Today is October 9th and, on what would have been John Lennon's 75th birthday, we wanted to honor that occasion in this space. We went to Jude Southerland Kessler, who is the author of the acclaimed John Lennon Series and asked her "Five Questions" about Lennon and her book series, which is now three books deep,
Your book(s) are unique, in that they are a serial format, with each volume dealing with a specific period of Lennon’s life: how and why did you come up with this approach?
First of all, thank you for asking me to visit with you about John on his 75th birthday and to talk about The John Lennon Series. It’s really an honor to be interviewed by someone with such a diverse and in-depth knowledge of music. And, it’s always a joy to spend time discussing John Lennon!
As a teenager, I was an ardent fan of James Michener’s books (The Origin on the life of Charles Darwin) and Irving Stone’s works (The Agony and the Ecstasy on the life of Michelangelo or Those Who Love on the lives of John and Abigail Adams.) I respected the work of these dedicated authors who over 10-12 years thoroughly researched the lives of historical figures and then brought that individual’s story to life in vivid, narrative form.
In college, I earned two bachelor’s degrees, one in history and one in English (with a Master’s in English), and I trained as an historiographer. My goal was to prepare myself to research and write a comprehensive expanded biography.
While I respected Stone and Michener, I wanted to veer away from their fiction format and to create, instead, a narrative history – a book similar to the work of the Greek historian, Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War). I wanted to write a biography told in narrative form that was completely factual, footnoted, and documented.
I thought, way back then, that John Lennon’s life would be the ideal subject for such an extensive work. Having been a devoted fan since 1963, I foolishly thought that I knew “all there was to know” about John. And I believed John’s story to be far more interesting and compelling than Charles Darwin’s or even the Adams’s. John’s resolute, dogged trek through history was a story that inspired me and touched my heart.
Over the next few years – as I carefully collected over 500 books, CDs, DVDs, periodicals, tapes, original newspaper clippings, and Lennon memorabilia in my home and began studying John’s life in depth – I found that I knew very little about John. In fact, I had a great deal to learn about John and The Beatles. Working 6-8 hours a day, eight days a week, I put in the roadwork needed to become Lennon-savvy.
But by 1993, after almost seven years of secondary research, I realized that I could not make my readers feel as if they were actually with John in the Liverpool College of Art pub, Ye Cracke, unless I had really been there to hear the patter, see the walls, ceilings, benches and floors, smell the pungent aromas, and absorb the essence of the place. I had to KNOW Liverpool! I had to learn Scouse, study the city and visit/photograph/experience each pub, coffee house, school, and home that John once frequented. I had to breathe in Merseyside, adopt its customs.
So, my husband and I began traveling to Liverpool and London to learn…and to interview, first-hand, the many people who knew John well and could share personal stories and facts not found in typical biographies.
I interviewed Allan Williams, Bob Wooler, Rod Murray, Joe and Sam Flannery, Johnny Guitar (from Rory Storm and The Hurricanes), John’s Uncle Charlie, John’s best friend in college Helen Anderson, Liverpool College of Art life model June Furlong, John’s college professor George Jardine, and Bryan Biggs, a Bluecoat School expert on Stu Sutcliffe. In the years that followed, I also talked extensively with Beatles bass player, Chas Newby and Beatles drummer, Pete Best. I’ve interviewed Freda Kelly, Ken Mansfield, EMI second engineer Richard Langham, Louise Harrison, Ruth and Angie McCartney, Ivor Davis, Larry Kane…and so many others. And although they’re not as famous, I’ve talked with scores of amazing Merseyside people who frequented the Cavern Club and Casbah and were gracious with their stories. I’ve worked consistently with Bill Harry on all three John Lennon Series books.
My intent in this “long and winding” quest was to give readers a “fly on the wall” glimpse into John’s life by telling John’s story to them as if they were there…as if they were present when John met Paul or when John acquired his first “real” guitar on Saturday morning at Hessey’s in Liverpool.
