Over the last two decades, Beatles’ authors have begun to tentatively delve into psychological issues involving the group and its members, particularly John Lennon. Authors from Doggett to MacDonald to Lewisohn have incorporated various elements of Lennon’s personality and psychology – his emotional instability, his addictive personality, his fear of abandonment, insecurity and envy – into their analysis of the musician’s actions and statements.
Far less attention has been devoted to the other Beatles’ psychological and emotional issues. Paul McCartney’s refusal to join in Lennon’s “soul-baring extravaganzas,” his apparent normalcy (and, presumably, still alive status), as well as the tiresome tendency in Beatles historiography to categorize Lennon and McCartney in unfailingly opposing terms (if John is the anguished, tormented partner, Paul, by definition, must be the blithe, untroubled one) has seemingly contributed to this. George Harrison and Ringo Starr, meanwhile, barely merit any analysis or even enter into the discussion.
Despite his best efforts, Henry Sullivan’s The Beatles with Lacan, published over 20 years ago in 1995, illustrates how badly Beatles historiography still needs a trained psychologist or psychiatrist to evaluate the band; not only as individuals, but also in their relationships with one another. In the book, Sullivan applies the psychological concepts of French psychoanalyst Jaqcues Lacan to Lennon, McCartney and the third “other” they created between the two of them – what Sullivan categorizes as a psycho-musical marriage. For those fans and readers who pick up the book hoping to get a more comprehensive group analysis, the title The Beatles with Lacan is, frankly, misleading: George and Ringo are almost entirely neglected in the author’s analysis. A more appropriate title would have been Lennon and McCartney with Lacan.
Note: When reading this review, please bear in mind that psychology and psychiatry are not my area(s) of expertise. I took my required college psychology 101 class and nothing more. What you’re reading is a historical methods review written by a Historian, evaluating the work of a Literature Professor (Sullivan is not a trained psychologist) who, in turn, applied the Psychiatric analysis of Lacan to Lennon and McCartney. It’s akin to a game of inter-disciplinary telephone. This is not a book for the casual reader, and would best suit someone with an intense interest in/familiarity with psychology; it is also, at times, heavily academic and theoretical. In the following paragraphs, Karen has provided us with a quick backgrounder about Jacques Lacan.
Jaques Lacan (1901-1981), was a french psychoanalyst trained in the tradition of Sigmund Freud. Typical of Freudian psychoanalytic theory in general, Lacan’s theories are difficult to grasp and do not incorporate contemporary knowledge about infant brain development, parent-child attachment, and modern social learning concepts. (Lacan, however, was considered somewhat of a rebel in psychoanalytic circles: he didn’t adhere to the 50-minute therapy session rule and lost his International Psychoanalytical Association membership as a consequence. )
Given its roots in post- Victorian society, psychoanalytic theory still treats homosexuality, and to a certain degree, feminism, as an aberration of mental wellness. Lacan attempted to modernize psychoanalytic thinking about both, but in general his theories about personality structure and behaviour are still rooted in concepts of illness. “Perversion”, for example, is still a label applied to behaviour which doesn’t conform to heteronormative standards, although Lacan dismissed the Oedipal premise and favoured a social foundation:
What makes a pervert “perverse” is not the fact of habitually engaging in specific “abnormal” or transgressive sexual acts, but of occupying a particular structural position in relation to the Other. Perversion is one of Lacan’s three main ontological diagnostic structures, structures that indicate fundamentally different ways of solving the problems of alienation, separation from the primary caregiver, and castration, or having limits set by the law on one’s jouissance. The perverse subject has undergone alienation but disavowed castration, suffering from excessive jouissance and a core belief that the law and social norms are fraudulent at worst and weak at best. [Swales, 2012]
It is a bold move, as Erin suggested, for a layperson to apply Lacanian psychoanalytic theory to anything, let alone the study of the Beatles. If the concepts seem unclear or difficult to understand, don’t adjust your set; it’s not you. [KH]
Methodologically, the work displays both strengths and serious weaknesses. Unlike many Beatles’ books of his time period, Sullivan provides citations within the text, allowing the reader to see where the author got his information. Unfortunately, these citations are sometimes absent in crucial parts, such as his claims regarding Jim McCartney’s gambling debts necessitating being paid off by his employer at the Liverpool Cotton Exchange: Sullivan does not reveal where that information came from. (Sullivan, 72). He also provides a bibliography but, due to the time period of his publication (1995) is heavily reliant on many biographies and memoirs from the 1970s and 1980s; decades in which Beatles historiograpy labored under some partisan and what are now widely regarded as inaccurate narratives. This was also a time period in which what are now regarded as vital primary sources were unavailable.
