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.