The Ninth Beatle
Keaton Patti is a rock and roll writer currently interviewing lesser-known figures in music history for a yet unnamed and uncreated magazine. This article is a part of that project. If you’d like to be interviewed for the project, that’s nice.
Merle Taylor smokes the biggest cigarettes I’ve ever seen. He sits across from me in his small house an hour or so outside of London after putting on an old Stones record as background noise. He’s 82 year-old, still rail-thin, and he dresses like a high-end mannequin on its rare day off. He speaks to me between long drags of his massive cigarette. I hang on to his every word like Stallone hung on to those cliffs in that movie whose name I can’t remember. Not Rocky. Maybe Rocky II.
“It wasn’t until ’74 or so,” he says, ashing his massive cigarette (which he later informs me is called a cigar) into his empty coffee mug, “that people started calling me that. The 9th Beatle. I guess those of us who helped the band out never really figured out a hierarchy. That came down to reporters like you. Always ordering things in your articles and magazines. 10 Best Albums. 50 Greatest Guitarists. 20 Hottest Chers.” He chuckles at the last one because he knows it’s a piece I wrote for Pitchfork. I quip that that particular list could’ve gone on forever, or at least to 23 or so.
“I bet,” he says. Merle then offers me a piece of pizza. He says that while music has always been his main passion, cooking has been a close second. He details how he makes his own pizzas from scratch every day from a recipe his great grandmother smuggled over from Italy in her brain, using vegetables from his own small garden, and that there’s nothing greater for him than to see someone enjoy a slice of his homemade pies. I tell him I already ate a candy bar in my car, so no thanks. He says maybe later and I tell him I have a candy bar in my jacket for later and that for me, it’s Pizza Hut or nothing. Merle stares at me for a long time after I say that, probably thinking back on those glory days when he and some lads from Liverpool made rock music their bitch.
The first four Beatles are easy: Paul, John, George, and Ringo. The order of the fifth through eighth is often up for debate, but the individuals are agreed upon: Stuart Sutcliffe (former bassist), Pete Best (former Ringo), Brian Epstein (manager), George Martin (producer / backup Ringo). However, Beatle number nine has been and always will be the man sitting in front of me on the phone with his phone company complaining that he was charged for international calls he never made.
After he hangs up, he apologizes to me for the interruption and admits he did make those international calls. “China ain’t gonna call itself,” he says with a wink. “It’s good to lie every now and again. That’s something I learned from John. He’d always go to restaurants alone, eat a full meal, drink some expensive wine, and when the check would come, he’d look the waiter in the eye and say, ‘I didn’t eat or drink any of this. I just sat down here a minute ago. How dare you.’ Then he’d just leave. Lennon did that like 3 times a week. Finally, every restaurant in London banned him from entering, but John, always a few steps ahead, had an amazing loophole: delivery. He’d have the food delivered to his flat, eat it in front of the delivery guy and then say he never received the food and refuse to pay.”
I tell Merle I’ve never heard that about John before and he says it was covered up. “A lot of scandals got covered up. John’s restaurant thing. George’s addiction to scarves. Paul’s attempt to assassinate several foreign dignitaries. Ringo’s inability to read music or words. The record execs had an image they wanted for the Beatles, and they weren’t going to let that get tarnished. Helping to protect that reputation and image was one of my many jobs.”
When Merle says “job” he holds up air parentheses, but I think he means to hold up air quotes. That would make more sense, so I’m going to assume it’s what he meant. (NOTE: After reading an edited version of this interview weeks later, Merle tells me he meant to make “air hyphens,” so “God Only Knows” what he was thinking, as the Beatles would say, if they were covering the Beach Boys).