To his credit, Sullivan displays some instances of source analysis, such as when he (rightfully) labels Ray Coleman’s Lennon biography as semi-hagiographic and describes Albert Goldman’s The Lives of John Lennon as its polar opposite. (Sullivan, 58). However, he applies virtually no source analysis to the various memoirs that make up the bulk of his most-used sources. Instead, it seems that the more salacious, unflattering and controversial the memoir (Green, Brown, Pang, Schwartz, Seaman) the less inclined Sullivan is to apply any grain of salt. (He recounts all of Green’s and Schwartz’s accounts, for example, unquestioningly). While memoirs qualify as primary sources, unquestioningly accepting their accounts is shoddy methodology. Applying source analysis only to secondary sources is a first step, but an inadequate one.
The most provocative, if speculative, parts of the book involve Sullivan’s application of Lacan’s psychological theories to Lennon, McCartney, and their relationship. Sullivan identifies their “psycho-musical matrimony” (69) as the core of the Beatles’ artistry and the band’s driving force. In this respect, he creditably refuses to pick a side in the tiresome “John vs. Paul” schism which unfortunately dominates so many Beatles’ sources. But his neglect of other key figures, including Harrison and Starr, limits the scope and understanding of the analysis. Perhaps the most similar work in Beatles historiography is Joshua Wolf Shenk’s The Powers of Two, which also analyzes the creative and personal relationship between Lennon and McCartney, albeit from a far less psychologically-influenced perspective.
Sullivan begins his application of Lacanian analysis with a psychological profile of Lennon, arguing that Lennon’s unstable childhood left him psychologically scarred for the rest of his life. According to the author’s reading of Lacan, John falls in the intermediate category between “hysteria” and “psychosis”: what Lacan labeled “Perversion.” “Perverse” is one of Lacan’s four basic personality types. “The perverse subject is not, however, a homosexual or lesbian, but transsexual. That is to say that (he) … experiences doubt over his sexual identity and has never been pinned down as a boy or a girl.” (65).
This “perversion” was instigated by John’s parents’ instability and tumultuous relationship as well as the rivalry/conflict surrounding Julia Stanley and Aunt Mimi. For Lacan, the fundamental question of the “Perversion” personality type is “Am I a woman or a man?” (Ibid.) John associated Mimi with more traditional masculine role of authority, and Julia with femininity, freedom and expression, but felt manipulated and controlled by Mimi and abandoned by his mother. This resulted in John’s conflicted feelings regarding women; his at times poor to terrible treatment of the women who loved him and whom he loved; his obsession with sex, and numerous other emotional and psychological issues, including a significant amount of sexual confusion (Sullivan cites John’s at-times violent responses to aspersions on his heterosexuality) and fundamental insecurity. (68)
Sullivan spends a surprisingly short amount of time on drug use (arguing mainly that the transition from alcohol to psychedelic drugs distanced the Beatles’ from their earlier collective identity). However, he does argue that Lennon’s underlying psychological issues only intensified with fame and drug use; and declares that, at certain points of high stress and insecurity, Lennon descended into psychosis, pointing to Lennon’s 1968 “Jesus Christ” announcement as evidence.
In his analysis of the psycho-musical marriage with McCartney, the author also argues that, for the Perversion personality type, a more stable partner is necessary in order for them to function both psychologically and socially. Prior to 1957, that partner was Pete Shotton: from 1957-1968, that partner was Paul McCartney and, from 1968-1980, the role was filled by Yoko Ono. In his evaluation, one of the crucial elements of the Lennon/McCartney relationship was the complementary nature of their differences: “John and Paul supplied to each other important elements of what each of the lacked individually.” (71). The “well-grounded” one of the partnership, Paul was able to supply John with the stability, organization and drive someone with John’s psychological issues needed, while also participating equally as a creative partner and supporting his part of their “tandem genius.” (74). Sullivan describes the musical and power struggles/tug of war between the two men in political terms: “Paul was the legislative branch and John the executive one.” (72)
The author implicitly appears to argue the creative and psychological superiority of the Lennon/McCartney partnership over that of the Lennon/Ono partnership that succeeded it, for two reasons: first, gender similarity; and, second, Lennon’s relative stability in the former, as opposed to the latter. Sullivan argues that Lennon found it easier to love men than women (explicitly separating love from desire). “John was able to bestow upon Paul the little love he was capable of as a perverse subject, because Paul, being a man, did not conjure up for him the bogey of sexual difference … John’s erotomania was directed at countless women for whom he cared nothing, while he loved only three women: Cynthia, Powell, Yoko Ono and May Pang, and he treated all of them abominably.” (71). Sullivan further argues that Lennon deeply desired to achieve some form of “normative” psychological state, particularly in his last years, but argues that the closest the musician ever came to achieving that was during his psycho-musical marriage with McCartney: “My point is that John achieved the greatest stability of his life when Paul was his soulmate …. John could live and work and hang together for all those years, despite his torments, because the Walrus was Paul.” (73). This authorial conclusion of Lennon’s relative superior stability during the Beatles’ period, of course, depends on primarily accepting the Goldman, rather than the Norman/Coleman/Wenner version, of Lennon’s last five years.
