THE JACK LEN TAPE
JackLen photo

by Jim Ratts

Terry called him "John Jack", but the world knew him as John Lennon. Uneasy about wearing glasses, he gained confidence from a West Texas rocker. “I was Buddy Holly” he once said.

I’d like to tell a story of amazing coincidence. These types of occurrences take place all the time, but we sometimes fail to make the connection. I’ve got a name for it. Serendipitous syncronicity. Random events with such amazing timing and interconnection as to appear staged and remarkably deliberate.

In February of 2000 my band Runaway Express performed a 4-hour Buddy Holly tribute show. We do that sort of thing for all sorts of reasons with all sorts of topics. The Buddy Holly element has been omnipresent in my brain since I flipped for “That’ll Be The Day” when I was eight. It was indelible! We decided to cut a record of Holly tunes with a slight country/bluegrass tilt. Buddy’s first musical inspirations, aside from gospel, were Hank Williams, Flatt and Scruggs, and Bill Monroe. The rhythm and blues and rock came later. Buddy climbed aboard Elvis’ mystery train with a strong foundation in country. (He asked his older brother Larry to buy him a banjo. Ten bucks - money well spent - it was sold for 40 grand.)

We began tracking 20 Holly tunes incorporating banjo into the initial rhythm tracks. No Shakey’s Pizza stuff. Hard driving and lyrical Earl Scruggs-inspired banjo parts that made reference to Buddy”s distinctively powerful guitar style. Some thought it might be an odd marriage, but in retrospect “Yeah, Buddy!” worked.
During the first week of tracking “Yeah, Buddy!”, an event of serendipitous syncronicity stepped in to add power to my project. A rare tape recording gave me inspiration. For years I had heard Buddy Holly reflected in ‘60s music over and over but conceded that, just maybe, I was being imaginative because of my passion and prejudice. What took place confirmed for me the profound bond that the progressive music of the sixties had with ‘50s roots rock.

I had met a fellow named Nile Southern. Nile had some tapes he wanted me to help archive during that first week of “Yeah, Buddy!” tracking. Some very rare and valuable old tapes from his father’s archives, stacked in a large, dusty box. His dad, Terry Southern, was truly a pop icon of the ‘60s, a fixture of the elite art/literary/music underground of London and the World during that fantastic period when the Stones and The Who and the Beatles were redefining our global youth reality. They were really raising some dust over there in England (I was attending Texas Tech at the time and we were generating some countercultural Lubbock dust over here, too!), dust that has yet to settle, and Terry Southern was firmly positioned in the middle of it all. A buddy of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, his book Candy was #1 for 11 weeks on the New York Times Bestsellers list. With Stanley Kubrick he wrote the screenplay for “Dr. Strangelove”, arguably the greatest black comedy motion picture of all time. He came up with the title for Easy Rider and worked on the screenplay; and wrote The Magic Christian, a book Peter Sellers loved so much he bought 100 copies to share with his compadres. Terry’s friends included Charlie Parker, William Burrows, Robin Williams, Hopper and Fonda, Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, T.S. Elliot, Thelonious Monk, Keith Richards and Ringo, to name a few, and Terry was the guy in the sunglasses on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Terry Southern was a sensation!

So I took some time off from my Buddy project as Nile and I explored and copied countless tapes that Terry Southern had made during his heyday as the darling of the jet-setting pop/rock scene. Each recording was an insight into the ‘60s subculture, with magical guest appearances by celebrity after celebrity (...Terry at home with guest Lenny Bruce, or chatting with Kieth Richards, etc...).
We came upon a tape in our explorations, likely unplayed since it was recorded, that had been mysteriously labeled "Jack Len". To our delight, it was a remarkable home/party recording of Terry hanging out with John Lennon (with guitar in hand) and a couple of ‘friends’. Donovan (maybe) was there and sang "Rivers of Babylon" and "The Royal Canal". Lennon performed "Rock Island Line", "It’s All Over Now Baby Blue", discussed Dylan "borrowing" from old folk tunes, sang "Railroad Bill", "Liverpool Lou", "Don’t Fence Me In", and did a fine Howard Cossell imitation, inspired by a recent Cossell/Lennon interview ("Tell me, John. When did you discover that it was all a big hoax and none of you had any talent?" Lennon replied, "On the way to the bank, Howard!").

The second half of this tape was the remarkable part. The Big Event! It featured John (John "Jack Len" Lennon) with Rolling Stone Mick Jagger, both playing guitar. They blasted through a jam on all sorts of classic tunes, including "It’s Only Make Believe", "Under My Thumb", "She Came In Through the Bathroom Window", "You’re So Square", "Stand by Me", "There Goes My Baby", "Dream Lover" and tried in vain to get the chords to "How High The Moon", as they discussed the recordings and gifts of Les Paul. Terry said, "I’ve got an idea for an album. ‘A Stroll Down Memory Lane With John Lennon And Mick Jagger’." (No stranger to great ideas, Terry Southern did, after all, come up with the idea of calling The Beatles "The Fab Four".) But hearing this superstar duet jam was not the amazing part.
The punchline, the moment of serendiptous synchronicity, came when Mick made a brief comment that set in motion one of the most galvanizing listening experiences of my life. Remember – I’m one week into tracking "Yeah, Buddy" and I’m passionately and blissfully obsessed. As if making a statement of fact, Jagger simply said, "Peggy Sue got married." It was a launching pad for John and Mick to explode into a rampage of Buddy Holly songs, missed chords, forgotten words and all, filled with love, enthusiasm, respect and admiration for one of the great songwriters of the 20th century–that unassuming, sometimes brash, often kind, always impetuous and profoundly gifted lad from Lubbock. For an all too brief nine minutes two giants of ‘60s rock paid tribute to Buddy Holly and sang "Peggy Sue Got Married", "Listen to Me", "Words of Love", "Everyday", "Rave On", "Tell Me How", and "Maybe Baby"! It was astonishing!
It was as if Lennon and Jagger were saying to me, "We’re with you, Jim. Go make that album. We love his music, too."

Just a jam session… Just a couple of guys… A couple of guys armed with guitars and a common love for a beautiful musical heritage… A couple of guys who made an indelible impression on my generation. Just some songs… Some very specific songs… Echoes of West Texas… Just a moment in time. But thanks to the magic of serendipitous synchronicity, Terry Southern was there with tape rolling.

Epilogue: This tape belongs to Nile Southern. Until he chooses to release it, it will remain unavailable. Nile gave me permission to layer some sound bites from the Jack Len Tape into my two Buddy Holly discs, “Yeah, Buddy!” and “Oh, Boy! (another yeah, buddy)”. I’ll point out their locations upon request. Jim Ratts


p.s. - That same week, Bob Dylan encored with “Not Fade Away” at his Denver concert.