The Beatles On Another Timeline
by Walter Rimler
Until the following interview, in a much abridged form, was published in You magazine last spring, Rhett Law was known for two moments in his life. The first occurred in the winter of 1964 when Ringo Starr replaced him as drummer in the now-fabled Beatles rock group—minutes before that group made its American debut on the Ed Sullivan television program. Law became known to millions during a now famous on-camera scuffle with Sullivan and network pages.
A second and happier minute in the spotlight occurred during the summer of 1967, when the “American Beatle" arose out of retirement and seclusion to give idealistic world youth their anthem, "All You Need is Love."
Until I was able to arrange this interview, Mr. Law had for many years been all but invisible. Die-hard Beatle fans knew that he was holed up in his Malibu beach house and that he could be seen in public very occasionally, walking in the late evening hours on the beach in front of his house, or every once in a while sitting at his favorite table in the nearby Sea Lion restaurant just off the Pacific Coast Highway.
He was a mystery man, which made me determined to interview him. Surprisingly, I found it easy to penetrate the wall. From the start, I had the feeling that he had a purpose in mind when he agreed to host me in his home and let me question him at length, my tape recorder on. I was certainly correct! (In fact, he had more than one purpose). The story he had to tell has made Mr. Law famous all over again.
Now: was his screwy, farfetched fable a joke? Or was it part of a scheme to get a toehold back into the world's consciousness? Did the man actually believe what he said? And if he did, was he crazy? Is there any chance that there is some truth in all of this? Or has Mr. Law, running low on funds, concocted a gambit to get the attention—remunerative attention—of those who believe in the paranormal?
I'm not going to join the pundits and psychoanalysts except to say that he seemed to me a lucid, if troubled, man who had nothing really to gain and much to lose by saying what he did. Since publication of the interview, he has made no public appearances; on the contrary, he has guarded his privacy even more zealously than before. He still sits in his simple beach house, mainly in the living room looking out on the covered redwood deck which, in turn, looks onto the sea. It is a very comfortable spot from which to contemplate what has come before and what will come next. He is, he has told me, living in the past and in the future while the present "is making itself scarce...this is the way of middle age. The past is a treasure trove, the future is a scary mystery, and the present is nothing but a comfortable chair from which to look at one and then the other."
And there he sits, having told me, and you, the following story. But now I'll let you judge him for yourself. Here, for the first time in its entirety, is my interview with former Beatle Rhett Law.
A. Is it rolling, Bob? (Hello, all you Dylan fans out there!) I mean, is it rolling, Rita?
Q. It's rolling, Rhett.
A. Then let the games begin.
Q. Well, my first question has to be, why have you consented to this interview after refusing so many and after being out of the public eye for so long?
A. I wanted to meet you.
A. The tape recorder can't capture that lovely, innocent blinking, People Out There.
Q. Well, before we get to my eyes, can we talk about what you've been doing lately?
A. Thinking about you. Okay, okay, Dear, I can see I'm making you uncomfortable. But you are making me uncomfortable. Why did you wear comfortable clothes? Women who wear comfortable clothes drive me crazy!
Q. Well, let's get past this, okay? I've got ten pages of questions here.
A. And none of them will do you a damn bit of good.
Q. Why is that?
A. All in good time. No, go ahead, ask away. You were on the right track.
Q. What right track?
A. You're the reporter.
Q. Listen, I'm going to tell you something. And I say it respectfully, so please take it that way. But I don't need this bullshit.
A. Jeez! What an ugly word for such a lovely lady! Have I been bullshitting you? I don't think so. But maybe I've been bullshitting for so long I can't stop. I don't want to bullshit you. The opposite, really. I've never been honest with any reporter in my life, but I'm going to be honest with you. I'm fucking nervous about that, believe me! And, being honest, being totally honest, I'm telling you that you are attractive and making me wish I was thirty years younger. Do you drink wine?
A. Red wine? White wine? I've got both.
A. Ah, a girl after my own heart. I've got a bottle of Chianti right over here. And I'm going to open it. And now I'm going to pour us each a glass and I am going to propose a toast to honesty. Agreed?
A. To honesty.
Q. To honesty.
A. And now I'm going to tell you what I've never told any reporter. The whole truth.
Q. The whole truth?
A. To your every question. So help me, God.
Q. Can we start with the Ed Sullivan incident?
A. Yes. The end of the grand experiment. The others wanted Ringo in and me out. I knew why, too—and it had nothing to do with who was the better drummer and not even a whole lot to do with the fact that he was from Liverpool and I was not. They liked him better, there was no doubt about that, especially George, who sometimes treated Ringo like a son and sometimes like a dad. Very handy. They all liked me pretty well. I was as good a drummer as Ringo. Probably better. I knew that if I could just make it through the Sullivan show I'd have my slot with the band because I would be a part of America's picture of the group. My face would be on the posters, the plastic cups, the ceramic plates, all that crap.
Q. You were so certain the band would be such a smash?
A. Lady, I was more certain than you can imagine. I just had to get through that one fucking show! And I'd made it through rehearsals just fine.
Q. You had the flu that night.
A. I had pneumonia, a fever of about 105. It made me break out into a ferocious rash. I dashed down to the makeup department at CBS and had them work me over. I had to hide those fucking pimples from everyone—the other Beatles most of all. But then, at the 5 p.m. dress rehearsal, I saw him slipping across the back of the theater like The Little Tramp. I knew it was all over.
Q. How did you know to fear him? Had the others made it so plain that he was in line for your job?
A. They didn't have to make it plain. I knew. And even if I hadn't known, I would have figured it out—and long before then. It was pretty obvious, even in Hamburg.
Q. You mean you were looking over your shoulder at him even then?
A. Look, I haven't spoken to Ringo for about 45 years. We never were and are never going to be friends. But I know the truth. The Beatles needed him. It would have been a curse against them to have kept him from the group. He was the soul of the group; he was its goodness. When you think of the Beatles and that little teardrop forms in your pretty tear-shaped eye, 'cause you're thinking of all the pleasure and magic they gave you—you’re thinking too about how they died so young as a band and how two of them died young as men your tear is because of Ringo, not so much what he did, but who he was. I knew that before I met him. I knew I was going to have a rival like that.
