I met Seth Swirsky when he was on a festival discussion panel; he was talking about one of his baseball books. I didn't know at the time that he probably loves The Beatles more than America's most traditional sport. Years later, Facebook appeared and not longer after I joined, I saw Seth's page on that magical mystery site. Recently, I became aware of his wonderful documentary Beatles Stories: A Fab Four Fan's Ultimate Road Trip, and I couldn't wait to watch it, every frame of it: the stories from the famous and not as famous, the director's commentary, the bonus stories, and an absolutely remarkable interview with Norman Martin at age 83, the man they called "Normal" who was their sound engineer in the early years and so instrumental in creating their sound, who was probably right when he said he was more the fifth Beatle than Sir George Martin, their legendary producer.
The premise is simple — just about anyone who's had an encounter with a Beatle has a fond memory of at least one of the four amazing lads from Liverpool.
I have my own. Once when I was living in West Hollywood and driving an MGB convertible and feeling my oats as a new writer and musician in town, I drove past The Troubadour nightclub and there was Ringo walking two little dogs alone. I yelled hello, he waved back and I decided not to stop and bug him and be a goofy fan. A few years later, when some of my novels were optioned for a TV show, I ended up with the same lawyer as Ringo, the affable Bruce Grakal, who is probably his best friend. I was continually after Bruce to introduce me to Ringo so I could write his biography. Bruce insisted Ringo didn't remember anything from those days. Even after I wrote Patti Page's memoir and told Bruce about it, I couldn't break through. Then in 2014, Ringo came out with a biography filled with pictures from all those years ago. Bruce never mentioned all the pictures, God bless him.
I got closer with Paul McCartney, who was always kind enough to answer my letters sent to Apple. In June of 1976, at the end of the Wings Over America tour, I had a stageside seat at the last concert on the tour and, two days later, the run of a $250,000 party they threw at the Harold Lloyd estate in Bel Air, California (you reached the party via a long and winding road). I met many of my music idols, almost knocked John Mayall out accidentally (it was due to an animated conversation with Keith Moon), saw Joni Mitchell and Warren Beatty have a screaming match then, separated from the group I came with, approached Paul and Linda alone and said hello and they walked away without speaking to me. I learned later I'd violated party protocol and not worn all-white as prescribed (Paul and Linda were in all-black). Oh well, let it be.
But I also met Burton Cummings of The Guess Who and got to know him a little, and about a week later ended up at a Beatles film festival with him and a friend. We watched Hard Day's Night and then Let It Be. Burton, who had just finished a detox program, had the same conclusion as me — what changed The Beatles wasn't women or fame. It was heavy drugs. After watching Beatles Stories, I'm even more certain of that.
A friend of mine dated Harry Nilsson a bit in the late 1970s. Harry took her to Ringo's house and in his kitchen Ringo pulled out a quart jar of cocaine and offered her some. That's the reason Ringo supposedly couldn't remember things. He's long since changed such bad habits, and that's why we're still lucky enough to have him around still making us happy today. (And Burton's been in Ringo's All-Star Band, too.)
One of the people in the documentary is artist and author Nancy Lee Andrews, who lived with Ringo for seven years and (though she doesn't say this on film) introduced him to Barbara Bach. Nancy describes Ringo proposing to her in a jewelry store, but doesn't explain why they didn't marry. I know that's because Ringo leapt to Barbara soon as he met her, because I dated Nancy's sister Jennarae, who was living with Keith Moon when I met him at the Wings party. When I met Jenna, I was sharing a house with Nicky Hopkins, who played electric piano on "Imagine."
It's a terrifically small world sometimes and I only mention these names and stories to illustrate this fact. And that's what you learn watching Beatles Stories. It begins with the comedy team of McCall & Brill, who basically bombed on The Ed Sullivan Show on May 9, 1964, but hardly anyone remembers, because that was the Fab Four's first explosive appearance there, something so many of us will never forget.
Two segments I watched very closely featured Ray Manzarek (who I tried to produce a movie with a few years before he died) and Brian Wilson, who said he heard Rubber Soul and immediately began writing Pet Sounds. Ray's comment was quite poignant; he recalled not caring about The Beatles until he saw the cover of Rubber Soul and realized the boys were all "stoners." Ray was on a bad LSD trip at the time (his words) so suddenly to him they were all right, a group to take seriously because of their drug use.
And there we go. I worked on a book with another famous drummer, Carmine Appice, who told me about how Jimi Hendrix would take ten hits of acid just to show he could, even if told only one was advisable. I don't have to recite all the dead rock icons who were killed by drugs; you know those stories. The point is, some people didn't know when to, or weren't able to quit, and it cost them their life and cost us their future art.
