Still hiatusing, but …

I’m breaking my hiatus for this post.

This is the least convenient time for me to do so, esp. given that I assume it’s going to prompt some serious reaction, at least some of it negative.

Why is this the least convenient time?

My mother-in-law is in a hospital in Chicago, struggling with serious health issues, and we are taking care of their house: mowing, cleaning, etc.

I have research papers to grade and must finish before Tuesday, when I will have Final exams to grade: my grading window closes next week,

I’m in the midst of potty training a three year old.

My best friend of 30 years is in town, staying with us while her mother has a triple-bypass.

And I stayed up late last night to watch Round One of the NFL draft. (As a Chiefs fan, I’m moderately pleased. If I were a Jets fan, I’d be over the moon).

The reason I list these issues is not to extract sympathy from readers; it is to underline how serious I regard this issue. Given these current demands on my time, I would not break this hiatus for a discussion I regard as being of lesser importance.

Here is why I temporarily, at least, broke my hiatus:

Let me preface this by first stating that I am going to presume that Lewisohn is taking a more casual approach in this interview than he would were he sitting down to professionally evaluate these memoirs, source analysis-wise, for his actual book. I have done the same; the tone of this blog is deliberately less academic than my professional writing, which has at times led me to misstep and/or need to clarify my writing.

Having taken that caveat into account, my evaluation of these sources is as follows:

These are memoirs. As such, they are among the most, if not *the* most, subjective primary sources historians must deal with. Gilbert Garraghan, James Gaddis and Marc Bloch, as well as James Starrt, all discuss the very serious methodological issues regarding memoirs, and how they are among the most problematic primary sources.

The fact remains: They are primary sources. They cannot be dismissed.

They can and must be evaluated. They can and must have their contradictions addressed. Credibility issues should be noted, with the acknowledgment of the serious methodological issue that Lewisohn regards, rightfully, as so problematic: that many of them offer memories and versions of events regarding individuals (most notably John Lennon and Brian Epstein) who, due to their deaths, were incapable of responding to the claims made in those memoirs. That does weaken their claims to credibility in certain areas and on certain subjects.

Any fair evaluation of them according to source analysis must acknowledge that weakness. But they cannot be dismissed, wholesale, as terrible. (Additionally, other authors with experience in source analysis, including You Never Give me Your Money’s Peter Doggett, and The Beatles: The Annotated Bibliography‘s Michael Brocken and Melissa Davis, find a certain amount of source value in these memoirs, as do I). I cannot emphasize this enough: even the most biased, self-serving, badly written and conveniently timed memoir is still a primary source. Methodologically, therefore, it cannot be ignored.

In graduate school, on a research paper on the Nazi-Soviet Pact, I had to read Vyacheslav Molotov’s memoir, published in the 1960s. Suffice it to say, its version of many events, particularly the Nazi-Soviet Pact, was self-serving to the point of fictionality and contradicted by other evidence, much of which only became available following the fall of the Soviet Union. It was also published over a decade following the death of Josef Stalin, a key figure in Molotov’s life and memoir and, additionally, was published decades before any openness was available to certain areas of Soviet Archives.

In the source analysis I provided, I noted these serious structural weaknesses. I stated that Molotov’s version of events was highly problematic, and why. Then I put that evaluation under my primary sources section of my paper’s Annotated Bibliography. Acknowledging a memoir’s weaknesses is necessary: Lewisohn points out a crucial weakness with these memoirs in the above comment. But according to historical methods, their status as primary sources demands acknowledgement by historians who study that subject. Acknowledging a memoir’s existence is not endorsing its contents or credibility: it is a fundamental requirement of historical methods.


Questions and comments are welcomed and will eventually receive responses although, in all honesty, it may take some time.

23 thoughts on “Still hiatusing, but …

  1. Fran Mason Writing says:

    With words like “hate,” “put people down when the can’t answer back,” and “terrible,” it seems clear that he’s expressing personal emotion, which I’d like to hope that his readers wouldn’t mistake for analysis. Is there a link to the whole conversation that you could share? Thank you for everything you do!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erin says:

      Fran, I don’t have a link to the entire conversation: I wish I did. Any greater context and information would certainly be valuable; if anyone has the link to the whole conversation, feel free to let me and/or Karen know and/or try and post it.

