It's All Too Much
Is there anything left to say about the Beatles?
Years ago, George Harrison had a one-line cameo on The Simpsons. The cartoon George pulled up in a limo, saw Homer and an ensemble called the Be Sharps performing on the rooftop of Moe's, and, recalling the finale of Let It Be, quipped, "It's been done."* Now that Little, Brown has unloaded Bob Spitz's 983-page book The Beatles: The Biography, I'm tempted to say the same thing.
Eight years in the making, Spitz's book is chock-full of interviews with hangers-on, siblings, groupies, Apple employees, and any other random bloke or bird who happened to be in Liverpool or Savile Row at the right moment. In an apparently earnest quest to separate the truth from the mythology, he interviewed 650 subjects. What did he come up with? The biggest scoop he scored is a lass named Dot who divulges her tale of getting impregnated by a young and callow McCartney on the eve of Beatlemania, only to miscarry. For most of this hardbound doorstop, though, the interview subjects recycle familiar stories and facts, and Spitz, certainly diligent and professional, presents the standard line. John met Paul and met George. They fired Pete and hired Ringo. Girls screamed, acid was dropped, John said accurately that they were bigger than Jesus, they all lived in a Yellow Submarine, then Paul couldn't get along with Yoko and Ringo was eventually cast as a small conductor in Shining Time Station. We've seen that road before.
Full disclosure: As a substitute for a happy childhood, I had the Beatles. I devoured Philip Norman's Shout!, Nicholas Schaffner's The Beatles Forever, Peter Brown and Steven Gaines' The Love You Make, and so on. Mark Lewisohn's comprehensive book on Beatles recording sessions surfaced a little later, and the three-volume biography he is currently writing will dwarf Spitz's in scope and ambition. Spitz took eight years? Lewisohn says he will take 12. (John, Paul, George, and Ringo, incidentally, spent about eight years being Beatles.) It's clear, however, that Spitz thinks he's written the Definitive Study. Presenting himself as a Joycean stylist, he begins and ends the book with the word "water" and conveys an aura of being above the fray. But what's he doing up there?
Pick your favorite Beatle gossip and see Spitz weigh the evidence and bat away the competition. One of many examples: John Lennon and Brian Epstein may or may not have engaged in some rough trade on a 1963 trip to Spain. There was an entire movie, The Hours and Times, speculating about that vacation. Lennon's Liverpool chum Pete Shotton wrote an opportunistic memoir where he recalled John telling him, "I let Brian toss me off." Brown and Gaines, much to Spitz's disapproval, construct a Lennon-Epstein dialogue in their book. Spitz plays it responsibly, quoting from his predecessors before assessing, "He may have been experimenting, nothing more—or just in an extremely vulnerable state. Away from home, in a beautiful resort with a man—certainly a father figure—who was devoted to taking care of him, John was relaxed and open enough to let it happen unconditionally." Noted. Which of the 650 interview subjects sourced him on that?
While Little, Brown is making a media event out of these recycled tales, Sir Paul has just released a CD that not only holds up to repeated listenings, but actually adds a new chapter to the story Spitz is rehashing. McCartney has been the bête noire for many a rock critic, especially after he was characterized as the bad guy in the Beatles breakup and, as he put it in a meta-song lashing back at all those Rolling Stone pans, the author of so many "silly love songs."
His new album, Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard, has a few silly love songs, but they are all cast in a melancholy dye. After McCartney initially greeted the news of John Lennon's murder with "It's a bit of a drag," Lennon's ghost has hovered over many of Paul's most inspired moments. For this recording, McCartney expressed his desire for someone with the courage to say no to him, just as John used to. Radiohead and Beck producer Nigel Godrich somehow summoned up the nerve to do just that.
The McCartney in the later pages of Spitz's biography is the egomaniac who wanted his in-laws to manage the Beatles and who sent George Harrison storming off in a huff after showing him how to play a guitar part. The bossy Beatle plays every instrument on Chaos and Creation, except that Linda is no longer around to give him a harmony and distract him from his breakup with John. He also gets to play the way he told George to play—even on the same Epiphone electric with which he usurped George's solo on "Taxman"—but now George isn't around to badger anymore. McCartney said that the feeling of George came over him when he was writing "Friends to Go," and Harrison's droll quips on the way to the grave (in a late song, "P2 Vatican Blues," Harrison sang of getting dressed in his "concrete tuxedo") feel like they've been channeled here, particularly when McCartney's own words fail him. As McCartney sang, melodiously but clunkily, "I've been sliding down a slippy slope," I cringed, but when he followed it up with "I've been climbing up a slowly burning rope," it could have even inspired a grin from the Quiet Beatle himself.
Godrich managed the quality control, essential for any McCartney product, and McCartney was pushed to write darker, more dissonant chords, providing the right chill just as certain lyrics threatened to become Hallmark couplets. "How Kind of You" opens with the wince-inducing line, "How kind of you to think of me, when I was out of sorts/ It really meant a lot to be in someone else's thoughts." But don't change the track yet. The key turns minor, and the musical interlude is so haunting you want to forgive Paul his schmaltz.
Unexpected chords turn up on nearly every track, just as the lyrics begin to turn soppy. "At the Mercy"modulates its way to dissonant harmonies, beginning with a traffic jam and ending with an apocalyptic image of watching "the universe explode." On "Riding to Vanity Fair,"McCartney can be heard having a bitchy argument with someone who needs to be told "the definition of friendship" from a knight worth $1.5 billion. He says the song wasn't directed to anyone specific, but who else could get his goat like John? Godrich hurt Sir Paul's feelings when he initially told him the song was "crap," but Sir Paul slowed down the tempo and let the vitriol burn. "I'll tell you what I'm going to do/ I'll try to take my mind off you/ And now that you don't need my help/ I'll take the time to think about myself." McCartney, his voice more or less intact, can whine in his upper register, but he can also dig into the deeper notes with an ennui that could only come with age.
These are emotions that couldn't have ever come from the wunderkind who saw the Beatles disintegrate when he was all of 27. McCartney is communing with the dead on Chaos and Creation, but unlike Spitz's book, he actually has something new to say. On "This Never Happened Before,"a song whose opening piano chords might owe a few quid to "You Never Give Me Your Money," McCartney is singing the song's title to Heather Mills, but really, hasn't he already written scads of silly love songs for Jane Asher, Linda, even his sheep dog Martha? What has really never happened before is that McCartney, in mourning for his fellow Beatles, is finally able to channel the dead in a new way, admitting that Lennon was his "soul mate." This is part of getting older—a year away from "When I'm 64"—and maybe it's not too late to do something new. For a man who at the age of 23 wrote his most lucrative hook with "I believe in yesterday," McCartney at 63 assures us that it really hasn't been done before after all.
David Yaffe is assistant professor of English at Syracuse University and the author of Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing.
Audio excerpts from Chaos and Creation in the Backyard © 2005 Capitol. All rights reserved. Photograph of Beatles 1964 by KPA/Zuma Press; 1968 photo by Toronto Star/Zuma Press.