Books That Have Been Crushing Disappointments

Crap booksI really should focus on books a bit more. I guess it’s because there’s very few authors who I like throughout their entire oeuvre, unlike with bands where you can relatively easily compare and contrast across albums. Take two of my favourite authors, George Orwell and EM Forster – both of them were pretty so-so until their final two novels, but then both pairs (Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four; and Howards End and A Passage To India, of course) are some of the finest in the twentieth century. I’m excluding Orwell’s non-fiction here, of course. Where bands can reproduce essentially the same album over and over again (I’m looking at you, AC/DC), writers can get stale very quickly (I’m looking at you, Irvine Welsh) and attempts to branch out can be bewilder their audience (I’m looking at you, James Joyce). It rather depends on their style, of course. Character-based writers like Irvine Welsh use up their share of meaningful stories early on, and then have to fall back on increasingly-hackneyed plots and melodrama; whereas plot-driven writers, such as those working in crime or mysteries, or genre fiction, where you work within set parameters (such as horror, fantasy or westerns).

Nonetheless, there have been a number of books which been intensely disappointing, whether following an outstanding precedent or which fail to capture their potential.

The Autograph Man, Zadie Smith

On Beauty, Smith’s third novel, was the first of hers I’d read. It’s a homage to Howards End, set in a New England campus, so it has the traditional campus comedy (of manners) in the mix too: departmental politics, the clash of ego and political correctness, the hilarity of smart people having oh-so-human weaknesses. It’s really pretty damn good, even if the media epithet of “prose wizard” overcooks Smith’s talent: she is deft, for sure, but too much in love with writing and novelising to prevent a certain obtrusiveness. Still, it was one of the best novels I’d read for some time, certainly for  new writer. I was in China at the time, so I could only find The Autograph Man, rather than her much-lauded debut White Teeth. But my, how completely boring was The Autograph Man! It completely failed as both fiction and as literature. It was awful fiction because there was no compelling plot or characters (protagonist Alex-Li Tandem (gettit?) only seems to be mixed race Chinese-Jewish, but have no other traits worth notice or mention: his career of autograph hunting is only because it’s easy), nor are there memorable character arcs. There was, most damningly, no sense of pattern: there was some events you didn’t care for, then another event, then… dribbling pointlessness. It failed too as literature because the symbols and themes were either not brought out (the emptiness of fame and celebrity is a decent idea, but it was never really elucidated) or obvious: yes, autograph hunters are parasites, etc etc. No doubt Smith had a publisher clamouring for product to keep the public and media interest high – collections of short stories are often good holding-manouveres – but The Autograph Man will have to go down as “the difficult second novel”. If Smith can grow out of the precious “I’m a writer” attitude and stick to her craft, I’ve no doubt she will produce compelling work.

The Silmarillion, JRR Tolkien

Much though I love The Lord of the Rings, I simply cannot make any headway on The Silmarillion. All those bloody elves! I find them the least interesting of the races and forms in LOTR, with their righteousness and effeteness. Boring! I far far prefer the homeliness of the hobbits, and much enjoy the opening and closing chapters set in the Shire. The rustic humour and essentially suburban concerns of the Shirefolk make a terrific contrast to the awesome devilry of Mordor and the pride and majesty of Minas Tirith. Remove this, and an essential antithesis is removed. The Silmarillion even takes away men and and dwarves,: it may be mythic and majestic, but its poetic frame of mind is not congenial to me.

Post-Misery Stephen King

Writers, like musicians, dry up. Their inspiration declines, their vision expires. Creativity, in composing something entirely new, is brain-busting, intense, utterly demanding work. After a time, most artists stick to the parameters they have set out in their early work. With Stephen King, though he was always quite hit and miss (I don’t care for early books like The Tommyknockers or Salem’s Lot), he seems to me to have dried up almost entirely after Misery, or after about 1992, or after (though this is an uncomfortable thought), since he kicked drugs and alcohol. Since then, several characteristics seem to have set in: his protagonists are far too often writers and the setting is generally upper-middle class north-east USA. In other words, his experience of life has become too thin to sustain sustained creativity; he has come too far from his period of struggle to remember the broader range of emotional experience and of humanity. His earlier works (particularly some of the short stories) were enlivened by thoroughly nasty situations and people: “Night Shift” remains one of the best horror stories I have ever read, while the demented black humour of “Survivor Type” is very much to my taste. (I did write a gruesomely vivid zombie novel as a joke, you know). But since 1992 or so, King’s fictional world has been repetitive and boring. Bag Of Bones, The Ghost Of Tom Gordon, Gerald’s Game, Needful Things, Cell – every single one of them has been ultimately tedious. That’s five for five out of his post-1992 work. He can still create character effectively, but his weaknesses – the insane overwriting, the melodramatic ending, the thinness of the conception – are no longer concealed by his strengths.

