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.

Goodden’s work is superior to the aforementioned books not only in tone, but also in methodology. Crucially, Riding So High includes citations within the text, allowing readers to see the sources used and, in many cases, date the era and, therefore, the agenda of an interview or statement. Citing sources also allows the reader to investigate the credibility and accuracy of an interview or source. Second, on issues where contradictory accounts and interpretations exist the author provides both sides of the debate and allows the reader to decide.

This is most notable in his discussion of Yoko Ono’s role in introducing Lennon to heroin in 1968. Heroin has been identified by at least one primary source, the aforementioned Peter Brown, as the crucial chemical behind the breakup, and with the well-documented detrimental impact Lennon’s heroin use had on his relationships with his fellow Beatles, as well blunting his interest and participation in the band’s artistry, Ono’s role has become the subject of fierce debate.

Some authors, such as Tony Bramwell, accuse Ono of purposefully introducing the drug to Lennon in order to distance him from the other Beatles. Others, such as Coleman or Norman, either ignore the issue entirely, or ascribe to Ono’s declaration that the couple’s heroin use resulted from “a celebration of ourselves as artists.” Goodden offers both Harrison’s blaming Ono for Lennon’s heroin addiction as well as Ono’s rebuttal that Lennon wouldn’t have taken the drug if he didn’t want to, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions. However, he also notes how, regardless of Ono’s motivations, Lennon’s heroin use was detrimental to his relations with his fellow Beatles: “Heroin is not a sociable drug, at least not between users and non-users, and a very real barrier was erected within the Beatles … Lennon’s attitudes changed dramatically during and after 1968.” Crucially, Goodden also rejects the still seemingly-widely accepted trope that Lennon never used heroin again following “Cold Turkey,” and notes that both Lennon and Ono suffered relapses throughout the 1970s. This, in turn, necessarily becomes an element regarding the debate surrounding Lennon’s final years.

By adopting a chronological format, Goodden begins with covering the widespread influence of alcohol, both on Liverpool at large – declaring that the city’s alcoholic “consumption per person was higher than anywhere else in England” – and on the individual Beatles.  The book then follows both a chronological and chemical format, noting the band’s escalation from alcohol in Liverpool to speed in Hamburg; from marijuana in the frenzy of their early touring days to LSD as touring reached its chaotic end. The author also follows each man into their solo periods, discussing, among other topics, McCartney’s 1980 imprisonment in Japan for marijuana possession and Starr’s attempts to attain, and maintain, sobriety. Each section on a particular drug also includes notes on the most common physical, emotional and psychological side-effects associated with that drug, allowing readers to speculate on the impacts particular chemicals may have had on particular Beatles.

As the band’s most prolific drug user, addictive personality, and as the member seemingly most impacted by the chemicals he ingested, Lennon’s drug use understandably receives more coverage than that of any other Beatle. This is particularly obvious in the sections on both heroin and LSD. That Lennon’s LSD use significantly impacted him both psychologically and emotionally is a now widely accepted conclusion throughout Beatles historiography.  While such an analysis might seem trite and obvious today, it’s crucial to note that both such elements – Noting Lennon’s psychological struggles as well as the impact of his drug use — are wholly absent from some of the most influential sources of the 1970s, including Nicholas Schaffner’s 1978 The Beatles Forever. Stripped of these factors, Schaffner, among others, attempted to explain Lennon’s breakup-era behavior and decisions in simplistic, obscuring, and often tiresome, Lennon vs. McCartney terms. (To be fair to Schaffner, he did acknowledge Lennon’s excessive use and psychological issues a few years later as co-author of Pete Shotton’s memoir: acknowledging with Pete how “John saw acid as a godsend” and “a potential cure for most of his psychological problems.”) In contrast, Goodden underscores how LSD fundamentally impacted the musician: “his peak LSD period appeared to firmly embed personality traits which remained throughout much of the rest of his life. His quest for another kind of mind continued in the hope that each successive lover, guru, chemical, religion, campaign, cause or therapy might provide answers he was looking for. All fell short.”

