Should new books on the Beatles be discouraged?
Wouldn't blame you for thinking so--I'd agree with all detractors upon reading Andrew Grant Jackson's Still the Greatest: The Essential Songs of the Beatles' Solo Careers (Scarecrow Press, 2012). As a Beatles expert (you know, in the top 25 million, at least),
I happen to hold a high standard when it comes to writing about the Fab Four, in the same way I'm tougher on my fellow rock radio hosts than anyone else who DJ at KAOS radio. (Someday I'll explain the shouting match I got into with a KAOS volunteer on the phone more than a dozen years ago.)
Jackson builds upon what turned out to be the strategy behind 1968's The White Album (The Beatles): Essentially the four of them in a solo setting, using the others as session players. Still the Greatest is laid out a year at a time, starting in 1970, with individual music by John, Paul, George and Ringo serving as a sort of soundtrack for each time frame. At its best, the book will remind you of some songs you'd forgotten about. Documentation of the Fabs as solo artists is something that's long overdue, but it's a blown opportunity.
The worst thing about Still the Greatest is that Jackson uses crass phrases (like "knocked up") in an effort to add punch to his rather unremarkable writing. Indeed, there are some subpar skills at work here--check the opening sentence for the entry of McCartney's "Mrs. Vanderbilt": "McCartney went on African safari with roadie Mal Evans in 1966, but whatever he was expecting to find in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1973, it was a lot worse." Where was the editor on this one?
While the book is a decent reference guide, beautifully written or emotionally moving passages are scarce. Too often, Still the Greatest is an exercise in the author's personal nostalgia, which everyone--regardless of whether they can write or not--possesses. I insist that Beatles authors demonstrate how they've been inspired by the group, and respond with a noticeable spark in their own artistry. Good luck with that.
Hunter Davies published The Beatles in 1968 and probably deserved some of the flak he got for that initial Fab Four biography, as he was pressured into avoiding the more sordid details of their personal lives. On the other hand, Davies' The John Lennon Letters (Little, Brown & Company, 2012) is a triumph, as the author has tracked down a series of cards and letters Lennon sent to friends, relatives and music business persons over the years and has grouped the artifacts into a touching, sometimes riveting chronicle of Lennon's life.
The letters have been reproduced with an accompanying, more legible text, while Davies provides some background and insight into the circumstances of each one. The story moves from student Lennon (in the 1950s) to the early Beatles, through his love affair and marriage to Yoko, and even to his final day. That last dash of the pen, to an autograph seeker on the streets of New York ("For Ribeah") gives me chills, yet when you observe the image on paper, there's also a sense of peace about the final time John would draw a cartoon of Yoko and himself and add it to the signature.
Davies has assembled cards from the Beatles' first phase of fame, where John would give out the home addresses for all four of them; very personal letters to Beatles assistant and friend Derek Taylor; an angry letter to his first wife, Cynthia; "domestic lists," where he asks someone to switch TVs at the New York apartment ("If in doubt, check with me when I'm available--don't come knocking"); and many to his cousin Liela (which he always misspelled as "Leila"). In 1979, just a year from his murder, Lennon writes from the Dakota of his Aunt Mimi, who raised him, that "I'm almost scared to go to England, 'coz I know it would be the last time I saw Mimi--I'm a coward about goodbyes."
My favorite is the letter where he's thinking of taking piano lessons because he taught himself to play with just eight fingers and is "lousy" at it: "Mimi would never let me have a piano in the house (said it was common!) She still thinks I 'got lucky': i.e, no talent."
Tension, torment, joy, humor, friendships, family connections...in just a few hundred cards and letters, a lot is said. When the content occasionally borders on merely trivial, well, it's much like pop culture itself. The John Lennon Letters is a great addition to anyone's collection of Beatles books, because it details someone so human.
It's tempting to label this past week blase at best, but I know better. There are a few blessings to count.
First, I finally figured out how to change a car headlight--the fried one lasted about seven months, which strikes me as an unusually short amount of time. Until this week,
I "can't get my hand in there" and end up taking the new headlight to a garage, where I act frustrated in hopes that the mechanic will install the thing and not charge me. I hate that entire process. This time out, I got some scratches on my hands but did manage to install that worthless ten dollar light myself.
