‘Nowhere Boy’ opens Aspen Filmfest 2010
September 29, 2010
ASPEN – In the mid-1950s, singer Lonnie Donegan hit the U.K. scene and the impact was enormous, on a par with such later musical phenomena as San Francisco psychedelia, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” and the Beatles’ appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Prior to Donegan’s emergence, being a musician required years of schooling. After Donegan came along playing a style called skiffle, often with just a cheap guitar and washboard, any lad with personality and a passable voice could imagine himself a musician.
“Before that, if you wanted to play music, you had to learn to read the dots. It was a formal thing,” Rod Davis, who fell under Donegan’s thrall as a boy, said. “After Lonnie Donegan, all you needed was three chords.”
Davis and his mates got hold of Donegan’s record “Rock Island Line,” a version of the Leadbelly song about a train that ran from Chicago to New Orleans. The group of 11-year-olds were inspired enough to form a band, the Quarrymen, named for their Liverpool school, the Quarry Bank School. Davis played banjo, Pete Shotton was on washboard, Eric Griffiths had a guitar, and Len Garry was on tea-chest bass, the British adaptation of the American wash-tub bass. Handling lead vocals was a boy from the other side of the hill from Davis, John Lennon.
Were the Quarrymen a talented bunch? “If you heard us at the time, you’d say no,” Davis said from Newark, N.J., where the Quarrymen were preparing to play a gig at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Davis was so short on ability that he joined up only upon learning that the songs were all limited to three chords: “So if you’re on one chord, you had a fifty-fifty chance of moving to the right chord,” he quipped.
Davis saw no reason to think that, seven years after the formation of the Quarrymen, his bandmate Lennon would go on to music glory even beyond that of Lonnie Donegan. What did impress Davis was that Lennon had managed to wrest the microphone and position himself at center-stage for the band’s gigs at youth clubs, in between sets by jazz and dance bands.
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“John was the frontman, the lead singer, and the only singer that mattered,” Davis said. “We were lucky to get even one microphone, and he was the one who usually had it.
“I wouldn’t have known a world-class musician if it hit me over the face like a wet fish. We were just trying to impress the young ladies. We were just a bunch of kids having fun.”
In the Beatles, which grew directly out of the Quarrymen, Lennon would demonstrate that being a kid having fun – at least in 1960s Britain, as the country finally threw off its post-war austerity – could be a ticket to unheard-of stardom. As the Beatles became groundbreaking cultural figures, virtually any angle on their story became worth telling.
The latest angle on the Beatles saga is “Nowhere Boy,” which shows Wednesday as the Opening Night feature at Aspen Filmfest. Coinciding with the 70th anniversary of Lennon’s birth, the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Beatles and the 30th anniversary of Lennon’s assassination, Sam Taylor-Wood’s film focuses on the tug-of-war between Lennon’s freewheeling mother, Julia, who gave her son up for adoption, and the straitlaced Aunt Mimi, who raised John. The film stars Aaron Johnson as John, Kristin Scott Thomas as Mimi, and Anne-Marie Duff as Julia.
The screening will be followed by a performance by the current edition of the Quarrymen, a trio of Davis, Garry and original drummer Colin Hanton, who quit in 1959, weary of dragging his kit around on a bus. The band will focus on a pre-Beatles, skiffle repertoire, heavy on Elvis Presley tunes, but they will also play the early Lennon rocker “One After 909,” the Beatles ballad “In My Life,” and “In Spite of All the Danger,” whose original recording featured Hanton on drums.
Davis, who knew Lennon as far back as the early ’50s, when they attended Sunday school together, says the story of Lennon’s early family life wasn’t apparent to him as it was happening. “I have to admit, I was singularly ignorant of it,” he said, though he does recall Julia teaching the Quarrymen banjo chords, and offering encouragement, acting more like a big sister than a mother. “I never remember asking John why he lived with his aunt rather than his mother. He didn’t reveal his emotions to his male friends. None of us did. It would have been highly embarrassing and very inappropriate.”
In 1957, a year after the founding of the Quarrymen, Davis drifted out of the group, to be replaced by someone with genuine musical ability – Paul McCartney. “He could actually play guitar chords,” Davis noted.
The last time Davis saw Lennon was in 1962, when the two were crossing a street in Liverpool. Lennon wanted to know what instrument his old friend was playing, and if he might play drums for some gigs in Hamburg – what would turn out to be a significant, extended residency for the nascent Beatles. But Davis, hooked on bluegrass and old-timey music, had stuck with banjo, and had to turn down the offer.
Though he made a career for himself as a language teacher, and then in marketing in the tourism industry, Davis remained a semi-pro musician. His bands often opened for bluegrass acts touring in the U.K. In 1997, when the Liverpool club the Cavern celebrated its 40th birthday, an impromptu reunion of the Quarrymen was staged, as a TV crew attempted to re-create the moment when Lennon and McCartney met. The reunion snowballed, and the Quarrymen have played regularly since, with tours of Cuba, Russia, Spain and Italy. Their current U.S. tour began last week with a performance to accompany the New York premiere of “Nowhere Boy,”
The jobs of teacher, marketer and musician fit Davis better than talent scout. Had it been up to Davis, Lennon, who attended the Liverpool College of Art, would have remained a visual artist.
“He was brilliant with a pen,” Davis said. “He was good in front of a band, but his real talent was his caricatures. They were wicked.”
While Davis isn’t portrayed in the film, he is pleased that the story of the young Lennon is being told, with the role of the Qaurrymen prominent.
“The Beatles didn’t just spring out of thin air,” he said. “We were the ones who listened to their mums and got proper jobs.”
“Nowhere Boy” shows at 7 p.m. Wednesday as the Opening Night feature at Aspen Filmfest 2010. The screening will be followed by a concert by the Quarrymen.
Aspen Filmfest begins at noon Wednesday with “Summer Pasture,” a documentary about nomads in Tibet struggling to maintain their traditions.
Aspen Filmfest continues in Aspen through Sunday, Oct. 3, with additional screenings Friday through Sunday, Oct. 1-3, in Carbondale. Highlights include “127 Hours,” Danny Boyle’s adaptation of the story of former Aspenite Aron Ralston; the British drama “The King’s Speech,” an early Oscar contender; the marital drama “Blue Valentine,” starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams and directed by Coloradan Derek Cianfrance; “Marwencol,” a documentary about a beating victim who uses an unusual art project as therapy; and the Surprise Film.
For a full program, go to aspenfilm.org.