Lewisohn review round-up

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Michael Gerber

Publisher at The American Bystander
is Blogmom of Hey Dullblog. His novels and parodies have sold 1.25 million copies in 25 languages. He lives in Santa Monica, CA, and runs The American Bystander all-star print humor magazine.
Michael Gerber
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Beatles reading fan mail, including a card reading "S E X."

The title that always gets attention

For those of you who have asked for details on what can only be called “revelations” regarding George Martin’s forced signing of The Beatles, Tim Riley’s review in the NYT spills the beans on that. He also notes Lewisohn’s possible debunking of Lennon’s Choice between Alf and Julia though—to his credit, I think—Riley doesn’t really buy Lewisohn’s take. What man would turn to his sailor buddy and say, “Yeah, my son just picked his mother over me”?

BTW, our Devin’s Magic Circles gets name-checked and called “shrewd” to boot. For those of you who’ve read it: Is Lewisohn sufficiently shrewd, especially when it comes to people and their motivations? Or is he primarily a collector and collator?

Here are some notable reviews; please add more in the comments, and I’ll bring them up into the post.

John Harris in The Guardian

Jeff Giles on EW.com

Colin Fleming in Slate

Liz Thompson in The Independent

Colin Fleming in The Boston Globe

Ninian Dunnett in The Scotsman

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69 Comments

  1. Avatar Karen wrote:

    I’ve been hollering to the rooftops about Lewisohn’s mangled understanding of the Blackpool incident. Lewisohn interviewed one person– a friend of Freddie Lennon, who was at the house when Julia came to claim her child. How would he know what happened? Fred Lennon himself told the story to Hunter Davies back in 1967, and I presume Fred had no reason to lie–asking your child to choose between two parents is hardly the kind of thing one would feel proud of.

  2. Avatar Nancy Carr wrote:

    I thought it was interesting that the last couple of sentences of Riley’s review accorded Lewisohn’s biography a lasting place among Beatles books, but stopped short of calling it “definitive.” I have to say that Lewisohn’s handling of the “Blackpool incident” gives me pause. Lewisohn’s strengths are his stamina and thoroughness when gathering and assembling facts (as opposed to his prose style or his musical insights), so if I read him it would be because I trust him on the facts.
    Every biographer of course has to make judgment calls about who to believe, but from what I can see in this case Lewisohn’s choice to go with Fred Lennon’s friend — who wasn’t present at the event, and whose quoted words don’t seem to contradict the possibility that the forced decision occurred — doesn’t make good sense.

  3. Avatar Drew wrote:

    I have had other criticisms of Tune In but I actually found Lewisohn’s take on “the Blackpool incident” far more believable than the story we’ve been fed for years about a 5 year old John sobbing as he was forced to choose between parents and then ran crying after his mother down the street. Alf Lennon is a storyteller, a known exaggerator, and IMO it made him look good to say that he made an effort to keep John with him and be in his son’s life. Alf’s version makes it seem like he wanted to raise his boy and that he and John were close enough for John to consider wanting to be with his Dad. That version of events sure sounds much better than what Lewisohn found, which is that Alf made no real effort at all (either before or after this incident) to be in John’s life, and that Alf had no intention of raising John himself. So John spent the day with his Dad, and his mother came to get him and took John home. Doesn’t sound very dramatic does it? And Alf didn’t put up much of a fight when Julia took John home. According to Lewisohn’s account, Alf’s friend was in the house when the whole conversation took place. He was at the event. But Alf and Julia were in the living room talking and the friend was in the kitchen. Surely the friend would have heard a big shouting/crying/dramatic scene. At any rate, Lewisohn suggests the image of John running down the street after Julia never happened and that’s the bit I always found hard to swallow. It always sounded like some movie-of-the-week version of events. I think Alf Lennon’s account was definitely designed to make him look like a caring parent, rather than the father who abandoned his son and made little effort to be a part of his life for years.

    • Avatar hologram sam wrote:

      Drew, I have to agree. Alf told Hunter Davies the Blackpool Incident story around the time he was trying to reconcile with John.
      Now we all know John liked to feed all sorts of stories to journalists for his own private reasons… is it possible Alf was the first Lennon to manipulate a journalist with a self-serving story? (“I gave John a choice… he chose to go with his mother, instead of me! I didn’t abandon him!”)

      • If Alf made that up to make himself look good, he was sorely mistaken. It’s a deeply immature person’s idea of what a mature person would do.

        • Avatar Hologram Sam wrote:

          It’s a deeply immature person’s idea of what a mature person would do.
          Exactly. Which is why Maury Povich and Jerry Springer are so popular. Immature contestants competing with each other by behaving the way they imagine a grownup would, and failing badly.
          I believe Alf and Julia were both deeply immature. Maybe it was best for John that they split, and spared him their daily dramas. Isn’t it better to come from a broken home than to live in one? The only adult in the room was Aunt Mimi, or at least she did a good imitation of one.
          As flaky as we dullblogger commenters sometimes imagine John to be, he got a solid upbringing from Mimi, and she imprinted on him a good survival instinct that carried him through the tragedies of Uncle George, Julia, and Stu, and the insanity of Beatlemania.

          • I think that’s really accurate about Mimi, @Sam–and I’m not particularly enamored with her otherwise! John Lennon’s ability to navigate successfully all the things you mention speaks volumes about what Mimi (and really only Mimi) provided in John’s young life.

    • There is such a thing as overvaluing a source, and given Lewisohn’s utterly laudable bloodhounding for facts, it’s likely that he would skew in that direction, rather than overvaluing his own interpretation of something. It’s typically amazing of Lewisohn that he found a source for the event—but it’s a secondary source, and it’s directly contradicting two primary sources, Fred and John. So even though it appears to be simply factual, it’s actually interpretation.

      Alf was a known exaggerator and storyteller—and so was John. But such dramatic events do happen, and these were all dramatic people. So while I think we can’t know the specifics for sure, I’ve never found John’s version the least bit implausible. And I certainly felt that was the way John remembered it, which makes it very worthwhile information. The facts of our chiildhoods are important, but the stories we create out of those facts are even more so, especially when you’re trying to figure out adults.

      It’s interesting that in 1700pp or whatever it is, the same few “revelations” keep being mentioned—Blackpool and George Martin. That suggests that the story we’ve been told pre-Lewisohn is basically accurate. This is a problem when you’ve paid £1.4m for a biography, and so we readers might keep in mind the pressure that was/is on Lewisohn to occasionally deviate from the Official Version. In matters of interpretation, Lewisohn might occasionally overstate his case in a way that would harm no one but sell an extra book.

      So: I find the new perspective on Blackpool interesting, a good new data point; but I think the only people who could really tell us what happened are all dead; and I don’t think they would, if they could. That was the story John WANTED to tell—and so I think there is an emotional truth to John’s Choice that explains John’s relationship to both Julia and Alf. Whether or not John actually ran down the street crying is less important. The whole vignette is—and I speak from experience—an absolutely prototypical instance of Irish Catholic family mythologizing…which may have been an exaggeration, and may not have been, because Irish Catholic families full of alcohol are very dramatic places.

      • Avatar Nancy Carr wrote:

        Michael, that’s the crux, of course — how does a biographer weigh “emotional truth” against “the bare facts”? I agree with you and with Riley, who says of the Blackpool confrontation that “in any case, the emotional truth of the episode may supersede the bare facts. If Lennon experienced the Blackpool confrontation as a dramatic moment in his life, what he believed happened surely carries more psychological weight than what may actually have taken place, or what Hall, a bystander in a back room, recollects.”

        BUT I also want to know “the bare facts” as far as they are ascertainable, because how closely the “emotional truth” someone takes away from a scene and retells tallies with “the bare facts” as they can be established reveals a great deal about the person in question. For example, my sense is that Lennon always believed what he was saying while he was saying it — he’s always telling the “emotional truth” — but that that often departs from “the bare facts.”

        I think there are sometimes good reasons for biographers to acknowledge that the facts can’t be established beyond a reasonable doubt, and lay out the evidence for readers as impartially as possible.

        And that’s a good point about Lewisohn being under pressure to deliver something new and startling in the book, at least occasionally.

        • Well said, Nancy. I guess my feeling is that, seventy years on, I think it’s highly unlikely we’ll find too many more “bare facts” that fundamentally alter our understand, even on a level as granular as the Blackpool thing. But I’m glad Lewisohn is doing what he’s doing—overjoyed is not too strong a word. Anything that deepens the Beatle story, I’m for. I just wish to remind readers that there are facts, and there are FACTS. It’s a FACT that Paul married Linda at Marylebone Registry Office on 12 March 1969. It’s a fact that Linda wanted Paul to be represented by her father and brother.

          It’s a FACT that John didn’t go with his father to New Zealand; it’s a fact—perhaps—that the choice wasn’t his, as we’ve previously believed. Putting something down into type gives it a lot of authority, and people outside of book publishing have an idea that there are teams of people going behind a writer, checking such stuff. There aren’t.

          So I’m prepared to trust Lewisohn’s scholarship, if not absolutely, more than any other single person on this topic. But that doesn’t mean an old man’s recollections on an event long in the past, not about his life directly, are automatically correct. I think they probably are, but that’s more because Freddie and John were both such self-mythologizers, not because “NEW SOURCE!!!!”

          It’s a balance, and each reader must judge. I’m just so grateful we’ll have all this new data.

  4. Avatar Beasty Glanglemutton wrote:

    Who knows what goes on in the head of a 5-year-old? If John says it was traumatic, it was, because that’s how he experienced it. At the same time, Lewisohn’s job is to uncover the objective facts so far as it is possible to do so.

    In short, there is no contradiction going on here. A 5-year-old child had one experience, the adults who were there had an entirely separate one. This is actually pretty common, if one looks back to one’s own childhood.

  5. Avatar Annie McNeil wrote:

    I thought John initially said that he had no recollection of the event (in the Davies book, IIRC). If he later changed that story, was it perchance during his “I wrote most of Eleanor Rigby” and “it’s everybody else’s fault I’m addicted to heroin” phase?

