by Shelley Germeaux
Recently I met (via email) Jude Southerland Kessler, author of “John Lennon: Shoulda Been There”, a historical bio-novel covering the period 1940-1961, the first twenty-one years of John Lennon’s life. Published in 2008, the book is a resounding 788 pages before its extensive bibliography, and includes an interview CD with the Beatles first manager Allan Williams. The foreword is written by John’s Liverpool mate, Bill Harry. Susan Ryan did a great review of it for Daytrippin’ last year; this article is not a review but a short interview with the author as well as my initial overview.
The intriguing aspect of this book is the attention to the facts of John’s life down to minute details, as Jude creates scenes and conversational script around actual events that have been documented. The only new material that is not included are the newer revelations from Julia Baird’s recent book, “Imagine This” which was released around the same time Jude’s book was. Jude also missed out on an actual trip inside Mendips, which was opened to the public after Jude concluded her research. But those things do not detract from the story since Jude did have access to Baird’s earlier work.
Jude has researched John’s life for twenty years, making seven trips to Liverpool to interview many people associated with John, people you have read about but probably never thought to try and track them down, such as the life model Jane Furlong from the Art Institute, and Rod Murray, John’s old roommate. She inspected the actual entries about John at Quarry Bank School, and wrote to the people who owned John’s Liverpool home, Mendips (before it was opened to the public.)
Even if you are not into novels per se, this book is worth your time if you are a Lennon fan who would like to be able to picture the events in your mind and imagine how they may have happened. You’ll need to overlook the lack of offensive language that littered John’s vocabulary, as Jude carefully uses a more PG style. For example, the F word is “fugging”. But you get the picture, and the book becomes accessible to all age groups; also absent are early sexual experiences or any mention of his first real girlfriend, Barbara Baker. Jude has done an excellent job of writing the conversations in true Liverpudlian scouse; pretty amazing for an American girl. Down to the local slang at that time, the names of meals, tea and holidays, it’s Liverpool all the way.
We’ve heard it all before in so many books, with slight variations and corrections through the years as more facts come to light. What we haven’t seen in print are possible conversations and dramatic scenes that must have taken place…the judgments and hostilities that were going on in the Stanley family that caused Mimi to be so horrified at John’s living conditions at Julia’s that she took matters into her own hands to extricate him; the close bond that grew between Uncle George Smith and John, explaining John’s grief when he died; the shenanigans at Quarry Bank School that exasperated the headmaster and all the teachers at the school, resulting in his expulsion. In each case you are living through the events as they occur. And that is how John’s traumatic childhood begins to unfold for the reader in an emotional context.
Even the title begins to make more sense. Thinking that it meant that WE all “shoulda been there” because it was such an amazing time, it actually means THEY all “shoulda been there” for John when he was little, but weren’t.
Here is the interview that I conducted with Jude:
Shelley: Is your name really Jude? I have to ask because of the obvious connection to the song “Hey Jude”.
Jude: I was born Judith Ann Southerland. My mother is Irish (O’Neal) and Jude is the Irish nickname for Judith. Once I got to gradeschool, it became “Judy” no matter how hard I tried to tell everyone. (My husband’s name is Rande…silent “e” and everyone called him Randy…he hated it as much as I hated Judy.) When he and I met in 1977, we agreed to call each other by our correct names, and over the years (33 years of marriage and four years dating), it has stuck.
Shelley: What are the upcoming editions and dates that you plan to publish?
Jude: There will be four more books in the series…if I survive the pressure of deadlines!
*Shivering Inside (10 Dec. 1961-The Ed Sullivan Show) Will be out on John’s birthday in 2010
*She Loves You (Ed Sullivan Show to meeting Yoko)
*Shoulda Known Better (Meeting Yoko through the Lost Weekend)
*Shine On (John’s return to New York through 8 Dec. 1980)
SG: Jude, what prompted you to do this project, and why did you start researching John 20 years ago?