      I agree that a certain amount of his response appears to focus on his personal emotional response to these works, which is certainly not the same thing as his methodological evaluation of these sources. (Although I would also argue that his “They’re all terrible” could be interpreted as both an emotional reaction and/or a possible evaluation).

      My issue with the language is this (again, with the caveat that this is a more casual conversation and/or approach to these memoirs than Lewisohn would presumably have when actually sitting down to write the endnotes on his sources for the next edition of “Tune In: I highly doubt he would simply write “This is a terrible book” in a short note after having used a quote or piece of information from Pete Shotton’s memoir) is that Lewisohn’s personal feelings, which are evidently highly negative and very strong, don’t matter/shouldn’t impact the evaluation, (for example, I felt revulsed reading Molotov’s memoirs, but didn’t include that in my evaluation) but Lewisohn doesn’t acknowledge that. (Having said that, as you mention earlier, the context matters: if the interview is ‘how do you feel about these books?’ rather than ‘what do you think are some issues regarding memoirs in Beatles historiography?’ then that setup matters). The overall tone of Lewisohn’s response regarding these works is one of wholesale disgust, with little to no objective evaluation. And I find that problematic; at the least, it makes me very curious to see how Lewisohn uses/doesn’t use/evaluates/analyzes these sources in the next edition of “Tune In.” Heck, it makes me want to get down my first edition and see what he did/didn’t do with the sources in the first volume. (But that’s a project for another time).

      Liked by 2 people

        • Erin says:

          Thanks so much for this: I can’t recommend it enough. Context is crucial, timing is crucial, and this reaction from Lewisohn is significantly more defensible as a decades-old statement from an emerging Beatles-scholar than from the current view of him as the undisputed Beatles authority in original research and sourcing. Your noting of his praise of Shotton’s memoir in “Tune In” is a significant one; it demonstrates a view of the memoir that, as I mentioned, is in tune (pun not intended) with other source analysis evaluations of it.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. CarlvWoideck says:

    “Acknowledging a memoir’s existence is not endorsing its contents or credibility: it is a fundamental requirement of historical methods.“

    Absolutely , Erin. Well said. Primary sources cannot just be dismissed.


    • Erin says:

      Particularly primary sources that have reinforcement from other primary sources. I acknowledge that Shotton’s “John Lennon in My Life” is problematic, in parts, because Pete makes statements “John said this,” or “John felt/thought this,” and we don’t know A. Whether Pete inferred it via long association/friendship B. explicitly heard it from John’s own mouth C. if there’s other evidence to back it up. Which is one reason why, when I read Pete, I pay attention to see if other primary sources, who knew John well, concur with/corroborate Pete’s comments/interpretations. One of the striking things for me, regarding Pete, is that we see a pattern where other primary sources tend to agree with/concur/reinforce many of Pete’s statements/comments regarding how John thought/felt. Of all of these memoirs, I found Pete’s to be the strongest, and that apparent reinforcement from outside sources was one of the reasons.


  3. Robert says:

    No argument from me Erin – you’ve made your position clear regarding the status of primary sources before and I agree with you. I’d posit that the skill lies in the interpretation and evaluation of the veracity of what is being said in them. Further, I’d suggest that, even in the worst of primary source memoirs, there are truths and facts and that to dismiss them out of hand is to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ deny important parts of the narrative.
    I hope that your personal situation settles down, in a good way, very soon. Meanwhile – those lawns aren’t going to mow themselves…😂


  4. Mary Owens says:

    Lewisohn is so disappointing. He speaks as if he is the only one who has a true understanding of The Beatles. He wasn’t there. Research is necessary but memoirs have a place in telling the story.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ramon Versage says:

    While we can accept that Lewisohn is expressing his personal, emotional opinion here–and even then it can be taken as pointing toward speaking to the agenda of the authors–there are two things that I find problematic in his statement.

