Measuring the influence that a secondary work — most commonly a biography or a larger history — wields in a historiography is an effort that requires looking at various factors. Obviously, one of the most telling indications of a book’s influence involves its sales. This is a perfectly valid rubric: after all, even the most well-written, revelatory and well-researched book would have little-to-no impact if no one bothered to read it. Certainly, it’s no coincidence that many of the most influential books in the band’s historiography — The Authorized Biography, Shout!, Revolution in the Head, The Beatles Anthology, Tune In — are also among the works that have moved the most copies, and are available in multiple, revised editions.
But attention to sales is only part of the picture. What’s easier to overlook, but just as crucial to the influence wielded by a secondary source, is the ripple effect involved when certain works become widely regarded cornerstones of a historiography. These works are then granted further validity when other secondary authors, both popular and academic, employ them as research tools, basing significant elements of their own interpretation on those provided by the cornerstone works. In this pattern, these other authors who unquestioningly use it become implicitly invested in affirming the cornerstone work; by using it in their own studies, they incidentally buttress its reputation, perpetuate the original work’s findings and spread its influence.
One of the most infamous examples of this in American history is U.B. Phillips’s highly controversial Life and Labor in the Old South, which benefited from a significant amount of new research and a new approach: comparing the peculiar institution in the United States to its counterpart in the West Indies. For decades, this now fiercely debated analysis of African-American slavery in the American South was a cornerstone work on the subject. Numerous other secondary authors, academics, and popular writers referenced Phillips’s work and evidence, citing him in their bibliographies, and offering interpretations of slavery based, in part, on Phillips’s own research and interpretations. Phillips’s study benefited immensely from its timing: employing new primary sources and impressive research methods, (although erring in focusing solely on plantation slavery), Life and Labor in the Old South, first published in 1929, was among the first ever academic explorations of the institution of slavery, ensuring that other academics in the subject had little recourse but to reference his work.
But serious problems arise when cornerstone works employ methodology, bias and/or interpretations or approaches which are too narrow or flawed. In some cases, such as Phillips, these elements (particularly bias) contribute to the work’s reputation’s rise and fall, with The Old South’s narrative dominating throughout the 30s and 40s, and waning in the 50s, only to see aspects of this thesis re-emerge with Eugene Genovese’s inclusion of them in his own revisionist study, Roll, Jordan, Roll. Cornerstone works, even highly debated and controversial ones such as Life and Labor in the Old South, never truly lose that status, because any student in that area of study must at least demonstrate familiarity with, if not pay tribute to, their interpretation. However, responsible historians who use Phillips — and the use of Phillips’s work at all can generate controversy — acknowledge the work’s flaws and its controversy. This acknowledgement by the author — either in the text or in the notes — is crucial and methodologically necessary when dealing with any controversial cornerstone work.
All of which now brings us to Martin King’s Men, Masculinity, and the Beatles, published relatively recently, in 2013. This work is not intended for a popular audience, but is, rather, one written by an academic for a small audience of fellow academics. Unlike works such as The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles, Men, Masculinity and the Beatles does not attempt to bridge the gap between academia and popular writing. Only the most dedicated Beatles fans, who, in addition, also demonstrate scholarly interest in the shifting perceptions of masculinity, masculinism, and pop culture, need to pursue this book.
King’s academic exploration identifies the 1960s as a crucial period in the emergence of “alternative versions of masculinity, those which challenged the hegemonic and masculinist” versions of the preceding decades, and views the Beatles as the prism through which to view these changes. (King, 152). King views the Beatles’ image as one that “can be read as an alternative version of masculinity,” diminishing the importance of the masculine-defining role of labor and emphasizing creativity, describing them as “pre-metrosexual” in their appearance and tastes. Interestingly, King argues that the Beatles “engagement with the feminine” increased their appeal among fans; declaring that, in the preceding, post-WWII years, pop culture association with femininity was largely negative and dismissive. (153). He discusses the band’s fashions and hairstyles and their rejection of the World War II era defining qualities of masculinity and masculine traits. Most extensively, King examines their films: (Yellow Submarine is justifiably excluded) as a key to understanding how subversive their portrayal — the communal exuberance, the fashionable clothes, the objectification of the Fab’s physical appearance (what King, citing L. Mulvey, describes as their “to-be-looked-at-ness,”) was.
King’s thesis that the 60s demonstrates, in certain demographics at least, a shift in the perceptions and characteristics of masculinity, and that the Beatles demonstrate this change, is well argued. Certainly the subject is one that merits further exploration, with future scholars hopefully extending the analysis beyond the band’s films into other areas.
Methodologically, Men, Masculinity, and the Beatles is a mixed bag. In some respects, King demonstrates sterling methodology and source analysis. In part of the work, as would be expected from such a heavily academic study, King’s methodology is very good: his citations in the text are extensive, as is his bibliography, which contains sources from throughout the decades. His analysis of the sources regarding theories on masculinity, masculinism, discourse and the influence of film on pop culture and the sixties employ classic academic structures of acknowledging contrasting studies, differing theories, and offering definitions of subjective terms in order to establish parameters necessary for analysis. His analysis of Foucault’s theory on discourse demonstrates the necessity of these elements, noting: “Many authors have criticized Foucault on the grounds that his theory does not allow for the concept of agency of the subject within discourse, but in this statement from his later work he clearly outlines a different position on agency from that in his earlier works.” (King, 72). Thus King demonstrates, in various areas, an awareness of the reputation of the works and studies he employs in Men, Masculinity and the Beatles, and the necessity of acknowledging those issues which impact those reputations.
This attention to detail and analysis regarding the sources used for his explorations on masculinity and pop culture, however, makes King’s coverage and use of Beatles sources that much more jarring. Unfortunately, the study falls into the trap of extensively employing a cornerstone work in Beatles historiography which has been rightfully criticized for its methodological errors and authorial bias, but King fails to acknowledge any such issues regarding the source, or provide analysis of any of his Beatles sources.
Among the author’s most extensively used sources, which is employed to offer the base understanding of the band’s dynamics and members’ personalities, is Philip Norman’s 1981 Shout!. Employing this edition of Shout! as the foundation for such understanding is a simply baffling decision for a variety of reasons.
First, regardless of the quality of the work, choosing the original edition of a work which offers later, revised editions is, in this type of analysis, a strange choice for the researcher to make. Editions published later in time presumably offer the newest research and interpretations which were previously unavailable and/or inaccessible in earlier editions. Given the choice between an original and a later edition of the same book, the preference should be given to the latter, based on the presumption of the inclusion of new evidence. Simply put: If King regarded Shout! as a credible enough source on which to base much of his understanding of the Beatles (more on this in a moment), then the superior choice would have been the most recent, 2005 edition, rather than the 1981 edition, due the abundance of primary sources which only became accessible between 1981 and 2005.
This error in defaulting to an earlier, un-updated text is also present in the author’s repeated use of the 1st, 1994 edition of Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head, when King reiterates parts of MacDonald’s musical analysis. MacDonald himself later revised his own interpretations in the revised edition, basing his revisions of certain songs and the Lennon/McCartney partnership overall on primary sources which emerged between 1994 and 2000, most importantly The Beatles Anthology and Many Years From Now. By utilizing the unrevised version, King incidentally perpetuates analyses of certain songs — such as The Ballad of John and Yoko –which MacDonald himself later changed because he regarded them as inaccurate.
