Interview with Hugo-Award Winning Author Spider Robinson

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I am pleased to be interviewing Spider Robinson, whose books I have enjoyed for many years. And why shouldn’t I? They are often about music, humor and puns – and anyone who knows me understands why that appeals. (If you’re not familiar with his work, check out his Wikipedia page and be rightly impressed.)

Spider with wife Jeanne

Spider has a story in my upcoming anthology “Across the Universe” – a collection of alternative Beatles stories which also features David Gerrold, Gregory Benford, Jody Lynn Nye, Alan Goldsher, Cat Rambo, Keith DeCandido, Lawrence Watt-Evans, and Gail Z. Martin (among others).

So instead of the usual questions Spider gets about writing and his work, I thought we’d have a nice discussion about the Beatles instead, since he is clearly as big of a fan as I am.

Spider, what is your earliest memory of the Beatles and how did that influence you?

SPIDER ROBINSON: I was a high school junior in a Catholic seminary, studying to become a brother and then a priest: engaged to the Virgin Mary. They used to tell us we would be “God’s Gestapo,” and none of us even flinched. To shield us from mundane secular temptations we were permitted to either watch TV news or listen to either of the two records permitted, a Johnny Mathis and a Perry Como, for a maximum of fifteen minutes, right after mandatory sports. (The two Ray Charles albums I’d brought were instantly confiscated.) One day the news was entirely devoted to four weird-looking dudes. I gathered vaguely that they made music, and heard about fifteen seconds of it, but most of the coverage was about the immense crowds of screaming girls that swarmed them. At the end of that fifteen minute news story, I said to myself, in almost these words, Something is going on out there. Everything is about to change, somehow. And I’m in here. A few months later I was a civilian again, and could already play “Love Me Do”.

During those few months, I was visited three times by my family, parents and sister Mary, who had driven hundreds of miles to take me out to dinner and buy me new clothes. My sister made sure we spent as much time as possible driving somewhere, so she could spin the dial on the car radio for me. I have never satisfactorily thanked her for that.

The new book I’ve co-edited which features a story from Spider

It absolutely didn’t matter what station came in best: nobody on the air was playing anything but the Beatles, who owned the whole Top Ten while several others of theirs waited their turn. I tried to memorize every note, and even succeeded….but had most of them in the wrong order or song. “She loves that I want to hold your long tall taste of honey don’t…” I wish now I had recorded what I thought the songs were, for study.

VENTRELLA: Culturally, do you think they are given enough, not enough, or too much credit for both their influence?

ROBINSON: All of the above. I believe anyone sensible who was born in any other age, past or future, would envy me and my cohort. We were given heroes so amazing, the very first time the entire planet heard a song at the same time, it was called “All You Need Is Love.” By which it did not mean just sex. How can you possibly overestimate how cool that is? No matter what happened next, whether we fell short of our dreams or exceeded them, we had stated clearly, my whole species, that the thing we ALL wanted most of all was to forgive one another, and stop making life even harder. You think there’ve been a lot of eras in history when that concept was even conceivable, let alone expressible?

VENTRELLA: What is your favorite of their albums and why?

ROBINSON: I checked my iTunes, and my instinctive guess was eerily accurate: since 1984, when I bought my first Fat Mac, I have played every Beatles album roughly the same number of times. I won’t bore you with the calculations needed to say so with confidence. Even MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR, conceived and realized as the group was in shock and mourning for their Father, produced some of their most enduring work.

VENTRELLA: What do you think caused them to break up?

ROBINSON: Fookin’ money. And Daddy’s premature death.

VENTRELLA: How about the solo years – who do you think had the best solo career musically (as opposed to financial success)?

ROBINSON: Paul. He’s lasted. He will run out of air before he runs out of irresistible hooks. Who has too many of those?

VENTRELLA: What are your favorites of the solo albums?

ROBINSON: THE CONCERT FOR BANGLA DESH, ALL THINGS MUST PASS, TUG OF WAR, DOUBLE FANTASY, FL0WERS IN THE DIRT, IMAGINE, OCEAN’S KINGDOM, KISSES ON THE BOTTOM, WALLS AND BRIDGES, RINGO

VENTRELLA: I recall seeing you at a convention once where you did a concert and played (among other things) “Here Today” – Paul’s song about John. It obviously meant something to you. What are your memories about John’s last night? How did that affect you?

ROBINSON: I spent most of that night and following morning either hugging Jeanne or on the phone with people we love, sharing our horror and insupportable grief and profound sadness. In every conversation we spoke of how appalling it was that we meant so much to each other, yet had allowed so much time to pass that it taken something like this to get us talking again. So even in death Johnny taught us, we decided. He always had a knack for instructing us even as he broke our heart.

VENTRELLA: Have you ever seen any of them in concert? What was it like?

ROBINSON: On the evening of August 15, 1965, I was present at the Stadium of Shea when Brenda Holloway, King Curtis, the stunning Sounds Incorporated, the Young Rascals, Cannibal & The Headhunters, and the band James Taylor always called The Four Singing Beatles, all successfully conspired to entertain us. Marvin Gaye was introduced but did not sing, and Mick and Keef were there but never left the dugout. The girl I was going steady with at the time, Kathy Allen, had entered a Cousin Bruce Morrow contest on WABC-AM radio and won four tickets. I hope she’s well and happy today.