    I lean more toward Lewisohn’s take on Blackpool, personally. Alf’s friend wasn’t in the room, but he apparently had enough information to form an opinion on the matter, and, unlike Alf, no reason to lie. Apparently Alf gave no indication to this friend, either before or after the event, that assuming custody of John had even crossed his mind. And why would a man who’d had nothing to do with his son before, and would have nothing to do with him afterwards, suddenly decide to alter his life plans and become a full-time parent? We know at least part of Alf’s story (John running down the street in tears) was made up, and IMO he had an excellent motive to lie: now John was rich and famous and Alf wanted in on that. Lo and behold, a story about how he’d previously wanted/tried to be a part of John’s life, only to be rejected by John himself (“How could I tear you away from your mother when you wanted to stay with her?”). Awfully convenient. (That his version isn’t actually much of an improvement much on the “total abandonment” version doesn’t tell me anything; Alf might well have thought it was since he was, in fact, a crap parent.)

  6. Avatar MGAnon wrote:

    The MOST John ever said (on the record) about the Blackpool incident was that he had no recollection of it, you’re right @Annie. Everyone has pretty much just taken Alf’s word about it having happened. Mimi never mentioned it (and I tend to think Julia would have told her sister something about it if it had happened).

    So yeah, count me among the skeptics about the incident. Bill Harry – the friend of Alf’s whose parents house this all took place in and who was in the next room – would have surely noticed if a 5 year old had run past him chasing after his mother in tears. And I just think Alf has more reason to exaggerate the events more than Bill does.

    • would have surely noticed if a 5 year old had run past him chasing after his mother in tears

      I dunno, that seems like pretty standard five-year-old behavior to me. But if John didn’t corroborate Alf’s story (which I assumed he had), then I think I’d shade towards Lewisohn’s narrative over Alf’s…with the thought that either COULD be true.

  7. Avatar Devin McKinney wrote:

    @MGAnon, I think the guy’s name was Billy Lane, not Bill Harry (an understandable mistake, given that the latter is a not-insignificant figure in a later stage of the Beatles’ story). Lewisohn made a choice to go with a new telling of the story, and I’m willing to give him a by for various reasons, most of which have been adumbrated here. We know John created and spent years varnishing myths about his past (how he met Yoko), or simply perpetuated key mistruths (that Julia was killed by a drunken off-duty cop; Lewisohn disproves the “drunken” part). We know Alf told lies, and had particular reason at the time Davies was writing to cast favor upon himself. And as a few have pointed out here, no one else really chimes in on it.
    Riley’s not wrong that Lewisohn goes out on a limb to challenge the “established” story on the strength of one living witness. But I don’t see why anyone without a specific emotional or professional investment in that established version (like say a previous biographer) would rear back in dismay at this choice, or use it to question the book’s overall veracity. Lewisohn, by virtue of his work in this and past books, has earned the benefit of a few doubts.

    • @Devin, to me the issue is this: IS it an eyewitness account? You’ve read it, I haven’t yet, but wasn’t Billy Lane in another room when this was going on? And is simply reporting what Alf told him? Being in the same place isn’t the same as witnessing something; and we’re still basing it all on Alf (first via his book; now via his friend’s memory).

      As I say, if John himself didn’t confirm Alf’s account, I think Lewisohn’s reading is probably right. But Billy’s a secondary source, a friend of Alf’s (so maybe he’s trying to make Alf look a little better?) and reporting 70 years after the fact.

      So to me, it’s a wash, with the edge going to Lewisohn by virtue of reputation. But the only people who really knew what happened are both dead, and have been for many, many years.

  8. Avatar Susan OConnell wrote:

    On the issue of “facts” in Lewisohn’s book, I have a question for all the erudite contributors to this blog as to whether the chronology Lewisohn gives for Dot Rhone’s pregnancy in1960 is correct. Bob Spitz puts it two years later, and while I know there are issues with the accuracy of his book on the Beatles, Spitz interviewed Dot Rhone. Another question I have is not strictly factual, but Spitz writes that Stu Sutcliffe viewed Paul with condescension. Was the conflict between the two young men all due to Paul’s jealousy as Lewisohn suggests,or did arrogance on the part of Stu play a role? Thanks.

    • Avatar linda a. wrote:

      Hi Susan, as for Dot’s pregnancy even while I was reading Spitz’s book I was confused about the dates he uses for the pregnancy and that was months before I read the interview Dot gave for a magazine, that Lewisohn chose to use as a source. Spitz had her finding out she was pregnant in “late Spring” of 1962 with Paul finding out the day she found out, when he “returned from London”. So Spitz is saying that Paul found out in June. Assuming Dot was in her first trimester, I always wondered why Spitz then says her baby would be due in November.

  9. Avatar linda a. wrote:

    @Sue please excuse the comment above. I’m using a kindle and my finger accidentally hit the send button when I was actually trying to delete the comment. Anyway Spitz’s dates never made sense. What made a lot more sense chronologically and even historically, is the interview with Dot that Lewisohn used. Spitz may have interviewed Dot but something seemed to be lost in the translation. The interview used by Lewisohn is in the first person, while the info used by Spitz is not. It makes a lot more sense that she became pregnant in February 1960 with a November due date and that she miscarried right away. Also the idea of Jim saying they could move in with him and Paul would “have to get a proper job” etc., makes a lot more sense in 1960 than ’62, for obvious reasons. This is one example why Lewisohn is so well respected and trusted. He gets to the bottom of things and delivers the facts with no agenda. So I do think his book deserves to be called definitive. I’m on the last chapter and I have been wowed on every page. In my opinion Lewisohn always gets it right, whether it’s the Blackpool incident, Dot’s pregnancy, or why George Martin signed the Beatles. Personally I thought Spitz’s book was a disaster of erroneous information, and editorializing. Where did he come up with the idea that Stu was condescending toward Paul? Why would he be? Did Spitz explain? If anything Paul was probably more condescending toward Stu than the other way around. Spitz’s book was entertaining (at the time) but he was too sloppy with the facts. Unfortunately I don’t think his book really holds up.

    • Avatar Drew wrote:

      I can believe that Stuart was condescending toward Paul. I don’t for a second buy the Saint Stuart mythology that even Lewisohn seems to succumb to a bit, although not has badly has other Beatles writers. Die young I guess and you get treated like you walk on water and have no faults, while Paul is (once again) the villain of the piece, the only one with negative emotions. I can totally see that Paul resented Stuart but I would bet that Stuart resented Paul, too. After all, Stuart had his share of arrogance and vanity and I would bet it bothered him a lot to have Paul state the obvious — especially to John — about Stuart’s lackluster musical abilities. Stuart was used to being considered talented and praised for his artistry. So being called out on his shortcomings musically would have been hard for him to take and no doubt led to his badmouthing Paul to Astrid et al. I just think the Paul-Stuart dynamic was a lot more complicated than its been portrayed.

  10. Avatar Susan OConnell wrote:

    Linda and Drew – Thank you for your prompt replies. I am not a Bob Spitz fan. I think Lewisohn’s book is superb and the two questions I asked actually arose from reading his narrative. With regard to Dot Rhone, It is hard to reconcile the Jim McCartney who would not allow John Lennon to into his home with the man who would invite a 16 year pregnant girl (the same age as his younger son) to live there and approve of her marriage to his elder son who was still in school and who had met her only a few months before. It led me to think that Jim must have known Dot Rhone better or that Paul must have been older which brought me back to Spitz’s chronology. But as Michael Gerber states, there are FACTS, and it is hard to imagine Lewisohn getting this one wrong.
    As far as Stu’s take on Paul, Stu was a well regarded college student who had lived independently since he was 16. Lewisohn consistently uses term such as “nice”, “gentle” and “generous” to describe him, but he seems to have had a prickly side as shown by his relationship with his mother. Paul was a schoolboy whose very apparent weakness was that he desperately aspired to the sort of intellectual and artistic validation that Stu seemed to have achieved rather effortlessly. It is with Stu Sutcliffe arrival, bullying seems to become part of the Beatles’ group dynamic. Stu is verbally abused on the Scottish tour while Paul is socially isolated in Hamburg. The statement Lewisohn quotes from Stu about Paul being the black sheep (so gleefully noted in some reviews) appears as one of passive aggressive hostility. Paul is not only contemptible (“everyone hates him”), but pathetic (“I only feel sorry for him”). Paul’s jealously may be the cause of the way the Hamburg crowd treats him, but the actions or attributes of the bullied person are typically cited as justification for the group’s behavior. And so, I again looked to Spitz who had noted Stu’s condescension toward Paul and perhaps his desire to wean John away from Paul and refocus him on art rather than music.
    With regard the book as a whole, Lewisohn’s account of the group’s progress and the background of its supporting cast is compelling and I have tremendous respect for his scholarship. His account of John’s early life is the best I have read. I can finally understand why John abandoned his first son, which, for me, was the most deplorable action in the individual Beatles’ histories. Ringo’s childhood is a revelation and Lewisohn’s account is one of the best parts of the book. I recommended to my daughter, a teacher and Beatle fan, that she read it as a example of how she should never give up on a child no matter how dire their circumstances.
    For me, the thrill of the book is that it all points to the individual Beatles and their very important associates (not just Brian Epstein and George Martin but people like Neil Aspinall and Dick James) emerging at the end as a team. The whole configuration seems to coalesce at the moment Ringo joins. When George suggests that John and Paul take turns rooming with Ringo and they agree, it seems the symbolic moment where the power of not only Paul and John as individuals and as a partnership but of all the players is subverted to be put in service of the larger objective. The exhilaration of experiencing the Beatles as a team is the source of the romance of the group for me; witnessing its disintegration is the reason for my fascination.

    • The exhilaration of experiencing the Beatles as a team is the source of the romance of the group for me; witnessing its disintegration is the reason for my fascination.

      Me, too, Susan! Though the group in full flood is as exhilarating; the end has a tragic tone that…well, a little goes a long way for me.