JK: I had been a John Lennon fan (and consequently, a Beatles fan…in that order) since I was nine years old. Like so many other girls (and guys) who grew up in the 60’s, I had the Beatle bracelet, pennant, wallet, card collection, pictures, 45’s and albums. I was a dyed in the wool FAN.
And I was always a writer. In 1965, published a juvenile book of poetry called Memories from Gradeschool Years and was named my junior high school’s poet laureate (LOL!!). I wrote a novel in elementary school and did my own illustrations (both dreadful!). Like many prepubescent girls, I worshipped Louisa May Alcott! And in 1975, I received my Master’s in English and began teaching creative writing at Troy State University. The point of all this info? To say that I wanted to write a novel from a very early ago…I realized that writing a novel was what I was here to do.
In 1986, when I began to earnestly consider beginning that long-delayed book, I asked myself, “What do I know well enough to write about authoritatively? What is my area of expertise?” The only thing I really knew well (so I thought) was John Lennon.
Of course, almost immediately (as I began my research) I discovered that I knew nothing about him at all. So I began purchasing books on John and The Beatles: ten books, one hundred books, two hundred, three hundred….I collected periodicals, taped interviews, and later interview DVD’s and CD’s…I squirreled away anything and everything that I could get my hands on about John. I created an entire Lennon/Beatles room in my home.
But there was another, more important motivation for my focus on John Lennon as the subject of my novel(s). My “mission” in life, I believe, has always been to care for neglected or abused children. Wherever my husband and I have lived, there has always been a child living close to us who became part of our family and ended up virtually moving with us and our son, Cliff, until we moved away. John was one of those children. He has lived with me since December of 1963. I wanted to tell the story of that little boy who had to prove that he was worthy, valuable, and “bigger than Elvis” because his heart overflowed with a “sadness that [went] too deep for words.” I wanted to tell readers (whether they were Beatles fans or not) that what parents do makes a huge difference in the life of a child.
SG: What is the most profound thing that you have learned about John, that really surprised you?
JK: I honestly don’t think I had any real revelations about John… not because I’m smart or clever, but because John was dead honest. He was exactly the person you saw and listened to and observed. He was a straight shooter…no sham, no gloss, no apologies.
He was – once I started researching him – exactly the person I had always suspected him to be. I had long believed that the songs were all about John’s tortured love for Julia, and the more I discovered about him, the more obvious that premise became. From the plea “not to wear red tonight” in “Yes It Is,” (red was Julia’s favorite color) to the admission: “I’m a loser, and I’m not what I appear to be,” John always, always sang of his love for Julia and his loss. She was the center point of every song. (See “I’ll Cry Instead” or “In My Life” or “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.”)
I had also always believed that inside John’s gruff exterior was a soft, loving, giving man. And every single one of my interviews in Liverpool with his friends and associates bore that concept out. Liverpudlians told me so many stories of the kind and thoughtful things he did for them. (They’re all in the book! You’ll love them…amazing examples of John’s heart.)
I had always believed John to be witty, pithy, cutting edge…and he was. I believed him to be easily hurt. He was. I believed him to be lost…constantly searching for “the next big thing” to make him happy. He was.
I wish I had discovered that John was happier than I had imagined, but I didn’t. There were moments of smiles, of course…moments of fleeting joy. But the sadness was always there, just beneath the surface. John had a “chip on his shoulder that [was]bigger than his feet.” And he sincerely believed that “half of what [he said] was meaningless.” He was never really happy here. I believe he’s happy now.
SG: Can you name some of your favorite interviews in this process?
JK: Cue the theme from “Love Story” (“Where Do I Begin…”)…Serially, I had no bad interviews. All were interesting, exciting, amazing. How did a girl from a small town in north Louisiana get to walk with such giants? I’ll never know. I only know I’ve been blessed. My life has been a wonder and continues to be, thanks to wonderful Beatles friends and readers, and the best husband on earth.