More blessings: The Tigers knocked the Yankees out of the playoffs, which was a thrill.
At my one paying gig (commercial radio) today, I found a nicely wrapped burrito in the fridge. No name on it, so as they say at the station, it's "fair game." Yum.
Yesterday's KAOS show was really fun. Playing the music of the late Bert Jansch, with and without Pentangle, was a beautiful thing, and my annual John Lennon special was even better. Got to air a number of fun interview clips plus a searing "You Can't Do That" from the Beatles Anthology video, live in Melbourne, 1964.
I used a Fab Four interview from Swedish TV, where Lennon refers to his mates as
"George Parasol, Ringo Stone--and Paul McCharmley," with just a hint of sarcasm on the final name. These were the supposed happy days of the band.
Fast forward to 2011: Paul marries Nancy today. On John's birthday.
I've waited a few days for all the (good) fallout from the John Lennon tributes to ease,
as it's now been thirty years since we lost him. Both Lennon's life, work, and the aftermath of his sick slaying have affected me deeply.
Tributes seemed to come in from everywhere in the last week, from countless websites to Paul McCartney performing "A Day In the Life/Give Peace a Chance" on "Saturday Night Live." One album of John's that didn't really get the praise it deserves, even in
retrospect, is John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970)--that stripped-down, "primal scream" release is now forty years old. "God," "Mother," "Isolation," "Working Class Hero"...it's still my favorite post-Beatles record by any of them.
Now there's the roots of '70s punk--before the New York Dolls or even Nick Drake's acidic folk album Pink Moon (1972). Practically every song cuts deep, and the ones that don't are plaintive and beautiful indeed. I continue to miss Mr. Lennon's work.
A couple of months ago, when I wanted to do a tribute to the late country rocker Rusty Wier on my radio program, I immediately thought of one of his catchiest songs,
"I Heard You Been Layin' My Old Lady."
But I didn't air it, for fear that my station, KAOS, could get in deep trouble, because we've been told that the FCC is showing less and less tolerance for innuendo or outright sexual content. Our friends at KBOO in Portland, two hours south of Olympia, were fined $7,000 in 2001 for a song by Sarah Jones called "Your Revolution" that was intended to parody songs that degrade and sexually exploit women. But it took just one crackpot who didn't get the joke or took the "moral" high road about street slang, and struck with a punch (a phone call to the FCC) that's a monumental blow if you're a small, community radio station like KBOO or KAOS.
Although I'm the father of two of grown women and saddened by the increasing illiteracy of American society, I also think that this big push for media to be "family friendly" all the time is for phony puritans. I love humor that works on different levels, and there's no reason for adults to have to wait for the kids to be tucked in bed until they (the grownups) get to hear something subtle and, well, adult.
I think of those skits the Beatles did on their Christmas flexi-discs for their fan club members. And how a young kid would laugh solely because of the zany speaking style that John Lennon used on one of them, but how any adult would understand immediately when John bellowed, "Me too...twice a week, sometimes!"
Yeah, let's just ban everything, you soulless moralists! Ban that great old record by the Moments, who found love on a two way street but "lost it on a lonely highway." Or Dan Fogelberg's "Same Auld Lang Syne," where he runs into an old flame and at the end of the record, their "tongues were tired." You don't think they'd been just talking, do you?
I think we ought to be able to get away with a little naughty chatter if we can do it with some understatement and brevity--you know, the soul of wit.
Last year, on a Portland oldies station I can occasionally get when the wind is right, I heard a female newscaster talking to her broadcast partner about Shirley Ellis' 1965 hit, "The Name Game." As you probably know, there's one person's name that can not be plugged into the goofy rhymes of "The Name Game," or you get an obscenity.
So the other broadcaster says he's got some listeners on the phone who are going to sing part of "The Name Game" on the air, and the best version wins the prize of the day.
The names of the listeners are something like Paul, Jenny, Tony, Sarah, etc.
Now, this newscaster gal may have rehearsed her comment about the listeners' names, but the other announcer sure didn't know about it, because it caught him off guard, and it was great radio. "What, no Chuck?" she asked.