Friday, July 9, 2010

Bruised Apple

In You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup, music journalist Peter Doggett depicts a less-than-Fab Four

The following review was published last week on the Books page of the History News Network site.
I'll admit that I was seduced into buying this book on the basis of its cover: the image of a green Apple on black vinyl conjured up strong emotions from my childhood. (This a time when such a logo had nothing to do with computers; as we learn here, it was an inspiration to Steve Jobs and the basis of a whole lot of subsequent litigation as a result.) Though I was barely in elementary school when the Beatles were still a group -- my first memory of the band was Let It Be -- I nevertheless grew up with the music and followed the members' solo careers avidly in the 1970s. So while I knew much of their story, having read some of the countless books, I welcomed a volume with the somewhat offbeat angle of apparently focusing on their business empire and their post-Beatle careers.

Alas, this is one of those cases -- and it seems to me that there are a lot of them these days, perhaps a direct result of marketers determining the title of books -- where we're somewhat misled. The subtitle here is "The Beatles After the Breakup," but a full third of this 350-page book covers very familiar territory that stretches from the creation of the band's corporate arm, Apple, in 1967 and the group's disintegration in wrangles over the band's and the company's management three years later. Moreover, such segmentation represents the worst of all worlds, because it seems to me that if you're going to trudge through this tawdry story, you should at least go back far enough to understand what was lost, i.e. to spend a little time describing the magical collaboration of the early sixties that led to the creation of Apple in the first place, before you go on to explain how a company that was created to be a force of counter-cultural liberation became a millstone around the neck of anyone (except lawyers) who ever had anything to do with it. 

Music journalist Peter Doggett, who began his career writing for The Beatles Book fanzine 30 years ago, and got access to many important figures, including Yoko Ono (but not the two living Beatles) demonstrates mastery of the truly byzantine detail surrounding the breakup of the band. But after a certain point, it becomes a little like learning the details of a parent's divorce: you just don't want to know or be reminded. Here I refer not simply to the numbing financial maneuvers, but also the worst traits of the principals: John Lennon's solipsism; Paul McCartney's petty desire for control; George Harrison's dour moralism; Ringo Starr's pathetic insecurity. Ironically, for all their personal differences, you can actually attribute each of these traits to the others.

The lost opportunity here is any serious attempt to evaluate the four solo careers musically. To be sure, the pickings are arguably slim, and it's clear that none of the Beatles produced much in the way of memorable music after 1980. Still, all four members produced records that both registered commercially at the time and reveal something about what they actually brought to the band in its heyday. (This is particularly true of Harrison, whose talents were less prodigious than those of Lennon or McCartney but who nevertheless enjoyed surprisingly durable commercial success in the late eighties with his 1987 album Cloud Nine and as a member of the Traveling Wilburys, and who was capable of real wit, as attested to his work with the Monty Python troupe in its satire of the Beatles, the fictional Rutles of the 1978 mock-documentary All You Need is Cash.) John Lennon's first two post Beatles' albums, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970) and Imagine (1971), are harrowing even now in their honesty and intensity, and hold their own with anything the Beatles did. Yet we hear almost nothing about the making of these albums, much less "Imagine," a song I regard as overrated but was nevertheless a generational anthem.

You Never Give Me Your Money does make a few points worth noting, however. Perhaps the most important is the flip side of the complaints here: The Beatles really gave us the best of themselves in 1962-70, and we weren't missing much in the oft-invoked, but never realized, desire on their part to reunite. (Their one effort in this regard, the posthumous-Lennon group collaborations on his songs "Free as a Bird"  and "Real Love," part of The Beatles Anthology documentary in 1995, was underwhelming.) Another is that it's McCartney, not Lennon, who has a better claim on the spirit of experimentation that characterized the group's later records -- indeed, Lennon's work looked musically backward, not forward, in the final phases of his career. Perhaps most important is Doggett's suggestion that Lennon's reunion with Yoko Ono in 1975 after a tempestuous rupture in their notorious relationship effectively short-circuited a promising artistic revival. He argues Lennon was a hen-pecked husband, not a happy stay-at-home dad, in the years that followed.

It is curious, though, how a man who professes in his acknowledgments to consider the band a formative influence on his life and career has so little love to express or explain. And such, You Never Give Me Your Money serves as a cautionary tale. It's all fine and good and necessary to say why something (or someone) doesn't work.  The real challenge lies in helping us understand and care about who or what does. Surely there are more good Beatle books there.