The Kindly Ones

‘The Kindly Ones’

by Jonathan Littell. Published by Chatto & Windus; pp992; £20.00

by Richard Romeo

There is no doubt that the Kindly Ones is a difficult novel. Its erudition, its decadent aesthetic, one even hates to admit it, its so very artistic and cinematic rendering of much of the evils of Nazism, is notable. The full flowering inferno of the Eastern Front is described here in close to one thousand pages of densely-packed text, as, in effect, brutally writing, to quote the German historian Joachim Fest describing Heinrich Himmler, “the epitaph of millions”. How do we reconcile this? That, we as readers, amidst such monstrousness, can actually come to admire the book, that we, as readers, are much like, as Littell quotes early in the book quoting Eckhart, “an angel in Hell flying in his own cloud of Paradise”?

The author Jonathan Littell (and we shouldn’t forget the wonderful translation from the French by Charlotte Mandell) probably lost many mainstream readers confronted with such a main character as Max Aue—he is well-spoken but unrepentant, he is smart but cold, he has an incestuous relationship with his sister and despises his mother, he is unfaithful to friends, he is a closet homosexual and a murderer, and ultimately he believes what he did in the SS was right. He assaults his readers, arguing that he is very much like them, and under certain circumstances, they would do like he did, that other countries have and will probably act in similar ways (Vietnam is mentioned) and as the years pass, much of what happened then will probably be forgotten. Though Aue believes this, Littell’s book refutes all of that, by simply writing his book (‘The Kindly Ones’ is dedicated to all the dead) for us. (There is a curious editor’s note in the beginning of the book about the author’s use of acronyms and other specialized German monikers that almost implies Aue’s confession has been found, and therefore, Aue had been as well, thus ensuring a living testament to infamy.)

Littell has successfully digested a fair amount of research and seamlessly incorporated it into his fiction. Babi Yar, Stalingrad, Berlin in 1945, to name just a few mise-en scene, are marked by a pure blending of reportage, anecdote, fantasy, and historical recreation. Having spent years researching it, Littell reportedly wrote the book in Moscow, which seems fitting considering the sufferings of many in the Soviet Union. (Aue calculates that one individual was killed approximately every six seconds, every day, for four years, on the Eastern Front, totaling some 20 million plus souls, many of those civilians.)

The Kindly Ones is awash in blood, it is the primary color in what is a horrific tapestry. Much of the killing depicted in the book is what the historian Timothy Snyder calls “The Unknown Holocaust”. Many have heard of the gas chambers, Auschwitz, and the other death camps in eastern Poland but what has not received as much focus, were the more than 1 million people (mostly Jews) shot, hung (or burned alive in their villages) in places like Babi Yar by the Einsatzgruppen, members of the Germany Army, Romanian units, Ukrainian partisans, and others. These scenes are some of the hardest to read; they are ugly, and distressing like watching some of the more memorable scenes in Klimov’s film ‘Come and See’ (1985) which depicts in graphic detail the murder of a Byelorussian village by the SS and its Ukrainian collaborators. (The village’s inhabitants, some of whom are gang raped, some shot, are then collectively locked into a local church, men, women, children, and burned alive.)

One aspect of the novel that one may find puzzling is the major subplot, the investigation of Aue by two detectives for the murder of Aue’s parents in France. Amidst the mass death occurring at the time, sanctioned and perpetrated by the German state, it seems incongruous that such a small violent event would get so much attention by the police and that they would investigate, and determinately hunt down an SS officer, to boot. Many critics have noted the utter ridiculousness of such a thing ever happening. However, Max Aue does slightly resemble, the twisted and murderous SS general Tanz, played by Peter O’Toole, in the movie version of ‘The Night of the Generals’ (1966) which also involves an investigation of so-called “small killings” (the serial killing of a number of women) amidst the larger carnage and momentous events going on at the same time (the events surrounding the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler in July 1944). There are also explicit references to the justice-seeking Eumenides (aka The Kindly Ones) by the major, a military intelligence officer, the leader of the investigation in the movie.

