Showing posts with label George Harrison. Show all posts
Showing posts with label George Harrison. Show all posts

Monday, November 27, 2017

Once There Was a Way: What if The Beatles Stayed Together? by Bryce Zabel

Buy Once There Was A Way at Amazon.

Read author Zabel's biography on Goodreads, and you'll find an impressive resume steeped in sci-fi and speculative fiction, and it's not limited to book format. Once There Was A Way is an alternative history, and while it is a work of fiction I hesitate to call it a novel. It's not a narrative in the traditional sense, like previous Beatle-related fiction reviewed here. Ian R. MacLeod's Snodgrass stands out in my mind because it also asks "what if?" That story followed John Lennon in a life of near squalor, having left The Beatles before reaching any level of international fame. Once offers not just a "what if" but "what could have been."

The book begins in 1968 at the dawn of the Apple age, with John and Paul about to announce its genesis on The Tonight Show. Immediately the trajectory veers from actual history. Reality shows (or it would, if the full footage still existed) John and Paul had to settle that night for a substitute host, Joe Garagiola. Book John and Book Paul have enough sense to hold out for the real thing, and Carson jumps.

From there we're treated to a story laid out in lengthy Behind The Music style as The Beatles flirt with divorce but ultimately agree to probationary periods of togetherness for the sake of keeping Apple viable and solvent. They agree to completing film and album commitments, yet take turns gazing longingly at the exit. Unlike bands that stay together for the paycheck despite passing their prime, The Beatles continue to spin gold.

Zabel threads in non-events ingrained in band lore (the invitation to Woodstock, the Lord of the Rings adaptation) and makes them happen. As the band's life span lengthens, so some of the individual achievements in song become those of the group. Some moments in the story seem almost too far-fetched and Forrest Gump, even for speculative fiction, but as escapism it inspires a smile.

My big issue with the book was the style. Once I realized I didn't have a straight narrative story I felt apprehensive about following through. The strength of Once There Was A Way comes in the characters. If you're big on The Beatles you're more likely to enjoy this than a non-fan. After getting through the initial chapter about The Tonight Show, I found my groove and finished this with good speed.

As for how long The Beatles remain together in this book, and who survives to the end, I won't spoil it. I will say Zabel's ending probably reflects the feelings of a number of fans who had hoped for more after 1970.

An ARC from Netgalley was received from the publisher for the purpose of this review.

Rating: B-

Kathryn Lively is looking for her next book to read.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story by Vivek Tiwary, Philip Simon (Editor), Andrew C. Robinson (Illustrations), Kyle Baker (Illustrations)

ARC received via NetGalley.

Buy the book at Amazon.com.

One thing I've noticed in what's become my scholarly study on The Beatles is that one can find a wealth of information on the band, the individual members, and their chronological history. I may know more about John Lennon than I do my current president, and yet information on their manager, Brian Epstein, remains scarce. Pretty much everything I know about Epstein came from Peter Brown's memoir, The Love You Make. I know I tend to hold up that book as the standard, but years and years after I've read it, the memory is fresh.

There are Epstein-centric books, though, none of which I have read: among them a ghostwritten autobiography published at the height of Beatlemania that is likely sanitized to appeal to young fans, and a more in-depth history from Lennon biographer Ray Coleman. One could guess the lack in reading material about Epstein corresponds to the short time he worked with the band and the fact he died so young. I see pictures of Epstein and imagine a man beyond his years - always mature and serious - when in fact he was only six years older than John.

We can imagine the stress of managing an extremely popular group aged him prematurely. Not only that, Epstein dealt with social prejudices that rendered him depressed and unable to sleep. A public figure comes out as homosexual today and it may not be a big deal, but in 1962 to be gay and Jewish in a tiny English port town equated to painting a large target on your head. The Fifth Beatle, a new graphic novel fictionalizing the life of Epstein, opens with the grim image of Epstein suffering a violent act in what appears to be a hustle gone wrong in a dank Liverpool alley. It's a specter of shame and unrequited feelings that follow him through his short life, terrors he seeks to replace with success.

