Tower Records
Originally published Tuesday, December 06, 2005

'All we need is love... and a bulletproof vest'

South Bay musician to unveil John Lennon tribute on 25th anniversary of former Beatle's death.

Daily Breeze

Johnny's Gone Away

Nothing can bring John Lennon back from the dead.

But Tom Trefethen hopes his Lennon tribute song will help keep the singer's memory and message alive.


Thursday marks the 25th anniversary of the ex-Beatle's death, and on that day Trefethen will perform his tribute song, "Johnny's Gone Away," for the first time at the annual Lennon vigil outside the Capitol Records building in Hollywood.

"John had a lot to say," said the South Bay resident, who prefers not to identify his city of residence due to privacy concerns. "We're at a point now where hearing Lennon's message again would be a great benefit to all. This song isn't about changing the world. It's about making people think. It's about affecting the individual."

Listen to the song

More than 25 years have passed since Trefethen first began reaching people through music.

The one-time recording engineer and record producer was a big part of the '70s music scene. His engineering style and technique earned him multiple Grammy nominations and the chance to work on more than 30 albums alongside such musicians as Andrae Crouch and The Disciples, Ambrosia, Frank Zappa and Alan Parsons.

It was during that period that Trefethen wrote his Lennon tribute.

"A few weeks after Lennon died, a song idea I'd been kicking around finally got its inspiration," Trefethen said. "I overheard a discussion on a news show about [Mark David] Chapman, the guy who'd killed [Lennon], and then I sat down with a guitar and the first line, 'I heard the news today; Johnny's gone away' just came out."

Within a few years after writing the song, Trefethen left the music industry and immersed himself in the family business, designing and building airplanes.

Raised in the South Bay in what he jokingly referred to as a "family of weirdos," Trefethen spent years working with his family. A large picture album he keeps partially documents the Trefethen family's impact on the flying world.

Black-and-white shots show his parents building some of Torrance Municipal Airport's first airplane hangars. Others show just his mother, Joan, who has been credited as the first woman to design an airplane and the first woman to fly a Formula One airplane.

There are pictures of Trefethen working with Brant Goldsworthy, a South Bay composites expert known for his hand in creating the first fiberglass surfboards and shaping the prototype for the Chevy Corvette. And there are images of Trefethen working on high-end aeronautical props for big-budget Hollywood movies and consulting with one-time land-speed record holder Craig Breedlove.

Trefethen's unique South Bay studio is equal parts laboratory and inspirational oasis.

Concrete has transformed the walls and ceiling of Trefethen's work space into a collection of intimate grottoes, a series of cozy caves connected by rounded tunnels. Embedded here and there are industrial sculptures made from old oil field pipes and gauges, iron wheels and light bulbs.

The studio has an aquatic theme, with schools of fish scattered across walls and clumps of coral seeming to grow out of surfaces. Seaweed and branches rise out of small illuminated niches and the floor is littered with small manta ray throw rugs.

The place has served Trefethen well through the years as a quiet space for designing planes and, more recently, making music.

"I thought about recording and releasing this song at the 20th anniversary," he said. "But I wasn't ready, and my studio wasn't ready."

Trefethen's notion of studio readiness wasn't about amassing state-of-the-art recording gear or waiting for the next technological breakthrough in sound recording. For him, the ideal feel on "Johnny's Gone Away" had to come from the past.

He wanted the recording to have the authentic analog sound that the music of Lennon's era had. But the digital recording revolution of the early '80s rendered the old equipment obsolete, and as a result, analog recording studios have become practically extinct.

Rather than sacrifice the vision, Trefethen built his own studio.

He spent years collecting, repairing and restoring all sorts of vintage gear, and finally, earlier this year, finished his studio and recorded the Lennon tribute song, true to his vision.

"There is a thickness and warmth to analog sound that was lost in the digital revolution," he said. "Digital recording is great, but [it] takes sound out of the physical realm. It's an interpretational version, not a physical copy. Digital recordings don't move any air; they don't sparkle. From an engineering standpoint, analog recordings are where the magic happens."

To create that magic, Trefethen has a 1947 Hammond organ with a rebuilt Leslie speaker, and in the studio's control room, a Baldwin piano is mounted on the big wheels of an airplane's landing gear.

"These are analog 2-inch tape recorders, 16/24 track machines," he said, standing by a row of big, brown consoles that are about the size of a large subzero freezer.

"They're the kind that [Pink Floyd's] 'Dark Side of the Moon' was recorded on," he said. "This one was Trevor Rabin's, from the band Yes. And this one is from Glenn Frey's studio. These were used to cut stuff from Pink Floyd's 'Animals' album and some of the El DeBarge records. This place is as much a music museum as it is a work space."

It's from within that museum that Trefethen produced his Lennon tribute, with an old-school sound and a little help from his friends.

Actor John Gries narrates on the track. Local musician Paul Glawson backs Trefethen on drums and Glawson's brother Dave worked the knob of an old WWII-era radio for a side band squeal.

Ambrosia keyboardist Chris North plays the Hammond organ and engineer Alan Parsons, who worked with the Beatles on their final album, "Abbey Road," is the executive producer.

"I love the song," Parsons said of the tribute. "And I admire Tom's purist approach to analog recording. One of the nicest things about this tune is its faithfulness to the sound at the time. He's managed to incorporate several Beatle-esque ideas, and do it quite well."

Trefethen also got Los Angeles artist George Bartell to create original cover art. Bartell created album art for many Capitol recording artists, including the Beatles, Frank Sinatra and Jimi Hendrix.

For all the time, effort and star power Trefethen has put into the original track, its debut will not be to a packed room at a trendy club, or on a raised concert stage above a throng of screaming fans.

Instead, Trefethen will perform the number outside, among the Lennon faithful at Thursday's memorial candlelight vigil, held twice yearly, on the anniversary of the singer's birth and his death.

The vigil is sponsored by Alliance for Survival, a Santa Monica-based peace and environmental group that was founded by longtime peace activist Jerry Rubin, not to be confused with the late Jerry Rubin of Chicago Seven and Yippie fame.

Every year, Rubin and his wife, Marissa, haul tables, chairs and other supplies onto a public bus and make a cross-town pilgrimage to Lennon's Hollywood Walk of Fame star. There, they gather with other like-minded Lennon fans to publicly remember the man, his music and his message.

"This year's vigil is significant," said Rubin. "And we're honored to have Tom perform. It's the 25th year, the quarter-century milestone. And right now, with the country at war and the holiday season upon us, the world could really use Lennon's 'give peace a chance' message."

Want to go?

Vigil: The John Lennon remembrance vigil begins at 6 p.m. Thursday outside the Capitol Records building, 1750 N. Vine Street, Hollywood. The event includes live performances, a flaming peace symbol made of 25 candles, an open mike for participants to express their thoughts. At the approximate hour of Lennon's death, participants will join hands in a circle of peace and unity.

Information: Contact Alliance for Survival at 310-399-1000.

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