Aue meets many of the usual suspects as the events of the novel unfold: Himmler, Eichmann, even Hitler, in a bizarre scene in the bunker, along with many of the lower echelons of the SS, its bureaucrats, its madmen, intellectuals, its mostly average men (and women) doing their bit for the cause but mostly just living day by day without any overarching ideology as espoused by the party. One can’t emphasize how well Littell has flavored his book with well-placed portions of the surreal: Aue becomes a passenger on a hot air balloon near Stalingrad; he is hounded by three identical Aryan Amazon women who pester him with offers of sexual congress for the good of the Reich; at one point he sees Hitler transformed in front of his eyes into a rabbi during one of his speeches (which oddly mirrors a scene in Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s epic film ‘Hitler: A Film form Germany’ (1978)). There are many others.

In the end, the question remains–have we had enough books about the Nazis, and does the Kindly Ones help us to understand them? That is not for me to answer, but we surely need those willing, like Jonathan Littell, to confront those who were willing to inexplicably scoop up those endless numbers of people and willingly write their epitaphs. It can never represent justice for the victims of men like Aue (and in many other times and in many other countries, not just Germany) but it does seem to me that the exposure of that bitter reality is the least we can do to remember those who suffered all those years ago.

Just A Facebook Group Away

The Revolution Is Just A Facebook Group Away

by Steve Mainprize

“And another demonstration passes on to history
Peace, bread, work, and freedom is the best we can achieve
And wearing badges is not enough in days like these”

- Billy Bragg, ‘Days Like These’

In the good old days – before the internet – there were two courses of action open to the ordinary person-in-the-street who wanted to complain about some disagreeable state of affairs. Firstly, they could write a stiff letter to a newspaper or their MP. Secondly, they could get some friends together and go on a march/start a riot.

What’s happening now on-line – what’s happened recently in causes such as the anti-Pop Idol campaign to wangle Rage Against The Machine’s Christmas number one* and the resistance to the threatened closure of BBC 6 Music – is that those two courses of action have blurred together. Now it’s relatively straightforward, given a sympathetic cause and a handful of online contacts, to assemble a mob, albeit a mob which, rather than marching on Whitehall for example, will all join the same Facebook group or put a logo on their Twitter avatars.

What I like about the old-fashioned options is that they both require you to put a bit of effort in. Even if you’re only going to write a letter, you need to marshal your thoughts, form a coherent argument and try to avoid wittering on too much. Then you need to gum a stamp on the envelope and actually get out of the house to go and post it. You actually have to show some commitment.

Similarly, to get a march going, you need co-ordinate plenty of like-minded people arriving at the same place at the same time, and you need to get banners and the appropriate permits and so forth sorted out beforehand, so there’s lots of organising to do. Riots may look easier to organise than marches, but remember that most riots actually start off as something more peaceful, so you’ve got all the administrative stuff at the start anyway, and then in addition you’ve got to worry about not being beaten up by whatever law-enforcement body your particular country dispatches to these events.

The problem with internet campaigns and Facebook groups and all the rest of it is that the cost – financial and personal – of taking part is practically nothing. You could even argue that the cost of entry is actually negative sometimes: there may be an advantage, beyond the cause itself, to joining “Save 6 Music”. I’m thinking of all those people who have “protested” via their office computers, as a displacement activity to avoid doing any actual work for another couple of minutes. I’m thinking about people joining just because their Facebook friend did. There’s also the phenomenon of people signing up to the cause not because they feel strongly about that cause specifically, but because it’s tangentially related to something they do feel strongly about. Here, I’m also thinking about people who never listen to 6 Music but wanted to get a bit bolshie because they love the BBC. I’m thinking about people who never listen to 6 Music but wanted to get a bit bolshie because they hate the BBC.

Ironic digression: having a lot of people in a Facebook group can generate as much press as a bunch of protesters waving banners in the street. This is because in recent times newspapers have had to cut costs to survive as their advertising income and sales revenue plummets, and consequently the few reporters that are left haven’t the time to research stories or even in some cases leave the office. So stories that they can pick up on-line are a godsend to them. (For a more detailed discussion of this, read the book “Flat Earth News” by Nick Davies http://www.flatearthnews.net/.) And to pile even more irony on top of that: why are advertising income and sales revenue dropping off? Because advertisers are diverting budgets to reach their target audience on the web, and because consumers increasingly get their news from online sources too.

