Authors: Philip Norman
From the outset I knew that there was little chance of interviewing
the former Beatles themselves—doing so, I mean, in the forensic detail required by a biography. The handouts from their respective press people had been the same since 1971: What concerned them now was their growth as individuals, not delving back into the past. In reality (as we had not yet learned to say in the late seventies) they were all in denial. Talking about their Beatles years was almost impossible, even on the shallow level of a television talk show. The same symptoms showed in each of them, even John—the look that still did not quite comprehend; the glib, throwaway lines camouflaging the inexpressible or unthinkable. They were less like superstars than shell-shocked veterans of some terrible war.
At the George V Hotel in Paris, I spent half an hour with Ringo as he drank Mumm champagne (it was his heaviest drinking period) and fulminated about British income tax. At a London press reception for Paul and Linda McCartney’s Wings group, I managed to buttonhole Paul and ask for his cooperation. He promised vaguely to “sit down” with me, but his PR man later conveyed a formal refusal, ending with the words “fuck off.” Letters to George’s home, record label, and film company, Hand-Made, produced no reply. My best hope seemed to be John in New York, despite the unexplained withdrawal from public life that had followed his
Rock ’n’ Roll
album in 1975. There were rumors that he was terminally ill—even that, horror of horrors!, he had gone completely bald. I found out that he was living at the Dakota apartment building (a fact not then generally known) and wrote to him there, suggesting I might personally deliver a supply of his favorite Chocolate Oliver biscuits. A polite turndown came back, signed by Frederick Seaman, “assistant to John and Yoko.”
I therefore had no alternative but to fall back on the methods of the investigative reporter, piecing the story together like a mosaic from the myriad viewpoints of those caught up in it. I also wanted to use the faculties I had developed as a novelist in evoking the times the Beatles lived through and the social and political forces that helped create the phenomenon they become. At the outset, I made two rules for myself: first, never to believe anything I read in a newspaper clipping; second, to follow up every lead, however unpromising. I was fortunate early on in securing the help of a young man named Mark Lewisohn, then rejoicing in the title “Beatles Brain of Europe.” Mark’s combination of encyclopedic knowledge and scrupulous accuracy—not to mention his humorous
tough-mindedness toward his idols—would sustain me in an otherwise solitary, unnerving ordeal. I, on my side, take some small credit for discovering the future author of definitive Beatles reference books.
After only a few weeks’ digging it became clear to me that my colleagues and friends were wrong. They didn’t know everything there was to know about the Beatles. They knew almost nothing that there was to know. Over time, the story had become like some ancient Norse myth, reduced to a string of worn-smooth legends and half-truths by endless fireside telling and retelling. Yet the whole truth had been out there for anyone who wanted to find it: more unbelievable than the myth; more exciting, more charming, more hilarious, more tragic.
I also realized that fascinating though the ex-Beatles’ input to my book would have been, it was not essential. The fact was that throughout their career, from scruffy obscurity to stupefying fame, they had only the haziest idea of what was happening to them or why. From the moment Brian Epstein started to manage them, he put them inside a protective bubble that afforded security greater than any band ever enjoyed, or ever will, but also kept them largely in ignorance of what was being done in their name. They had no idea how Epstein fiddled and finessed them into the British charts with the weakest of all their A-sides, “Love Me Do,” nor how, later, he finessed and fiddled them into top billing on the
Ed Sullivan Show
, on a night that changed the course of American culture. They had no idea about the millions that were lost through botched contracts for Beatles merchandising, nor about Epstein’s tortured private life on the wilder shores of the gay world. And after Epstein’s death, somehow that obscuring, anesthetizing bubble remained unbroken. Even John, with all his angry honesty, never got near to the bottom of his Beatles past. Paul preferred—and still prefers—the glossy showbiz version of myth.