Q. Was that because you felt inadequate in some way? Because you were American? Because you were older?
A. Partly. Yes, I was too hungry, a little too fierce, a little too cruel. There was a fair amount of cruelty in all of us in those early days. Oh, I don't mean that we pulled the wings off of German ladies or slapped their babies around. I mean just a normal sort of adolescent cruelty, given that we were pretty much on our own, living by our own rules, and surrounded by strangers. But Ringo was so un-cruel, he fascinated the others. At the same time, he was like us; he understood, he was in, he was hip, he was cool, he was a fucking good musician too! But he was good. And I knew that it was going to be all but impossible to keep him out of the band. Still, I could have done it if I had made it through the Sullivan show.
Q. So, Sullivan tapped you on the shoulder at—what was it? a quarter to eight?—and gave you the news?
A. Sullivan and Epstein. Sullivan told me to my face, Epstein was behind me, guarding the rear (appropriately enough). And the whole thing became a blur. I guess I lost it. I don't think I took a swing at Ed, as everyone said. I think I just pushed him. That was the way I always was when I got into a fight, you know, never hit just push, because I always hated to fight and I always shoved, usually to get the fucker away from me.
Q. And then?
A. And then? There was a moment of total silence. I had shoved Ed Sullivan. It was blasphemy, it was just awesome. Then three or four pages came running, scrawny, bony kids, and they grabbed me and got me in a headlock, arm lock, back lock—like I was going to put up a big fight with a fever of 105. I just wanted them to leave me alone, let me go back to Leona and tell her it was all over. The big experiment was a big bust. But the cops were in the back of the auditorium and they arrested me. Of course, the Beatles were nowhere in sight. They were cowards, just like me; they hated a fight.
Q. What did you mean when you said the experiment was a failure?
A. If I tell you—and I want to—this time it'll be the boys in white coats who come to put the hammerlocks on me. Can I pour you another glass? Mine's empty. I'm about to tell you, don't worry. I asked you here for that, you see. But first let me refill our glasses. Now, a toast. Oh, you are lovely. Now, where was I? Oh, yes, a toast. To history and to women. You must not cheat on either! Especially history. You can't go back in time and make Tyrannosaurus a vegetarian. You're staring at me. You're thinking, are the rumors true? Is he off his nut? Is half his brain gone from drugs? Right?
Q. I'm wondering what you meant by "the experiment."
A. And I'm going to tell you. But first I want to say something. When I tell you you are lovely it's not a line; it's because you are and because I'm honest. I'm old enough not to be bashful around beauty, but to know that, whether I touch it or not, or whether or not it touches me, I am a part of it. I'm not a letch.
Q. Well...that's very flattering. Your reputation is not as a letch but as a recluse.
A. As a recluse and an eccentric. In a minute you're going to think I'm crazy. But what I'm about to tell you is the truth. It was an experiment. About thirty miles from here. There were two witnesses to the experiment and only one is alive: me. The other was named Richard Feynman—you’ve heard of him?
Q. The scientist?
A. Yes. Well, I'm impressed that you know that. I really am. You really are something, you know? Well, here goes. Are you ready? You look ready. Am I ready? I guess so...so...once upon a time...once upon a time...in galaxy far far away...in a land that time forgot and in a time that land forgot...alright, one more little sip here and I'll begin...okay? It's hard to utter words that are going to change your life for the worse. But here's the truth: once upon a time I was a 26-year-old unemployed drummer. The year was 1986. I was born in 1960. Are you with me so far?
Q. Well, you'd be crazy to believe me at this point. And I'd be crazy to expect you to. Anyway, it was 1986 and I was nobody and I'd been playing divey L.A. clubs for ten years, since I was sixteen, a pickup drummer with third-rate pickup bands that had absolutely nothing to say musically, even for the '80s. Their great wish was to get paid by the note.
Q. You're about to tell me that you are a time traveler.
A. Right. Ah, silence! When will the lady speak?
Q. Mr. Law--
A. Rhett. Please.
Q. I have to decide now: you're either pulling my leg or you're trying to make a headline or you're crazy.
A. No, you don't have to decide that. You have to decide if you want to interview me or not. If you do, please do. If not, adios. Because, basically, I don't give a fuck. I'm telling the truth. If you want to walk, then do it and my conscience will be clear. At least I tried. Do you think I want the fucking National Enquirer all over this place? I haven't given a fucking interview in eleven years and that one was by phone when they woke me up to tell me that John was dead....
Q. And you said, "I know. Now why don't you drop dead too!"
A. Well, I knew, all right, but not because anyone else told me. I'd known it was going to happen. So did John. I told him. But look, pack your briefcase and leave me alone and I'll be happy. Or, better yet, you stay here as a woman, not a reporter. But I promise you something. If you stay as a reporter I will answer your questions honestly. I'll have done my interview and it will be honest. No others. I'll have done my bit. I'll have done what I promised to do.
Q. Promised who?
A. The girl on the mantel. The urn. Rita, this is Leona. Leona, meet Rita. Leona, you won't mind if I flirt with this young lady. You know you're the love of my life. Come on, Rita, don't look so fucking freaked. We'll take our glasses and go out on the deck and look at the ocean. And then ask away!
Our interview continued out past the sliding glass doors and on the somewhat weather-worn redwood deck, where we sat at an umbrella table, right up against the rail, overlooking a ten-foot drop onto the cemented rocks of a little retaining wall. Rhett Law's house was more on the beach than any of its neighbors. It was hard to see how it had withstood years of winter storms. We were so close to the beach, in fact, that people on the sand were well within earshot, although no one seemed to notice that just a few feet away, a former Beatle was telling me a story that would, at the very least, stir the investigative adrenaline of the supermarket tabloids. He brought our glasses and the Chianti bottle to the table, and from his kitchen he produced a big bag of Fritos and some dip.
A. I love the beach. I'm just an L.A. boy.
Q. It's beautiful here.
A. Where do you live?
Q. North Hollywood.
A. I couldn't live there. I have to live by the water. When I die, I'm going to have my ashes scattered with Leona's here, on the water. So now, when I sit here and look out, I'm looking at my future home. Sometimes I sit here and stare at the ocean and wonder about the weird creatures living in it. Wondering how they'll accept me. I figure they might reject me, they might think me a little too weird for them. Although it's highly appropriate that I be buried in liquid. Refill, my dear?
Q. Sure. Thanks. Now tell me something. If you were born in 1960, where were you born? Who were your parents?
A. I was born right here in L.A. I don't know who my father was and I hardly knew my mother. She died of alcoholism when I was four, and I was taken in by my Aunt Kate.
