Paul Better Than John? Hell Has Frozen Over!

Michael Gerber
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“REMINDER — All edit ppl MUST attend 2pm mtg on songwriters list fuckup”

Longtime reader Paul Guay alerted me to the following tidbit: In Rolling Stone‘s latest listifiction, The 100 Greatest Songwriters — ogle it here — Paul McCartney is listed at #2, one spot ahead of John Lennon.

As Paul wrote, “Hell has indeed frozen over.”

As a once-and-future magazine person, I bet the halls were slick with blood over this one. From the outside at least, RS doesn’t seem like the kind of place one could thrive openly preferring McCartney over Lennon; the implications would be too much — in my line of work, it would be like preferring The Marx Brothers over The Onion. Lots of people do, myself included, but those aren’t the people making livings telling the public what’s good. Critics are priests, and orthodoxies must be maintained.

And yet…could Jann’s iron grip finally be loosening? Or have we been introduced to a kind of math:
Q: How many more songs does it take to overcome a (perceived) coolness deficit?
A: 35 years’ worth.

I’m looking forward to hearing everyone’s quibbles. Here are Paul’s to get us started: “They should have listed Lennon-McCartney as a team, in addition to listing them as individuals. And I’m disappointed (but not surprised) to see that Harry Chapin, Don McLean, John Denver and Cat Stevens are invisible.”

Yeah, John and Paul as a team. Mentioned here as an example of Lennon’s genius (which it was), I’d argue that “A Day in the Life” should be put in the J&P bucket because, what would it be without Paul’s orchestration, and the “Woke up/fell out of bed” break? Still great, sure, but markedly less great. It’s really a song that presages both men’s futures — Lennon’s tendency to have one great idea and run it to ground, and McCartney’s sometimes-overwhelming musicality.

Who’d they miss? Who’s too high or low?

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  1. These contests are impossible. Who was more influential, Jesus or Mohammed? Who was better, Bach or Beethoven? What does that even mean? But if you’re limiting it to popular music, let’s be clear — 500 years from now, there will be only one popular musician’s oeuvre which will be treated as anything more than an historical curiosity, and that will be the Beatles. Yes, Dylan and the Stones and Duke Ellington will be there, but they will be in the “history tapes” as Star Trek put it. The one popular music act from our era in history which will still be actively listened by a broad section of the population will be the Beatles.

    It’s already happening. You can buy the complete Beatles scores in a hardback edition. Not a piano play along edition, but complete transcripts made by a team of transcribers from the original recordings. That has been done in Jazz, but in popular music only for the Beatles. There are countless Beatles biographies, academic studies (even academic titles), musicological analyses, etc.

    There is no Allan Pollack analysis of every Stones song. There is no Complete Rolling Stones transcribed recordings. There are no titles like “Jimi Hendrix as a Musician”. There are no books titled “Songwriting Secrets of Bob Dylan”.

    (“Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles” is actually a complete college level course in music theory using only the Beatles music. It’s an astonishing book. Buy it.)

    So, Lennon-McCartney will be the ones — the only ones — still here in 500 years. And you could argue that Paul is the one responsible for John writing songs in the first place. It was Paul that was writing songs from childhood, and John didn’t start until impelled by a sense of competition. It’s hard to say if Lennon would ever have written his own songs had he not met McCartney. History needed McCartney more.

  2. Avatar Mr O. wrote:

    Little correction : actually, there are books about “Jimi Hendrix as a musician” and complete transcripts for all of his songs, because Mr. Hendrix was also doing pretty interesting job a the time 🙂 But I agree with you for the rest, especially the part when you say McCartney pushed Lennon to write songs. Maybe Lennon could have been a book writer, but the music was definitely McCartney’s life at 200%, and this man cannot do anything else.

  3. Chris Dingman Chris Dingman wrote:

    I pretty much agree with Sir H, above. And this is coming from a huge Dylan fan. But I find that my intense Dylan phase didn’t last whereas the Beatles have always been there for me. And yes, Paul was the consummate songwriter. As a force of nature, as a fearless individualist, maybe Dylan gets the nod. And I do think his singing spawned a universe of singers that came after–listen even to people like Donald Fagen, the phrasing… But for songwriting? Sir Paul.
    And as for the other numbers below 1 or 2, it’s all a matter of taste–ranking them is just silly.

  4. Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

    Ah, magazine lists. I’ve ranted at my share here, but I think I crossed a personal Rubicon this summer in a Milwaukee record store when I picked up an issue of NME and saw the Smiths’ “The Queen Is Dead” listed as the #1 Greatest Album Of All Time. Hey, I like the Smiths quite a bit . . . but I laughed aloud. Who’s on top of whatever list is just going to blow with the wind. As Sir H says, time is the real sorting mechanism. But saying that doesn’t sell magazines or get people to click on your link.

    [Link to the NME list, for those inclined:

    Props to Paul for saying that Lennon and McCartney should have been listed together, and for the “hell has frozen over” quote.

    • Avatar Paul Guay wrote:

      Thanks for the props, Nancy, but I should say that I merely echoed the observation (that Lennon & McCartney should have been listed together) made by Stephen Spignesi, on whose FB page I saw the story. Stephen, BTW, co-wrote the entertaining “Here, There and Everywhere: The 100 Best Beatles Songs.”

  5. Avatar Drew wrote:

    Actually this is a very calculated move on Rolling Stone’s part. I’m sure it was debated inhouse at length. But it’s smart. You see, really, Lennon-McCartney should be at No. 2 (or no. 1) on that list. But if RS does that, then it has to deal with where to place Lennon and McCartney as solo artists. RS always prefers to have Lennon at the top of these lists as a solo artist and McCartney as a solo artist way down at the bottom — and then it gets a lot of grief for being Lennon fanboys. By separating Lennon-McCartney, RS avoids the problem of what to do about McCartney’s solo work (which is doesn’t like much of). And by putting McCartney above Lennon on this list, it generates publicity and attention (especially from the outraged Lennonistas). So RS actually put McCartney at No. 2 more as a calculated move to generate publicity than because the magazine’s editors really believe it. Or maybe I’m just too cynical. 🙂

    • @Drew, here’s an interesting thought: I think they didn’t add “Lennon/McCartney” because if they did, it would be #1 or #2, McCartney would be significantly higher than Lennon (for the reasons he’s #2 and John is #3 on this current list), and solo Lennon would have to be judged much more harshly.

      POB was a watershed; Imagine very good; but the rest…Take Double Fantasy out of its historical context, and are those songs great? I don’t think so, and I LIKE ’em. Outside of context, they’re Walls and Bridges — lovely Lennon, but not particularly innovative or revelatory.

      Taking Lennon’s solo work alone, who can prove that he’s more influential or accomplished than, say, Paul Simon or David Bowie or Lou Reed? Brian Eno? David Byrne? Now I personally like John’s solo work as much or more than Simon/Bowie/Reed (or Eno or Bono or Byrne or Sting’s work), but there’s simply not enough of it and the highlights not so very high that it can make up for only 10 years. Two and a half great albums do not stack up well against, say, Bowie’s 70s.

      So I think conflating Lennon and McCartney’s solo work with their Beatles work gave RS a way to highlight both men’s towering contributions to rock, without dealing with the fact that Lennon’s solo catalog simply isn’t big enough to outweigh other, perhaps lesser artists who’ve been able to take many, many more swings as solo artists. McCartney’s #2 because he’s got a mammoth solo catalog; Lennon simply doesn’t.

  6. Avatar Ruth wrote:

    These lists are, as everyone has said, pointless and add nothing to the overall story. And what little methodology they have is seriously flawed: if they rank the other great duos, Lieber/Stoller and Goffin/King as a unit, why didn’t they rank Lennon/McCartney as one?

    Having said that, the reasons for this list, and Rolling Stone’s (and Wenner’s) role in crafting how Beatles history is written, is one I find fascinating. *If* Wenner was involved in approving a list that shockingly ranks Paul above John, why? I tend to view everything through the lens of historiography, so I might be projecting here, but I think Rolling Stone is slowly, carefully, edging away from its previous Orthodoxies regarding Paul.

    I think Rolling Stone is shifting its message for the same reason that Philip Norman is *really* writing a biography of Paul, and for the same reason that Ray Coleman significantly revised his interpretations of the John/Paul friendship and writing partnership over the different editions of his John bio and his biography of Paul: They’re all attempting to restore their credibility as Beatles authorities by backtracking away from their previously biased work without explicitly disavowing it.

    Almost every knowledgeable fan is aware of RS’s pro-John/Yoko anti-Paul bias. It’s worked its way into the literature as well: they discuss it in The Uncensored History of Rolling Stone, The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles and The Beatles Bibliography: “Twenty years after Lennon’s death, Jann Wenner was still peddling the absurd and self-aggrandizing myth that Lennon was the Beatles and McCartney the pop-sugar coating.” It’s common knowledge online: I’ve seen record reviewers acknowledge it, and when Gilmore’s article on the Beatles breakup included his declaration that John was the band’s sole genius, numerous comments on the article disagreed and accused Wenner (or Ono) of inserting that line, and eventually they took the article’s comments down.

