Mop Top Fact Shop
Ten years in the making, Mark Lewisohn's widely acclaimed biography of the Beatles, Tune In, is a huge book telling all there is to know about the back-story, youth and early manhood of its heroes and all those around them. To a packed hall this Spring, Danny Finkelstein enthusiastically introduced the author as a “serious cultural historian who has spent much of his intellectual energy on the Beatles”; in his Sunday Times review he called the book “a triumph”; he also named it his book of the year for 2013. It was, he said, “tremendous” and “without parallel”. And Lewisohn explained why he had embarked upon this vast task “because the Beatles tell us who we are”.
Lewisohn’s work – the first volume of three planned – is indeed packed with social lore and immense, mind-boggling detail about the 50’s and 60’s. But really it exists because a little lad at five was mad for the song She Loves You and at eight would dance around his sitting room to Sergeant Pepper wearing his cardboard cutout moustache. His obsession is life-long. He is 55 now (endowed with a fine moustache of his own) and has written half a dozen previous Beatle books, including the encyclopaedic 25 Years in the life, which gives day-by-day detail. He has been employed by EMI, Paul McCartney and Apple Records; he pops up among the entourage in Philip Norman’s 1981Shout, the first biography to dish any dirt (a book he’s not awfully keen on). Tune In uses a small portion of his voluminous files. He anticipates that book 2 will be about seven more years in the making, as will book 3. No wonder concerned fans ask if he’s eating properly, and looking after himself.
His 946-page doorstop features a mammoth index and notes that substantiate every detail in a scholarly manner – Mojo called it ‘the Bible of the beat’. Music blogger Chris Charlesworth (no relation) describes it very well in Just Backdated : ‘here are the Beatles with all their dirty washing hanging out to dry, all their unseemly behaviour, their vanities and drinking and promiscuity, on view in hitherto unimaginable detail. This is not to say that Mark’s book dwells on scandal, nor that it muck-rakes unduly or seeks to expose The Beatles as dislikeable or disreputable in any way; no, this is simply precisely what happened as it happened.’
The Fab Four have indeed touched us all, some literally. Many in the audience had an anecdote to tell. A chap who in the late 60’s did legal work with Charles Corman told a wonderful story about how desperate Paul McCartney was to bank at Rothschilds. At the interview, the late Sir Philip Shelbourne rather stiffly said ‘They’re not really our sort’. McCartney’s advisor replied that that was a pity, as he had a cheque made out for a million pounds in his pocket – whereupon the great banker changed his mind.
Lewisohn already knew about this: “I have a lot of your paperwork in my archive,” he said. When something came up that he didn’t know, he asked the questioner to get in touch later. He is obsessed with setting the record straight, continually collecting more pieces of what he terms his “multi-million piece jigsaw puzzle”. To find those pieces, he has trawled through letters, public records, newspapers and business documents that nobody ever thought to look through before.
Lewisohn needs his outside sources: the Beatles aren’t going to give new interviews he told us, “because the surviving Beatles are a bit chippy about that, and about people making money out of them.” George’s mother didn’t like people to know too much about them – and George was the same. The Beatles resented how much Hunter Davies had earned from his book on them just as they came to regret their deal with music publisher Dick James, wanting to unpick it. “They always had the slight attitude that somebody is making money out of them, and that goes on to this day.” We can’t know what they think of Lewisohn’s book, which retails for £30. Because Tune In is necessarily a compression of his vast archive, he has also produced an ‘extended’ luxury £120 edition of 1728 pages which contains much more.
His book blurb speaks of impeccable research and magisterial work, describing his work as the ‘anti-myth, tight and commanding – just like the Beatles themselves’. And yet, while his biography was applauded for its Proustian detail by John Harris in the Guardian and in the Financial Times Peter Aspdencalled it ‘the biography they deserve’, it must also be said that this is the book in which a small boy unmasks his heroes, and strips them bare.
Lewisohn is now in the curious position of knowing more about them than they can possibly do themselves. One small instance : the book tells us that in interviews Paul McCartney usually says he was given a trumpet for his 14th birthday – but Lewisohn has collated and double-checked his sources. A lengthy note establishes that it was ‘more likely to have been his 13th.’ The surviving Beatles cannot possibly remember their lives in such detail. Nobody can. We alter and embroider our stories. We change things and we forget, sometimes deliberately. We create new stories about our past, and to explain how we have become who we are.
