Monday, February 10, 2014

"The Beatles" review

If you're going to load up this year, reading Beatles biographies - and 2014 would be a great year to do that - this is the book to start with. It's not the greatest written book on the fabs or the most brutally honest, but it's the progenitor of all Beatle bios to follow. - The Beatles by Hunter Davies.

Davies wrote the book around late 1967 and early '68.  John Lennon would later dismiss Davies's book as "watered down" and there is some truth to that. Still, this book, albeit an authorized biography was the first to break through the Beatle bubble and begin the unraveling of the cold, unvarnished truth. It was the first book to address their rough childhoods, the band's pill popping days, playing in the red light district of Hamburg, Germany, the controversial firing of Pete Best and how Dylan turned them on to marijuana. 

To get the Beatle experience in print form, this book is a window. Like pot was a window for Rubber Soul and acid for Revolver, this book is - well, it's not that mystical of a portal, but it is an essential entryway. But be aware.  Do not get one of the revised editions of this book. Get the original version, published in September of 1968. Check it out from your local library, interlibrary loan it if your hometown library does not have it, buy it in a used bookstore or off eBay, but if you're going to read the book, read the original copy.

The magic of this book is not the stories it tells. Revelatory for their time, those stories are common knowledge today. Davies' book stands out, not for what it reveals, but for the perspective from which it was written. It came out when the Beatles were still young, somewhat naïve and contemporary, churning out hit singles and getting played on Top 40 radio.

For all anybody knew, the Beatles would still be making music together for years. Davies described the four as "umbillically connected" and they talked as if there was no end in sight.

Furthermore, John was still married to Cynthia, George was still married to Patti, Ringo to Maureen and Paul was engaged to Jane Asher. 

Who knew that in two years, the band would be broken up? That John would leave Cynthia for Yoko and Paul would be married to Linda and have a ready-made family?

Early Beatles. Davies' biography was the first to tell of the band's wild days in Hamburg, Germany. It was the first book to talk about John's art school friend, Stu Sutcliffe, who joined the band, left them and died before they became famous. Davies interviewed Sutcliffe's lover, German artist, Astrid Kirchherr, who took this photograph.
Sometimes when reading such things as John and Cyn's exchanges, there is a tinge of sadness because we know how it will end. On the surface, they seemed to have a happy marriage. In hindsight, the book reveals signs that John's marriage was in trouble. In the shadow of her rockstar husband, Cyn felt unfulfilled. She should have been working on her art and teaching like she wanted to be doing. He should have encouraged her. She wanted to live a quieter family existence with John and Julian. He wanted - at least at that time; it would end quickly - to be constantly surrounded by "our Beatle buddies." Cyn said she did not think she and John would have stayed together if she hadn't gotten pregnant. As for the Beatles worldwide fame?

Sometimes I wish it all never happened, she said.

Of the four Beatles John resonated the most with me because he had the most contradictions. He was the most mercurial of the four and his life appeared to be the one most in limbo. Davies did not go into John's drug addiction, but reading between the lines, it's there.

The book also hints about the group's manager, Brian Epstein homosexuality, without coming out with it. He was described ambiguously as a "gay bachelor." There is a flat denial that Brian's death was suicide. Davies quotes people who maintain strongly that his death was an accidental overdose of pills, but it's hard not to be skeptical.

George comes across as the Beatle who has "grown the most" and "needs the others the least." The most materialistic of the band mates in his youth, he put those worldly concerns to the side when he embraced Eastern religion. It's interesting that while George was uncomfortable with being a celebrity, his family enjoyed it. His parents judged beauty contests and his mother answered fan mail, as did Ringo's wife, Maureen.

That's part of the fun of this book. Not only were all four Beatles still alive, most of their parents were as well. Paul's father seems much like the old, distinguished English gentleman we perceive Paul to be now. Also, it's interesting that George's father, Harold Harrison, continued working as a bus driver even after his son became a world famous millionaire.

Davies' book was written from the perspective of the Beatles having reached a plateau. The story had a neat, tidy ending. But things were forever changing in the Beatles world (despite that line in "Across the Universe") and this book was almost out of date as soon as it came off the presses. Only three months after its publication, John and Yoko would be appearing nude on the cover of Rolling Stone.

There is a certain innocence about the book as it gives a last look at the Beatles before the changes set into motion that would split the band apart and into history.

Gateway literature

Having read Hunter Davies' biography, the next logical step is to read the biographies, Shout: The Beatles and their Generation by Phillip Norman and The Beatles: A Biography by Bob Spitz. You might as well continue the journey.

I chose this video from Lennon's solo career because you see him hanging out with Miles Davis. Only a few years earlier, John is quoted in Davies' book, saying, "We're very anti-jazz. I think it's shit music."

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