    If well-informed fans know that RS is biased on Paul, than RS must know its has a credibility problem as well. And that undermines RS’s value, which in turn undermines the Orthodoxy they’ve maintained since 1970. Fifty years from now, any historian researching the Beatles is going to use RS as a source, but source analysis 101 means one of the first questions they’re going to ask is: how impartial was this source? Ultimately, they’re going to conclude that, due to its unflagging promotion of the wildly exaggerated Lennon Remembers and Wenner’s personal relationship with Ono, that RS is suspect. Which means that every article, every interview, every piece of evidence from RS is tainted. Valuable, but suspect. Which ultimately undermines the story RS has been telling for decades.

    It’s in RS’s best interests to distance itself, to an extent, from its own Orthodoxy, because clinging to that Orthodoxy only undermines their credibility further. So you have a curious mix: The Gilmore article which blames John for the breakup but then declares Paul wasn’t a genius: Rolling Stone’s profile of George anointing both John and Paul “two stone-cold geniuses” followed by their “ultimate guide” to John which, according to The Beatles Bibliography, doesn’t mention Liverpool, Cynthia, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “I Am The Walrus” and evidently argues John’s life began in 1970. Then you have lists like this, which severs the Lennon/McCartney partnership (something it doesn’t do to any of the other songwriting partnerships) but ranks Paul ahead of John. I anticipate we’re going to continue to see such schizophrenic output from RS as long as Wenner is at the helm.

    • Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

      Ruth, I think your analysis is spot on. “Backtracking away from their previously biased work without explicitly disavowing it” is exactly what I think RS, Norman and others are doing as regards McCartney.
      I like to think that Wenner and Norman, in particular, have had some time to reflect on their 1970s/1980s work and realize that the Revised Standard Version of the Lennon story that they helped codify in that period isn’t going to wear well. And maybe — who knows? — they’ve come to regret some of what they did.
      Drew, you could be right about RS’s logic in not listing Lennon & McCartney as a pair. I’m still amazed, though, that they listed Paul before John, for any reason — not something I would have predicted RS would ever do while Wenner was still alive.
      Nice that McCartney is still here to see these shifts in critical opinion. Whenever I listen to “Ram” now I think again about how that album’s critical fortunes have changed in the last four decades. “Smile Away,” indeed.

    • @Ruth, you’re looking at this like an historian, but maybe you should look at it like a publisher?

      RS doesn’t make money because it is accurate — it makes money by identifying a group of fans and servicing that market. There has always been a group of baby boomer Beatles fans with an intense personal interest in Lennon the Truthteller. It existed in 1971, and mushroomed after 1980.

      I have no doubt that Wenner truly believes in that version of John Lennon — because it makes “Lennon Remembers” important; because it plays to his own preferences as John’s #1 fan; and because it sells more magazines than a measured, balanced approach to John and Paul and the breakup. John knew all this, and that’s why he fed Wenner a simplified, sensationalized, slanted version of events in 1971, and 1980. (Because he had LPs to sell. Remind me, who was the “world’s greatest PR man”?)

      So I don’t think the recalibration is about RS wanting to get it right. I think it’s about Wenner and his generation — who have a real dog in the John vs. Paul fight — aging out, and being replaced by editors who don’t give nearly as much of a shit. And so they can read all the sources, and weigh them more appropriately. Because they are more cynical about St. John…as they should be.

      As discussed here recently, there’s some doubt as to whether historians will properly apply themselves to the Beatles. I hope they will, but if they do it will likely be because sites like this one show the way, and demonstrate that there is an audience for such a thing. With the Beatles phenomenon increasingly controlled by a corporation, the story will be simplified for easier marketability…as Lennon’s story was, the moment he died. As long as Lennon was alive, he reserved the right to change his mind on any detail he wished, and his story was complex; as soon as he died, the St. John myth was promulgated by the Estate, which has made a TON of money off this simplification. And it’s been writers and fans craving more nuance that has pushed back against that.

      • Avatar Ruth wrote:

        You may very well be right, Michael: as I said before, I have a tendency to view everything through the lens of historiography, and can project accordingly. Having said that, the younger generation being responsible for RS shifting the narrative away from “St. John of Peace” is part of historiography: we’re finally getting to a point where people can assess the Beatles with an adequate amount of “historical distance.” See, I did it again!

        • @Ruth, I LOVE that you do this and practically insist that you comment on every post to give us that viewpoint.

          Whenever I get back from Beatlefest, I’m struck by how many fans seem to crave a simple Beatles narrative. Historical fact has nothing to do with how most fans, and certainly most first-generation fans, view the group. The Beatles, being theirs, are about THEM. Facts are not allowed to intrude, and when they do, they are dismissed, sometimes angrily.

          Perhaps what happened was this: psychologically, it was easiest to blame Paul for the breakup. If John broke up the group, that in some way invalidates the whole enterprise — since John made it, John broke it up because it must have been a failure in some way. George, too, would’ve been easy to hate, excise out of the story. Ringo, as the mascot — well, that would’ve been a terrible betrayal. Only Paul, the Beatliest Beatle of them all, had the extra leeway. Only Paul could’ve taken the group from the fans, and still retained the fans’ love. I don’t think facts have anything to do with how most Beatles fan perceive such things.

          For example, I was researching a tidbit for another comment, and came upon this comment thread — first in Google results when you type in “Lennon Harrison fight.” There’s not a fact in the entire discussion, and yet utter certainty throughout. On the other hand, though, there’s this thread from So ignorance — hewing to the standard line — is a choice.

  7. Avatar Ruth wrote:

    Nancy, I have my doubts regarding Norman and Wenner’s personal regret for their fervent support of their flawed Orthodoxy. In his 2002 edition of Shout!, Norman admits that his interpretation of Paul was “wrong, to a certain extent,” renounces his previous declaration that John was three-quarters of the Beatles, acknowledges Paul’s musical talent and general niceness … and then proceeds to change very little of his original text, while adding appendices that mock Paul’s solo career (not to mention criticizing Stella’s choice of clothing and skill as a fashion designer) and perpetuates his previous contemptuous portrayal of Paul. Norman was talking out of both sides of his mouth. Norman may have regretted that his reputation was weakened by his fervent anti-Paul (and anti-George) and pro-John biases, but he didn’t regret it enough to change his actual interpretation or conclusions.

    Having said that, perhaps he regrets it now. Norman strikes me as the sort of biographer who inserts himself so heavily into the narrative that unless he personally understands/likes something, he cannot conceive how other people might like it. That was his reasoning regarding his shifting view on Paul for the John bio, wasn’t it? “I was finally able to understand why John would have wanted this guy around.” The sheer arrogance and ego of that statement is mind-boggling. Until he, Philip Norman, understood how and why John Lennon might have wanted Paul McCartney around (which was, evidently not until approximately 2006 or so) than all the primary sources, all the video evidence, all the songwriting, the years of friendship, meant nothing. He’s claimed to have a complete conversion on the Paul issue, conveniently in time for his Paul bio. If he does genuinely like Paul now, perhaps he’ll employ the same shoddy methodology, moral double standards, and selective use of sources to support his pre-determined thesis to elevate Paul the way he did John and Yoko, although that still leaves poor George out in the cold.

    Professionally, I believe it must worry them: there’s a reason Norman got upset with Lewisohn’s (accurate) criticisms of Shout! Wenner and Norman staked their claims as Beatle authorities on narratives that have been crumbling ever since Lewisohn published The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions. Their biases undermines not only their professional reputations but also their Orthodoxies. As a historian, I cannot stress enough how toxic bias is in evaluating a secondary source. Shout! is going to end up as a footnote in Beatles historiography as a prime example of how partisan and methodologically flawed their story was originally written. Norman can’t salvage Shout, but he can somewhat salvage his reputation on Paul. My advice to him would be to frankly acknowledge his previous bias in the book’s preface, explain his previous errors/misinterpretations, explain how and why he changed his view, and promise to deliver as impartial a biography of Paul as possible. Then follow through in the actual text … which he notably did not do in later editions of Shout! Does Norman have the modesty to do this? I guess we’ll find out in about a year.

    • Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

      Excellent points about Norman, Ruth. My expectations for his McCartney bio are low, because as you say the evidence suggests he doesn’t enjoy or “get” McCartney’s music. (Or George’s.) Unless he’s undergone a real change in that respect, I wouldn’t want to read his bio, just as I wouldn’t want to read a bio of any other musician/writer/artist written by someone who doesn’t “get” their work.
      That’s not to say a biographer should be uncritical of the work, just that, in my experience, without a basic respect for a creative artist’s work it’s impossible to get much insight into that artist.

