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"Beatles Stories" Movie: Interview with Director Seth Swirsky
Beatles Stories, A Fab Four Fan’s Ultimate Road Trip is a Studs Terkel-like oral history told by famous musicians, recording industry technicians and fans who encountered the lads from Liverpool over the years.
Interview subjects include Oscar winning actor Jon Voight, producer Sir George Martin, Monkee Davy Jones, Henry “The Fonz” Winkler, Quarryman Rod Davis, tribute band members, longtime friends, ex-lovers, pro-ballplayers and even a U.S. president’s daughter. Director Seth Swirsky shot the interviews himself.
The highly entertaining Beatles Stories also incorporates archival footage of John, Paul, George and Ringo themselves, such as Lennon doing the weather report during the local news on a Philly station. Swirsky’s documentary made the film festival circuit and was picked up by Cinema Libre Studio. [Available HERE at the Rock Cellar Magazine store.]
The filmmaker is also a bestselling author, songwriter and musician. His first album, Instant Pleasure, won the L.A. Music Awards’ Best Album of the year in 2005; his second album, Watercolor Day, won the Hollywood Music in Media Award for Best Album in 2010, and he’s working on his third solo record. The busy Swirsky is also studying to earn a master’s degree in clinical psychotherapy.
Beatles Stories takes fans away on a magical mystery movie tour back to the origins of the Fab Four and beyond through interviews with those who knew them when – including a personal assistant’s eyebrow-raising assertions regarding Lennon’s politics. Beatles Stories is rated: “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!”
Rock Cellar Magazine: As an intro, can you tell us a bit about your songwriting?
Seth Swirsky: I’ve written songs for many different recording artists over the years. My biggest hit was a number one song all over the world by Taylor Dayne, called Tell It to My Heart. I’ve also had songs recorded by Smokey Robinson, Tina Turner, Al Green, Michael McDonald, Rufus Wainwright, Air Supply and Olivia Newton-John.
I’m a solo artist, as well as having a retro ’60s type band called the Red Button, for which we write very Beatles-esque type songs. This is something I started in 2007, and we were picked by Little Steven [Van Zandt], from the E Street Band, who plays with Bruce Springsteen and has his own show. He’s got this “Underground Garage” band type thing. There’s a chart on Billboard and we made number one for both the first singles of both of our records for “The Coolest Song in the World This Week.”
RCM: Where were you born and raised?
SS: I was born in New Haven, Conn., but raised in Great Neck, Long Island. I spent my kindergarten in Bayside, Queens.
RCM: Do you remember when the Beatles invaded New York?
SS: No. I was born in 1960. But I became aware of music in 1962 or ’63 – Peter, Paul and Mary and Ray Charles. Then the Beatles crept into my consciousness around ’65 or ’66.
RCM: Did their Shea Stadium show impact you?
SS: No, I can’t say it did.
RCM: Did you ever meet any of the Fab Four?
SS: Yes I did. I was on a treadmill in 2009 and I look over and there’s Paul McCartney right next to me at my gym in Beverly Hills! I met George twice in 1987. I was introduced to him in an L.A. restaurant and I told him, “George, we’re on the charts together. Your song Got My Mind Set On You is number eight, and my song, Tell It to My Heart, is number seven.” He said, “I know that song: It’s a great song,” and he said, “Let me introduce to the other guys at the table: This is Tom [Petty], this is Bob [Dylan], this is Roy [Orbison] and this is Jeff [Lynne].” He was basically introducing me to the Traveling Wilburys before they were even formed! And last year I met Ringo at a Hollywood awards ceremony.
RCM: So how did Beatles Stories come about?
SS: In 2004 I was in Liverpool; the International Pop Overthrow Festival asked me to come and play at the Cavern Club. It’s not the same exact Cavern Club, but it’s still on Mathew Street; the reconstructed Cavern Club. It’s still very thrilling to be in Liverpool, so of course I went. I’m playing music there and I took a “Magical Mystery Bus Tour” – that’s what the bus company is called, and there was a tour guide. We went to Paul, John, George and Ringo’s houses – it was amazing to me! There’s Penny Lane and there’s the Strawberry Fields gate.
So when I got there, I’m a typical tourist, taping, and the tour guide – Eddie Porter -I went over to him and said, “Wow, Strawberry Fields. That was my favorite song, and I’m here. This is amazing.” So he starts to tell me a story, and the camera was rolling. And that ended up being in the movie, him telling me a story about when Yoko and Sean were there on a private tour of the Strawberry Fields home, and they wanted to see some of the places in John’s life.
