Nate Hendley was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to talk to us about his new book, John Lennon: Music, Myth & Madness. The biography of Lennon is a quick, concise and informative overview of the legendary pop musician, and was released October 1, 2012.
Q: Given you’ve written a book about John Lennon, I’m going to take a chance and suggest you were likely a huge Beatles, but more particularly a John Lennon fan.
NH: I definitely grew up on the Beatles. I was born in ’66, just as the Beatles were reaching the zenith of their early career. Some of my earliest memories involve hearing Beatle songs on my parent’s stereo, particularly tunes from Yellow Submarine and Rubber Soul. I recall watching the Yellow Submarine cartoon on TV when I was about seven, and getting really upset because the song Nowhere Man seemed so sad. That was a John song, so obviously his tunes were getting to me already.
Unlike a lot of bands I listened to as a kid or a teenager, I still listen to the Beatles and love their music. Their songs don’t grow stale or mouldy on you. Plus, their output was so prodigious they have a gigantic collection of great tunes to choose from. It’s not like they had one hit song and coasted on their rep for years after. On top of writing dozens of amazing songs, they were constantly reinventing themselves and trying new approaches and new sounds in the studio. So, you can latch onto different phases of their career: a person might love their early, bubble-gum pop tunes and hate their later, more experimental songs or vice-versa. You might love Sergeant Pepper but have no time for The White Album. It’s pretty hard to find another band so beloved by such a wide demographic. Grandparents and little kids alike love the Beatles.
From a technical perspective, the Beatles put a huge amount of time into their later songs, so there’s always something new when you listen to them. I can put on the Abbey Road album, for example, and hear things that I’ve missed, even though I’ve played the songs countless times.
As for solo stuff, John put out the single best solo album (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band) but was a bit uneven on later releases.
I always found John the most interesting of the Beatles, perhaps because he was so quotable and quick-witted.
Q: What in particular inspired you to write about John Lennon? What was it about Lennon as an individual or a musician?
NH: My primary attraction to John is the fact he was a brilliant song-writer. While I admire some of the social causes he championed (it’s pretty hard to oppose world peace, after all), I am mostly interested in his music and words, particularly in his peak years, from around 1966 – 1971. As a guitar player, I find it fascinating to decode some of John’s songs, and discover “A-ha! That’s how the song is played.”
In the Beatles, John generally played rhythm guitar while George played lead. In other words, John played chords while George did the solos and additional riffs. I could relate, as I too played rhythm guitar in bands when I was growing up. I admired the fact that even though a lot of his playing was pretty simple, John knew how to make a song rock or weep, depending on the lyrics and tone. He was definitely a bandleader and as much of a front-man as Paul. If you watch clips of the Beatles playing, John definitely is out front and centre on his own tunes, calling the shots and leading the band, even if he wasn’t technically the greatest guitar player in the world.
Q: When researching for the novel, were you already familiar with much of the canon of Lennon and Beatles history, or did you have moments of surprise? If so, what were they?
NH: Well, I discovered that many Beatle biographies contain factually incorrect details. John was not born in the midst of a vicious German bombing raid on Liverpool, in World War Two. That’s a detail that was apparently embellished by his Aunt Mimi, who raised him. While it’s true that Liverpool was bombed by the Germans, they weren’t dropping explosives on the day John came into existence.
There were a few ‘music geek’ moments of surprise too. I didn’t know that John, for example, sang a version of the song Get Back or that he was always miffed that Paul wouldn’t let him sing, Oh, Darling on the Abbey Road album. I also uncovered a great lost John song called Child of Nature. He wrote this while in India in ’68 and presented it to the rest of the band when they regrouped back in the UK. They held a meeting at which each member unveiled the tunes they had been working on. They were sort of auditioning songs for their next album. By group decision, it was decided to nix Child of Nature because Paul had a tune called Mother Nature’s Son and the Beatles were afraid the titles and words seemed too similar. Kind of a stupid decision in my opinion, but I wasn’t there. Anyway, John later used the music for Child of Nature as the basis for a solo song called Jealous Guy. Now, Jealous Guy is a great song, but I still like Child of Nature better. You can hear demos of Child of Nature on YouTube.
I also did not know that the Beatles attempted a version of I Want You (She’s so Heavy) during the brief roof-top concert that capped the Let it Be movie. Apparently, they tried to play it and gave up. I’ve never heard a bootleg containing this valiant effort but am still looking.
Q: There are very divided camps as to whether McCartney or Lennon was the true genius behind the Beatles’ enduring musical legacy. What’s your take?