      • @Ruth and @Nancy, I hold out no hope for Norman to have seen the light on Paul. This smells like a typical publishing thing to me; Norman’s Lennon bio got decent numbers and reviews, so his editor was looking for an obvious followup…a bio of Paul.

        The only interesting theory I can throw out for this one is: if you had been royally screwed by Yoko, and you were Philip Norman, how could you really stick the knife in? Write a biography of Paul that paints her as the villain of the breakup. Which is a legit reading of the events — this is why RS and Wenner have had to work so HARD over the years.

        Yoko’s eleventh-hour pulling of “authorization” from Norman’s book probably cost him millions of dollars in royalties from that book. An authorized biography has an authority, justified or not, that makes it canonical — and balloons its sales, and extends its shelf-life for decades, regards of flaws. See: Davies, Hunter. Anyway, just a thought.

  8. Avatar Drew wrote:

    I think Norman is going to write a hatchet job about Paul, and if that doesn’t happen, I’ll eat every hat I own. 🙂

    I totally agree with you that Norman’s credibility is and always will be in question. I have no idea why he would even want to write a book about Paul as Norman doesn’t like or appreciate Paul as an ARTIST. And you need to have some empathy and interest in an artist’s work to write objectively about it. You need to both love some of the artist’s work and hate some of it. You can’t hate all of it, as Norman seems to do (the guy has zero appreciation of Paul’s solo work).

    I have a controversial theory about Jann Wenner. I think Jann had an affair with John, and Yoko knew but looked the other way because having Wenner on your side was good for the John-Yoko business. John was no dummy. Sleeping with Wenner would have been a great way to control how the Beatles story was told. There’s no other way to explain how Wenner personally went out of his way to sabotage Paul and Paul’s career. It wasn’t just business. It was personal. Wenner had a crush, and John used that to his advantage.

    As Ruth spelled out so well, however, I think Wenner foolishly and blindly believed the Paul-is-evil story that John and Yoko were telling. And it was only after Lewisohn’s work, and after Gilmore’s article — suggesting that John and George had really screwed Paul over — that Wenner began to see that maybe, just maybe, Paul wasn’t the only villain here.

    I am not at all suggesting Paul didn’t act with self-interest at times. I’m sure he did. But he certainly wasn’t the ONLY villain. And I’m not sure how the music press ever concluded he was. How is it that in a culture where we usually sympathize with the underdog — the one who gets left out when his 3 friends decide to join forces against him — Paul got no sympathy at all after the breakup? (Yes, I know Paul sued, but that was only after his back was against the wall.) Instead, somehow in the Beatles story, the guy standing alone while his 3 friends betray him and place their trust in a stranger (Klein) is the guy who becomes the villain. It’s like people didn’t want to blame John or George or Ringo, so they turned Paul into the Big Bad Wolf (controlling in the studio, wouldn’t compromise, mean to George, yada yada yada) and the other 3 are the helpless piggies (pun intended). Except in this fairy tale, a judge sides with the Big Bad Wolf and finds he’s the one who’s been mistreated. And the wolf ends up saving the financial fortunes of the piggies. 🙂

    In a way I guess Paul should feel flattered that so many people saw him as so powerful. But he wasn’t flattered, he was crushed to lose his friends and his band. He still seems crushed by it. He can’t stop talking about it. I think he’s a lot more fragile that people thing. And he’s spent 40 years fighting for his reputation and enduring the sort of cruel comments and hostility that never seem to get aimed at John, George, and Ringo.

    It would be so nice if Paul got a biographer who: (1) understand and appreciated him as an artist without being sycophantic and (2) was able to unpack the enigma that is Paul McCartney.

    • Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

      Drew, I don’t think it’s necessary to posit an affair between Lennon and Wenner to account for Wenner’s obvious emotional investment. Hero worship / I-am-your-REAL-best-friend syndrome would account for the stars in Wenner’s eyes, I think. Lennon was certainly charismatic — Allen Klein and Phillip Norman seem to have fallen for him in much the same way Wenner did. Not to mention Lennon and McCartney’s relationship, which was obviously emotionally fraught but not, IMO, sexual.
      A non-sexual friendship can be just as emotionally powerful and life-defining as an erotic one, I believe.

      • Avatar Ruth wrote:

        I agree with Nancy: I think John’s personal charisma must have been outstanding: didn’t Delbert McClinton call him “The most charismatic person I ever met?” The number of reporters, biographers and others who met and then hero-worshipped Lennon is just staggering. Look at Ray Coleman: Coleman’s view of Paul in his early editions of his John bio is just as negative as anything Wenner’s sold, and his view of John is just as fawning: the work’s a hagiography. Coleman retreated from his interpretation of Paul, to an extent, as time went on (the same way RS and Norman are retreating now). You don’t have to had a sexual interest in John to worship him, regard him as an oracle of truth, view him as the only great artist in the Beatles, take everything he (and Yoko) said as gospel, and push that propaganda on everyone else. Plenty of people did (and still do) that.

      • I also rolled my eyes at @Drew’s theory, @Nancy, but Jann Wenner as of 1971 was either bisexual or a closeted gay man. He has lived with a man since 1995.

        In this particular context, I don’t think it’s absurd to suggest that Wenner’s attraction to Lennon was erotic in nature; nor do we know whether the two men (one definitely bisexual, the other possibly so) had any kind of physical relations. But that’s not nearly as important, to me, as recognizing the erotic electricity that runs through every human relationship at some voltage.

        One of the signal flaws of history as a method of interpreting reality is that, if something leaves no trace, it doesn’t exist. This is such a HUGE disconnect with life as it is actually lived that I entertain theories like Drew’s — as out there as they seem — if they seem to explain things that conventional history does not. Wenner’s reaction to Lennon’s assassination was hugely emotional; the conventional history does not really account for that. To me, his steadfast preference for John over Paul really makes no sense in an adult male if there’s no erotic charge. He and John were never pals, and yet the man was devastated, and spent most of the next two decades feeding the St. John myth. It’s either pure commerce or something more, and I prefer to think that Wenner’s heart was broken in an especially tender way.

        So…perhaps? It impugns no one, and explains some behaviors.

    • Avatar Ruth wrote:

      I guess we’ll see in a year, Drew, but I’m convinced of the exact opposite. While I’m not sold on his “conversion” on Paul one bit, I believe Norman has to know that writing a hatchet job on Paul would be a huge professional error on his part. He’s already got serious credibility problems on Paul, which lessens his status as a Beatles authority, and he’s not going to restore any claims to impartiality be writing a “The Lives of Paul McCartney.”

      Like Nancy, I’m not looking forward to his work, in part because of his habit of self-insertion, and his obvious (deliberate?) efforts to interpret Paul’s songs in the shallowest way possible, such as his dismissal of “Lady Madonna” in the John bio as a song about “a sluttish earth mother’s laddered tights.” The page count for the book, according to Amazon, is somewhere around 500 pages, where John’s was over 800, which tells me 1. Norman didn’t get any new interviews or sources that Carlin/Sounes didn’t get and 2. Norman’s just not that interested in Paul, and is writing the bio to 1. redeem his reputation on Paul 2. Because his publisher floated the idea. My guess is that Norman’s going to write a bio that seems fair and impartial on the surface but still manages to undermine Paul’s artistic reputation and reinforce Paul as John’s (commercial, artistic, sentimental) inferior in almost every way.

      As for the 3 against 1 quality of the breakup … I wasn’t around to witness it, but if you flip it around, the 3 against 1 quality initially works against Paul, not for him. I assume John, George or Ringo fans supported their particular Beatle in the breakup, which already leaves Paul outnumbered. Especially since the message they kept saying — that the only reason for the breakup was because Paul wanted his in-laws, not Klein, to manage the Beatles, and was throwing a hissy fit because he didn’t get his way — is easy to understand. Klein didn’t become an undisputed bad guy until 1973/74, when J, G & R broke with him: before that, a lot of people regarded Paul’s distrust of Klein as unreasonable: I think Doggett mentions that the press called it “irrational.”

      • “My guess is that Norman’s going to write a bio that seems fair and impartial on the surface but still manages to undermine Paul’s artistic reputation and reinforce Paul as John’s (commercial, artistic, sentimental) inferior in almost every way.”
        Yep. 100% agree. Norman practically has to write this, or invalidate everything he’s written to date on the Beatles.

        When oh when will people actually look at the songs, and see that post-68, Lennon’s as sentimental, if not more so?

        Harrison was the swing vote on the Klein matter, and I suspect his qualms over supporting John over Paul during that period, and during the Imagine era, were at the root of their falling-out. “I did everything you said…”

      • Avatar Drew wrote:

        “My guess is that Norman’s going to write a bio that seems fair and impartial on the surface but still manages to undermine Paul’s artistic reputation and reinforce Paul as John’s (commercial, artistic, sentimental) inferior in almost every way.”

