Tag Archives: John Lennon

Good ol’ Freda

good ol' fredaBy the time I was born, the Beatles had been apart for over 10 years, and John Lennon had been dead for nearly 6 months. Based on that, I may have ended up one of those tragic teens who don’t really know who the Beatles are, and only recognize their songs from commercials.  Luckily, my mother kept me from that fate. She always played the oldies station at home, and particularly loved the Beatles and the Supremes.  She had me watch the Beatles movies (A Hard Day’s Night and Help! were the ones our video store carried).  I thought they were both truly hilarious, and I would rent them again and again and again from the Mr. Movies rental place near our house.  Really would have been smarter to buy them, but whatever. If you haven’t seen A Hard Day’s Night, you should.  It’s very funny, goofy, generally adorable.

By the time I was a teenager, the Beatles were my favorite band and my biggest crushes were Paul and John, not some guy from the football team.  I played my mom’s old Beatles records in the basement of our house.  I wished I had been born in the early 50s, so that I could go see the Beatles as a teenager, instead of the shitty concert choices that came to our city (Boyz II Men was the biggest group I ever saw there, but other choices were Amy Grant or Kenny G.  *sigh*).

When you like something that much, it feels like you’re part of it, even when you’re not.  If you’re obsessed with a sports team, you begin to refer to them as ‘us’ and ‘we’, as if you were in the locker room, center to the action.  If you’re a Harry Potter maniac, for a totally random and not at all autobiographical example, you begin to imagine how amazing it would be to have gone to Hogwarts yourself, to be a part of that world and that story.  But things like sports teams and bands are unattainable, especially once they become famous.  Hogwarts is also fairly unattainable for me, an apparent muggle.

But the Beatles, the most famous band of all time, had a young teenage girl for the secretary of their official fan club. She was not part of the action, she was not a WAG, but she got to see and meet and talk to them, work with them, joke with them, know them in ways that each of their fans would have killed to do.  Freda Kelly has never sought or accepted fame or acclaim because of her connection to the Beatles.  Which is part of why this documentary about Good ol’ Freda is so remarkable.  Freda talks about first going to see the Beatles at the Cavern Club, during their absolute beginning.  Back when they used to wear leather jackets and look a lot more rockabilly.

1961_cavernThis was before Ringo joined the group, even before Brian Epstein became involved.  Freda started to go see them every time they played, taking a long lunch from her job in a secretarial pool.  She would always sit/stand in the same area (2nd arch on the left), and she would stay to chat with the band afterward.

In the documentary, Freda mentions that someone else started the Beatles fan club, and she agreed to help out. But she doesn’t see why they really needed a fan club, because they weren’t very famous at the time.  The other girl got a boyfriend and wasn’t interested anymore. Freda took over, and when Brian Epstein signed the boys, he picked her to be their official secretary (in charge of the fan club, but also an assistant to Brian), and she quit her other job.  Freda talks about how her father was very angry at this decision, but she did it anyway.

I think this is very important to note–Freda admired the Beatles as people and as musicians, but she didn’t idolize them. She treated them like every other person, even once they became famous.  Anyone reading this who is famous, or might become famous, this is how you stay sane. Surround yourself with people who don’t give a shit if you’re famous.  Who will call you out on it when you’re being an asshole. Who won’t always give you what you want, just because you’re ‘important’.

The majority of Freda’s job seemed to revolve around answering fan mail.  When she first started out, she put her home address as the place to send mail.  Freda says she didn’t really think about it at the time, but suddenly there were hundreds and hundreds of fan letters arriving in bundles at her house. She and her father had to look through every single one to find their own mail, such as utilities bills that needed to be paid.  People would ask for crazy things.  Locks of hair, bits of clothing. One person sent a pillowcase, asked Ringo to sleep on it and then mail it back. And Freda made him do it!  I don’t think people were used to these kind of crazy demands, and how creepy some of them are.  I doubt anyone would send out Harry Styles’ hair nowadays, no matter how many times you wrote to ask.  But Freda had to answer every letter, and she did what she could to give each fan what they wanted.

