Thursday, April 06, 2006

Won't You Please Help Me? The Life and Death of the Beatles

April 06, 2006, 6:25 a.m.
By Timothy M. Thibodeau

In his epic saga of the four lads from Liverpool, The Beatles: The Biography, Bob Spitz delivers a jarring reappraisal of the supposed glory days of the band that spearheaded the British Invasion. The Beatles's earliest performances in the grimy clubs of Liverpool; their brutal drug and alcohol fueled gigs in Germany; the bedlam of Beatlemania; and the petty dismemberment of the most successful pop ensemble to that date are meticulously chronicled with unflinching candor. Whether intentional or not, Spitz has succeeded in deconstructing the official, blissful Beatles myth that was propagated by Paul, George, and Ringo in their meandering television pseudo-documentary, The Beatles Anthology (1995).

After hearing an upbeat interview with Spitz on Laura Ingraham's radio show, I expected his book to indulge us with a joyful celebration of Beatlemania. Instead, the heroic Mop Top myth quickly disintegrates into an often dark and tragic morality play that begins with the dysfunctional family life of an angry teenager named John Lennon, whose eventual stardom led him to declare that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ. The irony, of course, is that one is hard pressed to find a more apt illustration of Jesus' saying "What would it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul?" than the John Lennon of Spitz's biography. (As it turned out, Lennon's fame also quite literally cost him his life when a deranged fan murdered him).

A Sad Man

Beatles fans know that the band's founder was a restless and unconventional soul, that Lennon had a biting wit and predictably offered huge doses of sarcastic buffoonery to his audiences. Spitz highlights many of these colorful displays: torrents of profanity at German audiences; Nazi salutes from the balconies of hotels; and John's famous, much-rehearsed quip in which he invited the British royalty to "rattle their jewelry" during a Royal Command Performance.

Spitz deftly takes us beyond these antics to lay bare a tortured soul that found no comfort in fame, no respite from his inner demons. While avoiding the pitfalls of playing the role of armchair psychologist, Spitz documents the traumas of young Lennon's life that weighed him down with an often-debilitating melancholia. His father abandoned him when he was five; his mother was killed in a car accident when he was 18; he flunked out of art college; his best friend and idol, Stuart Sutcliffe, the bassist for the Hamburg version of the Beatles, died of a brain aneurysm.

The grown-up Lennon found little solace in his musical art; instead, this despondent artist acted out his pain in increasingly frequent verbal and physical confrontations with his closest friends and associates. When the Beatles finally bid good riddance to the deplorable conditions of their early gigs and began to live like royalty, Lennon's alcoholism, drug abuse, and self-destructive tendencies became even more pronounced (many readers will understandably be stunned by the magnitude of his chronic drug dependency). The people who loved him the most — Cynthia, his long-suffering wife, whom he treated with humiliating contempt; and Brian Epstein, the Beatles' gay manager with whom John reportedly had a sexual encounter in Spain — were vilified, mocked, and abused. Lennon was also a miserable father who subjected his young son Julian to the same emotional deprivations that he had endured as a child.

How the Other Half Lived

The other half of the fabled Lennon and McCartney song-writing team seems to have been more immune to the vicissitudes of his life. While it is true that Paul came from a more stable home environment, he too suffered the trauma of a lost parent; his mother died of cancer when he was a teen. Yet Paul seemed to carry little emotional baggage into adulthood, or if he did, he was remarkably adept at concealing it. The Paul that emerges in Spitz's account is an exceptionally intelligent young man; a brilliant and disciplined musician who was brimming with self-importance; the consummate entertainer and showman who thrived on being in the public eye.

