Sunday, July 19, 2009

Two Degrees

I never met any of the Beatles. Well, neither did you, probably. They were the icons of our generation. They're not some guys we used to know.

I mentioned in Huge Hall how hearing "Revolution 1" on a good stereo turned my head around. I collected all the Beatles' records, even records they never released, and loved listening to them. By 1980 it started to fade and I was listening to other music. But then my new computer job in 1989 pulled me back in, because I was supposed to know about electronic mail and communications, and I took time on the job to check out Usenet Netnews. If you check the archives of on Google Groups you will find me writing several times a week as far back as it goes. It was great. I became part of a group project to compile the largest and most accurate list of recording variations, which you can see here. I really enjoyed working on that, all with people I never met in person. That paved the way for another cooperative project later, when I co-wrote a Bee Gees biography without meeting my four co-writers, who were in Scotland, Wales, and Australia (but I did meet them afterwards).

Sometime in the middle of the 1990s the Beatles went dormant for me again. I haven't listened to them in a while now. A few people have contacted me recently because of the forthcoming reissue box, in September 2009. What do I think of it, and so forth. I think it's about fifteen years late for me, to be honest. I'm not sure I want to drop five hundred bucks on it now. Hearing that the sound on the stereo disks will be limited to make them loud does not help entice me (I can rant about that abomination some other time).

But the email does make me think of the Beatles again, and a totally different conversation I had made me think of the Six Degrees meme. How far am I from any of the Beatles? Two degrees! That means just one person between me and each of them. And I can do it two ways, possibly three.

Do you want to know what they are? Sure you do. Here we go.


Back in college, I took a course about Architecture. It was taught by an Adjunct Professor, something not so common in those days. Eugene Raskin was a practicing architect who taught just that one-semester course each year. I'd heard it was good, and it counted to the Art History major, so I was in there. He turned out to be a great teacher and I got a lot out of the class.

But there was a curious thing. A few of us noticed that Mary Hopkin's hit "Those Were the Days" was credited to "Gene Raskin". It seemed pretty unlikely that this New York architect would be the same one. So none of us were silly enough to ask him. But he really was the same Gene Raskin.

Not only did he teach a course to undergraduates for forty years just because he liked to, but he also took off for a few months each summer to go to England and play folk music with his wife in pubs and coffee houses. Isn't that cool? And one of the songs they did was an old Russian song from the 1920s for which Gene had written new English language words, "Those Were the Days". (For more on the song go here.)

I like the standard version of the story, in which Paul McCartney heard Gene and Francesca doing the song, loved it, and started trying to find someone to record it. This led to his production of the song for his Apple Records discovery Mary Hopkin. Paul's girlfriend Francie Schwartz unfortunately remembers it as Northern Songs chief Dick James bringing the song to Paul one day when she was there in the Apple offices. If so, that knocks out Gene as my personal link to Paul. But no worries: I have two more.

That typeface says "those were the days" to me! Love the hat too. She's one year older than me. Lower right, what looks like a bit of Sanskrit is a fancy 3/. meaning 3 shillings no pence (which, at 2o shillings to a pound, wasn't much).


During the time I was very visible in I had a few conversations with Allan Kozinn, the New York Times music critic. He wrote a book called The Beatles in 1995 for a series on twentieth century composers. On one occasion I was invited to his apartment and got a look at his incredible collection of audio and video of the Beatles. My email from the 1990s is long gone but there are running conversations between us and others in the archive.

He's my second link. I know he interviewed Paul, George, and Ringo, more than once. Whether he got John, I am not certain, but he was doing freelance for the Times as early as 1977, so he might have interviewed John too, in the runup to the Double Fantasy album in 1980.

From: (Joseph Brennan)
Subject: Re: Beatles did not play their own instruments!
Date: 1995/12/15
Message-ID: <4aste0$>#1/1
X-Deja-AN: 122074160
references: <4aqv3q$>
organization: Columbia University

Kozinn <> wrote:
>This is all complete lunacy. . .
>there is approximately 30 hours of bootlegged session tape . . .
>in which you
>can hear them discussing things, trying out things, etc.

And it's a tribute to Apple that over all these years they've managed
to keep letting those doctored session tapes "slip out" (wink wink) to
keep up the charade. The boot CD of March 5 1963 "sessions" was very
impressive, and essentially a warmup for the faked Anthology cuts in
which we hear the "Beatles" "rehearse" songs and "change the
arrangements". The death of Paul in 1966 was nothing- this "play
their own instruments" thing is far more elaborate. It's no wonder
they had to give up public performance in 1966, although their miming
was good enough by 1969 for the Get Back "performances". Allan of
course is obliged by his contract with the Trilateral Commission to
post denials, but we all know the truth, eh?

Joe Brennan Columbia University in the City of New York ("affiliation shown for identification only")

Me, replying to Allan Kozinn, in a thread started by a troll. By the way at this time I administered Columbia's Usenet server, (seen there in the header). I was shown how it worked by the outgoing sys admin, Ben Fried, who is now the CIO of Google.