Goodden also disputes commonly accepted and reiterated wisdom regarding certain drug influenced events and albums. This is a necessary step to greater understanding, as correctly interpreting evidence relies on the premise that such evidence is accurate. He incorporates Turner’s new research arguing that McCartney’s first LSD trip occurred months earlier than the date commonly given by the musician, an assessment that alters popular understanding regarding which chemicals influenced which albums, and places Revolver squarely under the band’s LSD umbrella. (It also begs the question: given that much of the tension between Lennon and McCartney in this time period is attributed to McCartney’s refusal to join Harrison and Lennon in what they regarded as the essential, self-transformative spiritual experience of taking LSD, did McCartney drop acid with others in December 1965 and then simply not tell Lennon and Harrison that he already had experienced an acid trip, even as they continuously pressured him to take the drug?)

He also disputes the popular perception of Sgt. Pepper as an LSD album by noting that McCartney, the album’s driving force, was predominantly using cocaine, and not acid, during the album’s creation. “It’s is also notable that Sgt. Pepper, often considered to be the band’s most LSD influenced album, was primarily steered by a Beatle who was using cocaine more than acid.” He declares that McCartney’s period of dominance over the group began when the musician’s cocaine use was at its peak, in late 1966-early 1967. However, while McCartney dabbled in LSD and, more extensively, cocaine, Goodden acknowledges how McCartney’s primary drug of choice remained, for almost half a century, marijuana; and notes that Paul and Linda McCartney’s shared love of the drug helped foster intimacy in the early days of their relationship.

While Lennon, understandably, receives the most attention, Harrison, Starr and Epstein are not neglected. Harrison’s use, in Hamburg and beyond, of speed is well documented, as are his later LSD and cocaine habits. Starr’s alcoholism and its impact on his personal relationships and creative process are also discussed. Lennon’s heroin use and Brian Epstein’s death by accidental drug overdose are identified as the events where the impact of the band’s drug use proved most destructive and tragic. Both of these issues – Lennon’s heroin addiction and Epstein’s death — have been identified, by various primary sources over the decades, as pivotal causes contributing to the band’s split. Goodden’s work implicitly underscores how neither of these issues would have occurred, or would have unfolded very differently, had drugs not played such a defining role in the band’s story.

Ultimately, Riding So High provides an objective, well-documented look at how drug use infused and impacted numerous aspects of Beatles history. While not, by definition, a reference work, it would seemingly prove essential for any author wanting to know not only what drug a particular Beatle was using at a particular moment in time, but also what the commonly accepted side effects were and, in some cases, what specific impacts certain chemicals had on certain events. For this author, the importance of Goodden’s work also extends into historical methods analysis: now that a documented synthesis on Beatles’ drug use is available, the element of drug use also can be incorporated into source analysis when determining the accuracy and credibility of various interviews and statements. In this way, Beatles historiography can build on itself, improving in methodology and interpretation in order to gain a more accurate understanding of the band’s story.

 


 

Questions and Comments are welcome.

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

  1. Karen Hooper says:

    Sounds like a book destined for my “need to read” list. Thanks for the review (and thanks to Joe for writing it.)

    Given my particular educational lens, I find John’s drug use the most tragic. Here’s someone who has serious psychological issues stemming from childhood, and most likely, bipolar disorder. If only John had sought out therapy from a legitimate source (not to get too far afield here, but Janov’s “treatment” was far more damaging than helpful. The exploration of feelings require a simultaneous exploration of the unhealthy belief systems those feelings create; although John left Janov’s treatment early, I don’t think it would have involved the appropriate cognitive restructuring that John needed. But I digress.)