According to Sullivan, that transition in spring 1968 away from McCartney as the stabilizing partner to Ono prompted one of Lennon’s descents into psychosis. (74). By applying Lacanian theory, Sullivan argues that a major part of Ono’s appeal was her ability to demonstrate both the more masculine, authoritative traits which Lennon associated with Mimi, and the feminine, creative, rebellious aspects that reminded the musician of his absent mother, Julia. The other element which dazzled Lennon was Ono’s ability to fuse the roles of both creative collaborator (a role previously filled by McCartney) and sexual partner/mother figure (previously filled by Cynthia Lennon, as well as other women). (52). (Sullivan is not the first to offer this analysis: Cynthia Lennon offered a similar comment in the 60 Minutes interview: “The Two Mrs. Lennon’s”). However, despite Ono’s ability to fuse these varying aspects, Sullivan’s ultimate view of the Lennon/Ono relationship is an unhealthy one; he argues that the five years following Lennon’s Lost Weekend represent the psychological equivalent of Lennon’s utter “castration,” and endorses, without question, Goldman’s claims that the marriage was on the brink of divorce at the time of Lennon’s murder. (82).
While there is evidence supporting both sides regarding the probability of a Lennon/Ono divorce, Sullivan’s speculation that, had he not been murdered, Lennon would have happily reunited with Pang in the aftermath of his divorce from Ono ignores a number of other issues. Foremost among these is that, despite periods of genuine happiness/creativity during the Lost Weekend, Pang ultimately proved (at least according to Doggett) incapable of providing the psychological and mental strength Lennon seemingly required in a long-standing partner. Simply put, Pang could not fulfill Lennon’s psychological needs for security the way McCartney and then Ono had. Given his own argument that the transition from McCartney to Ono had prompted a period of Lennon’s psychosis, the idea that Lennon could have easily transitioned from Ono to Pang (who also could not fulfill the artistic collaborator role, as McCartney had done, or the dual sexual/collaborator role, or the feminine/masculine role to the same extent as Ono) while, at the same time, grappling with his reported heroin and cocaine addictions, seems overly optimistic on Sullivan’s part.
Methodologically, the core issue regarding Sullivan’s application of Lacanian analysis to Lennon remains Sullivan’s unquestioning acceptance of those sources, particularly memoirs, which portray the musician in the least-healthy psychological light possible. (This is not an issue singular to Sullivan’s analysis of Lennon: He displays identical selective use of evidence in his psycho-analysis of McCartney). That Lennon struggled with psychological issues and emotional instability is a now widely accepted tenet of the Beatles story: however, after reading Sullivan’s work, and the unrelenting barrage of negative sources, the reader is left wondering how Lennon managed to function at any sort of competency at all.
I know this book is a rather obscure choice for a review, but comments from posters (as well as my unexpected ability to get it via I.L.L.) prompted the choice. The second part of the review, covering Sullivan’s application of Lacanian analysis to Paul McCartney, should be up relatively soon, barring any premature deliveries on my part.
My backgrounder on Lacan is based on a brief review of literature and reliance upon my own background and training in psychology. I’m in no way a subject matter expert in Lacan’s theories, so don’t ask me too many hard questions. 🙂 KH
21 thoughts on “Some Other Kind of Mind: Book Review, The Beatles with Lacan, by Henry Sullivan, 1995. Part I.”
What strikes me about Sullivan’s analysis is that it does strike a logical chord, Lacanian derivations notwithstanding.
While I don’t agree with Sullivan’s interpretation of John as a psychological “transsexual”–a strange assessment if there ever was one because it simultaneously misidentifies transsexuality and ignores sexual fluidity–I think his assessment of John as perennially torn between Julia and Mimi as mother figures and psychological identifiers; his view that John was the most psychologically stable with Paul vs Yoko; and his observation that John strived (and failed) to gain psychological equilibrium prior to his death, is sound, I think.