And when we tell and re-tell these experiences, to quote novelist Ann Patchett in her recent essay/memoir: ‘We quickly learn what parts are interesting to our listeners and what parts lag, and we shape our narratives accordingly … It’s the story we shape and improve on, we don’t change what happened.’ As she goes on to point out, every story we read – whether in a newspaper or textbook – bears somebody’s distinctive slant : ‘the writer has made the decision of what to include and what to leave out. It doesn’t mean he or she isn’t telling the truth; it simply means that events can’t be recorded exactly. They can only be interpreted. Even a photograph reveals only part of the picture.’
Lewisohn told his audience that the Beatles “always stood for truth” and he honestly believes that he is doing justice to them, and that his jigsaw indeed replicates their truth. His introduction tells us joyfully that: ‘the more pieces you have and can place right where they belong, where they really fit, the clearer the picture becomes both in vivid close-up and broadly detailed context.’
But the closer you get, the less you see. In Eye and Brain, the celebrated psychologist RL Gregory unpicked how we perceive things and demonstrated how facts alone don’t suffice. To perceive, the brain has to make a hypothesis based on experience, which is then checked against facts. The professor illustrated this with a blurred photograph of the Wills Building at Bristol University where he lectured – we don’t see what we are looking at until the blur sharpens, and then all at once we recognise it.
In Lewisohn’s book the massing of detail creates not sharpness, but blur. The information massing day by day, and bit by bit, is both entirely correct and yet lacking context: without interpretation – that crucial focusing – it remains the life unexamined. He gives us a Beatles’ Wisden but I yearn for a Pepys or Klemperer, moving us forward day by day and detail by detail in one person’s consciousness. Great stories work both top down and bottom up. This immense volume lacks shape, and it lacks the narrative arc that makes a story compelling. It is, in short, quite unlike Proust.
This wouldn’t matter if it weren’t that somehow, as fact piles on fact and quote on quote, the joy of The Beatles just slips away. I’ve tried to work out why my response to Lewisohn’s huge work, and his generous heaping up and sharing of facts is so unenthusiastic. Partly I think it’s because the book isn’t creative, in the way that the Beatles were – constantly impelled forward by their low boredom thresholds. Nothing bores Lewisohn sufficiently for him to omit it.
Perhaps it is simply that it lacks those gaps into which feeling flows – there is no space to feel if nothing is left to the imagination. And maybe the emotion that’s being suppressed (curiously enough) is love – not just a child’s adoration or that hysteria we screaming teenagers emitted so intensely and hopelessly, back in the day, but our deep, knowing adult love.
Now there is love in this book, the kind that young men understand. Lewisohn give us plenty of sex and lust, and some surprising and surprisingly unpleasant details. When John meets his first love Cynthia Powell from posh Hoylake she’s infatuated and soon responds to John’s jibe by ‘proving she wasn’t a nun’: ‘It was lust-and-love and love-and-lust, and with John as the driver everything went at 200mph. No third party can ever know what binds a relationship, and though many joked that the only thing they had in common was short-sightedness – without glasses both were as blind as bats – difference was probably key to this attraction’.
I get the impression that this ‘third party’ doesn’t really want to know: Lewisohn is much more astute and interested in the relationships these men had with each other, and these he conveys well. The break up in 1962 of Paul’s relationship with Dot (Dorothy) Rhone is just as matter of fact: ‘Very little is known publicly about a relationship that lasted two and a half years, but it was over. She moved back in with her parents, and Paul was even freer to fancy his chances.’
It’s not that the relationships are ignored – they are all here, heart-breakingly so. Lewisohn tells us about every encounter John had with Julia, the mother who abandoned him and even (quoting John’s adolescent diary) an almost-incestuous ‘my hand on her tit’ moment. It’s sordid, and incredibly sad; sometimes less is so much more. Everything I need to understand about John and his mother is in that terribly moving shout of pain, Mother, recorded in 1970:
Mother, you had me / But I never had you
I wanted you /But you didn’t want me
So / I got to tell you
Goodbye / Goodbye
Lewisohn’s chronological approach means we must bring those connections to the party ourselves. In Tune ends deliberately in December, 1962 just before the Beatles hit the big time.