Q. You've always been very secretive about your background.
A. Well, I didn't want to go through the trouble of making one up and I knew that if I did, there'd be inconsistencies. So, when I was asked, I said whatever came into my mind. John and the others called me the mystery man. When I let on that I'd played with bands in the South and West, they called me Tex and the nickname stuck. It was a better ersatz western name than Ringo Starr, don't you think? I had one of the best name—Tex Law. John especially liked the fact that I was a nobody from nowhere, because that's the way he felt about himself. He'd lost his mom and his dad had disappeared. Paul had lost his mom but still had his dad. They respected the fact that I never had either.
Q. Tell me this, then, what happened to all of your relatives, the real ones, from 1960?
A. Dead as doornails. There weren't many of them. Aunt Kate died in 1974 and when they were about to hand me over to a half brother of hers in Chicago or somewhere, I slipped out of sight. I went to live with the sister of a school friend. Her name was Tanya. This was in Torrance. Tanya of Torrance. I lived with her and her boyfriend for three years. I was their gofer, their butler, their maid, and a couple of other things too.
Q. Such as--
A. Well, I think you've already figured it out. It was while living with them that I learned to like laying low. They—and I—were afraid of me getting picked up by the police and put in a foster home or in detention. I spent a lot of time in the house, did my gofering at night. I quit school in tenth grade. I know, lovely Rita (now there's a song title!), you're thinking it awfully convenient for my tale that I had no relatives and no one for you to go check my story with. Right? Well, think whatever you want. But I'll tell you, having no family and being an unregistered human being is one reason Richard chose me.
Q. And who is Richard?
A. Richard is Richard Feynman.
Q. Oh, right. The scientist.
Q. When did you meet him? Where?
A. I answered a classified ad. This was in 1986 (the first 1986—or, at least, my first '86).
Q. What kind of ad?
A. For a drummer. By '86 I'd been kicking around for eight years, playing in one crappy band after another. I was out of a job and looking through the paper. It was all slipping away from me and I was real depressed. And then I saw his ad. Oh, Lovely Rita! Kind of catchy. I like the way you lift your glass.
Q. I like the way you lift yours!
A. I know you're looking at me and thinking, what an ugly old letch! Well, no one chooses how they look! Even you! Do you think I picked out this belly and this oversized head? Do you think they are mine the way my words are mine? Do you think I'm proud of the white curlies on my chest? But, you see, God played this trick on me. He rationed my melanin and cut the strings on my muscle tone and put a thousand signs of aging and death all over my body and then he turned up the level of my desire! Every once in a while I lean off the deck here and spear a young fish, wiggling and fresh in her thong bikini. But mainly I just sit here waiting for the end—the end of my fucking desire. But the end is not in sight—not while you are! What I'm trying to say, Lovely Rita, is that I'm not a letch. If I had my way I'd be free of all this ogling crap. I'd make it so the volume knob for desire is turned down and the one for love turned up. Make them true stereo!
A. With Dolby.
Q. Right! Is this the wine talking? Are you and I sitting back—the real you and me—and are the grapes talking for us? Is that the way the plant kingdom makes its views known? Look, why do you think I gave you this interview? Sure, I knew you looked good. But a million women look good and a fair number of them still want to bag a Beatle. No, I like the way you write, the you inside. Ever think about the strangeness of lovemaking—you are so turned on by the outside that you want to get into the inside. But what is the inside? Not very appealing unless you're a surgeon. You want the real inside, the soul. No, this isn't Chianti talking now. Anyway, where were we?
Q. The ad.
Q. The newspaper ad. You know, Richard Feynman.
A. The ad. The ad. It was a Help Wanted ad and it said something like, "Drummer, $10,000, extraordinary travel opportunities." Something like that.
Q. And this was in 1986.
A. This was in 1986, but not your 1986. I was '86ed out of your '86! But I saw the ad and I, like ten thousand others in L.A., and probably all over the country, started calling the number but it was impossible to get through. I stayed up all night calling, finally got through at about three in the morning. I got an answering machine that gave me a quiz—questions like, "Who wrote Be-Bop-A-Lula?" and "How old are you?" and "Do you live alone?" And I answered them one by one into the tape. The next day, Feynman called and we chatted and he asked me more questions. Then he said that he wanted to interview me in person. He wouldn't say who he was and what kind of band he was interviewing me for; just that it paid well and that it would involve travel. Lots of travel. A couple of days later he picked me up in his car—a beat-up old Volvo—and started asking more questions as we zoomed from Santa Monica, where I was living, on up the coast. He put a tape in—it was Elvis and "Mystery Train”—and he started beating time to it on the dashboard, driving with one hand. A whole string of oldies followed that one: "Walking To New Orleans," "Long Tall Sally," "To Know Him Is To Love Him." I got the idea that he was recruiting an oldies band, but when I asked him he said something strange like, "The band in question plays these songs but they're not oldies." "You mean it's a bunch of forty-year-olds?" "Yep," he said. "Those that are still alive." "Holy shit!" I thought to myself. "The guy is crazy." And I began thinking that I'd bail out of the car as soon as it got off the freeway. "Are you in the band?" I asked. He was over fifty. "Nope," he said, "although I did play frigideira in a samba group." I remember that—the frigideira bit—because I knew what a frigideira was. When I was a kid I used to go to UCLA and hang out there, always end up in the music building. I'd go downstairs where they had all these weird instruments and sometimes you'd hear people playing them. I was a kid in a candy store—a kid without a nickel. I don't think I ever said a word to anyone or anyone to me. I didn't feel like it was my right to speak there. Anyway, where was I?
Q. He was telling you about his samba band.
A. Yeah. Well, that made me feel a little more comfortable. I was thinking, "Maybe the guy is a musician." And then he leaned over toward me, his head down between my knees! Took his eyes completely off the road! "What the fuck are you doing?" I said. He was reaching into the glove compartment to get a couple of drumsticks. He was going to give me my audition right there in the car!
Q. How? What did you do?
A. I took the sticks and played the hell out of his dashboard, his windshield, his stick shift. The stick shift was my bass drum, the dash was my snares and the sun visor was my high hat! I auditioned to "Summertime Blues" and "Be-Bop-a-Lula" while we were driving up the Pacific Coast Highway, not far from here.