It’s essentially free to add your name to an online campaign. But since it’s also free to not add your weight to the campaign, maybe we should be asking: what’s up with all the people who don’t sign up? 6 Music had a reach of 695,000 listeners in December, and the “Save 6 Music” group on Facebook has 168,000 members. What do the other 527,000 think? If we assume that each of the 168,000 Facebook members want to see 6 Music saved – for which the evidence is very weak – isn’t there an argument that the majority of the station’s listeners aren’t really that bothered? At best, they apparently aren’t bothered enough to spend a minute signing up to Facebook and clicking a button.

Yes, of course, I’m being deliberately obtuse. But when people can publicly voice their grievances so easily and cheaply, how are we meant to judge the true depth of feeling? The ease, cheapness and speed with which protesters can express dissent tends to lessen its weight, and hence its impact.

The other problem with almost-zero-cost protests is that, on the receiving end, it’s also almost-zero-cost to ignore the angry voices. If a thousand protesters turn up on your doorstep waving banners and shouting slogans at you though a megaphone, you tend to pay them some attention. If a thousand faxes arrive, or a thousand letters, then you may have to deal with the consequences of a broken fax machine, or a broken postman. But if you get a thousand emails complaining about the same thing, it’s a pretty quick job to set your spam filters to deal with them so that you don’t have to. If a thousand people sign up to a Facebook group, you don’t even have to notice.

It all seems terribly unfair on those people who really do feel strongly about an issue. In terms of pure numbers, their voice counts as much, or as little, as that of the merest button-clicking flibbertigibbet work-avoider. What those people need is to get back to the modes of protest that demonstrate more commitment. They need publicity-friendly stunts to attract news coverage, they need to be marching in the streets, waving banners and singing songs, and they need the support of large numbers of people.

The 6 Music protesters have realised this, and organised a Saturday lunchtime protest outside Broadcasting House. At the time of writing, the number of protesters is uncertain: reports range from five hundred to two thousand, and these are numbers given by the protesters themselves, rather than actual news agencies, which seem to have largely ignored the event. This is a shame, even if the subject matter under consideration makes it understandable.

But they need to stick to their guns. Keeping the momentum going until the BBC Trust publishes its interim conclusions in the summer will be difficult, and although their campaign has been largely successful so far, there will no doubt be setbacks.

The fact that people have actually made an effort to get out of the house and make a bit of noise is hugely encouraging. Hopefully this is a sign that real protest is alive and well, and that virtual protest is merely a starting point along the road to mobilising people to act in a just cause, whatever that might be. And beyond the survival or demise of a radio station, there might even be hope yet for protest of a more political hue.

* Wow, those words still don’t look right, do they?

Oomska’s Protest Playlist: http://open.spotify.com/user/mainy/playlist/5mtKK8d4fhnjtspEiccAOC

You Had To Ask Me (Part 2)

You Had To Ask Me Where It Was At: Bob Dylan & the Media

An exploration of Dylan’s media relations, as refracted through Rolling Stone’s anthology of ‘essential’ Dylan interviews and press conference transcripts.

by John Carvill

Part Two: Poets Drown in Lakes

What sort of cumulative impressions await the reader of a collection of Bob Dylan’s early interviews, magazine profiles, and press-conference transcripts? Well, it all depends on the granularity of your focus. Looking at the big picture, you cannot fail to be struck by their value as historical documents; and it’s hard to avoid feeling a certain amount of incredulity at just how out of touch the journalists were with the changing times they were meant to be reporting on. But there are also any number of minor revelations, one of which being that the degree to which Dylan could always be relied upon to be both evasive and aggressive, has been much exaggerated. In a New Yorker profile, Nat Hentoff manages to explode both sides of this myth in one short paragraph:

“Dylan came into the control room, smiling. Although he is fiercely accusatory toward society at large while his is performing, his most marked offstage characteristic is gentleness. He speaks swiftly but softly, and appears persistently anxious to make himself clear.”

Even when Dylan does lash out, any hostility is almost always leavened with his unique brand of wit. At the KQED press conference, in response to reporters’ attempts to ascribe a ‘meaning’ or a ‘message’ to Dylan’s lyrics, Dylan points out that words can have different meanings and that these are subjective. Why then, someone asks, does Dylan bother to write at all:

Q. “What do you bother to write the poetry for if we all get different images? If we don’t know what you’re talking about?”