Therefore, it took 20 years to research and write Volume 1, Shoulda Been There. And each subsequent volume has taken another 3-5 years to research, annotate, and write. It’s a complicated and slow process, but I’ve always felt that composing a detailed narrative history would gives readers a more intimate glimpse into John’s life.
I hope it’s done that.
Yes! I am very connected to my readers. They email me, and I email them. I chat with them at The Fest for Beatles Fans in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Some have become close friends.
I know many of my readers by name – I probably know about 80% of those who purchase books from me directly, not via the secondary market. (We’ve sold over 200,000 copies of Shoulda Been There on Amazon.com, but I’ve had no direct contact with those who bought used books from others.) However, through the direct sales of almost 5,000 copies of Shoulda Been There, I’ve been blessed to make many, many friends.
I know many of my readers’ families and their life stories. And yes, they’re kind, loving people who take time to write to me, encourage me, and “cheer me on.” And I try, as often as time permits, to answer their questions about John, to send them info about traveling in Liverpool, or to chat when I can.
Because of these devoted readers, I’m now able to pre-sell almost half of the books that I publish before they’re released. That’s wonderful! And on the flip side, I’m also “held accountable” by these same readers to push on…to keep myself on a regular research/writing schedule so that I can complete the books that they’re awaiting in a timely fashion.
It’s a “fab” relationship, and I honestly could not keep going without the people who remind me that all the work is worth it.
I think this would be an ideal format for e-readers, especially; however, I would guess Lennon’s core audience might be older and prefer physical books. Since your books are serial, do you see any trends emerging on that front?
When I was twenty-something and planning The John Lennon Series – beginning the initial phases of my research – I was certain that my readers would be those wild, young girls (now mothers and grandmothers) who had once flooded the world’s airports, streets, and concert arenas to see their beloved Beatles. Nothing could have been further from the truth!
My readers are 75 percent men! Many are second generation and third generation male fans. It is rare that I sell a book to a female reader (although I love doing so!).
About 12-15 percent of my readers are Millennials. Yes, they’re HUGE Beatles’ fans, as their presence at the Beatles conventions and seminars around America attests! And, the vast interest in The Beatles in high schools and colleges continues to grow. In the last two years, I’ve spoken at University of Pennsylvania, Penn State, Altoona, and Louisiana’s Centenary College. I’m often asked to be a guest speaker in high schools as well. The truth is, The Beatles are as viable and visible today as they ever were, and the interest just continues to spiral up!
So, the audience for physical books isn’t as large as one might think. For the last year and a half, my e-book sales have been the stronger of the two formats. Volume 2 in The John Lennon Series, Shivering Inside, sold out in physical form two years ago. However, it’s selling briskly on Kindle. Volume 3, She Loves You, is almost completely sold out in physical form (less than 40 books now left in stock), but it’s available on all e-book formats, and those outlets outsell the physical book 3:1. Volume 1, Shoulda Been There, is seven years old, but it sells daily on e-book.
However, I’m not content with e-books and hard copy volumes. As you suggested, I’m seeking another trend in the market. Because many Baby Boomers are facing the devastating effects of Age-Related Macular Degeneration, The John Lennon Series will be released on audio tape in the next year. This is a huge priority of mine since my father (who lives alone) suffers from AMD, and I see how very much he depends upon his audio books for enjoyment and entertainment. I want to make John’s story accessible to those who can no longer navigate the printed word, whether those words are printed on a page or a screen.
All that really matters, in the end, is that John’s story be told. I want to tell it using every avenue possible.
John was always cool. On his last night, he was in the recording studio. He was, to the very end, the ultimate rock hero. So, for many young people, that’s enough to spur interest in his life. Of course, once they discover the Hamburg years and Cavern Club nights, the fascination is tremendously enhanced. John led one hell of an exciting life! And that story seems even more spectacular today when few 17-19 year old boys would be permitted to travel to Hamburg, un-chaperoned – to work for months in the red light district and play in a rock’n’roll band. Good stuff! And true.
