The Beatles:The BiographyBy Bob Spitz
Little, Brown, 983 pp., $39.95.
JohnBy Cynthia Lennon
Hodder & Stoughton, 404 pp., $34.95
A key lesson we can absorb from the careers of the Beatles and
their manager, Brian Epstein: don't use marijuana as your
financial planner, or LSD as your investment counsellor, and
especially do not employ amphetamines as your psychiatrist.
The band in its heyday was a five-year fireworks display that
got more and more colourful, and the world was utterly dazzled by
the time a series of drug-drenched emotional explosions sent four
young men in disparate directions while consuming Epstein
entirely. For a long time their fans waited for a finale that had
already come and gone. It is a fascinating story, and writer Bob
Spitz takes a shot at claiming it as his own with The Beatles:
The Biography. Spitz certainly has done the best job of anyone so
far, weaving together thousands of snippets from hundreds of
interviews, books, and unpublished accounts to produce a cohesive
and compelling narrative that takes readers further into the
Beatles's world than any author has taken them before.
In the preface to his impressive array of notes, Spitz decries
the dearth of reliable facts amid the wishful fantasies and
deliberate misinformation that cloud the tale of the Beatles.
"What's more, all of it has been told and retold so many times
that even [Sir Paul] McCartney is no longer certain where the
truth begins and ends-one of the reasons, no doubt, that the
wonderful [The Beatles]Anthology [Chronicle Books, 2000] is often
referred to as Mythology," he writes.
Time, and examination of his text by still-living principles
and other Beatles biographers, will tell us how well Spitz has
succeeded in teasing truthful threads out of the massive tangle
of sources. The Beatles is well organized, artfully paced, and
draws you in irresistibly. But in more than 850 pages of text,
there are times when the author's selection of which account to
include can be questioned.
For example, Spitz says Capitol Records resisted releasing the
Beatles albums in the U.S. because their first two singles had
flopped in Canada. It is possible Canadian sales were
disappointing, but I have distinct memories of lying in bed at
night in southwestern Ontario in 1963, retuning my older
brother's transistor radio from the Motown station in Detroit to
a Canadian transmitter out of St. Thomas because it was playing
"Love Me Do" and "Please Please Me" every hour for weeks on end.
Maybe the St. Thomas station didn't know the records had
The preface has an allegation by Spitz that Cynthia Lennon
"mangled facts" in her autobiography A Twist of Lennon (Star,
1978), not even getting the year of her marriage to John Lennon
right. Given that Cynthia doesn't take drugs (if she had it just
might have saved her marriage for a while), one might assume
there was an editing mistake, but Spitz does not seem inclined to
cut her any slack.
Handily enough, Cynthia has a book of her own out, and John
provides some opportunities to compare versions of events. Hers
seems to match Spitz's closely enough, with at least one
In The Beatles, Spitz asserts that after Cynthia returned from
a holiday to find Yoko Ono in her house with John, she fled to
the home of George Harrison's sister-in-law, Jenny Boyd, where
she succumbed to the charms of Boyd's roommate and Beatles
hanger-on Alexis "Magic Alex" Mardas. After a seeming
reconciliation with her husband, Cynthia vacationed in Italy, at
John's suggestion, where Magic Alex came to her with the message
that John was suing for divorce, and Mardas would be testifying
to her adultery. Spitz drops the story there, other than a
mention of her £100,000 divorce settlement.
It is no surprise at all that in John, Cynthia denies screwing
Magic Alex, whom everyone agrees she despised, by the way. He did
come see her in Italy with the message about the divorce, she
says, but the alleged adultery he was going to testify about was
based on her being seen dining and dancing with Roberto
Bassanini, the son of the owners of the hotel where Cynthia was
staying. The divorce decree was granted on Cynthia's countersuit,
citing adultery by John and Ono. It was unkind of Spitz to leave
that out. Score one for Cynthia, the facts-mangler.
In contrast to the enormous breadth and scope of Spitz's
biography of the group, Cynthia's story of her ex-husband's life
is about as up close and personal as you can get without her
actually specifying the dimensions of John's "throbber". John
resonates with love both past and present, and when she
unselfconsciously descends into catty pettiness about ancient
resentments, it at least alerts you that it's only her side you
Cynthia's thesis is that John went from a grim existence with
an obsessive, controlling woman (his Aunt Mimi) to the same thing
with another (Ono), and that in between them she provided a
several-year interval of relaxed happiness when he could be his
funny, carefree, and loving real self. It is a viewpoint that she
is entitled to, and it is romantically appealing, but she does
talk about "distance" during times when others, according to
Spitz, remember screaming matches.
Where Cynthia at least acknowledges the reality of the bond
between John and Ono, Spitz generally subscribes to the theory
that it was a combination of drugs and Svengali-like dominance
that put John under Ono's spell. He accepts McCartney's assertion
that her presence at recording sessions was always close to
intolerable for all the other Beatles, and Spitz makes an
emphatic case that Ono should have been barred from meddling with
an already fragile dynamic.
What Spitz seems unable to see is that if Ono had been shown
out of the studio, John undoubtedly would have walked out with
her. The world might have been spared "Let It Be", but we also
would have lost The Beatles (the White Album) and Abbey Road.
Speculate all you want; it is hard to see how things could have
turned out any differently from how they did in the end.