“What people don’t understand more than anything about the Beatles is that they were a bunch of street kids.”
When I was thirteen, I got my ass kicked by some Beatles fans for defending Joan Baez and Bob Dylan,” Bob Spitz recalled recently over a cup of tea. “When I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, I was sure these guys would disappear in ten days because there was absolutely no substance to them; and Dylan and Joan Baez held the key to life. So I remember two guys met me after school and they kicked my ass. They said, ‘Here, take that for Joan Baez. We’re Beatles fans — you’ll see.’”
This reporter met Spitz by chance in 1998, at the old New Canaan Book Shop on Elm Street. His name tripped a memory switch, but the usual short-circuit prevented me from making the proper connection. “Well, I wrote a biography of Bob Dylan,” he said as I dealt myself a mental head-smack. Of course. I had read the book. Though expertly researched and brightly written, Dylan: A Biography (1988) is best remembered for angering Dylan’s apostolic fans. Most would have preferred to watch the great man fade elegantly into the mists of legend. Instead, Spitz had the effrontery to part those mists and discover a live human being (and occasional jerk) where the golden calf should have been.
So what was Spitz working on these days?
“A biography of the Beatles,” he said matter-of-factly. Spitz had succumbed to Beatlemania with the release of Rubber Soul (1965), on which the Fab Four’s musical ingenuity mated with a new thematic maturity. Gone were lines like “Love, love me do / You know I love you”; soon to come were “Father Mackenzie, wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave / No one was saved.” The Beatles followed Rubber Soul with Revolver (1966) and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), stupendous advances that reconfigured the boundaries of popular music. “I could no longer ignore what these guys were doing to music,” Spitz would say later. “By the time Rubber Soul came out, they had changed everything for me. And Revolver is, I think, the most amazing album ever made. They took rock ’n’ roll from songs about cars and girls to an extraordinary place.”
But a biography of the Beatles? Spitz could not have chosen more overworked terrain if he had set upon a Founding Father. As John Lennon put it, “What can I tell you about myself which you have not already found out from those who do not lie?” Oh, well. If anyone was crazy enough to tackle the Beatles, perhaps it should have been Spitz: Dylan had proved his investigative tenacity, and his earlier Barefoot in Babylon remains the last, best word on Woodstock. The Beatles biography would form the third and dominant panel of a glorious sixties triptych.
Back in 1997, when Spitz embarked on the project, he anticipated spending two years on it — one to research and another to write. Four, five, six, seven years passed. No book. In the spring of 2005, I called to ask what the devil had become of his presumed folly. Spitz was in an excellent mood. π After two and a half years of research and five and a half years of writing, after $375,000 was spent chasing down 600 interviews, after a divorce, after 2,800 manuscript pages had been written and 1,900 had been cut, The Beatles: The Biography was done.
Spitz’s luxuriant gray hair had gone shimmery white since our last encounter, but his somewhat melancholy visage was unchanged. The fifty-five-year-old Darien resident admitted to being a little jumpy as the November publication date approached. If you spend eight years of your life on a single book, it had darn well better sell. Early reviews were a writer’s dream. The all-important New York Times said: “A consolidating and newly illuminating work… Time and again, it chooses perception over presumption in ways that set it off from the pack of Beatle stories.” The Boston Globe called the book “startlingly well-researched and consistently engaging.” Publisher’s Weekly gave it a coveted starred review: “With this massive opus, veteran music journalist Spitz tells the definitive story of the band that sparked a cultural revolution.”
Rock biographies typically are not very good, lacking some combination of thorough reporting, good writing and insight. Peter Guralnick’s two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis (1994) and Careless Love (1999), is usually cited as the high-water mark. Guralnick notes in the first volume, “I wanted to rescue Elvis Presley from the dreary bondage of myth, from the oppressive aftershock of cultural significance.” Spitz had similarly majestic ambitions for The Beatles, as the subtitle makes plain: This wasn’t another biography, but the biography. “I knew I had an important story — as important, historically, as Bob Caro working on Lyndon Johnson,” Spitz said. “So I endeavored to formulate a major biography of perhaps the most major cultural force of the twentieth century by using the standard biographer’s tools. The tools that David McCullough or Robert Caro or Neal Gabler would use. And those are good research and judgment, and evenhanded writing. That was my goal.”
