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.


ALL WE ARE SAYING. By David Scheff. Griffin Trade Paperback, 192 pages, $12.95.

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 project.

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 undies!"

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 legacy.

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 anymore.

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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