Monday, November 25, 2013

Book Reviews: The Beatles, Ryan Adams and Whiskeytown

Generally speaking, a new book about the Beatles is hardly news. There is such a glut of books about the Fab Four (there’s a bookcase full of Beatles books in the room next to where this is being written) that you’d think the story has pretty much been covered by now.

And so it has. But not the way Mark Lewisohn covers it in The Beatles: All These Years, Vol. 1, Tune In. Lewisohn, for those unfamiliar with his work, is the world’s pre-eminent Beatles historian. His earlier books about the Beatles — including The Beatles Live, The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, The Beatles Day By Day, and The Complete Beatles Chronicles — are essential volumes for the serious fan, meticulously detailed and exhaustive histories of various aspects of the Beatles’ careers.

Along those same lines, The Beatles: All These Years almost certainly will go down as the final word on the history of the Beatles. Running 803 pages (not counting more than 100 pages of footnotes and bibliography) and more than eight years in the making, Tune In is the first of three volumes of The Beatles: All These Years, and covers the Beatles’ history only through the end of 1962.

Lewisohn tells the Beatles’ story in incredible detail. He debunks urban legends and uncovers heretofore unknown anecdotes. He expands and illuminates facets of the Beatles’ early years that previous biographers and historians glossed over or missed altogether. Make no mistake, there are several excellent Beatles histories available. Volumes by Hunter Davies (his being the only authorized Beatles biography), Philip Norman and Bob Spitz come especially highly recommended, but Lewisohn goes where no Beatles biographer has gone before.

For instance:

• While everyone knows that the Beatles’ fortunes turned around when Brian Epstein became their manager, Lewisohn shows in vivid detail just how thoroughly Epstein brought order and discipline to their previously chaotic lives. It’s an easy call to say the Beatles almost certainly would have broken up had Epstein not walked into their lives in late 1961. Instead, he managed them to superstardom within 18 months.

• The Beatles’ home base through most of 1961 and virtually all of 1962 was the Cavern in Liverpool’s city center. They had a symbiotic relationship with their early fans there, but Lewisohn shows just how deep and how reciprocal those friendships were. As Lewisohn shows, when the band went to Hamburg for the third, fourth and fifth times, all in 1962, the volume and detail of their correspondence with their fans back home was revealing and extraordinary.

• Original drummer Pete Best was let go in 1962 by the band just as they were preparing to record their first records for Parlophone. Every chronicle of the Beatles has detailed just how unfit Best was as the band’s drummer. Lewisohn goes several steps further, however, demonstrating conclusively that Best not only didn’t fit the band musically, he didn’t fit personally either. Onstage he had trouble keeping the beat, but he also stood out for his sullen demeanor amidst the other Beatles’ charismatic personas. Offstage, it was John, Paul and George going off together, and Pete going who-knows-where, always by himself, always an outsider. Always.

• When the time came for Best to be sacked, John, Paul and George left it to Epstein, which is common knowledge. Because the band had signed a working contract with Epstein, however, letting Best go had legal ramifications that Epstein had to navigate. He eventually landed Best a job in another band, which didn’t last, but Best still threatened legal action against the Beatles years later.

• George Martin, A&R chief at Parlophone and producer of most of the Beatles’ recordings, has often been portrayed as primarily a producer of comedy records before hooking up with the Beatles. Lewisohn shows that this doesn’t give Martin anywhere near his due. A talented musician and songwriter, Martin was keenly attuned to the popular music scene in London, as far back as the mid-1950s. He produced several No. 1 pop records before recording the Beatles for the first time in 1962.

• Parlophone was no doubt Epstein’s last shot at landing a recording contract for the Beatles, which is utterly remarkable. Lewisohn lists some of the absurd records that Parlophone’s parent company, EMI, released over the course of 1962, and it’s astonishing to think that the Beatles could have been passed over for such crap, but such was the state of popular music, especially in Great Britain, in the early 1960s.