As for the “about 540” Beatle volumes already published? “They were mostly Mickey Mouse,” Spitz declared. “Not one decent biography.” The Beatles: The Authorized Biography by Hunter Davies, published in 1968 and long taken as Beatles gospel, glossed over troubling facts like John Lennon’s episodic cruelty and manager Brian Epstein’s suicidal depression. “Paul McCartney told me that, back in 1967, when Hunter Davies was their appointed biographer, the Beatles agreed on a story of which about 60 percent is true,” Spitz said. “The other 40 percent was either made up, or embellished or changed so that people’s feelings wouldn’t be hurt. And that became the agreed upon biography for almost forty years.”
Actually, good Beatles books do exist among the crush of memoirs, commentaries, chronicles, exegeses, encyclopedias, oral histories and hybrids of the above (there are even a Beatles for Dummies and a Rough Guide to the Beatles). Not one of these books, though, is a literary biography of quality. Spitz had indeed sighted a gaping hole in the bookscape. This assertion is nominally open to argument. Some cite as authoritative The Beatles Anthology, published in 2000, a lavish oral history for which McCartney, Harrison and Starr provided notes and documents and submitted to extensive interviews. Spitz smiled and said Beatle-scenti sometimes refer to Anthology as Mythology. “The Beatles in essence were the most unreliable of the narrators. They have told the story so many times that they aren’t sure what’s true or not anymore. Paul would tell me, ‘Well, I think that may have happened, I’m not sure. That could have been part of the myth.’”
Ringo Starr did not cooperate with Spitz — his manager asked for money — and George Harrison offered limited help before his death in 2001. “Like most of the Beatles, George was paranoid about saying anything,” Spitz said. “I never understood that, because this wasn’t like the Pentagon Papers. There wasn’t something dark and dirty lurking underneath. I’ve gone in and out of every corner of the Beatles story. There are no dark secrets. It’s a nice story.”
McCartney proved compliant but not terribly reflective. “I had a couple of good interviews with him, but he wouldn’t budge from the myth,” Spitz continued. “I felt that McCartney especially was the holder of a public trust, and not to deal that legacy an honest biography was, to me, a miscarriage of history. So I went to eyewitnesses and to artifacts to get the story straight.”
During his research Spitz found people who resisted combing their memories anew, relying instead on the same set pieces they’d been telling for forty years. (Spitz would often stop his interview subjects and say, “Listen. I’ve heard you tell that story a million times. Tell me what you saw. Explain what they were doing. How did you feel? How did the other people around you react?”) Past biographers leaned heavily on those polished anecdotes and did astonishingly little legwork of their own. The literature therefore had the curious effect of entombing the Beatles rather than breathing life into them.
Spitz used previously untapped sources to flesh out his subjects. One that will give some readers pause is the Albert Goldman archive, Goldman being the author of a vile Lennon hatchet job. As Spitz explains it, Goldman, who died in 1994, was a gifted researcher interested only in what he called “the schmutz” for his final product. Spitz took the untouched gold. But his special talent lies in tracking down witnesses and teasing out their stories. Interviews with those who knew the Beatles before the mania are especially valuable. Through them have come the images of a lonely young John poring over Wind in the Willows; of Paul after the death of his mother, locking himself in the bathroom with his guitar; and of skinny little George auditioning for a reluctant John on the empty upper deck of a Liverpool bus. And as the Beatles got famous, we see Ringo’s forlorn mother, Elsie, wishing her son had grown into an ordinary bloke, a tradesman perhaps, living down the street with a wife and four kids.
Spitz’s earlier books had clearly prepared him to compose his 983-page epic. The hardest lesson issued from the Dylan experience. “I got a review on the front page of Washington Post Book World written by Greil Marcus,” Spitz said, referring to the eminent pop music writer. “And the first line was, ‘This is a wonderful book, and this is an obnoxious book.’ He went on to say that nobody told the story so well, nobody did the legwork, nobody understood the sixties more than I had in the telling of the Dylan saga. And then he said that the writing was completely obnoxious. So of course I dismissed him as an asshole. But I kept being haunted by it. I wondered why someone would call it a wonderful book and an obnoxious book. About two years later I went back and I discovered that Greil Marcus had hit it right on the head. There was so much of me trying to be hip and cool in the writing of Dylan that it intruded all over the story.
