The title is referring to a notorious groupie-related event in Led Zeppelin history, detailed here. Long dismissed as legend, it seems to have really happened in July 1969, and (could this possibly be?) everybody left the hotel room happy. Except, of course, for the poor shark.
My last few posts have discussed the relationship of the Beatles’ (and Lennon’s) image versus the likely reality, and my desire for Beatle fandom to become more nuanced, sophisticated and—forgive the loaded word—adult in its relationship with these things. For us to stop giving the Beatles the same preferences and moral boundaries as ourselves. This is particularly common in recent fan-talk, on You Tube and elsewhere, where the Beatles’ emotional lives are plumbed, drawing mostly on the speaker’s own experiences. “Well, I just think that Paul said that because…” “Well, George’s feelings were hurt because…” and so forth.
I do this, you do this, all Beatlefans do this. But repeat after me: The Beatles aren’t us. Pretending otherwise is key to the Beatles’ particular charisma, but by the time they were 22, their lives had gotten so huge, so strange that no fan could really relate. With the possible exception of the fans that became rock stars themselves, and even then, there was a lot of the Beatles’ experience was unique to them as the first, the biggest, etc.
Acknowledging this profound isolation, is the first step to seeing the miracle. Until you do that, it’s all just Legends of Classic Rock.
When I’ve talked about people doing the Beatles’ “dirty work,” or them being “sharp-elbowed” in the pursuit of fame, I haven’t been talking about anything you or I know about. I’m not talking about anything you or I have done, or could do. The things I’m talking about are personal and business behaviors that, when practiced by average folk, result in criminal prosecution; shady things at massive scale that are common among celebrities and the powerful, who usually but not always, suffer no visible consequences.
You can break them down into drugs, sex, and money.
The Beatles used drugs constantly from Hamburg on. Before 1963 or so, nobody cared, but after that, they were very rich and very famous—thus very vulnerable. These drugs were often illegal to possess, much less use. How were they getting their drugs? Who was giving them to them? Why was Fleet Street silent about all this? Who was making sure that some ambitious cop in some Southern U.S. town wasn’t going to bust them? In 1966, the entire South would’ve LOVED to see them in jail—why didn’t somebody make themselves a hero?
That’s a dog that didn’t bark. Making sure The Beatles were able to use drugs, when and however and as much as they wanted — that’s “dirty work.”
The Beatles were sleeping with scads of people from Hamburg on, and from 1964, were very rich and famous. Were all of those partners women? Were all of the women of age? Did none of those women get pregnant? Did no Beatle ever get an STD? That’s what the Official Narrative would have us believe, but what are the odds? Who was making sure that there was not a single known consequence to any of this activity? Where are the women claiming paternity? The lawsuits with millions of dollars at stake? Who was making sure that some ambitious person didn’t try to blackmail John, Paul, George or Ringo, like Dizz blackmailed Brian? Who cooled out the beefs? Who paid for the abortions? And so forth.
Another dog that didn’t bark. Making sure the Beatles could have sex whenever and with whomever they wanted to: “dirty work.”
As to money, we know more than we used to, including the seamy stuff like Brian buying a bunch of records to get the Fabs on the charts. But there’s more, surely–it was common practice for promoters to pay bands “paper bag money,” that is, proceeds from concerts that were in cash, unreported, and untaxed. Surely some of this cash made it to the Fabs, or their business interests. Who made sure that they didn’t get hassled about this?
More “dirty work.”
Why is this drugs/sex/money aspect of the Beatles’ story important? Because it’s the one that hasn’t yet been told, and it’s the one that would probably do more to tell us “what it was like to be a Beatle” than any other. What we know is basically the Beatles’ professional lives; but think back to your own 20s. What portion of your life was your professional life? Even if you were in a crazy, or great, job and that number is 70%, what do you remember now? Mostly the 30%; mostly the personal.
The story of John, Paul, George and Ringo’s personal lives will likely never be told, not only because more and more of the people involved are dead; but also because as a person ages they tend to be less willing to “come clean,” especially if morals have changed. I know several people who burned a swath through the Sixties and Seventies, who will not speak of what they did. They don’t want to be judged. And if your public image is part of a billion-dollar business concern like The Beatles/Apple, talking is inconceivable.
What does this tell us, this chorus of dogs that didn’t bark? By seeing what dogs didn’t bark, or how they barked, or noting when they started barking, we can learn some things.
With sex, the dogs never really barked. They still haven’t barked. I seem to recall Paul having some paternity suit hushed up in ’64; is there more? If there were mudsharks and groupies with the Beatles, we’ll never know. But given John’s “Satyricon” comment, Ringo’s penchant for partying in the 70s, George’s well-known womanizing and Paul’s “hunting the female hordes” comment, it’s likely that anything and everything happened on tour, but was hushed up. Think of that the next time you watch A Hard Day’s Night. And if you find it bothers you, why? The movie is still great, but it was never real. That was never them.
With drugs, the dog didn’t bark until Sgt. Pilcher showed up in 1968. This suggests that Brian had had something to do with the Beatles’ protection on this front. My Spidey sense says he and David Jacobs handled a lot of stuff; and via Jacobs, Brian had access to a whole set of carrots and sticks.
In the 80s, the big scandal in Beatledom was how badly Brian Epstein had botched the Beatles’ merchandising and record deals. He was incompetent! everyone said. Would the Beatles have actually FIRED Brian when his deal was up in 1967?
But here’s a radical notion: Brian was great at precisely the things he needed to be great at. The first job was keeping John and Paul’s creative rivalry from devolving into two opposing camps, as hangers-on attached themselves to each Beatle. Within a year of Epstein’s death, this was exactly what had happened, and it reached its final, lethal stage when their next manager, Allen Klein, picked John over Paul. The exact opposite of how Brian had kept the group together.
