Friday, July 19, 2013

"Read the Beatles": Book Review

Fifty articles, album reviews, interviews, reminiscences by the Four and their fans, book excerpts--and a poem or two, one by Allen Ginsberg--add up to a solid resource for Beatles enthusiasts. Astrid Kirchherr offers an affectionate but brief forward; editor June Skinner Sawyers introduces this collection, and puts each entry into a quick context. As one who has heard the band all my life (they broke up officially when I was in third grade but somehow I did not learn the news until I was in fifth, already so ubiquitous their enduring influence seemed), I admit their music itself does not lure me in, so familiar and constant in my background it's been, as much as studying their cultural impact.

On this subject, I've reviewed Jonathan Gould's "All You Need Is Love" and Bob Spitz' "The Beatles: The Biography," and I agree with them that the challenge for those who've grown up with or somewhat after the band is to avoid either easy dismissal or uncritical acceptance of every note played by the Beatles-- the dominant reactions in the media still seem trapped in the nostalgia of the older boomers who watched the band emerge. The tendency's strong from this cohort to depict the Liverpool, Hamburg, and Beatlemania phases in a romantic light, and this can be seen in "Read the Beatles" understandably. As on-the-spot, sharp, nuanced reporting, it's great to read Gloria Steinem's determined 1964 scoop for "Cosmopolitan." She finally grabbed a few words with John at 4 a.m. in a hotel: her last comment to him, "who looked worried: 'I hope you're as true as you seem.'" (68)

This reveals Lennon's unease, and fits into the rarer voices cautioning over the mob mentality and the shelf-life of teen idols. They also fear a consumer crowd that lacks discernment, treating every utterance or every song as perfection. This hesitation, rarer than the shouts, unfolds in critiques by the conservatives in the press, such as Paul Johnson during the initial British frenzy or Robert Goldstein's panning of much of "Sgt. Pepper." It's telling that Goldstein himself was in his mid-twenties when he wrote this, not an old fogy as outraged readers assumed.

In fact, as the editor wisely pairs Goldstein's astute if unpopular June 1967 review from the New York Times (which I admit I find a lot of agreement with, so I put myself in a minority already) with Robert Christgau's typically insightful rebuttal, Christgau tempers his response with respect for his fellow critic's take on the instant phenomenon. It's one of four pieces on the LP, which merits its place, but it does tilt the balance. This chronicle seems to leap from the early days to '67 abruptly, with too little given to the transitional period from "Help" through "Revolver"; it also rushes past the follies of filming "Magical Mystery Tour" and doesn't even glance at the chaotic Apple boutique. Such missteps, for me, would have enlivened and expanded the scope beyond the usual guided tour.

It's over too soon, yes. The Paul is Dead hoax in the article that started it all gains welcome inclusion, and the "Helter Skelter" episode unfortunately but accurately shows the downside of lyrical interpretation among a certain fan. Some sections here seem too beholden to youthful effusions by contributors and others feel extracted as textbook accounts or musical monographs by the tenured, but they would complement a course taught on pop music and the band's legacy. Two Liverpool maps display the neighborhoods mythologized, charted for tourism and the National Trust. The chronology prefacing this anthology's comprehensive, the bibliography's solid as of 2005, the discography's helpful. However, given that some LPs lack any real coverage, more annotation about each (the band's if not every solo effort!) might have helped. A few get a few sentences, others nothing.

After the split, Lennon gets the most press, as expected. David Sheff valiantly tries to hold his own against John and Yoko in a 1981 "Playboy" interview. Simon Frith in a few pages pins down Lennon's energy: private tension--song used to cope or celebrate-- vs. public duty to address his audience and his world in his music and his stances. McCartney appears in a 2004 interview with Jon Wilde as surprisingly fearful of his reputation by comparison with John. It's moving to read Paul's "Here Today" for his partner, a simple song that must have been difficult to compose. George Harrison's coverage in David Simons' 2003 article's excellent, reminding readers of his contributions made to many studio tracks in light of the proof on "Anthology" of John's difficulty with composing. Ringo Starr, alas, gets only two entries, both about the early years. 

It ends with recent reflections. My favorite's Greg Kot's "Toppermost of the Poppermost." Kot sets the success of "Anthology" or "1" in context for those listeners who appreciate the band but lack the total adoration of many of their 60s predecessors. As I fit into this slot, I found this sensibly argued!
(Amazon US12-1-12)

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