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In the documentary, Freda talks about how naive she was at that time. Only 17 or just 18 when the Beatles started to take over the UK and gain real fame.  John apparently had to explain to her that Brian was gay.  Or as he apparently phrased it, ‘if you were on a deserted island with him, you’d be safe’.

If you’re wondering whether Freda dated any of the Beatles, she doesn’t answer that question.  She admits she had crushes on them all at one point or another.  Paul would give her a ride home and she’d quite fancy him, until John was in a good mood and made her laugh.  She declines to elaborate on whether she dated them, but her smile indicates that something went on with at least one of them.  But she also talked about how innocent she was at the time, so if you’re imagining a sweaty orgy or something, I don’t think that went wrong.  If she didn’t at least kiss Paul, though, she wasted her youth (in my opinion).

Freda makes it plain that Ringo was sweet, Paul was kind, and George was pensive and had the most depth.  Her discussion of John is, I think, the most interesting. She says nothing really against him, but there is a hesitation in her voice that shows that she didn’t entirely trust him.  He could ‘be quite grumpy’ as she says, but could also be funny and sweet.  Brian Epstein apparently had a very bad temper, and John once saved Freda from being yelled at by him.  On the other hand, she talks about having to watch John date women, friends of hers, while he was married to Cynthia.

I’ve loved the Beatles since I was quite young.  But as I have grown up and I stop to think about them in a more thoughtful way, I have slowly realized that John Lennon was a real asshole.  He has admitted that he used to be abusive, dealing with pain of his own by starting fights with men and by hitting women. He obviously cheated on his first wife, and more or less ignored his son Julian.  When you consider the fact that Paul wrote Hey Jude for Julian, you start to wonder why it wasn’t John writing songs for his son.  John once almost beat a man to death for joking about a gay affair between John and Brian Epstein.

Of course, later, he seemed to show some regret. He certainly treated Yoko and Sean better than he treated Cynthia or Julian.  He even wrote a great song about Sean’s birth–which was probably pretty shitty for Julian to hear. Given more time, maybe he could have made amends.

I suspect he was one of those magnetic personalities that make you feel caught up in something wonderful, only to crush your soul the next time you see them.  In my experience (taken entirely from TV/movies), relationships with those sorts of people should be avoided if possible.

When Freda talks about him, she never says anything bad, but you can sense a hesitation in her voice, in her words, that lets you know that she can’t talk freely and positively about him as she can about Paul or George or ‘Richie’, as she calls Ringo.

But she won’t say anything bad about him, or about any of them.  Her loyalty, even decades later, is really impressive.  Again, to future or current celebrities, you need people like this in your life.  People who don’t treat you like you’re special, but also don’t talk about you to the ‘media’.  Freda could have had a book deal and made a ton of money, especially if she chose (as some authors have) to focus on the outlandish stories and drug-induced craziness that the Beatles engaged in.  But I would rather watch this documentary than read a tell-all book any day, because she did know them as human beings, and she is telling her story, not their story.  She is telling us all what it is like to be adjacent to something incredibly important, and how it shaped and changed her.  I really recommend this documentary (streaming on Netflix) to anyone who likes the Beatles even a little, or anyone who has ever dreamed of being involved in something unattainable, because you do get a bit of vicarious excitement from hearing her talk about her ordinary life with the Beatles.

Book Review: NW by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith hasn’t had a new novel since 2005, so I was anxious to read this book.  I read On Beauty for a Contemporary British Fiction course I took at university, and read White Teeth just a few months ago.  I really like her writing style. Similar to Salman Rushdie, who I just read, she teeters on the edge of stream-of-consciousness, without making that annoying jump.  She is playful and engaging, sometimes traditional and sometimes challenging. I always enjoy the process of reading her books.