Second, the author’s overall choice, in 2013, of unquestioningly using Shout! as one of their most widely cited and foundational sources is, at best, an odd one. Given that at least one far superior group biography of the Fab Four — Jonathan Gould’s Can’t Buy Me Love — was available, King’s choice to extensively employ Shout! instead falls somewhere on the scale between curious and errant, particularly given Gould’s focus on the social and pop cultural changes occurring simultaneously with the Beatles era; an area that overlaps extensively with King’s own thesis.
In terms of methodology, Can’t Buy Me Love is also superior to Shout! in numerous ways obvious to any experienced researcher (which King clearly is): it offers a bibliography as well as in-text citations, both essentials which Shout! lacks. In addition, Gould applies, in certain areas, source analysis and, unlike the self-admittedly “unfair” Shout!, does not promote a version of the Beatles which excessively elevates Lennon, diminishes McCartney, disdains Harrison and virtually ignores Starr. Gould is included in King’s bibliography but, in contrast to Norman’s work, is used sparingly.
By 2013, the time of King’s publication, Shout!’s diminishing status and bias was acknowledged in various places throughout Beatles historiography: MacDonald himself discusses Norman’s anti-McCartney bias in the 1994 edition of Revolution in the Head, a work which King evidently read, as he cites it in his work. Other works, both scholarly and popular, which had noted Shout!‘s weaknesses were also available to King: in their 2012 review of the book in The Beatles Bibliography, Michael Brocken and Melissa Davis, are rightfully scathing, describing Norman’s work as the biased, methodological equivalent of a The Lives of John Lennon, a work which, for decades, was universally scorned. Given this readily available criticism of Shout!, there are only few conclusions that can be drawn: First, either King was unaware of the systemic weaknesses of one of his most widely utilized sources, or, second, he was aware and failed to note the work’s weaknesses and fundamental flaws either in his text or bibliography. Neither conclusion inspires confidence.
The failure of Men, Masculinity and the Beatles to apply this source analysis to its Beatles research demonstrates the necessity of authors, both academic and popular, to familiarize themselves with the historiography of their subject, and its arc; to study what narratives exist, what sources created them ,and how and why certain versions of events and sources lost credibility over time. This is not a call to banish Shout! wholly from Beatles historiography: Such a position would be neither methodologically sound nor practical, and aspects of the work do hold value. Any accurate evaluation of Beatles historiography should acknowledge Shout!‘s position as a cornerstone work — in terms of influence, its title peppers the bibliographies of the last three decades of countless Beatles books, the same way Phillips’s research influenced decades of later writers and researchers. But that evaluation must now go hand in hand with the understanding that Shout! a fundamentally flawed cornerstone work, one whose rampant bias and basic methodological flaws should encourage other authors interested in using it as a source for their own work to approach with caution and acknowledge its errors.
Much of the discussion regarding U.B. Phillips’s Life and Labor in the Old South is based off of a graduate school reading seminar whose subject was the African-American slavery in the ante-bellum South. While its largely controversial reputation meant the class was only assigned segments to read of The Old South, rather than the entire work, it still played a significant role in the historiographical discussion of the topic because of its status as a cornerstone work.
I realize this blog has been largely silent this summer, and that this is a rather obscure choice for a book review/analysis. I chose this book while browsing on OCLC simply because the title intrigued me. As for the glacial posting schedule … well, all complaints in that regard will be forwarded to the primary cause of said schedule: Claire Weber, who celebrates her 1st birthday today, and whose newly acquired skills involve dancing, babbling, pulling clothes off of hangars and carrying shoes out of closets, and harassing the has-no-sense-of-self-preservation cat.
As always, thoughts and comments are welcomed.
69 thoughts on “Controversial Cornerstones: Book Review: Martin King’s “Men, Masculinity and the Beatles””
I too find it rather curious that King would not critically analyze “Shout” with all its known biases or use latest versions of cited work. Even if his analysis of how masculinity changed in the ’60s is meaningful, he opens himself up to criticism and from his perspective “non value add” discussion about sources instead of his core message on the topic. I guess the shadow of “Shout” will never see complete daylight!
I found the utter lack of any analysis on any Beatles sources baffling and disappointing.
The “If possible, it’s generally a better idea to go with the later, revised edition of a work” rule of thumb is one that I remember from a discussion on older vs. more current works in historical methods class. It was part of a discussion regarding narratives and revisionism, and valid points were made on both sides — no one’s going to stop reading The Rise and Fall of Third Reich, for example, just because its over fifty years old. But the strength of the newest sources and editions is always going to be that they should have that newest research. When I’m a novice on a historical subject, regardless of what it is, I tend to go both for the classics — if I’m researching the United States and Japan in the Pacific in WWII, something like John Dower’s War Without Mercy — but also the newest publications, those from within the last five years or so, because I assume they’re going to have the newest information. For all my criticism, ironically, in this instance, choosing the 1981 edition rather than the 2005 edition of Shout! would have had little practical consequence on King’s work, because Norman changes virtually nothing among any of his editions: new evidence is not acknowledged to exist. However, that’s the fault of Norman, rather than the general “go with the later, revised edition” rule.
Happy birthday to Claire!
Claire says thanks for the birthday wishes; she is going to celebrate banging toys loudly against the wooden floor. There’s something darkly amusing about watching an adorable one year old seize her Elmo doll by the throat, throttle him, and then repeatedly bash his face against our stone fireplace, Jack Bauer interrogation style.
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I’m curious Erin, which aspects of Shout do you feel have merit? I haven’t read the book in decades and I know you have read it, including all updated editions, much more recently than I have. As I’m sure you know, my memory of the book was not only it’s rampant anti McCartney bias but also an anti Beatles bias. Norman seemed to be trying to perpetuate the main thesis of Lennon Remembers which was, ‘how many different ways can we smother the Beatles myth and let everyone know that the Beatles were just no big deal, so please just get over them.’ In my memory, that point was made so many times in so many different ways, it has obscured everything else.
Off the top of my head, Linda, I think Norman was one of the first, if not the first, to really explore some of the business elements, esp. the Seltaeb fiasco, which cost the Beatles, and Brian, untold millions. I don’t recall any of the earlier authors really delving into that as much as Norman does. So he has some valuable original research, and also had full access to Hunter Davies notes, indicating some excellent primary sources. I think he was also among the first secondary writers to really emphasize the transformative experience of Hamburg. And some of his writing is highly evocative, vivid and memorable. That doesn’t make it correct, or accurate, of course, but it does stick in your brain. I’ve read loads of meticulously researched, methodologically sound works that pretty much vanished from my brain the moment after I finished my grad school reports on them because the writing style was so dull and plodding it was difficult to care about their interpretation or their evidence. Jonathan Harris of The Guardian describes Shout! as the work which promoted not only the Beatles, but rock and roll over all, as a subject of serious study. Many flaws and some merits aside, there’s just no question its a cornerstone work. Although, like you, I find it curious that a book whose interpretation is, to a considerable extent, so dismissive and ignorant of its music, made such a massive impression on its historiography.
Wow, thank you Erin. I had completely forgotten that Norman was the first to research and write about the Selteab fiasco. He should be commended for that and all of his original research. Yes now I’m also remembering his extensive, vivid descriptions of Hamburg. And yes, he IS an absolutely marvelous writer. It’s a sad thing that what could have been the true definitive biography on the Beatles, had to be tarnished to the point of ruin, by constant authorial editorializing and bias.