Gaining access to the key background figures was no pushover either. All had been interviewed countless times already: It took the persuasiveness of a cold-calling double-glazing salesman on my part to convince them this book would be different and that I could prompt them to say anything new. I had illuminating talks with George Martin, the Beatles’ nonpareil record producer; with Bob Wooler, the Cavern Club disk jockey who gave them crucial early tips about stage presentation; with Pete Best, the drummer they brutally dumped on the threshold of their success. I drank tea with John’s aunt and childhood guardian, Mimi
Smith, and Irish coffee with Michael McCartney, Paul’s younger brother. Brian Epstein’s mother, Queenie, and his brother, Clive, gave me their blessing, as did Millie Sutcliffe, mother of the gifted, tragic “fifth Beatle,” Stuart, and his sister, Pauline. I flew to New York to see Epstein’s former close friend Nat Weiss, and to Los Angeles to see his old lieutenant, and near clone, Peter Brown. I traveled to Hamburg to explore the dives and strip clubs where the Beatles cut their teeth as performers, and to track down Astrid Kirchherr, whose photographs gave them their most durable as well as classiest image.
I also unearthed dozens of minor players in the drama who had never been interviewed before, whose stories were still fresh and undistorted by repetition. There was Joe Flannery, the gently hilarious man who had provided Brian Epstein’s one and only happy, stable gay relationship. There was Nicky Byrne, the dapper Chelsea wheeler-dealer who had presided over the merchandising fiasco in America, and Byrne’s former business partner Lord Peregrine Eliot, heir to the Cornish earldom of St. Germans. There was “Lord Woodbine,” the calypso singer who had accompanied the Beatles on their first trip to Hamburg; Paddy Delaney, the guardsmanlike former doorman of the Cavern Club; Tommy Moore, who briefly became the Beatles’ drummer although old enough to be their father, but then decided he preferred his former job on a forklift truck. Time and again, my research took me back to Liverpool to stay at the Adelphi Hotel, then still glorious, writing up my notes in its
-sized Palm Court, going to sleep at night under blankets bearing the insignia of the old London–Midland Railway. I grew to love the city: its sumptuous Victorian architecture, its scabrous, surreal humor. Listen to almost any Scouser [Liverpudlian] on the street and you understand all about the Beatles and why they captured the planet. Nowhere else can you be told, as a term of affection, that you are “as useful as a one-legged man in an arse-kicking contest.”
Writing a biography is impossible without obsession. And I became obsessed, talking about nothing but the Beatles, thinking about nothing but the Beatles, puzzling and worrying at night over tiny missing links in the narrative, developing one muscle in my brain to an inordinate degree while other muscles grew slack. Wasn’t it going the tiniest bit too far to list all the stallholders and amusements at Woolton church fete where Paul met John in 1957? Would anyone really care exactly how many steps led down from Mathew Street into the Cavern Club? F. Scott
Fitzgerald’s comparison of writing with swimming underwater returned to me often in those days, as the seventies staggered toward their end. Like others of my generation I remembered how very different the last months of the previous decade had felt, how the joss-scented sunshine, with
playing through every open window, had promised to go on and on forever. We hated to leave the sixties, but everyone seemed to want out of the seventies: to forget flares and platform heels, sideburns and socialism, and stride boldly into the new high-tech Tory utopia of the eighties promised by Margaret Thatcher.
Ironically, the cusp of the eighties brought the strongest ever speculation about a Beatles reunion. In Kampuchea, formerly Cambodia, millions of refugees were fleeing the war between the country’s Vietnamese invaders and Pol Pot’s genocidal Khmer Rouge. Over Christmas 1979, it was announced that Paul McCartney would headline a series of concerts at London’s Hammersmith Odeon cinema to aid the Red Cross and UNICEF relief effort. When George and Ringo indicated willingness to join Paul onstage, feverish excitement broke out in newsrooms across the hemispheres. But John in New York quickly stamped on any idea that he might complete the reincarnation. Even a personal plea from the United Nations’ secretary-general, Kurt Waldheim, could not move him. “We [the Beatles] gave everything for ten years,” he said. “We gave
. If we played now, anyway, we’d only be four rusty old men.”