    He incorporates Turner’s new research arguing that McCartney’s first LSD trip occurred months earlier than the date commonly given by the musician, an assessment that alters popular understanding regarding which chemicals influenced which albums, and places Revolver squarely under the band’s LSD umbrella. (It also begs the question: given that much of the tension between Lennon and McCartney in this time period is attributed to McCartney’s refusal to join Harrison and Lennon in what they regarded as the essential, self-transformative spiritual experience of taking LSD, did McCartney drop acid with others in December 1965 and then simply not tell Lennon and Harrison that he already had experienced an acid trip, even as they continuously pressured him to take the drug?)

    Can you (or Joe) say more about this? I recall both George Martin and Paul McCartney’s account of LSD use occurring during Pepper. John got accidentally stoned one evening and Paul had to drive him home. I might be misremembering, but according to both men, that’s the time Paul decided to take LSD for the first time–to, according to Martin, “get with John.” Did I remember that correctly, and what does Turner have to say to contradict that?

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  2. Erin says:

    “I recall both George Martin and Paul McCartney’s account of LSD use occurring during Pepper.”

    Paul’s first time in taking LSD with John occurred during the Pepper sessions, and both Martin and Paul reference/discuss it. But Paul declared in MYFN that he took LSD at least a month or two before that incident with John, dropping acid with Tara Brown. (I don’t have my notes with me at the moment and can’t remember the exact time frame, although I believe he gives the impression that his acid trip with Tara took place post-Revolver. In Turner’s Beatles ’66 book, he tracks down one of the individuals who was present, with Tara and Paul, the night Paul evidently first took acid. The individual (again, I don’t have my notes) dates the event as, IIRC, December 1965; he argues that the memory is very clear in his head because he and his fellow bandmates had just returned from a concert tour. If anyone else — who does have their notes with them — cares to add more specifics to it, they’re welcome to, but that’s my memory of the new, revised timeline of Paul’s acid use.

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    • Karen Hooper says:

      Right, now I remember. I also recall a lengthy discussion on a Beatles blog (can’t recall which one, maybe HD) speculating as to why Paul would choose to lose his LSD virginity with Tara Brown rather than with John.

      Like

    • Joe Goodden says:

      Hi Erin and Karen. Thanks for a great review Erin.

      According to Turner’s interview with Viv Prince from the Pretty Things, McCartney’s first LSD trip was on 13 December 1965 at Tara Browne’s London home. This was shortly after the release of Day Tripper/WCWIO, and some months before work began on Revolver. 13 December was the day after the Beatles’ final UK tour date, in Cardiff, Wales (my home city, coincidentally), which is how Prince was able to be so specific.

      McCartney’s first trip with John Lennon (his first with any of the Beatles) was on 21 March 1967, when they were recording Getting Better. Lennon accidentally took acid (thinking it was a stimulant), and McCartney took him back to Cavendish Avenue, where he took LSD to keep him company, with Mal Evans their trip-sitter (sober onlooker).

      It’s believed to have been McCartney’s second time on LSD, coming a full fifteen months after the first. It does suggest that, although he had taken LSD before Revolver, it wasn’t really a key influence on his work on that album. McCartney has said he only took acid a handful of times, and of all the Beatles seems to have had the least interest in it.

      21 March was only a couple of weeks before the completion of Sgt Pepper too, and during its creation McCartney was using cocaine and cannabis more than LSD. Here’s Paul on George Martin, where he highlights pot (cannabis) as a key ingredient:

      ‘The main point was that George was the grown-up, not on drugs, and up behind the glass window, and we were the kids, on drugs, in the studio. He was somebody completely different, an alien force really, performing his wartime role as the Fleet Air Arm observer from behind the glass window. When he was doing his TV programme on Pepper, he asked me, “Do you know what caused Pepper?” I said, “In one word, George, drugs. Pot.” And George said, “No, no. But you weren’t on it all the time.” “Yes, we were.” Sgt Pepper was a drug album.’