I was born in Birkenhead and I remember busy, dirty old Liverpool with all that traffic on the Mersey, and the crowds everywhere. I have a sense of those lads, always chipping away at each other – funny, rude, clever lads at Liverpool Institute (the very same school where our father achieved so very little). In 1962 the promised New Jerusalem suddenly pitched up right next to our little pebble-dash council house on a quiet cul-de-sac – a sea of brick covering the peaceful field we children played on. The brand new estate and its churning concrete mixers obliterated the deep ancient lane we had used to get to school, it obliterated our calm too. Our mother instantly understood that the new Prenton Dell Estate (wholly lacking glade or dell) was yet another turn of the screw in her long misery of exile and abandonment; she decided that we had to go to London. And we did – and I didn’t go back for years.
But my sister Lorie was a bit older, and pretty miserable about losing her friends. In the spring of 1963 she went back north to visit her old school, Park High. That lunchtime some daft teacher took the unknown but evidently sophisticated girl for somebody’s French pen pal and (Lorie being very quick on the uptake even at 13) they had an entire conversation in French. My sister, equally fluent in her magnificently verbless German, was amused.
And she led, or perhaps misled, her former classmates over to the Cavern: “Liverpool was grotty and dirty, the Cavern down a dingy street and we stood outside, mostly teenage girls, at lunchtime. When it opened we climbed down very steep stairs into a cellar. Barrel roofed, typical of other old warehouses I have since visited in the city. Smelly and small and crowded. I think I drank orange juice and vaguely remember music and dancing. Not the nicest place I have been. “
Indeed. The walls ran with condensation and it stank of decaying fruit from the warehouses all around, of soup eternally boiling on the three gas rings, and of the toilets, which often overflowed. Here where the Beatles played their first lunch time sessions on a stage all of 18 inches above the floor, Lorie saw The Big Three and the Undertones.
‘Remember all you cave dwellers, the Cavern is the best of cellars’ was the catch phrase of the guy who ran it – who didn’t sell booze, and loved music, and made it a real destination – Lewisohn tells us this, just as he gives the details of all the groups, and the songs they played – and he prints a picture. But he was never there himself: the Council demolished it and then re-built it, to satisfy popular demand. Lorie was. I can see her aged 13 drifting past those brick archways with her usual pocket full of liquorice and the vague but knowing look she always had in that pre-spectacles era which might have been something to do with the glue that held on her fringe of false lashes – her jumper already impregnated with that awful smell that clung, and couldn’t be got rid of.
That smell, and that understanding of poverty never dissipated wholly. My sister became an eminent academic lawyer cum social historian and author. She later spent years researching all the parishes round the Wirral. Her work established the absolute moral and legal right of the poor to relief under Poor Law, a forgotten piece of law and history which underpins our welfare state. Her book lucidly explains the legal duties and obligations to the destitute, without which the ugly idea persists that welfare is not a moral right, but a ‘gift’ from the state. Now the smell and feel and sound of the Cavern probably didn’t produce the moment of epiphany that set her on that path – but that’s the story I like to tell.
Those moments of epiphany at which people become themselves aren’t in newspaper cuttings or re-worked interviews: they are deep and opaque, internal, understood later if at all. The rough tough John of this book who concealed his wife and child and sometimes knocked poor Cynthia about is the same John who later gave up music for five years to raise and adore baby Sean. I doubt whether he unpacked the internal mechanisms of shame and blame mixed with pure love in an in depth interview. If he did, mind, I am sure Lewisohn will have it in his files.
My Beatles moment is short on facts and long on emotion. On a sunny morning in Central Park I came across the ‘Strawberry Fields’ plaque where John Lennon’s ashes were scattered. Everyone now knows about the long-gone monumental Gothic children’s home where aunt Mimi used to take John on outings, and which he has immortalized. Lewisohn tells us it was a happy enough place. Here (while people edged away) I wept inconsolably and embarrassingly for John, who had come so very far, and who had so much more to give. That late John, the one who badly wanted to give peace a chance, wrote ‘The more that I see the less that I know for sure.’ (Lyrics from Living on Borrowed Time) He was full of doubt, and never claimed any kind of authority. We loved him for that, too. And now he is in the ether, here, there and everywhere – and he doesn’t belong to anyone, not even the man who tells us he’s the acknowledged world authority.
The Beatles : Tune In, Mark Lewisohn, Little, Brown, London 2013
This is the story of a happy marriage, Ann Patchett, Bloomsbury, London, 2013
Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing, RL Gregory, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1966
Welfare’s Forgotten Past : A Socio-Legal History of the Poor Law, Lorie Charlesworth, Routledge-Cavendish 2011