The Beatles: A Biography
Little, Brown; $29.95
Every civilization demands its own creation myth, a story that's told over and over as a way of understanding the tribe's collective hopes and fears. In the modern English-speaking world, the story of the Beatles seems to have become the saga of choice. Bob Spitz's doorstop-sized biography, titled simply, The Beatles, is just the latest entry in what has become a genre in its own right.
The narrative outline of this particular myth is well known. Two workingclass kids named John and Paul meet in post World War II Liverpool and begin making music together. Soon they're joined by a third mate named George and, eventually, Ringo. After scuffling through various rites of passage making and breaking various friendships and alliances, paying dues in Hamburg's red light district, being rejected by various record companies their sound catches on. They go to London. Their rise is meteoric. They go to America. That rise becomes hyperbolic. In the span of a couple of years they become the most successful artists on earth. A couple of years more and they go from being successful to influential in ways previously unimaginable. The boys become men. Then things start to go wrong. Sickness, death and betrayal begin to dog them. The friendship that was the bedrock of their existence unravels and, as John Lennon would later write: "The dream is over."
Spitz's book promises revelations and details previously neglected or covered up. In the early going, the Beatles' Liverpool phase, there's something to this. Spitz does a nice job of setting the scene, providing cultural background and including a veritable chorus of voices boyhood friends and hangers-on given short shrift in previous tellings.
But as Spitz notes in an afterword, getting to the unvarnished truth about the Beatles' trajectory is seemingly impossible. Spitz says that the Beatles themselves agreed at an early stage on what their official story would consist of and that they've stuck to it. That seems to be another way of admitting that, in fact, the Beatles have been their own best chroniclers, glossing over details from time to time, but, on balance, telling it pretty much like it was in countless interviews and their own published account, The Anthology. Indeed, from the time they were teenagers, the Beatles lived in full view of a small army of witnesses, many of whom had little or no reason to cover up on their behalf. Consequently, the rest of the story Spitz has to tell will be all too familiar to anyone with more than a passing interest in Beatles' lore.
Spitz doffs his cap to Hunter Davies' authorized biography from 1967 and well he should. Although Paul later said the Davies book was just 65 percent of the story, it remains a richer look at the Beatles at the height of their powers. Spitz seems derivative by comparison; what's more, Davies' book is better written.
And as far as getting at the details of the Beatles' lives and works is concerned, Spitz has nothing on Mark Lewisohn's daily logs of studio sessions or his encyclopedic Beatles Chronicles. Finally, Richard DeLillo's memoir of the Apple debacle, The Last Cocktail Party is a more revealing description of that marvelous and heart- wrenching folly.
Rather than revelations, Spitz fills in blanks that Beatles' fans have doubtless accounted for already in their imaginations. Yes, a lot of drugs were consumed along this road, more than anybody's talked about. There was plenty of screwing, too. But did anyone, besides parents, ever think these guys were choirboys? Only Spitz's portrait of tormented manager Brian Epstein constitutes what might be considered an addition to existing knowledge - in a scene famous for its excesses, it seems no one, not even the Stones' Brian Jones, was more strung out.
Spitz might be excused for allowing himself to be overwhelmed by the narrative rush of the Beatles' story. There's a lot to tell. But he misses what might have made his book a genuine addition to the Beatles' canon. Apart from the early days in Liverpool, there is no serious attempt to place the band within the cultural context they helped to define. Nor is there a fresh or insightful treatment of their art. In short, you can read this book from cover to cover and know what happened, but have little or no clue as to why, or why so many people still care.
With this biography a certain kind of Beatles storytelling may have reached its terminus. Surely the limits of what can be discovered, said and written by living witnesses has been exhausted. The facts have been nailed, but the truth remains elusive. The best biographies are also works of literary art. The book about the Beatles that will rise to their occasion has yet to be written.