They Don't Make 'em Like They Used to
Before Conan O’Brien in the ‘90s and David Letterman in the ‘80s, there was another—even ‘whiter’—dude who regularly hosted many of the hippest artists and promoted some of the best new music week in and week out: Tom Snyder. That this overly earnest bundle of contradictions turned out to be the ideal advocate of cool seems increasingly less ironic in hindsight, considering the bleach-teethed, teleprompter reading robots who currently spoon feed the masses with what is supposed to be ‘entertaining’.
By turns ostensibly too eager or too serious, or else too anxious to ingratiate himself to his guests, it eventually becomes clear that once the viewer’s cynical defenses are charmed into submission, the impossible is the case: Snyder was, quite simply, a decent and genuinely nice person. He was goofy, gregarious, and utterly without guile; in other words, he was perfect. The Tomorrow Show With Tom Snyder was not just big in the ‘70s, it was the ‘70s. And so, it was understandable, and more than a little appropriate for him to re-air an interview with John Lennon from 1975, the day after he was shot in 1980, to officially close the books on one decade and begin another.
The cleverly named John, Paul, Tom and Ringo is one in a series of DVDs commemorating some of Snyder’s more memorable moments, focusing on a particular theme (other DVDs include his “punk and new wave” musical guests as well as those associated with the ‘60s counterculture), this one being his interviews with all the members of The Beatles, sans George Harrison—hence the amusing title. Who is the audience for this DVD? Beatles fans, rock ‘n’ roll fans, and pop culture fans—anyone interested in some authentic recent cultural history, straight from the proverbial horses’ mouths.
With the abundance of unauthorized biographies, critical appraisals, and testimonials dedicated to this most influential of bands; it is astonishing to consider how little (relatively speaking, in our instant karma Internet age) actual footage exists of the Beatles talking about the Beatles. And so, for a couple of priceless hours, this DVD provides the still-living legends in a mostly unguarded environment, reminiscing about the world and their considerable place in it.
John, Paul, Tom and Ringo’s first disc is devoted to Lennon, and Snyder introduces his April 1975 discussion (Lennon’s last televised interview), reprised the day after the music died: 9 December 1980. The initial jolt for the viewer, particularly a viewer like me who remembers the day of Lennon’s assassination, is hearing Snyder downplay the importance of the interview, since it was “five years old”, considering that it is now 33-years-old. Snyder (who was so brilliantly and, I think lovingly, lampooned by Dan Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live) should be appreciated for being consistently up to the task of taking on big players like Lennon, because his M.O. was straightforward: he was genuinely curious, had done his homework, and was actively invested in the culture of his time; he was, after all, not only commenting on it—but he was a part of it, and he knew it.
Perhaps most importantly, his square-shooting credibility offered a refreshingly opposite vibe from the insufferably serious, or self-important, ever pretentious arena of journalists talking to rock stars, elevating themselves by elevating the relative import of the act. In this case, Snyder was speaking with one of the genuine heavyweights, and he understood (and respected) that Lennon actually did have something (some things, really) to say about the bigger picture, and engaged him accordingly. Lennon, through his lyrics and recalcitrant remarks, had always been easy to label as “subversive” (think of the controversy his “Beatles are bigger than Jesus” joke instigatated), but by the mid-70s, he found himself experiencing official interference with his attempt to become an American citizen—a topic he discussed in some detail later in the show.
Lennon was typically honest and amusing when asked some of the obligatory questions. What is the initial goal of every aspiring musician? To get laid. Why did The Beatles break up? Boredom. Why are you not bored now? Because I can play music with whomever I choose. When Snyder puts on his curmudgeonly old crank hat and pushes Lennon to comment on how the music may not change much with imitators always aping the best of the past, Lennon graciously suggestes that the influence of The Beatles (and others) will linger and resonate—just as the blues music the lads from Liverpool loved found its way into their tunes, first as paint-by-numbers covers, later as vividly reimagined original work—but musicians will be using new instruments to create new sounds: one thinks of the evolution of funk to hip hop to trip hop and beyond, and can appreciate the prescience of Lennon’s appraisal.