        See that’s my definition of a hatchet job. Wolf in sheep’s clothing. Norman will feign objectivity but he has ZERO understanding and appreciation of Paul as an artist. And Norman, as an extreme Lennon fanboy, could very well be trying to restore Lennon’s pre-eminence, and challenge the increased critical respect that Paul has received for his role in the Beatles. We’ll see. I’m dreading the book. I bet Paul is, too.

        In fact, I think no one should write a biography of Paul he’s died. His life is still ongoing. John didn’t have any extensive bio until he died. George STILL hasn’t had a decent bio. Paul shouldn’t have to endure these repeated lame biographers by hacks like Howard Sounes and fanboys like Philip Norman. Harrumph!

        • Damn, somebody should write a really good biography of George. George’s “Autobiography of a Yogi,” a classic. According to that book’s Wikipedia page: “George Harrison, lead guitarist of The Beatles, received his first copy of Autobiography of a Yogi from Ravi Shankar in 1966 and “that was where his interest in Vedic culture and Indian-ness began.”

          Wouldn’t that be nice?

      • Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

        To clarify, I am by no means rolling my eyes at Drew’s theory of an affair between Lennon and Wenner — I’m saying that I don’t think a physical affair is necessary to explain Wenner’s passionate regard for Lennon. As Karen so incisively put it, “John is the flypaper to which all the ego projections of male rock biographers stick.” That kind of hero worship is powerful stuff, whether it holds a conscious homoerotic charge or not.
        And I agree with Ruth and Drew about the kind of bio Norman is likely to write of McCartney: objective on the surface with a strong undertow of contempt. It’s rather amazing to me that he would choose to write this, really: even given the money, suggestions from his publisher, etc. he so clearly doesn’t like McCartney that I would think spending years writing such a book would be very unenjoyable. You sure couldn’t pay me to write a full-length biography of someone if I thought the person’s art wasn’t worth much.

  9. Avatar Paul Guay wrote:

    What was it about Lewisohn’s work that began to turn the tide re: the critical perception of Paul?

  10. Avatar Hologram Sam wrote:

    Listening to Cilla’s recording of “It’s For You” one line in particular jumps out: “I give my heart and no one knows…”
    It could be Paul singing about all the invisible contributions he made to the songs, the records and the band.
    Also, if anyone wants to see an example of Norman’s self-insertion, read his biography of Buddy Holly. It’s more a story about the teen-aged Norman, lonely in the UK, than it is a true account of Buddy’s life and work.

  11. Karen Karen wrote:

    Not listing Lennon/McCartney as a team is delusional.

    Wenner, Norman, and most of the rock biographers that have ever lived have a man-crush on John. John is the flypaper to which all the ego projections of male rock biographers stick.

    (A word about Lewisohn–while I don’t put him in the same category as Norman et al, I have my beefs with him too. But that’s for another discussion.)

    • Yes, ego projection is precisely it, @Karen. John Lennon is very difficult to see clearly, and most rock critics/biographers don’t even try. For example, the man’s entire life is a cautionary tale about the dangers of fame and fortune, and yet no Lennon bio (save Goldman) really touches on this.

      I for one would love to hear your beefs re: Lewisohn.

  12. Karen Karen wrote:

    Ah Lewisohn. Challenging him these days is a bit like challenging the bible.

    One of my beefs with Lewisohn is that he dismissed Fred Lennon’s account of the Blackpool incident as told to Hunter Davies in favour of the recollections of Fred’s friend 60-odd years later who wasn’t even in the room.

    For those who may not know the story, Fred Lennon essentially kidnapped young John with the intention of taking him permanently and leaving the country. Julia got wind of this and went after him. They argued, and eventually decided to let young John decide who he wanted to live with.

    Freddie Lennon had no reason to lie about what happened; the story hardly put him in a good light as a father or a man. The friend, who was in a different part of the house, was interviewed by Lewisohn and told him he didn’t “hear any fighting” and concluded–as did Lewisohn, that the event never happened. This conclusion is patently ridiculous, and I think Lewisohn concluded it not because it made sense, but because it contradicted the accepted version of events. He wanted a scoop and made one out of whole cloth.

    • Avatar Drew wrote:

      Well, Karen, I have to disagree with you on this count. I found Lewisohn’s account FAR more credible than Freddie Lennon’s story. Freddie was telling his version at a time when he was trying to (1) get back in John’s good graces and (2) defend himself against criticism that he’d abandoned his son. Freddie had every reason to concoct this sob story of how he and Julia “fought” over John (when neither of them really wanted to take responsibility for the child), and then “let John choose.” I think Lewisohn establishes in a quite evenhanded way that Freddie was always getting back on his ship and was never actually considering raising John himself. There was no dramatic moment. John just went back with Julia (to Mimi).

      And yes, it puts Freddie in a far better light to claim he fought valiantly for John than the reality, which was that he really wasn’t interested in being with his son in any long-term way.

      • Karen Karen wrote:

        What isn’t in debate: 1) Fred took John to Blackpool; and 2) that Julia went after him. Mimi Smith verifies this account. It therefore isn’t a stretch by any means to accept Fred Lennon’s version of events rather than someone who wasn’t in the room. Fred hardly portrayed himself as someone who fought valiantly to keep John–letting a 5 year old decide which parent he wanted hardly qualifies as stellar parenting, even by Fred Lennon standards.

        Fred’s account rings true to me, and it’s that account I believe.

  13. Avatar Ruth wrote:

    Karen has a very valid point about Lewisohn debunking the whole traumatic Blackpool incident: by arguing that it never occurred, Lewisohn demonstrates his already well-established superiority in researching and reinforces Tune In’s status as *the* Beatles biography. It’s in Lewisohn’s professional interest to argue that he, and he alone, is writing what really happened, and elevates his reputation by arguing that everyone else got it wrong.

    Having said that, I have to agree with Drew’s conclusions: I find Bill Hall’s more account more credible. Both his and Freddie Lennon’s accounts are retrospective: Freddie gave his account 20 years later, Bill Hall 60, which gives Freddie a slight edge in credibility in that respect. But Freddie Lennon’s testimony in The Beatles: The Authorized Biography is fanciful, exaggerated and very self-serving: doesn’t he argue that he’s a better singer than John? Davies commented in later editions that he questioned the accuracy of Freddie’s memory, and I certainly got the impression that he’s an unreliable narrator. We don’t know enough about Bill Hall to know how reliable of a source he is, however. Everyone else who was supposedly at the scene and in the room was dead, and John never recalled the incident until after Freddie talked about it, so that means you have two sources, with different version of events, and no independent verification for either one.

    So then you examine agenda, and Freddie’s is dripping from the pages. Like Drew noted, he was trying to weasel his way back into his now wealthy and famous son’s good graces, and while his story doesn’t make him father of the year, by any means, it demonstrates that he did want John, something which we have no other evidence of. Freddie knew where John was, for twenty years … but didn’t bother to try and restore contact until John was rich. Bill Hall’s agenda is less obvious: any fame he gets from his version of events is minimal, and I think he has a very solid point that they were only on leave: Freddie couldn’t have taken John with him even if he’d wanted to. When you’ve got two sources that clash like this, and no other way to determine which one is accurate, the historical standard is to go with common sense, and common sense tells me to believe Bill.

    • All due respect, @Ruth, “common sense” gets historians into terrible trouble, because all that is — all it can be — is clothing the historian’s own beliefs and biases in an unearned objectivity. The moment an issue becomes a gut call, it needs to be identified as nothing more than that. The problem is, historians are story-makers, and need to fill in the gaps, and stopping three times a paragraph to clarify what’s been independently verified and what hasn’t destroys the narrative flow which is the power and pleasure of any history.

      You’re making some significant assumptions about Freddie, all negative, to make it fit with your pre-existing bias. Your instincts on Freddie may be accurate — but there’s absolutely no way to be definitive here. How do we know that John didn’t remember that event? It’s utterly humiliating to him. How do we know that he didn’t fall asleep every night thinking about it, trying to forget it — and then was forced into admitting that it happened, after Freddie went public via Hunter Davies? Going strictly by what we know, that’s just as possible. I would say that John’s corroboration adds at least a whisper of independent verification, but that’s my bias.

      I’m glad Lewisohn found Billy Hall and gave us his testimony, but here’s a question: why didn’t he emerge sooner? Red flag there, for sure. When we’re talking about the Beatles, perhaps the most publicized foursome of the last hundred years, any “new source” needs to be viewed with caution. Perhaps Hall waited because he knew Freddie would call his story bullshit. Perhaps he and Freddie had a falling out that we don’t know about, and he wanted to settle a score by making Freddie look bad before he died. These are all quite possible, too. The Blackpool story has been public knowledge for forty years without a hint of controversy; that, to me, lends some credibility. Why shouldn’t it? Just because Freddy was the source? But you know who else was a notorious fabulist? John. And Mimi, sober Mimi — she never talked about her boarder/lover — does that make her suspect? My point is, once one goes to “common sense,” one is simply reflecting one’s own internal imagination, not reality.