    The first is the position that you can’t speak ill of the dead because they can’t defend themselves. There’s so much in that idea that I can’t even unpack it all, so I’ll just throw some ideas out there to problematize. Does he believe that Norman’s extreme bias against Paul is justified methodologically because he’s still alive, even though Norman now claims that it was out of personal jealousy? Does his won position explain why Lewisohn shows bias towards Lennon in Tune In? Does he go out of his way to paint a favorable picture of everyone who has died in the work? Will his tone toward various people change if they die before the other volumes are published (Cynthia Lennon, for example).

    The larger issue here is that while Lewisohn refers to himself–and therefore so does everyone else–as a Historian, as far as I can tell, he doesn’t have an academic background in History. Nor does he have the understanding of historical methods and historiography, or even the sense of responsibility to adhere to them that a trained historian does. I’m not exactly sure where I’m going with this, but it is something that has been in the back of my head for a while.

    I’m neither trying to defend nor vilify him, but using that title (or descriptor in his case?) certainly does pose its own set of issues as to his credibility.


    • Erin says:

      That’s a lot to unpack, Ramon. Great discussion points, there. (There are so many good questions, frankly, we might have to turn this into a full new post, time providing). I’ll try to hit the key points.

      (And before I delve in, can I just say, this is so much more fun than grading research papers?)

      That issue of speaking ill of the dead is so very problematic, because it’s such an emotional issue. (For the cliffs notes historian’s response; yes, you can speak ill of the dead, and then have your comments assessed by methodology and ranked according to their credibility. Can you speak ill of the dead? Yes. Is it in good taste? Not necessarily. But good taste shouldn’t be your goal in history; accuracy should).

      After Lincoln’s death his former law partner, William Herndon, traced back old colleagues from Lincoln’s pre-Presidential life, in order to write a bio of the former President. The biography he came out with was less than glowing. Herndon argued his goal was to provide the real Lincoln, but serious methodological issues/biases impact Herndon’s work (He unquestioningly accepted unverified eyewitness accounts, for one; he loathed Mary Todd Lincoln, for another — a feeling which was entirely mutual — and heavily bought into the Lincoln/Ann Rutledge love affair (which, to this day, lacks verification beyond Herndon’s sources’ claims).

      Herndon was, to put it mildly, not very popular among early Lincoln defenders or the Lincoln family. And he found some people willing to say some fairly negative things regarding the now-martyred President (who, of course, was no longer around to defend himself). Today a considerable amount of Herndon’s interpretations and claims are not necessarily wholesale dismissed, but they are regarded as less than fact, because he didn’t verify them. They lack documentation. They lack verification from other outside sources. I’m not sure if some readers realize: You can have historical “facts” that are simply a group of people all agreeing on how an event (positive or negative) occurred and, by that scale, the reality that the subject (in this case, Lincoln) was dead is less important in the source analysis than that there is universal agreement from multiple credible sources that the event happened the way it did.

      My understanding — and I’m happy to be corrected on this — is that Lewisohn is a self-taught historian. And that’s fine. Honestly. History has a tradition of some very important self-taught historians providing crucial works on crucial subjects. (You can debate some of Shelby Foote’s interpretations regarding the American Civil War, but there’s no disputing his influence on the subject’s historiography). As a self-taught historian, Lewisohn would have presumably self-trained in the areas of research and historical methods. Again, fine. What I would love to know — and I posted about this above — is the depth and focus of his methodological training and research methods. When he delved into these issues. What source analysis works and methodological manuals is he familiar with and when did he study them? My reading is that Lewisohn’s strengths are original research and documentation. And those are incredibly valuable. What gives a source longevity is original research. And Lewisohn has provided an immense amount of value in that regard.


      • Ramon Versage says:


        Thanks for your reply. I completely forgot that I commented right after I sent it.

        “My reading is that Lewisohn’s strengths are original research and documentation. And those are incredibly valuable.”

        I agree completely. Those are absolutely his strengths.