      I can finally understand why John abandoned his first son, which, for me, was the most deplorable action in the individual Beatles’ histories.
      Give me more on this—what do you think was going on here? I’d be fascinated to know. My current theory as to what was going on with John in late ’67 onward has nothing to do with his childhood, so if you think there’s a clue there, I’d love to hear it. And there’s not only the initial abandonment, but also the ongoing callousness to account for, and that’s something I’ve never been able to figure. Enlighten me, please! 🙂

      • Avatar Susan wrote:

        Michael: Before I read Lewisohn’s book, I thought that John was heartless to deprive his son of a father and thereby subject him to the same unhappiness that he must have known as a child. But after reading the book, I conclude that it’s not just John’s father who was missing from his life; it appears that his upbringing (except for two months as a newborn) does not include any people at all that I would identify as functioning parents. It becomes especially apparent because Lewisohn juxtaposes Lennon’s childhood with those of the other Beatles. (Ringo may have known hard times as a child, but there is no mistaking Elsie for his mother.) Mimi and her husband, whose intervention in John’s life is nothing but laudable, still seem to be caregivers rather than parents. Lewisohn describes John as a “adjunct” to the Dykins (Julia’s) family, and poor John seems to occupy that role in all the households of his youth. My conclusion is that it did not occur to John that he was depriving his son of a fundamental human relationship (one that people like me think that every child deserves) which is why his behavior towards Julian and his comments about him seemed so brutal.
        Maybe it’s because of his family life that John developed such an outsized personality. He had innate gifts, but he had to work to experience the relationships, that, however flawed, most of us take for granted. I am not thinking very kindly about Julia after reading the book. At 26, she was much older when she had John than I remembered and while John may, as I think he once said, been conceived out of a whiskey bottle, she and Alf were married. On the other hand Ringo’s mother and especially his stepfather give alcoholics (as Ringo remembered them) a very good name.

        • Fascinating, @Susan, thank you!

          he had to work to experience the relationships, that, however flawed, most of us take for granted
          This explains everybody I’ve ever met who looks for love from an audience. I think John was afflicted by a double-helping of this, to our great benefit and his great misfortune.

          I think your theory about John and Julian makes some sense, but it raises a lot of questions, too. If it was just lack of appropriate models, couldn’t he have looked to Cynthia, who seems to have mothered Julian quite appropriately? Or Ringo, who had children by then? Or even how Paul treated Julian? And why, thirteen years later, was he able to parent Sean? What had changed? Or did he not really parent Sean as much as we’ve been told? (I hope he did, I’m just sayin’.)

          Ringo’s mother and especially his stepfather give alcoholics (as Ringo remembered them) a very good name.
          Alcoholism is often only one factor. There are the effects of that disease, which seem to exhibit patterns but vary between people and situations, and often there are comorbidities like mental illness. If Julia were, for example, manic-depressive, that would explain a lot, to me at least. I’m just quoting the internet here (so beware), but according to one NIMH study,

          “alcoholics are 21.0 times more likely to also have a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder compared with nonalcoholics…Similar “odds ratios” for some other psychiatric comorbidities are as follows: drug abuse, 3.9 times; mania, 6.2 times; and schizophrenia, 4.0 times. There is only a mild increase in major depressive disorder among alcoholics (odds ratio 1.7), and essentially no increase in anxiety disorders.”

          So what is antisocial personality disorder? Once again, the internet:

          “a personality disorder characterized by amorality and lack of affect; capable of violent acts without guilt feelings”

          As I read, this made me think of how John treated Julian…and how John had been treated himself. I’m not saying John or anybody else had this disorder, but it did resonate. Here’s a quote showing how dreadfully cheek-by-jowl alcoholism and ASPD often are:

          Determining the chronological relationships between the two disorders is complicated by the following factors (3,19,20): 1) both disorders typically begin early in life, thus requiring retrospective reporting from adults; 2) there is considerable overlap in the symptoms of the two disorders; 3) alcohol or other drug abuse is itself one of the diagnostic criteria for ASPD; and 4) intoxication leads to behavioral disinhibition, thus lowering the threshold for antisocial behavior.

          Was Julia mentally ill, and/or an addict of some sort? Impossible to know. But from the record of her son’s life, we do see signs of both addictions and comorbidities (including, perhaps, some tendency towards antisocial personality disorder). But here’s where I have to say what I always say on this topic: we know that John was fucked up, and we know that—as with all of us—some of what fucked him up wasn’t his fault, whether it was brain chemistry or upbringing, or some mix of the two. It’s what one does with it, that should be judged. Out of all of this mess, John was able to create works of enduring beauty and worth; he spun a lot of gold out of that straw. Of course just because he could spin gold, that doesn’t excuse the damage he did, to Julian and to lots of other people. It’s difficult for me, but so important to hold both sides simultaneously, and you’re doing that @Susan.

          As I age, my attempts to understand John Lennon have less and less to do with him. They’ve become primarily a way to understand the world’s pain, and how to overcome it. I’m reminded of a quote from Chogyam Trungpa (himself blessed and cursed on a Lennon-like scale): ““The essence of warriorship, or the essence of human bravery, is refusing to give up on anyone or anything.” Would that all Lennon fans use their esteem for John Lennon to move towards kindness, compassion, wisdom, and peace, for the sake of all the Julias and Johns and Julians that are still with us.

          • Avatar Nancy Carr wrote:

            Susan, thinking about the extent to which John was an “adjunct” rather than an integral part of the families he experienced as a child also helps me begin to understand John’s callous treatment of Julian. But how could he write “Mother,” in which he expresses his own pain at being abandoned so searingly, and not understand that he was depriving his son of a “fundamental human relationship”?

            That’s a level of disconnect that I just can’t make sense of.

          • Avatar Susan wrote:

            Michael and Nancy: If you believe the adage (I believe it is from Dr. Spock) that you learn to be parent when you are a child and as a parent you relive your childhood neither John’s wife nor his friends could have provided meaningful models for him.
            Nancy makes a very good point that after hearing the anguish on “Mother” it’s hard not to think that John, of all people, understood the pain of not having parents. But I think he was using what he learned in therapy to write a song without integrating it into his own life. His words about Julian and I believe his treatment of him remained cavalier. As Michael eloquently notes, John’s gift was to us, his audience, who might benefit from his insights, even if he could not. Unfortunately I believe for most of his life John was angry about that. To his credit though, he tried to use his influence and great gift for the greater good in songs like “Imagine” even if he himself remained in the “How Do You Sleep at Night?” mindset.
            As I said in another post I am a fan of the Beatles as a collective. I never bought into the whole JohnandYoko thing. However, I do hope that with Sean, John was able to be a father to his son by finding a way to be a father to himself. I am not sure this actually happened, but I hope it did.
            .

          • Avatar Annie McNeil wrote:

            @Michael:

            There are the effects of that disease, which seem to exhibit patterns but vary between people and situations, and often there are comorbidities like mental illness. If Julia were, for example, manic-depressive, that would explain a lot, to me at least.

            I think that’s very plausible — perhaps even probable. That goes for John, too, IMO (for that matter, as long as we’re armchair-analyzing, I frequently wonder if Paul might be as well). But I am glad you bring up personality disorders and addiction, because it seems to me that those things were at work in John’s psychology as well (substance abuse, certainly, if not full-blown addiction.) Full disclosure: I am bipolar, and it disturbs me how many people associate violent or sadistic behavior with the disorder. Though studies show an increased occurrence of violence in those with bipolar versus the general population, it’s important to note that the disparity shrinks to insignificance when controlled for comorbid conditions — namely, personality disorders and addiction.

            (And then there’s the “free will” variable, which I don’t have very firm opinions on, myself. But, if you are someone who believes bad behavior is, to whatever degree, down to individual choice, then it’s important to remember that some mentally ill people can also simply be assholes, in addition to and independent of their illness — just as some neurotypical people are also simply assholes. I guess my point is that asshole behavior is by no means the exclusive province of the mentally ill, and there’s an alarming trend in our culture to talk as if it is.)

            However, for my money, antisocial personality disorder specifically seems less applicable to John (and Julia?) than are borderline and/or narcissistic PDs. I am no expert, but here’s a link to a 101-level guide to the four “Cluster B” PDs: (On second thought, I’ll post the link in a separate reply, in case the spam filter doesn’t like it.)

            Aaaaand now seems like the right time to post a giant fluorescent disclaimer that maybe none of us knows what the hell we’re talking about here. Armchair diagnosis is a dicey business, naturally… but it is kinda fun. 🙂 And potentially illuminating, even if inaccurate.

            we know that John was fucked up, and we know that—as with all of us—some of what fucked him up wasn’t his fault, whether it was brain chemistry or upbringing, or some mix of the two. It’s what one does with it, that should be judged. Out of all of this mess, John was able to create works of enduring beauty and worth; he spun a lot of gold out of that straw. Of course just because he could spin gold, that doesn’t excuse the damage he did, to Julian and to lots of other people. It’s difficult for me, but so important to hold both sides simultaneously

            Totally agree. John got a load of ugliness from, but gave back a load of beauty to, the world at large. On that macro level, he generated an awful lot of good karma for himself. He was unable (or unwilling) to do the same on a micro or personal level, which is sad and bad, but which should be viewed with as much breadth of perspective and depth of context as we can muster. We certainly owe him that.

    • Avatar Drew wrote:

      Susan: I agree that Paul was the bullied one in Hamburg after Stuart had been the bullied one in Scotland (and Stuart was bullied by all of the Beatles, not just Paul. I was shocked to read that George actually hit Stuart a few times in Scotland, for no apparent reason other than to show that Stuart was low man on the totem pole.) Anyway, your assessment of Stuart and Paul seems spot on to me. When I read that quote from Stuart’s letter home — where Stuart comments on “everyone hates him” referring to Paul — I immediately thought the same thing: This is a passive-aggressive remark on Stuart’s part. I wasn’t surprised but still disappointed to see several reviewers take the remark at face value — “gleeful” as you say at the seeming putdown of Paul. Those reviewers seemed to miss the whole point! The fact that Stuart is the one increasingly isolated from the band after Hamburg and not Paul tells me this was Stuart expressing his resentment of Paul and Paul’s importance to John’s future. John had decided to focus on music not art. Had John chosen art, his partnership with Stuart would have been pre-eminent in John’s life. But Stuart was never going to be central to the band’s future — musically — the way Paul was. Stuart couldn’t offer John the sort of equal partnership — musically — that John could get with Paul. And Stuart was used to being the praised and lauded artiste. So when it turns out he’s only mediocre musically, that must have been hard for him to take and he, naturally, took it out on the person who was pointing out his weaknesses: Paul. Likewise, I think you’re right that Paul was the schoolboy who wanted to be taken seriously as an intellect/artiste himself (and still does!). And he, naturally, took it out on the person for whom that artistic reputation seemed to come so easily: Stuart. In short, their mutual resentment was a two-way street and NOT just the “Stuart was the perfect good guy and Paul was the jealous bad guy” meme that a lot of simplistic accounts tend to favor. My favorite part of Lewisohn’s book is not the Hamburg section; it’s the post Hamburg section where the Beatles become THE BEATLES. Hamburg gets all the attention but it’s that year or two after Hamburg that is far more fascinating to me: how they came back and basically ruled Liverpool. It’s the most thrilling part of the book. My only disappointment continues to be that Lewisohn’s account of Paul’s and George’s early life is no where near as detailed or informative as his account of John’s and Ringo’s early life.