NH: I think they both could make the claim. John’s genius lay in individual song writing while Paul was more of a big picture kind of guy. For example, the Sergeant Pepper album was all Paul’s idea, but John wrote the best song for it (which never actually appeared on the album), namely Strawberry Fields Forever. Likewise, the Magical Mystery Tourfilm was Paul’s concept but the standout song is I Am the Walrus by John.
Interestingly enough, John and Paul kind of acknowledged their different approaches on the Beatles’ final studio album, Abbey Road. John wanted to emphasize straight-ahead, rock ‘n roll song-writing and individual tunes, while Paul came up with the idea of combining a bunch of short tunes into a clever medley complete with orchestra. So, side one was sort of masterminded by John, while side two was masterminded by Paul.
Then there’s simply John’s voice, which is magnificent. Paul had a greater range, but no one could do angst like John. When you hear a song like Don’t Let Me Down you almost picture him on his knees imploring his lover not to cast him aside. John could also sound angry as hell. Listen to Gimme Some Truthfrom his Imagine solo album. He’s just pouring out his scorn for the Richard Nixon presidency in the U.S. None of the other Beatles could match John for sheer, intense musical rage.
Q: How do you feel about the statement it was Yoko Ono who was responsible for the tearing apart of the Beatles?
NH: It’s too simple just to blame Yoko, but she was a very disruptive presence. The Beatles had a strict, ‘no girlfriends or wives in the studio’ rule. John broke that rule during the making of the Let it Be film and album and brought Yoko in. Yoko considered herself quite the artist and singer, and didn’t hesitate to give her suggestions to the boys, who, John aside, didn’t really appreciate her input.
John always seemed to need a strong parental figure in his life. Growing up, this figure was his Aunt Mimi, the no-nonsense relative who raised him. When the Beatles got going, Paul became the parental figure—kind of leading him along, and chastising and praising when necessary. When manager Brian Epstein came onto the scene, he took up the parental mantle. Brian died in ’67 and by that point, John didn’t want to be bossed around by Paul any more (although ironically he still deferred to a lot of his creative ideas). So Yoko came into John’s life just as there was a vacancy for a strong authority figure.
Yoko had a huge influence on John—for the worse. Anyone who doesn’t believe that should look up some of John’s solo clips from the 1970s on YouTube. Whether it’s playing for TV shows or doing a concert, John let Yoko constantly interrupt whatever music he was up to with her uber-annoying screeches and howls.
There’s a live concert film of John’s solo show at a Toronto rock festival in September 1969. John is playing with a pickup band that includes Eric Clapton on lead guitar. They tear into a bunch of classic rockers from the 1950s as well as a couple John tunes like Yer Blues and Give Peace a Chance. The sound is pretty rough, because they band hadn’t rehearsed, but it’s still great and everyone in the audience is going nuts. Then Yoko pops out and takes over the stage. She begins screeching her head off and doing all these weird vocal gymnastics as the band just wails away. There is no polite way to say this: she’s just awful. You hear people heckling her and booing on the soundtrack. Listening to Yoko ‘sing’ is like having teeth pulled without novocaine.
Q: It could be argued that Lennon was among the first international social rights celebrity activists. Would you say that’s true?
NH: I would say it’s true though you have to separate his political actions from his songs. While he wrote some brilliant socially aware tunes like Give Peace a Chance and of course, Imagine, some of his real-life political shenanigans were pretty embarrassing. I mean, lounging for peace in a hotel bed for a week isn’t quite up there with Ghandi defying the British army.
John could also occasionally trip up in his song-writing. He did an album in 1972 called Some Time in New York City that’s just unlistenable. He covers just every trendy cause going and for once, his social conscience stood out more than the music. John was much better when he stuck to generalities and concentrated on the music and singing. This is why Imagine is such a powerful song. The lyrics are kind of vague and dreamlike, but that’s actually a bonus because it doesn’t date the song with period-specific references along the lines of “Imagine there’s no war in Vietnam…”
Q: Your most memorable Beatle moment is?
NH: A recent memory. Visiting the Strawberry Fields memorial in Central Park in New York City in spring 2012 with my girlfriend, Jeanne. It’s a very simple but beautiful spot. There was a guy there playing John’s songs on guitar when we visited. It was very poignant and I think John himself would have been pleased to see his music and work being remembered in such a manner. For once in my life I came prepared, and made some nice videos of the guy playing on my BlackBerry. We also saw the outside of the Dakota, the ritzy apartment building where John and Yoko lived. It’s pretty startling to see the apartment entrance where John was shot. And no, we did not see Yoko while we were there.
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