        Your points about self-taught historians are well taken. It’s your field, not mine, so I’ll defer to you.

        Now that I’ve seen the larger context of the initial quote, it makes more sense. It was 1983, when he was the guy working for The Beatles Monthly, not even the Recording Sessions book guy. Plus, Brown’s and Shotten’s books had just come out, and were therefore fresh in his mind.

        But it still leaves me with the nagging thoughts about having a different standard for how to treat living and dead subjects.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Erin says:

          Yes, context matters immensely here, and placing Lewisohn in his own context (in 1983, as you say, he’s The Beatles Monthly Guy, not the current Lewisohn, titanic figure in Beatles studies) is crucial, too.

          That nagging issue of the portrayal/double standard of the dead vs. the living … that’s why historians prefer to deal with all dead sources. That, by default, omits the issue of living vs. dead double standards quite nicely. (Seriously. You probably think I’m joking. I’m not. And not only should they be dead, they have to also have been dead, ideally for the requisite period of time — 50 years).

          In all honesty, it’s not an area of historical methods that I’ve delved deeply into; I can’t remember Gaddis or Garraghan (who, frankly, is a slog to read) dealing directly with the subject outside the basics of acknowledging that it matters if Source A says something and the only potentially corroborating/contradicting Source, Source B., is dead the first time source A makes the claim. (Obviously, if Source A initially made the claim prior to the death of Source B, but it wasn’t discovered/popularized/entered into the historiography until after the death of Source B., that’s a different methodological issue). And that’s really all I can recall on the issue. Going by the various historical subjects I’ve studied — again, Lincoln, but also the American Civil War, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, WWI, etc — that’s what you do. You make the acknowledgement. You acknowledge that the timing of the claim makes rebuttal impossible, which therefore weakens Source A’s credibility. There’s a good example of this at the Lincoln presidential museum in Springfield. Here’s how they frame it:

          William Herndon, in his Lincoln bio: “The only woman Lincoln ever loved was Ann Rutledge. She died tragically, and he never recovered.
          Lincoln, post 1865: Still dead, and incapable of denying or verifying.
          Historians: William Herndon loathed Mary Todd Lincoln (and she loathed him) well before Lincoln left for Washington. There is no evidence, beyond Herndon’s unverified claims, from eyewitnesses decades after the event, that Lincoln loved Rutledge. Herndon may also have had a bias in wanting to embarrass and diminish Mary Todd Lincoln in Lincoln’s history and life. That Lincoln knew Rutledge is a fact. That he loved her is not one. At best, its debatable. But the debate is presented as methodological issue, rather than as a moral one. Lewisohn, at least at the time of this interview, appears to have perceived similar issues as moral debates rather then methodological ones.


        • Erin says:

          This is turning into a monster long post, so I wanted to break it up, but I do believe Lewisohn, even if he expressed it poorly, has a valid point regarding the ability of the living to respond/rebut/continue to shape history. Now, does that mean they should be judged harsher than the dead? That evidence considering their negative behaviors/qualities should be given greater weight than that of the deceased, because they’re still around to clap back? That harsh criticism of them, regardless of its motivations (bias, personal animosity, money) is still less morally dubious than harsh criticism of the dead? Not according what I was taught, but you also can’t ignore the sheer weight of primary sources who hammer away at shaping and revising and rewriting history. That matters immensely.

          When someone dies matters immensely in a historiography, no doubt. Would May Pang have published her memoir at all, had John lived? Would Pete Shotton? Brown was already working on his book in the late 70s, so that would presumably still have come out, but it may very well have been changed. What would our view/impression of John be without those memoirs? He would have continued to promote his particular version of events, as everyone does, but those are some fairly important primary, if subjective sources, in our understanding of John. How fundamentally different is our view of John if those sources are never published? If everything else in Beatles historiography stayed the same, somehow, but those memoirs didn’t exist, what evidence do we, the reader, not know exists, or believe lacks corroboration?