      • Avatar Susan wrote:

        Drew. With regard to Hamburg, I think we may, as Beatles fans, owe a debt to Astrid for distracting Stuart from John and music. I sense (and this is only from Lewisohn’s account) that if the situation with Stuart had continued, Paul may have reconsidered his involvement with the group. A problem with the book for me is that it is overly invested the thesis that John is the center of the action and that as long as he is committed the group survives. There seem to be examples in the book itself of the limits of Paul’s enthrallment with John and his allegiance to the group, but they are not examined (as you have noted with the incidents between Paul and Brian Epstein).
        Furthermore, by focusing on Paul’s jealously in Hamburg, Lewisohn misses a far more intriguing story which is the interaction among Stuart, the rest of the Beatles and the German students, the “exis”, who I think play a bigger part in the Hamburg experience than Lewisohn acknowledges. This would require a more rigorous and balanced examination of Stuart’s character and a more nuanced portrayal of Astrid and her friends beyond that of nice college kids.
        In my view, Lewisohn’s focus on John weakens his portrayal of Paul and George, although I think part of the problem is that his portrayal of John and Ringo is so strong (in the case of Ringo, I think it helps that John is not a factor in his adolescence). The prologue of the book opens with Paul’s father presented in relation to John (a reviewer in the Wall Street Journal even refers to Paul being the son of a domineering father which is certainly not the case), Mary McCartney never emerges as a rounded person (and would someone tell me since Lewisohn does not, what her family was doing embarking for Ireland in the early 1920’s when there was a civil war underway?) and young George’s family life, especially his relationship with his brothers and sister, is undeveloped. I would have also liked to know a little more about Paul and George’s relationship apart from John. I hope and expect that in the subsequent volumes he will pull Paul and George out of John’s shadow.

        • Avatar Annie McNeil wrote:

          a reviewer in the Wall Street Journal even refers to Paul being the son of a domineering father which is certainly not the case

          Well, it’s certainly not the whole case — on balance, Jim was apparently a really good dad; Paul’s (and Mike’s) love and respect for him is palpable.

          However, I don’t think that reviewer’s interpretation is entirely invalid (though I haven’t gotten far enough in Tune In to know if it’s a valid interpretation of Lewisohn’s presentation of the facts).

          I think Paul was hurt by and resented being hit by his dad. His brother Mike doesn’t seem so affected; in fact he observed that he was able to “take it in stride” whereas Paul wasn’t. So we’re not dealing with a pervasively abusive situation here; however, such varied perspectives among siblings is very much the norm for families with, um, questionable disciplinary methods. And, if we’re willing to say that “the emotional truth of the episode may supersede the bare facts” for John and the Blackpool Incident* (which I think is fair and right), then we should do the same for Paul.

          Again, Paul obviously loved his dad, and thought he was a fine man. But I think it’s very telling that that he never, EVER, talked about the hitting (unlike Mike, who talked about it frequently and in a very casual, sometimes humorous way). Not in forty years of interviews, not in his 700-page authorized biography. Then in 2002 (post-Linda’s death and subsequent therapy, interestingly), he suddenly tells Howard Stern that Jim “used to sort of hit me. You know, it wasn’t all great.” Being Paul, he naturally went on to qualify it out the wazoo, “that’s what they did in those days,” etc., but he also says that Jim continued hitting him across the face up until the age of 17. That isn’t necessarily “abusive” or “domineering,” I guess, but it sure ain’t appropriate discipline.

          It’s funny — I recently dug out my Salewicz bio of Paul (which I recommend highly; his writing is pedantic [said the pot-colored blog commenter], but he got a lot of great quotes from Paul’s schoolmates and teachers, which I’ve been disappointed to see are not included in Tune In). Anyway, despite the book being refreshingly sympathetic to Paul, I was irritated to see the author say that Paul was clearly “spoiled” because as a child he would take secret revenge for whippings by ripping small tears in his parents’ curtains. And that his shouting “Tell him you didn’t do it and he’ll stop!” to Mike during a whipping was evidence of his “deceitfulness.”

          Um, how about, maybe he was distressed by watching his dad hit his brother? And “spoiled”??? Really? Because he didn’t submit to the belt with sufficient obeisance? WTF? (Not to mention the fact that Paul apparently was submissive enough to tolerate it long past the age when he would have been able to hit back — and win. But Salewicz couldn’t have known that, I suppose.) Anyway, it’s just frustrating to see writers (even generally sympathetic writers) reflexively assign selfish/deceitful motives to Paul in situations where he clearly deserves at least some benefit of the doubt. Sometimes I feel like it’s some kind of radical notion that Paul might actually, you know, have feelings.

          Once more, and with feeling, I’m not saying any of this to demonize Jim. I’m just saying that the typical treatment of Paul’s childhood as uniformly happy and awesome (well, aside from that unfortunate “Mother dying” bit) is… overly simplistic.

          *Which, even if it didn’t happen, at the very least would have been retroactively traumatic for John when he heard the story, whether that trauma was “So my mum was willing to let a stranger take me to another continent,” or “So my parents made me choose between them when I was five,” or “So my deadbeat dad says he loves me now that I’m rich and famous.”

          • Avatar susan wrote:

            Annie: Your observation is very interesting. I meant to confine my comments to the Lewisohn book which, in my view, does not portray Paul’s father as domineering. But as you note, Paul’s brother is the source for much of this perspective, and I was not aware that Paul said that his father slapped him as a teenager. It is notable that all accounts of Paul’s childhood mention physical discipline. It does not seem to be referred to in the other Beatles’ childhoods, and indeed I grew up in an era when parents hit their children, but It would sadden me if one of my contemporaries viewed it as a noteworthy part of their upbringing. Your comment makes the portion that Lewisohn deleted from John’s quote (end of the Prologue) on teenage Paul and his family life all the more intriguing: “So Paul was always like that. And I was always saying ‘Face up to your dad, tell him to fuck off. He can’t hit you. You can kill him, [laughs] he’s an old man’.”

  11. Avatar Annie McNeil wrote:

    I’m not even sure anymore if this is the right thread, but:

    I just got my “Tune In,” so I’m not very far along, and while I too have noticed a “romantic” treatment of John versus a “clinical” treatment of Paul, I don’t mind. Lewisohn is a research guy, not an interp guy — and he’s fearless in asserting Paul as John’s artistic equal, which is good enough for me.

    So far I don’t sense Lewisohn personally carries a torch for John; I think it’s simply a matter of him having more to work with, as most of you have said. John was the proverbial squeaky wheel. And, he died young, which means most of the people who knew him A) were interviewed while they were still alive, B) felt free to discuss him because he was dead, and C) were likely to put a romantic spin on the fallen martyr genius. Whereas Paul’s close friends and confidantes (not to mention his multitudinous family) are either dead now or notoriously closed-mouthed about him (whether out of respect for his wishes or fear of being cut off). That’s the way Paul wants it, apparently, so that’s the way he’ll have it. I doubt even after he’s gone that we’ll get too much new information, at first (his children seem very protective). But I do hope, once a couple generations have passed, that some letters, journals, anecdotes, etc. will surface to flesh out the man behind the [euphemism].

    Not to mention that this dearth of info is probably most true of Paul’s early years. Lewisohn seems to be keeping himself pretty strictly to a chronological narrative, so perhaps he’ll delve deeper into Paul in the next two volumes, when he has more to work with because suddenly everybody started paying attention.

    • Avatar Susan wrote:

      Annie: I apologize for being a little all over the place with my comments. With regard to the romance of John Lennon, Lewisohn states at the end of Chapter Six that John “clearly was it”. But even in his book, John “clearly was it” mainly to young men (the other Beatles) and to those who share their proclivities (Brian Epstein and girls like Lindy Ness – it seems Lewisohn managed to find the Patti Smith of the Cavern girls and devotes a lot of space to her). John was not “clearly it” to certain grown-ups such as Jim McCartney (and I give credit to Lewisohn for presenting Jim’s perspective on John as one of an experienced, even sophisticated, adult rather than an overwrought father) and young women with reasonable levels of self-esteem (Thelma Pickles). Not all the girls prefer Paul only because he is pretty, they like him because they sense he respects them. Even if it is an act, it is Paul’s act to respect people.
      I would prefer if Lewisohn would analyze the way John is perceived rather than seem to endorse it (and I speak as a huge admirer of John). I think one of the more intriguing questions is whether John’s outsized reputation owes something to his middle class sensibilities which he shares with most writers/critics of rock music (including I would guess Lewisohn). As Richard Cristgau, the “dean of rock critics” wrote in John’s obituary in the Village Voice, “Who could resist John Lennon. He’s always been my personal Beatle and probably yours. He was the one who could have been a friend of ours, the one we might have known in school or on the scene.”
      In the case of the book’s presentation of Paul, I sense a back story that is not being presented (I have to admit that ever since I read the footnote in the book that indicated that Paul had met John prior to July 6, 1957 I have become rather obsessed with the idea of a “secret history” of the Beatles). I do not think that today’s Paul minds letting you know that he impaled frogs, laughed when his mother died, envied Stuart, etc. What he minds is appearing weak or anything less than totally committed to the Beatles, and I feel that Lewisohn caters to him on these matters in the book. However, Lewisohn’s narrative is so encompassing that I have had impressions about the group that had never occurred to me before in my long years of being a fan.

      • Avatar Annie McNeil wrote:

        John was not “clearly it” to certain grown-ups such as Jim McCartney (and I give credit to Lewisohn for presenting Jim’s perspective on John as one of an experienced, even sophisticated, adult rather than an overwrought father) and young women with reasonable levels of self-esteem (Thelma Pickles). Not all the girls prefer Paul only because he is pretty, they like him because they sense he respects them.

        Yes. Maybe Jim was sometimes too harsh in his attempts to separate Paul from John, but his desire to do so is perfectly understandable. John was every parent’s worst nightmare, and his appearance directly coincided Paul’s grades dropping. That must have been devastating for Jim, who probably had high hopes of his “golden child” pulling himself (and the family) out of the working class.

        And your comments about Paul and girls are also well-taken. Much as people like Phillip Norman would have us believe that women tend to prefer Paul for silly girly reasons (Michael’s spot-on “girl cooties” comment comes to mind), the truth is that Paul’s work likely resonates more with the feminine experience (that is a gross generalization, of course, but I think it’s as valid as gross generalizations can get).

