Don’t judge by its disturbing cover . . .

Michael Gerber
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“Lennon and McCartney: Together Alone” (2007) is an in-depth look at the solo careers of both men that is comprehensive, well-written and illustrated, and refreshingly free of bias. It’s changed the way I think about some of Lennon’s and McCartney’s solo music. For example, I’ll never hear “Watching the Wheels” the same way again.
I can hardly stand to read anything biographical about either Lennon or McCartney anymore, since so many writers moved to compose book-length works on them are grinding an ax of some variety. Reading John Blaney’s book was, for me, like opening a window and letting welcome fresh air into an overheated room…

Blaney writes with interest about both Lennon and McCartney and spends more time on facts than speculation. The discussion of every album includes extensive notes on its recording, including personnel on each track and comments from many people involved in the work. Rather than emphasizing his own interpretations, Blaney mostly allows people directly involved with the music—especially Lennon and McCartney themselves—to speak about it.
When Blaney does speculate, he makes it clear he’s doing so and grounds the speculation in something tangible. Here, for example, is the part of his commentary that’s changed the way I hear “Watching the Wheels”:
“But Lennon had been contemplating more than the fast-turning wheels of showbiz. Religion and spirituality had influenced him. Where previously he’d tried to imagine a world without religion, he now found himself drawn to it. The Ba’hai Faith may have affected Lennon: its central belief, that humanity is one single race and that the day has come for its unification into one global society, was condensed into a pithy aphorism, “One World, One People,” and inscribed into the dead wax of the “(Just Like) Starting Over” single. The wheels Lennon found himself contemplating were, more often than not, those governing destiny: the karmic wheels that influence the spiritual evolution of humanity as a whole.” (p. 146)
Now, I don’t know whether Blaney is right about Lennon’s possibly being influenced by the Ba’hai faith, but there’s certainly a chime between that faith’s key beliefs and Lennon’s hope for a world not riven by religious or national differences. Thinking about that makes it a bit easier for me to understand how the author of the anti-religious “Imagine” was also fascinated by numerology, horoscopes, and other forms of mysticism.
And I’d never have known about the writing in the deadwax, since I don’t have that 45.
So thanks, John Blaney, for producing a Lennon/McCartney book that manages to be both even-handed and illuminating.
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  1. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    I don’t know. I always interpreted the wheels as being the wheels of industry, the wheels of commerce, that John had removed himself from, leaving the business meetings to Yoko. He’s watching the wheels go round and round, but he just had to let it go.

  2. Avatar Nancy wrote:

    I think those two interpretations may be compatible, Anon. I’d always thought of the lines as only being about the wheels of commerce, but thinking about them as karmic wheels adds a dimension to the song for me. Why would he “love to watch them roll” if they’re just commercial wheels?

  3. Avatar Karen wrote:

    With all due apologies to men, I think that since most (if not all) prominent books about the Beatles are written by men, with a man’s sensibility, they miss the homoerotic point of the Lennon/McCartney connection (present blog authorship excepted.)

  4. Karen, I for one have always been really puzzled with the “heat” that lots of Beatle fans have regarding the homoerotic aspects of Lennon and McCartney’s friendship. Setting aside whether anything sexual happened between the two of them–none of our beeswax anyway–any suggestion that there might be an amorous-level of intensity in their relationship makes some people go bonkers.

    Yoko stokes this fire for reasons only she knows, periodically alluding to some sort of crypto gayness on Lennon’s part. So not the point. McCartney denies they were ever physical, and I believe him FWIW, but all this is much too literal-minded. Two artists locked together as they were, especially from a young age, living out of each other’s pockets, going through the strangest experience you can imagine–whatever else it was, it was surely some kind of love affair. Not for nothing did Lennon/McCartney blossom after Stu died.

    Collaboration is a very intense psychological process; the partner sees all your shit, and you see theirs. You “save” each other in public and private, time after time after time. The equation gets complicated, and the only other types of adult relationships with such extensive algebra are sexual partners. So the comparison is illuminating. A friendship with the intensity of a love affair, a business partnership with the dynamics of a marriage–call it what you will, but one can’t deny the erotic charge without undervaluing the deep emotional connection these two guys had. IMHO, it’s the emotional connection that matters, not where one’s wee-wee goes, especially when you’re talking about these two people.

  5. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Karen, very interesting comment!
    I am female too.

    I believe that John wanted to share everything with Paul right up to drugs and sex, but Paul refused. This happened in India. This is why Paul wrote “Why don’t We do it in the Road”.

    Remember, Paul went home early from India and the atmosphere in the studio was poisoned after the stay. John felt offended.

    You cannot overestimate die importance of their relationship to the existence of the group, the Beatles.