Still, an eighteen year (1974-1992) period of creativity is a good one for any artist – especially a writer who produces two novels a year.

John Lennon Letters

I thought Lennon’s letters would be quite literary, in the same style as those of Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin: lengthy, revelatory, funny, insightful. But the “letters” are in fact often postcards and notes – one of them is even a shopping list! There is only one letter to Cynthia whilst the Beatles are in Hamburg, none to Yoko (allegedly because when apart they were on the phone “twenty times a day” – I call bullshit), none to friends like Shotton. Only the ones to Derek Taylor sustain the interest; the rest seem to be scribbled notes to fans, postcards to family and colleagues, and the odd half-page letter, to Julian or musicians. The legend of Lennon the literary intellectual gets shot in flames by this book; though it’s my guess that Yoko Ono has a cache of correspondence which she refuses to release.

While Lennon’s style is of course distinctive, with his puns and neologisms and Joycean coinings, it will be familiar to anyone who has read In His Own Write or A Spaniard In The Works. In the end, the sole interest of the Lennon letters is for biographical revelation, and on that count it is remarkably thin. Lennon was never one to examine himself and his methodology, or rather to verbalise this: he preferred to keep it instinctive, visceral, natural. This is probably of benefit to his creativity, but it makes the book a weak, insubstantial, unsatisfying book.

Tim Riley’s Lennon Biography – A Critique

In preparation for writing about John Lennon, I have been reading the latest biography, by one Tim Riley. Our Tim previously wrote Tell Me Why, which takes the reader through every Beatles song – like Revolution In The Head but more emphasis on simply describing the songs. I thought then that he had a tin ear and not much understanding of The Beatles’ music. (Ian MacDonald and Alan Pollack  are masterly writers about the tunes). But reading his biog of Lennon, it has exasperated me so often that I literally wanted to PUNCH THE FECKING BOOK. It is littered with so many misunderstandings, so much inane waffling, so many misreadings of the Beatles that it makes me wonder how it ever got published.

To be fair, it is well researched, and (highly unusually for a rock biog) actually references its sources. (I have literally never seen this before). However, this is a lesser achievement when you realise that Riley is often referencing secondary sources. To take one example: he tells the story of Lennon and Yoko briefly staying in a flat of McCartney’s after Lennon broke up with his first wife, Cynthia, and says that Lennon found a note in Macca’s handwriting saying “You and your Jap tart think you’re hot shit”. Riley cites a biography of McCartney as the source. In fact, the actual source is Francie Schwartz, briefly a girlfriend of McCartney’s in 1968 (between Jane Asher and Linda Eastman). But the worst things are the combination of misreadings and knuckle-chewingly bad writing. To take the basic errors – “Gaitskellite” and “Bevanite” were sects in the 1950s Labour party, not Scottish dialects (!!), England not Britain won the World Cup in 1966, and grammar schools were not the equivalent of American prep schools. But these pale into comparison in Riley’s discussion of the music, where the writing falls apart under the slightest scrutiny.

The book hails itself as “the definitive biography” and it is a solid 800 pages. Lennon’s life deserves no less. The unfortunate thing is that there are so many absurd discussions of the music, with such self-regarding criticism, that Riley seems to have forgotten that the role of the critic is to elucidate, not try to dazzle the reader with his verbosity. Rarely does he simply describe or evoke the songs. To take an example, “Twist And Shout” is of course the magnificent climactic closer of Please Please Me, a song of such energy and intensity and sexual charge that it took perhaps until “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to make something as powerful AND catchy. Riley’s discussion of the roots of “The Twist” and “Shout” is in-depth (though almost comically so – do we need to know that Chubby Checker married a Miss World in 1962?) and trowels on facts without much insight (a sure symptom of a weak biographer, mistaking fact-excavation for elucidation). It’s when he starts trying to describe The Beatles’ version that the prose becomes laughable. Here are some lowlights:

The Beatles attack alone carried symbolic force: as a garage band, they filtered the Isley’s high-tone horns and handclaps down into guitars and vocals alone, which turned the entire project into an ideal of self-sufficiency, a sound that said, “This thing that will cut water if we trim its sails.”