A few months later a song came on the radio that sounded vaguely like John—and
John, though you had to listen twice to recognize the voice, purged of anger and wrapped in a relaxed early-sixties-ish, Motown-ish beat. And soon afterward, there he was in the flesh, neither ill nor bald, revealing how he had decided to opt out of the rat race and had spent the past five years as Yoko’s “househusband,” caring for their new son, Sean. Despite the New Man aura, here was the old John, as dry, droll, and helplessly honest as ever. Here he was describing how a sudden urge to create music again had sent him back into the studio to make
, an album with Yoko, celebrating their later life together; here he was being photographed with her in the nudity that had seemed grotesque ten years earlier, but now seemed only natural and rather touching. Here he was age forty, seemingly reborn and “starting over” as the song said, celebrating the first step into middle age, the end of the seventies, the joys of parenthood, the rediscovery of his art, and
the continuing freshness and interest of a love affair that, against the whole world’s wishes, seemed to have lasted.
I delivered my manuscript to my British publisher in late November 1980, with a warning that there might be more to come. With John so accessible and talkative again, I had high hopes of persuading him to see me before the book went to press. That hope disappeared with a phone call from a friend in New York in the early hours of December 8.
The scale of the grief after John’s murder was—and remains—something unique in modern times. Unlike the mourning for John F. Kennedy seventeen years earlier, it was not confined largely to the victim’s own homeland. Unlike that for Diana, Princess of Wales, seventeen years later, it had no taint of hype or media manipulation; no sense, as in the Diana aftermath, that people were reacting in a distorted, even dysfunctional way. It was an utterly spontaneous and genuine outpouring of misery across continents by those who felt they had lost an intimate, inspirational friend. I particularly remember the broken voice of a young New Yorker during the candlelit vigil outside the Dakota: “I can’t believe John’s dead… he kept me from dying so many times…” In a supreme irony that the old truant, rebel, and blasphemer would have appreciated, he had become an instant twentieth-century saint.
Millions of fans were now forced to accept, as they never quite had in the preceding nine years, that the Beatles’ career really was now over. The result was a refocus on an oeuvre that had for so long been taken for granted: a new, objective appreciation of its energy and variety, its poetry and humor, its astounding seven-league leaps from aural primitive painting to Michelangelo masterpiece.
All this, of course, was an outcome I had never dreamed of when I began my book against such heavy discouragement two years earlier. Immediately after December 8, my concerns were the anesthetizing ones of journalism: I had to write a five-thousand-word tribute to John for the front of the
Review section as well as advise on a rushed memorial issue of its magazine. I filed my five thousand words in the since outmoded Fleet Street manner, dictating it into the telephone as a copy taker at the office typed it. Not until the very end did full comprehension strike me: This was the boy whose life I had lived vicariously from Menlove Avenue and Quarry Bank High School to the London Palladium, Ed Sullivan, Shea Stadium, Savile Row, and Central Park West. My final half-dozen words of dictation were checked by an involuntary sob.
was published in Britain in April 1981, and in the United States a couple of months later. It became a best seller in both countries and was translated into a variety of languages, including Estonian. While I was in New York doing promotion Yoko saw me talking about John on the
Good Morning America
program and invited me to visit her at the Dakota. So I did get there after all, albeit five months too late. My conversation with Yoko became an epilogue to the mass market paperback edition of
It included many surprising sidelights on the Lennons’ relationship, and also her observation—made sadly rather than with any bitterness or malice—that “John used to say no one ever hurt him the way Paul hurt him.”
When Paul read the quote in the British press he took the unusual step of bypassing his usual PR screen and telephoning me personally at my London flat (having presumably obtained my number from the PR man who, some months earlier, bade me “Fuck off”). Unfortunately, I was out when he phoned, and he left no number for me to call him back. I never did find out what he’d wanted, whether to argue with Yoko’s assertion or, more likely, to give me an earful for repeating it.
So that was that, I thought: I’d “done” the Beatles and proved my point that for a biographer the most banally obvious ideas are generally the best ones. Again I put my notes into storage and made plans to move on to other things.
Since 1981, I have written three other music biographies (of the Rolling Stones, Elton John, and Buddy Holly), two works of fiction, an autobiography, and television and stage drama as well as journalism on subjects ranging from Tony Blair’s government to World War II. But, try as I might, there has been no moving on from the Beatles.