I also believe, as Sullivan does, that John found it easier to love men than women, but unlike Sullivan I think that most of John’s close relationships, with men and women, were often fraught with psychosexual conflict. He attempted to resolve the conflict with Cynthia, and failed; with McCartney, and failed; with May Pang (as a Yoko surrogate), and failed; and with Yoko herself, and failed.
John’s so-called obsession with sex, as noted by John himself, Sullivan and others, is interesting to me from a diagnostic perspective. Bipolar disorder–specifically, the manic portion, can produce risk-seeking and/or hypersexual behaviour. I wonder, therefore, whether John’s hypersexuality is symptomatic of untreated bipolar disorder, rather than symptomatic of drug-taking or some undefined psycho-sexual conflict.
(Note that I’ve floated this theory about John’s hypersexuality on another board and it tended to get dismissed–primarily by men, interestingly–even when I pointed out that John bemoaned his sexual obsessions rather than celebrated them, which is typical of someone suffering from hypersexuality. The reason that they thought John’s hypersexuality wasn’t diagnostic of Bipolar Disorder? Essentially, that all guys are horny. 🙂 This reaction goes to show you how entrenched conventional notions about male sexuality still are.)
“I think his assessment of John as perennially torn between Julia and Mimi as mother figures and psychological identifiers; his view that John was the most psychologically stable with Paul vs Yoko; and his observation that John strived (and failed) to gain psychological equilibrium prior to his death, is sound, I think.”
Those were the parts that resonated most with me as well. Some of them have come up in previous discussion — here and at HD — and some (like the Mimi vs. Julia conflict) have seeped into popular culture. While I critiqued Sullivan for blindly accepting the most negative/sensationalistic aspects of the memoirs he bases John’s final years on, they are a counterbalance to works by Wenner/Norman/Ono/Coleman, who (as late as 2008) were still selectively choosing evidence to promote the happy househusband version of John’s final years. But Sullivan’s argument that John failed to achieve that psychological normality he desperately craved in those final years, while obviously more depressing than the alternative, rose-colored version, simply makes more sense. You don’t have the sort of issues John evidently struggled with and find them magically vanishing without therapy and/or medication, no matter how placid your life is/was.
I also think it’s a bit simplistic of Sullivan to narrow it down to a “Paul vs. Yoko” equivalent, when he argues that John was more stable with Paul than he was with Yoko. I think there’s some legitimacy to that argument, but there’s also the rest of the Beatles support structure: George and Ringo, Brian, Mal and Neil, Cyn (at least for a while). It wasn’t Paul alone working to provide John with a working level of stability, even if John himself made the direct comparison numerous times (I was on the boat named Paul, and now I’m on the boat named Yoko, etc). Yoko’s support structure would have consisted of Mintz, Green …. and who else? Various servants?
“but unlike Sullivan I think that most of John’s close relationships, with men and women, were often fraught with psychosexual conflict.”
Sullivan notes spats/fights between John and Pete Shotton when Pete started to show interest in girls. He argues that John was jealous and possessive of Pete’s friendship and didn’t like anything that interfered with his position as Pete’s number one priority.
“(Note that I’ve floated this theory about John’s hypersexuality on another board and it tended to get dismissed–primarily by men, interestingly–even when I pointed out that John bemoaned his sexual obsessions rather than celebrated them, which is typical of someone suffering from hypersexuality.”
What exactly is hypersexuality? Sullivan never really defines it; and, again, I only took Psych 101 in college. I assume its not purely an issue of your number of sexual partners, because then you could categorize all the Beatles as such. (Not to mention Wilt Chamberlain).
Good point. It’s important to note that John had a fairly stable social network around him during his Beatle years, compared to, say, his Lost Weekend period when he was hanging out with Keith Moon, et al.
I tend to think in terms of a “Paul vs Yoko” paridgm because of John’s need, as a consequence of severed attachments in childhood, to replicate that attachment in his adult life; in those terms, his primary attachment with Paul was, I think, much more stabilizing than his attachment to Yoko.
I didn’t know that; not surprising, though. There are so many examples of John’s mistreatment of an intimate figure arising from fears of abandonment and rejection.
Ha–no, it’s not related to the number of sexual partners, although persons in a hypersexual state will tend to have many as a matter of economy. Hypersexuality is an all-consuming, obsessive pursuit of one’s sexual needs without achieving satiety. It’s similar to other addictive behaviours in its ability to both disinhibit and degrade a person’s typical behavioural constraints.