In both songs, the racial politics in the music didn’t disappear so much as turn metaphorical – the Brits pouncing on this style escaped cynicism and landed on the far side of beatific.

Only a Brit could have pulled the thread from this song’s distracting racial knots…

After goading the others steadily for the song’s first half, Lennon rode this bronco of a band while lashing it from above for one last victory-lap verse…

It’s the same but even worse for Sgt. Pepper. Here’s a paragraph which is utterly laughable in getting so much wrong:

While ominous, Beatles politics served the music, making Sgt. Pepper at once a glow-in-the-dark bauble and a message about the messengers. For a lark, the Beatles decisively* renounced their teen image once and for all adapting fictive characters to announce a new phase. The splashy Victorian band costumes, the epitome of “square”†, only sharpened their hip new looks the way suits and ties had once put quotes‡ around their Hamburg leather expressions. The album’s tour through celebrity, its trick mirrors and death curves, became an all-consuming¶ metaphor for life itself:ß as hippies and psychedelic hard rock entered the scene, the Beatles had a grip on it all before the Summer of Love party even begun. And the music transcends its era well enough to serve as a defining statement. Sgt. Pepper recreates its era while commenting on our own. Addressing their audience from the mists of their own fame, the Beatles put quotes around the very idea of their previous “act” as moptops, of all rock acts posing for their fans, of all show-biz  acts of all time and all audiences hungry for myth. Like fame, its strategy is seduction, but the punch line is abrupt§. Without “A Day In The Life”, the whole fantastical world might just float away¤.

*A lark? Decisively? Which is it? Surely not a lark to dispense with their teen heartthrob image.
† Square? Not when there was a revival of Victoriana, by shops like I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet, and by bands like The Bonzo Dog Do-Dah band. Their outfits are sa dazzling starburst of colour.
‡ This is a clever-clever reading of it. The suits were simply to broaden their appeal.
¶ It’s hardly all-consuming – especially if you’re about the first person to point it out.
ß Is there a connection between the two halves of the sentence either side of the colon?
§ If “A Day In The Life” is what he means by this, I’ve never seen it described as funny.
¤ It might do, if you forget songs like “Good Morning Good Morning” and “She’s Leaving Home”.

It’s just vague, half-spun, unthought-out verbosity. This is not to say that there’s no room for a broader discussion of The Beatles. There is undoubtedly a place for critical analysis and a more academic approach to Beatle music – in fact, there’s a great need for it, if we are acknowledging that the Fabs are the Beethoven or Shakespeare of pop and rock. Alan Pollack’s song-by-song musicological analysis is a magnificent achievement: not being a trained musician myself, much of it goes over my head, but he undoubtedly knows what he’s talking about, and he writes with clarity and rigour. See by counterpoint his reading of “She Said She Said“:

  • Although the most conspicuous feature of “She Said She Said” is the metrical high jinks of the bridge, this song also provides us with object lessons about two other general compositional topics: how to experiment without things falling apart, and the special characteristics of modal harmony.
  • Experimentation! Among other things, this song teaches us yet another of the composer’s trade secrets: whenever you are pushing one parameter of your musical grammar to the max, hold at least some if not all of the other parameters steady lest your meaning become obscured by sensory overload, or your composition come apart as though from centrifugal force. This principle potentially operates on many different levels to the extent that the “parameters” involved may include as diverse elements as form, rhythm, texture, harmony, even lyrics…

Bridge

  • If the gory details are too daunting at first sight, here’s a high-level view of this bridge:
  • The f-minor chord is introduced for the first time in the song at what is possibly the moment of climax, and is used to help make a pivot modulation to E-flat, the key of the IV.
  • The meter may be erratic but it’s not without its own pattern. This little chart indicates the succession of measures and the number of beats in each:
  • She said "you don't understand what I said".  I said    [ 4 + 4 ]
    "No, no, no, you're wrong. When I was a boy,        [ 3 + 3 + 3 ]
    Everything was right.                                   [ 6 + 3 ]
    Everything was right."                                  [ 6 + 3 ]

