Review: Beatles Books

 

The Great Beatle Death Clues R Gary Pattersion
The Day John Met Paul Jim O'Donnel
Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now Barry Miles

The Day John Met Paul is based on a promising notion: let's do an hour-by-hour reconstruction of the circumstances leading up to the momentous meeting between John Lennon and Paul McCartney. There's only one drawback. The meeting turns out not to have been even slightly momentous. They met in a church hall, before a gig. McCartney was impressed with Lennon's playing. Lennon was impressed that McCartney knew the words to lots of songs and could tune his guitar. Lennon recounts the entire story in Beatles Anthology in exactly 10 words: 'I met Paul and asked him to join me band'. O'Donnel pads this out to 200 pages.

Firstly, and fairly interestingly, he gives us lots of minute detail about Liverpool in 1956, and a minute blow-by-blow account of what everyone was doing that day. If you want to know the colour of Aunt Mimi's wallpaper or what Paul McCartney had for breakfast, this is the place to look. Unfortunately, O'Donnel is an American. If I announced that I was going to write a book aiming to capture the atmosphere of a small town in 1950s Minnesota, I would be laughed out of court. It's faintly surreal for English readers to be told that an off-licence is a 'store for carryout alcoholic beverages' and watch mothers pushing baby-carriages along sidewalks. We also get to see Paul McCartney having 'bacon butty sandwiches' for breakfast.

All this minutiae and mundantity is counterpointed by a portentous voice-of-god commentary about how these two young men are about to have a date with fate a day of destiny that will change etcetera etcetera etcetera. (Backbeat may have been a stupid movie, but it did very sensibly avoid even mentioning the word 'Beatles' until the last half hour; and when John finds someone called Ringo Starr crashing on his floor, it doesn't feel the need to explain to us why this is significant.) One of his techniques is to cross-reference John-and-Paul with events occurring elsewhere in the world. So we are told that the same day (July 6 1957) someone-or-other was appointed professor of music at some-university or other. In case we miss the point, the Author's Voice chips in: 'Half of the days real news in music—although no-one will know it for a spell—is a long way off in a backyard in England.' This technique sometimes (about twice a page) goes completely over the top. 'For a moment they eye each other in a motionless tableau, Lennon sitting, McCartney standing...On rocky Liverpool waves, Lennon and McCartney zigzag into each others sight. They see each other.'

I'll concede that the moment when Paul arrives at the church fete and hears John playing comes across as genuinely exciting. One could make a good film out of it. (Do you remember that episode of Tales of the Unexpected where an unnamed German father trying to come to terms with the almost certain death of his sickly baby sadly walks into town to register the birth, fully expecting to be registering the death in a few days. 'And what name?' asks the registrar. 'Adolph,' he replies.) But the excitement is spurious. Did this meeting really 'change music forever?' John was writing witty, rambling, punning fiction while he was still at school. Might he not have had the idea of combining surrealism with his beloved rock and roll music and written 'I am the Walrus' even without Paul McCartney's help? Wouldn't Paul have woken up that fateful morning (sorry, I'm doing it now) with 'Yesterday' in his head even without John Lennon to compete with? Are 'The Beatles' as a concept more important than the talents of the individual artists? Is there an alternate universe where John, Pete, George & Stuart changed the 60s?

O'Donnel is also the past-master of the pushed-metaphor and forced-pun. While it might be nice turn of phrase to hear that the two young men have 'bled rock'n'roll into each others wrists' what's the point of them being 'rock hard in their devotion to rocking hard' or 'destined to be like the two liver birds on the pier head facing in opposite direction, never seeing eye to eye.' After a few pages, this just becomes plain irritating. Anyone who wants to check can find out that Lennon's address was 251 Menlove Ave. But the name sends O'Donnel off on another futile riff: 'The teenage Lennon's sense of family is a female dominated one...The street in lives on may be Menlove, but the family runs on woman-love....he has an anchor for an aunt and a mast for a mother...The good ship Lennon floats between its austere anchor and its mirthful mast.' At the middle-class end of town, Paul's family has been recently bereaved. 'The Singer sewing machine no longer sings.' And at the church hall 'Lennon listens. He listens and learns. He listens and learns from a Liverpool lad.'

Don't they have editors in America?

