Unlike so many authors these days, with their long subtitles and longer introductions that tell you whatâs about to unfold, Craig Brown just dives right in. No theme, no preamble, just glimpses of the Beatles (although not always of the Beatles themselves), and itâs up to you to put it together. And as with the Beatlesâ music itself, I liked it more the more it went along.
The most puzzling part of this often witty book is how much space he devotes at the beginning to (what becomes) a running feud with the curators and guides who take Beatle tourists through the storied Liverpool sites. Why so much punching down to set us off on our journey? Brown concludes one contretemps with the put-down âYet so far heâ â the guide â âhadnât said anything that I hadnât read countless times.â Well, I thought the same thing on many pages of this book.
And thatâs not a complaint. I like the old stories â frankly, if I wanted something challenging to read, I wouldnât be reading â150 Glimpses of the Beatles.â (Brownâs previous book was âNinety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret.â) Glimpse No. 53 begins: âFor Christmas 1964, when I was 7, my brothers and I were given Beatles wigs by our parents.â If you change 7 to 8 and brothers to sister, I could have written the exact same sentence. So I knew I was disposed to like this book â and I did.
[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of October. See the full list. ]
But with a Beatles book, one always has to ask: Who is this for? Ringo is 80; if they remade âA Hard Dayâs Night,â Paul could play the part of the granddad he was looking after in the film. For the younger reader whoâs heard the music and now wants to know the stories behind it, good news, because theyâre only clichÃ©s if youâve heard them a hundred times â so for me, there were quite a few clichÃ©s: that the Lennon-McCartney magic came from the âintermingling of the dark and the sunny,â or that each member personified a different element: âJohn fire, Paul water, George air, Ringo earthâ (although Iâve also heard they were like a Chinese banquet, one sweet, one sour, one salty, one spicy). Or the old one about how the timing of the Beatlesâ arrival in America was so key â that for many âtwo events will always be linked: The assassination of J.F.K. was winter; the Beatles are spring.â
For this reader, when Brown tells one of the Beatle stories Iâve heard many times and now adds information I didnât know â or the telling detail that was missing for 50 years â the book is an utter delight. I knew the Beatles were introduced to LSD by their dentist, but now I know exactly who that guy was and how that night unfolded (if you can trust a 55-year-old account from people who were tripping for the first time). The Dylan-turns-them-on-to-pot-for-the-first-time scene, which all Beatlephiles know, also comes to life now in a way it never had before. As does Georgeâs visit to Haight-Ashbury in â67, which Iâd always seen rendered as disillusioning, but according to Brown was life-threatening. I knew the Beatles had their sexual awakening in seamy postwar Hamburg, but I didnât know that John and Paul actually watched George lose his virginity. This band was tight!
According to Brown, John hit on both Jane Asher before she was with Paul, and on Pattie Boyd while she was with George. Wow. And how fascinating to find out that the famous picture of the Beatles in Miami with the not-yet-champ Muhammad Ali is kind of a lie: Itâs not a photo-preserved moment of the rebellious youths of their day recognizing kindred spirits in each other. The Beatles didnât like Ali (then Clay) at all, and had wanted to pose with the champ, Sonny Liston â and Ali didnât like them either.
Now, do we know that all these things are true? To quote you-know-who, it doesnât matter much to me. I doubt if there can ever be solid proof that in 1969 John suggested to Paul they undergo joint trepanning, where you have a hole drilled into your skull. Whether this was related to Johnâs being with Yoko at that point, the author does not say â but one would not be wrong to infer it. As many writers have been before, heâs pretty hard on Yoko, and his description of Yokoâs pursuit of her prey is riveting. I didnât know that Yoko wooed John with daily letters the entire time he was in India, or that she camped out on his driveway, and once jumped in his car. âYokoâs strength lay in perseverance,â he understates.
Again, who knows whatâs true â and to his credit, this is something Brown acknowledges, citing how many of the famed moments in Beatle lore are remembered and recounted differently by different Beatlesâ biographers and principals, not unlike the way the four Gospels do not everywhere match. The Creation Event â the day John met Paul at the fete in Woolton on July 6, 1957 â is such a moment, and Brown doesnât try to umpire a final version, he gives you them all. Same with the ugly moment when John beat up a man who joked Lennon might be gay. Yes, not even the Beatles could be totally woke in 1963.
Also like the Bible, â150 Glimpses of the Beatlesâ is a kind of anthology â from an author who, if I can believe the sources list in the back, read hundreds of books written by Beatle biographers and entourage members, and plucked the moments he found the most â¦ and thatâs the question, the most what? Important? Telling? Quirky? One thing most Beatle fans would say makes us love them: On their albums, there was very little filler, all of it was good. Ahem.
For example, thereâs a running theme of âWhat ifs?â that sound like something youâd resort to on a very long car trip, including a really annoying reimagining of history where it was Gerry and the Pacemakers who made it big, and the Beatles who were a footnote in musical history. But itâs dumb, because thereâs a reason that it happened the way it did, not a quirk of fate. The Beatles recorded 200 terrific songs, and the Pacemakers two. And if you donât know who Gerry and the Pacemakers are, Iâm not sure this will be all that interesting to you anyway.
â150 Glimpsesâ is best when Brown poignantly chronicles the toll that being a Beatle took on these four still-young men in the 1960s â the photos of them that went from smiling to unsmiling â âcrushed by the weight of the worldâs adulation.â And thereâs a book within the book about how it turned out for ex-Beatles Stu and Pete, Beatle-for-a-week Jimmie Nicol, the long-suffering, Hera-like Cynthia Lennon, and other supporting cast members and day players caught in the orbit of the sun gods. Spoiler alert: not well.
In describing watching a Beatle tribute band, Brown says: âOne half of your brain recognizes that these are not the Beatles: How could they be? But the other half is happy to believe that they are.â Itâs like that with this book. Would it have been better if it were 99 glimpses and I didnât have to wade through glimpsing Margaret Thatcher, or who was standing inadvertently in the background of the âAbbey Roadâ cover, or whatever happened to the Singing Nun? Yes, I think it would â but you canât always get what you want. Wait, thatâs the Stones.
News – Bill Maher Reviews â150 Glimpses of the Beatlesâ