      LSD was certainly an major influence during this time on the other Beatles, Lennon and Harrison in particular, but much less so for McCartney.

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      • Erin says:

        Joe,

        Thanks for the clarification and the details: I was in the classroom, typing up a reply before I had to start lecturing, and didn’t have my notes with me.

        I’ve always found that George Martin element a particularly interesting one, given that he gave several interviews disputing the premise that the Beatles needed to take drugs in order to advance their artistry. Martin and Paul’s versions of Beatles history generally, in my reading, tend to agree with each other on the big issues; but not, evidently, on the artistic impact of drugs.

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  3. Ron Nasty says:

    I will declare an interest here. I am a regular poster on Beatles Bible, and in last year’s poll was voted “most knowledgeable on Beatles history” alongside Joe. He is a friend, and I got to see the book early, and pointed him away from one comment about Dylan.
    Interest declared, I have to say this is one of the most fascinating Beatles books I have read in a long time.
    I like that Joe has made no attempt to make it black and white, showing rather that there are nuances, and that those nuances are important; that their drug use was often a spinning coin in the air between positive and negative, and he’s ready to show where the reader needs to make their decision whether the coin falls one way or the other.
    One point you make, Erin, is:
    “It also begs the question: given that much of the tension between Lennon and McCartney in this time period is attributed to McCartney’s refusal to join Harrison and Lennon in what they regarded as the essential, self-transformative spiritual experience of taking LSD, did McCartney drop acid with others in December 1965 and then simply not tell Lennon and Harrison that he already had experienced an acid trip, even as they continuously pressured him to take the drug?”
    I would suggest it suggests another question, while John and George might have been a bit of pissed off that they’d yet to share a tab with Paul, were their other strains during this period that might have affected their relationships?
    Touring would be something that might explain the strains between the band at this time.
    It’s usually portrayed as them falling out of love with it like dominoes, one after the other, until Paul finally accepts that that stage is over.
    There are problems between Paul and John & George at this time. They are often portrayed as being non-ingestion of LSD, but could it be that John and George’s disillusionment with live performance clashed with Paul’s love of the stage.
    If John and George did know Paul had taken LSD, and were not berating for not joining in, then it does throw up the question as to what the tension issue if it wasn’t LSD, and as we know touring was an issue at the time…

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    • Erin says:

      Hello Ron. Or would you like your prefer Mr. Nasty? 🙂

      Welcome to our little blog. It’s always nice to get new posters.

      “I like that Joe has made no attempt to make it black and white, showing rather that there are nuances, and that those nuances are important; that their drug use was often a spinning coin in the air between positive and negative, and he’s ready to show where the reader needs to make their decision whether the coin falls one way or the other.”

      That was key for me as well, Ron. With a topic as nuanced and yet as crucial as the Beatles and drugs, that’s really the only way to do it. And it’s methodologically sound, which made my historical-methods heart giddy.

      “If John and George did know Paul had taken LSD, and were not berating for not joining in, then it does throw up the question as to what the tension issue if it wasn’t LSD, and as we know touring was an issue at the time…”

      I don’t think we can dismiss the LSD-inspired tension just yet, but I agree with you on the touring dispute possibly causing tension, particularly between Paul and George. My reading (as someone who has studied introversion/extroversion — and Karen’s, who has a professional background in psychology — is that Paul and George are the furthest apart on the spectrum, with Paul as the classic extrovert and George as the classic introvert. Speaking as a classic introvert myself, I completely understand how and why touring was miserable for George. The crowds, the noise, the lack or privacy, of quiet … all those would be draining, even when the touring was going well and people weren’t beating you up in the Philippines or burning Beatles records. Whereas Paul, as the classic extrovert, was (and still is) energized by touring/performance. Moreover, it was entirely possible that, because they’re so far apart on the spectrum, it was very difficult for either of them to understand how the other was feeling, as introverted and extroverted brains are wired to respond differently to the same stimuli. I’d imagine that could have been a serious source of tension.