Fans know the legend - Epstein had little to no talent management experience, but knew the music business through the family chain of record shops. He attends a live show at the Cavern after hearing of the Beatles, and you know the rest. The Fifth Beatle vividly recreates this and other key scenes in Epstein's relationship with The Beatles with sharp characterization and moody colors. Unlike another graphic novel reviewed here (Baby in Black), representations of main and supporting players take on appearances that match their personalities - genuine and assumed. Brian comes off as enthusiastic despite weary expressions, John is sharp and smirking, and Paul exudes a gee-whiz cuteness. Darker scenes position people like Colonel Tom Parker in a demonic setting and Ed Sullivan as wooden (you'll see it soon enough), and Yoko Ono in an eerie cameo.

All through the adventure, Brian has a right-hand woman named Moxie. Whether she existed as a composite of personnel assisting the band and Epstein or as a figment of the imagination (not unlike Jessica Lange's angel/confessor in All That Jazz) remains up for debate. Her role in the story serves to heighten one thing we've always known about Brian Epstein - he was lonely. He had friends and family, and while he may not have been the savviest of managers he had the respect of four lads from Liverpool for a time. Nonetheless, he had no partner with whom to share his success, and that knowledge makes this story all the more bittersweet. His premature death in 1967 is arguably the beginning of the end of The Beatles - that's something I've believed for a long time. We can blame Yoko, but the smoke ignited when the band found themselves without management and couldn't easily decide on a successor.

Anyway, I've followed the progress of The Fifth Beatle for the better part of a year and looked forward to reading it. Overall, I liked the story and the illustration. Fans will easily spot the lyrical Easter eggs in the dialogue, but I find things like that take me out of the story and make it a challenge to take seriously (Clockwork Angels had this same issue). I will admit, too, there are known scenes of Epstein's life that didn't make it to this book. George is barely represented here, Ringo even less, and Pete Best isn't on the radar...unless you count blurred background Cavern images. Also missing or downplayed are moments of John's cruel humor, anti-Semitic and anti-gay slurs that reportedly drove Epstein to tears.

The Fifth Beatle is a welcome tribute to a figure sometimes marginalized in Beatles history. Petitions to get Epstein inducted as a non-performer in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame continue to circulate, and perhaps a book like this will bring more attention to the cause.

Rating: B

Kathryn Lively is the author of Killing the Kordovas, The Girl With the Monkee Tattoo, and The Rock and Roll Mysteries. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

When They Were Boys: The True Story of the Beatles' Rise to the Top by Larry Kane

ARC received from NetGalley.

Purchase the book from Amazon.com.

Some of you may be groaning to see yet another Beatles book reviewed on this blog. What can one possibly learn from a new title, and how can we be sure this is the true story of the Fab's early years? Having read so many books over the decades, one would think I could recite the story by heart. So many Beatle "insiders" and witnesses to the early days of Hamburg and Liverpool - it's nice to know so many are still kicking after fifty-plus years - and it appears that journalist/writer Kane has attempted to include as many as possible in When They Were Boys. This book doesn't cover the whole of the Beatles' career, but concentrates on the beginnings of the Quarrymen through the mid-1960s at the stirrings of the takeover of America.

Beatle die-hards know Kane's name - he traveled with the Beatles as a reporter during their 64-65 American tours, and he's authored other books on the band. Personal encounters with the boys are represented here in conversations peppered throughout, but you won't find current cooperation from the surviving members. When They Were Boys instead calls on the memories of those present before the record deals, names already familiar to die-hards: Astrid Kircherr, Pete Best, John's sister Julia Baird, Bill Harry (who published Mersey Beat), and Horst Fascher (performer and club owner in Hamburg). Voices of the departed - Neil Aspinall, Mal Evans, Mona Best, etc. - are also present, as is input from Yoko Ono, speaking from memories of conversations with John.

