Across the Universe
Across the Universe
A Q&A with Carlo Cantamessa
By Geoff Gehman
Carlo Cantamessa has spent 37 years soaring across John Lennon’s universe. For 28 of those years he’s played the founding Beatle in The Cast of Beatlemania. For 13 of those years he’s performed Lennon songs and told Lennon stories in “In My Life,” first by himself and then with a band. He’s modeled Lennon’s shoes, clothes, glasses, hair styles, instruments, tunings, vocals, jokes, recyclings and revolutions.
There are few musicians as tuned into Lennon’s open-tuned persona. Yet, after four decades of absorbing Lennon’s rare air, Cantamessa insists he still gets as many goose bumps as he gives. He gets just as much a thrill from rehearsing “No. 9 Dream” for his first live rendition as thrilling spectators with his umpteenth version of “Twist and Shout.”
“I’m probably one of the most-traveled Lennon guys,” says Cantamessa from Wolcott, Conn., where he runs a company specializing in storage products. “I sound like him, I look like him, I think I can get inside his skin and space. I was blessed with a gift, and the ability to share it is a bigger gift. But down deep I’m just a fan who can grab a guitar and sing and try to experience John’s magic. We’re all fans trying to experience his magic; we’re all related at every show.”
Cantamessa will spread the magic this week around the Mauch Chunk Opera House, appearing in “In My Life” on Nov. 27 and the next day in The Cast of Beatlemania. In the conversation below he discusses Lennon’s legendary Playboy interview, his brotherly competition with Paul McCartney and the what-ifs that ring like the opening chord in “A Hard Day’s Night.”
Q: You’ve said that “A Hard Day’s Night” was the first song that really moved you, that made you groove. When did you hear it for the first time and why did it stick to you right away?
A: It was 51 years ago. I was only four, but that opening chord really hooked me. That opening salvo was so dynamic; I thought: “Holy crap–what is this stuff?” From that moment the Beatles became an important part of my life.
I felt the same way when I first heard the opening feedback to “I Feel Fine”; it was like listening to music from another planet. The Beatles’ songs were just more exciting than anything else you heard on the radio. They were definitely more exciting than Dean Martin singing “That’s Amore” [sings “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie”].
My older sister got us to stay up late and watch the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. That made a big impact on me, along with begging our parents to take us to the theater to see “Hard Day’s Night” the movie—and hearing my sister scream.
Q: It was 50 years ago that Lennon’s “In My Life” debuted on the Beatles album “Rubber Soul.” Some pollsters, like Mojo magazine, think it’s the best song of all time. How does it rank on your scale?
A: When I was trying to figure out a title for my show, a promoter from Long Island who convinced me to do a solo show told me: “Figure out the most meaningful [Lennon] song to you.” It had to be “In My Life.” It’s the most meaningful song the Beatles did, and it’s the most meaningful song I sing in The Cast of Beatlemania.
.John said he wrote the song as a walk down memory lane; it was his first attempt at really writing something that was moving. When you sing it, it evokes so many memories, so many things. When John sings “Some are dead and some are living,” he’s remembering not just [original Beatles bassist] Stu [Sutcliffe] and [original Beatles drummer] Pete [Best] but other family members and friends who have come and gone and stayed. It makes me think of people who have mattered to me, who still matter to me, people who came to Mauch Chunk last year but won’t make it back this year.
Q: Lennon’s 1980 Playboy interview opened the flood gates with his revelation that some Lennon-McCartney compositions weren’t McCartney-Lennon compositions, that some tunes were written largely or totally by one Beatle or the other. How hard did the interview hit you?
A: I wasn’t a big Playboy fan at the time; it wouldn’t have been something I subscribed to back then. But when he died [on Dec. 8, 1980, two days after the issue was released], I just had to grab a copy. The interview was the most important thing I had read about John. I loved his song-by-song breakdown, how he said “I wrote this one and Paul wrote this one,” “I did the middle eight on that one, and Paul did the middle eight on that one.” How he told Paul that he hated one of his songs and then walked away, and how he wished he had written “Yesterday.” He was in one of his flippant moods, but he was telling the truth. He was clever; he could immediately turn any conversation around on you.
I don’t know how many times I’ve read that interview. It’s an amazing treasure trove of information. The sad part is that you’re not going to get any more out of John. Since then Paul McCartney has been rewriting history and John can’t respond.
You know, John was planning to go on tour before he died. I know people who worked on that tour who say he was thinking of reworking Beatles songs. Imagine what it would have been like to hear new versions of “She Loves You” and “Please Please Me.” I’m a Lennon aficionado but even after all these years I still get a chill over the discoveries, the dreams, the what-ifs.
Q: What other things about Lennon still give you goose bumps?
A: On Saturday we were rehearsing “No. 9 Dream,” which we’re playing live for the first time at Mauch Chunk. At the end we looked at each other and basically said: “Oh my god–that was amazing.” We did it like seven times and each time it got better. We literally got goose bumps.
The more you play John’s songs, the more you realize how he evolved, and expanded, as a musician. He was an unbelievable encyclopedia of music. For example, he spent a lot of time in the islands; he liked the tropical vibe. You can feel that vibe in “Watching the Wheels” or “Borrowed Time” or the beginning of “Beautiful Boy.” “Watching the Wheels” has the same chords, the same patterns, as “Imagine.” “Woman” is his reworking of “If I Fell.” I can imagine him sitting down on his bed and deciding to write something about [second wife] Yoko [Ono] because “Mother needs a song.” So he starts out with old chords, adds a new minor chord, and ends up with a whole other song.
Nothing he did fails to amaze me. He was right when he wrote “No one is in my tree.”
Q: I think of John as a true-blue open book: open voice, open lyrics, open mind, open life. What’s your take?