      As for the LSD issue, my memory of Lewisohn’s interpretation on “Tune In” regarding a similar instance (Paul’s initial refusal to take speed back in Hamburg) was that the main problem wasn’t even that Paul was being a square by not taking the prellies; it was that he wasn’t taking them with George and John, and that they, George and John, regarded this as a betrayal of that collective identity unit the three of them had constructed. If you extend that same reasoning to the LSD issue, then Paul taking LSD in December 1965 actually becomes a greater source of tension than the version we’ve always been told, how Paul refused to take it until much later and George and John thought they couldn’t relate to him because he hadn’t had that transformative experience. If Paul took it in December 1965 and told the others soon afterwards, his constant refusals to take it together with John and George — for over a year — could very easily be seen by John and George as a betrayal. “You’ll take acid with Tara Brown, but you won’t take it with your two best friends?” But that’s speculation on my part. And its contingent, as I said, on Paul taking the acid and then telling them he’d done it.

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      • Karen Hooper says:

        I have a couple of theories as to why Paul decided to first take LSD with Tara Browne, rather than with John and George.

        First, it was an act of rebellion. Paul was notoriously cautious and could be rather obstinate. Given all the pressure exerted on him by John and George, he would feel that taking LSD with them would be construed as act of acquience and submission. Instead, he decided to take it with someone outside of Beatledom: Tara Browne.

        Second, it was a measure of safety. John was off the rails by 1965/66 and George seemed almost ready to go postal. Perhaps cautious Paul decided it was safer to try LSD with Tara Browne, rather than with his bandmates, who were apparently consumed by their own issues.

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        • linda a says:

          “he would feel that taking LSD with them would be construed as act of acquience and submission.”

          Karen this is also a good point and it was on my mind when I wrote my reply to Erin above.

          Liked by 1 person

      • linda a says:

        Erin quickly, I agree that Paul’s taking acid with Tara Brown and not with John and George for over a year would have been a huge source of tension and I personally think that he would have told them fairly quickly that he had taken it. I don’t think he would have kept that to himself given all the flack he had received for not taking it in September. Also personally, I think he was reluctant to take it with them because he was too close to them. He may have felt it would cause problems with their emotional connection.

        Regarding Joe’s book, I’m about halfway through it and I absolutely love it. So interesting and well written. I’m so glad you did a post on it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Erin says:

          Great to hear from you, Linda.

          I’m glad you’re liking Joe’s book so far. I had the opposite reaction to Joe’s book that I did to Fred Goodman’s Klein bio: in both cases I was genuinely looking forward to a new, in-depth look at what I regard as one of the crucial, unexplored areas in Beatles historiography. With Goodman’s book, I read it and was seriously disappointed to see his biases and methodological flaws seriously undermined his work and analysis. With Joe’s book, I read it and was thrilled with the way he covered an essential topic in a methodologically sound way.

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    • Karen Hooper says:

      Welcome Ron. I echo Erin’s sentiments that it’s great to have new folks visit our corner of the Beatles’ universe.

      I wonder if the tension was maybe as simple as needing a break. The stress created by touring and the non-stop pressure of their incredible fame must have been immense.

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  4. Hologram Sam says:

    (From the Guardian newspaper:)

    German police on Monday arrested a 58-year-old man in Berlin on suspicion of handling stolen items from John Lennon’s estate, including the late Beatle’s diaries.

    The items were stolen from Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono in New York in 2006 and have been seized as evidence, Martin Steltner, a spokesman for the Berlin prosecutor’s office, said.

    The stolen goods consisted of “various items from the estate of John Lennon, including several diaries that were written by him,” Steltner added.

    The items resurfaced in the German capital about three years ago.

    They were confiscated this year as part of the investigation and it is unclear when they will be returned to the estate.