But I digress…back to interviews:
Meeting Allan Williams, the Beatles first manager, was an unruly, joyous, raucous experience. My husband and I spent four unforgettable evenings with Allan and his late friend, Beryl Adams (who worked for Brian Epstein at NEMS and was once married to Bob Wooler). The stories and fun we all shared will keep me smiling for the rest of my life. Allan gave me three great interviews (one of which is on the CD in the revised copy of Shoulda Been There). He also got into a fist-fight over me, which was the happiest night of my life and another long story for another day.
The late Bob Wooler, DJ at the Cavern Club, was a man beloved by every single person in Liverpool. He was eloquent, informed, and easy to talk to. The stories he shared (with his bent toward alliteration and purple prose) were so vivid and alive. I loved visiting with him. (But he would NOT tell me the exact words that he said to John at Paul’s 21rst birthday party. He said he was taking that statement to his grave.)
My favorite interview of all time was June Furlong, the life model at Liverpool College of Art. She was John’s idol when he was in school. June was a very famous and exquisite model. All the great artists of Europe (Bacon, Foy, Auerbach) had painted June in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. So, John used to shadow June to discover what she did to become so famous and sought-after. He questioned her about what it took to get to the top. During the process of interviewing June, we became fast friends. We still write each other every month and stay in close contact. She means the world to me.
I also loved meeting Rod Murray, Helen Anderson, Joe Flannery, Colin Fallows (Liverpool College of Art), Dave Bennion from QuarryBank (now Calderstones CC) in Woolton, Tony Jackson, John’s Uncle Charlie, Louise Harrison, Ruth McCartney, George Jardine (John’s art college professor), Billy May, and many, many others. Honestly, I still have to pinch myself to believe I actually sat in The Grapes or Ye Cracke and talked to these larger than life people. Strange days indeed.
SG: Were you able to take the tour through Mendips, and what did you think of that?
JK: No. sigh…..I was in Liverpool between 1993 and 2000…and Mendips was not open to the public at that time. I wrote to the owner of Mendips at that time and asked if I could please come in and see the house, and I explained exactly why I wanted to do so. A week or so later, I receive a very courteous reply telling me that the home was not open to the public and that only the friends of the owner were admitted to the home.
Well…..pathetic person that I am (seeing Mendips meant so much to me), I wrote back to the owner and said, “I could be your friend! I’m a nice person.” I sent him/her photos of me, newspaper clippings, and any info that might introduce myself to this stranger in Liverpool. I know, sad. But I so wanted to walk inside that house.
Long story short, he/she wrote back to me saying that he/she would NOT admit me to the home, but that instead would give me specific details about the home just as it had looked when he/she purchased the home from Mimi Smith. The letter described the fireplaces, cabinets in the kitchen, upstairs baths and bedrooms, etc., and it gave me all the detail that I needed to paint an accurate picture of the house that John called home.
When I published Shoulda Been There, I felt that it would be selfish for me to hoard that letter to myself, so it is included in the appendix for all to read. By the way, it was handwritten on John Lennon’s stationery. You can check the printed phone number. It is the original.
One note that I’d like to add: I love hearing from readers, and in the past two years, I’ve tried to answer every e-mail in a reasonable amount of time. But Shivering Inside has to be in the publisher’s hands by 1 June in order to make the publication deadlines, so I’m running out of time. I’m receiving between 40-80 e-mails a day. Please understand that I may not be able to answer every question. It’s not that I don’t want to answer, it’s that I can’t finish the next book if I do. Thank you so much for understanding! I’m trying to dog paddle as fast as I can.
I want to thank Jude for her wonderfully open answers to my questions, And for her dedication to the truth about John’s history. Jude’s efforts have taken her deep into the heart of Liverpool and John Lennon’s story in a way that brings it all alive for the reader. No doubt, readers will feel not only like they “shoulda been there”, but that they were.
Shelley Germeaux is the West Coast correspondent for Daytrippin’ and also an Independent Publishing Consultant for Heritage Makers
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