That is in-depth, detailed and analytical (I really have no idea what an IV chord is), but it’s comprehensible and sheds new light on the song. It’s worth reading just for the “Some Final Thoughts” section, which doesn’t contain (much) musicological jargon and summarises his thought on the tune. Riley, on the other hand, waffles on in a ridiculous fashion, making ridiculous statements (Ringo’s drumming in “Ticket to Ride” he calls “white hot” – yes, the pausing, hesitant, doubtful drumming). The book has a few good things about it, but to call it “The Definitive Life” is an absurd , unsustainable hype. It is simply badly written and shows a chronic lack of insight in Lennon, the Beatles and their music.

Books About Music

The Definitive Miles Davis Biography

I still haven’t written much about books yet, huh? Well, allow me to combine my two main interests with a list of the best books about music which I have read. Sadly, in comparison with literary figures, the biographies of rock musicians are often rather unimpressive efforts, with most writers happy to retell myths and legends, and few going to the trouble of footnoting and citing their information. When I think of a truly impressive biography, I think of Richard Ellman’s masterful biographies of Oscar Wilde and James Joyce, for example: these not only follow their subjects in close detail, they illuminate their subjects minds and philosophies through deep learning and deceptively-simple explication, and they place them in their precise cultural and historical settings. This, obviously, is no mean feat. But given the intense interest in rock music, it is unfortunate that few if any biographies of major musical figures have been written which aspire to such high academic standards. Similarly, far too many books on rock (and even jazz) are content to titillate with stories of drug intake and sexual conquests. I’m thinking of books like Hammer of the Gods (about Led Zep); The Dirt (Motley Crue); Slash (um… Slash); I Am Ozzy; and so on. Yawn yawn fucking yawn. Such tawdry transgressions always (it seems to me) devalue what rock is about.

Never mind. There are nonetheless numerous good and substantial books on music out there, so let me share the ones I have found the best.

England’s Dreaming by Jon Savage

Few rock books might have the academic standards of Richard Ellman, but this one perhaps comes closest. With unbelievable detail (he must have interviewed several hundred people), Savage traces the birth and trajectory of (English) punk through the prism of the Sex Pistols, from their origins to the death of Sid Vicious through to the final legal victory of Lydon over McLaren. Savage also gives an overview of the careers of other luminaries such as The New York Dolls (at least, in terms of their involvement with McLaren), The Clash, The Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees, X-Ray Spex, Throbbing Gristle, Public Image Limited and many more – though not The Stranglers, whom he seems to detest – and most importantly, places it all in a political, cultural and philosophical context. He explicates the souring of 1960s idealism, explains the relevance of postwar philosophies such nihilism and situationism, and combines this with a strong understanding of working-class hedonism and street-culture, from the Teddy Boys to Northern Soul to Mods and Rockers to Glam and Bowie. His reading list and discographies are also magnificent achievements in themselves, ideal resources for any would-be historian (would that there were more!) or even interested reader or listener. Not only that, it’s a fun, zippy read, able to mix high drama with sordid crimes, deep philosophical discussion with anecdotes about Sid Vicious’ hairstyle methods, and serious musical analysis of some of the most basic and visceral tunes put to record. Needless to say, it is a fucking brilliant book.

Revolution In The Head by Ian MacDonald

None of the Beatle biographies have been fully satisfying. We still await the book to place either Lennon or McCartney (or, indeed, both!) in their full cultural and philosophical context, as musical creators and innovators to rank alongside any classical composer you might care to mention. Really! This might be because the story is too big and too mythic for words to even begin to convey; or it might be that Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney are still alive and jealously protecting the sacred image of Lennon/McCartney. (I suspect the latter). It is, to say the least, a crying shame that an edition of Lennon’s letters has not been produced. The great books that do exist about the Beatles are those which concern themselves less with the lives of the people involved and which instead document their musical, professional activities. I’m thinking of Mark Lewisohn‘s magnificent The Beatles Recording Sessions and The Complete Beatles Chronicle which documents their studio work and general activities to an astonishing degree. Ian MacDonald’s book on the other hand looks at every recorded song individually, noting who played on it, the date(s) of its recording, when it was released and in what format, with a short(ish) essay about it. (Tim Riley’s book Tell Me Why does a similar job, but keeps to the music rather than the context. Riley also displays rather a tin ear, misreading songs on far too many occasions). While MacDonald is far more of a music critic than me (he knows about scales, modes and all the musical arcana), he really does get to the bottom of each song, relating it to where The Beatles were at that moment and in what they were trying to achieve. Thus, the entry for “Tomorrow Never Knows” is one of the longest, as he analyses the effect of LSD on Lennon and in 60s cultural generally, and explains its “dazzling aural invention”. (On the other hand, his entry for songs like “Altogether Now” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” are dismissively short). His bibliography is also excellent, though his introduction, bewailing the demise of popular music, is a bit silly. (He would have been better off noting that music, like other cultural forms, has a fragmented from a unifying medium to a Balkanized means of near-solipsistic consumption).

Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon by Tony Fletcher

As rock biographies go, this is one of the best. Not only is it astonishingly detailed (it’s about 800 pages long!), it avoids the prurient salacious detailing of drug and alcohol excess. This might sound odd, given Moon’s well-known proclivities, but Fletcher to his credit never sounds impressed when detailing Moon’s intake – rather, he sees it as evidence of his disturbance(s). I also really like the way that he gives great detail to Moon’s drumming, detailing the complex rhythms which Moon made sound so easy. Though the book can sometimes seem a bit overlong, it does really get to the dark heart of who Moon was. It is also, of course, a good overview of The Who, especially their early days.

Miles: The Autobiography and Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography by Ian Carr

I’m going to lump these two together, because I read them at about the same time, and because they are very complementary. The Autobiography is a demotic street-voice stew of feeling, anecdotes and opinion. It’s written as though in Miles’ actual voice, and so is initially hard to read, diving straight in to talk about how “Bird played bad as a motherfucker” and the like. (I didn’t know that “Bird” was Charlie Parker). While Miles was of course an educated, Juillard-attending man, he liked to present himself as a guy from the street, despising the cultural eliteness that calcified jazz – see his 70s urban funk recordings (particularly On The Corner) as his direct riposte – and so there is a deliberate coarseness that sometimes strays into bravado, as when talking about his mid-70s slump into the depths of cocaine and “taking white bitch’s money”. There also isn’t much detail in the music: just lots of “he played like a motherfucker”. Nonetheless, you really get the sense of his voice and character through the book, and particularly of his lifelong dedication to his artform and his search for “the new thing”. Ian Carr’s book on the other hand is a traditional critical biography, with a great understanding and ability to evoke Davis’ classic recordings. Given that Davis’ style changed so considerably and so frequently over the years (compare with the Rolling Stones, who have had a similarly lengthy career!), Carr displays a tremendous ability to appreciate bop, cool jazz, modal, time-no changes, jungle funk to the jazz funk of the 1980s. He also gives more detail than Davis is willing to do about his relationships, both romantic and professional, and writes with clear relish when Miles twice arises after an addiction seemed to strike him out of contention.

How about you?

An Introduction to John Lennon

(N.B. I have often wanted to write a biography of John Lennon during his Beatles years, but living in China don’t have all the necessary books to hand. Nonetheless, I’ve written the introduction and first chapter of it, and thought I’d share the intro.)

The writer who ventures onto the trail of John Lennon, especially on his time as a Beatle, may be somewhat foolhardy. Lennon, as a Beatle and afterwards, has already been well covered, with numerous biographies, as well as memoirs by his first wife Cynthia, his second wife Yoko, his half-sister Julia, his PR man and even his driver. He has been analysed intensively – musicologically and psychologically, from the perspectives of feminism, Maoism, and “primally”. He is one of the most well known people of the twentieth century, with accolades varying from “Man of the Decade” [the 1960s, of course] according to the anthropologist Desmond Morris, being voted eighth in a BBC “100 Greatest Britons” poll, to the naming of the airport in Liverpool after him, in 2002. A “John Lennon” Google search brings up almost 112 million pages. Beatles memorabilia remains highly sought after: a very rare copy of The Beatles (more commonly known, of course, as the White Album) sold for £20,000 on e-Bay in 2008, while the drum skin which featured on the cover of Sgt Pepper sold for $1.1m and the hand-written lyrics to “Give Peace A Chance” for over $800,000. And of course there is always the music, with reputedly more than one billion albums and singles sold worldwide. (Take a moment to digest that: over a billion records, from only seven years worth of recordings. Elvis Presley took over twenty years to be the nearest numerical rival, and Frank Sinatra over forty. Lennon of course had ten more years as a solo artist in addition to that). As part of pop culture, Lennon has never left us; his life and work have been pored over, analysed and examined, exalted and decried for almost fifty years now.