Meeting the First Lady

The first thing I want to say is, because we had lousy seats, I could hear the music just great.

We were just a smidge to the right of home plate….so high up we could have gained more altitude only with jetpacks. Fortunately we were smart enough to have brought excellent binoculars. But most important: we were so high, in so many ways, that we were several rows above the thick cloud of nicotine and THC smoke that sat over the entire stadium….containing the screams beneath it. All we could hear was the Beatles, well mixed, on the house PA system, which though by no means concert standard, was much better than the average transistor radio of those days. We heard every note, with better fidelity than most of our parents’ home stereos (if we were lucky enough to have stereo) could have provided.

It’s been edited out of every documentary or memoir I’ve ever seen, but one of my favorite moments was when one enterprising young New Yorker somehow scaled the centerfield wall at the right field side, ran broken-field through a thousand moonlighting cops full of donuts, and reached second-base untouched. He leaped as high as he could, managed to briefly tug the back of Ringo’s jacket. Without losing the beat, let alone his seat, Ring glanced over his shoulder, tossed the kid a quick salute with a drumstick, and the lad waved back with a huge grin. A thousand flashbulbs went off. Then, just in time, he evaded five closing cops, ran broken-field all the way back to the centerfield wall, and started over. One cop who’d had coffee instead of beer managed to grab his ankle. The boy kicked the cop square in the face, and went over the wall to a standing ovation. Ah, youth! In the London of P.G. Wodehouse, it was once common for young men to knock policemen’s hats off, but New York is a tougher town. I’ve often wished I knew his name.

I have one other story about the Beatles at Shea, but I do not want to tell it here, now. Ask me sometime when I’m drunk.

VENTRELLA: Ringo often gets overlooked both as a drummer and as a solo act. What is your opinion of his drumming?

ROBINSON: I’ve listened to dozens of hours of Beatles outtakes: takes that were halted because somebody fucked up. Happens to all groups. Hit a clam, forgot a lyric, dropped their guitar pick, couldn’t suppress a cough, Geoff Emerick hit a wrong button in the booth, a million reasons. By now I’m pretty confident I’ve heard every one there is, at least once. I have never once heard a mistake that was Ringo’s fault. He never blew a take. That’s eerie. Man, Buddy Rich made mistakes sometimes, OK? In the whole Beatles catalog I’m aware of just one time when Ringo failed to keep metronomically perfect time: halfway through “You Won’t See Me,” he slows down just a shaved vaginal hair (the finest kind there is). I don’t know if he ever invented anything, but he did play at least four different licks I’d never heard before in popular music, and sadly have never heard since because they’re just so iconically associated with him. (“Ticket To Ride,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Come Together,” “Yer Blues”)

VENTRELLA: I think Ringo had some great solo albums when he was working with Mark Hudson, but less so when he’s on his own. Your opinion?

ROBINSON: Agree. Except for RINGO. And you know what? As he ages, Ringo’s range has increased. He has several more notes on the top end now, which Paul cannot claim. And he’s learned a lot about how to use it. He’s just sui generis. He should’ve been dead decades ago, medically speaking. When they first came up, he was asked his ambition. He said, “To end up….sort of unforgettable.” He achieved it long ago.

VENTRELLA: What’s your favorite songs of theirs to play as a musician?

ROBINSON: “Michelle,” or “I Should Have Known Better,” or, if there are two other voices around, “Because.” “Till There Was You” is another favorite, but that’s Meredith Willson’s — same guy who wrote The Unsinkable Molly Brown” as well as “The Music Man”… and might’ve died poor if a Beatle had not liked one of his songs. Musicals don’t make the big bucks — or didn’t until A HARD DAY’S NIGHT.

VENTRELLA: Do you have a favorite Beatles book?

ROBINSON: I dug ‘em all. But Geoff Emerick’s memoir, I found especially informative about them as men.

VENTRELLA: Is there anything else you’d like to say about them that I haven’t specifically asked about?

ROBINSON: I’d just like to say this (and you must bear in mind I’m Irish myself, out of County Meath): thank God for the Potato Famine! If you ever hear some mad Mick has invented or stolen a time machine, and intends to go back and prevent the indisputably tragic deaths of a million Irish—stop him!

Or else, like all the sad people in the world as the movie YESTERDAY opens, we’d all have to have somehow made it through the horrors and tragedies of the Sixties with nothing to sustain us but Dave Clark Fivemania. I don’t like our chances.

And as Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach wisely said,
“We are the people.
We are this season’s people.
We are all the people there are, this season.
If we blow it….it’s blown.”

Tool-building has its uses….but I think the only asset we have that’s as good as grandmothers is music.

VENTRELLA: ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is now available for pre-order. The release date is December 3rd, and there will be a release party with a reading at the Brooklyn Commons Cafe.

But let’s leave with a word from Spider about why the Beatles are important…

 

 

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