      The emotional situation between Freddie and Julia and John (and Taffy and Victoria and Bobby Dykins and…) is massively complicated, and all of it falls in the non-public, impossible-to-verify realm. A lot of it was humiliating to one or more parties. So the best we can do is say that we don’t know whether or not it happened. I myself am somewhat swayed by John’s “remembering” it — but of course we all know that he was suggestible — so I hold that opinion exceedingly lightly.

      Here’s what Lennon biographer Tim Riley said in his review of “Tune-In” for the NYT:

      Lewisohn has tracked down Alfred’s friend Billy Hall, who waited in his parents’ kitchen as John’s fate was being decided in the front room. Hall remembers Alfred saying, “I’m letting Johnny go back with his mother — she’s going to look after him properly.” Alfred was resigned, Hall reports, but accepting of the situation. But whether Alfred was resigned to John’s choice or made the choice himself remains unclear. One can understand a researcher’s temptation to overthrow a key piece of a widely accepted story, but Lewisohn would have been more persuasive if he’d referenced other sources, or proposed any explanation for why Alfred concocted his false version, and why Lennon never refuted it.

      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.

      Of course, Tim Riley doesn’t want to be shown up by Lewisohn. Is there no place a voice to trust? 🙂

      Dramatic events like the Blackpool Choice do happen, especially with erratic, emotional people prone to drink. Historians tend to demand extraordinary proof for extraordinary events, but I personally never found the Blackpool story that extraordinary. In that time and place, with those people…asking a five-year-old to choose between his Mum and Dad — it seems like exactly the kind of insane, immature, selfish thing that Julia and Freddie would do. It utterly fits with the rest of their behavior; it fits with who they are in my mind.

      I think it really comes down to who you trust more, Lewisohn or Davies, and while I trust Lewisohn much more, I also don’t particularly trust his source. The memory of an 80-year-old recounting an event that wasn’t a big deal in his own life, and who’d never come forward before, contradicting an event that John himself “remembered.” I don’t know if it happened the way Freddie said it did, but I do know that John thought it had — that the story at least resonated with him — and I think that’s all anybody can say definitively on the subject.

      Examining myself for a second, I think that just as Lewisohn was attracted to the possibility that the Blackpool story was malarkey, I’m attracted to the possibility that the supposed mountebank Freddie Lennon was more sinned-against than sinning, and that colors my interpretation.

      • Avatar Drew wrote:

        The difference of course is that Fred Lennon was a known storyteller (ie, fantasist, or in the less charitable term, liar). And Mark Lewisohn has a reputation as a careful researcher. Why didn’t Bill come forward earlier? Any number of reasons. Maybe no one asked him. Maybe outside the circle of Beatles obsessives, a guy like Bill wouldn’t think it’s all that important to “come forward” with what he didn’t view as very important information.

        There is no reason at all to trust Davies’ account from Fred Lennon. It’s based on the word of a guy who had made no attempt to be a parent or contact his son until that son got rich and famous. It seems pretty straightforward to me why Fred Lennon would concoct this story: Because it would appeal to JOHN. Fred’s story says, “See son, I wanted you all along, me and your mother fought over you, and then let you choose. See, I did try to keep you.” Would John have at all opened his heart to Fred saying, “Well you stayed with me a bit before I went back to work on my ship. Then Julia came to get you and I never made much attempt to see you after that.”

        • @Drew, I can’t argue with your reading here, but my point is: that’s one reading. We can’t say more than that.

          So Fred Lennon was a liar; okay, I’ll buy that. As was John, who contradicted himself endlessly yet seemed to believe everything he said when he said it. What about Paul, who commonly trots out stories that we all know aren’t true? Is “liar” the right word for him? If we rule out everybody in the Beatles story who is less than truthful, there’s nobody left!

          Which is not to say that Freddie Lennon doesn’t seem self-serving; an opportunist; impulsive; many things. I just think we ought to hold conclusions like this lightly in our minds, even as we express them forcefully.

    • Karen Karen wrote:

      What Michael said. 🙂

      Since we know that Freddie Lennon took his son to Blackpool, and since we know that Julia went after him, then why wouldn’t it stand to reason that there was a discussion about young John’s care? It just makes sense, regardless of who the parties are and one’s opinion about them. John’s memory of the events, vague as it may be, adds veracity to the story, in my view.

      Further, a 60-year time lapse between the event and Hall’s version of events doesn’t make his story stronger, but weaker, in my view. I can barely remember what happened last week. O.o

      Finally, I don’t see Freddie’s account as self-aggrandizement. It was just….his version of things, said in Freddie’s unique style.

      • Avatar Ruth wrote:

        Lewisohn doesn’t dispute that Freddie and Julia talked about John, and neither does Bill Hall. According to Hall, Freddie and Julia did discuss John’s future, but there was not shouting, no “tug of love” scene, and Freddie confided to Bill when they left that he was pleased that John was being looked after properly.

        • Karen Karen wrote:

          @Ruth said “Lewisohn doesn’t dispute that Freddie and Julia talked about John, and neither does Bill Hall. According to Hall, Freddie and Julia did discuss John’s future, but there was not shouting, no “tug of love” scene, and Freddie confided to Bill when they left that he was pleased that John was being looked after properly.”
          …which substantiates Fred’s story vis a vis Hunter Davies. Over time, the story has evolved in its emotive content but that’s to be expected. The facts are immutable: Fred took John, Julia went after him, they couldn’t agree, they asked John, little John couldn’t decide, Julia left, John went with her.

          • Avatar Ruth wrote:

            Because we have two separate, independent sources agreeing that their was a discussion about John’s future, that is a “fact.” But that that discussion included Freddie and Julia arguing over who got to keep John, or offering John the choice between parents, is *not* a fact: It’s one version of events that is contradicted by another version of events. The conversation could also have consisted of Freddie declaring that he’d had a great day with John, but now he had to get back to his ship because his leave was over: what were Julia’s plans for the boy?

  14. Avatar Ruth wrote:

    I think we’re somewhat talking past each other, Michael, and I’ll try and explain myself a little better.

    We’ve run into this issue before, I believe: I tend to focus on what history can tell us, and the methodology we employ to determine the overall credibility of a source, where you do an excellent job of exploring what history can’t tell us — the unsourced emotions, passions, motivations, statements, etc. And in that respect you are entirely right: if historian’s don’t have a source for it, then it doesn’t exist for history, even if it existed in real life. So either the historian provides it in their interpretation, where its speculation, or it doesn’t enter into the history at all. For the record, a number of historian’s acknowledge this flaw, and warn against “locking the past up in a prison from which their is no escape.”

    The “common sense” methodology is subjective, but it is the last resort of source analysis. There are a number of preceding steps, but when all of those cancel each other out, then you have to go with the last remaining option. My common sense analysis tells me that Bill Hall is the more credible source, yours tell you that Freddie Lennon is.

    John was a fabulist, and that does color his testimony, undoubtedly. His tendency for exaggeration means that any one assessing any of John’s public or private statements needs to take that exaggeration into account. There are a number of issues that go into evaluating the overall credibility of a source as well as the issues that apply to specific sources from that individual, exaggeration is one of them, previous issues of lying or fantasizing are others. It doesn’t mean that their accounts are devalued, it means you take that quality into account when assessing their credibility.

    As for Freddie: some of my analysis are assumptions, but some aren’t. Whether they fit with a particular pre-conceived view I have of Freddie, I’m unsure. We know Davies expressed doubt about Freddie’s more fanciful statements, which sends out a big red flag to me that he didn’t regard him as a reliable source. We know that Freddie did not see John at all from the time of the Blackpool incident until 1966, despite knowing very well where John was: at Mimi’s. We know Freddie expressed an interest in receiving financial support from John: it’s in the Authorized bio, about how “he wouldn’t object” if John wanted to give him some money. If further evidence emerges that Freddie did attempt to see John, I’ll happily revise that fact in my interpretation of events and/or Freddie … but for the moment, we can only analyze based on the information we do have.

    It is a red flag that Hall didn’t emerge sooner, but there are numerous instances of errors that went uncorrected in Beatles historiography for decades. The Luftwaffe attack on John’s birthday would be case in point: Mimi said that it happened, so for decades Beatles writers said that it happened, even though a quick scan of the Liverpool Echo from the day after John’s birth (which was, of course, widely known) would have proved that it didn’t. It may be as simple as Hall didn’t tell the story before because no one had bothered to look for him before Lewisohn, because everyone accepted Davies version of events. And maybe he was discussing it for years in pubs, and that’s how Lewisohn found him. I would like to know how Lewisohn found Hall, which is something Lewisohn didn’t explain.

    I wholly agree that John’s belief that he had been forced into such a choice, even if it never really happened, was very powerful for John personally.

    • @Ruth, I just don’t buy “common sense” as a methodology. What seems “likely” is tied utterly to one’s own psychology and life experience, and has nothing whatever to do with the source. It’s psychologically driven guessing.