Here’s a good description:
“I tend to think in terms of a “Paul vs Yoko” paridgm because of John’s need, as a consequence of severed attachments in childhood, to replicate that attachment in his adult life;”
Oh, I think it’s easy to get into that paradigm too. Not the least because, as I said, John did it so often. One of the things I did appreciate about Shenk is that he emphasized those structural underpinnings and how the erosion of those supports — George’s disdain for his place in the hierarchy; Brian’s death, the toxic influence of people like Magic Alex and Klein — destabilized the structure beneath the John and Paul paradigm.
I think Sullivan’s accounts of John’s insecurity over Pete’s girlfriends come from Shotton’s memoir: I don’t think he provides a citation for it, and I can’t think of where else he would have gotten that. I’ve read Shotton’s memoir, but I can’t recall if it’s in there or not.
“Hypersexuality is an all-consuming, obsessive pursuit of one’s sexual needs without achieving satiety.”
Thanks for explaining that further in-depth. I wonder if any other commenters (men or women) are interested on weighing in.
I remember skimming this book in the late 1990s when I was in the grip of a serious Beatles obsession, the result of watching Anthology when it aired and then endlessly re-reading “Revolution in the Head”. I seem to remember a very weird chapter where the author presents a psychoanalytical reading of the “Give My Regards to Broad Street” film which I actually found interesting and plausible, although twenty years on I can’t remember any details.
Love the blog, by the way. I was obsessively reading John Lukacs’ “Historical Consciousness” and the essays on historiography of Arnaldo Momigliano at around the same time as my Beatles obsession, so I appreciate the combination of Beatles lore and historiographical speculation.
Thanks for the reply, Stephen. Sorry for my late response.
It must have been very interesting, in the 90s, to have been accessing all those sources at once: Anthology, RITH, and The Beatles with Lacan. I’ve always thought that the one/two punch of Anthology and RITH really played a crucial role in shifting Beatles historiography out of the Shout! narrative. What are your current thoughts on Anthology and RITH? I wasn’t immersed in Beatles stuff when either of them came out, so I have a more retrospective view, but I’m interested to hear your thoughts on them, both then and now.
Funny you mention “Give My Regards to Broad Street”: I actually cut that section from the Paul part of the review (which should go up tomorrow) because there was already enough other material in Sullivan’s Lacanian interpretation of Paul’s psychology. But I do have my notes, and Sullivan’s theory is that Paul “unwittingly portrayed John Lennon in the character of Harry the thief” and that the “Eleanor’s Dream” sequence towards the end of the movie is actually a reenactment of John’s assassination in 1980. Sullivan argues that this is wholly unconscious on Paul’s part, but that it seeps through. I don’t have much more than that in my notes, unfortunately. Perhaps someone who is more familiar with Give My Regards to Broad Street can chime in: I’ve only seen the movie once, when it first came out in the theater, and I was four years old then, so my memory of it isn’t the sharpest.
And thanks for the kind words about the blog!
I could comment about Broadstreet! I watched the full movie about a year ago (and I have a film degree, for whatever it’s worth!)
Sullivan’s theory is that Paul “unwittingly portrayed John Lennon in the character of Harry the thief”
This is pretty transparent (at least IMO). I could give my take, but I don’t want to derail the thread.
“This is pretty transparent (at least IMO). I could give my take, but I don’t want to derail the thread.”
Comment all you like, Brit: I don’t think it would be a derailment at all. And since, as I said, I was four when I last saw Broad Street, I can’t really offer any back and forth with Stephen, or anyone else, on the issue. I have two only two impressions of Broad Street: 1. Being irritated at Paul for making the movie and causing my father to drag the whole family to see it (I was four and would have much rather seen a cartoon) and, 2. Feeling sorry for Paul, because he was clearly trying so hard, and it just wasn’t working.
That is too funny! Your Beatle indoctrination began early. 😉
The combination of being dragged unwillingly to Broad Street and my father’s habit of playing the “Band on the Run” album when we did Saturday morning chores, (I hated doing chores) actually resulted in the opposite: I hated the Beatles — and especially Paul — for years afterwards. (Yes, I know “Band on the Run” is Wings, but it didn’t make a difference to me then.)
I eventually got over my disdain for all things Beatles/Paul — mostly. To this day, I cannot stand the song “Jet.” We always did the same chores every Saturday in the same order, and so I associated particular songs on the album with particular chores. “Jet” was the one that was always playing when I (the youngest and smallest) had to crawl under the table to dust the table legs and then move the chairs into the other room so we could vacuum. It was tiring and yucky and more often than not I would accidentally drop a chair on my toe. I hated it, and to this day I hate that song.