“Greil Marcus was right, and it was the most important instruction I ever had as a writer. It changed the way I looked at everything I did thereafter, and when I wrote the Beatles book, I would read what I had written that day, I would look at it and say, ‘What, if anything, is obnoxious in the writing of this?’ I wanted to make sure there wasn’t any ‘me’ in it. Any cute writing. Any hip journalism. That it should just be a straightforward story. And I think more than anything else, that’s what I’m proudest of about The Beatles.”
Spitz’s seriousness of purpose is evident from the beginning of this fine-grained portrait, in such vivid foundational details as these:
From 1845 to 1849, nearly 50,000 Irish refugees thronged into Liverpool, causing near civic collapse. The potato famine forced entire villages from their homes and deposited wave after wave of its victims onto the Merseyside docks, dumping them there like some whaler’s squalid catch waiting to be claimed. Among them were the families of John O’Leannain (their family name was changed to skirt the sectarian divide) and James McCartney II.… In a disparaging reference that nonetheless has some truth to it, historian Quentin Hughes says that Liverpool “wound up with the dross.”
“Dross,” of course, foreshadows the dim view some would take of the Elvis-obsessed idlers who would evolve into the Beatles. Even Lennon’s Aunt Mimi famously advised, “The guitar’s all right for a hobby, John, but you’ll never make a living at it.” The Beatles’ raffish origin makes the scope of their accomplishment all the more amazing. “What people don’t understand more than anything about the Beatles is that they were a bunch of street kids,” Spitz noted. “They were unschooled. They weren’t autodidacts like Bob Dylan. Paul and John at least studied in school. Ringo, sick so much of the time, never really went to school. And George, with his friend Arthur Kelly, cut school all the time and watched reel after reel of cartoons. That was about all of George’s education. So these weren’t smart kids, they were street punks.”
As Spitz limns the formative years of the individual Beatles and then sets them on their collective adventure, we begin to see the alchemy take shape in the early death of both Lennon’s and McCartney’s mothers; their absorption in rock ’n’ roll; their first meeting, where, an old bandmate recalls, “they circled each other like cats”; the affectionate rivalry that spurred each to outdo the other; and their blossoming into arguably the greatest songwriting team of the century. “They were songwriters in the old Tin Pan Alley sense,” Spitz observed. “They heard phrases, they wrote them down, and they said ‘Let’s write a song.’ And they could create anywhere. John and Paul wrote a lot in the car or on buses, tour buses. When everybody would be shouting or playing cards or screaming or sleeping, they would go to the back of the bus and write. And they sat down and constructed songs like two craftsmen. It’s one of the small miracles of the Beatles story. These two kids without any knowledge of songwriting became master craftsmen.”
Convention sets the respective Beatles in tidy boxes. Lennon, for example, was the rock ’n’ roller and McCartney the weepy balladeer, though in truth McCartney wrote some of the band’s most blistering rockers (“I’m Down,” “Helter Skelter”) and Lennon some of its most haunting melodies (“Because,” “Julia”). In the same way, many of the past biographers limited the Beatles as personalities: Lennon, the acerbic artiste; McCartney, the cuddly prodigy; Harrison, the sullen, dark-witted underdog; and Starr, the comic foil.
Spitz does not depart radically from the known picture, but he does supply missing pieces and vital shadings. McCartney is the one who suffers. “The image of Paul that emerges is the one that I’m most concerned about, because Paul has a really good image, and I don’t want to do anything to tarnish it,” Spitz said, as though half-expecting Beatles fans to kick his ass again. “But he’s the one throughout the story, I think, who has the most to answer for.” Spitz shows McCartney buying up shares of Northern Songs, the Beatles’ publishing company, behind Lennon’s back. And McCartney grabbing after song credit. Lennon, for example, regarded “In My Life” as his first “major piece of work,” while acknowledging a small musical debt to McCartney; here McCartney claims the entire melody for himself, and a reworking of the lyric to boot. (John, for all his flaws, seemed content to call a song Paul’s if it was chiefly Paul’s. As for Spitz, he makes the sensible point that attempting to sort out exactly who did what is an empty exercise: “They relied on each other to pull a song through.”)
