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Peter Fonda and the Beatles

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Author of "Red Legs of the Bulge: Artillerymen in the Battle of the Bulge," CJ is passionate about history and the people who make it.

Peter Fonda in The Wild Angels (1966)

Peter Fonda in The Wild Angels (1966)

Unintentional Muse

In August 1965, the Beatles were in the midst of an epic tour. After the release of Help!, the crowds and reporters were relentless. Stress had become a problem. Finding somewhere to stay was impossible. With a week off from the grind, manager Brian Epstein arranged to rent a house from Zsa Zsa Gabor, 2850 Benedict Canyon Drive, situated in the heart of Beverly Hills. Epstein’s efforts at concealment were in vain as helicopters hovered over the canyon, girls jammed the front gate and photographers climbed atop every fence and hillside.

The band’s Hollywood industry fans paid homage over the next few days as they lounged by the pool, facing the chaos with their characteristic humor. Others came over with an agenda: drugs. In this case, it was LSD. Most of the Beatles were receptive and looking to experiment. Into this madness stepped three twentysomething burgeoning stars: David Crosby, Roger McGuinn and a young actor by the name of Peter Fonda, who had a strange story to tell.

At ten years old, Peter Fonda accidentally shot himself in the stomach and actually died for a few minutes on the operating table. The incident affected the him the rest of his life. His recounting of the story years later to the Beatles became infamous as the morbid tale angered a very high John Lennon. The mischievous Beatle then made Fonda the subject of a song on the pioneering Revolver album.

The Beatles in 1965.

The Beatles in 1965.

The Fonda family in 1949: Henry, wife Frances, Peter (standing), Jane and Frances de Villiers, Frances's daughterr from her first marriage.

The Fonda family in 1949: Henry, wife Frances, Peter (standing), Jane and Frances de Villiers, Frances's daughterr from her first marriage.

The Accident

Peter was the son of Hollywood royalty. Henry Fonda had been a star since the late 30s and in 1951 he had just married his third wife. Peter’s mother, Frances, had committed suicide in April 1950 after Henry had asked for a divorce. She had been a deeply troubled woman and could not cope. Henry’s stern and distant personality did not help. Peter was both awed and frightened by his dad, who believed in corporal punishment.

Unwilling to renew his studio contract, Henry returned to his origins on Broadway, moving the family to Connecticut. With a busy father, Peter was left in the care of family, rich friends and nannies. He was shuffled around and very often left to his own devices. On January 6, 1951, while Henry was on his honeymoon with a much younger wife, Peter was invited down to the Kress Rock Hill estate in Ossining, New York to hang out with his friends Tony Abry and Reed Armstrong. Tony was the grandson of Rush Kress, one of the founders of the famous five and dime retail chain. All of the boys brought their guns. Peter had recently received a .22 rifle from his dad. Reed brought an antique .22. handgun with an unusual breech loading mechanism.

The only adult who appeared to be around was the chauffeur. The boys took turns firing off shots from the various weapons. Finally, Peter got a hold of the .22 handgun. After firing off one shot and reloading, the breech would not close tight and the bullet appeared to be stuck in the chamber. So he turned the gun around to get leverage, but the barrel was now pointing toward his stomach. When he slammed the barrel down, the gun went off.

The former Kress Rock Hill Estate today. It's now a city park.

The former Kress Rock Hill Estate today. It's now a city park.

Life in the Balance

Despite the gaping wound, Fonda managed to run down to the car where the chauffeur threw him and his friends in the back. They then took off for Ossining Hospital. The chauffeur, who was black, was stopped for excessive speed during the trip. The officer ignored his pleas about the seriously wounded passenger. Fonda began yelling about what happened. It finally sunk in for the puzzled policeman and he let them resume their desperate trek.

Once at the hospital, they were ignored again. The nurses tried throwing the frantic chauffeur out of the building. Peter and his friends frantically tried to get attention in the waiting room. After a doctor finally stopped to take a look, he was brought into an exam room. The shell was lodged just under his skin above his kidney, the bulge clearly visible.

