Song History: Doctor Robert

We named our Beatles tribute band, Doctor Robert, after track #11 on the Revolver album. It’s a more obscure song and a lot of people don’t know the history behind the song, if they know the song at all. There’s a funny story behind the idea, as there are with many John Lennon songs. We like to think of our band “Doctor Robert” as medicinal MUSIC, a drug more powerful than all others. Here’s the history, according to a great website www.BeatlesEBooks.com:

“So, when was the first time that you suspected from listening to their music that The Beatles were using drugs? Most first generation fans would probably point to songs from the year 1967, such as the lyric “I get high with a little help from my friends,” or the imagery used in “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” not to mention the supposed message hidden in the initials of that song. The year 1968 gave us clues as well, such as the lyrics “I need a fix ‘cause I’m going down” from “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” and “the deeper you go, the higher you fly” from “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey.”

While there are probably many other examples that can be pointed to, the first obvious indication was on the 1966 “Revolver” album (or “Yesterday…And Today” album in the US). Only the naive would have thought that “Dr. Robert” was a song about John’s family ‘ear, nose and throat’ physician. But then again, young fans may have thought just that! John’s longtime friend Pete Shotton remembers, “When John first played me the acetate of ‘Dr. Robert,’ he seemed beside himself with glee over the prospect of millions of record buyers innocently singing along.”

While the group had been drug users for awhile before this time, they had only hinted at this fact in their music up to this point. The lyrics “turns me on” was slyly included in the song “She’s A Woman,” and the description of a woman as being a “Day Tripper” were two notable examples, but they were included in such a way that not many would suspect anything. “The Word” was admittedly written under the influence of marijuana, as was a lot of the “Rubber Soul” album, but that was also veiled in disguise. It wasn’t until 1966 that they threw all caution to the wind and released a song that was blatantly about a drug pusher.

The subject matter may have been clear, but the real curiosity here was with his identity. Who really was “Dr. Robert”?

“It’s all about a queer!” This was John Lennon’s response when asked about the song during an interview. Keep in mind, however, that when he was asked about the inspiration behind “Eleanor Rigby” his response was “two queers.” Also, when a reporter asked what they thought about a Time Magazine article that explained “Day Tripper” as being about a prostitute and “Norwegian Wood” as being about a lesbian, Paul’s response was “We were just trying to write songs about prostitutes and lesbians, you know.” Obviously they were joking at the expense of those who were trying to interpret their music. Therefore, we can easily rule out “Dr. Robert” being about a “queer.”

Another curious quote from John about the song came in 1980. “It was about myself. I was the one that carried all the pills on tour and always have done. Well, in the early days. Later on the roadies did it, and we just kept them in our pockets loose, in case of trouble.”

While this appears to be the final word on the matter, there seems to be more to the story. Referring to a New York doctor that they’d heard about, Paul explains: “We’d hear people say, ‘You can get anything off him, any pills you want.’ It was a big racket. The song was a joke about this fellow who cured everyone of everything with all these pills and tranquilizers. He just kept New York high.”

Pete Shotton attempts to add more details to the story: “John paid sardonic tribute to an actual New York doctor. His real name was Charles Roberts, whose unorthodox prescriptions had made him a great favorite of Andy Warhol’s entourage and, indeed, of The Beatles themselves, whenever they passed through town.”

As for the Beatles actually visiting this doctor, Paul himself puts this to rest, saying, “As far as I know, neither of us ever went to a doctor for those kind of things. But there was a fashion for it and there still is. Change your blood and have a vitamin shot and you’ll feel better.” Since The Beatles have been very candid about their drug use during those years, the above statement appears to have the ring of truth.

One other detail that needs clarification is the name Charles Roberts. Probably because of Pete Shotton’s account, this physicians’ name had been well circulated in Beatles lore for a time. However, in Steve Turner’s book “A Hard Day’s Write,” it is explained that a New York doctor by this name “didn’t exist. It was an alias used by the biographer of Warhol actress Edie Sedgwick, Jean Stein, to conceal the identity of another ‘speed doctor.’”

The speculation about the identity of “Dr. Robert” is convincingly cleared up in Paul McCartney’s book “Many Years From Now.” Co-author Barry Miles, reiterating Paul’s account, explains as follows: “In fact, the name was based on the New York Dr. Feelgood character Dr. Robert Freymann, whose discreet East 78th Street clinic was conveniently located for Jackie Kennedy and other wealthy Upper East Siders from Fifth Avenue and Park to stroll over for their vitamin B-12 shots, which also happened to contain a massive dose of amphetamine. Dr. Robert’s reputation spread and it was not long before visiting Americans told John and Paul about him.”

German born Robert Freymann, sometimes known as Dr. Robert or “The Great White Father” (reportedly because of having a tuft of white hair), continued his practice in New York for many years administering legal amphetamines in larger than needed doses to mostly well-to-do clients. “I have a clientele that is remarkable, from every sphere of life,” he has stated. “I could tell you in ten minutes probably 100 famous names who come here.” He continued his practice until he was expelled from the New York State Medical Society in 1975 for malpractice. His book “What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?” was published in 1983. He passed away in 1987.

About the writing of the song, Paul recalls: “John and I thought it was a funny idea: the fantasy doctor who would fix you up by giving you drugs, it was a parody on that idea. It’s just a piss-take.” As early as 1967, Paul explained the meaning of the song: “That’s what ‘Doctor Robert’ is all about, just a pill doctor who sees you all right. It was a joke between ourselves, but they go in in-jokes and come out out-jokes, because everyone listens and puts their own thing on it, which is great. I mean, when I was young I never knew what ‘gilly gilly otsen feffer casta nell a bogen’ was all about, but I still enjoyed singing it.”

As to who wrote what, John said in his 1972 interview with Hit Parader Magazine that it was mostly written by him, but then stated “I think Paul helped with the middle.” The sentiment expressed by Paul in his statements about the song seems to corroborate this point.

With a remarkable four month rest period from nearly anything Beatles related, stretching from the completion of their last British tour on December 12th, 1965 to their first EMI recording session of the year on April 6th, 1966, the song “Dr. Robert” can easily be estimated to have been written during this time. It was undoubtedly another product of a writing session between the two composers at John’s Kenwood mansion.”

About Doctor Robert, The Beatles Tribute

Creating a band blog

Posted on August 19, 2012, in Song History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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