        And this is perhaps germane to the issue of Paul being hit as a kid. Again with the generalizations, but DV experts report an observable gendered pattern among abused children: boys tend to emulate the abusers, while girls tend to choose abusive partners and reprise their roles as victims. Obviously this is not true of Paul to a great degree (I wouldn’t go so far as to call him an “abused child, for one thing). But it still brings us back to the idea that Paul’s relationship with Jim contributed to his ability to handle John. In fact I’d say Paul was the best “handler” John ever had.

      • @Susan wrote:
        I would prefer if Lewisohn would analyze the way John is perceived rather than seem to endorse it (and I speak as a huge admirer of John).

        Haven’t gotten Lewisohn yet (Xmas present) but this is what Johnology has needed since forever.

        “Who could resist John Lennon. He’s always been my personal Beatle and probably yours. He was the one who could have been a friend of ours, the one we might have known in school or on the scene.”
        Christgau’s comment reeks of the proximity-to-addiction thing–“We woulda been best buddies, I just know it!”–because anybody who’d been paying attention to John Lennon since 1957 would see that the whole point was to NOT be just a regular guy; he burned to become, and did everything to fashion himself into, as Mick Jagger put it, “the most famous person in the world.”

        Certainly by 1980, John had gotten very good at playing a game where in fora like interviews he would come off as utterly relateable, but…Put it this way: the man had no close friends after the breakup of The Beatles. That’s not somebody who “could have been a friend of ours”; I get that it’s an obit, but that’s total mythmaking, a level of wish-fulfillment that says much more about Christgau than Lennon. And it’s underlining the idea that John was shot because he was too accessible, too much a Man of the People. That’s misleading, too.

        BTW, I’m also infatuated with the idea of a “secret history” of The Beatles. I think it’s definitely there–a Butcher cover under the tame studio pic–and if I get the right venue (TV show?) someday I’d love to help explore it.

  12. Avatar Annie McNeil wrote:

    @Susan (sorry for not replying directly; the elusive reply button strikes again):

    It is notable that all accounts of Paul’s childhood mention physical discipline. It does not seem to be referred to in the other Beatles’ childhoods, and indeed I grew up in an era when parents hit their children, but It would sadden me if one of my contemporaries viewed it as a noteworthy part of their upbringing.

    Yes, corporal punishment for kids was by no means unusual in that day and age. But as you say, it seems to have been especially prominent in the McCartney boys’ upbringing. And there is one instance that seems clearly excessive to me, even for the times. When Mike and Paul fell into the lime pit and nearly drowned, Jim gave them “the hiding of [their] lives” (Mike’s words), and I believe he even said that they got it while they were still cold and wet. Now, they would have needed to be stripped to prevent the lime from further burning their skin, but yikes — Jim couldn’t have waited until they were dry and clothed? Undoubtedly he was in a paroxysm of parental rage-fear, and wanted to drive the “never do such a stupid, dangerous thing again” message home, but still… that he wouldn’t or couldn’t restrain himself when they were so vulnerable (physically and emotionally; Mike says they came very close to drowning) suggests that Jim — despite usually being pleasant and a good dad — was capable of badly losing his temper and going too far. It is a disturbing anecdote, to me.

    But that’s not to say it would be disturbing or traumatic to everyone. Again, Mike doesn’t seem particularly sensitive about it (though he sure brings it up a lot). But I think Paul was and is. He’s occasionally opened up about hating getting hit by teachers, and even said that “some of them were right perverts” about it. But apparently it’s too hard for him to do so about his dad — except for that one time. And even then he tried to turn it into a “happy” story by saying it was “such an amazing moment in [his] life” when he finally stood up to Jim, who backed off and never slapped him again. LOL, talk about “pathologically positive.”

    the portion that Lewisohn deleted from John’s quote (end of the Prologue) on teenage Paul and his family life all the more intriguing

    Yeah, I noticed that, too. Maybe Lewisohn ran into some contradictory testimony from the McCartney family? One of Paul’s aunties insisted that “Jim never laid a hand on them” to Spitz, but surely Mike’s and Paul’s statements would trump hers, and anybody else’s. Maybe Lewisohn decided it wasn’t essential to the narrative, so why go probing into a potentially sensitive issue? Or maybe Paul himself flat-out asked him to steer clear of it. Who knows? Anyway, FWIW, that comment from the auntie is actually another thing that sent my antennae up; in my experience such defensive denials from family members are often a red flag (though of course it’s possible she was simply mistaken; she must’ve been pretty old by then).

    • @Annie wrote:
      usually being pleasant and a good dad — was capable of badly losing his temper and going too far

      This rings a booze warning-bell for me. I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’–and having a dad prone to the occasional alcohol-fueled rage would explain something that’s really never been explained: why would a bright lad with some opportunities, getting some recognition from teachers, etc, hitch his wagon to a guy like John Lennon? If managing/placating/pleasing someone prone to occasional rages (and physical acting-out–and who does THAT sound like?) was what you’d done forever, it makes perfect sense you’d find a partner in the same model.

      But that’s not to say it would be disturbing or traumatic to everyone.
      Disagree here. You heat water, it boils; you hit a child, it traumatizes him/her. Some may deal with that trauma more successfully than others, but trauma is trauma and must be dealt with.

      I think this stuff might be key to McCartney’s pleasing, hiding, and obsessive working. He’s dealt with the trauma exceedingly well, and (by all accounts) not extended the behavior into his own family, but I still feel a real sadness for him and Mike (and Jim) in this regard.

      • Avatar Nancy Carr wrote:

        Wow, fascinating ideas here!

        Annie, I had not heard that “Jim continued hitting him [Paul] across the face up until the age of 17.” That’s really disturbing. It could certainly help account for Paul’s usually people-pleasing manner, and for the anger that occasionally breaks through it. (And as Michael says, if Jim did hit Paul regularly it speaks well of Paul that he evidently didn’t go on to hit his own kids.) It really puts the curtain-tearing into perspective: if you know you’re going to get hit if you act out your rebellion openly, you sure have an incentive to carry it out covertly. I can imagine that in some respects it could be just as traumatic to have a parent who is alternately loving and enraged as to have one who’s not around at all. John’s experience of having Julia nearby but not acting as a custodial parent was clearly traumatic, because it created the kind of adjunct/limbo situation Susan describes. I wonder, if this about Jim’s hitting Paul is true, if Paul experienced (with the hitting and his mother’s death) a kind of emotional instability as a child that helped him understand and sympathize with John’s situation.

        Michael, you asked “why would a bright lad with some opportunities, getting some recognition from teachers, etc, hitch his wagon to a guy like John Lennon?” I think you’re right about John perhaps fitting an emotional profile Paul was accustomed to. I’d add that Paul’s a born performer, and was looking, even as a young teenager, for someone to perform with. John clearly had the charisma, talent, and leadership qualities to get somewhere with music, and I’d bet that was the deciding factor for Paul.

        I find it interesting that the two Beatles alternate-history novels I’ve read that reimagine the band’s formative years (“Paperback Writer” and “Liverpool Fantasy”) emphasize Paul as a performer so strongly. In “Paperback Writer” he’s a successful performer before he joins the Beatles, and in “Liverpool Fantasy” (a darker novel, and a less successful one, IMO) he’s the only one who becomes a success on his own after the band prematurely breaks up.

        These novels are on to something important, I think. Performing music was (and is) the answer for Paul in a lot of ways. I think he loves music for its own sake — it’s just in his DNA — but getting praise from others for writing and performing it is important as a validation for him. If Jim did hit him regularly, it makes me wonder how much of that hunger for validation comes from Paul’s perhaps feeling that he was never quite good enough as a kid.

        • Avatar Annie McNeil wrote:

          @Nancy:

          I can imagine that in some respects it could be just as traumatic to have a parent who is alternately loving and enraged…if Paul experienced (with the hitting and his mother’s death) a kind of emotional instability as a child that helped him understand and sympathize with John’s situation.

          You know, I’ve often thought that Paul’s propensity to put his foot in his mouth (to overthink his words, get preemptively defensive about all the wrong things, and end up giving his detractors more ammunition against him) resembled nothing so much as a child of inconsistent parenting, who can’t distinguish or predict what will or what won’t get him in trouble. I had thought this began with all the unduly harsh and totally unfair criticism he got after John’s death (and I definitely think that made it worse; for a while there he just couldn’t win for losing to the press), but maybe this tendency has a deeper root.

          Performing music was (and is) the answer for Paul in a lot of ways. I think he loves music for its own sake — it’s just in his DNA — but getting praise from others for writing and performing it is important as a validation for him.

          I agree. I’ve read a quote from Paul where he says something along the lines of: “Music is the one thing I get right. The rest of the time I’m pretty sure I’m doing everything wrong.”

        • @Nancy wrote:
          it could be just as traumatic to have a parent who is alternately loving and enraged as to have one who’s not around at all

          I can tell you that it’s incredibly, devastatingly traumatic to have a parent who is alternately loving and enraged. The person I’m thinking of became perfectionistic, outwardly cheerful but inwardly depressive, determined to succeed at any cost, and replicated that warm/cold relationship in other relationships.

          • Avatar Annie McNeil wrote:

            perfectionistic, outwardly cheerful but inwardly depressive, determined to succeed at any cost

            Well gosh, that doesn’t sound like anyone we know. 😉

            (BTW I hope I’m not coming off as some kind of weirdo “PAUL IS SECRETLY MISERABLE” crusader. I don’t think that at all — I think he gets a lot of joy and satisfaction from life, has healthy relationships for the most part, and is impressively resilient. All of that suggests a lot was right about his upbringing. But I also think he has a significant shadowy side that is way underexplored, so forgive me for babbling on…)

            Many people would probably disagree that Paul is “depressive,” but he has had three episodes of major depression (that we know of). And at least one of those episodes (the breakup breakdown) was very much a melancholic depression — Paul reported that on one occasion it took a concerted effort to turn his head out of a pillow so he could breathe. That is severe psychomotor retardation, and the fact that he experiences that at times while appearing at other times to have psychomotor agitation, is part of why I think he may be bipolar (a good guide to the differences between bipolar and unipolar depression can be found here: http://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/healthprofessionals/bipolardisorder/diagnosingbipolardisorder/differentiatingbipolardisorderfromunipolardepression.cfm).