Q. Okay. Now tell me—boy, that afternoon sun is bright!
A. It's the hottest time of the day, the sun's on a direct beeline into the house.
Q. Tell me about how he broke the news to you—about what he was really up to.
A. He told me at the Sea Lion. Bought me my lunch—the best lunch I'd ever had—chatted me up about all sorts of stuff. He could tell I loved music and he was very happy when I told him how I liked to switch the radio dial around and listen to a variety of stuff, from Mexican to the symphony concerts on KFAC. He was happy that I was quick—or, at least, not stupid. He was happy that I was an orphan. I guess he liked my drumming. He grilled me about dead old rock stars like Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly. How did I feel about them? Did I know their songs? Did I know when they died? How they died? He quizzed me. "Who wrote 'Watch Your Step?'" Bobby Parker. His eyes brightened. He asked me about personal stuff. Did I have any prejudices against Blacks, Jews? He probed around. Was I religious? Dogmatic? Could I take a joke? Make a joke? Was I rigid? Locked in in some way? And then about sex. Was I gay?
Q. And you just sat there answering all of that, not knowing who he was or what he was getting at?
A. Look, he'd already earned it. I was having a steak with those fat French fries and all the beers I could order. Shit, I would have told him anything. When he asked me if I was gay—at I guess it was the beer—but I began telling him about when I'd been living with Tanya and her boyfriend. There were things I'd done then. I mean, I wasn't trying to hide anything. He listened and told me he was going to be honest and come right out with it. I thought, "Oh, here we go, this whole thing is a setup so that he can make a pass at me." But then he said that if I was gay it wouldn't work. I'd never get into this band. I told him it was women for me.
Q. Apparently so. Then what?
A. I'm going to have to kiss you. Sorry. Just on the cheek. Don't worry, it won't hurt.
Q. Didn't hurt at all.
A. You'll forgive me?
Q. Yes—if you tell me what happened next.
A. I'll tell you what happened next if you tell me what's going to happen here next. Once I was master of the future, now no more. Now, you are its mistress.
Q. I don't know the future any more than you do.
A. You know today's future. Today, which has seen its infancy and youth, is now a young man and it trembles because of you, Rita. It trembles to place its ambition in your hands.
Q. Wow! Well, no I don't know the future at all.
A. You don't know—you don't know yet. Hope and anticipation! Let's refill our glasses. And where were we?
Q. In the Sea Lion.
A. Okay, in the Sea Lion. I'm going to tell you what Richard said to me. He told me who he was, that he was a professor. He didn't mention the Nobel Prize. I learned about that later. He told me he'd interviewed dozens of guys and I was the first who had gotten this far—far enough for him to explain the deal. Then he told me about this other scientist and the thing they'd discovered together. I only remember he called it the "Absorber Theory." He explained it a bit, something about atoms, and light going into and back out of them. Then he said, "You're probably wondering what all this has to do with rock 'n roll. Well, you see, this absorber theory says that people can travel backward in time." I think I need another kiss. That's me talking, not Richard. Mmm. How nice. How nice. Listen. I don't know how to cook. It's getting toward dinner, but I don't want you to leave. We could order out. I mean, obviously, we're not finished yet. You shouldn't go. I mean finished with the interview. No, I don't, I mean finished with the kiss. Listen, you sit tight and I'll order us something. What do you like? Plain or fancy, anything you want.
Q. Whatever you like. How about pizza to go with the Chianti?
A. You got it. What do you like on your pizza?
A. Sounds good. I'll be back in a minute. You just sit tight.
I followed his instructions to "sit tight" to the letter. "Tight" because, after the three (or was it four?) glasses of wine and the fantastic story Rhett Law was spinning to me, I was spinning. I knew enough not to try then to make any sense of it. My job, as I saw it, was to let the story (and the evening) unfold. Even if it hadn't been my job that's what I would have done, because I was having too much fun to stop. The analysis would come later. And that would be fun too. Time travel! I loved it.
A. Have you ever been in love, Rita? I mean really in love?
Q. Not so in love that I'd die without the guy. I mean, I go on when love doesn't. You don't, do you?
A. I'm here. I'm breathing. No, you're right. I'm dead.
Q. Well, you didn't seem dead a moment ago.
A. You think I've been playing dead all these years?
Q. Have you?
A. Is not being frantic being dead? I don't know. Maybe. I loved Leona so fucking bad. Most of our time together, she was on the way out. I got so used to saying goodbye to her, that long, slow goodbye, that when she died and left me, I kept saying goodbye. My whole life for the last twenty-five years has been a long slow goodbye kiss to the whole thing.
Q. A few seconds ago...were you kissing me goodbye?
A. Maybe. Sometimes the line between hello and goodbye is blurry.
Q. Sometimes everything is a little blurry.
A. Then have another piece of pizza, it'll soak up the Chianti.
Q. Richard Feynman really sent you back in time?
A. That's right. I have no proof, though, except there's no reason I'd make something like that up.
Q. Well, tell me, how much of the world changed because you went back? Am I any different?
A. No. If I couldn't change the Beatles, how could I have changed you, someone even more beautiful! No, you see—I have to tell you that you, Madame Reporter, have failed to ask the most obvious question.
Q. Which is?
A. Which is, what was Feynman up to? Why did he care about me being a Beatle?
Q. Alright, why?
A. Because he wanted to change history—change it in a big way—and he was sending me as a scout. If I could change history in some minor way—if I could bump Ringo off the Beatles—without fucking up everyone and everything—then it was safe to send someone back to do the real job.
Q. Which was?
A. Hitler. To bump Hitler off.
Q. I guess that was a failure too.
A. I guess. Let me fill your glass.
Q. So, you can't change the big things.
A. Apparently not.
Q. So, you're telling me that Feynman sent another time traveler to the past, a kind of secret agent, to assassinate Adolph Hitler?
A. I don't know if he sent the assassin.
Q. Are you sure this isn't a novel you wanted to write but decided to save some time and invite me here and tell it to me instead?
A. That's for you to decide. You can take what I've told you or you can leave it. You can try to investigate it or you can let it alone.
Q. You're telling me that, because you weren't able to get into the Beatles, you proved it was inevitable that Ringo would be with the band—and that means that some things are meant to be and that, in a way, there is a purpose to it all.
A. Maybe. Or maybe I've just proven that there's another law out there, no pun intended. I'd rather believe it's another law. Otherwise, you have to believe that God intended Hitler.
