Authors: Philip Norman
SEPTEMBER 2001: ACROSS THE UNIVERSE
ore than two decades have passed since John Lennon died at the hands of a deranged former fan outside his New York apartment. Even those with no special feelings for him or the Beatles recognized the event as a milestone, a moment when craziness and murder moved into previously uncharted terrain. He was only a pop musician, for Christ’s sake, coming home late from the recording studio. What cause could possibly be advanced, or grievance assuaged, by blowing him away?
Now, in the city that sheltered John but could not protect him, another such milestone has been reached. Like nothing else in the long history of human cruelty, it will be forever defined and its horrors recalled simply by numbers, like the innocent reading on a digital clock face: 9/11.
Whereas Lennon’s end came near midnight on a dimly lit sidewalk, witnessed only by his wife and a handful of chance bystanders, this new kind of annihilation happens at peak commuter time on a glorious autumn morning and is viewed in its entirety on live television. Millions of people, not just in New York but across America—across the world—see those two airliners hijacked by Muslim terrorists fly straight at the twin towers of the World Trade Center. They see the dark lizard shape of each plane merge seamlessly into its chosen satin-silver column, and the blossoming of black smoke on the opposite side. They see the victims—just brokers and financial planners and secretaries, for Christ’s sake!—craning from the windows of summit floors beyond any hope of rescue. They see the plunging bodies of those who prefer to jump eighty and more stories to their death (some in pairs, holding hands) rather than face the holocaust within. It is a real-life disaster movie beyond the worst paranoia of the Cold War years or the most lurid dreams of Hollywood. Less than two hours later, each tower in turn collapses in a billowy gray cascade, engulfing scores of firefighters and rescue workers, including a priest administering the last rites. The world’s greatest skyline is defiled
by the hideous semblance of a nuclear mushroom cloud. Where the uttermost symbols of its power and wealth and pride stood half an hour ago, there is now only a charred, Hiroshima-like wilderness.
Armageddon has not come to sunny Manhattan alone. In Washington, another hijacked airliner has plowed into a ground-floor sector of the Pentagon, the nation’s military nerve center, incinerating hundreds of service and civilian staff. A fourth plane has been diverted from its kamikaze course, thanks to heroic resistance by its passengers, and has crashed in open country near Pittsburgh, killing everyone on board.
It is America’s darkest day since November 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas—the very first of those modern milestones backward to Hell. And, incredibly, in an equivalent national trauma thirty-eight years later, Americans turn to the very same voices their parents and even grandparents once did for consolation. For hope.
On October 20, a bevy of U.S. and British rock stars give a charity concert in New York for the families of September 11’s victims, now finally tallied at close to three thousand. The roster onstage at Madison Square Garden includes Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Bon Jovi, Billy Joel, and The Who, supported by Hollywood names like Robert de Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio, Harrison Ford, and Meg Ryan, plus the city’s doughty mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, and representatives of the fire and medical services who have lost their bravest and best.
But the headliner, as always and everywhere, is Paul—now Sir Paul—McCartney. Nearing sixty he may be, a widower with grown-up children and a grandchild, but there is still no other performer on earth with a presence to equal his. Wearing a firefighter’s T-shirt, he performs a new song, “Freedom,” written in the aftershock of the atrocity, which now becomes New York’s defiant response to the mass murderers from the sky. More poignant still is his rendition of “Yesterday,” not with his traditional sad, puppy dog look but genuinely in tears for the young widows and fatherless children who now “long for yesterday.” As the show’s finale, performers and audience join in the most emollient and prayerful of his Beatles anthems, “Let It Be.” “And in my hour of darkness, there is still a light that shines on me…”
Even at a moment like this, it seems, Paul and John can’t stop competing. To mark the twenty-first anniversary of John’s death in two months’ time, TNT television had planned a tribute concert, “Come Together,”
at Radio City Music Hall, featuring its own cast of fellow musoes and Beatles-addicted Hollywood names, with its proceeds to be donated to the apposite cause of gun control. But with September 11, “Come Together” turns into a fund-raiser—in MC Kevin Spacey’s words “to keep John’s memory alive and help rebuild New York.” There are reverential cover versions of Lennon tracks, in and out of the Beatles, plus those familiar film clips of him holding forth on long-ago chat shows and loping around Central Park. Dave Stewart and Nelly Furtado duet on “Instant Karma.” Lou Reed sings “Jealous Guy.” John’s widow, Yoko, and their son, Sean, harmonize with Rufus Wainwright in “Across the Universe.” The most touching moment is relayed live from the corner of the park that has been renamed Strawberry Fields in his memory. Cyndi Lauper performs “Strawberry Fields Forever,” with candles flickering on the mosaic pavement that bears his one-word epitaph, “Imagine.” The thoughts of Lennon are written once more on enormous billboards, but this time no one looks exasperated or snickers behind their hand:
IMAGINE ALL THE PEOPLE, LIVING LIFE IN PEACE
For weeks afterward, the world’s media are consumed by September 11 and its political and economic fallout. America’s new president, George W. Bush, declares a “war on terrorism,” raging against his unseen enemy and vowing revenge like Shakespeare’s King Lear: “I will do such things…what they are yet I know not… but they shall be the terrors of the earth.” The Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda organization are named as the perpetrators of the atrocity, and Afghanistan’s fundamentalist Taliban government is accused of giving them shelter. Supported by Britain, Russia, and a string of uneasy Muslim nations, the world’s last superpower sets about bombing Afghanistan, a country scarcely emerged from feudal times. Anti-Americanism sparks riots in Israel’s Palestinian territory and Pakistan, and convulses the liberal enclaves of Europe. Across the whole “civilized” West, stock markets dip, big business panics, airport departure lounges are deserted; every type of negative commercial trend, from a drop in mineral-water sales to a depletion of hotel business in the Lake District, is blamed on “9/11.” With bin Laden reportedly bent on germ warfare, people grow afraid even to open their morning mail lest it contain spores of lethal anthrax. In New York, the ghastly pit of World Trade Center rubble now known as Ground Zero has not ceased smouldering yet.