            That, and his presentation of markedly different affects in various interviews. And certainly many (hypo)manic features apply (high energy, profuse and rapid creativity, hypersexuality, elevated mood, the psychomotor agitation, etc.). And lots of other little things that seem familiar to me and my experiences with the disorder.

            Many people would also probably say that if Paul had such a mental illness “we would know about it.” But I don’t think that’s necessarily true; take Stephen Fry, for example. Like Paul, he is extremely productive and successful and projects an aura of blithe confidence. If he hadn’t chosen to go public with his diagnosis, I doubt many of us would suspect he was bipolar — or that he has attempted suicide three times.

          • @Annie, I think this process is very fruitful insofar as it helps us break down the personas of these people, as created by the media. It is still fruitful, though I feel a little presumptuous, when we use it to counter the personas they’ve created themselves. Digging into the psychology of Paul (or any other Beatle) is great to dissolve the conventional narrative, and I do that with abandon. But I feel a boundary the closer I get to the person’s obvious wishes; Paul wishes to maintain that “happy chappy” distance most of the time, and I feel no great need to prove it a lie. Paul can be both that, and kid who got mistreated, and a person who uses work to fight off depression–and in fact all of these make sense.
            Where I definitely stop is when specific terminology is brought out–not because it’s not germane, often it is–but because it feels a bit obscuring. So I try to keep it all vague, and based on what the person did and said.
            John Lennon’s easier to do this kind of spitballing with, first because he’s dead–he can’t be injured or even discomfited by what anyone says–and second because he loved to analyze himself in public, so there’s a lot of data there. Paul’s much tougher, and there’s a living person there, and so I tread more lightly in my speculation and conclusions.
            The only reason I’ve really connected with this abuse/trauma issue is how deftly I think it answers a central question about McCartney–what drove and drives him so? and why don’t we already know the answer to this question? I am not sure that this childhood trauma route is right, but it sure as heck feels right; and it also gives Paul a vast store of his own darkness and difficulties, which to be an artist of his calibre one must have. And this blank space in Paul’s story–not being allowed to see his deep, dark motor, having it hidden from them–is why critics have always dismissed McCartney.

      • Avatar Susan wrote:

        Michael: Why would a boy like Paul hitch his wagon to John? If the situation with Paul’s father is as we perceive and John’s quote from 1971 is accurate, John performed a great service for Paul by persuading him that he should not let his father treat him in an abusive manner. It goes to John’s great sensitivity that he would even take note of the situation as a very young man, his fresh and original perspective (and perhaps a bit of a middle class sensibility) that he would disapprove and the value of his friendship (as the boy who “clearly was it” for Paul) that he would condemn it in a such a way as to convince Paul to move “in an entirely new direction”. How furious John likely is in 1971 that Paul will not fully acknowledge his importance in his life. But Paul was not going to say anything bad about his father (who was alive in 1971) nor is he willing to appear to be a victim, either then or now.

        • @Susan, I am sure Paul thought of fighting back/stopping Jim before John gave him the idea! Is it possible that Paul took courage from the thing he and John were building together? Absolutely. But John’s comment is how an outsider sees this kind of problem: “Just tell him to stop. Just tell him you’ll leave. Just–” Rather than being sensitive, I see it as a boy who likes to hit saying, “Just hit back!” That is, what one teenage boy would say to another. I said it to friends of mine who were getting smacked around as kids. Maybe it encouraged Paul, but it was PAUL who was in the pickle and had to get out of it without wrecking his support system. Paul didn’t have an Aunt Mimi just raring to step in.

          Music in general and The Beatles in particular would’ve been a fantastic way for Paul to get out of a shitty situation and–if he was successful–show Jim up/get even with him, without destroying his relationship with his only living parent. To me, this explains a lot of Paul’s drive.

          • Avatar Annie McNeil wrote:

            it was PAUL who was in the pickle and had to get out of it without wrecking his support system…destroying his relationship with his only living parent.

            Agreed. John’s “Just hit back!” statement doesn’t seem sensitive to me, either. Paul’s response (expressed or not) would likely have been, “Easy for you to say. And gee thanks for implying I’m a sissy.”

            Your point about Jim being the only parent he had left is crucial too, IMO. Especially in light of the fact that Jim was reportedly suicidal, or at least ideating, after Mary’s death (I believe that’s the reason the boys were immediately bundled off to stay with relatives). Now, Jim might never have expressed any of that in front of Paul, but Paul’s memory of being “terrified” by the sight of Jim crying — how it was almost as bad as the death itself — suggests he at least sensed something was very very wrong (beyond the obvious, of course).

            So perhaps that contributed to Paul’s reluctance to confront his father. It also might have instilled (or intensified) an exaggerated sense of responsibility — responsibility to be “strong,” to fix things, to succeed, to provide and protect. I’ve always thought Paul’s song “1882” is quite strange and possibly revealing:

            Good morning, young master. It’s 1882.
            Your mother is hungry — what will you do?
            There is bread in the kitchen
            of the big house upstairs,
            but I warn you: don’t take it from there.

            You’ll be tarred, you’ll be feathered,
            you’ll be hung like a ham.
            So I warn you: don’t do it, young man.

            Your mother is calling — she wants you by the bed.
            So get up, young master, and shake your sleepy head.
            “Darling son, I am dying,
            and I leave it to you.
            I’m leaving. Tell me what did I do?”

            You’ll be drawn, you’ll be quartered,
            you’ll be hung like a ham.
            So I warn you: don’t do it, young man.

            The way Mary’s illness and death were handled was just egregious, too (though I’m sure the adults thought they were doing what was best). Mike and Paul weren’t told she was ill until she was in hospital, weren’t allowed at the funeral, and weren’t even told where she was buried or what she’d died of (hmmm, I wonder where Paul’s denial problems might have come from?).

          • responsibility to be “strong,” to fix things, to succeed, to provide and protect

            Boy…you’ve got to carry that weight…
            So when the crisis hits in 1968-69–“feel so suicidal”–what does Paul do? What he did before.

            Fascinating thoughts, @Annie–thank you.

      • Avatar Annie McNeil wrote:

        @Michael,

        I think Paul’s attraction to John needs no explanation (everybody and their dog was attracted to John), but that he was so preternaturally good at handling John is quite inexplicable, if his early life was as sunny and uncomplicated as all that. I forget who it was, but some insider once said that Paul was the only person who was never afraid of John. And IIRC, s/he was commenting directly on the differences between Paul and Stuart, and their respective relationships with John.

        If managing/placating/pleasing someone prone to occasional rages (and physical acting-out–and who does THAT sound like?) was what you’d done forever, it makes perfect sense you’d find a partner in the same model.

        Exactly. And Paul sure seems to have a soft spot for volatile yet (to him) lovable rogues (see Geoff Baker and, more alarmingly, Heather Mills).

        Disagree here. You heat water, it boils; you hit a child, it traumatizes him/her.

        Fair enough. I guess I was making a distinction between big-T and little-t trauma, if that makes any sense. As Nancy observes below, maybe Paul had more difficulty reconciling the two sides of his father, whereas maybe Mike’s overall security about Jim’s love wasn’t shaken by the occasional blowup. Just speculatin’.

        I still feel a real sadness for him and Mike (and Jim) in this regard.

        Me, too. Random tangent: I remember feeling a wrench watching that footage of a McCartney family ‘do at a pub in the ’70s. Most of it looked fun and great, but there’s this one moment where Jim makes a point of handing Paul (or the bartender?) some money, presumably to pay for his drink, or a round, or something. You know, a demonstration that Paul isn’t just “expected” to pay for everything. And Paul softly says “okay, Dad” but his face kinda falls — you know how it can sometimes fall without actually moving? One of those awful moments within families where both parties avoid each other’s eyes and pretend they haven’t just felt a sharp pang from past (or present) hurts — sore spots they would give anything to erase, but can’t. I think I was reminded of this moment by Nancy’s “Queenie Eye” thread. Wealth and fame damaged all the Beatles’ family relationships; how could it be otherwise? Paul’s no less than the others’. Francie Schwartz writes of an occasion where a drunk Paul, literally backed against a wall, sobs “You don’t treat me like me anymore, you treat me like Him! And I’m not Him, I’m just me!” at a crowd of dumbstruck relatives.

        • Avatar Annie McNeil wrote:

          GRRRRR italics fail. I only wanted to emphasize “good” and “never” in that long slanty bit in the first paragraph. That is going to bug me forever.

          • Fixed @Annie.

            @Annie wrote:
            I guess I was making a distinction between big-T and little-t trauma, if that makes any sense.

            I don’t think there’s any difference, and this idea comes from the work of Mark Epstein, a Buddhist-inflected psychiatrist practicing in Manhattan. His last book is called “The Trauma of Everyday Life,” and the model it posits is both commonsensical and reassuring. Here’s a quote from a recent NYT Op/Ed: “Trauma is not just the result of major disasters. It does not happen to only some people. An undercurrent of trauma runs through ordinary life, shot through as it is with the poignancy of impermanence.”

            I think is a very useful concept to keep in mind when talking about Paul, especially in comparison to John. John’s family situation was wrenching and terrible–in ways you can see from the outside. Abandoned by his father and mother; raised by a chilly but devoted Aunt; beloved Uncle dies; Mother dies right after their reconnection.
            But Paul’s also got his traumas–his mother, of course, but probably a lot of money worries (it’s not somehow crude for a kid to ask, “What will we do about money?”–it powerfully suggests that money, and Jim’s ability to provide, was an issue even before Mary died); and now significant physical discipline as a child. Was it abuse? To me, that’s a quibble. One has got to be DRIVEN to do what Paul did/has done; great drives require great wounds. Paul’s shown the drive, so he’s got to have the wounds. The only question is, what caused them?

            It’s not how we outsiders perceive it that makes it a big/medium/little trauma, but how the people involved reacted to it. Paul’s clearly a very very VERY sensitive person–he couldn’t be the musician he is, without that. So hitting him is likely to traumatize him more. And the person who’s paying his bills (money-troubles) hitting him? Even more traumatizing. Mightn’t it feel like sweet revenge–in a problem-solving, “see-look-I-did-good” way–to take his father’s old career, and succeed where the Old Man failed? These are the murky waters where the truth lies, not just for Paul, but for every artist, every person.

            Who knows why Mike McCartney was able to shrug it off better (and I’m not sure I believe that; didn’t he have some drunken incident with a waitress a couple years back?)–siblings are different, and are treated differently. Maybe Paul, being the oldest, got the brunt of it. Anyway this whole thread is smelling like something quite essential, and seldom-talked about, in how Paul ticks, who he was to begin with and what he made himself into, and why.