With all of this participation, and the author's personal experience, one could argue this is a thorough account of early Beatles history. Some stories are familiar, others appear revealed as Kane charges that some biographers may have attempted to rewrite the story by omitting certain points. As much as I've read of Mona Best's involvement, I don't often hear of her reaction to her son's dismissal/resignation from the band, or of exactly how popular Pete was during these years. Kane also takes the time to point out how some biographers want to minimize May Pang or erase her entirely, but it's not something I've seen in Lennon biographies.

The narratives aren't the most compelling as compared to other Beatles biographies and histories, and some may bristle at mentions of Paul and Ringo's lack of cooperation/interest in the this project. To note that neither attended a funeral of an insider, for example, seemed almost chiding. Nonetheless, Boys is informative, and a book new students will appreciate.

Rating: B-

Kathryn Lively is the author of the Rock and Roll Mysteries featuring Lerxst Johnston: Rock Deadly and Rock Til You Drop, and of the collection of short stories, The Girl With the Monkee Tattoo.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin by Leslie Woodhead

Buy now from Amazon.

I will confess when it comes pop culture and music, I often take an American-centric point of view. If a band suddenly drops of the radar, I might assume they broke up or fell out of favor with their label, forever relegated to sixth-billing at state fairs. It may not occur to us that certain musical acts sell well in other countries. I know somebody who co-wrote a song that became a number one hit in South America. The US market is important, surely, but it's not the only game in town.

One can imagine what kids in the USSR did for entertainment, and if they even heard of The Beatles during the band's prime. As it turns out, the Fabs managed to breach the Communist bloc, serving as unofficial ambassadors of the West. Filmmaker Woodhead, responsible early in his career for one of the first clips of the Beatles in action (which you can view on the author's website), would discover the group's impact on Soviet youth as he filmed documentaries. His interactions with fans and stories of government-approved (and illegal) acts influenced by the Beatles are compiled in How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin.

If there's one appealing thing I found about this book, aside from the Russian perspective of The Beatles, is the author's honesty from the beginning - many Beatle books I've read are authored by fans...die-hards. Woodhead doesn't claim a high level of fanaticism, and I like that it lends an objective voice to this first-person narrative. Woodhead takes us through the Soviet Union, then later Gorbachev's post-glasnost Russia, to meet some of the more avid Beatlemaniacs of the East. Where my aunts could easily buy the Capitol-released albums at any store in South Florida, these comrades waited for contraband records to come in via various sources (sometimes first through port towns, though the children of the privileged class were able to get their hands on the music). Many learned English via the Beatles, and took up instruments in an attempt to keep the music alive behind the Iron Curtain. Then there's the guy with the Beatles shrine (the pictures included in the book likely don't do it justice) whose admiration of the band certainly rivals that of the most fervent comrade's devotion to the Party.

What you won't find in this book (aside from personal experiences relayed by the author) are stories of interactions with actual Beatles. McCartney's historic concert is covered, and serves as a bittersweet coda for those denied the opportunity to see the entire band and follow them as the rest of the world did. The true stars of Kremlin, however, are the fans who closely guarded their admiration for the Beatles in an unaccepting atmosphere. When I recall reading stories of "Beatle burnings" in certain American communities in reaction to John Lennon's "more popular than Jesus" remark, I find it interesting how people in the Soviet Union probably would not have had the opportunity to choose to burn a record - the government would make that decision. Yet, despite an ever-present government and rules, the Beatles managed to sneak through, proving nothing short of immortal (or divine) is impenetrable.

How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin is for the serious Beatles scholar, a fascinating history lesson about the power of music gradually chipping away at oppression. When you begin to read, you may get the impression you're in for some dry reading, but it is the enthusiasm of the Russian fans with whom Woodhead interacts that helps the book come alive. Fifty years after those four young men rocked the Cavern, they continue to rock the Kremlin, the British Isles, the States, the Internet...and that enthusiasm keeps the music alive. Sometimes, all you do need is love, and I know one place to find it.