Hilarious. My memory of Band on the Run was a summer of beach and booze. 🙂
OK! My thoughts on Broadstreet…
DISCLAIMER: I don’t need to tell anyone how BAD the movie is because we all know and agree: it’s unsuccessful on almost every level. Having said that, I’ve taught 1st and 2nd year film students and therefore have seen a LOT of fledgling attempts to convey ideas and themes that don’t necessarily come to fruition. So I can see what Paul is striving for in most of his film work, especially since I’m a big fan/consumer of his oeuvre and am familiar with most of his cinematic influences. But just to be clear, I’m not arguing that the movie is great; I’m just sharing what I got out of it. (Also, I didn’t take notes when I watched it last year, so please forgive me if I’m vague at times. ALSO, I haven’t read Sullivan’s piece so we may say some of the same things)
The plot of Broadstreet is basically this: an employee of Paul’s named Harry steals the tapes of Paul’s new album and a search ensues in the shape of a “musical journey” (i.e. random performances by Paul with cameos by Ringo, Barbara, Linda and George Martin). Harry is a generic ne’er-do-well who Paul trusts against the advice of everyone around him. Throughout the film Paul insists that Harry is innocent despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
Yes, there is an elaborate dream sequence in which Harry is murdered (double-crossed by black marketers?) on the steps of a courthouse while Paul watches helplessly (!). This is the most transparent reference to John (and John’s murder, which undoubtedly had a deep impact on Paul). In my opinion, though, the film is not primarily an expression of grief or sadness over John Lennon’s death. I believe Paul wrote this movie to ask WHY John Lennon turned so harshly against him after the divorce. His famous quote about “your guitar is a psychologist” (paraphrased) applies here.
There seems to be an idea amongst Beatles fans, authors, etc. that Paul perpetually worships John and that Paul’s constant forgiveness of John’s behavior is because… Paul is a weak bitch? Or because “normal” Paul is dazzled by John’s artistic genius? Or because Paul was in love with John? But I think Broadstreet reveals that Paul instead views John as a frail, damaged person who Paul had the ability to see potential and value in (when others did not) and who John repaid by “stealing” (trashing, destroying) Paul’s work.
I must say, though, his self-portrait is pretty disturbing; the Paul character is calm and rational but also incredibly cold and empty. He breezes into board meetings and flippantly says “yes” or “no.” He has no personality, no passion, no emotion. (The Ringo character, by contrast, is funny and charming) Whether this is reflective of Paul’s actual self-image or just his divorce-era actions and emotions, I can’t say. But he certainly has no affection for the Paul character. It makes me think that, when Real Paul reflects upon what happened with John, he really does wonder if he is a piece of shit and everything is indeed his fault. To that end, I think most people underestimate the profound damage John Lennon caused to both Paul’s career and psyche with his post-divorce behavior (particularly HDYS). It’s also important to bear in mind that Paul wrote this movie in 1984, when public affection/nostalgia for John was at its highest and the public gaslighting of Paul regarding his relationship with John (see: the phone rant with Hunter Davies) was in full swing.
Why John did what he did is a valid question and a fascinating mystery. The problem with Broadstreet is that it doesn’t provide any answers. Ultimately Paul locates Harry, he gives Paul an “aww shucks” (rather than an apology or an explanation), Paul forgives him and nothing is resolved, ending on a note that’s so anti-climactic you want to punch the screen.
My professional opinion: Broadstreet might not have been so terrible if Paul had gone full-throttle with it. I mean, it’s fiction (and occasionally straddles the line of absurdity), so why not have the Harry character be bigger? Like, Harry should’ve framed Paul for murder or had his kids removed by Social Services or at least killed his dog and fucked his wife! The stakes are so low (stolen tapes? really?) that no one EVER gives a shit. It also probably would’ve been fine as like, a 30-minute straight-to-video thing. In that case it might’ve been a weird cult fave rather than a colossal critical and financial disaster.
My personal/fan opinion: this was a very bad idea.
“But I think Broadstreet reveals that Paul instead views John as a frail, damaged person who Paul had the ability to see potential and value in (when others did not) and who John repaid by “stealing” (trashing, destroying) Paul’s work.”
That’s a very interesting take, Brit, because one of the questions I’ve always been curious about is when, exactly, Paul realized/began to realize just how damaged of an individual John was. (George implies in Anthology that he always knew John was sort of screwed up, but he didn’t know how bad it was until 1970/71). l If your analysis is correct, than he would have had some realization of that while writing Broad Street. The acknowledgement is certainly there by the time of MYFN — Paul outright states that John’s lack of LSD and his meditation in India brought all of his major psychological issues to the forefront.