Watching Beatles Stories, you forget about that and are swept up (particularly if you're a Baby Boomer like me) in the glorious joy of the best of The Beatles. There are wonderful interviews like "First Kiss" with Iris Caldwell, George Harrison’s first girlfriend when she was 12. Her brother Rory Storm had a group called The Hurricanes and a drummer named Richard Starkey. Iris worked in the cloak room at a Liverpool club and George would help her. The first night it opened, Long John and the Silver Beetles played, featuring John Lennon before George Harrison ever played a lick with the band. Iris is glowingly beautiful, and when she tells her stories you'd swear she was still in her 20s.
Did you know that Sir Ben Kingsley played guitar and sang songs he wrote in Smashing Day, a musical produced by Brian Epstein? Me, either. Did you know that long-time Newlywed Game host Bob Eubanks was the concert promoter for The Beatles' Hollywood Bowl concert in 1964? That 18,000 seats sold, but 100,000 kids were on the hills behind the Bowl listening, and even Frank Sinatra couldn’t get in?
Then there's John Kurlander, assistant engineer on the Abbey Road album, relating how it was almost called "Everest" but Paul, none too keen on traveling to the Himalayas to take a picture, said let’s just go outside on the street and call it Abbey Road. And so EMI Studios changed its name to Abbey Road Studios, too.
In "A Day in L.A. with May" May Pang, John’s girlfriend for 18 months, goes back with Seth to the apartment she lived in with John, who only had $3,000 to his name then, all his money tied up in lawsuits. She only let John drive once, on the 405 freeway, and it freaked her out. And when John asked, she told him Ringo was her favorite Beatle - "but I loved your songs!" John was upset. (Jenna Andrews told me John's L.A. exile wasn't voluntary — that Yoko kicked him out of the New York apartment — but I never tried to verify that.)
The film's not just gossip and reminisence, however; it's a deep look into a cultural phenomenon the likes of which may never recur. You learn things you might never otherwise know, like how John Lennon met Ronald Reagan at a Monday Night Football game, courtesy of Frank Gifford, and the California governor spent a long time explaining American football to the Beatle who most people learned had been assassinated on a later telecast, announced by Howard Cosell. Even more odd, Fred Seaman, John’s personal assistant from 1979-80, describes how, on Fred's second or third day on the job, John said he would vote for Reagan if he was an American citizen because he thought Jimmy Carter was a phony. Where have you ever heard that kind of thing? (I had, because of knowing Nicky Hopkins, but I'd never seen it elsewhere.)
You can't help but be sad as Thom Panunzio, who got Lennon's last autograph at the Record Plant only shortly before John was killed, describes being stunned when the news report came in. It wasn't the only time I cried watching the film. When Iris Caldwell describes George as "such a sweet man" I sobbed for a few minutes straight, like I did after seeing the TV movie which depicted Linda McCartney dying of cancer.
Fantastic oddities abound in the documentary. Anthropologist Donald Johanson, who discovered a 3.2 million-year-old skeleton in Kenya, describes how "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was playing and his girlfriend said, "Name her Lucy" and the students with them insisted. Thus the oldest human ancestor ever found got her name.
In the Norman Smith interview he reveals how he went against strict EMI sound recording rules to capture early Beatles cuts so they sounded like they were performing in your living room. I can relate to that, because a compliment I get repeatedly from readers of my books is, "I felt like you were sitting there talking to me." Smith did the right thing and The Beatles hit us all very personally because of that special sound. Watching the documentary, you learn at various places what incredible, persistent dedication they had to perfecting every last detail of their music, to the benefit and delight of us all.
Smith moved on after George Martin offered him the opportunity to become a producer and take over the Parlophone label, but Normal stayed on to complete Rubber Soul and he points out something very interesting. In contrast to earlier albums, he says, the boys weren’t getting along with one another. Before, they'd always been quick to record, two to three takes, but Rubber Soul began "taking forever" and the boys were having "real non-Beatle arguments." They couldn’t agree on what songs to go with, how to do them, and kept “thrashing out the way it should be done” and drifting apart. The "happy family feeling had gone," Smith said. He wasn't sure if it was due to their time with the Maharishi or the heavier drugs he knew they were doing.
Well, I knew, having been down that road and having compared notes with others like Burton Cummings. In any event, God bless the Beatles and their fabulous music and this movie. In comes down to "in the end, the love you take is the love you make" doesn't it? And a little help from your friends. The surviving Beatles might not be with us if they hadn't gotten rid of some bad habits and found domestic happiness. Seth Swirsky makes a point of discussing his own family, and showing how his young children love the Beatles. It was the same with Lennon and his happiness at the time of Double Fantasy and George Harrison's own great happiness with his wife Olivia and son Dhani.
As we reminisce about "the good old days" and the music of all the Beatles, group days and afterward, we should never forget the truth of human values that made it all so special.
If you got a chance to see the 50th anniversary Grammys salute to The Beatles and how great Paul and Ringo were performing at the end of the evening, you'll appreciate them even more after watching this documentary. See Beatles Stories and form your own conclusions. I guarantee you'll love it.