Brian’s second job was to do the “dirty work.” Which he did so well that, even fifty years later, we are faced with a choice: either John, Paul, George and Ringo acted fundamentally differently than their contemporaries (like the Stones, the Who, and Zep), or the truly naughty stories were successfully squashed, never to be told.
I personally think it’s pretty unlikely that The Beatles were morally better than other rock bands. So I think it’s likely that what they did, was successfully covered up by Brian and Derek and Mal/Neil, and Peter Brown, and David Jacobs and…a lot of people we don’t know about.
We even know how the cover-up would work, because we’ve seen it in action. Speaking of Peter Brown, he’s really most notable as the only member of The Beatles’ inner circle who ever talked. And when he talked, in the book The Love You Make, it was mostly a nothingburger. Sales were OK; he didn’t retire on them. But, tellingly, the inner circle went bonkers. Brown was excommunicated. I’m sure he thought, “Man, if I’d just told the story they wanted me to tell…” How much more money would Brown have made, from the book and all the Apple gigs after that?
Fans want to like their heroes, so they apply to them their own sense of morals. But this is not helpful; you and I are not Beatles, and we must cross-examine our imagination. In the Wikipedia entry on Brown’s book, a pair of Beatle authors are quoted as saying that Brown was “clearly more interested in selling books than presenting a balanced, accurate portrait.” Really? “Clearly” to whom? Who sold more books, the mostly Official Narrative Philip Norman, or Peter Brown? As a purely commercial bookselling gambit, truth-telling seems to kinda suck. And who is more likely to know what actually happened, Beatle authors combing through secondary sources or a guy who actually worked at NEMS?
These same writers are further quoted that “Brown certainly would not have dared to present such salacious pap in John Lennon’s lifetime and market it as an ‘insider’s story,'” which is legend-huffing at its most asinine. It assumes that Lennon—famously, if intermittently, interested in showing himself and his Beatles “with their trousers off”—would have disagreed with Brown, or agreed with the surviving three’s desire to keep their private business private. Even so, Lennon’s opinion has nothing to do with it; Brown has a right to say his piece, it was his life too, and fans’ unthinking devotion to their celebrity of choice has been proved to be much more societally dangerous than telling tales on a famous boss. Most worrying of all, this attitude suggests that the only entity which has a right to tell the Beatles story is Apple. I disagree with this—whether Brown’s book was good or not, sincere or not, done for money or not. The Beatles of all people have no right to criticize people for doing stuff for money. If the Beatles are important, then the truth should be pursued. If the truth leads to mudsharks, so be it. If there are are mudsharks in every band’s story but none in the Beatles’ story, any fan who is intellectually curious should note the goddamn deafening silence.
Finally, another Beatle fan author, Chris Ingham, is quoted that Lennon and Epstein “would undoubtedly have felt let down” by Brown’s book. This assumes that Brown’s factually wrong because The Beatles/Apple didn’t like what he had to say; assumes that Lennon wouldn’t have been in one of his myth-busting periods; and that a 1981 version of Brian Epstein would’ve had the same relationship with his sexuality as he had in 1967. All this is really debatable.
Here’s what is not debatable: being a Beatle Author is essentially making money off Knowing The Official Narrative, and so Beatle Authors must defend not only the story we know, but the idea that we can know—that the Beatles Story is knowable. But I don’t think it is. I think we can guess, but in all our guessing, I’m not really comfortable telling Peter Brown—the guy who was there, the guy who worked for and with Brian Epstein, the guy who knows what John’s breath smelled like—that he’s full of shit because in 1981 Yoko wasn’t yet ready to Go There. Especially if I am myself in the business of selling books to fans. Fans want the Official Narrative, that’s how it became Official. If fans wanted the sleaze, that’s what Apple would be selling, better believe it.
Final point: Talking about “dogs that didn’t bark” is the kind of statement that the internet finds inflaming. “So now anything a person says that [insert favorite Beatle] did is TRUE? How is that fair to [fave]? Why do you hate [fave]? I just think, that after all [fave] has given the world, we ought to give him privacy and respect!”
I agree. Your favorite Beatle deserves privacy and respect. And you should give him privacy and respect whether or not he inserted a mudshark into a groupie. Because he is not you or I. He did not live your or my life. He had, and has, temptations you and I have not had, living in a world unknown to us. You or I have never even thought of the lascivious possibilities of the genus squalus. This is no more to our credit than not driving the Space Shuttle drunk.
Why am I harping on this lately? Because I’ve noticed that so many Beatles fans genuinely do not want to hear anything “bad” about their heroes (as opposed to Stones fans, or Zep fans, or Who fans, who seem to relish their heroes’ misbehavior). This is why Beatle tell-alls (most notably Brown and Goldman) have underperformed, and now are known more by reputation than reading. But this desire to domesticate our four wildmen—and believe me, compared to most of the people reading this blog, they were wildmen, unless you guys all spent Gap Years hanging with “toe-job” specialists and criminals—this desire to turn The Beatles into guys like us isn’t just parroting something that was already bullshit in 1964, it also doesn’t give John, Paul, George and Ringo enough credit. They got the keys to the Space Shuttle at 22, and discovered there was a full liquor cabinet; they also discovered that a lot of people would make excuses for them and cover it up. “Just don’t crash, fellas; we’re all making a lot of money.”
And for most of a decade, goddamn if they didn’t do all sorts of wonderful things, useful things, things they’ll be remembered for, drunk and high and surrounded by mudsharks up there in space. The wonder of that, the blazing human miracle of it, can only be seen clearly if you leave room in your mind for the full story, for that which we know and that which we can’t.