the porous city

Mersey Beats
I'm going to try something new in 2015: I'm going to write at least a little about every book that I read. (Ok, I'm going to try. This isn't a job.) I just finished "Tune In", the first volume of a projected three-volume history of the Beatles by Mark Lewisohn. It was really surprisingly fascinating and I want to try to explain why before all the images and impressions the book created fade from my memory.

Why do you care about those old men anyway?
I feel like an apologia for Beatles fandom is kind of required at this point. They're so central to the rockist canon, such a touchstone for the type of reactionaries who would dismiss hip-hop, techno and everything living and vital that I care about in music, that caring about them enough to read a book on them (three books!) seems suspect.

First, a generic defense of the study of history:it's not only not opposed to a progressive outlook, it's an important part of any understanding of the present. I say this as foundation-laying, I doubt any of the three people reading this would disagree.

Second, a more specific understanding of the Beatles - actually grokking their context, their rise, their loves, hates and ambitions - helps in understanding them as a specific group of people operating in a specific context, reacting to the music around them, expressing a particular Liverpool sensibility. All the talk about them as "timeless, central to rock history, giants" just obscures who they actually were and why they did what they did.

Finally, their rise coincided with - helped bring about - the rise of a new kind of music, a new youth culture, a new music industry ... every stage of their story so far involves people doing things no one had ever done before. Even if you think rock would have reached more or less the same place without them, a lot of things changed in the Sixties and the history of the Beatles is a fantastic lens for viewing it.

I'm pretty sure you were going to tell us about a book
It's engagingly written, a tiny bit amateurish in the best sense of the word, astoundingly well researched but wearing that lightly, and packed with memorable quotes and scenes. Lewisohn does well sketching milieu, and this is the foundation of the book.

Say something about the Beatles? anything
They weren't fantastic musicians, Paul maybe excepted. Fantastic singers and songwriters, yeah. But it's funny to think about how many people yearning tiresomely for "musicianship" put the Beatles at the top of their list.

They wanted to make black music. They had other influences, but when Little Richard told them they had that "authentic Negro sound" I can't imagine how happy they must have felt.

They were direct, funny, often assholes. Lewisohn keeps emphasizing how they refused to do anything that felt fake, that they were always true to themselves. He maybe hits that point too hard but you do finish the book feeling that part of their success came from aggressive disregard for what other people wanted or expected. I'm not sure that I would have been friends with John, but I would love to have spent time in his company. Even just reading the book you get inspired by how original his behavior - all of their behavior - was. You start to feel it's possible to live life less by rote.

Finally, when the group starts producing great work (they definitely didn't always) there starts to be a steady stream of little eruptions in the book, the Beatles doing something new and amazing. I'm not sure how much of this is their musical originality. Maybe Lewisohn could have done more to show how novelty comes from recombination - but he already does quite a bit of that. Maybe they had something.


last modified: 12:57:57 08-Jan-2015
in categories:Music/Musicians, Music/History, Other/History, Arts/Literature

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