No problem, Linda. And I’m going to guess there’s more gold remaining in the work than I can remember just off of the top of my head. If any other posters want to chime in with what they find impressive regarding Shout!, be my guest.
Some time perhaps we might have to have a post on the issue of how a writer’s skill impacts their reputation. As Gilbert Garraghan notes, its not something that actually has any impact on the work’s methodology: you can have great methodology and rotten writing, and the rotten writing doesn’t undermine the sound methodology — but … c’mon. Everyone knows it: Terrible writing is terrible to read. (I’m a college instructor; I see plenty of terrible writing, believe me). And its difficult to remember, especially if its boring terrible writing. We are inclined to believe and remember writing we like and enjoy, methodology be damned, more than we are writing that is stilted and dull. And, as you say, Norman is a very good writer. There were a few moments in Shout! — like when he’s describing the girls in Hamburg, watching the Beatles onstage, reaching out and curling their hand around the ankle of their particular Beatles, therefore choosing him as their bedpartner for the night — that the imagery is simply fantastic. It is a real shame that the writing is so undermined by the other aspects.
“There were a few moments in Shout! — like when he’s describing the girls in Hamburg, watching the Beatles onstage, reaching out and curling their hand around the ankle of their particular Beatles, therefore choosing him as their bedpartner for the night — that the imagery is simply fantastic.”
I remember that. Wow after decades I still remember reading that. Gorgeous imagery, very cinematic even. Lol not sure if it’s necessarily true. I mean it could have happened but that’s just it….it doesn’t matter because it could have happened so it belongs in the book. It’s harmless and neutral as far as historiography goes. It’s just good writing so it belongs there regardless. What doesn’t belong there is, Ringo was a subpar musician who got lucky, George was a bad guitarist…ok enough about George…nothing else, Paul was a sneaky, back stabbing, talentless, hack who rode on John’s coattails and ripped lace curtains.
I just finished Pete Bests’s memoir, and he describes the ankle-caressing scenes almost word for word in there, so I imagine Norman got the source for that from Pete who is, ahem, not that shy about discussing the band’s sexual conquests. Far more so than any of the non-ostracized Beatles, Pete details how many girls and how and where and in what combination. But you’re right; it’s not a deal breaker if that was something Norman took poetic license with, in contrast to some other areas where his poetic license really does become a deal breaker.
“I just finished Pete Bests’s memoir, and he describes the ankle-caressing scenes almost word for word in there”
Wow really? It sounded so cinematic I thought Norman was simply exercising poetic license! As for Pete’s memoir, is it the one that came out in the early 80’s, or a new one? I enjoyed his memoir. I read it probably around 10 years ago. Yes I remember his graphic depictions of their sex lives lol. I also remember he was very hard on Paul. Did not seem to like him. He was kinder to John and George, which is interesting because George is the one who had the original idea to replace Pete with Ringo and John, along with Ringo, made slanderous comments about him to Playboy. Pete sued both of them and mentions the incident in his book. Yet he speaks well of John in his book. Any thoughts on that? I find it very intriguing.
“in contrast to some other areas where his poetic license really does become a deal breaker.”
You seem to have a good memory. Do you remember any cringe worthy, untrue parts where he actually used poetic license?
The first thing that comes to mind is his evaluation of the White Album. Norman authoritatively declared that not only did John find all of Paul’s songs on the album sentimental (because, when I think sentimental, I think “Helter Skelter”) but Paul also found all of John’s songs to angry and aggressive.
Pete does appear to have been closest to John of all of them: I think Lewisohn mentions it, too. Not to mention the publication timing of Pete’s book, the mid-80s, was a time when being very critical, or even moderately critical of John, simply wasn’t done.
I don’t think he’s any more critical of Paul than he is of George: my impression was that George tended to disappear into the background a bit in Pete’s book. I loved the parts about him reading and suing Ringo about the Playboy comment: it really underlines an aspect of Beatles historiography that I don’t think gets nearly enough attention: everyone involved is reading everyone else’s stuff. Which makes it very difficult to ascertain which memories are genuine and which are borrowed, and also tailors people’s agendas and messages as responses to previous claims and stories. MYFN is actually a great example of this; so much of that book is shaped by LR, Shout! and the Playboy interview. (And, to a lesser extent, Goldman and Coleman) .
“because, when I think sentimental, I think “Helter Skelter” ”
Oh definitely! 😂😂 And when I think “angry”, I immediately think of Julia and Goodnight. Yes, good writing means absolutely nothing if you don’t know and understand your subject. Norman not only has zero understanding of Paul, he has barely a superficial understanding of John. And no understanding, even on the most basic level, of either man’s music, or any Beatles music for that matter. This is something that proponents of Shout and the Shout Narrative seem to overlook, maybe because they don’t understand the Beatles either. His use of the term “all of” is adolescent. He seemed to be trying for drama, like a teenager screaming, All of my friends hate me! And really, he thinks Mother Nature’s Son is “sentimental”? And Julia is NOT sentimental? And why is “sentimental” always given a negative connotation? There is sentimental and then there’s cloying. Julia can be called sentimental but it’s not cloying. It seems Norman and other sub par biographers call any song by Paul, “sentimental” if it’s in a slower tempo. Their understanding of the music and the composer’s emotional intent is extremely superficial.
“MYFN is actually a great example of this; so much of that book is shaped by LR, Shout! and the Playboy interview. (And, to a lesser extent, Goldman and Coleman)”
When you say shaped, do you mean it’s in reaction to those earlier publications?
Yes. There are numerous times in MYFN where Paul directly rejects claims made in those sources. When its LR, he tends to name it by name and offer a pointed rebuttal. When its Coleman or Norman, he doesn’t usually name author’s names or book titles, but he rebuts both specific claims made in those books, as well as more general ones regarding him as an artist, his relationship with John, his life in Swinging London, etc. In many ways, MYFN is a rebuttal of those works. And, as a rebuttal, its heavily shaped to that purpose.
“In many ways, MYFN is a rebuttal of those works. And, as a rebuttal, its heavily shaped to that purpose.”
I agree. I’m curious though, does that make it a reliable primary source?
Well, as a primary source, authors can’t ignore it, (even though numerous authors have done just that).
That agenda as a rebuttal doesn’t make it any more/less reliable than John’s LR era agenda to demythologize the Beatles; it just means its an issue that needs to be acknowledged. In a lot of ways, those works parallel each other, and have many of the same strengths and weaknesses. And for every strength of LR — it’s far more immediate than MYFN — you can counter with another for MYFN: that very retrospective nature allows Paul to bring in outside sources to buttress his version of contested events, which is a luxury that John, with the immediacy of his interview, didn’t have.
Damn. I’m so bummed I don’t remember that. It would have made reading the rest of the book a little more enjoyable.
Re King and his reliance on Shout!’s first edition:
In the literary world, first editions are seen as superior to all other versions, and I wonder if this value assessment hasn’t bled into academia.
Take, for example, this excerpt from the Barnes and Noble website about the importance of first editions. They’re talking about book collectors here, but the biases about veracity and accuracy in first editions are kind of apparent:
“Book collectors value first editions because it’s the closest one can get to the author’s intent. The author is usually more invested and involved in the first printing process because it’s the first time their work is born and introduced to the world. The first printing is also closer in time to the actual writing of the book than any other printing. This proximity in time results in a more accurate reflection of the context in which the book was written and the writer’s mindset at the time of composition.”
