In the evenings he's still singin' with the band
Well, I have now met the Beatles -- I've read the book urging me to do so by my old friend and roommate Steve Stark.
Of course, I'm biased, both by my friendship with Steve and by my love for the Fab Four. But I greatly enjoyed, and learned from, the book.
Stark's angle on the much-told Beatles story is that of a cultural historian. His main purpose here is to put the Beatles into a historical framework -- to identify the social and political forces that the group tapped into, and sometimes even set into motion, consciously or otherwise. With those larger currents in focus, Stark gives a pretty convincing analysis of why this particular rock quartet was successful beyond anyone's wildest imagination.
What surprises me most about Stark's account, however, is his exquisite treatment of the Beatles as people -- particularly John and Paul, who were the group's obvious leaders. Stark provides a detailed look at the two men's childhoods, which were not particularly happy ones. Both lost their mothers, and much of what both of them did in their careers as musicians was influenced by that sad fact. But John's reaction was very different from Paul's, as the author shows us in incident after telling incident. The book reminded me of something that's easy to forget -- how very young these guys were. But it also revealed something I hadn't ever given much thought to -- how wounded they were as people.
By the end of the story, as the group disintegrated, we find John and Paul both wrecks, and young George not far behind in his unhappiness. Only Ringo -- the last-minute add-in to the group, its oldest member, and the one on whom people placed the lowest expectations -- seems to have emerged from the experience unharmed.
Stark also shows how the Beatles busted their tails to get to where they got. He's particularly strong in his accounts of the group's roots in the basement and living room "clubs" of Liverpool, and their wicked road trips to Germany. I never really pictured John, Paul, and George as a bar cover band, bumming smokes and rides from people, but it seems they spent about as much time doing that as they did in the limelight of Beatle prime time.
Another thing the Beatles were about, at least for the first half of their career together, was teamwork. In much of this narrative, they are extraordinarily tight-knit -- a brotherhood, really -- which makes their eventual falling out that much more painful.
Stark is an exceptionally talented writer, and the flow of the book is seamless. What it isn't is hardcore musicology. So much could be said about the beauty, complexity, and innovation of the Beatles' music, but this isn't the place for it. Granted, Stark tells many fascinating stories behind the albums and singles. He does draw a number of comparisons of the Beatles' work with what came immediately before it. And he presents some interesting contrasts between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. But he doesn't dig very deeeply into the lyrics and melodies, and he doesn't undertake any systematic critique of the songs. (When he does reveal his tastes, he's more of a Paul fan than a John fan.) Dissecting the sheet music is better left for the musicians and music critics, I guess.
If you're too young to remember the invasion of America by the Beatles, this book will help you understand why they were such a big deal. If you're old enough to have been there, you'll like the book, because it's all about you. Either way, Stark will likely make you a bigger Beatle fan than you were before. He does so by putting you in close touch with the rugged people whose imperfect lives were behind those saintly, happy, now-disembodied voices still emanating, 40 years later, from iPods across the universe.