So what is there still to say?

First, since 1994, a great deal of Beatles material previously heard only on bootlegs or live has been officially released . Starting with Live At The BBC, a double CD of live performances from 1962 to 1965, Apple Corps then released three Anthology double CD albums of out-takes, demos and alternate versions, the seven DVD Anthology TV series, the 1 album of No. 1 singles, Let It Be… Naked, a version of the last-released studio album without the overdubs added by Phil Spector, and even a mash-up of sorts called Love, as produced by long-time producer George Martin and his son Giles. They are now available on iTunes and in the Rock Band computer game. All of these have sold well, showing that The Beatles remain as “toppermost of the poppermost” as ever. If art always exists in the present tense (which is to say, in the mind of the person experiencing it), then John Lennon and The Beatles are as relevant, as now, as they ever were.

Second, with the advent of the internet and particularly peer-to-peer file-sharing, the ordinary fan has access to far more Beatles music and film than ever before. While Beatles bootlegs have always circulated for those interested, few people might have seen the canned Let It Be film, or the famous rooftop gig which ends it, or seen more than a snippet of the Beatles performing at the Royal Variety Performance of 1964, at Shea Stadium in 1965, or the Budokan in 1966. Considering that there is no official live album or film in the official catalogue and that they were great performers in that area (at least to begin with), this is a considerable gap. The Beatles were after all a band built on their live performances – first in the searing boiler room of Hamburg in 1961-1962 and later in Liverpool and then across the UK in 1962-1963. So to actually see and hear The Beatles perform live is a fascinating exercise. (And few who saw them after 1963 actually heard them). Lennon in particular is enthralling in Beatlemania-era footage: his raw charisma almost, but not quite, smothered by his suit, his feet spread apart and his knees bending to keep time, his crotch rising and falling in a vivid suggestion of sex. Finally, you can really feel the mania in the air as the four young men from Liverpool stride through a earth-shattering din to a small stage in a baseball field in New York, or observe how they interacted on stage – the end-of-show bows like something from another era, which to all intents and purposes they were – or with what sharp wit and pointed humour they conducted themselves in press conferences. Finally you can see them performing on the Apple rooftop in that cold blustery January of 1969, rusty, nostalgic and sentimental, like a couple near the end of their relationship having one last physical fling, aware that it makes no difference and that the end is not averted.

Third, several previous Lennon biographies have tended to portray him at either end of the human spectrum, with Albert Goldman seeing him as a weak, manipulated fool dominated by Yoko Ono and hopelessly addicted to drugs, and Ray Coleman’s near-hagiography seeing Lennon as a “poet and philosopher”. Both seem to focus on the extremes of Lennon’s personality – of which there is admittedly ample evidence – and miss out the middle ground. To take the first example: it’s difficult to believe that Lennon could be so subjugated by Yoko Ono, when he had an immensely forceful personality himself and a short-leash temper. (He might, of course, want to be to some extent dominated by a strong woman, and Coleman rightly observes that while Ono was Lennon’s intellectual superior, he was the superior artist). Similarly, while many of Lennon’s songs have philosophical implications, by no stretch could he be called a philosopher. He was a voracious but unsystematic reader, and his thoughts and ideas were similarly moment-to-moment; he was always capable of changing his truths to suit his current artistic endeavours. His 1970 Rolling Stone interviews are justly famous, but the reader must always be aware that Lennon was speaking with the acrid bitterness of the Beatles’ recent breakup still smoking, and his disillusion with the 1960s from this perspective must be tempered with an awareness of what he said and did at the  time, rather than retrospective rationales.