An advanced review copy was provided by the publisher.

Rating: B

Kathryn Lively is the author of the Rock and Roll Mysteries featuring Lerxst Johnston: Rock Deadly and Rock Til You Drop, and of the collection of short stories, The Girl With the Monkee Tattoo.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Shoulda Been There by Jude Southerland Kessler

After finishing a work of magic realism that focuses on the return of John Lennon to the world stage (John Lennon and the Mercy Street Cafe) I set my sights and my Kindle to another fictionalized Lennon story, this one quite ambitious in scope. Author Kessler spent more than twenty years researching the life of Lennon - interviewing people once close to the man and the band he help form, visiting landmarks and poring over countless Beatles archives - in order to take on the monumental task of telling Lennon's life story. There are plenty of biographies already, another one came out last year, but Kessler's take is unique in that her version of Lennon's life is novelized and thoroughly detailed, with practically every move made documented.

As I've gathered from the author's website and other sources, Kessler has intended to write three books to span Lennon's forty years. Shoulda Been There (AMZ) and Shivering Inside are currently available, and She Loves You is forthcoming. I've neither read nor investigated the second book, but I would argue that Shoulda Been There is probably the most ambitious of the three projects. This book alone chronicles half of Lennon's life, beginning with the day of his birth and taking the reader up to the "birth" of the Beatles' relationship with Brian Epstein. These two events bookend just over twenty years of history that include Lennon's childhood at Mendips, tensions between his mother Julia and Aunt Mimi, the evolution of the Quarry Men into the Beatles as they conquered the Hamburg music scene. Each chapter ends with an author's note that dissects fact from conjecture, and in some instances serves to correct myths that have surrounded the Beatles legend. Some readers may be put off by these notes appearing throughout the book, as though they might pull people out of the story. I didn't feel that happened to me, but the notes are rather short and not disruptive.

Having read several Beatles books and biographies over the years, I went into Shoulda Been There knowing the story. As a novel, Lennon's story makes for provocative prose, and Kessler is to be commended for undertaking such a project. Where the writing is concerned, Kessler does well in evoking a sense of place, though there were times I wondered if she relied on reader familiarity with the characters in play. Instances of point of view shifting, or head-hopping, proved distracting. One thing I would suggest if you are unfamiliar with the slang of time is to browse the helpful glossary Kessler offers at the end first before reading the book.

I found Shoulda Been There enjoyable and true to the Lennon history as I have known it. It's obvious Kessler takes great care in presenting her subject and is devoted to authenticity. With more than half of Lennon's life covered here, it will be interesting to see how the pace of the other books differ.

Rating - B+


Kathryn Lively is the author of Rock Deadly, a Mystery (Book One of the Rock and Roll Mysteries) .

Friday, January 20, 2012

Beatles Fiction in Review: A Date With Mercy Street

I should preface this post by explaining why the site hasn't been updated in a while. The short answer: I took a break from reading relevant titles, and when school started for the little one I lost track of my many leisure pursuits. During this time, I fully intended to revive the site and read more rock-related novels and bios, but few caught my attention enough to draw me to read. I started a Bob Dylan bio, set it down, tried a Tom Waits book, put it down, and so forth. I supposed I needed to be in the right frame of mind to pick up the genre again.

Recently, though, I learned that the New York Beatles Fest was coming back to the Meadowlands in March (yes, that's technically New Jersey, but anything in the area is labeled NYC for reasons I don't ask to have explained) and I'm planning a trip up with the little one. I've longed to attend a Beatles Fest for years - when I was a teenager in Florida I used to get the catalogs and newsletters from Mark Lapidos, and hoped one day to get to Chicago where the main event is held annually. I like that there's a second event in the NYC area because it's closer, and I like that Micky Dolenz is one of the headliners. Just sounds like an awesome event.