Clearly we’re just speculating here, but my guess would be that Paul began to see signs as soon as they appeared. What he did with that information or how he processed it is more mysterious. I’ve heard Paul comment that he was “starting to worry” about John’s mental state around the time John wrote Nowhere Man. But this was years after the fact and worrying that your friend is sad is much different than worrying that your friend is heading towards a psychotic break. We also have to factor in what was commonly known about mental health in the late 60’s (which isn’t my area of expertise but clearly it was less than we know now). Also, Paul was a young man with his own problems and concerns, so my guess would be that he didn’t spend much energy contemplating John’s mental health until it began to majorly impact their professional and personal relationship (i.e. 1968).
I realize the MYFN comment about India was made by a 40-something Paul, but I think it’s very possible that by the end of 1968 he was at least beginning to suspect John had real problems. Sitting through hours and hours of raw Get Back tapes/footage changed my perspective pretty significantly. The Paul in those tapes is sober, rational, cautious and even a bit protective of John. Maybe this just means Paul is a swell guy (or if you prefer Paul is conniving and manipulative in order to placate John for his own goals). But whatever his motivations, I think Paul’s behavior indicates a sensitivity to John’s myriad psychological issues.
People make a big deal about Paul’s refusal to self-analyze (at least in public), but I think way too many in Beatles World sell him short when it comes to both his intelligence and his sensitivity. Paul may like to play dumb but he is actually quite smart! And sure, maybe he doesn’t like to TALK about his feelings. But he writes, sings, composes and paints them constantly. Almost compulsively! And most of his best-beloved songs reflect great compassion, empathy and tenderness. So I think at the very least he could sense when John was struggling, even if he didn’t always know what to do about it.
I think so too, Brit. Paul protected John and compensated for his mercurial behaviour with just about everyone since the day he met him. I’m reminded of Paul’s insistence on accompanying John to a meeting with EMI exec Sir Joseph Lockwood because Lockwood didn’t like John and would treat him poorly; this happened a lot, I think.
(Since you mentioned the Get Back tapes–I’ll be posting a review of a book about the tapes in a few days. I look forward to a lively discussion.)
But as to your specific question, when did Paul realize John had problems/issues beyond garden-variety insecurities/defenses? Maybe early-to-mid-70s? Probably before the Lost Weekend. Otherwise, it’s hard for me to bridge the gap between HDYS and Paul reaching out to John in ’74.
Really Interesting, Brit, thanks for sharing. It never occurred to me that Broadstreet was anything other than a bad movie. 🙂 Now I’ll have to watch it again.
I agree with Erin, Brit–it would be interesting to read your take.
I saw Broadstreet when it came out in video–in the 90’s I guess (and I was appreciably older than Erin was when she first saw it and I didn’t like it much either. 😉 ) I hardly remember any of it, except wondering why on earth Paul even made it.
Here are a few of my thoughts and impressions, 20+ years later. Be warned, you might have opened the floodgates 🙂
The 1990s was an interesting time to discover The Beatles. I was in Grade 12 in 1995, and already had very weird musical tastes for my age. I spent my junior high years listening to classical music and by the end of high school, my favourite records were the Ella Fitzgerald songbooks and a 4 CD box set of Noel Coward recordings! Young fogey much? I knew the Beatles a bit – my sister had watched a documentary that played on PBS a couple of times and I’d watched over her shoulder – and my dad had Pepper on cassette, which I’d listened to with extreme fascination but without being impelled to further Beatles investigation. Then Anthology aired and I was mesmerized. I remember on the second night they were covering the 1966 Philippines/Japan tour. ‘Got to Get You Into My Life’ was the background music – no vocal, just the backing track – and I thought it was the most amazing piece of music. My younger brother was interested too, so I bought him the Blue Album for Christmas and we ended up listening to it incessantly for months. After that we checked a few CDs out of the library – I remember A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles for Sale and Help! were the big three, as well as Live at the BBC. I find these interesting choices, though in hindsight I suspect that Rubber Soul – Abbey Road were probably always checked out and the earlier records weren’t. Incidentally, I think Live at the BBC was the first sign of the 1990s Beatles renaissance. There was a BBC version of ‘Baby It’s You’ that was ubiquitous in 1994-5. It was treated like a unknown masterpiece; I remember an segment of 20/20 or Nightline devoted to just this one track! I also taped the movies “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!” when they aired on PBS and my brother and I watched them quite often. And then my enthusiasm waned for a while.