Then there's Maurice Gibb. I had a twenty-minute conversation with him on one occasion in 1996. An editor for Columbia magazine, as much a Bee Gees fan as I was, managed to hook an interview with Barry and Maurice on a day they were in town to record at the Hit Factory. The excuse for a story was web pages by Columbia people, and my Bee Gees page was one of the ones featured. So Kevin did an interview and I talked a little, and then Barry got impatient to get into the studio and left us. Maurice however just kept sitting there, and we turned off the recorder and the two of us just rambled for a while.

I had mentioned using Macintosh systems, and that's what he liked, so we had that in common. He told me about his huge disk arrays and how he was editing and processing video on them. This was 1996: iMovie was a decade away, and he must have had the fastest Macs on the planet to do the stuff he was doing. What a geek. I loved it. I knew by reputation that he was a recording studio rat, one of those guys who checks out every new piece of equipment in the studio and what you could possibly do with it, and clearly he had moved into computer software at an early date.

Somehow the conversation drifted to his two children, who were in their teens then. He said his dream for them was that they would find something they'd love doing, and it could be music or something else, but whatever fulfilled them. He knew enough not to tell them what to do. He said he just wanted them to be happy in what they were doing. He had this dreamy look talking about them and his hopes for them. He was just simply a dad who loved his kids. And he wasn't weird about saying so. This really hit home for me because my daughter was seven years old then, and I had the same feelings about her and whatever her future was going to be. I realized we shared something there.

I asked Maurice about the infamous track "Have You Heard the Word", and he tried to convince me that John Lennon and Paul McCartney are on it. I don't believe this for a minute. Both the Lennonesque voice and the McCartneyesque bass guitar are none other than Maurice himself. Later on I had a chance to talk with Steve Kipner, and he told me Maurice showed up at the session on painkillers from a broken arm and then proceeded to enjoy the bar in the studio, so maybe Maurice had even convinced himself that two Beatles were there.

You know what, I'm going to concede him the right to embellish. What I learned while working on the Bee Gees book is that Maurice liked to tell a good story, and if the real story wasn't that good, he'd fix it so it was. The point was entertainment. At one time it bothered me when someone was not being accurate, but I've changed my mind about that. A good story is worth something. Now I take the Maurice approach sometimes.

Maurice wasn't a saint. He fought alcoholism and other daemons for decades, and did some things no one would be proud of. But I liked him for his engineer geekiness, and especially because he was in love with his kids. Wow. He got to me there. When he was talking about those things, I don't think he was handing me the standard answers to reporters' questions. I think he was speaking from the heart. And I'm sorry he's gone.

Oh yeah. Degrees.

First. Maurice was next door neighbor to Ringo for a year or so, around 1970. And they did some things together: crazy home movies, and at least one recording that never saw the light of day. Nine years difference in their ages didn't seem to matter too much. They were both the most underrated members of their groups.

Second. Maurice told many people that he played on George Harrison's song "Isn't It a Pity". There are two versions of it on All Things Must Pass and we don't know which one. He's not credited on it, but neither are others, like Eric Clapton, who definitely played, and a young Phil Collins, who remembers seeing Maurice there, although Phil remembers a different song. Ringo played drums on many of the songs. Although Maurice liked a good story, I don't find it hard to believe that Ringo might have invited him along to one or more sessions, and that Maurice actually did play. These were wall of sound Phil Spector sessions with as many musicians as possible on each track. George might have easily overlooked a modest second piano player.

Third. Maurice claimed that he had been a drinking buddy of John Lennon, and that John introduced him to rum and coke, or scotch and coke. Again, it makes a good story, and while John never mentioned Maurice to interviewers or biographers, I don't think that rules it out. John's biographers report that in 1967 he would skip out of his suburban home every few weeks and drink all night in London at the clubs music people went to. And we know that Maurice, in his first year in London, spent time in those clubs. So it's not hard to imagine their paths crossing there. I'm calling this one believable.

Fourth. Paul? Maurice certainly idolized Paul as a bass guitar player. "So tasteful", he told me, naming "Michelle" particularly, a song he'd have heard while living in Australia. Did he have any significant contact with Paul? I don't know. But I have Allan Kozinn for Paul anyway.

This photo was taken at the Hit Factory the day of the conversation I described. We brought an old Mac with us as a prop, but no keyboard. Maurice on the right. Barry is having his usual cup of tea.


So am I really cool, or what? I've met people who know people. Oh, I don't know. I don't mean to brag. But, hey, if you want to be within three degrees of the Beatles, just get to know me. That and a Metrocard gets you on the subway.

Next time: A Sheep Spoke.


  1. Great article and thanks for the link to my site on the song 'those were the days'
    Paul did see Gene and his wife performing the song at the 'Blue Lamp'. He did try and offer it to others to record nefore Mary. And the reason Dick James was in the story was the fact that they, Paul and Mary, were using Dick James studios for the audition that day.

  2. Out of all the Gibb brothers, Maurice has always been the most honest and open about his past so I think you can believe most of what he says. Although there is always the factor of forgetfulness and his succumbing to alcohol for a while in the 70s and early 80s so I'm sure there is a certain level of unintentional error. But I can barely remember what I had for dinner yesterday so....