The Beatles. Really?

Lockdown leads people to do strange, sometimes even desperate things. Yes, as my cats are my witness, I have actually begun to read Infinite Jest, maybe three years after picking up a mint condition paperback off the sidewalk.

But first, in a less surprising turn, I pulled the first (and to date only) volume of Mark Lewisohn’s three-book biography of the Beatles — purchased by my younger and less jaded missus over mild objections from this curmudgeon sometime in the previous decade — off the shelf where it has long resided, gamely awaiting its turn, perhaps wondering if that day would ever come.

It’s a serious commitment. At three pounds and nearly a thousand pages, this chronicle of a legendary career only reaches the point at which it is about to begin in earnest, i.e., the end of 1962, a good 14 months before I ever heard of the Beatles. I had to ask myself what might be left to know. And, more significantly, how I would possibly benefit from reading about it all over again.

There’s a lot I could write about how I view the Beatles — my first musical love has needed to find its niche among a thousand subsequent devotions, none of whom remains as inescapable and multi-generational to this day. After you’ve heard a song that entered your conscience when you were far too young and open to judge it fairly a million times and then had it reappear in your life over and over again through old age, countless songs and thoughts about music later, it’s nigh on impossible to separate appreciation from familiarity. And we know what familiarity breeds. When you can run a song in your head without conscious effort the need to actually hear it played in the air wanes. And, in fact, can feel redundant. There are very few records I’ve had for 50+ years that I genuinely care to play any longer. I still value and admire the music and would no more imagine disposing of the vinyl than of burning my books, but my need to re-experience it after all this time has diminished. I can’t explain that, but I know how it makes me feel.

So the Beatles live in that netherworld of overexposure and overfamiliarity, further complicated by confused feelings about childhood experience and the lives the four lads from Liverpool went on to. Genie in a bottle, that sort of rot. Yet here was this doorstop beckoning me. I had plenty of time on my hands and needed something that would keep me occupied for a good long while. So I put it on the coffee table and regarded it coldly for a few days before finally giving it a go.

A month or so later, I turned the final page, read the last footnote and found myself wildly impatient for Lewisohn to finish writing the second volume. In between the fascinating family nuggets, debunked myths, surprising connections and coincidences, clever insights and useful context there emerged a compelling, dramatic story as knotty and suspenseful as any of the Nordic noirs I watch obsessively. Of course we know where they will end up and what will become of them, but how they got to the point of becoming the Beatles — personally, musically, professionally, culturally — is, in a way, an absolute nail-biter. Watch as Ringo nearly dies as a child and Paul seriously considers giving up music for a straight job. Fret as the nascent rockers are banned from one club and then chucked out of an entire country, which they have to formally beg to reenter. Witness John Lennon acting so obnoxiously so often to so many people that it’s a wonder no one ever gave him the kicking he so deeply deserved. Worry what will stop Ringo from abandoning England just as things are heating up for him as a drummer. Like I say, there are cliffhangers aplenty.

The scholarship is mind-boggling; the sort of details that I couldn’t summon up about my own life from last year are trotted out, some six decades later, with witnesses and corroborating evidence. Lewisohn, whose devotion and intimacy to the band is beyond question, manages to paint his heroes as far from ideal — in Lennon’s case, a lot less than ideal (his willingness to marry the first girl he got pregnant — Cynthia Powell — is pretty much the only surprising display of decency he manages here) — yet you never stop rooting for them, the cheeky buggers.

Ultimately, this is much more than a ridiculously detailed book about how a single — and singular — rock and roll band came into being. It’s a powerful portrait of postwar Liverpool, of the slow (but then cataclysmic) arrival of the 1960s in Britain, of never-say-die resourceful born of deprivation and desire, of the sort of boys who could come from nowhere, armed with nothing and still manage to take over the world. It’s one hell of a story — yeah, yeah, yeah!