Jump forward a year or two and I am constantly drawn to this book at the university book store about The Beatles. I had just read Camille Paglia’s first collection of essays where she talked a lot about 60s music and I was intrigued by her descriptions of songs and figures who were just names to me. Bob Dylan. The Doors. The Stones. Hendrix. (I knew who they were, but couldn’t have told you the name of one of their songs). I associated these guys with the music they played in shows I was slightly too young to watch, shows my older sister watched in the mid-80s such as “Tour of Duty” and “China Beach”. As with many people my age, my introduction to the 1960s probably came from “The Wonder Years.” The Velvet Underground wasn’t even a name to me. In one of her essays, Paglia discussed the art historian Arnold Hauser’s periodization of artistic styles into early-middle-late, and used The Beatles’ records to show how this pattern could apply to popular artists. This fanned the ember of the Beatles obsession back into flame. I was now ready to immerse myself in 60s pop and particularly in The Beatles – I just needed a guide. Ian McDonald was that guide. I finally checked RITH out from the library in 1996 or 97 and must have renewed it constantly until I finally bought my own copy (the second edition).
What fascinated me about it? Firstly, the encyclopedic quality. Going through each song’s entry (including the footnotes), plus the introduction and the chronology, you could go off and do a deep dive into the music, literature, movies, art and fashion of the decade. Next, the breadth of thought IM brought to bear on The Beatles’ work: there’s a whole aesthetic of music – particularly pop music – in RITH. Disquisitions on pop vs. rock; craft vs. random; on the highs and lows of individual talent vs. the gestalt effect of a group; an explanation of why so many pop songwriters decline so remarkably as they age and why music itself has declined in the past 30 (now 50 – yikes!) years. All of these things galvanized my young brain, but on top of that were the characterizations of John, Paul and George as songwriters. I had no knowledge of any of them apart from the music I was familiar with, the first two feature films and then Anthology. So for me, IM’s is the ‘canonical’ take on their characters and individual aesthetics: it’s still my ‘default’ mode when thinking about them. Finally, I owe IM a huge debt for all the great music he introduced me to, either via RITH or his collection of articles collected in The People’s Music. I think his taste was very congenial to me since I’ve seldom disliked a record he praised highly.
I think studies done in the 15 years since IM’s suicide have made it necessary to revise some of his evaluations, and the studies of 60s pop music, counterculture, etc. that he called for in the 2nd edition have been forthcoming, deepening our picture of the time into a much more historically sound and critically sophisticated version of the decade’s cultural history than that offered in many of the sources on which he drew. I’m sure he’d have welcomed this. His other great love was Soviet composers such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev and if you read his book on the former or look at the website which is still online containing a lot of his articles, he clearly wanted to see The Beatles and their peers treated with that kind of respect and intelligence (and willingness to find fault, although I disagree with you Erin about how IM didn’t appreciate George).
I did recognize once I’d immersed myself in all of The Beatles’ records that Paul was my favourite and I snatched up “Many Years From Now” when it came out in 1997 and read it with great interest. Paul was really on comeback high, since “Flaming Pie” was so well received; I saw him on disparate shows such as Conan O’Brian and Oprah Winfrey and it was clear he was really basking in all of the affection – and finding he was cool again probably didn’t hurt. This was the same time Dylan made his big comeback with his “Time Out of Mind” record and I remember thinking it was as though the culture recognized how unappreciated Dylan and The Beatles had been during the 1980s, and decided to make up for it. Perhaps too much so these days, when they have now become such canonized and Olympian figures.
“Give My Regards to Broad Street” was on Bravo a few times circa 96-97 and of course I watched it. There are a few good performances – I remember a nice version of Wanderlust – but on the whole, my memory is that it was 70s bandleader Paul (“I don’t need anyone except Linda, everyone else is just there to do my bidding, thumbs up!”) let loose onto a film set. In other words, even worse than bandleader Paul since screenwriter Paul couldn’t actually back up his whims with a proven track record. Memories of filming Magical Mystery Tour and showing Antonioni his home movies wasn’t enough to charm an engaging movie out of the star struck production crew.
I’ll try to be more succinct in future comments, I promise 🙂
Hello Stephen, nice to hear from new readers.
I’ve never encountered a psychoanalytical view of Give My Regards to Broadstreet; I think that, in combination with Lacan, would make my head hurt. 🙂
Thanks Karen, I remember being astonished that someone would actually go to great lengths devoting a whole chapter of a book to a Lacanian study of what is largely a curio for Beatles fanatics. What’s even more astonishing is the close reading he provides. I remember considering it a somewhat plausible interpretation of the film, which I’d watched not long before when it aired on Bravo in 1996 or 97. 20 years on, I’ve forgotten whatever I once knew about Lacan and all the details from the film, so I’d be curious to revisit both but I’m not sure I’ll find the time. What I might find the time for is a Jungian/Hillmanian reading of Let It Be, if the damn thing is every officially released!