Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Last Supper in Liverpool

Verne McDonald, a lifelong Beatles fan, commissioned a painting featuring the Beatles and nine candidates for the title the Fifth Beatle in a pastiche of Leonardo's Last Supper. Lyle Stafford photograph for the Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 16, 2010


We know all about John, George, Paul and Ringo. But who was the Fifth Beatle?

Music fans can argue for hours about which musician, or impresario, or producer deserves the title.

One of the first to claim the crown was a New York disc jockey who claimed one of the Fab Four jokingly called him such at a press conference.

“There’s been so many fifth Beatles ever since Murray the K said he was,” said Verne McDonald, a Beatles fan. “Of course he wasn’t.”

Mr. McDonald, 54, is an award-winning journalist, now retired from Grub Street, who in his reportorial duties once had a brush with one of the prime claimants to being the Fifth Beatle.

Five years ago, Mr. McDonald was laid off from the Georgia Straight, the Vancouver weekly. He had a modest sum to invest, but did not care for the bank rate, nor was he one to invest in stocks. After a few weeks contemplating his options, he decided his long appreciation for Beatles music offered an opportunity.

He recalled a long-ago trip to Turkey, during which he took a break from visiting Greek ruins to enjoy a cup of tea. Among the Turkish rugs hanging as windbreak was one whose detailed looming had been inspired by a black-velvet painting of Elvis.

Some cultural icons are global. Mr. McDonald could not afford a licensing fee, so he was thinking of art in the public domain. Leonardo da Vinci came to mind.

Mr. McDonald commissioned the Vancouver painter Vic Bonderoff to recreate Leonardo’s “The Last Supper” only with the apostles replaced by candidates for Beatledom.

Months passed. A year went by. Then another. And a third.

Leonardo only needed three years to complete the original.

Mr. McDonald began to wonder if the painting would ever be completed.

Born at Soellingen, Germany, while his father served in the Royal Canadian Air Force, young Verne was living in Clinton, Ont., when he first heard the Beatles on the radio. After the mop tops made their inaugural appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the boy turned from the television to say, “See, I don’t need to get my hair cut.”

While at university, he was elected editor of the student newspaper. Classes were often an afterthought. On a campus in which students described themselves by discipline and yera, such as arts 2 or science 4, Mr. McDonald said he was alchemy 7.

In 1980, he ran for Parliament as a Rhinoceros standard-bearer. The colourlessness of the opposition — the Progressive Conservative incumbent was a chartered accountant, the Liberal a resource economist best known for a report on the fisheries, the New Democrat a social worker — made the Rhino campaign all the more interesting.

He called himself John Eh? McDonald. He described his occupation on the ballot as novelist.

The John Eh? campaign called for a return of corruption to the railways and gin to the House of Commons. (Railway corruption? He was a candidate ahead of his time.)

He got 405 votes in the upscale riding of Vancouver Quadra, finishing a respectable fourth of eight candidates.

It was a period in his life when it could be said he cultivated a reputation as a character from Doonesbury, as his long hair and free spirit somewhat resembled that of Zonker Harris.

Mr. McDonald worked as a graphic artist at the Vancouver Sun and kicked around a variety of newsrooms in British Columbia before settling in at Vancouver’s alternative weekly.

At the Straight, he became the default Beatles expert, reviewing a steady stream of biographies and rereleases.

“They made some great music,” he said. “Wonderful, wonderful music.”

Among the assignments was an opportunity to interview by telephone Pete Best, the group’s original drummer, whose misfortune it was to be fired on the cusp of the band’s breakthrough. (The drummer tried to cash in on Beatlemania by releasing an album titled, “Best of the Beatles.”)

A series of pratfalls followed. Finally, with a deadline looming, he reached the former Beatle, whose well-being he asked after in a formal manner.

“Oh, Verne, lad, don’t call me Mr. Best. Just call me Pete.”

And with that the telephone went dead.

The two were unable to reconnect.

Mr. McDonald cobbled together an article, but was stuck for an ending. A friend helpfully offered the following: “Coming soon, an even shorter interview with Stu Sutcliffe.”

(Mr. Sutcliffe, a bassist with the band during extended gigs at nightclubs in Hamburg, Germany, had died in 1963.)

The commissioned painting was beginning to seem as ill-fated an endeavor as the Best interview.

At long last, the artist unveiled his masterpiece — a five-foot by three-foot painting prepared in alternating layers of oil paint and lacquer, an ancient glazing technique.

“I wanted something representational, like Norman Rockwell,” Mr. McDonald said. “He went all Renaissance on me.”

The painting depicts John Lennon at the centre of the table with Yoko Ono taking Mary Magdalene’s place and Paul McCartney in the Judas seat. The candidates for fifth Beatle — manager Brian Epstein, producers George Martin and Phil Spector, musicians Jimmy Nicol, Billy Preston, and Eric Clapton, as well as Ms. Ono, Mr. Sutcliffe, and, of course, Mr. Best — are posed in imitation of the original.

The repast includes lager, marijuana, baked beans, steak and chips, all favoured by the group. An empty prescription bottle (“the last upper”) rests on the table. Through the windows can be seen the Merseyside waterfront of Liverpool.

Mr. McDonald is selling $80 prints of the painting through his website.

If his retirement plan seems like a scheme from the Trailer Park Boys, well, sometimes life is like that.

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