Beatlefan contributor Jeff Slate looks at the making of the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s epic new biography of The Beatles …
“I used to be a big record collector, but these days it’s documents,” Mark Lewisohn, author of the comprehensive new biography “Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years,” confessed to me at the beginning of our chat about the making of his book. “If I was given the choice of interviewing Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr or spending time with someone’s old files about The Beatles from the 1960s I’d pick the files every time. No question. Every time.”
Heresy, perhaps, to the Beatle obsessive. But this strategy has paid off big dividends for Lewisohn, whose book, released at the end of October, is already considered the bible for fans and scholars of the Fab Four alike.
In fact, at an event at Google’s New York City headquarters during a recent promotional blitz for the book, Lewisohn was treated like a bit of a rock star in his own right. The technology giant holds a series entitled Talks at Google, and this one (moderated by the hosts of the “Fab 4 Free 4 All” Internet radio show and attended by uber fans of The Beatles as well as some of the Google’s in-house techies) dug down deep into both Lewisohn’s love of the band and his approach to writing. But the forum still included something for everyone — casual fan as well as those who have made their own careers out of the public’s love for the Fabs, and it was amazing to see Lewisohn’s connection with the fans he has collected over the course of his already illustrious career.
“It’s a remarkable achievement,” said Mark Lapidos, founder of the Fest for Beatles Fans, a fan convention that will celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ first visit to America with its own 40th anniversary event in New York City this February. “There have been so many books about The Beatles. Shelves and shelves. But nothing like this. I’m not sure anyone will ever touch this one. It really does stand alone.”
Lapidos is right. “Tune In” is the first installment of a proposed trilogy of books about The Beatles from Lewisohn. The U.K.-based author said it took him nearly 10 years to write it, even though the book ends in 1962, just as the band is about to explode in England and before they’ve become a phenomenon in the U.S. In my review of “Tune In” for Esquire last month I wrote that “the rewards of [the book] are great. Lewisohn treats his subjects seriously, as historical, if ultimately remarkable, figures, and eschews the myriad myths that have grown up around the band in favor of the sorts of details and minutiae, wrapped in a serious but breezy narrative that give us the fullest picture of who John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and, eventually, Ringo Starr were.”
So, while Lewisohn is a great storyteller — for instance, making a persuasive case for why it should always be John, Paul, George and Ringo, in that order — after spending just a little time with him it’s clear his claim that he’d rather spend an afternoon with a box of documents than one of The Beatles is an honest one.
“Documents are my main thing, really,” Lewisohn elaborated. “I collect information. As a historian it’s about finding things that tell me something I don’t know, or add color, or best of all add certainty to something I’ve discovered. Because, in dealing with people, you almost have to doubt everything you hear and be a real skeptic. I’m dealing with events that are more than 50 years old in some cases. Paul or Ringo, or anyone else for that matter, are not going to remember things from that far back in the way I would want them to. That’s quite understandable. So interviews from the ’60s or ’70s, when these events were much closer, are much better resources. They don’t have to have said it to me to be valid. But original documents are really where it’s at.”
When it was announced almost 10 years ago that Lewisohn would be writing a biography of The Beatles, a collective cheer went up from fans all over the world. He had already, even at that point, chronicled almost every aspect of the band’s career, beginning with a series of articles in the now-defunct Beatles Monthly magazine in 1979 and 1980 detailing the band’s storied BBC sessions (recently covered in the reissue of “Live at the BBC” and the new “On Air — Live at the BBC Volume 2” from Universal). Lewisohn followed that up with a day-by-day account of the band’s live shows in “The Beatles Live: The Ultimate Reference Book” (1986).
That brought him to McCartney’s attention. The former Beatle asked Lewisohn to assist him on a proposed autobiography. As fate would have it, The Beatles’ record label EMI also reached out to Lewisohn, asking him to listen to the band’s original recording session tapes, from which he wrote the best-selling “The Complete Recording Sessions: The Official Story of the Abbey Road Years 1962-1970” in 1987. By then Lewisohn was fast becoming The Beatles’ unofficial official historian, and he followed up “Recording Sessions” with several other books about the band, most notably “The Complete Beatles Chronicle: The Definitive Day-By-Day Guide to The Beatles’ Entire Career” (1992). As he developed a name within Beatles circles Lewisohn also struck up relationships with the formers Fabs. He wrote for McCartney’s fan publication Club Sandwich, edited the book “Wingspan,” about the Wings years, and wrote the liner notes for several Beatles reissues. He also was heavily involved in the “Beatles Anthology” documentary series.