Q. But you're telling me that some things are meant to be.
A. I'm sure of it. I was never going to get in the Beatles.
Q. How did Richard send you back there? What did the machine look like?
A. I remember being on a cot, lying under a thick, metallic sheet like the one they put on your lap when they take X-rays in the dentist's office. I guess it was lead. And he passed this ring over me. It was white and about two feet in diameter. And I got real woozy. I became this tiny O-shaped thing in the middle of my head. The me in my head got smaller and smaller and I was almost gone, almost lost. I guess I was fainting.
A. And I dreamed I was lying in an open field. It had the most wonderful smell of wild oats and anise. Gradually, I woke up. And that's exactly where I was, on a hillside in Pasadena. All those new blooms were like smelling salts, bringing me to.
Q. So, what did you do first?
A. I checked my pockets to see if I still had the money Richard gave me. He gave me $10,000 in $100 bills. The money was all there. But I wasn't.
At this point, we became quiet and there is a long silence on the tape where you can hear the clockwork, planet heartbeat of the ocean waves and the almost as rhythmic and equally wet sound of our wine glasses as they were refilled and refilled again. The sun was down, a breeze had appeared, and I thought about going inside to get my sweater but didn't want to violate the moment. Was a spell being cast? I am certainly not the kind of person who gives credence to stories of the supernatural or whatever tag you want to put on the claim that Rhett Law was making. The skeptical part of me was certain that he was handing me a whopper. It even crossed my mind that he might be a stockholder in one of the supermarket tabloids. Yet, the other part of my mind was looking at the ocean, now under a night sky, and it knew very well that under its comprehensible surface was a place as filled with convolution and mystery as the sky that loomed above it. Those were the two halves of my mind—each friendly to and under the influence of the wine and each half in love with the other. And that is what I was thinking during that long silence. I don't know what Rhett was thinking, but it was he who broke the silence.
A. So, tell me something about you—who you are, who you've been, what you've done.
Q. Me? I don't think my past can compete with yours.
A. Well, you have a future. A fabulous, fabulous future, my guess is.
Q. But that's only a guess, right? Or do you know?
A. You're beautiful. You're on your way. Your main problem at this point is whether or not to publish this interview. Don't worry about people laughing at me. Worry about them laughing at you. How's the pizza?
Q. Great. Okay, so some time tube has plopped you into a Pasadena cornfield. You've got $10,000 in $100 bills in your pockets. You're sick and disoriented at first, then feeling better. What next?
A. What was next? I hitched a ride to the L.A. Airport with two crazy teenagers who were driving under the influence. I caught a plane to New York. Another to Paris. A train to Hamburg. Oh, I forgot to mention a shopping spree in New York second-hand stores. Leather jacket and leather pants, a beat-up guitar with an old case, some photos of bluesmen and rockers to reminisce about.
Q. And you get to Hamburg and then? Tell me about Leona, how you met her.
A. When I got to Hamburg I wandered around the Reeperbahn and just about every window had a sign saying zimmer frei which, it soon became obvious, meant room for rent. The room I took (and there were plenty to choose from) was in an old building—one of the few pre-war buildings around, although they were making the new ones look old. I was the only roomer there. The landlord and his wife were an elderly couple who didn't speak a word of English. They didn't speak much German either. It was the quietest fucking place on Earth—except that there was almost always music playing upstairs. Symphonies, operas. I swear it was at least a week before I knew Leona existed. All I knew in that period was that someone seemed to be upstairs who never came downstairs. I knew that someone was there because I heard the radio up there going on and off while the alte leute were in my sight, downstairs. Leona and her grandparents slept upstairs. I slept downstairs with the china and silverware. Those people were very trusting souls. Anyway, I didn't actually lay eyes on Leona until my first Sunday there, when they took her out in her wheelchair. Every Sunday the three of them would go out and get on a city bus and go hear the concert at the City Hall.
Q. And what was your life like those first days in Hamburg?
A. Let me see if I can put this into words. Into one word: weird. Two words: weird and compartmentalized. Part of the time I was happy around the Indra. It was easy enough to meet the Beatles. The first few times I was staggered and nervous to be around them--
Q. You knew what they were going to become?
A. I knew their futures, sure. It was my own that I didn't know. I knew everyone's future but my own. It was strange. Only much later did I come to the realization that nothing is much stranger than anything else. Creation is very democratic that way. I mean, dinosaurs once roamed this earth, right? Now we do. Anyway, I gradually got used to the strangeness of being there. Just as I'd gotten used to the strangeness of my birth time and place. I'm drawing a blank here.
Q. You were describing your first days in Hamburg.
A. The Beatles were fascinated by me being an American, by my made-up stories of being knocked around in redneck honky tonks. They liked my drumming too. Of course, Pete hated me on sight, but I didn't intrude that much, just now and then, working myself in, getting my foot in that golden door! And I spent only a couple of nights a week at the Indra. Two or three other nights a week I spent at a little establishment on Budapester Strase, run by a very nice lady named Madeleine. There I began two expensive love affairs: one with German beer and the other with a French girl named Phoebe. Ah, Phoebe, where are you now! She charged not only by the hour but by the act. I'd lie awake in my room dreaming up acts and wondering what she'd charge for them! It got to be a great game! And then, a couple of nights a week, I sat in my room thinking about the crippled girl who stayed upstairs and came down only on Sundays. Through the floorboards came the music she played. She loved Brahms. He was born in Hamburg, you know. Another glass?
Q. Sure. Tell me something.
Q. Didn't you know as soon as you got to Hamburg—as soon as you got to 1960—that Richard's experiment was a failure? Because if Richard was eventually able to send someone else back to 1930, then when you got to 1960, World War II wouldn't have happened. But obviously it did. Or else my grandfather's been lying to me.
A. You're right. We'd know by now if he succeeded. I remember when I was on the flight to Paris. It occurred to me. I hadn't bothered to ask. I hadn't seen anything to tell me one way or the other. All across the Atlantic I thought about it and I began to get almost frantic thinking about it...millions and millions of lives...so much misery and death...had the horror really been nipped in the bud? I wanted to know but couldn't quite figure out how to ask. I couldn't tap the shoulder of the man sitting next to me and say, "by the way, did World War II happen?" Toward the end of the flight it dawned on me that I could find out easily by looking at a newspaper. The world would have been different in a big big way, right? It would have been obvious right away, right? Right. There it was in the paper. President Eisenhower. War hero. And Kennedy was running. Another war hero. Oh, well. The whole fucking experiment was a failure and it hadn't even begun!