That’s a very interesting quote, Karen. Especially that last line: “The proximity in time results in a more accurate reflection of the context in which the book was written.” That’s perfectly valid, and I can see how, in literature, that would be a bonus to a deeper understanding of the work. Just think of evaluating “The Grapes of Wrath” out of the context of The Great Depression. But for a historian, its a negative, due to the lack of historical distance and the unavailability of evidence. I don’t know if other academic disciplines (beyond, perhaps, literature) demonstrate this preference for original editions; I have yet to encounter a historian who would not choose the edition with the newest research. There are loads of examples of this preference for later, revised works in history; there’s a famous book, Weapons and Equipment of the Napoleonic Wars, which was first published in the 70s or 80s (I can’t remember which) which wanted to catalog the weapons, uniforms, etc. used by all the combatants. Well, the author did a masterful job with the French, British, etc. but the Soviets wouldn’t allow him access to the Russian archives (because, evidently, Westerners knowing what sort of uniforms the Russians wore in 1812 would have led to the downfall of communism) so the author’s section on the Russian material was notably less than that on the other countries. After the fall of the Soviet Union, he was allowed access to the archives, and the revised edition contains loads of previously unavailable information. If you have a choice between the original and the revised, the revised is clearly superior. Which is why I find King’s choice baffling.
Agreed. Why wouldn’t one reference later editions if they provide previously unattainable information, and are stripped of the personal and social biases which shaped earlier additions?
Take, for example, PTSD. It was originally called “shell shock” and was basically considered some sort of moral deficiency. In fact, PTSD didn’t appear in the DSM–the Diagnostic and Statisical Manual of Mental Disorders–until 1980. Can you imagine writing a bio about someone with PTSD and base your research on WWII-era information, with all the attendant biases typical of the day regarding masculinity and moral courage? I don’t get it.
Great entry. I didn’t expect to learn something new about slavery in America from your blog, but I did, and something about the complexity of writing history as well. I’ve done a lot of reading on slavery, the Civil aware, and Reconstruction, but I’m definitely an amateur. I also appreciate the nod to Can’t Buy Me Love.
I’m a relative amateur on The Civil War myself, in that its not my specialty, and I never took a reading seminar on the subject. Most of the upper level history classes I took were generally 20th century Europe/America, partly because you take what’s available and fits with your schedule. That reading seminar on African-American slavery was the first real research I’d done on the subject, although we did delve into the issue again somewhat in historiography, regarding the WPA slave narratives.
Reading seminars, if done properly, can really open your eyes to a subject’s historiography. Forgive me if you’re familiar with the format, but if you’re not, the structure is this: the Professor assigns everyone a cornerstone work on the subject — in this case, it was Roll, Jordan, Roll — for everyone to evaluate, write a research paper on, and discuss. But every student in the class (and there are usually around 8-12) is also assigned a weekly book on the subject, to read, evaluate and review, write a paper on and discuss with the class. So in addition to reading and reviewing your own assigned work, you also hear an analysis, by other students, on their assigned work. And because you have approximately 10 students reading approximately 12 books (let’s take off a few weeks for finals and midterms, etc). a semester, you get exposed to a lot of the subject’s historiography. You can jump in and out of various points on the historiography’s timeline, noting when sources were available to this author but not to this one, and evaluate the shifting interpretations. You can discuss what areas are pretty extensively covered in the historiography, and which ones are not (as of my seminar class on slavery, for example, the instructor claimed that no definitive study on the impact of slavery on children had been written). I’d love to do an upper level reading seminar on Beatles history.
I really enjoyed “Can’t Buy Me Love.” Both its methodology and its writing style were excellent; I’d like to see Gould contribute more to Beatles historiography. One of the best things about it was he made his musical analysis understandable, even for a musical novice like myself.
One of the problems with researching the American Civil War is all the “Lost Cause” material southern historians have produced. Some of them are more subtle than others, but they were often successful in rewriting history, especially for children’s textbooks.
Oh, yes. For my part, much of my familiarity regarding the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War is how it has impacted the reputation of Ulysses S. Grant. (I know there are many other aspects, such as the controversy regarding Confederate Memorials or the varying justifications given for the secession, of course, but that’s the area I’ve studied the most). There was a comment from a Grant historian in Time magazine recently which argued that, in order to elevate Lee, you must diminish Grant. While the Lost Cause narrative would have preferred to criticize Lincoln, his reputation is pretty much unassailable — thank you, John Wilkes Booth — so Grant is the next most prominent and available target. C. Vann Woodward goes so far as to say that, while the South lost the war, they won the history to the extent that even various Northern textbooks adopted the Southern view.
I’d love to get ahold of some of those “lost cause” children’s history books and see what they teach regarding the American Civil War and how they teach it, and compare/contrast with how its taught today. That first version of history you are taught as a child is so elemental to your understanding as an adult. Nor is The Civil War the only area where there are agendas in children’s history books: Dwight Eisenhower commented, during WWII, that “American schoolchildren are taught to hate the British from the moment they open up their little red history schoolbooks.” Eisenhower would have been schooled in the early years of the 20th century, when there was absolutely an anti-British strain when recounting the Revolution and the War of 1812.
I remember my fourth grade textbook (1968) spending many pages criticizing carpetbaggers. There was even an illustration of a very sneaking-looking man with a carpetbag in his hand! I wish I could see that textbook today; at the time I knew nothing except what they were teaching me.
I have a clear memory of myself thinking that carpetbaggers must have been an important part of post-Civil War history, for them to be so prominent in my lessons.
Love that example, Sam.
I love how you bring up the point, via the amount of attention given to the obviously important carpetbagger issue, about prominence. It’s easy to miss, but one of the issues regarding the teaching of history, either officially or unofficially, is the selection process: what do we talk about, what do we skim, what do we skip, and what do we devote a lot of attention to. The carpetbagger bit would play perfectly into the Lost Cause narrative post-war sense of Southern victimization, so of course it would get a lot of attention in textbooks that promote that narrative. But, as you know, just because something receives an outsize amount of attention doesn’t mean that amount of attention equates with its actual historical significance.
And sometimes this issue is less of an error and more of an incidental, national reflex to inflate the events involving your own country, perhaps elevate their importance, and spend a disproportionate amount of time on them. I had a German student who was born and raised in Germany but attended high school and then college in the U.S. and we got into a discussion about the Zimmerman Telegram, which was the secret telegram Germany sent Mexico in WWI promising that, if Mexico went to war with the U.S., then Germany would attempt, after the war ended, to see that Mexico was returned the territory it had lost in the Mexican-American war. Well, the British intercepted it and were very happy to show it to the Americans, which didn’t exactly help sooth over American-German relations. My German student said his American high school history teacher — with quite a bit of hyperbole — described the telegram as “one of the most important events in the entire war.” But back in Germany, when he questioned a college professor whose specialty was WWI, about the telegram, the response was: “The what telegram?” For American history, this is an issue that receives attention, although the high school teacher’s description was hyperbolic. But evidently more than a few German historians had never even heard of it.
Unfortunately, we are still dealing with the fallout from Reconstruction. Instead of having a national reckoning over slavery and the war, Lost Cause-ism was allowed to flourish in order to essentially “maintain the peace.” The Southern states could not be seen as “bad” for fighting, and much emphasis was placed on “healing” and bring them back into the fold…which unfortunately mean in many ways continuing slavery (in the form of sharecropping and prison labor) and violence and discrimination against African-Americans. The attitude of, “Well, let’s not push them TOO hard, we can’t insist they feel BAD about anything,” etc. allowed to propaganda of the Lost Cause to take hold so white Southerners could keep their pride. But avoiding a true reckoning just made generations of Southerners instead believe that the Confederacy was the true victim and theirs was the truly honorable cause.