For me, I see Lennon as an artist, above and beyond everything else. His activism, his experimentation with drugs, even his relationships were all secondary to or even motivated by his constant need to express himself in some new way. Few musical artists can have striven so continuously to find new means of expression as Lennon whilst a Beatle. What’s astonishing is that for all the success The Beatles achieved, it never satisfied them just for its own sake: their pace of their musical development was incredible, unprecedented and never since equalled. Starting with the inspirations of early rock and roll, Lennon moved on through Dylan, cannabis, LSD and the Chelsea/bohemian set, transcendental meditation, conceptual art, Yoko, the Fluxus art group, and radical 60s figures like Tim Leary and Abbie Hoffman amongst others, all of which percolated their way in some shape or form into his music. It’s in this sense that Lennon was, as he later remarked to May Pang (his partner during his 1974-5 estrangement from Ono), “a chameleon”. A recurring characteristic of Lennon was that he would discover some new thing, become obsessed by it, have it colour or shape his art and his life, discover its limitations, and then move on to something fresh. This more than anything explains the multiplicity and heterogeneousness of the portraits of Lennon. Few people can have changed their appearance so consistently in such a short period of time, every change signifying his ongoing musical, artistic and personal development. Rocker John, in leathers and a quiff, was replaced by the suited, Epstein-influenced, professional Lennon. 1965 saw Lennon in his self-indulgent “Fat Elvis” period, hair and chin growing rapidly. Psychedelia brought great changes, face greatly thinned, a walrus moustache, the famous Lennon granny glasses, and colourful archaic clothing. India begat a beard, long hair (and a messiah complex). The beginning of his solo career, when he consciously turned his back on the dreams of the 1960s, was intimated by a no-nonsense crew-cut and proletarian dungarees.

Lennon was, as critic Mark Kermode noted in his introduction to a documentary on the making of Imagine, a “man of infinite contradictions”. Time and further revelations only bring these contradictions into sharper relief. He always professed to have disliked his school days , and his school record gives no reason to doubt this, for he was no success and left with no qualifications at all. Yet he named his first band after his secondary school and even corresponded with a pupil during the peak of Beatlemania, when his time must have been at its most circumscribed. This suggests a certain nostalgia, if nothing else. He was capable of the most extreme misogyny (as seen on 1965’s “Run For Your Life”, filled with murderous jealousy), and the most devastating introspection (the solo “Jealous Guy” being Lennon’s archetypal song in this vein, though it was written in India in 1968 with a lyric of even greater self-negation titled “Child Of Nature”). He was terse and did not suffer fools gladly, yet he was occasionally suckered through his generosity of spirit and finances. A wealthy man who in his early twenties voted Conservative “because they look after your money better”, he had “no desire to join the fucking aristocracy”. A kind and loving father who rarely saw his first son, he was also a man’s man who always needed a strong woman in his life.

His contradictions ran as deep within his music as in his personal life. He was a remarkable vocalist who hated the sound of his own singing, insisting that George Martin “do something with my voice”. He was a traditionalist, insisting that no song ever bettered “Whole Lotta Shakin”, who, with the other Beatles, instigated more developments in studio techniques than any other artist before or since. He knew and could play scores upon scores of songs, as a result of playing endless sets in Hamburg, yet he couldn’t tell apart on-beats and off-beats. He produced some of the most colourful pop music ever created, yet his chord choices were extremely frugal. He stopped composing on guitar when he had become too proficient upon it. His imagination and invention were astonishing, even though he later professed to always prefer first-person songs, “cos I know me”. The emotional range of his songs runs from exhilarating and joyous to painful melancholia to desperate, agonising need to sinister shadowiness to caustic mockery to gentle lullaby. He wrote a magnificently articulate song about being the difficulties in communication and a starkly affecting song about concealing emotion.

For all these paradoxes and incongruities, however, Lennon was not one of rock’s madmen. He was not like Keith Moon, destroying hotel rooms and adopting poses and acts so often and convincingly that it was hard to tell who the ‘real’ Keith was, or if there was one. He was not like Syd Barret, fragmenting under a tide of psychedelic drugs (although he came perilously close to it in 1967). He was not like Axl Rose or Michael Jackson, megalomaniacal egos paranoically alienating fans, friends and musicians. Nor was he like Kurt Cobain or Radiohead, responding to massive success with deliberate obscurity and sour contempt. Lennon, of all the Beatles, always gave the impression of being both thoroughly unimpressed by the tawdry trappings of fame and determined to prove his talent to the most important judge of all – himself. A bedrock of cool, dispassionate scepticism about Lennon prevented him from letting fame go to his head under Beatlemania (though having the rest of The Beatles there would have helped greatly), or from floating away in a psychedelic bubble later on. But when possessed by an idea, he would go all the way with it. Timidity, artistic or personal, was never one of his problems.