Then Eddie cried because Sean started touching John’s face when he saw the Double Fantasy [album] cover. But I didn’t have the idea to do it right at the moment. I got back on the bus and thought, “What an interesting story.” It was from a guy I never heard of, and I’ve read all the books. I’m not a Beatles fanatic but, boy – I can go toe-to-toe with lots of people in terms of the trivia and stuff like that. But I don’t have to know where Paul is and what this one’s doing and all that kind of stuff. It would be hard for me to name all of their kids, for instance. I mean, I know a lot of stuff but I don’t need to know every little last thing.
But I did realize if there’s that story, there’s probably lots of stories out there and people from that era, and that era’s going to be gone before you know it. I also have a very large baseball collection, which I sold this year, so I’m very in tune with lore. I used to write to baseball players back in the mid-’90s, and my letters to baseball players and their hand-written letters back to me become three bestselling books, with Random House and Times Books. Out of the blue I had three bestselling baseball books over seven years. I very much got into oral history; this was done through letters.
So I kinda took that concept and it’s a similar concept to Beatles Stories. I just got people to tell me stories on camera, as opposed to writing them down in letter form. It was something I was used to doing: tracking down people, some of them famous, some of them not so famous, but all of them with good content, and putting them together. It was like making a collage. That’s really what Beatles Stories was – I got all these pieces, then I had to re-form them in a certain way so that they told the story in a larger sense.
RCM: What other films have you made?
SS: I made a short about 18 minutes long called The Little Giant, which was in the Washington, D.C. International Film Festival around 2005. It’s about an 84-year-old man, Harry Danning, the catcher for the N.Y. Giants in the ’30s, and they were always in the World Series against the Yankees, so he’d tell me what it was like to be behind the plate when he caught against guys like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
[Partial List of Interviewees for Beatles Stories: Art Garfunkel, Klaus Voormann, Susanna Hoffs, Jack Douglas, Henry Diltz, Davy Jones, Sir George Martin, Norman Smith, Brian Wilson, Gerry Beckley, Sir Ben Kingsley, Peter Noone, Graham Nash, Davy Jones, Rick Nielsen, Joey Molland , Ray Manzarek, Denny Laine, Jackie de Shannon, Jon Voight, May Pang, Henry Winkler, Mark Hudson, Luci Baines Johnson, Chris Carter, Bob Eubanks, Frank Gifford, Ken Scott, Steve Kipner, Jack Oliver, Victor Spinetti, Smokey Robinson, Bernie Williams, Paul Saltzman, Jerry Schilling.]
RCM: How did you go about getting all the celebrity interviews for your film?
SS: When I thought of doing Beatles Stories as a full-time thing, I thought, “Wow, who would I get?” I wrote a note to May Pang – she wrote me back saying, “Hey, the next time I’m in L.A. I’ll let you shoot, do some stories on me.” I still didn’t know what it was yet.
Then I shot Peter Noone. Then he told me about this guy he knows, songwriter Steve Kipner. Then people would tip me off to others. Jack Douglas, John’s Double Fantasy producer – he had such a good time telling his story. He’s the guy who hit his head [passing out during a studio session] – he said to me, “Who else would you like in this?”
I said, “Well, I’ve been thinking about a couple of people. You know who’d I love to have? Rick Nielsen.” Right at that moment Jack Douglas took out his cell phone, got me Rick Nielsen on the phone – because he had produced Cheap Trick – and I’m on the phone with Rick Nielsen. I love Cheap Trick! And Rick says, “I got a couple of stories to tell. Listen, next time you’re in Chicago, we’ll do it.” I told him, “I’m going to be in town tomorrow, what a coincidence.” He goes, “Cool, I’ll pick you up at the airport.”
And that’s how all of this laid out. The same with “Hurricane” Norman Smith – the Beatles’ longtime engineer – he picked me up at the train station in Sussex, England. I said, “I can’t believe I’m in the car with Norman Smith!” George Martin said he thought he was dead.
RCM: It seems serendipitous how things just started falling into place for you.
SS: Very much so. You know, passion speaks.
RCM: When I first heard about your documentary, I assumed it would have lots of “fan” stories – by people who were not in the industry. But that’s not the case; these are famous music and Beatles insiders.
SS: That’s true. I didn’t know anybody in the movie – I knew two or three people beforehand. It’s just like I knew no baseball players before I made three books of baseball players writing me letters. And nobody believes me, by the way. They think just because I’m in the business and write songs, all I have to do is take my rolodex out. That’s ridiculous. I am much more an average everyday normal guy than I am anywhere near being famous.
RCM: Was there a lot of interview material that you didn’t use in Beatles Stories?
SS: Yes. If somebody told a story similar to someone else’s, I’d use another one of their stories. If it wasn’t on the A-list, it didn’t make it into the regular movie. But there were many people I shot who told very good stories – Graham Gouldman [10cc], Billy J. Kramer, Felix Cavalieri from the Young Rascals, Laurence Juber from Wings, even Rusty Anderson who plays with Paul now, Denny Doherty from the Mamas and the Papas.
