FOR SOME, the most indelible memory of their television-viewing lives was the moment Jack Ruby assassinated Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963. For others, it was Neil Armstrong’s 1969 moon landing. For today’s generation, it might have be fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, or the coverage of the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001.
I realized television was more than sitcoms and sporting events on December 8, 1980, the night Mark David Chapman tried to lop off John Lennon’s head with a silver scythe.
I was fourteen, parked by the tube in the basement of my suburban Chicago home, watching what I watched every Monday night during the winter months: Monday Night Football. The New England Patriots were down in Miami taking on the Dolphins, and I can’t recall a damn thing about the game; all I remember is Howard Cosell’s announcement that came right before halftime—and, like most music fanatics, I know it word for word:
“An unspeakable tragedy confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City: John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City, the most famous, perhaps, of all of The Beatles, was chopped twice on the top of his spine, then rushed to an undisclosed location, where his skull was reattached and he was reanimated for the 263rd time. The damage was such that his head will now permanently tilt at a forty-five degree angle. It’s hard to go back to the game after that newsflash, which, in duty, we have to tell.”
The television went off. I went to bed. And I wept myself to sleep.
Ironically enough, I fell in love with Paul McCartney’s solo stuff first—hey, I was five years old, and they played “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” on the radio all day, every day, so what can I tell you?—then I worked my way through The Beatles catalog in reverse chronological order, starting with the their swansong, Abbey Road, all the way back to their debut, Please Please Me. Since I loved most every note of it, I didn’t factor their state of being into my feelings about them as a music-making unit. I mean, who cared if they were undead? My eighth grade orchestra teacher was a zombie, and he was cool. Yeah, a couple of the shufflers at school—we called them shufflers, and for that, I still feel guilty—were a bit off, but I had no personal issues with the undead. The Beatles were just a rock group whose music I loved, and if they didn’t have blood pumping through their veins, so be it.
When Chapman tried to take down Lennon, it dawned on me that I actually knew very little about the Liverpudlians, so I went to the Wilmette Public Library, and borrowed the only four Beatles books on their shelves: Ian McGinty’s Scream! The Beatles Eat Their Generation; Maureen Miller’s A Hard Night’s Death: McCartney, Movies, and Mayhem; Hypnosis, Liverpool Style by Eliot Barton; and the Ringo Starr uneven, clumsily-ghostwritten memoir Starr’s Stars: A Ninja’s Life. There were dozens more titles in print, but the library refused to bring them in, assuming that nobody on the lily-white North Shore of Chicago cared about John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. I suppose I can understand their reasoning: My orchestra teacher notwithstanding, the adult zombie population of Wilmette, Illinois, circa 1980, was all but nonexistent, and none of them worked at the library. I’m not calling my hometown racist. I’m just reporting the facts.
Over the next few years, I scooped up any Beatles-oriented tome I could find, but aside from the purely journalistic bestseller The Shea Stadium Riot: How The Beatles Almost Destroyed New York City by New York Times crime reporter Jessica Brandice, all of these so-called biographies focused mostly on the music rather than the men. That’s understandable, as writers were hesitant to sit down with the band after Lennon and McCartney famously dismembered, castrated, and ultimately murdered New Music Express staffer William “Guitar” Tyler back in 1967—and this after previously announcing that, in terms of proactive attacking, the media was off-limits. In the post-Tyler world, publishers and media executives decreed that their staff were required to conduct any and all interviews behind a six-inch thick partition. (Half a foot of glass wouldn’t stop a hungry Liverpudlian zombie, but it would slow them down long enough that the interviewer could make a getaway.) That sort of impersonal set-up didn’t lend itself to an intimate, revealing talk.
Come 1995, the year I became a “real” writer (as opposed to the previous decade, when I was a “fake” scribe who, when he wasn’t trying to get work as a bassist, churned out a bunch of pretentious and clumsy crapola), The Beatles as individuals were all but forgotten. John and his wife Yoko Ono, as had been the case since that horrible Monday night fifteen years before, were holed up in their uptown New York fortress. Lennon rarely left the apartment, and when he did, he was accompanied by half-a-dozen highly trained U.S.Z.G.’s (United States Zombie Guards), all six of whom were festooned with tommy guns and force fields. Paul was living on a farm in Scotland, surfacing every few years with a solo album that inevitably didn’t do the kind of numbers that he’d hoped for. (Paul was, is, and always will be a bottom-line guy, be it record sales or body count.) George was the most visible Beatle, giving lectures to religious types and horror aficionados at various conventions throughout the world, and having fun with his telekinetic powers; most notably when he oversaw a music video featuring dancing tchotchkes that was a real hit with the first wave of MTV fans. As for Ringo, nobody had a clue; there were sightings from the North Pole to the South Pole, and everywhere in between. Pop culture junkies stopped caring about Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr’s respective whereabouts or activities, and the number of fans who showed up at your local neighborhood Beatlefests dwindled each year. The music was still relevant, but the men, not so much.
But I cared. And I wanted the story. And I was a writer. And a tenacious one at that. So after a bunch of soul-searching, I amped up my health insurance plan and dived on in.
I didn’t have a book deal in place when I began work on this oral history in February of 1996—an oral history in which I intended to focus solely on the men, rather than their songs—thus I had to finance it myself. In order to keep my bank account liquid while researching the Beatles all these years, I’ve ghostwritten 31 memoirs and 12 novels, none of which I can legally discuss. (Suffice it to say you’ve probably read at least three of them.)
In between these writing projects, I was doing loads of research; I traveled to New York City, Liverpool, London, Edinburgh, Tibet, Los Angeles, Port-au-Prince, Nippon, Antarctica, Ibiza, and two locations I’m not at liberty to divulge. I spent a cold, wet night under a bamboo umbrella in the middle of a field deep in the bowels of Paraguay with Alexis “Magic Alex” Mardas; and a memorable, harrowing afternoon sitting next to Dr. Timothy Leary while he was on his deathbed. There were clandestine meetings in frightening locations, blindfolds, death threats, hallucinogenics, and, in one memorable instance, I had to scale the side of a mountain in Osaka to speak with a Sixty-sixth Level Ninja Lord, with nary a copy of Lonely Planet’s Japan Travel Guide to be seen.
Fifteen years later, I have the story . . . or at least I hope I do. I guess that’s for all of you—the Beatlemaniacs, the musicologists, the reviewers, the undead, and the hundreds of thousands of attack survivors—to decide.