A. “Because I’ve got nothing else to do, man!”

Both the question itself, and the way it’s delivered, are quite confrontational; but even though Dylan’s reply seems correspondingly antagonistic, the tone is still good-humoured, even self-deprecating. Perhaps sensing that Dylan doesn’t want to discuss what he is ‘saying’ in his songs, Ralph Gleason himself invites Dylan to comment on what he’d like to say that isn’t in his songs:

Gleason: Is there anything in addition to your songs, that you want to say to people?

Dylan: Good luck.

Gleason: You don’t say that in your songs anywhere, do you?

Dylan: Oh yes I do. Every song tails off with: good luck. I hope you make it.

Dylan’s lyrics, says Nat Hentoff, are “pungently idiomatic”; the same could be said of Dylan’s sense of humour. One of many striking facets of Dylan’s conversational style, which an anthology of interviews makes more readily apparent than ever, is his propensity for dispensing memorable aphorisms and apercus. He tells Hentoff that, “the word ‘message’ strikes me as having a hernia-like sound”, while “the word ‘protest’, I think, was made up for people undergoing surgery”. In an interview with Mikal Gilmore from 1986, Dylan discusses the critical view that his career is in decline, rejecting the suggestion that he has anything to prove, or has to live up to his own past achievements: “Besides, anything you want to do for posterity’s sake, you can just sing into a tape recorder and give it to your mother, you know?”

In conversation, as in song-writing, Dylan has an uncanny knack for le mot juste. Sometimes he even seems to be pulling a freshly minted neologism out of his hat. “Anybody that gets into politics is”, he warns Paul J Robbins, of the LA Free Press, in 1965, “a little greaky anyway.” The structure of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was, he tells Robert Shelton, “very vomitific”. The less he likes the turn a conversation is taking, the more acute and idiosyncratic Dylan’s humour seems to become. During the Playboy interview, he bridles at the idea of himself being regarded as a role model:

“I’m really not the right person to tramp around the country saving souls. I wouldn’t run over anybody that was lying in the street, and I certainly wouldn’t become a hangman. I wouldn’t think twice about giving a starving man a cigarette. But I’m not a shepherd. And I’m not about to save anybody from fate, which I know nothing about.”

Who else would have used the verb ‘to tramp’ there? It makes him sound like something out of a Dostoevsky novel.

If Dylan the Interview Gorgon is a myth reporters like to frighten their children with at night, an equally prevalent one has long been the supposed rarity of a Dylan interview. Michael Gray estimated that Dylan has given an average of one interview per month for the whole of his career, and “since the mid-1960s almost every one is published prefaced by the claim that it comes from a man who rarely gives interviews.” As well as giving the reader who is aware of this a wry smile every time it crops up – and it does – this also highlights the fact that in compiling this collection, the editors had a lot of raw material to choose from.

Which is where this book starts to run into trouble. In 2007, Columbia’s release of the latest, and most superfluous, in a long line of Dylan ‘best of’ collections – a 3 CD set thrillingly entitled ‘Dylan’ – provoked a chorus of well-deserved complaints, due to its unimaginative and unadventurous song selections. The problem is, Bob Dylan is an artist of such incredible range and depth that he’s really a genre unto himself. His back catalogue is brimming with so many masterpieces, and his career has encompassed so many phases, that he simply cannot be boiled down to one homogenous overview. If you’re putting together a Dylan compilation, there are dozens of songs that you cannot realistically opt to exclude; but the more of them you do include, the less space you have left to play with. It’s yet another indication of Dylan’s uniqueness that the same applies to his interviews, on a couple of levels. First off, there’re a lot of them to choose from; more problematically, many of the best ones will already be quite familiar to the core constituency of the book’s potential readership.