And then there’s all these outtakes of Norman Smith – a very important person in the history of music. He and George Martin made the Beatles songs. He was their engineer through Rubber Soul. They didn’t make it into the regular movie so they’re in the bonus stories, so you’re really getting a movie and a half because there’s about 30 minutes of that. I shot 80 interviews; 52 are in the movie. About 15 are used in the bonus stories.
RCM: What did you find out about the Beatles that you didn’t already know?
SS: That they were incredibly human, like us. We tend to think of them as gods. Like Steve Kipner – who didn’t know Ringo – said: When it was his birthday, Maurice Gibb says, “Ringo’s house is over there.” Steve says, “How does Ringo have a house? I didn’t know Ringo had a house.” In other words, gods don’t have houses!
Ringo wanted to show him a movie with a projector and make him dinner. What you realize is that Ringo was probably lonely- he was basically in the recording studio for the last four years with the Beatles. So to have a guy over to his house to shoot pool with, sure, hang out, anything.
It goes deeper – these stories go to the “human-ness” of the Beatles. Like when Ken Scott the recording engineer said Ringo and Paul went on top of the Abbey Road studio and looked out at naked women doing exercises [in a nearby apartment] with the biggest pair of binoculars he’d ever seen. Isn’t that what normal people would do? Think about it: They were just guys.
RCM: Was there any dirt dished about the Beatles?
SS: Dirt? There was major dirt with Tony Bramwell [who grew up with the Beatles]: That John and George never talked to each other or saw eye to eye. The Beatles to John were he and Paul, or he. Those words speak volumes. It’s an amazing statement to make. And then he says John was “a lazy bastard.”
RCM: And John’s personal assistant…talking about his politics…?
SS: Yeah. Fred Seaman said about Lennon and his politics that he “would have voted for Reagan.”
RCM: Have you heard the conspiracy theory that I’ve heard Sean say on TV, that John was assassinated at the dawn of the Reagan era because he was a counterculture revolutionary coming out of retirement. That one of the first acts he was taking back in the public eye was supporting striking workers?
SS: I have one word to say about that theory: Delusional. John Lennon, before his death, gave over $1,000 to the New York policemen’s association for bulletproof vests. He was not “I hate the pigs.” When Double Fantasy came out it didn’t sell. There was no rise of John Lennon and he was going to be some revolutionary figure. He was many years removed from that. He also slammed socialism.
By the way, Fred does not say that Lennon would have become a Republican. Fred Seaman basically said that he was surprised… John was talking about politics and he espoused some conservative beliefs. The fact is John was a family man – hanging out, probably smoking weed, writing songs, just trying to regroup his life. He made an album – that was a big deal for him. McCartney had made a number of albums in the ’70s.
Fred Seaman’s story is very simply: John met Reagan at a game – and proved it with the Frank Gifford interview: Reagan put his arm around him and explained American football to him. They weren’t talking about the Sandinistas or the USSR. Both of those men were two of the most charismatic people of the entire 20th century. There’s no arguing that; like them or not. But charisma is what they were about, and they liked each other. That’s really it.
Now, I intentionally left in the whole [Seaman] interview because I knew lots of liberals would get very, very crazed: “John Lennon didn’t like Imagine anymore; you’re saying he would’ve voted for Reagan? Well screw you and screw your movie!” If they watched it, they’d see, and I left everything that Fred said in. Fred basically said, “John could have been trying to take the piss out of people. He was known to do that.” So if you’re on the Left and really loved Lennon and wanna believe in Imagine, as a documentarian I’m saying, “go for it.” I gave you that chance. I didn’t take anything out. You could believe John was in a conversation trying to amuse himself, by getting Fred’s uncle [an ex-Communist] red in the face. Fred even says, “I marched in Germany in 1968; I looked up to John.” He has no agenda to push.
Every documentarian or filmmaker probably likes to think their film is going to change the world or make people think something different. I’m not even attempting that. The story itself is not so absurd. Lots of people go from liberal to conservative; it’s not that big a deal. Where it is a big deal is that it gets the world talking, and that’s a good thing, not a bad thing. It’s a good thing that people started to question John Lennon. Because he was a work in progress.
RCM: How about May Pang? In her tell-all book Loving John she alleged that Lennon used to beat her. Did she go into personal details about John and Yoko?
SS: I took her all over L.A., including to the house of Lou Adler -that’s where I think she made those claims. But she didn’t repeat them. She took me to the house where she had the affair with John, and that’s where John Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe also had their affair. She took me back to Phil Spector’s house and talked about how he shot a gun in the air.
RCM: You actually have snippets of some Beatles songs performed by them. How did you get permission?