Against such a news agenda, there is only one non–9/11 story with the power to lead every TV news bulletin and wipe clean every front page.
On November 29, George Harrison dies in America after a long battle against cancer, aged fifty-eight. The headlines are as monumental as if some statesman on the scale of a Churchill or a de Gaulle has quitted the world—as monumental, indeed, as they were after John Lennon’s death in 1980. Even the London
splashes the story, reporting that the Queen has added her voice to the chorus of worldwide grief. Po-faced British broadsheets employ the same treatment as red-top tabloids: In the
, as in the
, the whole front page is a single picture—mustached George in a rare smile from the
Let It Be
period and, below, simply a caption: “George Harrison 1943–2001.”
It is not long since the thirtieth anniversary reissue of
All Things Must Pass
, his triumphant 1970 solo triple album, with additional tracks including a new version of its globally successful single, “My Sweet Lord.” The song that brought George greatest acclaim, and greatest humiliation, is now released in Britain as a “tribute” single, its earnings pre-donated to charities he supported. It enters the UK Top Ten at number one. The premier spot on BBC TV’s
Top of the Pops
is a thirty-one-year-old film clip of George playing it live at the concert for Bangladesh, all white suit and earnest beard and hallelujah and Hare Krishna.
And all over the world, the same bleak little thought comes to old and young alike, in many languages, across countries and cultures with not a single other thing in common:
Only two of them left.
I began researching
in 1978 when the newspaper for which I then worked was shut down for a year by industrial troubles. Colleagues and friends did their best to talk me out of choosing the Beatles as subject matter. Don’t waste your time, they said. The story has been told too many times. Everyone already knows all there is to know.
Despite being a Beatles fan and a writer on London’s most chic Sunday color supplement, I had never considered them to be remotely “my” subject. Fleet Street, when I arrived in the mid-sixties, was stuffed with Beatles experts, churning out millions of words each year between them. On such an overloaded bandwagon, how could there possibly be
room for me? When, in 1969, an American magazine asked me to write about Apple Corps and its troubles, I almost turned down the assignment on grounds of being underqualified. However, I decided to brazen it out. The Beatles’ press officer, Derek Taylor, liked some pieces I’d written on nonpop subjects and so let me hang around their Apple house for several weeks that summer. I talked to John and Yoko, sat in on photo shoots with George, overheard Ringo on the telephone to Asprey’s, the jewelers, even got to have breakfast with the terrifying Allen Klein. Without knowing it, I was watching the Beatles break up under my very nose. My article made the cover of
magazines, was syndicated in various other publications abroad, and also begat a short story in my 1972 collection,
. Then, thinking that was that, I put my notes into storage and moved on to other things.
In 1978, I had published three works of fiction, but never attempted a biography. I chose the Beatles for my debut on a simple basis: Which nonfiction story exerted the greatest fascination over the whole human race? It came down to Jesus, Kennedy’s assassination, and them. I also was tempted to set down a marker in a field where the overwhelming majority of books were shoddily produced paperbacks retailing the same stale facts in half-literate prose. Pop fans were supposed incapable of reading “real” books. Nonfans were not supposed to read books about pop. I wanted to have a shot at changing that.
I started my research during Britain’s infamous “Winter of Discontent,” when public sector strikes paralyzed the nation and the Sex Pistols were an all-too-fitting soundtrack to abandoned schools and hospital wards and piles of uncollected garbage in the streets. Amid the press hoo-ha over punk, there would still be an occasional rumor of the ex-Beatles putting their solo careers on hold and getting back together. Their old American promoter, Sid Bernstein, kept up his annual full-page advertisement in the
New York Times
, offering them more and yet more millions for a single reunion concert. But no one any longer believed it could ever happen—or would have much relevance if it did. For young pop fans in the late seventies, life was no longer about love and peace and hedonism, but urban decay, hyperinflation, and unemployment lines. Although the Beatles’ music was still ubiquitously played and enjoyed, their day was believed to have gone for ever.