Four fab new books paint different pictures of the boys from Liverpool
Book Reviews by Noah Mass/SF Bay Guardian
THE BEATLES ANTHOLOGY. By the Beatles. Chronicle Books, 368 pages, $60.
LENNON REMEMBERS: THE FULL ROLLING STONE INTERVIEWS FROM 1970. By Jann S.
Wenner. Verso, 176 pages, $20.
ALL WE ARE SAYING. By David Scheff. Griffin Trade Paperback, 192 pages,
IN MY LIFE: THE BRIAN EPSTEIN STORY. By Debbie Geller. St. Martin's Press,
208 pages, $24.95.
IT WAS 20 years ago this December that John Lennon, the "interesting" Beatle,
got shot, and in commemoration a whole gaggle of new Beatles books is
blackening the sky and squawking for our attention. If it seems a trifle odd
that anyone still cares about the Beatles at this late date, chalk it up to
an aging population of baby boomers who insist on canonizing the figures of
their own youth, combined with the fact that, compared with the Fab Four,
most of today's pop music is unambitious crap. Yes, it's true: the Beatles'
music still holds up, and their recorded legacy still fascinates generations
of listeners who weren't even born when they went their separate ways. Hell,
one fan in Britain listened to their music so much that he actually broke
into George Harrison's house last winter and tried to kill him ⤳ 30 years
after the Beatles recorded their last album together! If that's not proof of
relevancy, I don't know what is.
The book that's gotten the most media hype (including an embarrassing Beatles
Day tie-in, in formerly hip San Francisco) is Chronicle Books' The Beatles
Anthology. A belated companion to the 1997 video series of the same name,
this huge tome is billed as being, wouldn't you know it, "by the Beatles."
That is, The Beatles Anthology is composed almost exclusively of interviews
with the three not-dead boys, coupled with exhumed remarks from Lennon.
I don't mean to sound unnecessarily harsh by harping on Lennon's demise, but
the fact that his words here are more than 20 years old and spoken in a
context unconnected with this publication is a big, big problem. The four
editors who put the thing together (subject to the approval of the boys and
Yoko) are sensitive to this obstacle and try mightily to compile various
statements that Lennon gave over the years into coherent "responses" to what
the other three say, but they're plowing the sea. God knows what the man who
called McCartney an "egomaniac" and Harrison "a bloody kid ... who followed
us around" (neither remark is included in this book) would have thought of
The interview bits that are here are occasionally amusing and even
revelatory, but Anthology's overwhelming emphasis is on personal anecdote
over music, and the Beatles are least interesting when giving their opinions
on just about anything aside from their records. For instance, in his part of
the four-way discussion of Beatles manager Brian Epstein's homosexuality,
George Harrison gets off this winner: "It was in the days when everything was
in the closet. And personally, I'm glad it was. I mean, that's all you need,
to have a gay manager poncing around the band room while everyone's in their
More to the point, there's a disjointed quality to the whole thing, a
desperate need for some objective party to tie the four Rashomon-like
perspectives together. Without a firm, non-Beatles hand at the tiller,
reading the book becomes quite a slog in places, as each Beatle takes his
turn at remarking on the same damn thing, the way he saw it. But then,
context is obviously out the window when the Beatles decide that they
themselves should ever attempt to be objective interpreters of their own
On the other hand, The Beatles Anthology is certainly impressive looking,
with, as you've no doubt heard, hundreds of never-before-seen photographs
(including some killer shots from their Hamburg days). It's also big and
heavy and looks nice on a table, next to a coffee cup. However, there are at
least three other Beatles-related wares being flogged this winter that, while
physically smaller, are at least as important.
It's hard to imagine now, but there was a time when not too many books about
the Beatles were on the market. In those blessedly innocent days, before John
Lennon's death caused us all to be crushed by whole forests of cash-in
memoirs and appreciations, there were only a few things about the band that
stayed in print for more than a year (Hunter Davies's sycophantic The Beatles,
which is still around, being the most likely suspect). Since all four former
mop tops were still breathing throughout the '70s, most Beatles obsessives
would get their info from interviews with the boys in magazines such as
Rolling Stone. Almost all of us ignored the bits about their increasingly
forgettable solo records, searching instead for their answers to the
following two questions: "Why did you guys really break up?," and "Do you
think you'll ever get back together?"