• Even more astonishing, George Martin was largely unimpressed with the Beatles upon first hearing them and had no intention of recording them. EMI wanted the Lennon-McCartney publishing rights, however, and when it came to light that Martin was having an extramarital affair with his secretary, he was assigned the task of producing their first recording session as punishment. Marital infidelity was strongly frowned upon at the time, and whereas Martin was much too talented for EMI to fire him, they punished him instead by making him producer of the greatest band in history. Adding to the irony, Martin then talked Epstein into selling the Lennon-McCartney rights to another publisher.

Previous reviews of In Tune have taken Lewisohn to task for his prose style and for his musical judgements, but such criticisms are off the mark. His writing style, while prone to occasional Beatles-related puns, is engaging and rarely verbose or stilted. His musical judgements are generally briefly stated and never get in the way of the story.

Tune In is not for the casual Beatles fan. If the extent of your interest in the Beatles is hearing them on oldies stations and maybe owning Past Masters or the Red and Blue hits albums, then this is way too much for you. If, on the other hand, you own all the Beatles albums, if you bought the 2009 remasters (in stereo and mono), if you also have a sizable collection of bootleg Beatles recordings, and if you already have a bookcase full of Beatles books and have read them all, then Tune In should be atop your Christmas list, the perfect stocking stuffer. Just make sure it’s a sturdy stocking because this is a hefty book, literally and figuratively.

*   *   *

The 1990s was a pretty fertile period in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill region of North Carolina for what was egregiously called The area produced several excellent bands, headlined by the Backsliders, 6 String Drag, and especially Whiskeytown. All three earned national recording contracts, all three produced critically acclaimed albums, but only Whiskeytown, fronted by Ryan Adams, went on to enjoy any kind of national popular acclaim.

David Menconi, the excellent music reporter for Raleigh’s The News & Observer, has chronicled the history of Whiskeytown in a nice little book called Ryan Adams: Losering, A Story Of Whiskeytown. Clearly an unabashed Ryan Adams fan, Menconi had a front-row seat for the band’s formation and its rise to cult status in the late ’90s. He also readily admits to understandable difficulty in maintaining perspective when it comes to Whiskeytown, and especially Ryan Adams.

On the one hand, as Menconi notes, Adams is about as naturally gifted a musician as you’ll ever find, an effective and expressive vocalist, an adept multi-instrumentalist, and an often stunning songwriter whose written output goes well beyond prolific. On the other hand, Adams was often an arrogant, thin-skinned, egotistical, narcissistic brat and drama queen whose on-stage meltdowns were legendary and whose off-stage demeanor was frequently insufferable.

More concerned with being a rock star than an artist, Adams played the part throughout Whiskeytown’s stormy history. Menconi, who wrote more about Whiskeytown over the years than all other music reporters combined, chronicles it all well. He fawns a little too much at times, but he admits to being a fan, and let’s show some understanding here. A music reporter in Raleigh, N.C., gets to cover a talent like Ryan Adams up close how often? Exactly. Adams may be a poser and a dickhead, but he’s still a remarkably gifted poser and dickhead.

But whereas Menconi somehow succeeds in separating the artist (or rock star wannabe) from the art, this particular artist’s personality, boorish behavior and in-your-face arrogance are way too much for this reader to stomach. Having worked in athletics and dealt with athletes for more than 30 years, I’ve learned to keep expectations low when it comes to celebrities. Still, there are times when an athlete, or in this case a musician, comes across as such a complete asshole that I can’t help but thinking what a shame it is that no one ever beat Ryan Adams to a pulp.

I had a rather low opinion of Adams before I read Menconi’s book — didn’t care that much for his music, even while respecting his incredible talent, and had heard enough stories about the trainwreck concerts and personal life to know that where there’s smoke there’s fire. I like him even less after reading the book. The fact that, after Whiskeytown broke up, he nearly went on to achieve real stardom — that he dated Wynona Ryder and Beth Orton and recorded and performed with the likes of Elton John, Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris — seems like karma gone completely off the rails.

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