Dr. Charles Sweet, the medical director at nearby Sing Sing Prison, was called. As luck would have it, the 70 year old had just gotten back from a duck hunting trip. He was their best surgeon, so they rushed Peter into surgery. The bullet blew the tip of his liver off, and ran through his stomach and kidney, missing his abdominal aorta by a millimeter. His heart stopped a few times during the surgery. Dr. Sweet had sown him up thinking nothing more could be done. Peter’s grandmother and sister Jane sat in the waiting room. A clearly upset Sweet went to give them the bad news when another doctor ran out to say they had revived him. He would live, but there would be several more weeks of recovery. Henry Fonda cut short the honeymoon to fly back as soon as possible.

When Peter got back to school, he was treated like a hero but had a new nickname: Lead Belly.

Ossining Hospital in the 1950s

Ossining Hospital in the 1950s

The crowd of fans outside the house.

The crowd of fans outside the house.

Buzzkill

On August 24, 1965, the band had invited David Crosby and Roger McGuinn over to indulge in their new found stimulant. McGuinn and Crosby were members of the Byrds, a band the Beatles admired. The Byrds were riding high based on their hits Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn!, Turn!, Turn!. Having met earlier in the year while on tour, they became kindred spirits. Upon arrival, the LSD dosing began in earnest. The band's co-star in the film, Help!, Eleanor Bron, with whom Lennon was rumored to be having an affair, had also dropped by earlier in the day.

McGuinn invited Fonda over too. He had met the actor at an LA club and became fast friends. Before coming over, Fonda was given a password for the security guard at the gate. Due to the crowds, he had to park a few blocks away. After squeezing through the throng of girls, he made it to the main house to find that everyone had already dosed. Some lounged by the pool while others sat staring in the living room. David Crosby had Peter's ready. Fonda was already an old pro at "tripping." All of the Beatles were there except for Paul, who was vehemently opposed to LSD at that time.

The band had not been doing LSD long, having been introduced to it by George's dentist, who secretly dosed him and John earlier in the year. That experience frightened both men and their wives, who were with them that night. It got so bad, that while in an elevator they all began screaming, believing it was on fire. How to handle the mind-altering effects of the drug was important.

George Harrison was having a hard time again. Fonda immediately sought to comfort and guide him through the trip.

"Hey man, it's okay," Fonda softly said to George. "It's your mind fighting the drug. Let it go. Listen, you're not gonna die."

John Lennon was now within earshot, as were Crosby and McGuinn. Ringo was nearby somewhere.

"I know what it's like to die. You're not dying. I died for minutes when I was a kid. I know what it's like to be dead." Fonda then lifted his shirt up to show his wound, the hole still clearly visible.

After a few more minutes, Lennon had had enough.

"Who put all that junk in your head. Stop it!"

A shocked Fonda became confused as he felt he was comforting a friend.

"You're making me feel like I've never been born, man," Lennon continued. That broke up the session.

The group then piled into a spacious sunken tub to jam in with their electric guitars. Though the guitars were not plugged in, the acoustics helped amplify the sound. Later, they moved back to the living room to watch Jane Fonda's Cat Ballou. Lennon hated that too. Despite the drugs, it was a day Lennon would not forget.

Later that night, the actress Peggy Lipton stopped by. But everyone was so high, they did not believe she was there. Though Fonda insisted, they just told him "you're seeing things, man." However, Paul McCartney, who was still sober, went into the kitchen to greet her.

The pool and patio at 2850 Benedict Canyon.

The pool and patio at 2850 Benedict Canyon.

The living room, prior to the remodel in 2017.

The living room, prior to the remodel in 2017.

Artistic License

In the spring of 1966, as the Beatles prepared to record their innovative Revolver album, Lennon was having writer's block. Paul and George had been writing with ease. After a productive April, John hit a wall. But he still found one memory he could put down in song, his encounter with Fonda.

On June 21, 1966, the Beatles entered Studio 2 at Abbey Road to begin recording She Said She Said. This was the first time in weeks that John had a song ready to record. As he would do often, he had changed the gender to female. It would be a marathon of takes. She Said featured a literal retelling of his experience which the lyrics make very clear:

She said I know what it's like to be dead
I know what it is to be sad
And she's making me feel like I've never been born

I said who put all those things in your head
Things that make me feel that I'm mad
And you're making me feel like I've never been born

Paul did not appear on the recording. Theories vary as to why Paul did not take part. The band stayed mostly mum about it. But most fans think it's because of John and George's constant razzing of Paul for not trying LSD. Paul was there for a few hours of the session. Then he disappears from the stereo imaging. George had been helping John piece together the song earlier in the month. He ended up playing his own bass on the record and doing all the backing vocals, assisting Paul in the meter change at the beginning.