One thing is certain: they don’t make ‘em (rock stars or talk-show hosts) like they used to. In a moment that could only be real (otherwise the irony would suck the action right off the screen), Snyder pulls out another in an endless stream of cigarettes and, as he lights up, asks Lennon his views on drugs and whether he feels an obligation to speak out against them. Only in America.
The proceedings lose considerable steam when the topic turns to Lennon’s immigration woes. To be certain, this was a serious issue, and it was unfortunate that Lennon had to dance around the petty politics of officious reactionaries. Nevertheless, listening to his lawyer pontificate is rather less than compelling video. Later in the show, journalist Lisa Robinson reflects on her numerous interactions with John and Yoko, and producer Jack Douglas reminisces about his collaboration with Lennon on albums ranging from Imagine to Double Fantasy. While it is truly touching to hear Douglas (who had been with Lennon in the studio hours before his death) talk about how optimistic and excited his friend was about the future, it is inexorably an unwelcome—and still quite painful—reminder of how much life Lennon had left to live, and how much poorer all of us are for the loss.
Disc two is dedicated to Paul and Ringo, featuring interviews that originally aired in December ’79 and November ’81, respectively. Snyder interviews Paul and his wife Linda via satellite and seems as excited about this cutting-edge technology as he is about having the opportunity to speak with the man he introduces, correctly, as the most successful singer/songwriter on the planet (at the time in the middle of a successful run with his group Wings). The show commences with Snyder promoting a “videotape to go along as sort of a visual counterpart to their latest album”, a quaint way to describe the phenomenon that would launch its own TV show less than two years later. Time has not been kind to the song, “Spin it On”, and it’s hard to say which is worse: the tune or the video, but it remains a worthwhile artifact of a medium that would be perfected to great effect in short order, if not by McCartney, by many others.
As is often the case, McCartney comes across as grounded, amusing and self-deprecating. He talks about being happily married, and is an obviously dedicated father and family man. Watching him interact with Linda, and knowing he was with her until her death, only reinforces why Paul remains so universally revered and respected. This is not to imply that McCartney is uncomplicated; rather, his comfort level with the world carried over, always, to the music he made. Snyder asks at one point if he wishes he could do it all over again with The Beatles and he replies, without rancor or sarcasm, that he has no need, since they already did it. When discussing his involvement in the pre-Live Aid concert for Cambodian aid, Snyder inquires if he has every done anything political like that, and McCartney provides the inspiring and satisfactory response: “Well, I don’t think about it as political, I think about it as human.”
And last but not least, Ringo! Hooking up with Snyder in Los Angeles to discuss his new album and his starring role in the cinematic tour de force Caveman, Ringo is in fine form. Although his struggles with drink are well documented, Ringo—perhaps more than the other Beatles, and arguably because he was slightly less worshipped—always seemed a bit better equipped for a post-Beatles life. Doubtless this can be attributed to his wisdom in recognizing that, despite his own considerable talents, he was fortunate to associate with Lennon & McCartney, the twin towers of 20th Century pop music. Ringo discusses how he came by his famous nickname, invites his new wife Barbara Bach to join the conversation, and mostly invites any and all questions that Snyder will ask. The Beatles are, ultimately, inconceivable without Ringo, so it is appropriate that he gets his due on this DVD.
In what could (should?) be considered bonus material, the original show that aired with Ringo also included an interview with Angie Dickinson, who was then coming off the controversial and (mostly) critically acclaimed role in Brian de Palma’s Dressed to Kill. She talks about the insurance policy taken out on her famous legs (true story) and mostly charms the pants off a smitten Snyder: even though she was no longer the white-hot Hollywood vixen (she was almost 50-years-old by then), she is still gorgeous and gracious, and the inclusion of her interview can be regarded as the sexy icing on an already decadent cake.