I have to say, unfortunately, that I was very disappointed with this one.  Maybe my expectations were too high.  After all, I like her writing so I expected to enjoy the writing.  I did enjoy the writing, the word choice, the playfulness, the scavenger hunt of dropped clues that gave hints of context, setting, and time. Her endings were never great, but I still enjoyed her other books.  Plus, as with White Teeth, this novel is set in Northwest London (hence the title), which is where Smith grew up.  It is also where I lived while I was in London.  This shouldn’t particularly matter, but I must admit I get a kick out of reading about characters wandering down Finchley Road or through Hampstead Heath, because I can picture it precisely in my mind.  I lived off of Finchley Road.  That area of London, as Smith herself points out, isn’t mentioned much in the history of English literature.  I’m paraphrasing horribly, but she says something like ‘Occasionally, Dickens would wander into that area, and (as I recently discovered) Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White meandered past the Heath.  It’s different from reading about Regent’s Park or Oxford Street.  It’s not as common and for whatever ridiculous reason, it’s special to me.

So maybe my expectations were just too high.

But the plot!  Her previous books were both well plotted, though the endings were iffy to me.  She doesn’t like to put too neat a bow on her works at the end, because life isn’t like that.  I can respect that.  But the other two novels followed the basic tenets of novel-writing.  This one, not so much.

Most obviously in the form of structure.  There are four parts to this book.  The first is about Leah, a young woman living in a council-provided (i.e. government assistance) flat with her husband.  She is depressed and lonely and being pressured to have a baby she doesn’t want.  She has a dog, Olive.  Spoiler***The dog dies.  Do not read this part while on a train. Part 2 revolves around Felix, a man trying to get and stay clean and improve his life. He has no interaction with Leah or any of the characters previously mentioned.  Part 3 is about Natalie/Keisha, Leah’s oldest friend.  This part is the longest, and it covers a period from the girls’ early childhood through present day.  Natalie/Keisha grows up, becomes a lawyer, gets married, has kids.  She seems to have it together from the outside, but up close she is a total mess.  Part 4 weaves the other parts together, sort of.  It’s not wrapped up much at all, and I was left with a lot of questions.  Smith doesn’t lay everything out for you, and that’s fine.  But by the end, I was wondering why we were given this glance into Felix’s life, especially considering what happened to him later.  And why did that happen to him? Since I’m given an intimate look at his life, I feel I should be able to answer it. But I can’t.

There’s also the actual structure, as in the paragraphs and chapters themselves.  Part 1 is Leah’s world, and the narration of her thoughts is told in traditional paragraphs. Dialogue, on the other hand is inset and bolded, single spaced.  Maybe this signifies the fact that her obvious depression means she is swallowed up by her internal thoughts and conversations with others take up less of her mental space.  Interesting idea, but hard to read, to be honest.  Parts 2 and 4 are the most traditional and easiest to read for that fact.  Part 3, Natalie/Keisha’s story is the strangest.  Each little segment of her story (usually 1-3 paragraphs) is told in a numbered sub-chapter, and there are over 180 of them. In them are sometimes little clues to tell you how old Natalie is, and what year it is.  It might say ‘this is the year everyone started saying …’ and you remember (if you’re old enough) that it was the mid-nineties.  Often the title of the sub-chapter is the key to its meaning and place in time.  I have a hard time reading titles–they tend to just not register with my brain.  So I would read the paragraph, and then if it didn’t make sense, go back and reread the chapter.  One chapter was about a musician dying and teenagers being devastated. I looked up at the title to see it was called Nirvana.  Ah, Kurt Cobain then.  early ’90s.  Another sub-chapter was about an incredibly gifted British singer, a woman with remarkable talent.  Title was ‘Beehive’.  This took me a minute, but of course, Amy Winehouse.  It’s almost like a game, a scavenger hunt.  If you were alive, you can piece together the slang or the events that are dropped surreptitiously into the mix and figure out where the story is in chronology.  I enjoyed this part, like a puzzle.  But I found that I was enjoying the game more than the story.

Smith hasn’t lost her ability to write, in any way shape or form. There’s beauty in all her writing, and there’s a fun in it that you won’t find in most writers of ‘literary fiction’. What I will say is that she’s taken another step toward being too-experimental to be comprehensible (to my limited abilities, anyway).  She’s venturing out of the Beatles and into the Plastic Ono Band, and if she continues, I’m not sure I can follow her.