Like the other Beatles, Paul was often overwhelmed with the virtual imprisonment that accompanied stardom. But unlike John, Paul enjoyed being a Beatle, and when the joy ride came to an end, he didn't demolish his legacy with the same sort of vituperation and public lunacy as his partner. Spitz forces us to conclude that Lennon's hostility towards the Beatles after their break-up was largely the result of his deep personal animosity towards Paul. Always jealous and suspicious of Paul, even when they were at their collaborative peak, Lennon bitterly resented the fact that after Brian Epstein's untimely death, John's band became Paul's band. But given Lennon's drug addiction, mental instability, artistic incoherence, and puerile behavior, it is hard to imagine any other scenario.

Paul introduced the Beatles's lead guitarist, George Harrison, to the band. A solid musician who always stood in the long shadow of Lennon and McCartney, George seems to have been much closer to John in his cynicism about Beatlemania and the legions of shrieking girls who drowned out their performances. While he feasted on endless orgies of babes, booze, and drugs with the other Beatles, George looked to the East for spiritual enlightenment, convincing the other band members to embark on an ill-fated trip to study with the Maharishi. Despite the disappointment with his initial foray into Eastern spirituality, Harrison seems to have continued his introspective quest through his close association with Indian musicians,
Ringo Starr (born, Richard Starkey) became a Beatle when John, Paul, and George decided that their strikingly handsome and popular drummer, Pete Best, was an impediment to their success. Their manager unceremoniously fired Best; he was stunned that they weren't man enough to deliver the news to his face, and he broke down in tears at the ruthlessness of this act of treachery. Ringo had no qualms about leaving his band and taking Best's place. Most observers agreed that he was a talented musician who worked his own kind of ugly-duckling charm with the band members and audiences alike.

Disbanding the Band

The demise of the Beatles, recounted with mind-numbing detail in the closing chapters of the book, seems less surprising and more inevitable in Spitz's reconstruction. In fact, given the perpetual conflict, chronic drug abuse, and chaos that engulfed the band, we can only wonder how they endured for so long. The Beatles were great songwriters and performers but had no aptitude for the business end of Beatlemania. As Spitz notes, they were the victims of a number of bungled business deals and scams that resulted from the shortcomings of their all-too-distracted manager, Brian Epstein. His grooming of the Beatles when he "discovered" them in the Cavern Club paved the way for unimaginable success. But Epstein's bumbling through the terra incognita of celebrity of such magnitude was compromised by his own inner turmoil. A life-long homosexual (when such behavior was both scandalous and illegal), Epstein, like Lennon, fell into a downward, inward spiral just as the Beatles phenomenon had hit a dramatic crescendo. His own self-destructive and hedonistic behavior, which paralleled Lennon's, culminated in death by a drug overdose at the age of 32. If only he had found the equivalent of a Yoko Ono to pull him back from the abyss.

The Beatles never recovered from their manager's death. As Lennon later declared, when Brian died, "I knew we'd had it." Their brilliant producer, George Martin, continued to work his magic in the studio with the band members (his magnificent production of Abbey Road is perhaps his greatest achievement), but he invested little emotional or spiritual capital in his personal relationship with them. He clearly admired them as musicians but not as people. In aggressively attempting to fill the gaping hole left by the loss of Brian, Paul only generated more strife among the band members. Critics panned his disastrous television project, Magical Mystery Tour, and another of his ill-fated schemes, the movie Let it Be, unwittingly became an embarrassing archive of the band's demise. Even Paul admitted, years later, that he had crafted the "Beatles' break-up on film."

The disbanding of John, Paul, George, and Ringo comes as a relief by the time we finish Spitz's narrative. He unblinkingly catalogues the drug-induced absurdity of their new commercial enterprises. The anarchy and corruption of their own record label, Apple — with its host of con artists, groupies, and gold-diggers (Spitz counts Yoko Ono among them), who fleeced the Beatles for untold sums of money — makes for painful reading. It is hard to imagine that the band would have been capable of even of a modicum of artistic achievement in such a Dionysian setting. The angry young man from Liverpool who founded the Beatles had "gained the world," but in the process was quite literally losing his mind, not to mention his personal fortune. It really had come time for the lads to go their separate ways and to Let it Be.

— Timothy M. Thibodeau is professor of history at Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y.

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