Steve Tilston: the real Danny Collins

William Langley / 20 April 2015

In 1971 John Lennon wrote to aspiring folkie Steve Tilston. Over 40 years later it inspired Al Pacino's movie, Danny Collins.

The man whose story inspired Al Pacino’s new film is a grizzled, 65-year-old grandfather from Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, who, with his battered guitar, still soldiers cheerfully around the British folk circuit. John Lennon’s handwritten letter of advice took 34 years to reach Steve Tilston, but the delay seems to have done no harm.

Steve never made the big time – at least not in the way The Beatles knew it – but today, looking back on a full life and a decent career, he has few regrets. He was 21 – cool, ambitious and hairy – when he was interviewed by ZigZag, a popular rock magazine, in 1971 and expressed the worry that becoming rich and famous might affect his ability to write good songs.

Lennon, then 30, saw the resulting article and wrote in reassurance: ‘Being rich doesn’t change your experience in the way you think. The only difference, basically, is that you don’t have to worry about money, food, roof, etc. But all other experiences – emotions, relationships – are the same.’

Advice from John Lennon 

Posted to the magazine, the letter never reached Steve, who found out about its existence only in 2005 when he was contacted by an American collector who had bought it for £7,000 at auction.

‘It was a strange feeling to know it had been around all this time, and I knew nothing about it,’ he said. ‘It tells you a lot about John Lennon that he took the trouble to write something like that to a young musician. I’ve sometimes wondered if it was because I was born in Liverpool, and he saw something of himself in me.

'At the time I was worried about how I would deal with becoming a big star and rich beyond the dreams of avarice, and John picked up on this and basically said, ‘Don’t worry about it’. It’s nicely expressed, a lovely gesture, and I suppose it might have been good for my ego to have got it, but I don’t think, honestly, it would have made much difference to my life.

A jobbing musician 

‘Yeah, it would have been great to have made lots of money, but I’ve been pretty happy as a jobbing musician. You look at the really big stars and you can see it isn’t an easy life. All that attention. I don’t think Bob Dylan would really like to be Bob Dylan again. I’d hate not being able to walk down the street without being recognised. For me it’s been respect more than adoration, and I’ll settle for that.’

Steve has never seen the original letter. ‘It’s enough for me to know it is there,’ he says. ‘The first I knew about it was when this chap called me up from the States and said: “Are you, by any chance, the Steve Tilston that John Lennon once wrote to?” Of course, I didn’t know what he was talking about, and that’s when the whole thing came out.’

The story was pounced upon by Hollywood writer/director Dan Fogelman, who originally intended to call the film Imagine, but later opted for Danny Collins – the fictional name of the main character. The story has been re-set in America, with Pacino playing a veteran, hard-living rocker who decides to reform after receiving the letter.

Al Pacino   

‘He’s really nothing at all like me,’ says Steve, ‘so I asked them not to use my name in the movie. It turned out the story was my intellectual property, so I got a decent payment, and they invited me to London to watch an advance screening of it. Sadly, I didn’t get to meet Al Pacino – I’m a big fan of his.’

Married, with four children and six grandchildren, Steve is one of the stalwarts of the folk rock scene, regularly touring in Britain and Europe, and often accompanied by his band The Durbervilles. ‘I liked the film,’ he says. ‘I was pleasantly surprised by it. Pacino is terrific. It’s really a story about redemption and how this guy’s life is changed by the letter. It’s nothing like my life, though. I’m happy with the one I’ve got.’

Read Saga Magazine's interview with Al Pacino

 

The letter John Lennon sent to Steve Tilston never reached him. It reads as follows:

Dear Steve Tilston + Richard Howell

Being rich doesn’t change your experience in the way you think. The only difference basically is that you don’t have to worry about money – food – roof – etc, but all other experiences – emotions – relationships – are the same as anybodies [sic], I know, I’ve been rich and poor, so has Yoko (rich – poor – rich) so whadya think of that.

love John + Yoko

Discover more about Steve Tilston on his official website

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