A: You’ve got to remember that John learned banjo chords before he learned guitar chords; that’s what his mother Julia taught him. When he finally began playing guitar, he would do really weird fingerings; that’s where he gets those banjo chords, those open Es and open Cs. On “Daytripper” he inverts the chord with only a couple of fingers and strums the entire guitar, open. He does the same thing on the opening chord of “Hard Day’s Night.” Vocally. natural E was the meat of his tomato. [Sings a line from “Baby, You’re a Rich Man”] “How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?”: that’s John singing natural E.
John had an incomparable voice, a stop-you-in-your-tracks voice. I’d love to have that voice; I think I come close. Some people think that Freddie Mercury is the greatest rock and roll singer in history. I think Freddie belongs in the mix with Elvis Presley and John Lennon and Paul McCartney. If there’s a person I want to hear, it’s either John Lennon or John Lennon with Paul McCartney or John Lennon with Paul McCartney and George Harrison, who literally wanted to be John Lennon.
If I’m having a good day, I put on the Beatles with John Lennon. If I’m having a bad day, I put on the Beatles with John Lennon. If I want to share my feelings, I put on the Beatles with John Lennon. I guess I’m just an incurable, dyed-in-the-wool romantic.
Q: An eternal debate rages over whether John or Paul was the better rock ’n’ roll singer. I don’t think Paul could have improved on John’s shredding of “Twist and Shout”; I don’t think John could have beaten Paul’s blistering vocal on “Oh! Darling” Whose side are you on?
A: John liked to say that he had the better rock ‘n’ roll voice and the highest falsetto in the Beatles; the highest notes in “I Want to Hold Your Hand” are John’s. You know, there are some out-takes of John trying to sing “Oh! Darling” It’s pretty funny; I think Paul was being nice to let him have a go at it.
I read an interview recently that John did very late in his life, on Dec. 6  or something. He was asked: What do you think of Paul McCartney. He said: “I love him like a brother. We fight sometimes but in the end if he called me, I’d be there.” In the movie “Nowhere Boy,” when John learns his mother has died, he’s sad and angry and he goes outside with Paul and Paul asks him: “What do you want me to do? If you want to hit me, hit me.” So John slugs him and ends up crying.
Dezo Hoffmann, a photographer for the Beatles, has said that if John was in one of his moods, the only person who could get through to him was Paul. That was very telling. Their love as brothers was probably one of the reasons why the Beatles were so dynamic.
All of us in The Cast [of Beatlemania] have been together for at least 20 years. We feel like brothers. That’s why we start our shows with hugs and kisses and end our shows with hugs and kisses.
Q: What tops your Bucket List?
A: To take both The Cast and In My Life on tour. And to play Lennon songs I always wanted to play live with a band. “No. 9 Dream” was on that list until we started rehearsing it for this gig [in Jim Thorpe]. Now the list includes “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” and ”Mind Games.” We might have “Mind Games” ready in January. And to pull off “Tomorrow Never Knows” live would be amazing
Q: What tops your Fuck It List?
A: Not to let the small stuff bother me anymore. I just turned 55 on Saturday and a lot of water has passed under the bridge. I’d like to just let some stuff wash over me.
I’m lucky I get to play music; that’s my outlet for forgetting the day-to-day bullshit. When I’m onstage I forget the problems I’ve had with my wife or one of the kids or the business. I refocus and re-energize. Actually, if my cardiologist or pulmonologist examined me, they’d probably find that I’m so relaxed, so at peace, I’m almost sound asleep. And when the show is over, and I’m back in my room, that’s when I say to my wife “Sorry I was a jerk” or I tell the kids “I can do better.”
Q: What would you ask Lennon if he were still with us?
A: “Where were you going?” What was on his mind in 1980 that he’d end up playing in 1985 or ’86. When I first heard “[Just Like] Starting Over” [in 1980], I was actually blown away. It was yet another example of John doing something we didn’t see coming and turning it into something amazing. By the time other people picked up on what he was doing, he was onto something else. Do you remember that little tune he’s playing on harmonica flute in “Hard Day’s Night” the movie? Well, that ended up being the beginning of “Strawberry Fields.”
Truthfully, I don’t know if we’d like each other. John had a tendency to bust the whole tribute-band thing. He used to bust my friend Mitch Weissman, who played Paul in “Beatlemania” [speaks with Lennon’s deadpan Liverpool accent]: “Look, there’s Paul.” But just spending 10 minutes with him–playing guitar, singing, talking—would have been enormous fun. It would have been a way of channeling him
Carlo Cantamessa: The Scoop
He first played John Lennon on Dec. 11, 1978 in a Beatles tribute group in an arena in Albany, N.Y. “The show went by so fast, I swear it lasted 30 seconds.”
He loves to perform “It’s Only Love,” a Lennon-McCartney song that Lennon hated. “If he came back and argued with me, I’d be happy to have that conversation.”
He’s broken bread with Cynthia Lennon, Lennon’s first wife, and Julia Baird, his half-sister. The latter “told me that I reminded her of her brother. You can’t get a better compliment.”
He and his wife have five children, four boys who play music and a daughter who worked on her father’s tours. His wife’s statement of marriage comes from a Beatle widow. Asked for the secret to a long marriage, Olivia Harrison replied, with typical bull’s-eye Beatle logic: “Don’t get a divorce.”
His spouse convinced him to replace “you’re still fuckin peasants” with “you’re still frickin’ peasants” in Lennon’s song “Working Class Hero.”
Lennon wrote tenderly about his mother in “Julia” and not so tenderly in “Mother.” On his birthday Cantamessa tells his mom “Happy anniversary. We met under extreme circumstances.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. Like Carlo Cantamesa, he tells his mom “Happy birthday” on his birthday. He can be reached at email@example.com.