Jonathan Cott cites Virginia Woolf’s comment in ‘Orlando’ that “a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousand.” In Dylan’s case, it’s possible to identify a number of ways of categorising those teeming shoals of multifarious selves. One obvious distinction is between those ‘Dylans’ which are mere manifestations of one or other of Dylan’s ‘sides’ asserting itself (and are therefore in a state of almost perpetual flux), and those which are anchored in reasonably well-defined chronological segments of Dylan’s career. (This latter category includes the ‘Dylans’ depicted in Todd Haynes’s aptly titled film, ‘I’m Not There’, in which seven ‘Bob Dylans’ are played by a total of six actors.) If we drill down a bit further into this DNA of the Dylan mythology, we recognise that in terms of their respective impacts upon the pop-cultural gestalt, the subset of (historical) Dylans which roamed the Earth during the 1960s must be considered the most ‘essential’. So it’s natural for any anthology to give over a significant amount of space to what we might call the ‘canonical’ Dylan interviews; but there’s always a danger that in so doing, the compiler leaves himself little room for more left-field inclusions.

Another problem lies in the fact that it would not be hard to take the contrary view, i.e. to argue that as the decades rolled by, and Dylan’s critical and commercial clout declined, he actually became more, rather than less, interesting. In fact, once you start thinking in these terms, such an assertion begins to look irrefutable, if only because beneath the surface contours of each successive Dylan lies the palimpsest of all the preceding Dylans. In which case, this collection is balanced, to a large extent, in the wrong direction: of the 31 total pieces, twelve are from the 60′s, six from the 70′s, seven from the 80′s, four from the 90′s, and only two from this Millennium.

Dylan spent much of the Eighties and Nineties wandering in a sort of critical wilderness. The origins of this phenomenon are sufficiently complex and amorphous to defy any attempt at fixing a date to the moment the downward slide began. But any even halfway serious consideration of Dylan’s lost forgotten years would have to start with the trifecta of artistic and commercial disasters Dylan inflicted upon himself – and his audience – during the 1980s: (1) allowing his (frequently half-hearted) songs to be basted in a thick, gloopy syrup of instantly-dated Eighties production values; (2) embalming his heretofore incomparably fecund and unfettered imaginative artistry in po-faced, hair-shirted fundamentalist ‘Born Again’ Christianity; and (3) the gruesome spectacle of his anticlimactic on-stage implosion, in the drunken company of Rolling Stones Ron Wood and Keith Richards, in front of a worldwide TV audience numbering in the billions, at Live Aid in 1984.

If Dylan’s music became decidedly patchy during the 80’s, Dylan as a person was just as potentially interesting an interviewee as ever, if not more so, not just because he had instant access to all those still-fascinating earlier Dylans, but because of the particular nature of the volatile dynamic between Dylan and the media at the time. On one hand, certain segments of the media had changed since Dylan’s first encounters with the press in the early Sixties; or, rather, new segments had emerged which were (or aimed to be) more simpatico with Dylan – Rolling Stone magazine being a prime example. But when these people came to interview Dylan in the Eighties, they were shocked to discover that their musical, cultural, and political sensibilities – which Dylan had had a significant hand in forming – were jarringly incompatible with Dylan’s current worldview.

The ‘Dylan finds Jesus’ thing was not the whole story, by any means, but it was certainly at the heart of this problem. At the same time, given Dylan’s new-found, old-time religious fervour, and (what seemed to be) his concomitant swerve to the right politically, he might have seemed to be perfectly in synch with a decade in which America’s religious Right were very much in the ascendant. But anyone wanting to claim Dylan for their reactionary cause would have stood to have their hopes just as comprehensively dashed as those who expected him to still be flying the Sixties freak flag. What tied these two contradictory strands together – aside from the fact that neither latter-day hippie nor Reaganite Christer could count on Dylan’s support – was that once again Dylan found himself in the position of confounding all sides in a politically charged time, resenting and instinctively rejecting the idea that he might be taken as representative of, or even in tune with, the times.

The resultant misunderstandings and conflicts make for fascinating reading, and it’s a shame that so many Eighties interviews are conspicuously absent from this book. No collection of Dylan interviews is complete, surely, without the wonderfully frank and acerbic interview (fragmented though it may be) that Dylan gave to Cameron Crowe, for the Biograph box set booklet in 1985. Highlights include: Dylan letting off steam (somewhat disingenuously) about people who analyse his songs – “stupid and misleading jerks sometimes these interpreters are”; slamming pop stars who sell out to commercial interests: “You know things go better with Coke because Aretha Franklin told you so” (yes, this would become supremely ironic later, but that’s another story); and expressing his disaffection with the tenor of the times by predicting that future generations would look back upon the 1980s as “the decade of masturbation”. Most poignantly of all, he fulminates at length about the tendency of big business and the media to glom onto anything authentic or subversive, such as Rock ‘n’ Roll, in order to sanitise and neutralise it, to “choke-hold it and reduce it to silliness”:

“It’s like Lyndon Johnson saying ‘We shall overcome’ to a nation-wide audience, ridiculous… there’s an old saying, ‘If you want to defeat your enemy, sing his song’ and that’s pretty much still true.”

