WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Read memoirs at your own risk … or, Au revoir, Beatles

Once again I have to warn all fans of the famous to steer clear of memoirs and biographies of their heroes. No one, absolutely no one, holds up under the intense light of truth. Assuming that the details in these books are in fact true.

Case in point, this humongous biography of The Beatles, by Bob Spitz. I hadn’t gotten wind of it when it came out in 2005, but it came across my radar a while back and I snatched it up immeed-jet-moi. Because, you see, I’ve always been a Beatles devotee. I was only about seventy days old when John and Paul first met in July ’57, but I swear I picked up the vibe of what was to come and had to wait seven long years before they arrived on American shores.

What we come to learn in Spitz’s book is really what we already knew deep down: that all was not what it seemed. We also knew, deep down, that John was a lifelong asshole (it had nothing to do with Yoko showing up in ’68), that Paul was a control freak (but at least a musical professional about it), that George was treated by J & P like a session man who was to take orders and like it, and that Ringo was basically an employee. I have to confess, I didn’t think John was quite the mold-breaking variety of asshole that he’s shown to be here. Seriously, why someone didn’t clean his clock for him by 1962 I have no idea. His musical talent didn’t seem to warrant tolerating that toxic personality. He had a unique mind, I suppose, but round about 1966 he started doing such a wide range of mind-altering drugs that it’s hard to imagine he had much of a mind left by ’69. Perhaps he didn’t, and that’s why his solo work became so vapid.

Incidentally, the more druggy John became, the more embarrassing he grew—or shameless. His letter to the Queen returning his MBE is a joke. And there’s a photo of John and Yoko in front of the rock of Gibraltar for their infamous wedding, in which John sports a moist stain in his crotch from some prenuptial sexcapade in the limo minutes before. Some working class hero.

Obviously people hung around The Beatles for the small orts of privilege they scattered around, and some of the entourage were genuinely abusing their privileges living on the Apple dime. And soon there weren’t many Apple dimes left. The Fab Four were terrible businessmen, which we also knew already. They made decisions designed to piss each other off. John used Yoko like a blunt instrument against the others. All of them, even Ringo, quit the group at one time or another. And after the debacle of Magical Mystery Tour, they seemed to hate making music together as well. We’ve all heard how awful the White Album sessions were—so bad, in fact, that engineer Geoff Emerick walked out before the first song (“Revolution”) was in the can.

Even so, this book doesn’t change the way I hear Side 2 (for those of you old enough to remember record sides) of Abbey Road. It got me through lots of tricky times from the age of twelve to twenty. I come away from the book thinking that the music almost stands apart from the men who made it, if that’s possible. It’s more like they curated the records instead of creating them.

And in spite of the rank hatred the four had for one another in 1969, I still watch the Savile Row rooftop numbers with enormous pleasure (trying to forget that John was a good-for-nothin’ heroin addict at the time). The way J & P sound in harmony together. The way the band’s so tight even though they hadn’t played live in almost three years. The way they look. Just, man, if they’d only had decent marbles and a little therapy, they could have gone through many more fascinating stages as music-makers and given the world a lot better than Mind Games and Red Rose Speedway. What might have been.

But it’s not just The Beatles I wanted to warn you about. Lately I’ve read a few memoirs and bios that have destroyed my image of previously admired talents. Eric Idle, Graham Nash, Dylan, Neil Young, even Peggy Seeger. Risky business, folks. Risky business indeed.

From now on I’m going to concentrate strictly on what the artists I admire produce. As real humans, they’re usually a thousand times more greedy, selfish, violent, stupid, misogynistic, unhygienic, drug-addled, weird, intolerant, and boring than the average working Joe. They do everything big. Even the bad stuff.

I don’t know … does success turn people into spoiled brutes? Or do spoiled brutes tend to roll over everything in their path in order to succeed?

5 comments on “Read memoirs at your own risk … or, Au revoir, Beatles

  1. John W. Howell
    June 26, 2019

    Interesting question you pose, Kevin. I think adoring fans, too much money, and temptation tends to bring out the closet ass hat in folks. You hear all kinds of stories, and then a biographer actually documents what has to pass for the truth. You want to say, “Tell me it isn’t true.” As a significant spender of advertising money in my day, I had plenty of exposure to idols with clay feet. I always walked away with the feeling that I wish I hadn’t witnessed that behavior.

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 26, 2019

      I hear that, John. It must have been super-disillusioning to see big names act like creeps. Then again, I’ve known cardiologists who acted like they were Lennon and McCartney. I guess it’s all relative … 😉

  2. Susan Taylor Brand
    June 28, 2019

    “We also knew, deep down, that John was a lifelong asshole … ” LOL. Yeah, you actually only have to listen to the songs carefully to become quite concerned that that was the case. I remember once listening to “Why don’t we do it in the road,” and saying to Leo, my husband, “That John Lennon was so off color.” And Leo said, “Don’t be silly. John didn’t write that song, Paul did. If John had written it, it wouldn’t have said “no one will be watching us,” but “someone will be watching us.”

    Yeah, and I read Peter Brown’s biography of the group back in the 90’s and I think that pretty much told it all.

    You have come to an important truth: the artist does not have to be a saint or moral hero to be a profound talent. It seems to have no bearing at all.

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 30, 2019

      You’re so right, Susan. I’m not sure saints have the requisite psychological problems to create great art! 😉

      True about some of John’s songs too. Strong hint of misogyny in a lot of them. What makes him so complex is that there’s also a lot of sensitivity and idiosyncratic observation. I wonder why his stuff got so mundane later in his life. He stopped doing drugs? 🤔

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This entry was posted on June 26, 2019 by in Music and tagged , , , .
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