As a student of the Vietnam War, I have seen many comments from American soldiers who have struggled with the balance between not blaming themselves – and even feeling good about their service – while also acknowledging that the war was bad. The fact is that you can still be proud and unashamed even if you fought in an unjust war. Many Union soldiers were no doubt as racist as Confederates were. Most Confederate soldiers were not slave owners, and there are plenty of tales of individual heroism and honor on both sides. Many no doubt had similar thoughts to so many who fought in Vietnam later: “I’ve been taught it’s honorable to defend my country and my country says it needs me.” Unfortunately American society does not tend to allow for that complex thinking, especially in regards to military matters. People cannot look at, say, an ancestor who fought for the Confederacy and acknowledge, “How sad that he learned, via the government and sentiment of his era, to believe this terrible situation was something worth killing and dying for.” To feel that his individual service was noble, you have to pretend that it was for an honorable cause.
I know there’s a book that deals with some of the issues you discuss in your post, Rose: Confederates in the Attic; are you familiar with it? I’ve read excerpts, but no more, partially because my family doesn’t, so far as I know, have any Confederate ties — or Union ties, for that matter — because relatives on both sides immigrated to the U.S. Post-Civil War.
But yes, the false narrative of the Lost Cause helped lay the groundwork for numerous injustices and historical inaccuracies that still fester today. I wonder — and I’m not trying to make excuses– if an immediate post-war national reckoning was simply perceived as too massive of a task for the nation to begin to grapple with, following the utter carnage and economic and social upheaval following the Civil war. Again, I’m not attempting to defend the propaganda that provided generations with a skewed sense of why the war was fought, but one thing I try to convey to my students is just how devastated the U.S. had been by the Civil War.
Hyperinflation, more casualties at Antietam than you had in all previous American wars combined, draft riots in Northern and Southern cities; starvation in the South; 4 million emancipated slaves that initially the Federal Government did not develop a sustainable economic or political plan to deal with; serious inflation in the North; the British and the French aristocracies rooting for a Confederate victory … and then, less than a week after the war ends and there’s a possibility of some sort of stability, Lincoln is shot. I’m not arguing that Lincoln would have resolved all the conflicts that arose out of the debacle of Reconstruction, but he was a victorious wartime president, and a savvy politician: Johnson was a former slave owner who was despised by the Republicans as a Democrat and despised by the Democrats for refusing to secede. one thing Crane Brinton discusses in his excellent book, Anatomy of a Revolution, is the thermadorian response: the desire of the general population, following upheaval, to seek stability. Now, Brinton’s thesis focuses on Revolutions, but it could also apply here; following Lincoln’s death and the chaos of war, the quickest way to assume some sort of stability would be to reintegrate the South into the Union as quickly as possible. After Military Reconstruction made it clear that the Federal Government did not have the amount of troops required to Reconstruct anything other than the most urban areas of the South, the North and general population accepted the path that would grant stability at the price of accuracy and true freedom for the four million emancipated slaves.
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I haven’t read “Confederates in the Attic,” I’ll have to check it out! My understanding of the Civil War and its legacy was changed by reading David W Blight’s Race and Reunion in college. What you say here, “I wonder — and I’m not trying to make excuses– if an immediate post-war national reckoning was simply perceived as too massive of a task for the nation to begin to grapple with, following the utter carnage and economic and social upheaval following the Civil war. Again, I’m not attempting to defend the propaganda that provided generations with a skewed sense of why the war was fought, but one thing I try to convey to my students is just how devastated the U.S. had been by the Civil War,” is pretty much his thesis as I remember it. I see now Blight has a multi-part opencourse from Yale on Youtube on the Civil War, I’m definitely going to watch it, I am that much of a nerd!
Ooh, I might check that out, too. As I said, I never had a seminar level class on the subject, and I’d be curious to see what material he covers.
On those same lines, there’s a book whose immediate title escapes me, but it covers simply the subject of how the Civil War impacted our perception and the reality of death in Civil-War era America. Prior to it, death was regarded as sacred, with one’s final words regarded as indicative of one’s salvation or damnation, and was supposed to occur, ideally, in a quiet and serene environment. The Civil War ravaged that idea, with its mass death and carnage, with little to now warning of death on te battlefield … not to mention the practical reality of having to bury that many dead. It changed the undertaking profession in the United States.
Is it Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering? (She’s a female historian BTW.)
Yes, that’s it. It had been at least a decade since I read it, and it was one of my library check-outs, so I don’t have it on my shelf and couldn’t check the title. (Thank God for libraries; if I bought every book I ever read, I’d be 1. broke 2. crushed under their weight.)
I blanche whenever I see “Shout!” cited as a source. Dominick Sandbrook’s overviews of Britain in the 1960s (“Never Had it So Good” and “White Heat”) pull much of their information regarding the Beatles from Norman’s book, which is disappointing because much of the material regarding the politics, economics and social history of the times comes from much better, and more trustworthy, sources. But when it comes to pop culture, including the Beatles, Sandbrooks seems a lot less picky.
Welcome, John! Thanks for the comment.
I have not read Sandbrook’s work: do you know when its publication date is? His research approach sounds similar to King’s: excellent methodology and sources in other areas, but dropping the ball on the Beatles section.
I blanche when I see Shout! used as a source, but with some qualifiers, particularly regarding alternatives and timing: If there are superior works that the author could have used — like, in this case, Gould. If you’re citing Shout! up through the publication of the Anthology book — say, 1995 — that’s different, because you had so few alternatives available, beyond The Authorized Biography. Even MacDonald — after he criticizes Shout! for it’s anti-Paul bias in the 1994 edition of RITH — then admits its still the best account of the Beatles, which tells you a lot about how slim the pickings were regarding Beatles bios as recently as 1994. But post 1995, you have Hertsgaard — who cites sources and has a bib — and Anthology, which has much of the same info as Shout!, albeit in a different structure (and is a primary source). And then Gould. But really, particularly after Gould is published, there’s very little reason to use Shout! as your go-to bio for the Beatles.
Good points. Sandbrooks’ books were published in 2005 and 2006 and I’d recommend them for context to anyone seeking to understand British culture during the 1960s, despite their flaws. They provide a tremendous overview.
I guess citing “Shout!” isn’t a terrible sin, so long as the writer is squaring its claims and perspectives against the more reputable sources that have emerged since its publication. There’s so much primary material out now, though, much of “Shout!” isn’t that informative to anyone writing about the Beatles.
I recently finished Thomas Brothers Help! (which I’d highly recommend), the new book about Duke Ellington and the Beatles, and one thing I noticed is that his primary go-to biography for the group was “Tune In.” That’s particularly interesting, given that “Tune In” ends so early in the band’s career, but it demonstrates how that’s already becoming a cornerstone work in other people’s bibs. Shout! wasn’t in his bibliography; I did notice that omission.
Thanks for the info on Sandbrooks: I’ll put him on my to-read list.
I was just rereading Norman’s McCartney bio this summer and I’d forgotten how much of it is a literal mea culpa for just about every conclusion he came to about Paul in “Shout!”
Hello, Gael! It’s nice to hear from you.