            The story of John is: you take a sensitive boy, give him a lot of pain, and he becomes a genius. The story of Paul has been much brighter, and simpler, and it’s always felt pretty bullshitty to me. It’s the history of the uncomplicated/saccharine/overeager/smarmy person the media wanted Paul to be–a diminishment, very, very partial and not very illuminating. This unhappy stuff, however, feels more like the truth. It explains a lot of things in Paul’s life that up to now, people have just glossed over–WHY he was so determined to succeed; WHY he picked John as a partner, and stayed with him; WHY he has been so committed to being the happy chappie, but had occasional lapses; and so forth.

  13. Avatar Annie McNeil wrote:

    Thanks, Mike. It’s very kind of you to cater to to my formatting neuroses. 🙂

    Mightn’t it feel like sweet revenge–in a problem-solving, “see-look-I-did-good” way–to take his father’s old career, and succeed where the Old Man failed?

    Absolutely, along with a purely personal drive to succeed, as he had chucked his academic prospects and thrown it all in with John. Of all the Beatles, I think Paul was the one who felt the greatest (practical) pressure to make the Beatles work.

    siblings are different, and are treated differently. Maybe Paul, being the oldest, got the brunt of it.

    Could be. I also appreciate your position that trauma is trauma, and find the snippet of Epstein’s philosophy intriguing. But I have to disagree with this: Was it abuse? To me, that’s a quibble. True-blue abusers are a very different animal from Jim McCartney, IMO; habitual abusers seek to break down and dominate their victims in nearly every way (and get a sadistic pleasure from doing so), which requires a profound level of empathy-devoid narcissism.

    I don’t see any evidence of that in Jim. Your earlier point about his blowups having a whiff of booze about them is interesting, though. I’ve never read that Jim was a heavy drinker, but perhaps his father and/or other close relatives were. Alcoholic dysfunctions are often passed down through the generations even if the actual drinking isn’t — that’s very much the case in my own family, in fact.

    • True-blue abusers are a very different animal from Jim McCartney, IMO

      Yes, but my point is–and it’s an almost-academic one, not resolvable but worth keeping in mind–that Jim didn’t have to fit any type of definition to traumatize Paul. We must look at what Paul does as a result of the trauma, not hold the trauma up to a scale outside of Paul. Jim was what he was (a parent who occasionally hit) and Paul was what HE was (a really aware kid–let’s not say “sensitive” because that’s got a whiff of weakness on it, which I don’t intend).

      that’s very much the case in my own family, in fact

      Mine too. People hear “alcoholic” and think “falling-down drunk,” which isn’t necessarily correct; and think that it begins and ends with the drinking, which it doesn’t. It’s a whole looking-glass world, which must be dismantled inside one’s body and mind and heart, piece-by-piece. In a world awash with liquor (as Liverpool was) and absolutely no understanding of chemical dependence, what we can now recognize as prototypical alcohol-fueled dysfunction certain to cause misery and mayhem, was likely viewed as nothing special–how people have always acted–plain ol’ life.

  14. Avatar Annie McNeil wrote:

    @Michael (your latest comment):

    I think you make much wise sense.

    But I feel a boundary the closer I get to the person’s obvious wishes; Paul wishes to maintain that “happy chappy” distance most of the time, and I feel no great need to prove it a lie.

    Agreed; I don’t think it’s a lie either. It’s a real part of him, but just one part. And I’m not sure his maintenance of it is always a deliberate distancing mechanism; he simply may not know how else to be. Does that make sense? I think there was a bit in the Davies bio where Paul said he once tried to drop some of the surface polish and be more “real” and “open” around other people, but he soon gave up because it actually took a lot more effort than his usual presentation of himself.

    I thought this in particular was well-said:

    John Lennon’s easier to do this kind of spitballing with, first because he’s dead–he can’t be injured or even discomfited by what anyone says–and second because he loved to analyze himself in public, so there’s a lot of data there. Paul’s much tougher, and there’s a living person there, and so I tread more lightly in my speculation and conclusions.

    That is a very real and important delineation. You know, I did feel vaguely uneasy about my last post, and I think you’ve shown me why. Not because I thought my speculations were necessarily flawed, but… your “presumptuous” is a good word. Especially here in a public forum.

    • A better version of this reply just got eated, but here’s Try #2:

      Well, @Annie, don’t let my qualms stop you. I think we’re onto something here and your penchant for bringing in documentation is very fruitful.

      he simply may not know how else to be
      Yes, and thank goodness–it’s another example of his splendid instinct towards self-protection. This distance–closer than an old-time managed movie idol, further than John Lennon or a contemporary reality star–probably saved Paul’s life; it certainly has saved his career. As noted elsewhere on HD, I think Lennon’s post-Yoko strategy of dealing with his fame was disastrous in every respect except making him more famous. But it also gnawed away his ability to work and lessened the variety of the work he did do; put him in opposition to the US government (which spoke well of John, but he wanted to live in NYC); and made his family life non-existent. It’s only after 1975, when he takes a page from Paul’s playbook, that he begins to turn back into a human being, to find himself again. Post-1980, I believe John’s life would’ve been well-nigh indistinguishable from Paul’s, or any other rock star of his generation’s. I think he would’ve supported causes, but done so in a much more typical way. His last interviews are overwhelmingly personal, and repudiate the kind of activism that he and Yoko did between 1968-72.

      But what about the Kikkoman boycott? Doesn’t that suggest that Bed-Ins and the like were coming back? I don’t think so; I perceive a definite split between John and Yoko in this regard, where the kinds of things he is interested in–touring, a trip back to England–are diverging from what she’s interested in (basically what they did between ’68-’72, being famous by surfing the political zeitgeist). I expressed this better in the comment that just got eated, but the self-as-brand gambit works for Yoko because she has impenetrable boundaries; she feels no compunction to share her innermost anything with the public at large–and this gives her great message discipline. She is, after 50 years in the public eye, pretty much still a cipher–we may have shitty biographies of Paul, but to my knowledge we have NO bios of Yoko, certainly no authoritative ones. Yoko is a blank space into which she can pour whatever concept she’s pushing at the moment. John, especially post-acid, had very weak boundaries, and so this set up a weird intense relationship between himself and his fans. When he wasn’t actively courting this, that stayed at the level of Christgau’s “John and I would’ve been friends. When he pushed it, the crazies were bound to come out.

      drop some of the surface polish and be more “real” and “open” around other people, but he soon gave up because it actually took a lot more effort than his usual presentation of himself.
      Because Paul wasn’t creating a persona based on “realness”–he was actually trying to be real. That is difficult enough to do one-on-one, and gets more difficult the larger the audience. It’s not a practical or self-protective (or necessary) strategy for dealing with mega-fame.

      • Avatar Annie McNeil wrote:

        @Michael:

        No worries; no external influence can keep me from running amok on the speculation playground. 🙂 But I really liked reading your thoughts; these are people we love and wish well in addition to our artistic admiration, and the implications of analyzing them, and where we choose to draw lines and boundaries, is almost as interesting as the analysis itself. I’m enjoying mulling over my feelings on this, and appreciate your being a catalyst to that. 🙂

        I think Lennon’s post-Yoko strategy of dealing with his fame was disastrous in every respect except making him more famous. But it also gnawed away his ability to work and lessened the variety of the work he did do; put him in opposition to the US government (which spoke well of John, but he wanted to live in NYC); and made his family life non-existent.

        Yes. It’s like he steamrollered himself into two-dimensional iconography. Maybe Yoko (and Paul) can do that WRT their public image only, and elsewhere and otherwise revert to their moving, breathing selves, but I don’t think John was capable of dividing his energies that way. Whether that’s because he lacked discipline, or was vulnerable to believing his own propaganda, or so craved symbiosis with his partners — or a combination of all these — I don’t know.

        • Avatar Annie McNeil wrote:

          Although, on second thought, I’d say Paul is probably less interested in being an icon than he is desirous of being seen as a Regular Bloke. I sense his ego and arrogances are less of the “FUCK YOU I AM A GENIUS GURU” and more of the “THIS IDEA IS CLEARLY AWESOME YOU ARE NOT THE BOSS OF ME” variety (counterintuitively this seemed to make John more accepting of musical criticism than was Paul, but it makes sense if you think about it). But some degree of iconicization of Paul is inevitable, so he rolls with it, keeping it in perspective possibly thanks to the personal understanding of fanful worship that I mentioned above.

  15. Avatar Drew wrote:

    “This unhappy stuff, however, feels more like the truth. It explains a lot of things in Paul’s life that up to now, people have just glossed over–WHY he was so determined to succeed; WHY he picked John as a partner, and stayed with him; WHY he has been so committed to being the happy chappie, but had occasional lapses; and so forth.” Agreed. And unfortunately, neither Mark Lewisohn’s book nor any of the biographies written about Paul in recent years have answered the WHY questions. It was particularly disappointing to me that Lewisohn’s book falls short on that count because Lewisohn has worked with Paul and knows him (to some degree) and seemed to respect Paul and his genius. I was expecting some insights into the WHY of Paul’s character and Tune In gives us very very little. Instead, Lewisohn glosses over Paul’s early life and offers no explanation for WHY Paul developed this deep resistance to being told what to do, WHY he was so driven to work and to succeed, WHY he and John connected so deeply. I didn’t expect the Howard Sounes book about Paul to offer much in the way of insights because he only wrote the book to cash in on the market for Beatles books; Sounes book shows that he doesn’t like Paul or his music and is barely interested in either. It’s really a worthless book. Still if so many posters here can offer so many great insights into Paul’s character, why can’t his biographers?? It’s absolutely a puzzle to me how a man as famous as Macca has managed to elude biographers for so long. And perhaps its their inability to understand him, and their irritation with that and with his zeal for privacy, that accounts for the lazy almost stereotypical caricature of him in too many Beatles books.

    • @Drew–

      It’s absolutely a puzzle to me how a man as famous as Macca has managed to elude biographers for so long.

      Agreed, but as I read this I had a thought: it could be that publishers (or more accurately acquisition committees) feel that McCartney fans wouldn’t buy anything incisive or truly exploratory with Paul. I don’t agree, and you don’t either, but it could be an example of Paul’s media caricature getting in the way here. And certainly if it was perceived that Macca himself wouldn’t like it–would resist it and maybe sue it–that a publisher might well think, “What’s the point?”