  6. Avatar Nancy wrote:

    A good point, Karen — I wonder if one of the reasons for the side-choosing I mentioned in some books about Lennon, McCartney, or the both of them stems from the author’s discomfort with the intensity of that relationship.

    If you look at the language Lennon and McCartney used about each other, it’s clear how deep their relationship ran (I don’t think it was sexual, but it sure was emotional). John calling Paul an estranged “fiance” when he was playing “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” with Elton John, Paul singing “I love you” on “Here Today” . . . . Even the savageness of their animosity points to the underlying depths. You can’t get that mad at someone you don’t care about.

    As much as the cover of Blaney’s book creeps me out, it — and the title — are getting at something true. However much they fought, I don’t think Lennon and McCartney never really separated emotionally.

  7. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    I read an interesting column not long ago, written by two sets of academics who collaborated together on their research. One was a gay man and a lesbian woman who collaborated. The other were to straight men (both married to women). And both pairs of partners talked about how their collaboration meant that they often had characteristics of a romantic couple (finishing each other’s sentences, speaking on behalf of the other, complimenting the other) — so much so that people often assumed both pairs were romantic, even though neither was.

    We may never know if John and Paul had a sexual relationship, and it may never have reached that point. But the nature of John and Paul’s deep, years-long collaboration would easily have meant that they had a deep emotional attachment and that their relationshp took on aspects of a romantic couple, whether it ever reached that point or not.

    — Drew

  8. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Paul wouldn’t lie to “protect” himself, he would lie to protect others.

  9. Avatar Karen wrote:

    By “heat” Michael, do you mean opposition, or passionate interest? I think there could be two schools.

    And I agree–none of our beeswax, however much we are nosy about it. 🙂

    “One can’t deny the erotic charge without denying the emotional connection.”. Exactly. Since many male authors do the former, they unavoidably do the latter.

    Their books become a weird pissing contest between John and Paul (or between them, John, and Paul).

    As Nancy said, the bias is obvious.

  10. Karen, I meant “opposition,” though for me it’s one of the things that really holds my interest in The Beatles over the years. I worked with a writing partner for about ten years, and scaled some heights with him (though hardly Beatle-like heights) and so the delicate dance John and Paul did with each other is fascinating to me.

    Coming from the same time and place, and so desperately determined to be seen as distinct from the other; competing to the death, but supporting to the hilt; egotistically divvying everything up into “I did that and he did this”–while at the same time knowing in your bones that none of it would’ve been nearly as good without the magical multiplicative power; fighting, but then lighting into any outsider that would dare criticize the partner; managing all the emotions around success and failure; and the simple, incredibly complex act of creating things that, if they are to be good, must reflect YOU, and if they are to be great, must have room for HIM TOO…

    Anyhow, not to hijack the thread. J&P are endlessly fascinating to me, as a team and as individuals–save for when they’re tallying up the scores in public. That I could care less about, which is interesting because it’s exactly the opposite of what the ego tells us. “The world must know that I, John Lennon, helped write the lyrics to Eleanor Rigby, because then the world will love me more!”

  11. Avatar Nancy wrote:

    Karen and Michael, I’m enjoying hearing your thoughts on the Lennon/McCartney partnership. Michael, it’s especially interesting to hear from someone who’s actually had that kind of collaboration with someone.

    I agree that the public scorekeeping (I wrote this, he wrote that) is tiresome, and a good example of how Lennon and McCartney painted themselves into their respective corners after the breakup. Once they started airing their animosity in the press and making statements about who contributed what, there was no way to get out of that game entirely, and I think it hurt them both badly.

    Watching something about WWI, I learned that “trench knives” with triangular blades were used in hand-to-hand combat during that war because the jagged wounds they made were so difficult to heal. Lennon and McCartney used words on each other rather than blades, but I think they inflicted that kind of damage on each other.

  12. Nancy, what were you watching about WWI? It’s a huge interest of mine, and part of a new book I’m writing. So, spill.

  13. Avatar Nancy wrote:

    Michael, sorry to say I don’t remember exactly what I saw — pretty sure it was a documentary on PBS. It may have been this one:

    BTW, this thread is now proof that the Beatles are, in fact, connected to everything.

  14. Thanks, Nancy–that’s a good one. Although for pure bulk, there’s no beating the BBC’s 26-part “The Great War” from 1964 (it’s like “The World at War,” but for WWI).

    I’ve always felt that The Beatles phenomenon was the other side of the coin to the great mass movements based on nationalism and savagery. Not for nothing did Lennon give the Nazi salute in front of those undulating crowds; Beatlemania was an exercise in mass release, but for positive ends for once, not negative ones.

  15. Avatar Nancy wrote:

    Yes, and it made sense that Lennon was in “How I Won the War” — “connection” in the sense of “opposition.”

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