Yes: Norman reverses himself on virtually every major conclusion he had previously argued regarding Paul, either as a person or as a musician. I haven’t yet considered reading Shout! and the new Paul bio back to back, but your post almost makes me want to, although I’d probably get some form of reader whiplash.
Confession: I liked parts of the Paul bio. The most interesting aspect of the book for me wasn’t the information Norman provided, but looking at Norman’s own dramatically different interpretations of events and songs and individuals. It was almost as if he made a list of every previous interpretation he had offered regarding Paul and decided that, for this new bio, he was going to simply say the exact opposite of all his previous conclusions.
Gael – I read Norman’s McCartney for the first time this summer (I read “Shout” when it came out in early 80s) and it seemed almost more than a mea culpa – Paul was a model husband, expert carpenter and handy man, John’s “equal if not better in terms of musicality”, etc. – I may have missed it if he landed on the moon with Apollo 11.
I’m laughing here because I was just reading the part where Paul’s up on a ladder, painting and hammering at the Indica Gallery!
It almost seems as if Norman viewed the McCartney bio as the other side of the equation that had to be balanced against his previous claims: for every negative or dismissive or unfair comment he had made previously — his defining statement on “For No One” in the 1981 edition of Shout! is that it was “self-pitying” — he had to offer a positive or kinder analysis, even if the evidence didn’t necessarily merit it, or at least not to the extreme Norman takes it. There are parts where Norman bends over backwards to presents the best possible version of Paul, the same as Norman had previously done for John. I don’t regard the “equal if not better” than John in terms of musicality quote an excessive reach, though, because almost every source I’ve read, both primary and secondary, agrees that, in terms of overall musicality, Paul was better than John. I know that George Martin said that, for example. Now my musical knowledge is very limited, so I’m forced to rely on the analyses of others in that regard, but I do believe that is the informed consensus.
My understanding is that the attention paid to Paul the good husband and father (because Norman does offer Paul a great deal of praise in that regard) was due to that being a relatively rare element for a rock and roll figure of Paul’s stature. Now, my knowledge of the personal lives of rock musicians generally begins and ends with the Beatles, so if other posters can offer additional examples of rockers who evidently maintained a healthy and stable marriage for an extended period of time, I’d be grateful. But a number of book reviews, other authors, etc. have commented about how very rare a relationship like Paul and Linda’s is/was, in terms of its longevity, evident fidelity, and hands-on parenting . Time or Life (I can’t recall which) described it as the “gold standard” for celebrity rock marriages. If it really is that much of an outlier in rock celebrity, it would make sense that Norman would emphasize it and book reviews would latch on to it, because its something that sets McCartney apart from other rockers of his generation.
Exactly! But nothing could make me relive having to cringe my way through “Shout!” that first time!
I may have asked you this before, Gael, but what point were you at in your Beatles historiography when you read Shout!? Were you already aware that it had a dubious reputation in some areas, but read it it because it was almost obligatory, or did you read it when its reputation was still largely positive and come away with a “why does everyone praise this book?” reaction?
I read it in 1981 when it came out. I knew nothing about Norman at the time and had only read the Hunter Davies book, which I read in 1970 when I was 15.
Wow. That’s the complete opposite of my own experience: I had read at least thirty to forty books in Beatles historiography, all the way from those from published in the 1960s to ones from the 2010’s, before I decided to read Shout! in 2012 out of a sense of obligation.
So even in that time frame, and with very few dissenting voices in the historiography, you had issues with Shout!? That’s really interesting. I’ve had so many readers discuss how they accepted it as gospel initially and only realized its flaws over time and as new sources emerged.
Erin, I have been largely silent (and out of the loop) this summer too. Spring, as well. But, your blog is still my browser home page, so there’s that. It’s been only recently that I’ve even picked up my bass again (Hofner violin bass, what else?); or guitar; or keys; after many months of no practice or playing. The tide goes out, and the tide comes back in. Regardless, Happy 1st Birthday to your little one! The first birthday is very special. Best regards.
Two things, if I may:
First, just generally, I can’t think of any other rock star musicians who had (or have) healthy, stable marriages and family lives with kids. Paul can’t be the only one, but maybe he is. Paul & Linda’s kids basically grew up on the road: Wings Over Europe and then Wings Over America. I’m curious now too. But, you immediately reminded me of something: Neil Young inducted Paul into the Rock ’N’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. During his introduction, Neil said:
“I have a lot of respect for Paul McCartney, as a man, for holding together a great family through the times of rock ’n’ roll; and through all the success; and through all of the swirling …” [Neil trails off as the audience erupts in applause]. “I have a lot of respect for that.”
Second, what is “the Seltaeb fiasco” you mention? I am not familiar with this at all. I’ve never heard of it.
Congrats on picking up your bass, again, Tom. As someone who can’t even play chopsticks on a piano, I admire anyone with any basic level of musicality.
You’re right: Paul can’t be the only one. Neil Young’s comment is an interesting one. And striking that Paul’s successful personal/family life was part of the focus of his R&RHOF introduction.
the “Seltaeb” fiasco was when, in 1964, Brian signed away 90% of the profits to the American-made and purchased Beatles products (wigs, lunchboxes, etc). to an American businessmen. Brian wanted to market Beatles merchandise to the U.S. and this American businessman (whose name I can’t recall) approached Brian about it on the Beatles first American tour, telling Brian he could set everything up — for a cut. The way Norman describes it in Shout!, the whole setting up process wasn’t very difficult, but the contract guaranteed the American 90% of the profits, leaving the Beatles and Brian to split the remaining 10%. (This is all from memory, so there may be details/nuances I’m not remembering). When Brian realized, however many months/years later, what he had done, he was appalled, sued, and I think they came up with a new deal. When the Beatles heard about it, they were evidently livid, blaming Brian. Norman, to his credit, is the first author to really delve into the issue.
What’s interesting about Paul and Neil Young is that it was Linda who brought them together. Neil even says bluntly in his memoir that he and Paul became friends because they were both in love with Linda (!). At the time Neil wrote that, by the way, he had been married for 30 years to his wife, Pegi, who he later notoriously dumped by actress Daryl Hannah.
What a great quote that is about Linda. One thing various people have claimed about her is that she was very warm at smaller, more intimate settings, but came off as cold and aloof in larger groups. I think I remember other parts of that speech, because doesn’t Neil say (or was it Pete Townshend?) that Linda was the one who said: “Let’s call Pete,” and then Paul would do it. That piqued my interest, because on the SATB show about the Beatles and the Simpsons (two of my great loves) the guest, a Simpson’s writer and vegetarian, mentioned how, even for years after the show, he kept in contact with Linda, but after she died that connection to Paul tapered off. Linda seems to have been a gatekeeper in that regard ,but one who rather encouraged interaction, than discouraged it.
Bono?! He & Ali Stewart have been together since they were like 15, I believe. And, they have 4 kids, right?
I don’t know much about the personal lives of any rock stars, beyond the Beatles (and, somewhat, Brian Wilson) but it sounds like Bono would be another outlier example.
Slight hair-splitting maybe, but the difference between Bono and McCartney is that Bono, then or now, is not in the same superstar league as McCartney (who is, anyway?), and that while Bono’s stardom was peaking when he was in his mid-twenties, he’s only 59 now and still has a long way to go to compete with McCartney in the mega-successful-and-still-sane-after-50-years category.
Having said that, though, anyone who manages to maintain a healthy marriage and raise a healthy family in the fishbowl of rock and roll is a superstar, in my books.