    • Erin says:

      Yes, thank you so much for providing that valuable information. That context is incredibly important, regarding the increased stature in Lewisohn’s reputation, his extended and increased, original research, and the overall arc of Beatles historiography. The reality is that dismissing these works is simply methodologically incorrect; that may be knowledge Lewisohn now knows, that he didn’t know at that earlier date in his scholarship. There are plenty of methodological standards that I didn’t know or remember until I delved deeply into the study of source analysis.


  6. Karen Hooper says:

    From the article (thanks to the posters who provided the link:)

    “Mark was kind enough to give of his time but strictly on the proviso that he be interviewed as a fan and not as an expert.

    So it appears that Lewisohn agreed to be “interviewed as a fan” (that is, offer off-the-cuff opinions) for the sake of expediting an interview. Here’s why that’s a problem: If you are a subject matter expert, then you are beholden to express your views in a manner consistent with that expertise because everything you say will be construed within the context of your expertise, whether you intend it or not. Would Lewisohn have expressed these views had he been speaking as “an expert?” Would his opinions have been more considered?

    Lewisohn’s proviso is the professional equivalent of having your cake and eating it too: I’m speaking as an expert until I say I’m not, so don’t hold it against me.


  7. Harry Thornton says:

    I feel like his perspective is coming from the assumption that most people who are reading Norman, Brown, Pang, Shotton, and Green’s books are just doing so casually, like they’re getting all their Beatles information from them. But these aren’t new books anymore, and the only people reading them now are hardcore Beatles fans interested in their history and (in this case) historiography. Speaking for myself, I recently picked up Albert Goldman’s Lives of John Lennon book at a used book store. It’s not because I think it’s a truthful account, but it’s still important to read to get the author’s perspective of how they wrote about their subjects at the time, and the new sources of information they used. Essentially, I think Lewisohn seems to be assuming the audience for Beatles books are as uncritical as they were in the ’80s, when that isn’t the case anymore. Case in point: The Beatles Books podcast twitter account posted a passage from Shout! a while back, and there was major pushback in the replies and quote-tweets, uncomfortable with how biased Norman was to the careers of the ex-Beatles.

    It also feels especially weird because I think Lewisohn knows Brown personally and is still using his words as a source? Could be wrong on that, but it’s just what I heard.


    • Harry Thornton says:

      EDIT: Sorry, the assumption in my previous comment was Mark’s comments being from a recent interview, my apologies. I’m not sure if 2022 Mark would agree with those comments now.


    • Erin says:

      That’s a great point regarding the informed shift in Beatles readers: how informed does Lewisohn believe readers of these memoirs are/were? Have we, as an audience, become better at evaluating sources? Like you, I think so. I think, at this point, if you’ve read scores of Beatles books but are still accepting everything you read unquestioningly, there’s a level of personal choice in that approach.

      I think it’s also important to acknowledge the “waves” of differing types of sources (primary vs. secondary; biography vs. memoir) we saw in this time period surrounding Lewisohn’s quote.

      I was struck, when doing my research, about how the Shout! narrative quickly becomes the first narrative controlled by secondary sources, rather than the Beatles themselves. We see a response/counter-response: Shout!, published in 1981, (and a book, as noted that Lewisohn helped research) wrests narrative control in Beatles historiography from the Fab Four. And secondary sources will, for the most part, retain most of that control to this day. These memoirs not only may have prompted an understandable, emotional, fan response in Lewisohn (the revulsion at attacking an individual unable to defend himself) but also can be viewed as an attempt by lesser primary sources to re-seize control of the narrative from the secondary sources who had suddenly established dominance in the historiography.

      I have had other posters note that Lewisohn has interviewed Brown for “Tune In.” Again, it indicates an evolution on Lewisohn’s part; I’m pleased that his initial fan response to these works has morphed or matured to the point that he acknowledges they retain value as sources. And, I want to stress, I can empathize with his then-stance as a fan that speaking ill of those who are no longer around to defend themselves (and who were in, fact, murdered) is terrible. I’ve mentioned before: there’s nothing you can say to anger a Chiefs fan quicker than to insult Derrick Thomas, the cornerstone of their 90s resurgence, who died in a roll-over car crash when he was still playing. You want to insult Neil Smith/Albert Lewis/Kimble Anders/all those other Chiefs who went one and one in the playoffs? Go ahead. But fans feel an emotional obligation to defend Thomas’s behavior on and off the field, particularly any comments made by people following his death, because he’s unable to defend himself. So in that respect, I get it. I get the emotional, fan component. But an emotional response is not necessarily the response that’s going to get you to the most accurate version.