      For the record, I don’t necessarily think that Freddie Lennon is a more credible source than Billy Hall is. The only opinion that I’m expressing here with any force is that we cannot know, and just because something passes Lewisohn’s sniff test, that doesn’t make it so. Hall wasn’t in on the conversation, and two out of the three people who were there differ from him…so then, we dicker over their character and Freddie’s motivations and John’s emotional state. And why? Because we desperately want to grant Lewisohn, via Billy Hall, the ability to tell us the truth. But that’s not possible; that’s a child’s wish, not reality. We cannot escape the fact that history is simply a story. It is not reality.

      I’ve known a situation not unlike the Blackpool thing, and I can tell you that the two principals held diametrically opposed views as to “what happened” for decades. To have an uninvolved third party appear, sixty years on, and gainsay both John and Freddie, well…based on my experience, you should be skeptical of that. And if Mark Lewisohn doesn’t have any of those types of experiences in his own life, he’s probably not going to be as skeptical as he should be. Because historians, in my experience, by temperament and training skew towards the mundane and away from the dramatic. Credibility is precious, and no one will fault you for being skeptical of drama.

      But dramatic moments do exist, and great wounds seem to be necessary to create great artists. The truth is a funny thing. Historians cannot afford to acknowledge just how funny, and we don’t wish them to, either. I know I’d prefer Lewisohn to be right.

  15. Avatar Ruth wrote:

    I understand your squeamishness about “common sense” as a last resort methodology, Michael, and I agree that any historian’s ultimate “common sense” conclusion is going to be flavored with their own psychology and experiences. Again, I would like to reiterate that it is the ultimate last resort of historians, only applied after all other means of analysis have failed. But it begs the question: what alternative is left? If, at the end of the road, the “Common sense” standard doesn’t exit, how is the historian supposed to make a decision concerning which source is more credible? We have two starkly different versions of John’s final years: both sides have their agendas, their credibility issues, their more or less credible eyewitness accounts: when both versions cancel each other out, how do you choose? Personally, I can’t conceive that someone with what I believe to be John’s psychological issues could have been a blissfully contented house-husband and father for five years. That’s my common sense analysis.

    My intention was never to give the impression that, once source analysis has been applied and a conclusion reached, that therefore that conclusion (or that version of history) is reality. It’s the interpretation of known facts by the established standards: history will always have missing elements and provide an incomplete and at times, incorrect picture. One of the hallmarks of great historians is their willingness to accept new and contradictory sources, even when they undermine their previous interpretations, which is one of the reasons I find Norman’s “revised” editions of Shout! so egregious: with a wealth of new, primary sources at his fingertips, he hewed to the standard line.

    • Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

      Very well put, Ruth. The reality is, as Michael said, is that “history is just a story” — there’s so much we can’t know, either because it didn’t leave a verifiable trace or because testimony is conflicting. What we can realistically ask of history is the most complete, objective story possible, based on thorough investigation of the available evidence. Every historical account is going to have its limitations, because every account is produced by a flawed human being who can’t escape his/her psychology. But there’s a huge difference between the rigor of “Tune In” and the self-indulgence of “Shout!”
      I don’t think Lewisohn is The Oracle, and I’m sure he’s made errors of judgment in volume one and will make them in the forthcoming volumes as well. But the thoroughgoing way in which he cites evidence and his (to me at least) clear effort to be even-handed about a story that’s full of emotional minefields lead me to trust his accounts in a way that I don’t trust Norman’s.
      Here we are discussing how to interpret one decision in Lewisohn’s book, for example–but the catalog of highly questionable choices in “Shout!” would require a lengthy scroll to record.

      • Agreed, Nancy — although I personally find books like “Shout!” and Goldman very useful, in the same way that I was fascinated by comments by Francie Schwartz, back in the days. (Though those flamewars are a large reason why civility is paramount here on Dullblog.) I like the contentious stuff, as you all know, because it challenges me; is Paul a monster? Seriously, you really think Paul McCartney is a monster? I gotta hear why!

        Biases aren’t bad things, once you spot them, and they are wonderful windows into people. It’s very peculiar, Norman’s consistent dislike and devaluing of one of the 20th Century’s greatest musicians; and it’s useful to see up close, because he’s far from the only one who does it. What the hell is that about? Ditto Goldman: you can see some of the same childish bitterness in the Shames article. What does that say about a certain kind of Lennon fan? What does it say about how the 60s generation was feeling, on the cusp of Reagan? To read Shames, or Goldman, without addressing the shattered dreams, the disillusion and confusion, of the Boomers, is to miss the point entirely.

        All that having been said, it was a very, very lucky day when Mark Lewisohn became interested in the Beatles.

        • Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

          Mike, I take your point about biases being fascinating — I suppose my ideal, when it comes to writing, is for them to be openly declared (kind of like going through customs). “Biases aren’t bad things, once you spot them” — but spotting them, for many people, can take a very long time, especially when the work in question is presented as straight-up history or biography.
          I find your question about why Norman, and some other critics, so dislike McCartney to be very interesting. Thinking back, I can’t remember reading a denunciation of McCartney as a person or musician that didn’t explicitly or implicitly involve a comparison to Lennon. (If others have seen such, please pass that along.) Sometimes (I’m thinking of Norman and Christgau here, particularly) it seems as if attacking McCartney is a way to prove fealty to Lennon — as if allowing that McCartney has any talent would mean taking some away from Lennon. A real zero-sum game.
          And I think critics love Lennon for a number of reasons that go beyond his musical gifts. He’s a great talker, and his lyrics open themselves up to writing. Sometimes Lennon seems to reinforce the idea that music is serious business, practically a replacement for religion, a force that can change the world. Add to all this his strong personal charisma, and it’s not surprising he’s the one critics fall for.
          Whereas McCartney is usually a so-so interview, and makes music that is as much or more about overall sound as it is about lyrics. And while music is clearly as essential to McCartney as breathing, his life and demeanor suggest that music perhaps isn’t quite THAT serious.
          That’s my theory, anyway.

          • “And I think critics love Lennon for a number of reasons that go beyond his musical gifts. He’s a great talker, and his lyrics open themselves up to writing. Sometimes Lennon seems to reinforce the idea that music is serious business, practically a replacement for religion, a force that can change the world. Add to all this his strong personal charisma, and it’s not surprising he’s the one critics fall for.”

            I think this is right on the money, especially how Lennon’s opinions and attitudes ennoble the critics’ own choices. If Lennon’s right, and music is as important as religion, critics are as powerful as high priests. This is why Jann Wenner loved Lennon so much; it made Rolling Stone L’Osservatore Romano, and Jann himself Pope.

            In general, the people I’ve known who idolize John Lennon are not involved in any kind of organized religion (either never did or fell away), and use him as a safely secular version of a religious figure.

        • Avatar Drew wrote:

          I am not at all interested in Francie’s story anymore. For me, it’s worth a couple paragraphs. That’s it. She knew Paul for two or three months — and got her revenge for his occasionally callous treatment by writing Body Count (it was her 5 minutes of fame and she ranted about him for decades). But why anyone thinks she can speak with authority about a man she knew for 2 months is beyond me. Beatles writers inflated the importance of her comments because (1) she was attacking Paul and people like reading negative things about our idols and (2) because none of the other women in Paul’s life — who were FAR more significant to him and knew him far longer and far better — were talking.

          Jane Asher, a class act if ever there was one, kept her views on Paul private. I hope she always does. And Maggie McGivern, who Paul had a three YEAR relationship with — including during those 2 or 3 months he was sleeping with Francie — also didn’t say a word about Paul until 2007 or 2008 (when all sorts of stuff came out during Paul’s divorce). But few writers quote Maggie because she has only positive things to say about him. That’s no fun. 🙂

          I think extreme biases are a bad thing. The media rose up as one to denounce Goldman for his anti-Lennon bias, but they didn’t rise up at all to denounce Philip Norman for his obvious anti-Paul (and anti-George) bias. People who read a lot of Beatles books understand Norman was biased. But the average reader doesn’t. And that can and does cause a lot of damage to an artist’s reputation in the wider public, damage that is often impossible to correct. Witness how long it took before people began to realize that, contrary to Philip Norman’s assertion that “John was the Beatles,” that in fact that wasn’t true at all.

          John and Paul were both charismatic — in different ways. Interesting why John’s charisma swayed the media, but Paul’s didn’t. Even at the height of the Beatles, I’ve read articles that basically refused to take Paul seriously and referred to him as “pretty” and superficial. I think it was because John was viewed as more masculine and the largely male ranks of 60s and 70s journalists thought that gave John credibility. Paul was often viewed as feminine — cute, coy, an artist who made sweet “soft” music, all the things that male journalists would deem as less significant, less credible. I’m not the first to suggest that gender roles and interpretations affected how John and Paul were portrayed in the media. There’s a dissertation somewhere in that.