One particularly bitter incident occurred when financial woes forced the Beatles’ Apple Corps to fire longtime, trusted employees. Paul’s “go-to guy,” Alistair Taylor, who’d been with the Beatles since 1962, was among them; yet when he called to commiserate, Paul refused to come to the phone. “Alistair cried as he told me that story,” Spitz said. “He never heard from Paul again.”
Yet McCartney is hardly a villain in this story. We see him as the one who tried hardest to keep the Beatles together, and the one most deeply pained by the breakup. We find him in the untenable position, after the death of Brian Epstein in 1967, of filling the Beatles’ leadership void, and we see Lennon, Harrison and Starr simultaneously resent and depend upon him. We are frustrated by Lennon’s heroin addiction, which renders him hostile and aloof. (Yet we’re amazed by his ability to continue writing great songs, much as opium-addicted Sherlock Holmes kept solving hard cases.) And we are outraged by Yoko Ono and her unvarnished contempt for the Beatles. Among the Dickensian welter of supporting characters in these pages, most have either a redeeming pathos or charm — like Magic Alex, a hanger-on who claimed to have invented invisible paint and wallpaper speakers. Not Yoko. She comes off as a kooky, controlling megalomaniac. One example will suffice. In 1969 Yoko turned omnipresent critic at Beatles recording sessions, and not even a pregnancy requiring constant bed rest could thwart her:
In a characteristically aggravating gesture, she had Harrods deliver a double to the studio and instructed an EMI electrician to suspend a microphone above her head that would adequately furnish her comments to the band.
“The three of us didn’t quite get it,” Paul recalled.
Spitz is unworried about how Yoko might react to her portrayal. “Yoko was an antagonistic force and she knew it,” he said with a shrug. “She knew she was going to blow it up. She made every effort. I told the story the way it happened.” Spitz smiled thinly and added, “You know, she is who she is. We’re not going to change her.” He does point out, however, that Yoko amounted to a life raft for the emotionally precarious Lennon; only through her ego-stroking ministrations did he summon the courage to escape the stifling confines of Beatledom. “His band had become Paul McCartney’s band of lovable mop-tops. Yoko gave him the license to rebel, to be bad, to say, ‘Screw you. We don’t care what you think, this is what we’re going to do.’”
But Yoko was only a proximate cause of the Beatles’ implosion. Spitz’s meticulous untangling of grudges, slights, misunderstandings, business follies and clashing agendas — all beginning after Brian Epstein’s death — makes for heartbreaking reading. “I think I needed another couple hundred pages to completely untangle it,” said Spitz, who expressed mild dissatisfaction with this portion of his book. “It was kind of like the dog ate the meat and died at the end. I wish I could have strung that out a bit.” Readers may be glad he didn’t.
By 1969 the Beatles were no longer the free-spirited lads who had set out from Liverpool on a fantastic journey. Now, as adults following their individual wills and whims, breakup was inevitable, even if the Beatles themselves were slow to realize it. When Lennon finally blurts out that he’s leaving, McCartney is stunned. In Spitz’s telling, Paul never did grasp the degree to which he had strained the band. The documentary film Let It Be shows him instructing Harrison how to play his guitar. Starr threatened to quit as early as 1968, when McCartney, the consummate musician, began playing the odd drum part. And Lennon bridled at what he considered McCartney’s pretentious airs, though, to be sure, he also felt threatened by Paul’s leadership role. “Essentially it’s this: John and George couldn’t stand to be in the same room with him anymore. Paul tried to run everything. He wanted it done his way.” Spitz paused and added, “Which was usually the right way.”
After just seven years of limelight, the Beatles disbanded, leaving behind what Spitz calls “the most important musical songbook of the twentieth century.” They also revolutionized the sound of popular music, enlarging its possibilities, drawing millions of regular folk happily into the musical esoterica of tapeloops, backward guitar solos, Eastern vibes, orchestral collisions, aural collage-making and false endings. Limits had been swept aside, obliterated.
When the Beatles left the recording studio for the last time as a group in August 1969, not one of them had turned thirty years old.
Spitz, too, has left the studio in a sense. The Beatles closes his professional attention to rock music. What more could the field offer him after writing about Woodstock, Dylan and the Beatles? “I was the Beatles’ biographer,” Spitz said before rising to leave. “If I can say that at the end of my career as a writer, there’s no more that I need to say about myself.”
For most writers his next biographical subject would present a tall order, but for Spitz it must seem a walk in the park. That subject is George Steinbrenner.