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- Itinerary for a Beatle-themed trip to London and Liverpool - December 8, 2022
Knowing the internet, SEO alone will probably make this the most popular post in the history of Dullblog (hello Were John and Paul Lovers). But my thoughts are philosophical, not evidentiary. Spare your revulsion for a moment while I share some thoughts which may explain a lot of what I’ve written on this blog since 2010.
Fact: there is a level of fame, wealth, and power that dehumanizes you, and makes you dehumanize others. This, in our current cultural moment, is epitomized by Jeffrey Epstein and his little black book. I think the Beatles experienced this level of fame/wealth/power, as did the Stones and all the others in their milieu. Shit, I bet Gary Puckett and the Union Gap experienced it, for six glorious weeks or something.
The shorthand for this behavior-which-dehumanizes is “decadence,” and like obscenity, it’s hard to define but you know it when you see it. Some characteristics are: extreme sexual appetites with strong flavors of objectification, taboo-busting and lack of consent; profligate spending; gross consumption; and manipulation of justice to avoid consequences. Decadence is, mostly, a rich man’s disease; rich women will participate, but are usually too aware of the provisional nature of their privilege to execute the full de Sade.
Both Left and Right use it as a swear, calling the other “decadent” and pointing to it to plump for their brand of revolution. Capitalism entices us with the possibility of decadence, then paints those rich or famous enough to achieve it as the kind of people who would never.
Then it sells us the tell-all bio.
The cycle of Life continues.
The role of decadence in the Beatles story—who did what, with whom, and why—will never be told, for one obvious reason: nobody wants to hear it. That, to me, is what makes The Beatles something different than a standard showbiz story like Elvis or Sinatra or Zep or Joan Crawford. People don’t want to hear the bad stuff. The sales of Goldman’s book proved that; so did, in the other direction, the Anthology. Only the Beatles could make an apprenticeship in the Reeperbahn seem almost…cute? “Awww, George is dating a stripper! At 17!”
I actually think that John, Paul, George and Ringo probably participated in less decadence than other people in similar situations; I don’t get an “evil” vibe off of any of them, and even when people like Sammy Davis Jr. were dabbling in Satanism, The Beatles steered clear. If they were/are not decent fellows, they sure did/do a great job of pretending like it. So while I’ve always assumed that there are photographs of John Lennon crawling out of a Dutch whorehouse, I also think there are probably not photos of him orchestrating something out of Eyes Wide Shut. We must always remember that The Beatles were rich poor kids; decadence, for them, was a pub in your own basement!!!
(The Seventies are another matter; the solo Beatles led fundamentally more decadent lives than Beatles had, and (to me) it shows in the quality of their work. Decadence does not lead to happiness, and vice-versa.)
Yet the decadence is there even in the Beatles era, in whispers and snippets, and it explains a lot. Especially the carefully maintained gap between dark reality and sunny image, causing you to live in the middle of a distortion field. Epstein’s early exit; Lennon’s decay into drugs; Harrison’s run towards religion; McCartney’s construction of an impenetrable persona; Starr’s headlong rush into booze. The split between John and Paul was a kind of Mexican standoff—a vicious public fight with both men armed to the teeth with devastating secrets. After all the talk on this site, I think that’s what makes it feel like a lover’s spat, not actual sex.
After writing Life After Death for Beginners, I found myself face-to-face with a strong intuition about all this—that the real story, such as it was, had much that was decadent, while the conventional narrative had all the good stuff you could ever want. So I asked myself: Why keep turning the X-ray on the Fabs? What good would it do? And I put down that world, never to pick it up again. A sequel set in the world of the Krays, whom Epstein surely saw regularly, with and without his Beatles; the world of shadowy superlawyer David Jacobs; of Seltaeb, which I can never goddamn spell—life is too short to wallow in this Jeffrey Epstein-ish muck. But it is there, nevertheless.
To me, most of the recent fan talk on the internet falls into two buckets: Baby Boomers enjoying a nostalgic trip through the Standard Narrative (“It was at a Woolton village fête—and for our American listeners, that’s pronounced FATE, not FEET…”); or other, often younger fans running unprovable thought experiments based on emotional intelligence (“Do you really think that John and Paul were just co-workers? Come on“). Meanwhile, Mark Lewisohn beavers away in the background, collecting facts… and knowing in his bones, as all thinking adults do, that some percentage of important human activity generates no paper trail. Whether you think that’s 5% (as most historians and journalists I’ve met) or 75% (as I do) makes all the difference.
Do I know anything more than the average fan? Well, there was a time perhaps, but no longer, with a 51-year-old brain 99.9995% turned towards other things. But I suspect, as would any fan with a truly sympathetic imagination would; someone who wonders “What would it be like?” and really goes there. As I’ve said the comments, fans who believe Paul McCartney screwed hundreds of women from 1963-68, then pulled a permanent 180, thanks to the love of One Good Woman, Linda McCartney—you and I live in very different worlds. Given my life, and the people I know, many of them successful show biz folk? It’s possible, sure, so are UFOs, buth not likely. And your personal answer to such a question means a lot, because it either forces you off the Standard Narrative, or demonstrates that really nothing other than a signed statement from Mr. McCartney acknowledging infidelity will force you off.
The larger question: what does it get us, this discussion of Beatle decadence? Perhaps a bit more insight, a bit more understanding. it is harmless to them and their legacy, for sure. Looking back, for me, it has come at too high a cost. If you want my advice, and we don’t know each other and you didn’t ask, I think it’s probably better for all concerned to enjoy the tunes and think that Paul’s a good normal bloke who really does love driving around with James Corden, and John was a good normal bloke with a lovely relationship with his compounding pharmacist, and George was a bit odd about the religion but liked to garden and occasionally popped down to the pub like a good, normal bloke, and Ringo…is just Ringo. A good, normal bloke.
Is this true?
Don’t be silly.
But it’s nice to think, and…why not? The Beatles were not, in the end, political leaders, and all the sex with underage girls (proffered by their mothers is the story I remember—from Peter Brown, perhaps?), or kinky breath-play with a Coldstream Guardsman, or drugs or thievery or pissing on nuns, doesn’t really matter next to the music. I think it might’ve haunted them a bit, particularly George, but Beatle decadence is not a core part of the story like it seems to be with The Stones or Zeppelin. You can know John, Paul, George, and Ringo as musicians, and somewhat as people, without it.
What I hope will happen—what I’m aiming for as it were—is some future moment where I’ve really accepted homo sapiens for what it is. When I’ve grown past a capitalist, patriarchal Judeo-Christian Standard Narrative that seems to actively encourage decadence, replaced by clear sight, compassion and acceptance. I hope to have a heart big enough to both acknowledge what “it was like Satyricon” really meant, and one strong enough to protect and heal all those who need protection and healing.
The music may help me get there; the muck will not.