          • Avatar Ruth wrote:

            “I’m not the first to suggest that gender roles and interpretations affected how John and Paul were portrayed in the media. There’s a dissertation somewhere in that.”

            I could not agree more, Drew. Virtually all journalists, including those who like Paul, such as Ray Connolly, assign Paul the role of wife/mother in their depiction of the Lennon/McCartney creative “marriage.” Norman goes out of his way in Shout! to use very heavy gender-coded language to describe both Paul’s appearance (“pretty-faced”) and his music (“sentimental.”) When John writes a song like Help! it’s “honest,” whereas when Paul writes a song about the death of a relationship, “For No One,” It’s ‘self-pitying.’ In The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles, one of the authors notes how the qualities that the rock press praises John for — aggression, stark honesty, dominance — are ‘masculine’ attributes, whereas Paul’s — diplomacy, charm, sweetness — are ‘feminine’ ones.

            Have you read Richard Corliss’s Time article on Paul’s 50th? He notes this identification of Paul as ‘feminine,’ and argues that, along with John’s breakup era rants about Paul and John’s death, its devalued Paul’s reputation. “Paul was cute, coquettish; almost the girl of the group, so he could he be smart?”

          • @Ruth, would it be too much to suggest that Paul’s cultural renovation is a part of the larger shift in gender roles taking place now? (Well, at least in my immediate vicinity.) As gender becomes more fluid, and female strength is recognized, this “Paul-as-girl” meme becomes less virulent?

          • All good points, @Drew. But remember: staying schtum has pluses and minuses. The plus is that your private affairs are kept private. The minus is that it creates a blank space available to the first person with any credibility who speaks up. So when Francie spoke, she was given more weight than otherwise. I think that’s probably still true, but I was using her as an example of someone with a contentious viewpoint whom I always enjoyed reading. Not necessarily believing.

            For example, Francie is one of the handful of people in the Beatles story who is a tireless defender of Yoko. That’s interesting, no? Especially when you learn that Francie is the sole source for the “Jap tart” story — a perfect example of a dubious anecdote which has become a fulcrum of the larger story.

    • @Ruth, what you’ve said is all eminently reasonable, and please know that whenever we seem to wrangle over this topic, it’s not you I’m arguing with, but a much more conventional and much less nuanced view of what history is, and can be, and is for. Most people really do think history is reality, but you and I know it’s not. Most people do not think about these issues at all, especially when it comes to their passions. How much better would the political situation be in this country if people were more skeptical of the histories they hold?

      You ask, “If, at the end of the road, the “Common sense” standard doesn’t exit, how is the historian supposed to make a decision concerning which source is more credible?”
      I think the only thing an historian can say is that two versions exist, and that he/she finds x or y version most likely based on these factors: a, b, c. This allows for the reader to judge for him or herself. And now here’s where I start talking through my hat: the problem here is the desire of 20th Century historians to be granted the same cultural authority as scientists. If historians want to be treated as scientists, then they must employ the same kind of provisionality and transparency that is built into modern science. If they wish to be treated as storytellers — as they were before 1870 or so — then they can fashion stories out of facts, and reap those benefits. But the 20th Century is rife with humanist disciplines that strain for scientific certainty — is that not some of what made Communism so tragic?

      Most popular historians don’t write nearly as provisionally or transparently as they should, for many reasons large and small; and certainly people writing on popular subjects are even less likely to do this. So it falls to us, their readers, to apply the “ain’t necessarily so.”

      • Avatar Ruth wrote:

        “I think the only thing an historian can say is that two versions exist, and that he/she finds x or y version most likely based on these factors: a, b, c. This allows for the reader to judge for him or herself.”

        That is the formula for issues such as this, and I should have made that clearer when discussing the “Common sense” standard: if you have two equally credible and contradicting sources, then that’s exactly what you, the author, are supposed to do: present the evidence for both sides and then explain which one you, the historian regard as more credible, and why, even if your conclusion ultimately relies on the common sense standard.

        We do have examples of this practice in Beatles historiography. MacDonald does it in his later edition of RITH: when he’s discussion John’s credibility on songwriting issues vs. Paul’s, he lays out the disagreements between them, such as over “Eleanor Rigby,” explains who said what, ultimately concludes that he finds Paul’s version of events more convincing, and explains why. MacDonald didn’t have to resort to the common sense standard, because he had other sources available to him, as well as his own musical analysis (although no one has ever discussed how subjective that can be, as well).

  16. Karen Karen wrote:

    @Ruth said: “Because we have two separate, independent sources agreeing that their was a discussion about John’s future, that is a “fact.” But that that discussion included Freddie and Julia arguing over who got to keep John, or offering John the choice between parents, is *not* a fact: It’s one version of events that is contradicted by another version of events. The conversation could also have consisted of Freddie declaring that he’d had a great day with John, but now he had to get back to his ship because his leave was over: what were Julia’s plans for the boy?”

    They also could have been talking about the price of chicken.

    Since everyone is kicking around “common sense” and its utility, let’s apply it here. When a father takes a child away from its putative family home and a panic-stricken mother takes off after him, it stands to reason that the ensuing discussion was probably contentious–and if the parents are Fred and Julia, asking the child to choose a parent is fair game too. Fred Lennon is a dandy, an embellisher, a guy who likes to make himself look better than he is–but I’m not aware of any historian giving evidence that he’s a pathological liar. Lewisohn promotes Billy Hall’s version rather than Fred’s, simply because it enabled Lewisohn to be THE author to “debunk” the Blackpool incident. There’s simply no reason to summarily discredit Fred Lennon and accept the view of an elderly man 60 years after the fact who wasn’t even in the room.

    • Avatar Ruth wrote:

      I agree that it *could* have happened that way, Karen. My quibble is over equating the “fact” that they had a discussion about John’s future with the “fact” that that discussion included forcing to John to choose.

      Far, far too many pieces of information have been related as “facts” in Beatles historiography that are anything but. If you want to get technical, even if Lewisohn had never found Bill Hall, and Hall had never disputed Freddie’s version of events, Freddie’s account would still not qualify as historical “fact:” it would qualify as unverified testimony. Along the lines, as Drew referenced, of Francie Schwartz’s “Jap Tart” postcard incident, or an Apple Scruff’s account of John attempting to hit Linda during an Apple business meeting. All those incidents (as well as Bill Hall’s) are the testimony of a single individual, with no documentation or independent verifying testimony. Does that mean they didn’t happen or that we should ignore them? Absolutely not. But one of the major issues in Beatles writing, that has allowed for such biased work, is that you have hearsay, unverified testimony, speculation, verified facts and “facts” all presented as equally credible sources, and they are anything but.

  17. Avatar Drew wrote:

    I think a lot of people liked the drama of Fred Lennon’s story and treated it as true without questioning it. Lewisohn was the first to really question the truth of this interpretation of events and he found a significant piece of evidence — an eyewitness — that showed (1) Fred Lennon was always going back on his ship and (2) there was no dramatic screaming argument that led to John running down the street after his mother.

    Frankly, the more I think of it, the more ludicrous this story becomes. If Fred really had “stolen” John, why didn’t Mimi and Julia call the police? Mimi would have been the first on the phone calling in the police. So perhaps this was just Fred taking John for a weekend, and Julia comes to get him. They discuss the kid’s future. Fred would like to spend more time with him but he’s going back on this ship. Julia takes John back (to Mimi). The end.

    I think a lot of people, including John Lennon himself, love the drama of that moment where John supposedly had to choose. They seem to think it helps explain his bad behavior. “Poor John. How horrible.” But I don’t think that Fred Lennon’s exaggerated version of events is necessary to understand why John Lennon would be traumatized by neither of his parents really wanting him. Lewisohn’s version of events is far colder, far more realistic, and far more believable.

    • So much good stuff here. Really enjoying this, @Ruth and @Nancy and @Drew!

      @Drew wrote:
      “I think a lot of people, including John Lennon himself, love the drama of that moment where John supposedly had to choose.”

      Right, but John’s verification of that event carries NO weight with you? Do you generally disbelieve John when he’s speaking about his own life? If so, who DO you believe in this regard? To me, I think ya gotta give a person at least some ability to be an authority on his/her own life. Even at five years of age.

      “They seem to think it helps explain his bad behavior.”
      Bad behavior towards whom? Towards Freddie later? Or do you mean in school? If people are using that simple a model for John Lennon’s psychology, they’re drawing cartoons and we must leave them to that in silence. 🙂

      “But I don’t think that Fred Lennon’s exaggerated version of events is necessary to understand why John Lennon would be traumatized by neither of his parents really wanting him. Lewisohn’s version of events is far colder, far more realistic, and far more believable.”

      Fair point, but “Realistic” in this case means, “something I, Drew, can relate to given the texture of my own life.” That has nothing to do with who Fred and Julia were, Liverpool in 1945, or anything.

