18 Jan 2006
Last month saw the passing of an anniversary that never was. John Lennon would have been 65, and the publication of several books about man and The Beatles reminds us again the 25-year gap his murder left in our popular culture.
The king of the recent titles is obviously “The Beatles,” the massive biography of the Fab Four by Bob Spitz. With over 500 books about John, Paul, George and Ringo, and the broad outlines of their story has been authoritatively established. Beatle fans won’t learn any earth-shattering revelations. Instead, Spitz creates a driving narrative that adds touches of details here and there, shaping the old stories with freshness and energy.
To those who hadn’t grown up during that time, it would be easy to wonder what the fuss was all about. The Beatles crafted great pop songs that range in complexity from simple love songs (“She Loves You”), songs of loss and loneliness (“Julia”, “Eleanor Rigby”), psychedelia (“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”), idealism (“All You Need is Love”) to experiments in found sound and feedback (“Revolution No. 9”). But you could say that now about a lot of groups. Why Beatlemania?
Spitz’s book answers that question by taking us back to the beginning and showing their background and ambition took root and thrived amid the grey times that followed Liverpool after World War II. While Paul McCartney’s family was modestly well-situated — his father’s showmanship as a bandleader would crop up again in his son — the others found a passion for music that compensated for a broken home (Lennon), a complete disinterest in academics (Harrison) or debilitating childhood illnesses (Starr).
Their obsession with music drew Lennon, McCartney and Harrison together, and their overriding ambition to be, in their words, “the toppermost of the poppermost” drove them to spend long hours rehearsing songs and learning how to play better. Their time playing in Hamburg’s red-light district became a rudimentary boot camp that forced them to forge a hard-driving sound that kept the audience riveted. When they returned to Liverpool, they rocked harder and longer than any other group, and in their leather jackets, black T-shirts and tight pants, they projected an aura of danger and randiness that kicked out the jams.
The rest of “The Beatles” charts the rise, dominance and dissolution of the group, ending abruptly with McCartney’s announcement that the group had disbanded. Those expecting new revelations in “The Beatles” will be disappointed, but Spitz does his homework and strings together the facts into a fast-moving biography that’s more interested in getting its facts in order and its stories straight than to delve into critical judgments about the music and the group’s place in history. It’s an epic story, compellingly told.
The rest of the books are a mixed bag. “John Lennon: All I Want is the Truth” is advertised as a “photographic biography” for high school students. Amid the fast-forward recounting of John’s life, warts and all, are scattered a mix of familiar and rare photos of John and the boys, some spread over two pages, but also shots of anti-war protesters, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley and Oscar Wilde to provide the historical context older readers would take for granted.
The disappointment among the bunch is “Lennon Revealed” in which former Philadelphia newscaster Larry Kane scrapes the bottom of his memories of covering The Beatles and few encounters with Lennon afterward to pad this combination of memoir and hagiography.
Kane covered the Beatle tours as a radio reporter and his book about them, “Ticket to Ride,” is considered an excellent fly-on-the-wall account. Here, he takes his material, what little information he’s gathered, padded it with bombastic praise for the group and nearly everyone who knew or worked with them then tacked on 33 pages of fan letters. Kane is besotted with Lennon and uncritically takes his side whether John is using his rough tongue on his friends, cheating on his wife or behaving badly while taking copious amounts of drugs and alcohol.
Kane wraps the Beatles in fulsome prose that would embarrass the most hardened egotist. The Shea Stadium concert? “An epic moment in contemporary entertainment” Onetime band mate Stu Sutcliffe? “In the formative years of John’s march to eternal greatness, Stu Sutcliffe was a colossal figure.” Even Beatle experts aren’t spared this trowelwork, with one authority called “the world’s greatest scholar” on the group. This fulsome praise makes for hard reading.
Kane’s prose settles down when he describes the private moments he shared with Lennon while on tour, and there’s a wonderful section describing the weekend Lennon spent in Philadelphia helping Kane’s station with its telethon in 1975. The accompanying 40-minute DVD mixes a promotional interview with Kane with a 13-minute interview from 1968 with Lennon and McCartney, and a few seconds of Lennon giving the weather report as part of the telethon promotion. So while there are some interesting bits, it wasn’t enough to justify a book. As they say in the record business, I didn’t hear a hit.