From the ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ photo shoot
The Summer of Love hasn’t begun. There’s LBJ at Expo 67, thanking God for putting the U.S.A. next to Canada instead of, say, Pakistan or Greece; there’s Cher modeling the short-cut pantsuit. There’s Robyn Hitchcock saying goodbye to his late grandmother with a little help from Brian Eno, and there’s my father, Gary, not yet 18, hearing Peter Bergman announce on Radio Free Oz that his own father, Huntz Hall, is pictured on the cover of the Beatles’ new album.
In the original photo shoot for the album cover, Huntz appeared next to Leo Gorcey, his co-star in hundreds of Dead End Kids, East Side Kids, and Bowery Boys movies, or “pictures,” as he would have said. (Though Leo isn’t in in it, I’m partial to Looking for Danger, in which the Bowery Boys lend Uncle Sam a hand by impersonating Nazis in North Africa.) But Leo asked for money, and Peter Blake airbrushed him out. Huntz, bless him, did not ask for money, so he stands alone in the back row between a Vargas girl and Simon Rodia, whose head seems to be growing out of Bob Dylan’s. Lined up in front of him are Karl Marx, H.G. Wells and Paramahansa Yogananda.
Now, some smart aleck will claim FEAR settled the balance when they conspicuously thanked Leo, but not Huntz, in the liner notes of More Beer, another album that is close to my heart. This game of one-upmanship will only end in triumph for my mighty clan and tears of shame for the rest of humanity. He can deny it all he likes, but Rick Nielsen of John Lennon’s onetime backing band Cheap Trick bit gramps’ style. And it was Huntz, not Leo, who shared the stage with Duke Ellington, busted a hang with Alice Cooper, and accompanied Ken Russell to a Sex Pistols show during the filming of Valentino. After which these candid shots of Huntz posing with members of THOR at a Travelodge in 1983 seem hardly worth mentioning. Q.E.D.!
It is strange and puzzling to see your grandfather on the cover of a Beatles album. When you are on the playground 20 years after the Summer of Love and you tell your school chums your grandfather is on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s, they respond that you are wrong and he is not. Juvenile rock scholars immersed in the backstairs literature of the Satanic panic tell you about the “Paul is dead” clues, so you lie awake all night wondering: My God, what was peepaw’s role in all that? And the title of the NME compilation Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father had an unusual resonance.
The biggest puzzle was Huntz’s appearance. Squinting in the daylight, wearing a tarboosh, a green djellaba and a red velvet scarf, he looks more like a carpet dealer standing in the Jemaa el-Fnaa at high noon than a Depression-era NYC tough. But, at last, I have discovered the solution to this puzzle: he is not wearing any of those things. Thanks to the good work of the Sgt. Pepper Photos blog, I now see that cover artist Peter Blake’s source was this black and white group shot of the Dead End Kids, with Huntz in familiar attire.
via Sgt. Pepper Photos
While Blake says the Bowery Boys were his choice, my father—who has contributed to a forthcoming book of essays about the crowd on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s whose name I do not yet know—thinks the pot bust that sent Huntz to jail in 1948 must have endeared him to the Fabs. (Though he was exonerated, I can confirm that Huntz was a lifelong slave to the ruinous vice of marijuana abuse. He may have been a comedian, but take it from me: there is nothing funny about watching a loved one support a $2-a-day drug habit.) And no less an authority than Mark Lewisohn reports that “one or two books (while unaware of any connection) ponder if John Lennon was responsible for the choice.” All I know for sure is what Beatle Paul says in Conversations with McCartney:
I asked everyone, Give us a list of your ten top heroes. John, of course, got far-out, as usual. He put Hitler and Jesus in. That was vetoed. Hitler particularly. It’s not who was his favorite character but ‘We’ve got to invent egos for these guys [i.e., Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band], who do they like?’ I put Einstein, Aldous Huxley, just various people that we’d read something of. Steinbeck.
Then it got into funny ones. Cos you can’t go long in a group like that without it getting to be Billy Liddell, an old footballer. [Actually it was Albert Stubbins, another Liverpool player.] Dixie Dean [of Liverpool’s local rivals Everton]. And George came in with Sri Babaji, cos he was heavily into that, and this great idea that Babaji is one of the top Indian gurus, who keeps reincarnating. Fine, you know? Get a picture of Babaji, he’s in…
Then I’d fight with EMI and we had to write letters to Marlon Brando, all the people. And I said, Just ask, write a nice letter. They said, ‘We’ll get sued!’ I said, no you won’t, just write them. I said to Sir Joseph Lockwood [EMI’s chairman], ‘Now Joe, come on,’ cos I had a good relationship with him. ‘It’ll be all right.’ So they wrote letters and everybody replied saying ‘Yeah, fine, I don’t mind, put me on a Beatles cover, it’ll be cool!’ Except one of the Bowery Boys [Leo Gorcey] who didn’t want to do it, he wanted a fee. So we said, fuck him, and we left him off. One of them got on [Huntz Hall], one of them didn’t.
Huntz told me he spoke to the Beatles on the phone and they sent him four signed copies of Sgt. Pepper’s. I’m sure that’s true, but if so, the records were subsequently mislaid. If you find them, don’t forget to give them to me, so that I might own, possess and have them.
The “super deluxe edition” of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band will be released tomorrow, May 26. Below, Bela Lugosi and the East Side Kids star in Spooks Run Wild. (And check out Robin Williams as Leo and Martin Short as Huntz in SCTV’s wonderful sketch “The Bowery Boys in the Band.”)