      And … two year old is announcing naptime is over. Farewell for now.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Linda A. says:

    I personally don’t see a problem with May Pang’s book. I don’t see it as “terrible”. If Mark thought so, then he was certainly speaking as a fan and not as a Beatles scholar/historian. The tone of her book is not necessarily negative. It isn’t mean spirited. She just states what happened during her time with Lennon. If her recollections are “terrible” for Mark, then he is biased toward Lennon, in a very unscholarly way lol. I didn’t pick up on that bias in his first volume, as others did, but it does seem to be there.


    • Erin says:

      I find value in all of these memoirs. That’s not to say that everything in them is equally credible, because it’s not. Certainly, Pang’s book doesn’t strike me as salacious in the way that Brown’s does. It is reassuring to me that these are comments made by Lewisohn decades ago and, as other posters have pointed out, he has evolved in his evaluation of some of these works, praising Shotton’s “John Lennon in my Life” in “Tune In.” And that’s why chronology is so, so crucial for both sources and authors.

      I’ve always said, if I were teaching a Beatles class in 1983/84, that “Shout!” would be one of my textbooks. (And I say that, as readers know, as someone who has harshly criticized the fundamental, methodological errors in that book). Because … what else is there in that time frame? (And yes, I’d absolutely have “The Beatles: The Authorized Biography” on my syllabus as well). Emotional context matters for authors. Authorial growth in knowledge of fundamental historical methodology matters. I would be very curious to know Lewisohn’s growth in historical methodology. My understanding is that he’s a self-taught historian/researcher. So … whose methodology has he studied? Does he go with more philosophical historians, such as Bloch, or more nuts and bolts ones, such as Garraghan? When did he start delving into source analysis? Where does he stand on the contested/debated issue of moral judgements?

      Because research and source analysis are not the same thing: Research is finding the evidence, but source analysis is analyzing it for accuracy and credibility and, sometimes, ranking it. If Lewisohn is saying this as a fan in the early 80s, particularly one having an emotional response to the wave of memoirs following the death of a John Lennon who is no longer able to respond, then that puts the comments into one context. If he’s saying it as a Beatles researcher who has not yet, at that time, become overly familiar with memoirs and historical methods standards, that’s another context. Him saying it after having become, presumably, familiar with historical methodology would be the most troublesome context, but that, thankfully, does not appear to have been the case.

      There’s also the reality that people flub interviews. My Beatles career is decades shorter than Lewisohn’s, and I’ve made comments in presentations (most notably my off the cuff “Allen Klein was the worst possible person for the Beatles manager” comment I made in my Eleanor Rigby presentation, that are massively exaggerated/flat out wrong. (Was he a poor choice? Evidence certainly indicates so. Was he “the worst possible choice?” No; some of the Hell’s Angels hanging out at Apple would outrank him there). This whole post has piqued my interest, however, to read Lewisohn’s comments on these memoirs in the first edition of “Tune In,” and, you can bet, I’ll be paying extra attention to the evaluations of them in latter volumes, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Tony Collins says:

    As a bald man, it makes me very happy to see that Mark Lewisohn was already bald 39 years ago. Thanks for the great insights as always Erin, and thanks you my fellow commenters for providing extra context.

    Thanks to Mark for being willing to be photographed proud and bald.


    • Erin says:

      As a female, I can’t say I’ve experienced baldness, although it does run in the male line of my family; my only brother started losing his hair his freshman year of college and, yes, now embraces the shaved/bald look. (Personally, I think it looks better than the mullet look he briefly had in high school). So I’m glad that picture of Lewisohn brightened your day.


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