The Beatles and Drugs, Part II. Book Review: Riding So High, by Joe Goodden

Part II:

Joe Goodden’s Riding So High: The Beatles and Drugs (2017), proves itself to be an essential new work in Beatles historiography. This is due to two major elements: the first involves the book’s subject matter regarding how drug use impacted the Beatles story. This is an absolutely crucial subject – indeed, this historian would argue that the Beatles story and their historiography cannot be properly understood without accounting for it – but also one which has, for numerous reasons, been largely neglected. The second involves the necessary level of objectivity displayed within the book. With the exceptions of Doggett and, at times, MacDonald, few of the most influential secondary writers in Beatles historiography have attempted to approach the issue of the band’s drug use with objectivity and balance. Unfortunately, those works that have emphasized the importance and at times destructiveness of the band’s drug use tended to adopt either prurient, salacious tones, as in Peter Brown’s memoir, or haranguing, condemnatory ones, such as in Albert Goldman’s The Lives of John Lennon. Goodden thankfully and necessarily avoids both of these approaches.

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Setting the Stage: The Beatles and Drugs, Part One

One of the glaring weaknesses endemic throughout many of the major secondary sources and narratives in Beatles historiography is the failure to acknowledge the impact legal and illegal drugs had on the band’s story. For decades, according to most authors, the Beatles’ drug use seemingly occurred in a vacuum; while some secondary sources might acknowledge narcotic and drug influences on certain songs or albums, the idea that the chemical substances ingested by the band’s members impacted issues beyond their artistry was rarely, and only fleetingly, acknowledged.

Examples of this abound: One of the most influential works of 1970s, Nicholas Schaffner’s The Beatles Forever, neglects the drug issue almost entirely and soft-pedals the few mentions it does contain. Another, the first edition of Phillip Norman’s Shout!, never once mentions Lennon and Ono’s breakup-era drug use. Such glaring omissions are not only consigned to the early decades of the band’s historiography; Fred Goodman’s recent biography Allen Klein fails to acknowledge, even once, that Lennon and Ono were taking heroin during the breakup period and particularly in the formative period of their relationship with Klein. Those books that have emphasized the band’s drug use, such as Albert Goldman’s The Lives of John Lennon, rank among the least popular and are widely regarded by fans as among the least credible works in all Beatles historiography. Peter Brown’s memoir The Love You Make has been criticized for its heavy emphasis on sex and drugs, as seemingly every piece of information is filtered through those particular muckraking lenses. Yet The Love You Make contains assessments and conclusions — “If there was a single reason the Beatles broke up, it was John’s heroin addiction” – which, while overlooked for decades, have begun to establish themselves as aspects necessary to explaining how and why the band’s story unfolded as it did.

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Count me out/in: Ray Coleman’s McCartney: Yesterday and Today

With the possible exception of Philip Norman’s 2016 Paul McCartney: The Life, there is no book in Beatles historiography which better exemplifies a jarring interpretive and narrative shift by a single author than Ray Coleman’s 1996 McCartney: Yesterday and Today. A semi-McCartney biography and in-depth examination of the history and legacy surrounding his song “Yesterday,” Coleman’s work is considerably less valuable for the limited amount of new evidence it reveals, and more for its stunning demonstration of authorial re-interpretation and hypocrisy. Examined absent of any authorial and historiographical context, Coleman’s McCartney is a largely lightweight, primarily complimentary, incomplete portrait of an artist and his signature song. Read in a vacuum, Coleman’s work would presumably be quickly read and, a few morsels of new information aside, just as quickly forgotten.

However, when evaluated as part of both Coleman’s contributions to and the overall arc of Beatles historiography, Yesterday and Today reveals the fundamental narrative shift occurring within the band’s story as the predominant Shout!-era version of both the breakup and Lennon/McCartney partnership began to crumble. It also prompts essential questions of how and why authors change their views on individuals and events. What motivates authorial re-interpretation by authors who have promoted singular narratives? What should motivate drastic authorial and evidentiary re-interpretation? And what tools does historiography provide to navigate and make sense of such jarring reversals?

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Beatles and the Historians Podcast

The most recent episode of the somethingaboutthebeatles podcast, hosted by Robert Rodriguez and Richard Buskin, focuses on how Beatles history has been and is being written, including a look at some of the major books/sources written on the band. I contributed some thoughts and analysis in a phone interview with Robert and Richard, including some discussion of key primary sources, such as Lennon Remembers, and secondary sources, such as Shout! For those of you who are interested, here’s a link to the podcast:

Listen to the podcast here.

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Anniversary

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The Historian and The Beatles blog is a year old!  Erin and I want to thank everyone for their interest and contributions. Please keep it up–your opinions and perspectives are important.

As we move forward, we would really like some feedback from everyone.  For example, what do you like about  the blog?  What do you see as its strengths and weaknesses?  Are there any works you’d like Erin to cover/review which she hasn’t thus far? Is there any post or thread which you’d like to see developed more fully in a separate post?  We’re eager for your feedback so please, let us know.

We also think it would be interesting to solicit YOUR book reviews of books which Erin hasn’t covered, or those which she has, but perhaps you have a different perspective.  If you would like to write a book review for us, let us know here in the comment section.

So now we turn it over to you; let us know what you think!