Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Off the Nightstand

After what seems like months, I have finally finished reading The Beatles: The Biography by Bob Spitz. I'm still mulling over my thoughts about the book. I consider the Beatles to be an amazing success story: four kids from a poor city in post-war England manage, by talent and hard work, to take the world by storm. This is a typical American success story, but an extremely unusual British one, where class seems to trump everything and is not absent in the tale related in this tome. My big problem with the book is that I found it rather depressing, because the author treats the Beatles story as a tragedy.

I certainly agree that there are huge elements of tragedy at work, but the book ends with the break-up made official in 1970. They really walked away from the party when they were still in demand and then proceeded to have reasonably successful careers thereafter. I understate. That's not a tragedy from the Beatles P.O.V., just the audience's.

I've got a few quibbles with the book because of inaccuracies that anyone who was a fan in 1964 could spot, which, of course, makes me wonder about what else is wrong. In my case, there are two photographs which have captions that are dead wrong, and the information on one is carried over into the text. One shows George Harrison and Pattie Boyd at what is described as Paul McCartney's 21st birthday--an event that happened 8 or 9 months before they actually met on the set of A Hard Day's Night. The other is a picture of George and Pattie together "soon after they met on the set of Help!" Help was filmed a year after AHDN, and the couple had been together for a year by the time cameras rolled on the second film. So the book has them hooking up during the filming of both films, which is quite wrong. I hope someone fixes this in the next edition.

George and Ringo come out of the story as incredibly nice guys and Paul as not too bad (and very level-headed) except for a bit of an ego. I can forgive that. John, however, is a different story. With his temper and insecurities, he was a very talented, chauvanistic, and bigoted cad who was really lucky to not have a serious prison record. Meeting Yoko turned him into a toxic mess. She's a villain in the piece, an egotistical con artist with delusions of talent who latched on to John by preying on his insecurities in order to further her own "art." Brian Epstein doesn't come off too well either, as the book reveals huge mistakes on his part in signing deals for them. What a mess he made of the copyrights to the Beatles songbook, not to mention the merchandise and record royalties. It is astonishing to try and realize how much money the Beatles generated despite these mistakes and the 90% tax rate in Great Britain in order to still achieve millionaire status.

During the time I was reading the book, Paul McCartney's divorce was in the headlines (almost 40 years after the break-up of the Beatles) and even the death of Neil Aspinall, one of their oldest friends and once the head of Apple Corp., made the news last week. For me, it's really hard to believe that it's been 44 years since they first appeared on the Ed Sullivan show or that Paul McCartney has already passed that magic age of 64. Where does the time go?

Last night, Len woke me up to watch an old episode of "I've Got a Secret" which plays right into all this. "I want you to see who the guest is." I knew immediately--it was Pete Best, the original drummer for the Beatles. I knew not only because I had just been looking at pictures of him in the biography, but because I remember watching that episode of the show when it first aired in 1964 and his "secret" was that he "used to be the Beatles drummer." I didn't remember the particulars of the interview at all, which was pretty much a total PR fabrication. Best made it sound like it was his own decision to leave the Beatles and said that he wanted his own band. He was very pleasant, a bit shy, and when asked if he "regretted leaving" the Beatles gave some sort of an "only when" response. Since he was sacked by the Beatles after George Martin wasn't impressed by his abilities, he displayed a good deal of class. In a continuing bit of ironic timing, Pete Best's youngest brother is actually his half-brother, fathered by the lately deceased Neil Aspinall with the much older Mona Best. It's funny how things tie into each other.

I never got to see the Beatles play together live (in the flesh, not on Sullivan) and that's one of the things I can't put under my "it's never too late to have a happy childhood" list of things to do. I did see Paul McCartney play with his old back up band, Wings on their first tour (great performance, scary to be with that many people in a festival-seating event.) John and Yoko I passed in the 59th Street Subway Station one Saturday night in the early 1970s when I lived in New York and before that I saw them do"Give Peace a Chance" at an Allard K. Lowenstein benefit (in an audience-participation sing-along conducted by Mitch Miller at the Filmore East, if you can believe it.)

Excuse me while I go off and play the Beatles 1.


Grey Horse Matters said...

I really can't be that old can I? I remember them on Ed Sullivan too, time really flies. They were a great band, it is always too bad when the egos and personalities get in the way, but it always seems to happen. It does sound like you found some inconsistencies in the telling of time lines, if it's going to be a biography it should be researched better than that. Interesting post.

M. C. Valada said...

The writer spent something like 7 years on the project and it is heavily annotated. Having spent some time working in publishing, I think the tendency to provide less and less in the way of professional editing shows its downside here.