But at the same time wasn’t he resistant to Brian’s attempts to make The Beatles too polished?

JSK: At the end of “Shoulda Been There” [ed. note: Jude’s previous book], we see John fretting over Brian’s silver-spoon upbringing. John’s terrified that Brian will try to change the very nature of The Beatles. Paul reminds John that when directly questioned about changing their music, Brian had promised that he would not interfere. In fact, Brian had stated that he was “quite pleased, anyway.” But it’s not the music that John is worried about.

JOL: He was worried that Brian would try to change the band image?

JSK: John is concerned that Brian won’t allow The Beatles to be the leathered, beer-swilling, swearing, unpredictable scruffs that they’ve enjoyed being. And Brian won’t. He trades their Hamburg personas for suits, smiles, and singles. Ultimately, John capitulates. Why? Because his goal has always been to “be bigger’n Elvis,” and Brian Epstein is going to do what it takes get John and his band, The Beatles, there.

JOL: So John’s ambition trumps his concern about the band selling out.

JSK: In “She Loves You,” the beat goes on. John allows Brian to book them on The Royal Command Performance, despite his resentment at being “dancing bears” for the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. He even agrees to go to the Embassy Party after the Washington, D.C. concert (a party which ends disastrously). John does what he needs to do in order to achieve his goal. But for John, the concession was always bittersweet.

JOL: Where should people buy your book?

JSK: Right now, “She Loves You” is only for sale on my website, http://www.johnlennonseries.com.

This is a terrific illustration of a point I love to underscore on these cyber-pages: that great business teams (and of course great bands) put a premium on setting and achieving audacious, ambitious, bold, daring, gutsy goals. The kind of slap-in-the-face objectives that REQUIRE team members to do things differently to achieve them. Like Amazon Kindle’s vision: “Every book, ever printed, in any language, all available in less than 60 seconds.” That gets your attention.

For the first half of my interview with Jude Southerland Kessler, check here.

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13 Responses to Part two of my interview with Lennon historian Jude Southerland Kessler

  1. gary February 26, 2014 at 21:44 #

    i guess i’ll finally have to buy the book. no amazon?

    the lesson i’m getting here is you have to be a cocky sob to make it to the top.

  2. John G. O'Leary February 26, 2014 at 21:57 #

    Yeah, no Amazon. Just buy it, dude. You won’t regret it.

    Lennon was a cocky s.o.b. but from reading Jude’s books you get a sense of why/how he constructed that persona. He was dumped by his dad and mom and raised by his aunt. His mom later died just when John was getting to know her. Then his step dad died. Then his best friend and band mate Stu Sutcliffe died of a brain hemorrhage. Everyone close to John abandoned him or died on him. After that he channeled his rage into his music and decided he was going to show everyone. (Fortunately, he was also a genius, so he could pull it off.)

    • Ed Sullivan February 27, 2014 at 09:53 #

      Agree completely, John.

      Lennon may have walked around with a big chip on his shoulder (from the reasons you just stated), and I’m sure people around him learned how to avoid feeling the brunt of that, but he had so much else going on (talent, brains, personal fortitude, etc.) that he could readily turn his bad attitude into something extremely productive and artistic. A truly complex and fascinating individual.

      • John G. O'Leary February 27, 2014 at 11:13 #

        YES!! He learned early how to turn lemons into lemonade. Knowing what we know about Lennon now (from his interview with Rolling Stone after he went through primal therapy, from the books and bios, etc.) isn’t it amazing The Beatles were so positive in their music and outlook, especially in their early years?

        A lot of my musician friends were turned OFF to them at the time because they were SO ebullient and uplifting. Many teens turned to the Stones because the Fabs were considered TOO happy-happy. And their song content (up until 1965) was almost always upbeat. Even a sad song was delivered with hope and good cheer.

        Even later in their career, that buoyant optimism was still part of the Beatle brand as evidenced in Abbey Road.

        How could that happen when the band leader (at least in the beginning) was dealing with so many demons? And, yes—as Jude Kessler thoroughly documents in her three books—friends and colleagues learned how to avoid Lennon’s wrath. Even the other Beatles recognized that he was a black hole much of the time (and understandably so, given the circumstances of his youth).

        Gotta blog some more on this. Thanks for the reminder.

        • Ed Sullivan February 27, 2014 at 15:13 #

          Good point, about the Stones.

          I think we have to factor-in a definite amount of Paul McCartney, when inspecting the recipe for “happy”. His (New York) Ed Sullivan appearance was over-the-top, in contrast to John’s. The Miami effort was a better balance between all, probably because of the rest & recreation (sunshine & food!) and John had a new guitar to show-off.

          Brian wanted them to smile more. Psychologists know that the effort, alone, makes one feel better inside. George was fairly ebullient early-on, before he became jaded and traumatized by the madness. And, for someone who had such a miserable childhood, Ringo also seemed really upbeat (pun, sorry).

