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Books: Mean Mr. Lennon

3 minute read
Lev Grossman

The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein was gay, wealthy and chronically insecure. That may be why, while recording Magical Mystery Tour in 1967, John Lennon deliberately mangled a couple of choruses. According to Bob Spitz’s colossal quadruple biography The Beatles (Little, Brown; 983 pages), instead of singing, “Baby, you’re a rich man too,” Lennon sang, “Baby, you’re a rich fag Jew.”

That kind of gratuitous cruelty isn’t all that uncommon in The Beatles. The Fab Four hated the silly, lovable mop-top image they created, and on that score alone they would probably love Spitz’s book. He marshals a staggering mass of research in support of the conclusion, broadly speaking, that Lennon was a drug-addled, attention-hungry rageoholic who picked fights and cheated on his wife; Paul McCartney was a smarmy, manipulative charmer; and George Harrison was dour and sour. Before you lose faith entirely, it turns out Ringo really was just a lovable goofball.

The early chapters of The Beatles are irresistible; they have the hypnotic effect of a film clip run backward, the separate pieces of a single whole coming together from the hard-luck streets of Liverpool. All four Beatles were hard cases of various kinds, but Ringo takes the prize. Poor, sickly and essentially fatherless, he took up drumming as therapy while he was hospitalized for tuberculosis, pounding on his bedside cabinet using two cotton bobbins for drumsticks.

It’s a miracle that these four geniuses found one another, and it’s a miracle they didn’t then kill each other. But The Beatles isn’t all dirt. Spitz brings readers inside the studio, where the Beatles, none of whom could read music, generated a staggering catalog of innovations, including the first use of feedback. He also pries open the songwriting dyad of McCartney and Lennon, who couldn’t seem to stop writing perfect pop songs even when they couldn’t stand each other. Anything was raw material: a cornflakes jingle (Good Morning, Good Morning), a snippet of Shakespeare on the radio (I Am the Walrus), the stoned ramblings of Peter Fonda (She Said She Said).

Spitz isn’t much for big theories, but that’s O.K. The details are what’s new and interesting anyway. Similarly, the beginning of the book is more interesting than its end, which is pretty much the Yokotastrophe you’d expect. When John was 5, his mom and dad separated. His father sat him down and made him choose which parent he would live with. At first he chose his father, but after his mother left, the desperate little boy went running up the street after her. That poignant image hints at the ineffable, aching heart of Lennon’s creativity, and his cruelty too. You get the feeling John never really stopped running.

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