      I’m not just niggling here; I’m trying to highlight just how much each of us has to interpolate to create a story out of the facts we know, and how we all (myself included) predict using our own ideas of who these strangers were. Freddie Lennon didn’t say that aliens swooped down and abducted John, took him to Alpha Centuri, and then manipulated time so that only one second had elapsed. And people do say stuff like that, and in the end the only thing we have to gainsay their version of events is that nothing like that has ever happened to us.

      Freddie and John said it happened one way; Bill Hall said it happened another. Lewisohn agrees with Bill. I probably agree with Bill, too — but Freddie and John were there, and it was an event neither of them were likely to have forgotten. That counts for something; it has to. Saying it counts when John talks about how he used to tune his D-string slightly sharp so that Mimi would hear him (or whatever), and saying it doesn’t count here, is simply making the story play by the rules of one’s own life. But this wasn’t our lives; and that’s why we read about it.

      • Avatar Drew wrote:

        “Right, but John’s verification of that event carries NO weight with you?” Not really. John didn’t remember this experience at all on his own. He had no real memory of it. He only came to believe it AFTER Fred told the story. Humans are highly impressionable. We believe what we want to believe. I tell my kids stories about things they did when they were young that they have no memory of. Then I hear them telling their friends the same story as if was their memory, rather than mine.

        We’re dealing with old memories here on all counts. Bill’s memory is very old. Fred’s memory was somewhat old. And John had no real memory of this at all. But Bill was the only one here who didn’t really have anything personal at stake in retelling this. Bill has no motive to lie. Fred did. And no doubt John, sadly, loved the idea of his parents fighting over him and seeming to finally show some shred of interest in wanting him. What child wouldn’t want to believe that the parents who’d abandoned him had, at some point, fought to keep him? It’s a nice fairytale isn’t it?

      • Avatar Ruth wrote:

        John also insisted — multiple times, for over a decade, from 1970 to 1980, that he, and not Paul, wrote 50-70% of the lyrics of “Eleanor Rigby.” This despite the fact that you have Davies identifying Paul as the author in the Authorized bio (which John had to approve before publication), and you have George Martin, Pete Shotton, Donovan and William Burroughs (as well as Paul) all claiming that its Paul’s song.

        I recently read Klein’s 1971 interview with Playboy, and guess what? He claims that *he* was the one who ‘reminded’ John that he had written 70% of “Eleanor Rigby:” John just didn’t remember until Klein ‘reminded’ him. In fact, according to Klein, John had “written most of the stuff” in the Lennon/McCartney catalog. (You have Ray Connolly, in an article on this time period, saying that John was claiming to have written “80% of the Beatles’ lyrics”).

        Klein was telling John what John wanted to hear, and John believed it, and repeated it during the breakup period numerous times (and, in the case of “Eleanor Rigby,” for the rest of his life). This doesn’t mean that John didn’t *really* remember the Blackpool experience and being forced to choose between his parents, but it does indicate, to me, that John’s memory was susceptible to such persuasion.

        • @Ruth, I’d say everybody’s memory is susceptible to such persuasion. Billy Hall’s, for example.

          I don’t mean to beat this horse dead, but that’s my whole point: for us to say, “Well, John wasn’t reliable” because we know a TON about him and his life, and “Freddie wasn’t reliable” because we know some of him and his life, and trust Billy Hall precisely and totally because we don’t know anything about him and his life, is problematic in the extreme.

          If John Lennon was so susceptible a mere five years after “Eleanor Rigby,” and so susceptible twenty years after the Blackpool incident, how much should we credit anybody’s memories sixty years after an event? Billy may be speaking the God’s own truth, and Lewisohn believes him which sways me, for sure — but if “common sense” is the tool here, mine says, “Don’t completely trust an 85-year-old man’s memory of something unessential to his own life, 60 years after the fact — especially if believing it gives one a pleasant feeling of discovery.”

          • Avatar Ruth wrote:

            “I don’t mean to beat this horse dead, but that’s my whole point: for us to say, “Well, John wasn’t reliable” because we know a TON about him and his life, and “Freddie wasn’t reliable” because we know some of him and his life, and trust Billy Hall precisely and totally because we don’t know anything about him and his life, is problematic in the extreme.”

            I do agree with that, Michael. Bill Hall is a source of unknown credibility, whereas John and Freddie are sources of, at times, questionable credibility. I wish Lewisohn had given us more information on Hall: how did he find him? Does he have a reputation for honesty? Has he been getting free drinks in pubs off of his version of the Blackpool incident for decades, or did he only reveal his version of events after Lewisohn tracked him down? What is Lewisohn’s opinion of Hall’s credibility and the accuracy of his memory? Was Hall telling Lewisohn what he thought his interviewer, Lewisohn wanted to hear? (Which is a major issue in the credibility of historical interviews, i.e. the WPA slave narratives).

  18. Chris Dingman Chris Dingman wrote:

    John was a truth-seeker, a searcher/philosopher who also happened to be a musical genius. Paul was more sure of himself and who he was from an early age–a brilliant musician/entertainer, pure and simple (or relatively pure and simple).

    There is broader appeal to humanity in John’s story–more frayed ends for people to grab onto. His searching created, and was created out of, drama and angst. His searching involved him in more spheres–politics, activism, being a stay-at-home husband. And he went all out on whatever he did, bucking at compromise. He is, then, a more romantic figure than Paul. He’s more the “cowboy.”

    • Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

      Exactly, Chris — you’ve articulated what I was getting at when I said that Lennon appeals to critics/listeners who want to take music very seriously. There’s a desperation in Lennon’s search for meaning that’s very appealing. Unfortunately, this appeal also fuels ire like that of Shames in the Esquire piece Michael posted. Wanting to see Lennon as seeker/prophet too easily flips into seeing him as a “phony” when he proves to be human.

      • @Chris and @Nancy, I think Baby Boomers are very apt to look at John Lennon’s own quest for truth, and see their own personal psychodramas. Which is understandable, and much of why he was such an icon to that generation and has been to likeminded people (like myself) ever since.

        But looking at John Lennon in this fundamentally spiritual, much more serious way — which he actively encouraged, at least intermittently, in the period from 1968-80 — opens him up to criticism proportional to how much seriousness you assign his quest, and how much spiritual power you grant him. At the very least it requires a tolerance for nuance that’s difficult in most regards, but is definitely alien to “fandom.”

        Perhaps the greatest truth he lived was simply this: Lennon can be both an earnest seeker and a phony; he can be both the guy who wrote “Imagine,” and the one who Elton John teased about having “one room for furs/another one for shoes.” We know he can be this, because he WAS this. He didn’t have to be consistent, and perhaps nothing natural is consistent in this way that we want. We know he contained multitudes because we saw them. And if he contained multitudes, so must we.

        When I think of Lennon in this regard, I use the same part of my brain as when thinking of, say, Chogyam Trungpa, or Sasaki Roshi. Or of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who maybe pestered Prudence Farrow or maybe didn’t. Certainly when Nancy and I hit Beatlefest last week, I thought the thousandth time that Lennon fans need to acquaint themselves with the tradition of the misbehaving holy person. Lennon himself surely would’ve been better off if he’d chilled out about Maharishi; my sense is that he didn’t really care whether MMY had misbehaved or not, he was just bored and ready to go back to London and Yoko. Ditto people who either insist that Lennon was saintly or he was a phony — it’s all about them and what they’re going through, not Lennon.

  19. Avatar Ruth wrote:

    “Ruth, would it be too much to suggest that Paul’s cultural renovation is a part of the larger shift in gender roles taking place now?”

    Interesting question, Michael. Unfortunately, I have no idea. Any one else want to pick up that thread?

    On the note of gender-descriptive qualities, however, my reading of certain authors, such as Norman, is that they tend to praise Yoko Ono for demonstrating “masculine” qualities: determination, imperviousness, business acumen. Combined with the identification of Paul in the “feminine” role, it makes for an interesting juxtaposition.

  20. Avatar Michelle wrote:

    I’m not going to read these comments because this debate is depressing to me, but did Paul really say that in response to this ranking? I’m not good at internet sarcasm. I would like to think he did.

  21. Avatar Paul wrote:

    Paul really did. After many decades of hearing only the received wisdom of Lennon’s reputed superiority to McCartney in everything that mattered — received wisdom which Rolling Stone was only to happy to co-create and urge along — I was astounded (in a good way) to see this particular ranking.

    FWIW, I *don’t* think McCartney is a better songwriter than Lennon. I see them as equals, with strengths both complementary and distinguishable. I was just delighted to see McCartney for once get his due — in Rolling Stone, of all places.

  22. Avatar Michelle wrote:

    Thank you! I’m not surprised at all. Paul can’t put a foot wrong with Rolling Stone since Flaming Pie, and I agree his output is greatly improved from a lot of his ’70s and ’80s stuff. Driving Rain is about the only album in that span I don’t care for. He puts more thought into his lyrics which is where critics decide whether someone is lightweight or not, at least that’s been my impression. Lennon-McCartney together would be #1 on this list, if they were included as a team.

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