Gary James' Interview With
John Lennon Tribute Artist
Tim Piper portrays John Lennon in the stage presentation of Just Imagine: The Life And Music Of John Lennon. The show weaves biographical information with Lennon's music to create a moving and powerful story of one of Rock music's greatest legends. Tim Piper talked with us about the show.
Q - Tim, you actually got to meet Paul McCartney and his then wife Heather Mills. When you met him, did you look like Lennon? Were you trying to look like John Lennon?
A - No. It was her minefield presentation at the Beverly Wilshire. What a great evening because after the presentation with his fairly new formed band which has now toured the world several times over and everyone knows who they are, he also shared a set with Paul Simon and his band. Can you imagine? Some of the greatest songwriting of the '60s just going back and forth. You get "Maybe I'm Amazed". You get "Mrs. Robinson". You get "Let It Be". It was amazing. There you are within spitting distance of these guys.
Q - How did you get so lucky? Did you have to make a charitable contribution?
A - Yeah. It was a black tie affair. To be quite frank with you, I didn't have the money for it. I have a friend that helped mount a couple of the Lennon shows I've been in, in the past. He had enough spare change. He said "Do you want to go?" I said "Well, c'mon Phillip." He said "No, really." How can you say no to something like that?
Q - You can't.
A - No. So you go down there. I'm sitting behind Roger Daltry, Stephen Stills, Jay Leno. It's not a huge ballroom. And of course when McCartney entered the room, the paparazzi just takes off like a lightning storm. You realize you're in quite the crowd of superstars and legends. Heather did her presentation. I guess the best anecdote that kind of describes how I finally got to shake hands with Sir Paul is my friend had had a few martinis, more than he should have had. He cut across the room and I thought, here we go, we're all gonna get thrown out 'cause security was pretty strong. Next thing I know, he looks up at me and waves over, like, got the green light. He said to Paul, "would you mind meeting a friend of mine?" And Paul said "No. Sure. Bring him over." I thought, once in a lifetime opportunity. I headed over there and not trying to be politically correct, but doing the right thing, I turned to Heather and said "Great presentation," which it was. I turned to Paul, who's sitting, eating his salad and I said "Happy birthday on Monday." He said "Thank-you very much." Then he reaches out his hand. Its kind of hard to remember every exact nuance that all went down 'cause here you are eye-to-eye with Paul McCartney. But he's the one who reached out his hand. I remember holding it, shaking it and realizing the longest, softest fingers I probably ever felt. He did not do construction for a living. He was wonderful. I think the great thing about Paul and what we all love about The Beatles in a way was they knew they were still regular guys, even though, yes they're geniuses and icons in the historical value. They're still regular people and they kept themselves in check. So Paul was just a gentleman. At the end of the conversation he looks at me, gives a nod and wink and says "Keep up the good work, lad." Whatever exactly that meant, I kind of acknowledged. I think he knew that I was probably in the business.
Q - Did your friend tell him that?
A - No. I don't think he had to. Do you know what I'm saying? I think Paul's wise enough that he got a sense of it. Hey, here's a guy that looks like John Lennon, the whole bit. That's not something you say "Hey Paul, you know what I do?" You have your moment and you say "I just want to thank you for everything. It's wonderful what you're still doing and great to meet you." What can you say that he hasn't heard?
Q - That's the problem an interviewer would face. What can you ask Paul McCartney that he hasn't already been asked?
A - I've had that discussion with lots of people in my travels. Really all you can do is ask the un-obvious, things that aren't expected or haven't been covered fifteen million times. It's got to be little things that they might be caught off-guard with and find interesting to address. I don't know. But it was enjoyable. I like to tell people when they ask, he was exactly the way you'd want Paul to be.
Q - That's great isn't it?
A - Exactly. I think that's why he's so enduring and so beloved. A lot of people say he's a phony. He's not a phony. That's just him.
Q - Did you ever see John Lennon in person?
