Saturday, December 5, 2009

Thoughts on Beatle books.

Because the Lennon vs. McCartney question is a debate (and a fallacy) that apparently will never die, I am delighted to see that the new McCartney biography by Peter Ames Carlin, Paul McCartney: A Life, apparently spends a lot of time once again defending Paul's legacy from those who would continue, blindly, to see him as the lameass of the band and to deify a conveniently deceased John. But I am even more delighted to see what else this largely positive A.V. Club review has to say, which is that the book seems not to go as far in the self-promotion direction as Paul himself has veered in recent years. In fact, the review makes the book sound quite balanced and well done overall. I think that I'm going to have to read it.

The best book I've read about Paul is probably Many Years from Now, which pubbed in the '90s. Though technically written by Barry Miles, most of the book is direct quotes from extensive interviews with Paul. This is both cool and lame. Cool, because you're basically reading Paul's own story direct from him. Lame, because Paul often comes off as ridiculously defensive about his career and his legacy, and ends up exaggerating his own accomplishments and exacerbating all those stories about his huge ego. I understand Paul's defensiveness to an extent, but it comes off as cranky much of the time. The book is still worth a read, but be warned about Paul's motives, is all. I'm just glad there's another good biography out there to round the picture out a bit more.

I'm thinking about all of this anew, as I've recently started rereading Ray Coleman's Lennon, which I think I first read in high school. I recently picked up a used mass market copy for a dollar, so why not? Lennon has been widely considered the best John biography out there for a long time, but reading it is annoying me, because it's so sycophantic that even a fangirl like me wants to throw up in her mouth a little. The basic storyline so far is that John gets drunk and beats people up and stuff, but deep down he's a big ol' sweetie! As if the author is afraid of readers hearing anything negative about the guy. (Secondarily, I'm also a bit turned off at Coleman's obvious disgust at rumors that John might have had a fling with Brian Epstein. I'm not saying the rumors are true-- I kind of doubt that they are-- but Coleman protests so much, and goes so out of his way to say what a HETEROSEXUAL guy John was, that it's rather too revealing of his own homophobia. Which is just gross, and is making me kind of hate the author.) But the worst offenses are toward Paul McCartney, who is only mentioned in order for Coleman to sneer at his so-called primness and downplay the intensity of the artistic partnership the two had. If you had only this book to go on, you'd assume that Paul was just some guy John played in some band with for a little while. You know, no big deal. So it's books like this that make Paul feel he HAS to defend himself.

Last year, Phil Norman-- the author of Shout!, a book that I still feel is the best Beatles biography I've read, even though a lot of people consider Norman hopelessly biased in John's direction (not without reason)-- published a new biography of John that's out in paperback this fall: John Lennon: The Life. (Note that Paul's new bio is just A Life. John's is THE Life. Hee.) I haven't read this one yet. In the mainstream press it seems to have been very well received, but among Beatle people there was a lot of vitriol about how this was yet another offering to Saint John the Lennon. I can't imagine Norman's book being worse in this way than Coleman's, though, so I've decided to read this one as well. (Maybe I'll read Norman's book and Carlin's book side by side to compare how they approach their subjects.) I've also heard that Norman's book picks up some of the recent allegations raised by Julia Baird, John's half-sister, about some hidden family secrets or something. Baird has a book out, too, whose title I forget, but which I've been hesitant to read just because, even if true, the whole thing sounds a little too sordid, a little too Maury Povich for my tastes. (Spoiler alert: Aunt Mimi doesn't come off well.)

But my larger point is: Isn't this John vs. Paul thing in the book business just nuts? It makes me glad not to be famous and not to have any legacy really worth protecting. Because the whole things would just exhaust me.


  1. Not a big Philip Norman fan, myself. I thought that SHOUT was just a lame rewrite of the Hunter Davies book . . .Started on the new Lennon book, however. The parts about Freddie Lennon were pretty eye-opening to me . . .but Norman's banal "insights" get tedious . . .I would highly recommend Jon Wiener's COME TOGETHER to all Lennon fans. Wiener went through Lennon's FBI files, and, from what I remember, came up with a fascinating book . . .The sequel - GIMME SOME TRUTH - is interesting in another way. Not so much about John, but about how ridiculous the U.S. government is about what secrets need to be kept from the American public. . .

  2. Oh, Anon, Come Together is excellent. I'm so with you there. Not so much a straight biography, though, you know? Maybe that's why it's so good. I haven't read Gimme Some Truth-- I don't think I realized it was also a Wiener project. But yeah, ye Lennon fans, read Come Together, and skip the Coleman book!