With the Beatles on the brain, I took advantage of the high and tucked into two quick novels, both inspired by the same subject but entirely different. John Lennon and the Mercy Street Cafe is a work some would call "magic realism" in that the contemporary setting is enhanced by something extra that can't be classified as fantasy or paranormal. The protagonist, advertising executive Amy Parisi, is dissatisfied with her work and her love life, and basically feeling low about everything that goes on in between the two frustrations. Who doesn't experience this, yes, but few people are able to find a diversion in a private John Lennon concert. Amy can't quite believe it herself when she happens upon a cafe situated on a street that isn't supposed to exist, and sees a man who is supposed to be dead strumming on a guitar and singing to empty chairs.

What is John Lennon doing back in New York nearly thirty years after his death? He isn't sure, either, and Amy isn't sure why she's the only one who can see him, and the cafe - which appears as an abandoned storefront to the rest of the world. A chance (or perhaps fated) meeting with a writer named David begins a journey for Amy...and David and Amy's ex-boyfriend and John as they try to determine the purpose of their existence. What does Amy truly want in life, for one, and why is John back?

It may sound odd for me to say now, "Here's where it gets weird." I've thought a long time on how to explain this book. It can be split into two sections: the Mercy Street period and what I'd call the Time Warp period. Without getting too much into detail, this motley crew ends up driving across the country and ostensibly through time, sharing John's music and ideals while John absorbs the influence of the times. When the trip comes full circle the impact hits home, and isn't exactly welcomed by everybody. Lennon's entanglements with the FBI are no secret, and author Hammett injects a bit of government intrigue into the story. In truth, I enjoyed the story while it stayed in New York, but got lost on the road trip. While I understood what the author intended to convey, but I suppose as a reader I was more interested in seeing Lennon experience the culture shock of returning home after thirty years to see what had changed - particularly among family and friends. Mercy Street Cafe is quite a trip, but it took a different route I didn't expect.

Compared to this work, A Date With a Beatle will probably take you less time to read because the prose is much simpler. I actually did read it in about a day, not necessarily because I found it riveting. It's a short book, with very short chapters, and it's just a quick read with a basic plot threaded through enthusiastic teen dialogue.

The protagonist is Jude, a hardly mild-mannered Beatlemanic determined to meet her one and only - quiet George. Marketing for the book implies this is a true story, and it may very well be, but there is a definite roman a clef feel to the book. Luckily for Jude, she is close enough to New York and other points on the map to cut school and con her way to the boys' hotel for a hopeful encounter. Along the way there is a scuffle with another "number one" Beatles fan and a few law enforcement officers who've had enough of the screaming girls.

Other reviews of Date I've seen compare the story to that of I Wanna to Hold Your Hand, a movie about a group of rabid fans trying to meet the Fabs. I've not seen the movie myself, but I'm sure author Kristen's book benefits from the personal experience and memory felt throughout the story. There really isn't much more I can say about it because it is simple. Boy is one of the four most famous people in the world, girl wants to meet him. Who didn't back then, or now?

Ratings: John Lennon and the Mercy Street Cafe -  B- ; A Date With a Beatle - C

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author whose titles include Rock Deadly and Rock Til You Drop.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Me - Pattie Boyd

Years ago when I purchased the gigantic The Beatles Anthology hardcover, one criticism I read bemoaned the lack of contribution from some of the more important witnesses to the band's history: the women. When I think of all the Beatles related books I have read, I realize I have read biographies written by people who were close to the band (Peter Brown) and others by those who merely saw the Beatles as the rest of us did - from a distance. They devoted more time researching the lore and sorting the truth from legend, and so far everything I've read appears to corroborate, give or take a few surprises.