Modern writers about Lennon face the charge of never having met him. To this I would say that having met someone does not necessarily make for a good book about them – there are too many bad memoirs and biographies to suggest otherwise – though their information and insights may be valuable, or not. Similarly, given Lennon’s extreme fame, almost everyone connected with him has written, or had something written, on their time with him, which gives the biographer particularly rich sources. The Beatles recording sessions have been magnificently dissected by Mark Lewisohn, their music analysed in hundreds of different ways, their lives documented to the day and often to the hour. But what Lennon oddly lacks, to my mind, is a synthesis of all these sources, a biography of his time as a Beatle which encompasses his daily activities as well as his musical accomplishments within the context of the 1960s and broader western culture. This is what this book aims to do.

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Rock music is often a mythic activity, where tales grow with every re-telling and the main actors are encouraged to live “larger than life”, perhaps to please those who would live vicariously , perhaps to embody characteristic which others fear to or cannot. “Legendary” acts such as Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix are often only mythic in this shallower sense. The Beatles however are truly mythic in the sense that their lives and work form enormous archetypes which are part of the “myth-pool”, as Carl Jung would say, of popular culture. The LP as a coherent symphonic statement, the recording studio as instrument, the beard as symbol of maturity , the secret song at the end of the LP, the “outside projects” as harbinger of splitting up, problems with wives, the desire to “get back”, the sprawling double LP , the spiritual impulse (usually meaning India or Buddhism) – all originated from The Beatles, in one shape or another. A program as contemporary as The Simpsons could do a Beatles spoof without mentioning the band and have everyone understand who they were talking about. They made the transition from disposable teen idols, the likes of which the world had seen before, to founding blocks of western culture alongside Mark Twain and Shakespeare, Beethoven and Kraftwerk, with remarkable aplomb. Timothy Leary, that avatar of the 1960s, called them “[p]rototypes of evolutionary agents sent by God, endowed with a mysterious power to create a new human species, a young race of laughing freemen.” Which might seem silly now, but it is easy to forget that the 1960s were a time when popular culture pointed the way to a brilliant new world, and that The Beatles were at the forefront of this.

But of course they lived in the here-and-now and the day-to-day like everyone else. There are signs that they occasionally forgot this, especially during the high psychedelic summer of 1967, but such moments are surprisingly few for a band long surrounded by chronic hysteria and pandemonium. (Lennon often oscillated between acknowledging that The Beatles were the greatest and dismissively insisting that anyone could do what they did, if they put in the hours). Lennon in particular was an abrasive, often caustic, observer of what was going on around him. He was to later comment bitterly on what indignities The Beatles suffered in their quest to get to the top, and what absurdities and lunacies the Beatlemania period had engendered (though at the time he acquiesced in them willingly; their collective drive to get to the top and consequent work ethic were astonishing). He was also to fulminate at the failures of the 1960s generation in 1970, though he was and still is one of those most identified with the decade. Throughout his life Lennon was a fascinating interviewee, provided he was treated with respect and offered questions which valued and provoked his intelligence. (But woe betide the interviewer who asked a stupid question. When asked if he wrote “those kicky words” in In His Own Write “like an author?”, he sneeringly replied, “Just like an author”.) Lennon’s acerbic and compulsive truth-telling was another remarkable trait for a man who was a young pop-star. (And of course stands in desperate opposition to the docile sterility of today’s pop starlets). Rather than be content with his lot, with achieving his ambition of being “rich and famous”, there was always something greater, something further (not merely more, as with Queen: he was never one for excess for its own sake – in both his art and his personal life he could be somewhat ascetic). Lennon was the epitome of the restless soul.

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Lennon formed The Quarrymen as a skiffle band with school friends in March 1957, inspired by Lonnie Donegan and his “Rock Island Line”. He was joined by Paul McCartney in July and (against Lennon’s resistance) a fourteen year-old George Harrison the following February. Performing at odd occasions and later mostly at the Casbah Coffee Club owned by Mona Best, mother of future drummer Pete, the Quarrymen cut their performing teeth slowly and painfully during the remainder of the 1950s. Come 1960, their name changing from the Beatals to the Silver Beetles to the Silver Beatles to The Beatles, the group would acquire the charismatic, artistically talented but incapable bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, though no regular drummer. In this guise Lennon led the group through the first incarnation of The Beatles, and it is to this we turn now.