    “The release of the seized evidence cannot yet be decided,” Steltner said.

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    • Erin says:

      “The items were stolen from Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono in New York in 2006”

      Are these the same diaries which were initially stolen by Fred Seaman, given to Robert Rosen, and then returned to Yoko? The ones that, reportedly, portray a depressed, deeply envious, drug addicted John? If they are, that would mea that they have been stolen twice, and we still haven’t gotten an objective look at their contents.

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  5. Hologram Sam says:

    Are these the same diaries which were initially stolen by Fred Seaman, given to Robert Rosen, and then returned to Yoko?

    I don’t know. I was wondering the same thing.

    From what I understand, all stolen items will be returned to Yoko. I don’t know if the diaries would be useful to historians, or if controversial pages were long ago torn out and shredded after Lennon’s death.

    Like

    • Karen Hooper says:

      Interesting that Yoko publishes anything and everything to do with JohnandYoko, but refuses to publish or share items which might contradict the narrative she has spent the past 30+ years promoting.

      Perhaps when she passes away these materials will become available.

      Like

      • Hologram Sam says:

        Perhaps when she passes away these materials will become available.

        I’ve always assumed she destroyed anything that didn’t fit the narrative.

        When I saw “stolen diaries” in the news, my first reaction was to hope maybe they were unedited. But they are Yoko’s property, and since they disappeared in 2006, they were most likely heavily redacted long ago.

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      • Erin says:

        “Perhaps when she passes away these materials will become available.”

        If these are the diaries read by Rosen and Seaman, than the image they reportedly provide of John and John and Yoko’s relationship in its final years is so contradictory to the image Yoko prefers to tell that I can’t conceive of her letting them become publicly available, even after her death. She’ll destroy them, the way Bessie Truman burned her correspondence with Harry, or she’ll ensure they only go to people interested and invested in promoting her version of events. And because they’re her private property, she has that right. That’s one of the frustrating things about Beatles historiography; the archives. At least with the U.S. govt., with the Freedom of Information Act, scholars are guaranteed partial and eventually complete access after a legally determined period of time. But because so much Beatles stuff is personal property or the property of businesses, they can sit on it for as long as they want, never release it, allow incomplete access that gives a skewed version of events, and/or grant access in exchange for favorable portrayals.(Not that govt. archives don’t do the same things).

        One of my fellow historians was absolutely fascinated when I was telling her about the Beatles Abbey Road tapes that Lewisohn used for the Recording Sessions book; how they’re under lock and key; how the room is directly wired to the nearest police station so that if unauthorized entry occurs, the cops respond immediately; how difficult it is to gain access, and how politicized that access is. To my understanding, (and anyone can correct me if I’m wrong) only two people have listened to the complete tapes: George Martin, and Mark Lewisohn. That level of archive insularity is ridiculous. It even beats the Vatican, which, according to almost all historians, has the most impenetrable archives anywhere. and they won’t even admit that they have it.

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        • Karen Hooper says:

          She’ll destroy them, the way Bessie Truman burned her correspondence with Harry, or she’ll ensure they only go to people interested and invested in promoting her version of events.

          Way to ruin my dream. 🙂

          One of my fellow historians was absolutely fascinated when I was telling her about the Beatles Abbey Road tapes that Lewisohn used for the Recording Sessions book; how they’re under lock and key; how the room is directly wired to the nearest police station so that if unauthorized entry occurs, the cops respond immediately; how difficult it is to gain access, and how politicized that access is.

          Doug Sulpy already had access to the tapes, though, assuming we’re talking about the same ones.

          Like

          • Erin says:

            Not exactly. Sulpy and Schweghardt accessed the “Let it Be” tapes from the “Get Back” sessions. Lewisohn had access to everything recorded at Abbey Road from 1962-1970. The tapes of the Let it Be sessions have been heavily bootlegged, but much of the Abbey Road tapes are still, to my knowledge, inaccessible.

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