Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Jonathan Gould's "Can't Buy Me Love" Book Review

This is the third in a row of Beatles books I've read, and will be the last for a while. Strange, as I've said, since I am not much of a fan of the group for much of their music so much as an inquirer into what made them so successful. Gould, a jazz player, spent two decades on this investigation. He combines the biographical range of an author like Bob Spitz with a deeper cultural insight that parallels if not intersects with Steven Stark, and he offers, as did Ian Mac Donald, a sophisticated analysis of many of their songs from a technically adept and closely observed musicologist's understanding.

Gould not only recites the familiar details, but explains their significance. For instance, Woolton is a suburb of Liverpool where Lennon was raised, but Gould places the locale in its suburban context vs. the supposedly working-class upbringing the maturing John was afforded. Instead of saying he dressed like a Teddy Boy, he goes on to place that movement within its psuedo-Edwardian origins in a war-straitened tailoring innovation that failed to catch on among the dandies so much as the sartorial rebels after the Second War. Such detail for many may be more than the reader may have bargained for, and as with the excursus upon Max Weber's theories, has surprised critics expecting another dutiful slog through accounts of Lennon wearing a toilet seat around his neck in Hamburg. Gould, to his credit, avoids the tiresome repetition.

When he discusses the Maharishi and his Transcendental Meditation, he opines how the guru proved a clever salesman who did not exactly tell the Beatles that the noun was much easier to attain than the adjective, so to speak! He handles the Eastman-Klein-NEMS negotiations in the same numbing detail that Spitz had, but adds to the discussion of these necessary facts an understanding of the reasons Lennon and McCartney may have desired such legal and managerial changes, why they picked who they did, and what blunders were made by all sides. He strives for fairness, but you also realize, as with the treatment of Pete Best earlier and Alistair Taylor later, how selfish the four musicians could be as they continued, despite their own bickering as the band began to disintegrate, to remain loyal only to each other.

His cultural range is vast. Isherwood, Huxley, Gertrude Stein, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear all gain attention, and the subtitle of the book while it appears too limited, does place the band's impact solidly within their studio innovation, their send-up of show biz conventions (a particular strength of Gould's project), and their British appeal to an American audience in the post-JFK slump. You learn much about the chords, the contributions of George Martin and his team, and how songs express the tensions and joys that the Beatles were experiencing as they made their music.

Compared to Spitz, as Gould tends to range over much of the same terrain inevitably, there is less about the band in their private life, and about the same attention to their public life. Less on the Apple's store and monetary problems, more on the influence of LSD on the band. Less on the goings on of the Maharishi, more about George Harrison's increasing fluency on the guitar in the band's final years. Less on their calculated witticisms (he notes well that estimations of their press conference wit tended to lean heavily on their first year of fame, as they tired quickly of such effort) and more on their reworkings of Dylan and their influences and competitors (he cites a liner note from Donovan's "A Gift From a Flower to a Garden" to devastating effect to show flower children at their most insipid).

A valuable combination of contextual situating of the band within their times and an argument how the band managed to transcend their origins and represent a liberating spirit that shaped not only the Sixties but every decade since, Gould's book may be more for the scholar than the casual fan. Yet, such ambition is appropriate as enough time has passed that the Beatles now can begin to be placed within their century as a crucial intellectual as well as entertainment force. Gould's study proves this.

(Posted to Amazon US today, where I recently reviewed Stark's "Meet the Beatles" and two years ago Bob Spitz' magisterial biography, "The Beatles." Ian Mc Donald's "Revolution in the Head" remains the pioneering study in joining musicology to sociology regarding the band's impact and legacy.)

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