Merle’s job with the Beatles has always been as murky as an Octopus’ Garden. He explains that he played keys on some tracks of Abbey Road, did roadie work for some of the band’s earlier tours across America, did hair and makeup for some photoshoots, gave Yoko her name, penned most of the lyrics to “Yesterday” (He chuckles and tells me, “Originally, the song was called ‘Tomorrow,’ but radios refused to play songs about the future since it was so uncertain.”), drove the tour bus whenever Paul fired the regular driver for saying the bass sucked (happened 12 times), and Merle even was the Beatles’ designated drug procurer.
“Name a drug,” he says, eating a slice of his homemade pizza, which looks disgustingly unlike a candy bar, “and I got it for them.” Always up for a challenge, I ask away.
“Marijuana?” He nods.
“Cocaine?” He nods.
“LSD?” He nods.
“Heroin?” He nods, just like a heroin user.
“Human growth hormone?” He nods and tells me Paul would be 2 feet tall without him.
“That futuristic drug in Minority Report, the movie not the book, that Tom Cruise does?” He nods so hard I confuse him with a bobblehead doll, but only for a second.
“They wanted to experiment with everything,” he says. “They weren’t junkies or anything. That’s what’s wrong with current musicians. These Kurt Cobalts [sic] and Amy Winehomes [sic] take it too far. Overdosing and suiciding. The boys did just enough to see music in a new light and for Paul to grow tall enough to hold a full-sized instrument.”
“Did you ever do any drugs with the band?” I ask. Merle looks around to make sure his wife isn’t within earshot. She isn’t since she’s been dead and buried for the past 8 years. He grins and tells me about a time in 1968 when he had scored some LSD for the band before a long flight to America.
“A few hours in and we’re really tripping. John forgets he’s on an airplane and keeps saying he wants to go outside and have a picnic. We keep telling him that’s impossible since we’re 30,000 feet in the air over an ocean, plus he doesn’t even have a picnic basket or blanket. He starts screaming nonsense at the top of his lungs. Later he’d turn that nonsense into “Imagine.” Meanwhile, Paul and George are both convinced they’re maple trees and want to bottle their own syrup and take down Aunt Jemima’s empire. They believe syrup belongs to the trees, not the humans. Ringo’s in his seat trying to learn how to read. It was bloody bonkers! Mind you, this wasn’t a private plane. The record execs would do anything to save a pence, so we were in coach with like 100 other people. Luckily it was ’68, so like everyone on the plane was on acid or something. Also, I could be remembering this all wrong since I was on LSD too. However, I know for sure that when we landed, Paul and George admitted that Aunt Jemima was too big to fail and that Ringo still couldn’t read, so take that how you will.”
Merle gets pretty animated during this retelling, pacing about the room, acting like a maple tree, trying to put a slice of his pizza in my messenger bag, frowning when I notice and place the pizza on the ground, pointing out the current price of Aunt Jemima stock in the newspaper.
It’s getting late, so I tell Merle that I just have a final question that I’d like to ask him. He remarks that it’s only one in the afternoon and that he originally thought the email I sent him said I’d be interviewing him over several weeks.
“‘Eight Days A Week,’” I say with a laugh.
“What do you mean by that?” he asks.
“The song. The Beatles song. The Beatles song called ‘Eight Days A Week.’”
“I know that, but why did you say it instead of explaining why the interview is ending so quickly?”
“‘And in the end…the love you take…is equal…to…the rest of that song.”
Merle sneezes and I say he should get that looked at, perfectly leading me into my final question.
“Merle Taylor,” I say. “The Ninth Beatle. The Man With The Plan. The Great Bambino. The Michael Jordan of Michael Jordans. What was your favorite Beatles song?”
He thinks for a second, brow furrowed, scratches his furrowed chin, and furrows all the body parts that he can. “It’d have to be ‘Let It Be.’ So beautiful. So simple. So, and I don’t say this word often, so perfect.”
I tell him I haven’t heard that one and that I’ll be sure to listen to it if I ever get a chance, but after waving goodbye to Merle and accidentally driving through his garden of pizza ingredients on my way out, “God Only Knows” if I ever really will.