Saturday, January 7, 2012

Bob Spitz - The Beatles

It's physically impossible at this point in publishing history to have read every word of print devoted to the Fabs lest we live to the age of Methuselah, and the broad outlines of the story are familiar to all within the confines of Western civilization.  So if you're going to read one and only one out of the literally thousands (!) of books on the Beatles (I've read three; one was reviewed last year on this site, and the other one, The Love You Make, was gossippy crap), this is as close as we may get to a definitive take.  For starters, it's comprehensive:  864 pages, and they're long, small-print pages that take a couple of minutes to absorb, which clocks in at 864 pages x 2 minutes per page = ah, you do the math!  (And that's not counting the footnotes, appendix, and what-have-you that I didn't read.)  A great deal of attention is paid to the boys' pre-Beatles lives, particularly John's (let's stick to first names; we know these lads intimately enough to drop the surnames); in fact, we're well over 300 pages in before "Love Me Do," is released as a single.  Not that I'm complaining - the glimpses into the hard-scrabble lives of lower-middle and working class Britons during the post-war decades of harsh austerity are fascinating in a grittily tough-realist mode.  The image of Ringo beginning by banging on a jerry-rigged set-up literally composed of kitchen utensils is a wryly comic touch in the otherwise miserably Dickensian childhood of the poorest Beatle.  Anyway, summarizing the plot is too big of a bite for this little review; let's just say that the book does a fine job of balancing the weight of the material between the musical and personal aspects of the Beatles' story.  Musically, the sections on Revolver are unsurprisingly the most gripping, with George Martin wisely disregarding John's wishes to invite an actual section of Tibetan monks chanting for the chorus and have himself spun upside down in a circle around the microphone to sing the vocal for "Tomorrow Never Knows."  Ah, John - what a fucking prick.  Some naive Beatles fans have complained that this book is unfairly biased  against John - "He comes across as a total asshole!"  Well, I've got news for ya:  John Lennon was a total asshole.  His great talent and the fact that he was completely, nakedly honest about himself and his faults seemed to be the only genuinely likable things about the guy.  And the latter is only one aspect of his unrelenting narcissism:  the word 'solopsistic' doesn't even begin to describe John's worldview.  As one person once nastily quipped, he was the type of guy who thought that his own farts were significant (and put them to tape, and then released them on Apple with a naked Yoko Ono on the cover).  The other three generally come across as fairly normal guys.  Yes, Paul did have a bit of an anal control freak that comes out during the Let It Be sessions, and George obviously suffered from an inferiority complex (well, wouldn't you?), and Ringo....well, he was Ringo, a level-headed, bog-ordinary chap, rather boring if you admit it, but a necessary stabilizing foundation of bloke-ordinariness to John's madness, Paul's yuppie upward mobility, and George's flakey yogi-mysticism.  As for the 'fifth Beatle', Pete Best is seen flying off into an understandable rage when he gets news of the sack, before fading out in the mist of history; George Martin is presented as an old-fashioned, button-down English gentleman of the stripe that we sadly see too little of in this contemporary world; and Brian Epstein remains the most compellingly tragic figure in the Beatles story, a true victim of society and its intolerance if there ever was one.  If you're at all interested in the band, this is a must-read - don't let the heft put you off; you won't need to read another book on the Beatles ever again.  Because if this doesn't fully satisfy your appetite, phoney Beatlemania hasn't bitten the dust round your house.

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