Getting back to the Beatles' women, in the band biographies they are often relegated to the back seat. With solo stories, your mileage may vary. John Lennon: The Life presents the history of a man dominated by women. Well, two at least. I've not read bios of the other three yet, but it happened that I found a copy of Wonderful Tonight at a closing Borders and grabbed it for the TBR pile. Musically speaking, George was always my favorite, and all I know about him comes from Brown's memoir and what I've since found in rare interviews and, of course, the post-Beatles music. Pattie Boyd, George's first wife (and later, Eric Clapton's first), is long known as his first muse as well, having inspired some of rock music's best-known tributes. While she isn't the first wife/girlfriend to influence a Beatle into quality songwriting ("Here, There, and Everywhere" was allegedly written for Jane Asher), I'd always thought her the most interesting. It was my hope this long-awaited memoir lived up to the hype.

The one thing I immediately took away from Pattie's book, and this is something I'm guessing any reader would expect, was this unfortunate pattern of unhealthy relationships she endured. The beginning chapters recall, with lack of clarity, a young life in Africa in a semi-stable family. One might be envious to know a girl raised in such exotic environs, but instead we are told a story about passive parents and a father who gradually fades away, to be replaced by a stepfather who doesn't do any better for Pattie and her siblings. Adulthood proves her first opportunity to escape and achieve happiness and a sense of accomplishment, and it's this determination to succeed as a model that gets her the gig of a lifetime, a walk-on part in a Beatles film.



She's the blonde and has only one line. One word, actually, but behind the scenes it was a different story. Now, I can forgive how Boyd glosses over her childhood. She seems to imply, too, she only recalls so much, but the picture of life before George that she paints offers vivid glimpses into the hip sixties, where people of all classes socialized and interacted. A brief anecdote about inviting a famous dancer to her table sticks out in my mind - what she describes, I'm sure, doesn't happen much these days, even with celebrity accessibility via Twitter.

In some instances, though, I read a passage and wish Boyd had gone into more detail. The Beatle courtship also reads a bit rushed. Some of what Boyd relays I remember from other books and accounts of peak Beatlemania. I can also forgive her here, for she had come during the touring years and therefore didn't have much access to the scene beyond receiving hate mail from fans. It isn't until Clapton enters the picture that Boyd is freer with detail, yet reading through Wonderful Tonight I got the sense that there is still more to tell here.

Boyd's voice comes off as sadly wooden, as though she's telling us okay, you've bugged me for years to tell my story, here it is. Having lived the life surely exhausted her, perhaps to the point that there is no emotion left for the book. As other readers of this book confirmed, I had a problem with the time-hopping in this work. Boyd tends to jump back and forth with anecdotes - she may start with an event that happened in the mid-sixties and leapfrog a decade, then come back. If you're the type of reader who craves chronological order, Wonderful Tonight may give you a bit of a headache. If you believe Eric Clapton can do no wrong, too, you may not want to pick it up at all.

What emotion I do sense in the book comes forth as pain, mostly where Clapton is concerned. I wouldn't say that Boyd's account of her second marriage is scathing, but if what she writes is the truth then my opinion of the man musicians call God is now virtually non-existent.

Once we're past the marriages, Boyd's life seems to waver between self-doubt and spiritual search. While she claims not to have gained financially from her divorces (she claims to be overdrawn often at the bank), she apparently has enough income to travel extensively, and the remainder of the book reads like a gossip column. She had dinner with Mike Rutherford of Genesis, she stayed at Ron Wood's house, met this person and that. More time is spent talking about other people, and not Pattie Boyd. We know who Mike Rutherford and Ron Wood are, Pattie, who are you?

I wanted to love this book, but at best I liked that Pattie finally came forward open up about her life. I still get the sense there's more to tell, however. That this book came out after George died made me wonder if she waited on purpose, yet she still lives now as she did when she was Mrs. Harrison, then Mrs. Clapton: as a young woman doing her best to maintain balance and harmony in her environment, and living by merely accepting what happens. I hope that's not the case. A woman who would willingly hang-glide without a thought for the outcome shouldn't be afraid to bare her soul.

Rating: C

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author who reads and drinks wine.