    And I still say that Shout! is the best book for people who aren't going to read any other Beatles books in their lives. Casual fans, as it were. Davies' book is great, but Shout! has the advantage of some time having passed for greater, you know, perspective or whatever. And Norman, whatever else you think about him, can write a page-turner.

  3. Norman's Lennon bio is not quite as obviously hostile to Paul as Shout was. And I particularly dislike Shout because in the updated edition, Norman comes right out and calls George Harrison mediocre. I definitely prefer Hunter Davies' book, Bob Spitz' book (despite some concerns about his factual errors) or Gould's Can't Buy Me Love.

    But the Norman Lennon bio IS a fairly compelling read, and Norman is a much better writer and researcher than Peter Carlin (unfortunately). Norman writes with more depth. Irritatingly, though, Norman tends to downplay the Lennon/McCartney relationship, which doesn't explain why the two fought so bitterly. If their relationship was merely "professional," as Norman likes to suggest, why did Lennon care so much? Why did he go on and on about Paul for years? I also thought Norman glossed over a lot of Lennon's problems in the post-Beatles era, and basically rehashed Yoko's perspective entirely. That said, it seemed that Norman at least wasn't as outright hostile to the other Beatles (especially Paul) in the Lennon bio, as Norman was in Shout.

    As for Carlin's book, I read it, and it's OK. Pretty good but not really good. I think he is fair to Paul, and he respects John but doesn't treat either one as a saint. That said, Carlin didn't interview McCartney and it doesn't sound like any of Paul's friends cooperated, either. So that left Carlin relying on Barry Miles' book for Paul's perspective, and also interviewing people who were less than friendly to Paul.

    I can't tell you how irritating it is to continue to read the constant rehash (especially from male rock critics and hipsters) who treat Lennon as some sort of genius and McCartney as something lesser. This was a partnership that worked. I don't understand why writers feel the constant need to attack Paul in praising John or to attack John in praising Paul. I don't think a really good book has been written yet that evaluates their relationship and partnership. Ian MacDonald's book Revolution in the Head does a better job of that than most, and its not a bio at all.

  4. Funny, I was just thinking yesterday that I wish I could drop you a line, Meg, about the new Mac book and some of the others. And here you are discussing said books. Problem is, from all the comments you and Anon posted, I don't know if i want to read ANY of them. I was thinking of getting A Life, and also Many Years. But, I find myself thinking i might be better off staying in ignorance about the guys and just enjoy the music. The only Beatles book I've read is Hertsgaard's A Day In The Life. I liked it because it was mainly about the music. Further thoughts???

  5. I don't see that as "staying in ignorance". I, too, couldn't care less about their personal lives, and it's none of our business, anyway. Unfortunately, in the age of "celebrities", personal life creates more buzz than professional life. But you're enjoying what MUST be enjoyed about them. And Megan's posts are always about their career, making this blog such a good read.

  6. It's true that absolutely none of the books that I've read seems to get it. It's always John VS. Paul, and there never seems to be a consideration that's entirely fair. Maybe historians generations from now will work this out when they're a little less close to it all.

    Thanks, Anon, for the tips on Carlin's book. I think I'm going to give it a shot anyway, but maybe I'll wait for it to come out in paper.

    Oh, and Frank, Hertsgaard's is pretty good. It's good writing about the music without getting overly technical, and it skims over the biography in a way that's probably as fair to everyone as it can be. At least if memory serves. I like that one.

  7. Beatles Books is a big, big subject! I would say that 'Shout!' by Philip Norman is a book most Beatles fans will want to read. But, beware, Norman approaches the story of the Beatles just as he would any subject, i.e. as a journalist. He doesn't really like the group (though he seems to have a bit of a crush on Lennon), or their music. If you want to read 'Shout!' find as old a copy as you can, because more recent editions contain more of Norman's increasingly batty right-wing political rants in their prefaces.

    Naturally, I must mention that Ian MacDonald's 'Revolution in the Head' is far and away my favourite Beatles book.

    Despite McCarntey's relentless revisionism, 'Many Years From Now' is, I reckon, essential reading.

    Also, you could do a lot worse than Allan Kozinn's book, mayube out of print now but second hand copies are easily available:

    Finally, I recently enjoyed Jonathan Gould's 'Can't Buy Me Love' immensely, and didn't want it to end.


  8. Although it's been many years since I read it, I think "Lennon and McCartney" by Malcolm Doney, first published in 1981, was a pretty even-handed analysis of their creative partnership.

    --Paul Lewis