Q. Unless Feynman's done it and we don't know.
A. You mean on another time line? I've thought of that too. But as long as Hitler happened on one time line we're back where we started. Anyway, there I was on the plane. I thought—“one hundred million dead—what a pity! But I've still got a chance to be a Beatle!" Human nature.
Q. I want you to tell me some more about the Beatles. What it was like in the early days?
A. Sure. But I want you to understand something. For me it never was the early days. You see, I knew. It was a circle to me—not to them but to me—the circle had been made and I was coming in on the second spin. In my mind, anyway. Look, it's cold. You're shivering. Let's go back inside.
We went back into his house. He closed the sliding glass door and suddenly the ocean was silent. I knew that if I had one more sip of wine I'd either pass out or throw up. So I stopped sipping and sat there and tried to be professional while we continued our talk, but craziness was swirling around me. And I was enjoying it. I kind of swayed to it.
A. Still cold? Well, we have three choices. I can get you a sweater. I can make a fire. Or we can get into the tub.
Q. Can I pick any two?
A. Sure. Just give me a second to get my fingers crossed. I can't seem to get them to cross as quickly as I could when I was young.
Q. The sweater and the fire.
A. Ah! Your wish is my command, sweetheart. Just a minute here...
Q. I really like your house.
A. Thank you. You can see why I'm a shut-in.
Q. This urn--
A. I painted it.
Q. Did you? So lovely. I can't read music. What music is this?
A. It's from Brahms. From his Fourth Symphony. Leona and I loved that piece.
Q. She was very beautiful.
A. And there she is now, ashes. And you think my story is strange. It's a lot harder to believe that a lovely, thinking, caring creature has become a pile of dust than it is to believe that someone went from 1986 to 1960.
Q. John didn't like Leona, did he?
A. He never got to know her.
Q. Can you tell me about the time he made fun of her?
Q. Well, there's not much to tell that you can't read in a dozen books.
Q. We've never heard your side of it.
A. It all happened, probably, because I'd taken her there in a cab.
Q. "There" meaning the Indra?
A. No, by that time we were at the Kaiserkeller. I wasn't officially in the band yet, but I was playing pretty regularly. I was always on the verge of having it out with Pete, and John liked that. He liked making remarks that would set us off. Anyway, the incident with Leona happened, I'm sure, because she and I arrived in a cab. She couldn't walk. I hated seeing her try to get on and off the city buses. I had money. So? It puzzled John that I could live like a beggar but then, whenever I wanted, could pull out cash. He and Paul were standing there outside the Kaiserkeller when we got out of the cab. And then we went toward them, Leona on her crutches. They knew nothing about her. I'd never introduced her to them before. And, before I could, John came up and began mimicking Leona's walk—you know, with that gnome-like face he loved to do. I'm telling you, it might sound like he was having some adolescent fun, but I saw the light go out of his eyes. John's eyes could sparkle. But when he was cruel, the light went out of his eyes. I took him by the collar and pushed him back so hard he fell on his butt and rolled back and hit his head on one of the display cases in the front of the hall.
Q. And then?
A. Well, in the next split second I had ten thoughts at once. One: let's kill the guy. Two: uh-oh, I've gotten myself kicked out of the group. Three: jeez, what if he's hurt? What if I've ruined his chances? Four: hey, maybe I'm the leader of this band now! Five: oh, shit here he comes. He was up on his feet and charging me like a bull. But Paul broke it up-artfully, of course. "Alright, lads, let's give it a rest, shall we? Break it up, lads, kiss and make up." Then, simply, he said "John." And that did it. The light came back into John's eyes. He knew he'd been bad. "Ah, fuck this," he said. "And fuck you," he said to me. And then: "And fuck the Alamo." They considered "Fuck the Alamo" a real insult to me. They didn't know I'd never even seen the Alamo. Still haven't. That night they made "Fuck the Alamo" into a drinking song. A good one, too. Now, of course, they're both ashes. She was crippled on the outside. He was crippled inside. I'm sure John's resting in an urn on Yoko's mantel. And Leona's here. Soon enough I'll be in an urn. But whose mantel? How about yours?
Q. I don't have a mantel.
A. I'll buy you one. Or will you mine. No, I'm going to be scattered at sea. Paprika for the sharks. Look: now that I've wined you and dined you—and given you the story of the century—the least you can do—and it is the least—is tell me about yourself. You're not married, right?
A. Hmm. How old are you?
A. Twenty-three. I look like Grandpa, don't I?
Q. If you want me to say you don't look young, then I'll say it.
A. Fair enough. The next question is—well, how should I frame it...positively or negatively? Negatively, of course. Am I old and repulsive?
Q. Do you want the truth?
A. Sure. Now I know why I never give interviews. Okay, let's have it.
Q. You're sexy.
A. Ah! I can die happy now! Bring my urn! Will you tell me something? What did you think when they sent you out to interview me? What was your first thought?
Q. Do you want the truth?
Q. I thought, "I'd better read a book about the Beatles."
A. Ah hah! So you're not one of the toothbrushers.
Q. The what?
A. The ones who collect us. I could probably sell one of my old toothbrushes for a couple of hundred.
Q. No. I'm not one of those.
A. And your readers won't be, at least not many of them.
Q. I suppose a few of my readers will be curious about your toothbrushes.
A. By the way, I have a brand new Oral-B, still in the package—in case that will make a difference.
Q. That's nice to know.
A. And I can get you your own tube of toothpaste too, if you're squeamish about that sort of thing.
Q. I'll keep that in mind. Have you thought about writing an autobiography?
A. Me? No need now. I'm giving it away free to you. As for writing something, though, I've toyed with the idea. A couple of years ago I sent off a script that had the actors speaking out loud while subtitles showed what they were really thinking.
Q. Interesting. So, what response did you get?
A. I don't know. They sent me back a little form letter saying no, but there was nothing at the bottom of the page to indicate what they were really thinking. [Laughter]
Q. You mean Rhett Law gets form letter rejection slips?
A. Sure. I don't suppose you have to worry about those anymore.
Q. I'd have to worry about them if I went freelance.
A. I doubt it. I loved "Canine Karma," by the way.
Q. Thank you.
A. But you were going to tell me something about yourself.
Q. Would you like a resume? I'll have one sent to you.
A. [Laughter] Resumes—now they are where you have to read the subtitles. What was she really doing during those years? Oh, how much resumes leave out! Now, musicians are really the least mysterious of people. You see them at work and if they're really good, you know just what they're thinking because it's in the music.