Heh. Your comment about Bono not being on Paul’s level reminds me of a “Time” comment about how there were two incredibly exclusive clubs — ex-Presidents and ex-Beatles — that only those who experienced them will ever be able to comprehend.
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Anyone have a chance to read Norman’s article last November, in the Guardian? Here’s what he had to say about being a biographer in general and about being a Beatle biographer in particular:
I hadn’t seen that, Karen. Thanks for the link.
I admit: I find Norman’s criticism of Goldman hypocritical, considering his own work is the methodological equivalent of Goldman — and Goldman’s research methods, if not his selection of evidence, was praised by Lewisohn recently. I agree with his point whole heartedly that its simply a baffling decision to write an 800 page book on an individual you despise/don’t care for, but you can easily counter that Norman viewed 3/4 of the Beatles with contempt for over thirty years, and still doesn’t give a tinker’s damn about 2 of them, so that’s hardly a firm leg to stand on when criticizing other authors.
That article’s a great example of the pressures and legal issues surrounding the portrayals of such famous people, and how that behind the scenes element to research can be so important, and influence what gets in the book, and what almost doesn’t (the taped interviews). One wonders if part of Norman’s utter pivot on McCartney was motivated not only by his desperate effort to redeem his reputation as a Beatles writer, but also by his experiences with Yoko and her lawyers regarding the John bio.
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Ha–I purposely didn’t offer commentary about Norman’s views because I was wondering if anyone else had the same impression that he was the pot calling the Goldman kettle black. 😉
The other thing I found interesting in the article was how it explained the censorship, if you can call it that, of Yoko’s actual statements regarding the John/homosexuality thing. For so long we’ve been wondering why Norman didn’t just quote Yoko instead of paraphrasing her; now we know why.
Edited to add: How could Yoko arbitrarily change the terms of her contract (ie withdraw her support and disallow the use of her interview tapes) without any legal repercussions while Norman faced litigious backlash from Yoko if he just went ahead and used the interview tapes anyway?
“How could Yoko arbitrarily change the terms of her contract (ie withdraw her support and disallow the use of her interview tapes) without any legal repercussions while Norman faced litigious backlash from Yoko if he just went ahead and used the interview tapes anyway?”
Unhelpful reply: no idea.
At least, not legally. (If there are any lawyers who are lurking around and would like to offer their thoughts, feel free). But reading between the lines of various interviews and articles, it appears that Norman and Yoko had a decent enough relationship going on in the years between Shout! and the John bio. For example, Norman mentions the dinners he attended with Yoko, and there was an article from another Beatles-affiliated individual (I can’t remember who) who remembers a dinner Yoko hosted that Norman was present for. I don’t think he was quite at Jann Wenner levels — let’s go on vacation together! — in his interaction with her, but it was clearly a relationship that was cultivated on both sides. Perhaps she hoped that the pressure of the lawyers alone would be enough to intimidate him into axing the tapes, even if she didn’t have much of a legal leg to stand on.
I find the “mean to John” justification an interesting one. Now, in a lot of ways, Norman does his best to contextualize and explain John’s less admirable behavior, which is a sign of him not being mean to John. Being mean would have meant dropping that information without softening the blow by reminding readers of John’s issues and struggles.
However, that’s my perspective, and what matters is Yoko’s POV. If she is still locked into believing and/or promoting the early-Shout! era portrayal of John — the type supported by sources such as “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” or “Shout!” or Ray Coleman’s “Lennon,” than you could argue that Norman’s work is mean to John in comparison, because it acknowledges some of his less admirable behavior in a way those other works don’t. (Coleman, for example, has zero criticism regarding any of John’s behavior towards Julian, but does take the time to blame the other Beatles for not being more supportive of Julian when he wanted to break into the music business). One wonders if Yoko was anticipating Norman writing a similar semi-hagiographic work, regardless of what she told him in the interview tapes, and was disappointed that the work wasn’t going to be what she expected.
I’m always surprised (well, perhaps not!) but the almost total erasure of Sam Havadtoy from the John and Yoko “love story” — especially before John’s death. After “Loving John” came out in the Eighties, May Pang came to a Beatles convention here in Syracuse. She had connections in the city as far back as the Yoko exhibition at the Everson Museum in the early Seventies.
Anyway she was hanging out at the convention and really not talking to a lot of people, so I sat down with her and we had a pretty long conversation about her book and about a lot of other things, including the fact that she and John were still seeing each other right up to his death. When I asked what about Yoko, she said that Yoko had a relationship with Sam Havadtoy, who was in his late twenties, so she didn’t mind John having someone to keep him occupied, sort of the same way May did when Yoko was having the affair with David Spinoza and sent John off the first time. She was also rather bitter about the whole characterization of the “Lost Weekend,” pointing out that the well-publicized incidents were actually not the norm for that time and that John had a pretty creative period then, as well as reconnecting with Julian and Paul, something she says Yoko cut off when he came back to her.
May was also rather bitter about the Sam Havadtoy thing, especially since he moved in and was wearing John’s clothes and basically acting like Yoko’s husband, which May also said may have been the truth! They were together for 20 years afterwards, but no one was “allowed” to talk about him and when they eventually broke up he got a very large settlement. The cover was that Sam was gay, but May says bisexual would be more like it as their relationship was definitely physical.
I know May Pang has her own axe to grind, but her story seems always to be either ignored or discounted because of the “John & Yoko Forever” narrative that Yoko has made law over the past 40 some years — and which John biographers have basically gone along with.
What a valuable, real-life account of sitting down and chatting with May. It is very striking how May’s account was given so little credence and/or attention in the early 80s, to the extent that “The Ballad of John and Yoko” describes her as John’s friend — and nothing else — and Eliot Mintz was denying the nature of their relationship. But a sea change on that has occurred, particularly after Doggett. And Doggett rightfully notes how John and Yoko attempted to rewrite history with their retrospective account of the Lost Weekend, minimizing the times John was healthy and musically productive in an attempt to convey the entire time period as one of personal and musical despair.
You’re right about the lack of attention to Yoko’s relationship with Havadtoy: it’s an element that receives very little coverage in most of the books that I can think of. Goldman, of course, covers it most extensively: that might be one of the reasons its so neglected: Goldman made some subjects taboo for other authors, after he became so reviled and was so roundly criticized.
Erin: I agree with your comment about the surprising “lack of attention to Yoko’s relationship with Havadtoy.” It’s especially shocking because, whatever the nature of the relationship, Yoko and Havadtoy were together FOR 20 YEARS — far longer than Yoko and John. There’s even an interview they gave together in 1990 to the LA Times where they refer to each as “boyfriend and girlfriend.” It’s only in recent years that Yoko has erased him entirely from the picture and when his name does come up, she portrays the relationship as a friendship. I think the “grieving widow” thing sells more records and books for the Lennon estate than to admit she quickly moved on after John’s death and stayed with Havadtoy for 20 years. Not that there’s anything wrong with her doing that. She has the right to recover from the trauma of witnessing his murder in whatever way she wants. I just object to the lie and the spin and the complete erasure of Havadtoy (rumor has it he was paid to move back to Europe). All I can say is she must have paid the music press a lot of money to bury this part of her story, or else the music press is just so eager for an angle that they willingly buy into the John-and-Yoko love story and ignore that Yoko hasn’t actually lived the hopelessly-devoted-to-John-lonely-widow-for-40-years thing that she and the media like to portray. Elliott Mintz is Yoko’s lapdog and is paid well to lie on her behalf.