A - Never did. I met both Julian and Sean on separate occasions. Julian at The House of Blues. He performed. I had a performance at The House of Blues several times and management knew me and allowed me to go backstage where most people weren't allowed. Again, a very casual way. Of course when you're in any field of that caliber you expect some people to approach you whether to say hello or whatever. I just walked right up to him. He looked at me, even more than Paul, and points his finger and says "Aaaah... You do my Dad thing. We got a couple pictures." He was very nice. As was Sean. I met Sean coming off a Miami to L.A. flight. It was midnight. I was tired. I was actually racing to baggage, just trying to get home. I turned the corner and no one was within a hundred yards of either one of us. There was this younger guy that I thought looked like me! He had kind of like a Beatle haircut. He had Lennon type glasses. Here he is, all alone. What a strange set-up. So I thought to myself, in the two seconds that you have, do I say hello? I said I'm sure he doesn't want to be bothered. He was on the cell phone. If he puts the cell phone down, I'll say hello. I do a quick half-double take. Boom! He closes his cell phone and there you go. What was interesting about Sean, having met Paul, having met Julian, having spoken to both of them, is Sean is sitting. I kind of half walk up to him and said "Sean," and he looks up over his glasses, very reminiscent of John looking up in the photographs we've all seen. My hair stood up on the back of my neck. My God! His dad's eyes looking at me. It's like "Yes?" I said "You don't know me. I'm Tim Piper. I do your dad's music." He looks around my back and said "I see you've got the Rickenbacker," which again is kind of an acknowledgement, an OK, a green light. Then we kind of went on and chatted a bit more. What are you doing? Are you gonna go back and record? What's your mother up to? He was very sweet. Very affable. Again, all three of the experiences I've had with the toppermost of poppermost have been wonderful.
Q - This show of yours takes the audience from The Beatles' music to "Double Fantasy"?
A - I first started it with another name - One Night Only. That was the first incarnation of it. We played at the Stella Adler Theatre in Hollywood. That ran for five weeks. By the end of that five weeks we were selling out and having Leonard Nimoy and Burton Cummings as part of the catapult for the whole bit. Then of course we have to move from that space. Then we called it A Day In His Life. William Morris was booking us at the time.
Q - Oh!
A - Yeah, which we found very fortunate because they don't book too many tribute acts. They don't need to. You got Julio Iglesias and Rod Stewart, why do you need a tribute act? But the odd thing was Dave Davies of The Kinks, Ray Davies, sorry, had a one-man show in their performing arts series menu, and he dropped out. They needed something to fill the void. Something kind of Rock 'n' Roll. And so they came and saw us, reluctantly came and saw us based on a good review. They didn't want to deal with a tribute act, but they loved it. "This is great. This would be perfect for what we're doing." That's what launched us on this national and international tour of Just Imagine. Having re-written it two or three times for different reasons, the end result is, if you could spend an evening, ninety minutes in the company of John Lennon where he could share the story of his life, that's what it's about. He would start off talking about the dysfunction of his own family, into how he met the guys that became The Quarrymen, became The Beatles, became the phenomenon that became out of control and all of the little nuances in between and what have you, up to and including the breakup of The Beatles and of course meeting Yoko Ono. He finally finds the other half of the sky for him and as much as he's given the world, the whole world turns against him. They don't get what this Japanese woman is all about. He's saying "this is my partner." Finally, passing on the music scene because he's been there, done that, retires because now he seriously wants to get back into family because he didn't do it right the first time with Julian. He was too consumed with being the Rock 'n' Roll icon that he thought he wanted to be. And then of course once he got it, it was like; wait a minute, this isn't what we expected. Then finding what he felt were the true values of life and what it meant to him, having Sean on his own birthday and deciding I'm going to raise him, being the house husband if you will. Then he takes a trip on a little schooner, five crew team from Rhode Island to Bermuda, which is where the entire crew went down in the storm and Lennon takes the wheel, fights through this ferocious storm and basically re-creates himself with the universe once again, gets his muse back, gets to Bermuda and starts writing song after song, which of course becomes "Double Fantasy". Gets back to New York, plans a world tour and of course we know what the inevitable is. We didn't even have to say what it was. We actually start if off where you see it's December 9th and you see people mourning outside the Dakota. The show begins with the bells tolling, like it's "Mother", but really it's showing the weeping fans. So, immediately you're thrown back into 1980. Without seeing the violence of him being taken down, you see the fans trying to deal with this robbery, this heinous act. Immediately, you know happens. Immediately you're back in that time and that day. Then really it's like John is coming back from The Great Beyond to recount his memories of everything he'd been through. It makes you feel like you wish I could do it all again.
Q - You perform that show how many days a week?