Q. I always heard that the Beatles were the most intellectual of rock groups.
A. Intellectual is the wrong word. Let's say, they loved ideas. Musical ideas. But they used them as decoration. They didn't mine them, like Brahms did. But that's what songwriters do. They're musical butterflies. John and I were the only ones who were also like that away from music. Thoughts and ideas would bubble in John's mind. He was too lazy to think them through. He preferred to just say them to people and it was by their reaction that he tested them.
Q. Like the Jesus remark.
A. Exactly. I'm sure that thought entered his mind as it left his lips. Maybe a split second before. And in that split second he thought, "Hmm, well, here's an interesting one, let's try it out on this guy." See, John and I were at odds about a lot of things. His being cruel to Leona really ended the chance that we'd ever really be close, the way he was close with Stu. Stu was another idea guy and John loved him for it. Stu had more patience with ideas and liked to think them through. But he didn't have nearly as many as John. But I had them too and we had some great times, great talks. It's really a wonderful thing to be young and bright and open-minded. You're on top of the world. I'll tell you, it's what was missing from my life before the Beatles and what's been missing since Leona's death.
Q. And what about Paul? No ideas there?
A. Just as smart, but he played things closer to his chest. Too calculating to get into a really good bull session. He knew he'd be lying awake later, thinking of all the things he'd said, wondering, "Uh-oh, was that was a dopey remark?" See, John didn't care. If one of his remarks was idiotic, well, he'd already forgotten about it and was on to the next one. But Paul is the kind of guy who, at the end of the day just before he nods off, goes over every remark he said that day, wincing at the ones that might, possibly, cause him some embarrassment. But Paul made up for that in music. In music, he could come up with all the ideas in the world without entrapping himself. And he did! You know, when you're in the middle of a scene like that—in Hamburg and Liverpool with people like that—you tend to take all those sparks for granted. You think that everyone on earth is alive like that. I knew better, of course, because I grew up in the fucking '70s and '80s and knew how dead things could be. From the Doors to the Doornails. So when I got to Hamburg and got into that scene—Stu, John, Astrid, Klaus and all of them—I knew it was something special. Not so much because I knew that history books would be written about the period. It was just that I'd always figured that only college kids had that kind of scene, a scene of mental anything goes to go along with the physical anything goes. And I'd always been jealous of that. Anyway, there I was in the middle of that scene and it was great and I knew it but I still managed to take it for granted.
Q. How so?
A. By worrying too fucking much. Worrying that I wouldn't get in the group. Worrying that these guys didn't much like me. There's no surer way of getting people to dislike you than by making it obvious that you're worried that they're going to dislike you. People like positive energy. They're attracted to dynamos; they don't want to be sapped. If you've got a good furnace inside you, you'll always have friends and lovers; you'll always do alright. You sure know how to change the subject. Maybe we'd better open up another bottle. I'll be right back.
Another bottle of Chianti made its appearance and Rhett, after topping off my glass, drank straight from it. He motioned for me to sit next to him on the sofa, which I did. And then we both lay our heads back, looking up at the ceiling.
Q. Everything's spinning.
A. Truer words were never spoken. Did you ever wonder if in the southern hemisphere when you get royally drunk, the ceilings there spin counter-clockwise?
Q. Do they?
A. I don't know. Maybe I can find out by kissing you.
Q. Your lips are salty.
A. Do you like salt?
A. I'm like one big potato chip.
Q. You ought to see a doctor about that.
A. Think so?
Q. Sure. It's not good to be made of salt.
A. It's not?
Q. No. Remember Lot's wife.
A. A pillar of the community.
Q. Oh! That was terrible!
A. Couldn't resist.
Q. Will you tell me something?
Q. Something about your experiences after the Beatles, when you lived in San Francisco in the '60s?
A. More interview? Oh, Jeez. Alright, alright. Fire away. Fire away! You know, you have a really nice face. Really. It's easy to see your soul in your face. It plays your face, like a musical instrument.
Q. Like the drums?
A. Drums, violin, clarinet. Your soul is a very fine musician. Believe me. You'll be lovely as a 57-year-old because of that. Excuse me, but I think I'm sloshed. By the way, you've never seen a 57-year-old man get on his knees and beg, have you?
Q. [Laughter] Not yet.
A. Or howl?
Q. You were going to tell me about your Haight-Ashbury days.
A. Yes. The Haight. Odd name for the main thoroughfare of The Summer of Love. Okay. Let's see. We came to San Francisco in '66. No one knew who the fuck I was. Why should they? I was nobody. I was living off the last of the money that Richard had given me. The albums I'd done in my PMS period had flopped. Anyway, we took a one-bedroom apartment on Stanyon Street. Rod McKuen used to come over to borrow sugar.
Q. Oh, come on.
A. Yes, he needed it for his poetry.
Q. PMS was the band you formed after the Beatles?
A. Right. Post-Mr. Sullivan. Never really went anywhere, although we had one minor league hit with "Baby's Taking me Back," which John and Paul gave me; it was like a charity donation. Little did they know...
Q. Little did they know what?
A. Well, think about it. I didn't need "Baby's Taking Me Back." I had access to a treasure trove of hits. I knew every fucking hit song of the next twenty years. I could have taken that knowledge and been one fucking big musical monster!
Q. Why didn't you?
A. Well, maybe I did.
Q. You don't mean "All You Need is Love"?
A. Maybe I do. But let me go on about the Haight. Leona was getting pretty bad by then. She was in a lot of pain most of the time. We lived way up in the attic of a three-story Victorian. We knew that taking a place with so many stairs would mean she'd be pretty well housebound, but we took it anyway because the views were so lovely and the light was so nice. From our front windows we could look out on the Haight Street scene, day and night. From the back we could see the Panhandle of the park. And you know something? There really were hippies. There really were. All soft-focused and gentle. Your pain was their pain and your happiness was theirs too. You know what? The others in the building would make sure they offered—several times a day—to carry Leona downstairs, fold and carry her wheelchair too. Whenever she felt well enough to go out, they were there to help. And they were there with grass, with herb tea, anything to ease her pain. I'm telling you there were beautiful people. It was no press agent's myth. Of course, the world quickly beat them down—and no one beat harder on them than the other, fucked up, screwed up kids who took over the scene. They ruined it for everyone. What's the saying—bad money drives out good? Anyway, I'd used up my money and needed more for Leona. So I became a thief.