The session started at 7pm and last until nearly 4am. It was the only track on the album that was completed in one session. Producer George Martin was exhausted, presumably not just by all the work but by the growing personality conflicts within the band. The next day there were overdubs of an organ and lead guitar..

The release of Revolver in August 1966 signaled a seismic shift for the Beatles. One fueled by their own maturing taste and deepening drug use, though not many listeners in those days understood the references to LSD. Some of the tracks have become iconic: Taxman, Eleanor Rigby, and Yellow Submarine are now part of the culture. Today, the album is considered a groundbreaking event in the history of not just the Beatles, but rock and roll in general. It regularly appears on lists of the five greatest Beatles works of all time. The use of every available new technology by George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick, set the standard for years to come.

The band during the Revolver sessions.

The band during the Revolver sessions.

Acceptance

As for Fonda, he accepted his inclusion into Beatles lore with grace and a sense of humor. He knew it was an outgrowth of Lennon's anger but as he said many times, "Who wouldn't want to be the subject of a Beatles song?" He went on to become a cultural icon himself with the release of Easy Rider in 1969. At age 57, he revived his career with the lead role in Ulee's Gold, for which he received an Academy Award nomination. Always approachable, he became well known for stopping to talk with fans at airports and take pictures.

Peter Fonda died on August 16, 2019 from complications of cancer. Brave to the end, his sister Jane said, "He went out laughing."

RIP Peter Fonda, 1940-2019

RIP Peter Fonda, 1940-2019

Sources

Articles

  • "August 11, 1966: John Lennon defends his claim that the Beatles are 'more popular than Jesus'." Fab Four Store, August 10, 2015. www.fabfourstore.com.
  • Boyle, Louise. "In the market for a magical mystery mansion? Beverly Hills villa where the Beatles tripped on LSD available for $3.1m (and it doesn't appear to have changed decor since)." Daily Mail Online, August 29, 2012.
  • "Charles C. Sweet, Prison Physician; Former Chief of Sing Sing Prison Is Dead at 82." New York Times, August 12, 1963. nytimes.com
  • Feuerherd, Ben. "Peter Fonda helped The Beatles write a hit song during 1965 acid trip." New York Post, August 16, 2019.
  • "Fonda Died Three Times After Accident." World Entertainment News Network, September 30, 2009. contactmusic.com.
  • “Fonda Son Wounded By Accidental Shot.” New York Times, January 7, 1951. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: King County Library System (kcls.org).
  • Gonzalez, Sandra. "Hollywood remembers 'sweet hearted' Peter Fonda." CNN.com, August 16, 2019.
  • Herbert, Ian. "Revealed: Dentist who introduced Beatles to LSD." The Independent (UK), April 1, 2009.
  • Lewis, Randy. "How Peter Fonda's LSD Trip with the Beatles produced a classic John Lennon lyric." Los Angeles Times, August 17, 2019. latimes.com
  • "Peter Fonda Shot - John Lennon writes song about it." Ossining History on the Run, July 4, 2016. (Ossining Historical Society)
  • Scanlon, Gina. “The Tragic Real-Life Story of the Fonda Family.” Grunge, January 11, 2021. www.grunge.com.
  • "The Beatles take LSD in Los Angeles with The Byrds and Peter Fonda." The Beatles Bible, May 4, 2020. www.beatlesbible.com
  • Whatley, Jack. "The only Beatles song McCartney refused to play on." Far Out, January 6, 2021. www.faroutmagazine.co.uk.

Books

  • Fonda, Peter. Don't Tell Dad: A Memoir. New York: Hyperion, 1998.
  • Rodriguez, Robert. Revolver: How the Beatles Reimagined Rock. Milwaukee, WI: Backbeat Books. 2012

Websites

Comments

CJ Kelly (author) from the PNW on April 12, 2021:

Hi Shauna, the song is She Said She Said. I did not make that very clear. I have since gone back in and added a reference and some lyrics. I appreciate your help. Your comment improved the hub!

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on April 12, 2021:

Interesting article. I was unaware of the connection between the Beatles and Peter Fonda. I also didn't know he'd shot himself as a youngster. Which Beatles song did Lennon write about Fonda?

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