          By the way, Ringo’s performance at the Washington, D.C. in-the-round concert was simply astounding! In that 30 minutes, Ringo unequivocally defined the role of the rock drummer for all eternity, proving that he was not only the most important rock drummer of all time, but possibly the most important musician in that band! Their recordings also lend support to this argument. Well… they sucked on the Bert Kaempfert and Decca demo tapes… but then…

          • John G. O'Leary February 27, 2014 at 18:35 #

            Wow, couldn’t agree more on all three points. Yeah, McCartney was the emotional opposite of Lennon. And he was in his element on that TV appearance. Yet I still wonder why Lennon’s off-stage presence (which was seldom upbeat and often mercurial) didn’t bring down the band more. I guess we need to give more credit to Epstein — as well as McCartney, who was the band’s salesman.

            When I first heard some live tunes from the DC performance I was stunned. That may have been the most fiery performance of Ringo’s that’s ever been captured on video or tape. (When he was on, the band was always on.) Ringo got me playing R&R drums for 20 years (until I moved onto keyboard & guitar). It took me years to figure out his drum rolls tho. As a leftie, he usually began a roll or fill with his left hand and ended on his right, whereas most drummers begin and end on the right hand.

    • Ed Sullivan February 27, 2014 at 13:05 #

      John; I wanted to mention something else that has been bothering me during this 50th anniversary time.

      I have been scrutinizing the first American visit from all available footage, and it seems to me that John Lennon was not a really happy camper, or at least a bit subdued in almost every performance and situation during that week. I believe part of his problem could have been his eyesight or perhaps having his wife there, but I get the impression that he felt out of his element or possibly felt that he was losing control, while the others were embracing the moment(s), especially Paul and Ringo (George may have been run-down from lack of sleep but definitely not ill, as his sister has defined the myth, and not subdued at all).

      Maybe Brian told him to be on his best behavior, which would have stifled the famous Lennon cockiness and tom-foolery attitude except for one or two moments, like the first airport press conference, and in less public settings (on the train). It could have been nervous energy that had no outlet or lack of focus, or John may have been so worried they would fail in America that the opposite reality was too overwhelming to digest all at once. He seemed barely tolerant and impatient or slightly put-off in the hotel room, with Murry Kaufman and everybody buzzing around him intensely. He got plastered and pie-eyed at his table in the Peppermint Lounge while everybody else was dancing and cavorting with wild abandon. Songs with his lead vocal – T&S, PPM, and This Boy – were good, but the rest of the time he appeared to be “an Extra in his own Film”.

      It may have been a temporary condition, but it looked to me like, at that moment in time when his loftiest goals had been achieved, the confident leader and founder of The Beatles had been unintentionally and inadvertently set-aside, now unsure and directionless.

      • John G. O'Leary February 28, 2014 at 14:01 #

        That would be interesting to look into. I’m guessing a lot of it was being “an Extra in his own Film.” As early as July 1963 John was fretting about losing control of the band partly because “She Loves You” was about to become their biggest hit ever in the UK (which, contrary to public perception, was mostly Paul’s song). John had recently gone on a trip with Brian Epstein to make it clear to Brian that it was John’s band and that the songwriting credits would be “Lennon-McCartney.” But in the studio it was becoming clear to George Martin that Paul was John’s equal. And 6 months later, to the new American audience, this was a band of equals. (Even Ringo received his share of adulation for the first time.)

      • Trina March 2, 2014 at 16:08 #

        You’re right. I always thought John looked very subdued during the Ed Sullivan shows, but I believe it was for a different reason — he was terrified! Lennon has admiitted that he had terrible stage fright and would vomit before going onstage. I think these first US TV appearances were terrifying to him. That is why you can barely hear him singing especially on the first Ed Sullivan appearance. It’s from his nerves! Thank God for Paul. Paul has the showman type of personality that John didn’t have. That’s why they were such good compliments to each other. I’ve also noticed that Paul almost always introduced the songs at their concerts.

        Also, I’m surprised to hear you say George wasn’t sick. What did Louise say about that? There’s lots of photos of him in bed in the hotel.

        • John G. O'Leary March 4, 2014 at 01:20 #

          Nice website, Trina!

  3. Joel D Canfield February 27, 2014 at 12:01 #

    My copy arrived a few days ago. Both of the mailmen who delivered it asked me to order smaller books in future.

    Harry Nilsson did the same thing: much misery turned into some of the happiest music ever recorded (though of course he and John also recorded some massive pain as well.)

    • John G. O'Leary March 1, 2014 at 20:03 #

      Even the eBook version is heavy. Strange…

  4. Nick March 3, 2014 at 23:58 #

    Hey John!!
    Enjoyed reading this. I remember seeing Lennon saying this back then. The Amazon promo would go over nice now….”All songs written and recorded by us in just one language (the language of music) available to you within seconds on our site!!”

    :-)

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