Q. And you reached into the future and stole "All You Need is Love"?
Q. Stole it from who?
A. The Beatles. Specifically, from John.
Q. Tell me how.
A. How? It was the perfect crime. I stole something before anyone knew it existed. Before its creator even knew it existed. Although, old John knew something was up. He knew that he had some kind of kinship to that song. Anyway, I told him.
Q. You told him? You told him about stealing "All You Need is Love"? About time travel?
A. Yep. Listen, I didn't really feel all that bad about stealing it because, first of all, it paid to keep us going, paid Leona's medical bills, her cab fare for all those trips up the hill to the med center. But more than that, I shared the royalties with every musician on the record—including the homemade chorus, which included the people in my building, The Sweet Souls. They're the ones who really practiced all you need is love. So I didn't feel so bad. You know, they're all still getting royalties. And since no one is going to believe me about this (and maybe you're not even going to publish it), they'll keep getting royalties. Who knows, maybe the money's put a couple of kids somewhere through school. Maybe it's doing some good. You know, I didn't record the song to be a rock star. That whole thing—the film, the tour—that just happened. I rode it, what the hell, it was something I'd always wanted, sure, and I rode it for a year or two. Suddenly, I was famous! I was the former Beatle who was living in the Haight-Ashbury surrounded by hippies. God, it exploded! People started coming to my door, let me tell you! It was crazy. I became a force. Even the critics loved me. I can still remember one reviewer saying, you know, "only a drummer could have written so rhythmically complex a song." You know, the verse is in 7/8 time. Very unusual. But no drummer wrote it. John wrote it. Anyway, there were so many good musicians around in those days, good starving ones! I got the acetate and called George Martin, who I hadn't spoken to in four years and who was surprised and intrigued when he heard that I had this song. Anyway, you know the rest. The money I made was enough to buy us this beach house and we moved here and she died here. Then that was it. I didn't want to steal any more songs.
Q. You told John all this?
A. Yep. He sat here and Leona and I sat there and he was a little wary of her. There was still some tension and he wanted to say something to break it, but nothing came to mind. He just fidgeted. He was not relaxed. He was on acid and not having the best of times on it.
Q. So, how did you tell him?
A. Well, we just chatted a bit, old times. I told him how great I thought "The Word" was—one of his songs on Rubber Soul. He told me that I'd topped it in "All You Need." And then I told him. I said, no, you topped it. You wrote it. We went over there, out on the deck. It was late in the day, a beautiful warm summer day. It was almost impossible to be having a bad trip out on the deck looking at the warm yellow sand and the soothing sea. I just said, "You know that song is yours, don't you? Want to know how I got it?" And I told him, like I'm telling you.
Q. What was his reaction?
A. He told me to prove it. He said, "Predict something." I told him I was afraid to predict stuff because a lot of it was bad and because he was in a strange place, tripping out.
A. And, of course, he wanted to know what bad stuff was going to happen. And then I told him about Brian.
A. Take your pick. Brian Epstein, Brian Jones. And it went from there.
Q. You told him about his own death.
Q. So, why did he get on the plane?
A. Because I didn't know about the plane. The first time around he was shot.
Q. The first time around he was shot?
A. He was shot outside his New York apartment. He got on the plane to get out of New York City to avoid being shot. I told him it would be useless. You can't stop something from happening if it's something big. But he tried. He and Yoko did every fucking thing they could. Numerology. Tarot. Everything. Yoko had him coming and going on airlines, figuring, I suppose, that bad guys wouldn't be able to get on the planes with him. It didn't work. Getting away from the Beatles, getting away from being a Beatle, didn't help. All I did was make his death a lot more horrible than it would have been and got a hundred people killed with him.
Q. Well, tell me this—how different were his last years the first time around?
A. Not all that different, actually. You know, it was very strange. I think Lennon knew all along that he'd be killed, even the first time around. When I told him the future—his future—I think he accepted it as a confirmation. Maybe it was something he'd seen on acid.
Q. Did the Beatles ever reunite, that first time around?
A. No. Maybe I should have invited them to Leona's funeral. Maybe they would have all shown up with their guitars. You know who came? Birdsong and Philip, who lived downstairs from us in the Haight. They came in from Fiji. That's where they'd found a little hippie haven and that's where they were living. And I was a lot happier to see them than I would have been to see Paul and George.
Q. Tell me a little more about your talk with John here.
A. No. You tell me a little more about you, first. I've been patient.
A. What I'd like to know is are we having a "before" kind of conversation, a prelude to be followed, after we've made time stop, by one of those lovely, peaceful, intimate "after" conversations? Hmm? You hesitate there. You know, when I was younger I would have known not to ask. It would have been stupid to ask then. But it's not stupid to ask now. When you get old, you ask. Are we going to make time stop?
Q. Does that fireplace work?
A. Well, we're going to find out.
Rhett got up and while he built a fire I sat there, the tape running, and I felt very odd, as if I was about to burst into tears. He was a nice guy. I liked him. And he was probably crazy. I had to hope he was crazy! Otherwise, his story was true and the world was crazy. But the world was crazy. One weird story, a few glasses of wine, and you realize how flimsy sanity is. And then, as the protecting warmth and reassuring snap of the fire reached me, I got courage. My mood changed and I got into the weirdness. I suppose my soul played all of these thoughts and emotions on my face, like a musician, just as Rhett had said (a line, he admitted later, that he had used before).
Q. You know, Rhett, I am pretty sure that all of this has been a game you're playing with me. Wine, dinner, and a wild story. I love watching a fire, don't you? You can make believe that if you look hard enough at it, you can see the soul of the wood going to heaven. There's soul in everything. I guess this is the wine talking. Mmmm. You're still salty.
A. So are you. My anchovies are kissing your anchovies. You know, I really believe that we are surrounded by soul. I believe that. The fire crackling, the ocean churning, the wind whistling. With a little wine on my lips and then you, we become part of the palette...of course, it doesn't answer the really big question.
Q. What's that?
A. Why do women wear sweaters with so many buttons?
Q. [Laughter] You know, the tape recorder's still running. Want to stop it?
A. Let's make time stop.