      I do think that, at this point, there’s something bigger going on than just a stream of dull-witted authors.

      • Avatar Nancy Carr wrote:

        Michael, I think you’re quite right about the key to Yoko’s success with her public strategy being her rock-solid boundaries. There are a few biographies of her (none of which I’ve read); this one seems like the most straight-up biography (vs. a study of her art), but it’s also described by the publisher as an “expose,” so I’d be doubtful that it’s that good: http://www.amazon.com/Woman-Incredible-Life-Yoko-Ono-ebook/dp/B009QU7C4C/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1387566581&sr=1-4&keywords=yoko+ono+biography

        It’s possible that publishers think McCartney fans “wouldn’t buy anything incisive or truly exploratory with Paul,” but then again the Sounes book got published, and it largely takes a negative view of him. And then there’s the forthcoming Norman bio, which I expect to be somewhat grim unless Norman’s had some kind of near-miraculous change of heart. I think a few factors are at work behind the lack of a great biography of Paul:

        1. The publishers’ perception we just mentioned (that people who like McCartney’s music are shallow and/or unwilling to hear negative things about him).

        2. The magnetic attraction between John Lennon and many psychologically analytical people who want to write about the Beatles. He’s the prime biographical subject for Beatles fans who want to write long-form psychological analysis because he not only has the most spectacular life events, but also, as mentioned above, was most willing to analyze himself in public.

        3. McCartney’s distaste for getting himself analyzed in public, which leads him to cut off the oxygen from such endeavors where possible. I don’t mean by this that he’s shut down book projects (don’t know if he has, but I doubt it), but that he just doesn’t make it easy for people who want to write about him the way people can write about Lennon, with lots of rawly emotional quotes about his inner life.

        4. Kind of the inverse of #2, and maybe a comment on #1 as well: speaking for myself at least, I don’t so much need to see McCartney taken apart bit by bit in print, particularly since he clearly doesn’t want it himself. I am (obviously) curious about what makes him tick, but I’d be most interested in reading a biography that read the music and used the life as background. After he’s dead I’d be more willing to read a biography that laid more bare, though even then only if there were some kind of positive regard on the biographer’s part, comparable to Philip Norman’s or Tim Riley’s toward John. [By “positive regard” here I don’t mean unwillingness to say anything harsh or to call a spade a spade, but a basic sympathy toward the subject and an openness to trying to understand events and actions from his point of view, as well as from others’.]

        • Avatar Annie McNeil wrote:

          I’d be most interested in reading a biography that read the music and used the life as background.

          Yup. Not only because it would be a better fit (as the man himself said, “Here in my music I show you my heart”) but because it would also simply be more interesting than the standard “McCartney was born in 1942…”

          By “positive regard” here I don’t mean unwillingness to say anything harsh or to call a spade a spade, but a basic sympathy toward the subject and an openness to trying to understand events and actions from his point of view

          Yes. Why do so many people who don’t like Paul’s music end up biographying him?? That’s why I was happy about Tom Doyle’s Man on the Run book, which reportedly doesn’t really contain any new material but at least the author likes the guy.

  16. Avatar Drew wrote:

    I just read a favorable review of Lewisohn’s book in The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik. It’s as much about the nature of the Beatles creativity as it is a book review. It’s partly a review of a Duke Ellington biography and an analysis of “modern creativity.” At any rate, Gopnik says the Beatles were “from the start, a two-man compact — what mattered was there inner twoness, more than their iconic fourness. To borrow a mot from Stephen Sondheim about Rodgers and Hammerstein, this was a meeting of a youth of limited talented and unlimited soul with one of unlimited talent and limited soul. The size of Paul McCartney’s gift is ridiculous, and as mystifying as such gifts always are. … It was John Lennon who gave the pair emotional maturity. … Together, the two made something deeper than either ever could have alone.” Hmm. I can’t decide if I agree or disagree. And if I disagree, I’m not sure who to be more defensive about — John, the one with “limited talent and unlimited soul” or Paul, the one with “unlimited talent and limited soul.” But this is how writers perceive them and I guess it will always be the way writers perceive them.

    • Avatar Annie McNeil wrote:

      this was a meeting of a youth of limited talented and unlimited soul with one of unlimited talent and limited soul.

      I find that infuriating, personally. Mostly on Paul’s behalf, since it goes beyond dismissive into the downright dehumanizing. But the bit about John’s “limited talent” is also insane.

      It was John Lennon who gave the pair emotional maturity

      WHAAAT???

      • WHAAAT???
        See above, @Annie. You’re expecting Gopnik to actually know something about John and Paul, and base his opinions on something other than how “the general reader” perceives them. TNY’s game is Olympian appraisal, and from that distance, John was the smart one, Paul the cute one, etc.

    • @Drew, whenever I’ve read him, Adam Gopnik has hewn to the standard analysis; he’s a fine writer, but probably lacks the inner pugnacity necessary for really interesting critique. What he produces are “think pieces”–loose intellectual structures that editors love because they seem smart, and bring order to chaos. But the idea behind the think piece may or may not actually illuminate the topic at hand, and if a think piece ends up reconfirming what you thought before you began to read…what’s the point?

      For example: this piece puts forth the idea of curation/recombination-as-creativity, which makes Gopnik bury the lede in the first half (Ellington STOLE a lot of his classics? That’s news!), and in the second half, overemphasize The Beatles’ magpie tendencies; that’s a factor in the group’s brilliance, but not the factor–Frank Zappa was a magpie, too. He bookends the piece with some Big Idea blather: turns out that jazz and fascism don’t mix, and neither did rock and Stalinism! Why, it’s AP European History, all over again! Fine little piece, if the point is to get a couple of recent books off the “to-review” pile; but IMHO the conceit isn’t revealing, it’s obscuring, and the end of all this intellectual labor is exactly what you thought when you started: Ellington was a genius; The Beatles were innovative because they used everything from showtunes to sea chanteys as grist for the mill; artistic freedom and repressive politics don’t mix.

      It’s no surprise Gopnik uses the standard dichotomy of John and Paul–no time to dig into that! must talk about rock vis-a-vis Stalinism!–assuming that what we all think we know, is correct. Conventional wisdom is what The New Yorker trades in, not just with The Beatles; and it is salutary to see the magazine’s limitations, which are self-imposed. Gopnik’s piece is a tiny little example of how to suffocate interesting facts and ideas (like Ellington’s relations with his band’s creations) with long-known ones (The Beatles, led by John and Paul, covered all sorts of songs as they were emerging) to make a sort of “move-along-nothing-to-see-here” intellectual mush.

  17. Avatar dan wrote:

    I’m beginning to wonder about Lewisohn. On page 443 he describes a photo of the Beatles on stage at the Top Ten Club – ‘Paul stands with the microphone, laughing and singing to John who is down on one knee’. The photo is reproduced in the picture section, where you can see clearly that Paul isn’t standing, he’s kneeling like John. I know it’s a trivial point, but it makes you wonder what other mistakes he’s made that aren’t so easily checked by the reader. The whole selling point of the book is supposed to be Lewisohn’s painstaking accuracy and fact checking.

  18. Avatar Drew wrote:

    I think i reread that Gopnik line — “this was a meeting of a youth of limited talented and unlimited soul with one of unlimited talent and limited soul” — about 20 times. And each time my reaction was “But … but .. but.” 🙂 I thought of so many exceptions. And I’m still not convince Gopnik is right here but I do think he’s conveying the conventional wisdom about John and Paul that even Mark Lewisohn’s new book buys heavily into. I don’t think Gopnik is saying John was untalented, just that his talents musically, instrumentally, and melodically were lesser than Paul’s gifts, which were crazily unlimited and seemed to come out of no where. And I don’t think Gopnik is saying Paul had no soul, just that his intellectual and emotional messages in his work had less depth than John’s, who was crazily unlimited in being able to convey heart, soul, and edge in even the most simple of lyrics. That is the meme on the Beatles that we’ve all been saddled with for decades, isn’t it?

    • Avatar Nancy Carr wrote:

      Drew, that is certainly the meme — and I would even say that it’s not wrong, IF it’s made while taking into account the Olympian ruler you have to use when attempting to take the measure of Lennon and McCartney in this way. (I have no opinion on whether Gopnik “gets” this, having not read the piece.)

      In other words: Lennon had more “talent,” and McCartney more “soul,” than 99.99% of the musicians out there. It’s only when comparing them to EACH OTHER that the talent v. soul distinction really makes sense. I think it is true that Lennon had an astonishing gift for direct emotional communication through his songs. And I think it’s true that McCartney has a similarly astonishing gift for melody and sound itself.

      I went to a show at Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn (IL) last night by the Beatle Brothers, two guys + backing band who get together irregularly to play Beatles covers. (Both guys, Phil Angotti and Jay Goepnner, also have other musical endeavors). Listening to Phil Angotti do “Oh! Darling” and “Maybe I’m Amazed,” I defy anyone to say McCarney lacks “soul.” And any idiot who thinks Lennon was lacking in the melodic department should have heard the crowd singing along to “I Should Have Known Better” and “If I Fell.”

      George Starostin makes the same point (about “soul” and “talent” vis a vis Lennon and McCartney) on his original review site, in his summary assessment of each man’s solo career. Lennon and McCartney get exactly the same numerical ranking on his scale, but the makeup of the score is different. http://starling.rinet.ru/music/indexb.htm

      The meme becomes a problem when it’s used lazily and dismissively — as we’ve noted it’s often used against McCartney.

      [By the way, one of the things I love about this blog is the way we hew to the original subject on these threads! 🙂 Maybe I’ll post something on “talent v soul” this weekend, so we can put all this under a searchable heading!]

  19. The ‘forced signing’ revelation followed by Martin’s virtual disowning of ‘Love Me Do’ telling EMI to not bother spending any money promoting it knocked me out cold. The only time I found ANY of the participants diverging from the official myth is a clip that I included in my Tune In anthology where George Harrison in late 1962 or early 1963 tells reporters that ‘EMI originally turned us down’. The reports all laugh believing that George is joking, and he has to reply that it is true.

    To this day (up through Martin’s recent obit’s) the myth of George Martin hearing them once, immediately recognizing their talent, and running with it is stated as fact. It reminds me of the end of the film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” where Jimmy Stewart’s character has told the true story of how psycho outlaw Liberty Valance came to be shot (the film is a flashback story showing the true story).

    Upon conclusion, the reporter listening to Stewart tears up his notes and says “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

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