But for me, the part of John’s biography that still resonates today is his relentless refusal to give up, no matter how badly battered he was by life’s disappointments, deaths, and defeats. Even though John lost his mother Julia twice – once when she left him (for complicated reasons) to live with his Aunt Mimi and Uncle George, and then later, when as a teenager he’d been reunited with her but then lost her to death – John didn’t let that horrid upheaval stop him. He spent two weeks locked in his room, disconsolate. But then, he trudged on.
At age 15, John endured the pain of losing his beloved Uncle Ge’rge, the only person who had lovingly nurtured and cared for him, but John found a way to cope even then…to keep his head up. Then, only a few years later, John lost his soul mate, his dearest friend, Stu Sutcliffe to a cerebral hemorrhage. But John found a way to survive even that horrific loss. He made up his mind to put one foot in front of another and live his life.
The life he lived was the by-product of the pain John felt. It was tragedy manifested as beauty. For the next 20 years, John wailed at the microphones of the world for his lost love, for Julia. And in honor of Stu, he transformed The Beatles into artists instead of mere rockers. He “sang his heart and spoke his mind” in all of his songs…for his missing Dad, for his lost Mother, for all his friends and lovers, gone too soon. John Lennon’s catalogue is a collection of songs that reach into darkness, unearthing a lonely magnificence. They are serious songs of pain and passion.
John was an alchemist. Out of his personal loss, he concocted the soundtrack of our lives. That alone is reason enough to admire him and follow his life story. That sort of determination and courage still matters. In fact, I think in today’s world, John’s example matters more than ever. He teaches us to hang on.
You seemingly fell into the Lennon rather than McCartney camp as a fan. So what about Paul and the other Beatles?
It’s funny…I don’t feel as if I fall into one camp or another. For me, there are no camps, per se. There’s only John.
I’m a Lennon biographer. My life is dedicated to writing his story. And in doing so, I have great respect for many of his associates and little regard for others.
I think his biggest influences are first and foremost, Julia and closely behind, Mimi. In fact, John’s a product of both women. He had Julia’s bohemian caprice, her out-of-the box joie de vivre, and her musical talent. But equally, he possessed Mimi’s tenacity, organization, and fierce spirit. Both women molded him.
Stu, I would say, is the third most profound influence on John’s life. He inspired John to see his band as an expression of art. It’s Stu’s spirit that emboldens John to insist upon writing his own songs, designing his own LP covers, dressing with assured aplomb, and living a life that imitates no one. Stu encouraged John to be exactly who he was destined to be, nothing less. John could live independently in his own tree (high or low) because of Stu.
But after those three great influences, the host of others who mattered deeply “In John’s Life” becomes fluid. Certainly Uncle Ge’rge transformed a lonely childhood into a time of magic. He taught John to read and write and play the harmonica.
And John’s first wife, Cynthia…Cynthia urged him to chase after his dreams, even though that meant leaving her behind, and she provided a secure home for him to return to when he needed one. She cheered him on, served as his youthful muse, and was his steadfast confidante. Her role has been vastly underestimated, but those who knew John best (Tony Bramwell, Tony Barrow, Larry Kane, etc.) attest to John’s deep love for his Cyn.
And Paul and George, too, stand in that fourth category…his constant companions, his comrades in the climb, his friends in the madness. George was John’s shadow, his “kid brother,” and Paul was his inspirational and competitive business partner. The three of them enjoyed an unparalleled camaraderie that no one else (not even Ringo) would ever understand. They had their own language and references and jokes. They were one.
And then, there’s Brian Epstein and George Martin and Neil Aspinall…and later, the lovely May Pang…and the latter day Julia, Yoko. So many people completely changed John’s world, despite the fact that he sang so vehemently that no one could. Alfred Lord Tennyson once wrote, “I am a part of all I have met,” and John was a bit Paul, a bit George, a bit Ringo, a bit Brian, a bit you and me.
I cherish his associations with all of the “odd sods and bods” of Liverpool because they framed him and encouraged him (or appropriately discouraged him, at times). They were part of the stained glass window of his life. Through them, John found new and better ways to shine on.
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