A - Well, we're on hiatus right now. I'm actually playing right now for two weeks with Rain, which just opened on Broadway. But the last time, we did six to eight weeks up in Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas. And that was five shows a night. So, we've done the whole gamut. There's times when maybe you'll go out and do a one night stand at some theatre in Peoria, Illinois. You name it. We've gone to Chile, Santiago, South America. I've played India. I've played Japan. I've played all over Canada. That's the beauty of The Beatles. The whole world knows these guys. That's what's fascinating. You get to share stories with people you wouldn't even expect to know. Some Indian guy will come up to you and start saying "The Beatles were not allowed here until ten years later. We're hearing them for the first time."
Q - I'm trying envision you doing five shows a night in Las Vegas. What time did you start?
A - It was a seven o'clock show.
Q - You go for what, an hour?
A - It's an hour and a half, yeah.
Q - That schedule sounds almost as bad as when The Beatles played Hamburg.
A - It was rough, especially in the summertime, 115 degree heat. Let me tell you, I lost a few pounds and did a little be more than I thought I could do, but that's what happens. It gets thrown at you and you find out if you can sink or swim and I think I swim pretty well.
Q - Why are you so fascinated with John Lennon? Why not George? Is it because you look like John Lennon?
A - You're asking a way back question. Me, being fifty-four years old, when The Beatles hit America I was in New York. I was born in Manhattan, right down the street from the Dakota, which is interesting. So, here I was in New York. I was in second grade and you think, well that sounds kind of young, how you gonna know what you like and don't like? Well, I knew the minute I heard and saw The Beatles that it was like, amazing. It was like guys from another planet. Whatever it was, it really was the flagship for things to come. I was immediately taken in by them. Now again, you gotta realize this is a second grade mentality and so it took years for me to grow up and watch the changes, some of them I felt I understood. Some of them, well John was sixteen years older than I am. How am I gonna understand why all of a sudden he's got long hair and a beard and running around naked on an album cover? But when people would get in an uproar, rather than just say that's crazy, I would study it. Why is he doing that? So it kind of became a hobby, an obsession. The main difference between me and most people is I turned it into a career, which is really fascinating to be able to get paid and tour the world and sing songs you were fascinated with and inspired by as a child.
Q - When you go offstage, are you able to turn off the mannerisms of John Lennon?
A - I think so. I'm quite conscious of it onstage. People want to see a Beatle. They want to see John. They're not really there to see Tim Piper. They're there to see the best Lennon that you could be of course. Offstage, I know a couple of people, and they can remain nameless, who don't turn it off. It gets a little out there, you know? (laughs) But you know, listen, there's only one John Lennon. It's a great thing to try to, whether you want to call it impersonate or emulate the spirit, the sound, the feel. That's art. That's acting. That's musicianship. Being a true fan, I do it out of love. Just for the money, it wouldn't be worth it. I try to do my best. I know what people are looking for. I know what I would be looking for. So I give it my all. I give it my best version. Boy, I'll tell you, no one knows they are not John Lennon better than I do. You know what I'm saying?
Q - He was one of a kind.
A - On a given day he would probably love me and give me a hug and other days he'd probably chew me up and spit me out.
Q - Depending on whether he was drinking or not.
A - Aaah, yeah. Watch out, right? I even met a guy, and again that's part of the fun, you never know who you're gonna meet, some guy comes up to me after a show and says "you know when Lennon got thrown out of The Troubadour?" He said "I was playing with The Smothers Brothers that night." (laughs)
Q - Do you think there's going to come a time when you'll say to yourself, "I don't want to do this anymore"?
A - You know, it's not so much I'm sick of playing John Lennon. I think I love The Beatles' music as much as anybody. That'll last my whole lifetime. As far as performing it, the travel, all the side issues that people don't think about 'cause they see you for an hour and a half onstage and think, oh, what a wonderful gig. Well, try taking all the costumes and travelling. The other eighteen hours a day that you don't see, that's the hard part. That gets tiresome.
Q - I'm interviewing a guy by the name of Joel Gilbert who directed a DVD titled Paul Really Is Dead. is there any doubt in your mind that the Paul McCartney you met was anybody other than the original?
A - Do I think I met an imposter? No way! Paul is Paul. You can't imitate Paul McCartney to that extent. Impossible.