Here is the link to the 1990 LA Times interview with her and Sam where they acknowledge they live together as a couple:
And here is the interesting quote from that LA Times interview:
Q: There are reports you and Sam are secretly married.
Yoko: I am not married.
Havadtoy: That’s a state of mind. We’re happy. We’re living together, boyfriend and girlfriend, yes.
The funny thing is: I think Paul is also surprised how easily Yoko gets away with rewriting history. Paul even brought up Sam Havadtoy in the 2015 cover-story interview he gave to British Esquire. Instead of saying Sam and Yoko were co-habitating for years, Paul joked in Esquire that Sam and Yoko were “co-Havadtoying.” LOL!
Excellent point. Looking back, though, there were obvious clues (although none of us picked up on it, for some reason.) Yoko’s song “No, No, No” for instance, from her 1981 album Season of Glass. If you can get past the opening salvo of gunshots and screaming, the song expresses the emotional turmoil she’s feeling as she engages intimately with a man (presumably, Havadtoy) after John’s death:
Let me take my blouse off
No, no, no, yes, yes, yes
Don’t help me
I can do it and you know it
Don’t touch me
I don’t like it
Let me take my pants off
No, no, no, yes, yes, yes….
Yup. The portrayal of John’s Lost Weekend has been spectacularly skewed for so many years now it’s hard to get a bead on it. He was drinking and brawling in clubs all over LA, but was also at his peak musically. When you watch his interviews of the period he is calm and relaxed, and there’s a palpable absence of vitriol, particularly toward Paul. I think May might paint the Lost Weekend a little to rosy, the same way John painted it a little too bleak. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle.
Got me stumped, too.
(Sorry to highjack the thread–but speaking of “being mean”: ) I watched a youtube video recently of a Goldman interview. How he could accurately assess John’s tortured character but be unwilling to express any sympathy toward him is flabbergasting. Even more flabbergasting is his almost juvenile unwillingness to see any good in the characters he, inexplicably, came to hate. (He even gets angry at the interviewer, who presses him on the book’s objectivity and veracity, citing specifically that he didn’t interview Paul, George, Ringo, or Yoko.)
Boy, when Goldman found himself in a hole, he got out the shovel and kept digging, didn’t he?
I too find it inexplicable that Goldman could be one of the first to identify just how damaged John was, but offer zero empathy or understanding regarding that damage. And to say he wasn’t generous at all is false. Numerous people have attested to his generosity. To say that he had virtually no good qualities beyond his talent (which Goldman also minimizes) veers to a ridiculous extreme. I’ve said it before: If Goldman had applied more balance to his work, he wouldn’t have diminished his own credibility. But to make such extreme statements throughout the book and his interviews (for example, he declares flat out that John and Paul never liked each other, never trusted each other, and almost never wrote together) undermines the reader’s confidence in the author’s ability to discern nuance and detail and/or display objectivity. He veers so far to the extreme opposite of, say, Coleman, that its almost impossible to believe that Coleman’s hagiographic Lennon is the same as Goldman’s vilified one.
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If you watch the video he can’t seem to make eye contact with the interviewer during his rant. One doesn’t often see such naked bias in a biographer, but there it was.
Hologram Sam introduced me to this blog, and I came to say how great it is to see such substantive conversation about the Beatles online. And Karen, it’s good to see comments from you too! (We three encountered each other at the Beatles fan blog Hey Dullblog.)
Erin, as a professional writer and editor, I’d like to echo what you said about the importance of literary skill in driving a book’s reputation. No question that “Shout!” has been so influential in part because it’s well-written, in the sense of having narrative drive and vivid description. Terrible writing IS terrible to read, no matter how solid the methodology.
I just read Dan Piepenbring’s Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the 60s,” which explicitly sets itself up as a counter-narrative to Bugliosi’s “Helter Skelter.” Piepenbring did a lot of primary research and has some amount of the facts on his side, but wow is it a tough book to get through. The structure, pacing, and style just aren’t anywhere close to what Bugliosi brings to his narrative. However much we may not like to admit it, the skill which a writer does or doesn’t have goes a long way toward determining how influential his or her work will be.
Hi Nancy; good to hear from you, and welcome. Erin and I conceived of and have been co-administering this blog for a few years now and its been great fun.
I’m glad Sam pointed you in our direction. Primarily ours is a blog concerned with book reviews and historical methods analysis of those books. It’s a nice little niche.
I’ve heard things about Piepenbring’s new thesis: doesn’t he argue that Bugliosi gets the entire “Helter Skelter” song motivation wrong? I’d be interested to see his evidence but if, as you say, his writing isn’t that good that disinclines me from the work. I read Bugliosi decades ago and honestly don’t remember much about his writing style, beyond that it was serviceable, and that Bugliosi never missed an opportunity to discuss mention himself, his thoughts, his brilliant deductions, etc.
I think an element to terrible writing, or even just less-exciting writing, is the issue of methodology. It’s easier for some authors to write a descriptive, vivid sentence and/or larger work that tells a compelling story without bothering with citations or direct quotes. There are times when following the correct methodological method can derail momentum: for example, if you have an event whose memory is contested, as an author you should offer both versions. But that can slow down the narrative and introduces debate or nuance to areas and events where certain authors simply want clarity.
That and this: (and this may be a personal quirk of mine): I find terrible writing, particularly boring terrible writing, very difficult for my memory to retain. There was a book in graduate school on the Anglo-American relationship in WWII — which is a subject I find fascinating — but the writing was so achingly dull that, even after forcing myself to concentrate, highly focus, and re-read the same two pages three times, I could barely remember any of the author’s points at the end of those two pages. Particularly pre-internet, a lot of our understanding of Beatles historiography would have been shaped not only by what we read, but also by what we remembered from what we read. Shout! is memorable. But some of its contemporaries that offer counter-versions — such as “All You Need is Ears,” — have less memorable writing.
Karen and Erin, congratulations on this blog! I’m so happy to have been directed to it.
Erin, to answer your question about the “Chaos” book: Piepenbring argues that Bugliosi’s use of the “Helter Skelter” motivation to explain the murders is part of a larger coverup.
Some of the information Piepenbring uses to support the idea of a coverup is fairly persuasive — in particular, he reproduces a document in Bugliosi’s handwriting that appears to indicate that Terry Melcher hung out with Manson and the “Family” after the murders, which contradicts what Melcher said in court. Piepenbring argues that law enforcement didn’t want the truth about how deeply the “Family” was involved with celebrities to come out, and didn’t want Manson’s possible involvement in CIA experimentation (through the Haight Free Clinic) to be made public.
The problem I had with the book is that it’s mainly a narrative of Piepenbring’s own odyssey, and he gets really bogged down in his own mental processes. The important information is buried pretty deeply, and the whole book badly needed a more involved editor, in my opinion. The book took Piepenbring 20 years to write, and it seemed to me that he got so invested in his own thesis that he became blind to nuance. For example, it seems highly probable to me that the “Family” had more prosaic reasons for the murders (drug deals, etc.) but that Manson ALSO used the “Helter Skelter” narrative to motivate/justify the killings.
Came back to correct an egregious error in the comments above: the correct author attribution for “Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties” is “Tom O’Neill with Dan Piepenbring.” I’d already returned the book to the library and was looking at a quick Google search for reference, which inexplicably puts Piepenbring at the top.