In that vein, Jann S. Wenner's Lennon Remembers is the full, unedited text of
John Lennon's controversial 1970 interviews with Rolling Stone editor Wenner,
which were extensively mined (with the rough edges sheared off) for Anthology.
Lennon gave the interviews as a favor to Wenner, on the condition that he
promise never to reprint it in book form once it had run in the magazine. The
enterprising editor quickly reneged; this is at least the third time it has
been republished. It's lucky for us that Wenner didn't keep his promise,
however, since the interview remains one of the most scabrous and fascinating
give-and-take sessions ever recorded. Lennon was, by his own estimation, out
of his head in the immediate post-Beatles breakup period, and his inventive
slagging of McCartney, Harrison, and even producer George Martin is a sight
to see. Lennon Remembers is a snapshot of an extremely nasty John Lennon that
many people ⤳ himself included ⤳ hoped to forget.
After Lennon was killed in late 1980, and a reunion became an impossibility,
Beatles "scholarship" naturally turned away from the group members as
individuals ⤳ who really cared what they thought now? ⤳ and on to the
recorded legacy itself. The 1988 publication of Mark Lewisohn's Beatles
Recording Sessions, coupled with EMI/Capitol Records' decision to release
only the U.K. versions of their records on CD (and to delete the inferior
U.S. repackagings) helped to awaken interest in what they did and how they
did it. Oh, you'd want to know what McCartney, Harrison, and Starr recalled
about the songwriting and recording process and all; that was interesting.
But who they screwed, the details of their legal and financial entanglements,
who deserved most of the blame for their breakup ⤳ well, nobody really cared
That renewed emphasis on music over personality actually has its roots in
David Scheff's All We Are Saying, the complete, unedited transcript of
another John Lennon interview, this one his very last, from September 1980
(like the Lennon Remembers interview, it was heavily cannibalized for
Anthology). It's Lennon's most amusing and clear-headed encounter with an
interviewer, and his optimistic comments about his new record and plans for a
tour are about as tragic as tragic gets in light of how little time he had
left to live when he made them.
Two-thirds of the way through the interview sessions, however, a feature on
Lennon appeared in Newsweek, and Playboy interviewer Scheff thought he'd been
scooped. As a result, Scheff switched tactics: instead of asking Lennon yet
more questions about his relationship with Yoko and the possibility of a
Beatles reunion, he decided to do something that no one had bothered to do up
to that point. For the last few interview sessions he and Lennon went through
the Beatles' songbook, song by song, while Lennon free-associated. The result
was a startling insight into Lennon's conception of himself as a songwriter
and his and McCartney's composing methods, and it created the template for
most postassassination Beatles books (notably Ian MacDonald's brilliant 1994
offering, Revolution in the Head). The whole thing is in All We Are Saying,
and, like Lennon Remembers, it makes more sense to read it in its pure form,
rather than chopped up and expurgated as in Anthology.
Finally, Debbie Geller's In My Life: The Brian Epstein Story is a companion
to Anthony Wall's documentary of the same name, which was recently screened
at the 2000 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. The book is an affectionate
reminiscence on the Beatles' manager by those who knew him well, most of whom
have never been interviewed on the subject before. Gerry Marsden (of British
Invasion group Gerry and the Pacemakers), McCartney, Marianne Faithfull, and
various business confidantes give insight into a troubled, closeted man
without whom, as absolutely everyone agrees, the Beatles would never have
gotten out of Liverpool. And, despite Harrison's reservations in Anthology,
all of the principals who are quoted remark on how easily Epstein negotiated
between the straight and gay worlds. In My Life is a fascinating study of
what it was like to be famous and gay at a time when it was a crime
punishable by jail time in Great Britain to engage in homosexual activity.
The great strength of In My Life is that it is not Epstein's story as told by
Epstein but a portrait drawn of him by others looking in, in the hope that
the combination of both perspectives will capture the essence of the man.
When his words do appear, we at least have the pronouncements of his
contemporaries to give them context. It's a technique that Jean Stein used so
effectively in her 1982 biography of Edie Sedgwick, Edie, and one that would
have made Anthology much more readable, if the Beatles had only allowed an
editor to corral them. Maybe, someday, they will.
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