In both The Beatles and the Historians, as well as various podcast interviews, I’ve mentioned the concept of historical distance: the passage of time which allows for more objective analysis of an event of individual. One of the elements of historical distance which, incidentally, can but does not automatically ensure revising or reevaluating history, is the willingness of authors to re-evaluate their own work. As I’ve mentioned in previous interviews, this was an understood element among the first historians of the First World War: intelligent enough and politically savvy enough to understand that there were documents and sources unavailable to them, the first wave of French historians of the Great War made a conscious effort to accept new evidence as it became available, and adjust their interpretations accordingly.
In that vein, upon reflection, there are three particular areas in The Beatles and the Historians that, upon editing or the publication of a future, revised edition, I would revise and/or add:
The first involves the historiographical comparison regarding the depictions of Yoko Ono and Cleopatra. While aspects of the comparison still seem apt (particularly how the male-dominated historiography impacted her portrayal) a better parallel female historical figure might be Mary Todd Lincoln. The wife of the U.S.’s 16th, and most revered, President, Mary Todd Lincoln was a controversial and primarily disliked figure from the moment she entered the White House. Dismissed as too provincial, shrill, and demanding, Mrs. Lincoln was not liked by the established Washington social circle, (particularly Kate Chase, whose father, Salmon Chase, Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, coveted of the Presidency himself). Lincoln’s extravagant (if needed) renovations of the White House during wartime; her shopping sprees in New York and Philadelphia, and her interest in the occult and mysticism, particularly following the death of her 11 year old son Willie in 1862, already earned her significant criticism, regardless of the brutal reality regarding the schism of the Civil War.
A product of a Kentucky family who had moved to Illinois (where she met Abraham), four of her half-brothers rose to the rank of Confederate General, a fact which did not go unnoticed or unacknowleged by the Northern Press. (Mary was also not above incidentally providing fodder to the Southern Press, referring to General U.S. Grant, following the Union victory at Shiloh, as a “butcher.”) To detail the private and press criticisms of Mary would be a daunting list, and one which would monopolize the entire post: the reality is that, in addition to the contemporary criticism she faced, she is a controversial figure today in Lincoln scholarship. Some Lincoln scholars, professional and self-taught, regard her as a professional and personal hindrance to her husband: a woman whose emotional outbursts, poor press, and demands for his time and attention weighed on an already overburdened leader. Others contextualize her behavior by noting her own tragic losses, including the deaths of several of her children and her witnessing the murder of her own husband. They also note her absolute loyalty to Abraham, and her fervent defense of any criticism directed his way. Having taken into account both the criticism of Mary Todd, and the controversy still surrounding her, it appears that Lincoln may have proved a better historical comparison than Cleopatra, on whom, as a figure of ancient history, we have considerably fewer sources.
The second area involves the section regarding the debate over whether John Lennon’s final years were happy ones, as portrayed primarily by Yoko Ono and journalists such as Jann Wenner and Phillip Norman, or relatively bleak, as argued by sources such as Fred Seaman, John Greene, and authors such as Albert Goldman. In the book, one of the quotes I use in regards to settling the debate: “the principle of contradiction pitilessly denies that a thing can be and cannot be at the same time,” is a poorly chosen one, in that it implies a level of absolutism on a debate that requires greater nuance. Having looked at the sources and their relative arguments, agendas, and claims, my interpretation is that the debate regarding the unhappiness or happiness of Lennon’s final years is essentially an argument over proportion: how much of Lennon’s final years did he spend happy, and how much unhappy? Was it 90/10, 30/70, or 50/50? The reality is that, in cases such as these, reaching a conclusion that is accepted and beyond debate is probably not possible. In such an area, the appropriate thing to for an author to do would be to present all the evidence, acknowledge the issues with any and all sources, and then allow the reader to draw their own conclusions.
The third involves an area which, unfortunately, I insufficiently explored during my writing but which has loomed larger in retrospect: the extent of Paul McCartney’s awareness of his depiction in Beatles historiography, his relationship with various members of the press and/or publications involved in that historiography, and how those areas have intersected. (While this is an area that could apply equally to all Beatles, McCartney’s status as the sole surviving member of the Lennon/McCartney partnership infuses the issue with considerable significance). Any accurate exploration of McCartney’s relationship with the press over the decades requires a close look at the various publications and power brokers involved. While the stereotype of McCartney as the world’s greatest PR man is somewhat overblown, multiple sources from the Beatles period including Tony Barrow, Tony Bramwell, and Alistair Taylor, attest to his press savvy and keen awareness of the roles and reputations of numerous publications. Yet coverage of this crucial issue suffers, often because journalists or biographers fail to ask the right questions. Lewisohn informs us that McCartney’s relationship with the New Musical Express was one of mutual contempt in the 1980s, but offers no greater context or explanation; Joan Goodman mentions the disdain for McCartney’s intelligence and creativity among her fellow journalists, also in the 1980s, but does not specify which journalists from which publications warned her against liking McCartney. McCartney’s relationships with Ray Connolly, Ray Coleman, Philip Norman, and Barry Miles and their various publications, all have significant impacted Beatles historiography, yet questions on this subject have been spare to non-existent.
