Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Book Of Fab

They were the Japage 3 (detail of a photo by Jürgen Vollmer)

My wife and I are big fans of The Compleat Beatles, the 1982 documentary that chronicles the story of the Fab Four from beginning to end in a scant 119 minutes. Consistently entertaining, the movie perfectly captures the wonderful arc of their fascinating and incredible journey in a way as satisfying as great fiction. When the Anthology series came out, we relished all the new details along with the astonishing footage and wonderful unheard music, but we missed the concision that made the earlier film so much fun.

So when I heard about Mark Lewisohn's All These Years project, which is to be a three volume history of the boys from Liverpool, with the first book, Tune In, weighing in at nearly 1,000 pages, I was slightly unsure whether it was all too much. Would this be a trainspotters account, full of dull facts and inane arcana that add nothing to a tale already well-told elsewhere? Since it was Lewisohn, I had to see for myself. After all, he wrote The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, which is one of my favorite books about them, along with several other books that contribute to his reputation as a thorough researcher and lively writer who tells it as it was, without hagiography.

I'm pleased to report that Tune In is an unequivocal delight, a thrilling Dickensian epic page-turner that will without question go down as the definitive book on the subject. As each chapter went by, as the unlikely twists and turns continued to accrue, I continually asked myself How is this ever going to work? How are these dead-end kids (and in Ringo's case almost really dead - the doctors told his mother three times he wouldn't survive the night after he was struck down with peritonitis at the age of six) ever going to become The Beatles? And even when they do become The Beatles, how are they going to become any good? And when they do become good, how are they going to get from Love Me Do to Love You To - and beyond?

I still don't know how Lewisohn answers that last question as Tune In ends on the eve of the recording session for their first album. But let me tell you, even though I sort of know the end of the story, the suspense is killing me. So how does Lewisohn pull off this feat of legerdemain? Part of the answer lies in the notes at the back of the book, which lay bare the incredible synthesis of primary source material, prveviously published works and original interviews that it took for him to arrive at his engaging narrative. Another one of his secrets was "spending six hectic months" in Liverpool, which lends an unmatchable atmosphere to the book.

As an example, read how he describes the epochal moment in 1961when Brian Epstein made the journey from his Nems music store to the Cavern Club to see what all the fuss was about:

"The club was just a two-hundred-step walk from Nems, but November 9 was one of those smoggy, cold early-winter days in Liverpool, so damp that smuts glued to skin, so dark that the sooty buildings lost detail and car headlights couldn't put it back. Flights were canceled at the airport and foghorns groaned over the Mersey sound: the cawing seagulls and booming one o'clock cannon. The businessmen [Epstein and his assistant Alistair Taylor] picked a path through narrow Mathew Street, between Fruit Exchange lorries and their debris, and at number 10 Paddy Delaney showed them along the dimly lit passage and down the greasy steps."

This is how it's done, and it's just one of many, many moments that he expertly brings to life. Another thing that makes the book essential is how those twists and turns end up straightening out the story by adding the missing steps, such as the role of music-plugger Kim Bennett, whose persistence and vision kept The Beatles chance of getting a recording contract alive when Brian Epstein was meeting brick walls at every turn.

Lewisohn's solid musical sense further informs his writing, detailing the entire context of the milieu of the early Beatles, from influences to competition, and includes a clear-eyed look at their own burgeoning talents. Trust me, when he calls a tape of jam sessions featuring John, Paul and Stu "inexplicably, a horror," he's dead on. And if you've ever read Mick Jagger's assertion that the Stones were Willie Dixon and The Beatles were Luther Dixon, that will all become clear here.

Tune In will also give you an endless supply of anecdotes for conversation such as the pure gold of the time when Stu Sutcliffe sold half a painting for enough money that John was able to convince him to blow some of it on purchasing a bass guitar and amplifier. This was something no one else had been willing to do up to that point, and became a crucial step in their evolution. Why only half a painting? Well, it was heavy, painted on two boards, and after carrying one part of it, Stu and his friend Rod Murray just got distracted on the way to collect the other half...

Read it - and then join me in the wait for volume two.


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