“When I began writing about The Beatles, their story was basically unknown,” Lewisohn remembered of his earliest days chronicling the band. “There were just a handful of books and, frankly, they were pretty terrible. So the first thing I did, almost just as an exercise, was to establish the date that John met Paul. I realized that it wasn’t very hard to do but even moreso I was astonished that no one had thought to do it before. That was an education for me, because I always assumed that writers would want to do their job properly.”
Lewisohn’s narrative — which treats Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr and the band’s inner-circle as important historical and cultural figures — dictated a certain style of storytelling, and a certain approach to what Lewisohn considered important.
“I decided early on that I wouldn’t put in anything just for trivia’s sake,” Lewisohn said, in a veiled reference to the plethora of books that circulate and recirculate myths of every shape and size about The Beatles and the 1960s. “I wanted the book to be interesting and further the story, or even surprise the reader. But there’s a level of detail beneath which I won’t go. As long as this book is, I had literally thousands of pages of notes. But I had to make decisions about what was truly justified in being included and what furthered the story. I think my readers have come to appreciate that over the course of my career. I’m not a flowery writer. I just try to tell the story so people have an understanding of how things unfolded.”
In person, Lewisohn is an unassuming man. At the Google event he blended into the crowd several times, a fan himself and in many ways no different from the Beatles lovers who came to see him, eager for any tidbit of new information about their heroes.
“Books are always an extension of the author’s personality,” Lewisohn told me afterward. “I like facts and I like information and I just don’t see any point in telling stories, no matter how compelling, that aren’t true. In fact, what might seem like cold, hard information can be very colorful and very entertaining if it’s used properly.”
Lewisohn has a home office back in England, crammed full of file cabinets, CDs, records, books and all sorts of mementos of The Beatles and the ’60s. “I hibernate there,” he confessed. “I work long hours and I work very quietly.”
Lewisohn labored especially over 1962, the landmark year that The Beatles released their first music and where “Tune In” ends.
“It took over a year to write about that year,” Lewisohn told me. “There were so many things going on at the same time; it was such a busy year for The Beatles. But the key thing was the organization of the information. Getting things in the proper order and getting things to flow naturally from one scene to the next. When I got to the end I didn’t even really have time to read it from the top, though I’d been re-reading it all along as I was writing.
“Instead, when I knew I was done, I filled in a few things that had come to light. It’s funny, I meet people all the time who claim to know everything about The Beatles. Who would claim that? I certainly wouldn’t. I mean, there seems to be no limit to the new revelations and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Why, just in the past year new interviews that come to light, recordings from Ringo’s first band Rory Storm and the Hurricanes have surfaced, and Ringo’s has a new book that’s chock full of wonderful pictures and artifacts. But at a certain point I had to stop, and now I’m ready to steam ahead on the Volume Two.”
In fact, there’s an extended version of “Tune In,” so far only available in the U.K., that clocks in at nearly double the length of the American edition’s 944 pages. But publishing demands, and the attention span that can be reasonably expected of even the most ardent fan, forced Lewisohn to cut his work.
“It would have been almost impossible for me to cut the manuscript if I hadn’t known that the extended version would also be available,” Lewisohn said, seemingly still smarting from them experience. “But it needed to be done, and I was surely the only one who could do it. And I think that the version that most people will buy tells The Beatles’ story as fully as most people need and that the more fully realized version is out there if anyone really wants it.”
Which version does he recommend? “It’s up to people to decide if they want the huge one or the even more huge one,” Lewisohn joked.
Lewisohn unwittingly made news recently, when McCartney’s latest album, “New,” included a backward-looking song called “Early Days” that ended with the lines:
Now everybody seems to have their own opinion
Of who did this and who did that
But as for me I don’t see how they can remember
When they weren’t where it was at
“I could have taken that as about me and writers like me, or just people who weren’t there but who think they know what happened,” Lewisohn said of the barb. “But I didn’t. I think Paul was upset because on his last tour he did a version of The Beatles’ “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and the reaction was a bit, ‘Well, that’s a John song, you can’t do that.’ But I’m swept up on that as well and it doesn’t really matter. I’m doing this so The Beatles’ history is recorded as well as possible and really that’s the ultimate compliment to him.”
“Tune In” has had a great launch, with fantastic reviews and solid sales on both sides of the Atlantic, but its author seems to want nothing more than to get back to the job at hand.
“This has been really enjoyable, and I definitely want to get it to people’s attention, but I’m itching to get back to work on the next part of the story,” Lewisohn confessed as we wrapped up our conversation.
So, considering he’s a pretty serious fan himself, what’s Lewisohn’s own verdict on his book?
“Well,” he said, with a grin worthy of John Lennon. “It may not be the last word, but I hope it’s the lasting word.”
— Jeff Slate