Bill King looks back fondly on an evening of Beatles stories and more with the late Pete Shotton.
It’s always sad to hear about another of The Beatles’ old Liverpool pals passing on, but I couldn’t help but smile when I got the word that Pete Shotton, John Lennon’s lifelong buddy, had died at 75, because I have my own fond memories of him.
For those who might not be up on their early Beatles history, Pete was Lennon’s best friend from age 6. Shotton attended Dovedale Primary School and Quarry Bank High School in Liverpool, where he was a mischief-making classmate of John’s, and he briefly was a member of John’s pre-Beatles skiffle band, the Quarrymen, as a washboard player.
Although Pete decided music wasn’t for him, he remained a part of Lennon’s life after The Beatles had left their hometown and become famous. John bought a grocery store for Pete, later enlisted his pal as manager of the short-lived Apple Boutique on Baker Street in London, and made him one of the early directors of The Beatles’ Apple Corps Ltd.
Pete also was present when a number of Beatles songs were written, and even contributed the occasional idea that got used in the lyrics.
It wasn’t until a couple of years after John’s death that Shotton decided to share his Lennon stories. He teamed up with a very talented friend of mine, the late Nicholas Schaffner, an early contributor to Beatlefan and author of the acclaimed book “The Beatles Forever,” among other titles. (Nick died in 1991.)
Their book, “John Lennon in My Life,” first published in August 1983, and later republished as “The Beatles, Lennon and Me,” was a frank but affectionate telling of Lennon’s life, spending a large amount of time detailing John’s pre-Beatles years, complete with boyish pranks, sexual escapades and earthy language.
I had visited with Nick at his loft in New York City’s Greenwich Village during the time he and Shotton were working on the book, and Nick assured me I’d get to interview Pete for Beatlefan after it came out. So, when Shotton’s five-week tour promoting the book in the U.S. brought him to Atlanta that September, I spent an evening chatting with Pete.
It was easy to see why Lennon liked Pete so much.
The blond Liverpudlian, who was 43 at the time we met, had an extremely engaging manner and a way of making you feel comfortable. We started out the evening with dinner in a restaurant at downtown Atlanta’s Hyatt Regency hotel, talking about the book and The Beatles and all of the other sorts of things you’d expect a reporter and author to cover in a publicity tour interview.
But, by the time we parted company more than 4 hours later, we’d spent quite a bit of time sitting in the hotel bar, chatting about everything from the economy to the differences in British and American food. Pete also kept up a running commentary on the many attractive women who passed by us!
At the time, Shotton, who had a brother living in New Orleans, was involved with another old Liverpool pal, Bill Turner, and others in several businesses on Hayling Island, off the southern coast of England, near Portsmouth, including a couple of restaurants. (He had sold the grocery store that John had bought for him some years earlier.)
Pete’s restaurants eventually evolved into the successful Fatty Arbuckle’s chain of American-style diners all over Britain, which he sold around 2000.
But, at the time the book came out, he told me he spent most of his time running a betting shop (gambling is legal in Britain), the very business that Lennon originally had offered to set him up in.
Although he said he had not seen Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr in years, he was still in touch with George Harrison, and said he spent the night occasionally at George’s Friar Park estate.
During that same time period, two other Lennon volumes — by John’s former girlfriend May Pang and John and Yoko’s tarot card reader, John Green — were attracting quite a bit of attention for some of their warts-and-all tales of the Beatle’s life, and some publications had lumped “John Lennon in My Life” in with those books, which greatly displeased Shotton.
Although Pete and John’s relationship grew more distant after the arrival of Yoko Ono on the scene, Shotton particularly disagreed with portrayals of Lennon as being dominated by his wife.
“That’s another one of the myths,” Pete told me. In Yoko, he said, Lennon “met someone he considered his equal intellectually and spiritually. And, of course, he totally adored her. But, by the same token, he was still John Lennon. He was always prepared to argue with Yoko when it came to the crunch, where he really wanted to do something. He’d just found someone he respected enough not to walk all over.”
The picture of Lennon provided by Shotton wasn’t entirely favorable, but he said that was “because I don’t want to be accused of glossing over. You know, John Lennon was human. I tried to be perfectly honest about it. I think I’ve given a full picture of John for the time that I knew him.”
Pete said he wrote the book because he was reading stories about Lennon that were distorted and wrong in newspapers and other books. “Two friends kept encouraging me, saying ‘You’re the one that knew him best all those years. If anyone can put the record straight, you can.’”
However, if Lennon still had been alive, Shotton said, “this book would never have been written. And, may I say by the way, that I could have made a hell of a lot more money out of John while he was alive than I’ll ever make out of this book.
“I always refused to do it, although he used to encourage me. He’d say, ‘Pete, for God’s sake, will you please make some money out of knowing me.’ And I wouldn’t do it, because I thought the relationship was not only important to me, but even more important to John. … There were very few people that he could totally relax with, speak his mind, say what he wanted without thinking, and know there was no way it was ever going to reach [the public].”
It was a conversation with his teenage son that finally made Pete decide to tell his story.
“I was talking to my son, Matthew … and he was telling me about something he’d done that day with one of his friends, and it reminded me of something I did with John. I started telling him about it. My son had done a thesis in school on The Beatles … and he read all the Beatle books. I said to him this such and such that John and I did, and he interrupted me halfway to say, ‘Hang on Dad, that’s not right. Because in ‘Shout!’ [the Philip Norman Beatles biography] it says this.’
“And I was totally and utterly stunned. This is my son talking to me, and he’s contradicting me on something written in a book by a guy that never even met John! I said, ‘Son, I was there, I should know.’ In that moment, it came together. I said, I’ve got to do it.”
We talked a lot more that evening about John and The Beatles and Pete’s work with Nick on the book, but, long after my tape recorder was turned off and our interview officially was over, Pete continued to regale me with stories from the old days, including one that’s always been a favorite:
Pete was at John’s house one night watching television with him and the other Beatles during their Maharishi period, and someone suggested they meditate. Sitting on the couch, they all closed their eyes and did just that.
Pete, however, wasn’t really into Transcendental Meditation, and soon grew bored. So, he said, “I opened my eyes.” What he saw was Ringo, also with his eyes open, sitting quietly on the couch watching the TV while the others continued to meditate.
Ringo looked over, noticed Pete, and simply winked.
That’s one of my favorite Beatles-related images. And my evening with Pete is one of my favorite Beatles-related experiences.
That’s why, sad as I am that he has passed on, I have to smile at the mention of Pete Shotton.
— Bill King