And the whole thing is stuffed with trainspotting 'Beatles' references. We don't—I assume—know which way John walked home from the church hall, so I suppose we can't blame O'Donnel for diverting him past a children's home called, yes, we can see it coming thank you, Strawberry Fields. We get used to being told what they were selling in the Woolworths on Penny Lane after the first sixteen or seventeen times. On the first page we visit Lennon's bedroom at 3.33 AM where we are told that he is 'in his golden slumbers ' and that, sure enough that there is a blackbird singing outside. As the sun comes up, people enjoy the 'good day, sunshine', and the general meteorological phenomenon keep paying special attention to a grave in St Peter's churchyard belong to one Ms E. Rigby. And so, relentlessly on, until on the last page, Johnny drops back to sleep wondering what it would be like to be a rich and famous rock and role star. 'He can' we are told 'just Imagine.'

Some of this is interesting, and it is passably clever to know that on there was someone called Sgt Peeples in the American charts at the same time, or that there was a music columnist in the Liverpool Express called George Harrison. But if you study a particular day or event hard enough, then you can start making connections and seeing significances everywhere.

Wheel on R Gary Patterson's playful book about the death of Paul McCartney, which is as much about recapturing the atmosphere of a particular time (in this case, the summer of 1969) as O'Donnell's is. Of course, everyone knows that John chants 'I buried Paul' at the end of 'Strawberry Fields', and no spoil-sport Beatles anthology where he can clearly be heard saying 'Cranberry sauce' is going to change that. But I wasn't aware that in the lyrics booklet of Sgt Pepper, George can clearly be seen pointing to the line 'Wednesday Morning at 5 o clock' (the time of the accident) , nor that 'I am the Walrus' refers to Paul storming out of the Apple offices the night before, on what was arguable a stupid bloody Tuesday. And in fairness, one can see that the first American to steam the innocuous picture off the front of Yesterday and Today and find that there was a picture of the Beatles holding the arms, legs and heads of the mutilated toy dolls underneath might reasonably have thought that Something Was Afoot.

Mr Patterson doesn't ask us to believe that Paul is really dead, but he does ask us to believe that the 'clues' were planted deliberately—he regards the unsolved mystery as being who started to write them in, and why. In fact, until we get up to John being deliberately mischievous on the White Album ('well here's another clue for you all.' etc. etc.) it seems blindingly obvious that the 'clues' were in the minds of the fans.

But it's an easy mindset to get caught in. According to Patterson, McCartney was decapitated in the mythical accident. Hence, John sings 'He blew his mind out in a car' and Ringo says 'You were in a car-crash, and you lost your hair.' So of course, I happen to put a couple of Sgt Pepper tracks on the juke box in the Bunch of Grapes (to prevent my friends subjecting us to something horribly Indie and techno and modern) and what should come over the loudspeaker but 'When I get older loosing my hair.' Spooky, huh?

One clue which Patterson misses is that, in his introduction to John Lennon's book In His Own Write Paul McCartney says that he met John when he was twelve years old. But he was fifteen. O'Donnel has the fete programme and the birth certificates to prove it. So the introduction was written by an impostor. Obviously.

Now, had Paul McCartney's biography, currently being serialised in the Observer, been written by an impostor, then it might conceivably have been interesting. Having doubtless paid a very large amount of money for it, the Observer have been advertising it relentlessly, trying to convince us that it contains surprising revelations. The surprising revelations include Paul's opinions of John's song 'How Do You Sleep At Nights?' ('I think he was a sod to hurt me') of his reaction to John's murder ('I wept buckets'); surprising revelations about how the songs were written ('John and I would sit down and by then it might be one or two o'clock and by four or five o'clock we'd be done') and, of course, the very surprising revelation that the Beatles sometimes took drugs.

But the final part does contain one genuinely surprising revelation. Seems that in 1976 when John was in his seclusion, bringing up baby, calm-of-mind all-passion-spent phase, the two of them were back on speaking terms. Paul was in New York on a Wings tour. Someone on Saturday Night Live cracked a joke about the Beatles possibly getting back together on the show. 'I recall that John said 'It's only downtown, we could go now. Come on, let's just show up.'

Mark Chapman was watching, of course, as they did a quick reprise of 'Rock and Rollin' Music' and 'One After 909', and he enjoyed it so much that he threw away his copy of Catcher in the Rye and emigrated to New Zealand. George and Ringo turned up to the next gig, and they all played together and the wedding of Elton John and Princess Diana.

My words echo, thus, in your mind.

 

 

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