SS: I did a lot through fair use. You’re allowed to use a certain amount, like four seconds here, five seconds there. I rarely used it, mostly because I did not want to take people’s ears away; I needed them to listen to the story. Photographs are another story – I don’t really want to get into the legalese about it.
RCM: Did you directly deal with the estates of the Fab Four, and try to interview Paul, Ringo or Yoko?
SS: No I didn’t. It really wasn’t about the Beatles themselves personally; it was about the people who surrounded them or just had a story to tell about them. I included the interview Paul does with [radio host] Chris Carter. But I had no real interest in interviewing the Beatles themselves or their families, because they’ve done so many interviews.
RCM: One of the funny things about your documentary are the near misses. I take it LBJ’s daughter was not Lucy in the sky with diamonds?
SS: No. When the Beatles were playing their first U.S. concerts [Pres. Johnson’s daughter] Luci was just a 16-year-old girl and new to the high school she was going to, living in the White House. And she wanted to be popular with all of her friends and loved the Beatles. Her father was a very serious guy, and she begged him, she said, “The Beatles are coming. Can you please invite them to the White House?”
He thought about it and said, “Not after what happened in our country and what we’re going through right now.” Because it’s just on the heels of the JFK assassination and he said, “This is a time for our country to go to work.” And what he meant by that was take our minds off of this terrible tragedy. But at the same time he had to disappoint his 16 year old daughter, and no dad wants to do that. So it was a beautiful father-daughter moment, and the thread running through it was the Beatles.
RCM: I’d like your impressions of some of the artists interviewed in your film, one word. Peter Noone?
RCM: Graham Nash?
RCM: Justin Heyward -The Moody Blues?
SS: Wonderful. He was really warm to me.
RCM: How about Brian Wilson. Was he warm?
SS: Oh, very much. After our interview he said, “Hey, how about a picture?” It was incredible. His publicist was shooting the picture, and he said, “How about another? Let’s take a few, just in case. You get the best one you like.” The word I’d use for Brian Wilson is “gracious.”
RCM: Smokey Robinson?
SS: Ohh. What do you say?! “Legendary.” To be in his presence was everything.
RCM: Sir Ben Kingsley?
RCM: Klaus Voormann?
SS: Historic. Because he went back to the Beatles to their Hamburg days in 1960. So what he says matters.
RCM: It was funny when I think it was John who pointed out that Voormann put himself into the picture on the cover of Revolver, which he’d designed.
SS: And everybody laughed at that part; I love that.
RCM: You interviewed Donovan on the phone.
SS: Interesting guy, he’s exactly who I thought he’d be. I grew up listening to those songs. He’s just that kind of mellow yellow guy.
RCM: America’s Gerry Beckley?
SS: Very, very nice guy. Let me into his house for a long time. He was excited – most of the people I shot were very enthusiastic. You could see how enthusiastic Brian Wilson got. He started singing She’s Leaving Home. People were just so very enthusiastic when it came to the subject. That’s what the Beatles evoke in people.
RCM: Art Garfunkel?
RCM: That was funny: “My Paul or your Paul.” What year was Lennon considering reuniting with his Paul?
SS: 1975 – because Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel had broken up, and so had Paul McCartney and John Lennon, obviously. That’s why I included the clip on the Grammy Awards, and John is saying, “Are you two getting back together?” And Paul Simon says, “Are you two getting back together?”
It’s fascinating that Art Garfunkel went back to John’s house and John asked him for advice. How many times do you get pulled into John Lennon’s bedroom and asked the advice about how to get back with Paul McCartney? We’re talking about the greatest songwriting team in the history of mankind.
RCM: Badfinger was produced by Apple, and Joey Molland discusses how hard George Harrison worked with them.
SS: That’s why I included that story. I know what most people want in a documentary. They want the hard facts: “Wow! I didn’t know that John Lennon did that!” Or: “Was Paul McCartney snorting cocaine while he was doing the vocals for Martha My Dear?” But that’s not what I was after. I went after stories like Joey Molland’s, where he talks about how George worked them.
They were just a band; Day After Day probably would’ve been a decent record. But George showed them – another band from Liverpool with four long-haired guys – how to make a Beatle record. Making a Beatle record, you’re on Mount Olympus. And for Joey Molland to be part of that? How many people in the world get to do that with George Harrison? He’s teaching them. You gotta stand around that microphone and do those harmonies all day and that’s why we got harmonies in songs like Michelle and Here, There and Everywhere. BECAUSE THE BEATLES WORKED THEIR ASSES OFF, DOING THEM!
For more information see: BeatlesStories.com and Seth.com.
Related Rock Cellar Magazine Interviews:
RINGO! All-Starr Band Reveals Their Favorite BEATLES Albums! (Interviews)
Donovan is BACK! 1960s Icon Is in Rock Hall of Fame. (Interview)
Brand New Beatles “Revolver” Biography (Author Interview)