After I made a rather gratuitous reference to John Lennon in one of my blog posts, a couple of people said I should do something about the Beatles and food. I think this is promising territory, what with songs such as “Mean Mr. Mustard,” “Honey Pie,” “Savoy Truffle,” and the mentions of “fish and finger pie” in “Penny Lane” marmalade skies in “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” and pilchards and “yellow matter custard” in “I am the Walrus.” And so on.
A little light Googling reveals that this is pretty well trodden territory, and I suppose everything about the Beatles has been thoroughly obsessed and picked over by now. But one thing I discovered was that the Beatles, especially in America, got their names and images on various food boxes and wrappers that were never seen in Britain: including bubble gum, ice cream bars, and an early version of Nesquik offered "autographed inflatable Beatles dolls".
However, one of the most amazing of them - the Ringo Roll (below) – does appear to have been a British promotion. It looks to have been a fairly unexciting loaf of bread and it certainly never found its way into our house, but if you’re going to eat unexciting bread anyway, you might as well have the Beatles’ pictures on the wrapper.
I was also surprised by how easy it is to find pictures of the early Beatles eating and drinking. I suppose there must be some pictures from those days where the lads look less than fascinating but in all the ones that I’ve found, whatever they’re doing, even when it’s something decidedly uncool - like nibbling a sausage on a stick, eating an apple, having a cup of tea or a half of bitter - they still seem incredibly charismatic and photogenic. This seemed to wear off as they got older. I guess it wore off less with Lennon than the others, but then he had less time for it to happen.
I always thought Ringo was the great wasted talent in the Beatles, not so much as a musician but as an actor. I think he’s absolutely wonderful in A Hard Day’s Night, and the picture below is one of my all time favorite images.
It seems to reveal something crucial about Ringo and England and the 1960s, and especially about English sandwiches from that period. That sandwich looks so dismal and joyless, and Ringo does look perplexed, but he’s not defeated by the grey misery of it all, he looks resilient and warm and lovable.
I guess that John Lennon has rather rarely been described as warm and lovable, and certainly he doesn’t come across as remotely that way in Albert Goldman’s biography The Lives Of John Lennon, a book which admittedly has been much denounced and discredited. Nevertheless I and trawled through the index looking for references to Lennon and food, and although there isn’t much there, what there is seems highly significant.
According to Goldman, and indeed other sources, in 1965 or so Lennon was described by a journalist as “the fat Beatle,” which obviously had to hurt. These things are comparative of course: compared to Mama Cass or members of the Turtles, Lennon was a mere stripling, but yes there was something just a bit podgy about the Lennon face in some of those early pictures. He was also of course the “four-eyed Beatle” but he seemed to be able to deal with that.
Lennon realized that the world will never really love a fat rock star, a lesson that Elvis never learned. I’ve always thought that if Elvis had stayed thin and Keith Richards had got fat, rock and roll history would be very different from what it is now.
Anyway, Goldman describes Lennon, as “a hunger artist” which seems to be going a bit far, and he says that Lennon developed anorexia (though I think he’s using the term in a totally unscientific way), and also bulimia (more likely) and that he went on a series of “punishing diets and dangerous.” Well he definitely did develop a lean and hungry look when he lived in New York but I’ve always thought that had more to do with the drugs he consumed rather than the food he didn’t.
Certainly when it came to booze he didn’t deny himself much. The brandy Alexander was supposedly his favorite drink, at least at one point in his life, but there seem to have been other times when he wasn’t especially choosy. A man who goes into a club (the Troubadour) with a Kotex on his head probably doesn’t care too much what he drinks.
Now, as it happens, not so long ago I saw the movie My Dinner with Jimi. The Jimi is Hendrix and the “my” belongs to Howard Kaylan, the less than sylph-like lead singer of the Turtles (op cit) and that's him above. Kaylan wrote the movie, which is about the rise of the Turtles from gullible teenage popsters to thoroughly sussed out (though never the less exploited) hippy freaks.
It’s a pretty cheap movie but there’s some great stuff in it, and some great performances. The centerpiece has Kaylan eating dinner with Hendrix in London’s Speakeasy, which I always thought was just a night club but apparently there was a separate restaurant in a kind of glass-walled box at the center. The actor who plays Hendrix – Royale Watkins - is especially excellent.
Kaylan and Hendrix have dinner – we don’t get to see what exactly they eat – but they talk about music and success and the dangers of the business, and the drink keeps on coming. Kaylan can’t keep up with Hendrix - few could -and in the end he loses it and vomits all over Hendrix’s new velvet jacket. You can see a ton of symbolism right there if you’re so inclined.
In the course of the movie we see lots of 1960s rock illuminati, generally very well acted though wearing rather bad wigs – Brian Jones, Frank Zappa, Jim Morrison, Donovan, and Mama Cass among them
And of course the Beatles put in an appearance. Lennon is played by Brian Groh, who makes him appear utterly vile. He’s drunk, arrogant and viciously dismissive, and he sneers at the Turtles, which was particularly hard on bass player Jim Tucker (who idolized the Beatles) and who never quite recovered from the experience. Drink obviously had something, though probably not everything, to do with Lennon’s behavior. And it was hardly an isolated episode.
One of the more dismal episodes described in Goldman’s book, there are plenty to choose from but this one concerns food, is a dinner Lennon had with Phil Spector at the Brasserie on Sunset Plaza. They were trying to outdrink each other, shooting jets of vodka and champagne from bottles into each other’s mouths, and when the food came all the could do was play with it and stick it in their ears and eventually get up on the table and roll around in it.
After they got down they started a game of “I bet you can’t do this.” After some fork juggling, Spector screamed, “I bet you can’t do this,” and flipped his chair over backwards and smashed his head violently against the floor, and Lennon said, “You win.” He always did have a way with words.
Incidentally, the Brasserie on Sunset Plaza is no longer in business. I wonder why.