One of the the only authors to delve into the area was Joe Hagan, author of Sticky Fingers: the recent biography of Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner. In a recent podcast interview, Hagan noted how extraordinary it was to be the first to question McCartney regarding the issue of Rolling Stone‘s long acknowledged pro-Lennon bias:
It was interviewing [McCartney] that I realized the opportunity I was suddenly in the middle of because I was asking him questions that nobody had bothered to ask him “what’s your opinion on Rolling Stone and the coverage you got in your relationship to its publisher?”, and it turned out, because of the way that Rolling Stone was sort of betwixt to between the Beatles breakup, you know that they were partisans for john lennon and that john and Yoko used Rolling Stone is kind of a platform to telegraph their independence from the Beatles.“
During the podcast interview, Hagan discusses how McCartney did not hold back when giving his views on Wenner:
And I thought, “oh, well that’s interesting, you know he meant to, he wants these stories out there, and I thought they were important stories”. I mean you’re talking about a view of the Beatles history and legacy through a different lens, you know the lens of a magazine that mediated a lot of their mythology. Rolling Stone Jann’s Wenner had a lot of power in that, at the outset was a John Lennon devotee who took John Lennon’s side really.
Find the podcast interview here:
The quotes I selected include only a small part of the discussion regarding Hagan, McCartney and Wenner. (Thanks to Bella Bee for alerting me to Hagan’s interview and its contents.)
Hagan’s questions regarding Wenner are crucial, given the status and influence of Lennon Remembers and Wenner on Beatles historiography, but, given that his focus is obviously on Rolling Stone, Hagan understandably leaves other crucial questions on other publications and journalists unasked. Information on McCartney’s understanding and interpretation of his own historiography, and his relationship with those who have exerted control over that historiography (including, of course, Lewisohn) is a necessary but, unfortunately, unexplored aspect of the band’s later history that, in the event of future editions of The Beatles and the Historians, I intend to explore further.
Much of the analysis of how Mary Todd Lincoln has been portrayed is taken from The Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library in Springfield, Illinois (if you have the opportunity, please, please go: much thanks to my husband for dealing with the kids by himself for a few hours so I could have the chance during our short stop in Springfield) the work of Henry Louis Gates, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, and the recent novel Lincoln in the Bardo whose author includes marvelous contemporaneous newspaper quotes chronicling the at time vitriolic coverage of Mary and Abraham.
Comments and questions are welcomed!
Public Service Announcement: I have had discussions with posters and interviewers who have expressed difficulties with getting ahold of certain hard to find or prohibitively expensive Beatles books, and I have urged them, and would urge every reader who is unfamiliar with inter-library loan to explore the possibilities of the system. (Full disclosure: I did inter-library loan work for a summer in college, and have utilized my university’s inter-library loan system as fully as possible, so virtually all of my knowledge is based on the American system, but I assume there are similarities between it and other countries inter-library loan systems).
For those who are unfamiliar with the system, the basics are this: every public and academic library in the United States and much of the World are cataloged in a database, WorldCat, that catalogs their articles, books, movies, ,etc. When your local public library or academic library does not have a copy of a book or an article you need, you can either ask at the desk or go to WorldCat yourself: WorldCat.org: The World’s Largest Library Catalog and request the item. Because I work at Newman University, an academic library, all of my inter-library loans are free: depending on the rules of your particular library system, it may cost you two to three dollars at a public library to borrow an inter-library loan, which is still preferable to the hundreds of dollars some out-of-print Beatles books cost. If you are close enough to an academic library at a University, but are not employed or a student there, many of them issue community cards; whether those allow you to use inter-library loan through the university’s library is, I believe, at the discretion of the university.
What many people don’t know is that libraries actually receive (or, at least, used to; it’s been a while since I was in the game) more funding the greater amount of material they loan out, so it financially benefits the lending libraries. In my experience, you will get to borrow the item for approximately a month, and sometimes can renew it via your own branch. International inter-library loans are rare to nonexistent: while you can get articles from overseas libraries, shipping books is prohibitively expensive, and almost never occurs. Libraries will also not loan out items that are simply too valuable to risk losing: (Thanks again, Derek Taylor, for jacking up the price of Fifty Years Adrift). It will also not loan very recently released books, so if you want the newest biography, you will have to wait. However, I was able to acquire 99% of the books and articles I needed for writing The Beatles and the Historians via inter-library loan, and I would urge anyone who is unfamiliar with it to explore it: it’s a marvel.
End public service announcement.