Was it a copyright issue, or just unfriendly rivalry, that excluded the fascinating interview Dylan did with ‘Spin’ magazine in 1985? Dylan treated Spin’s Scott Cohen to an amazing demonstration of his never-faltering ability to walk the finest of lines between sophistry and candour, between down-home folk wisdom and spaced-out kookiness, bemoaning media myths whilst simultaneously stoking their fires:

“A lot of people from the press want to talk to me, but they never do, and for some reason there’s this great mystery, if that’s what it is. They put it on me. It sells newspapers, I guess. News is a business. It really has nothing to do with me personally, so I really don’t keep up with it. When I think of mystery, I don’t think about myself. I think of the universe, like why does the moon rise when the sun falls? Caterpillars turn into butterflies? I really haven’t remained a recluse. I just haven’t talked to the press over the years because I’ve had to deal with personal things and usually they take priority over talking about myself. I stay out of sight if I can. Dealing with my own life takes priority over other people dealing with my life. I mean, for instance, if I got to get the landlord to fix the plumbing, or get some guy to put up money for a movie, or if I just feel I’m being treated unfairly, then I need to deal with this by myself and not blab it all over to the newspapers. Other people knowing about things confuses the situation, and I’m not prepared for that. I don’t like to talk about myself. The things I have to say about such things as ghetto bosses, salvation and sin, lust, murderers going free, and children without hope–messianic kingdom-type stuff, that sort of thing–people don’t like to print. Usually I don’t have any answers to the questions they would print, anyway.”

He also added a helpful extra layer of confusion to the already ambiguous sense of identity in ‘I & I’:

“It’s up to you to figure out who’s who. A lot of times it’s “you” talking to “you.” The “I,” like in “I and I,” also changes. It could be I, or it could be the “I” who created me. And also, it could be another person who’s saying “I.” When I say “I” right now, I don’t know who I’m talking about.”

And what’s with the blanket ban on anything from a little continent called ‘Europe’? (A note to pedants: no, a short telephone interview for ‘Guitar World’, reprinted in ‘Uncut’ magazine, doesn’t really count.) This anthology is unquestionably the poorer for omitting the fractious 1986 ‘Hearts of Fire’ Press Conference in London, where Dylan repeatedly skewers the unpleasantly relentless Philip Norman:

PN: Are you easily bored, Mr Dylan?

BD: I’m never bored!

PN: Have you any notion of how bored you’re gonna be doing this picture?

BD: Well… [grimace]… maybe you’ll be around.

To omit the ‘Hearts of Fire’ press conference may be regarded as a misfortune, but to ignore the associated BBC documentary, ‘Getting to Dylan’, begins to look like carelessness. Dylan unnerves the BBC’s interviewer, Christopher Sykes, by spending the entire meeting working on a pencil sketch of him – a perfect metaphor for the way Dylan is so determined to turn the interview dynamic on its head.

“Well, y’know, I’m not gonna say anything that you’re gonna get any revelations about…It’s not gonna happen,” he warns Sykes. But then he goes on to deliver a nifty little homily about his celebrity preventing him from being able to walk into an ordinary situation, like a pub at night, without his presence radically altering, and therefore excluding him from, its essential ordinariness. And how about this nugget of classic Dylan:

Sykes: We all have our favourite rebels I guess.

Dylan: Yeah! That must be it!

Sykes: Who do you admire?

Dylan: Who is there to admire now? Some world leader? Who? I could probably think of many people actually that I admire. There’s a guy who works in a gas station in LA – old guy. I truly admire that guy.

Sykes: What’s he done?

Dylan: What’s he done? He helped me fix my carburettor once.

Special mention is due, also, to a Sunday Times piece from 1984, which describes the obstacle course journalists often have to negotiate in order to secure a Dylan interview: “Meeting him involves penetrating a frustrating maze of ‘perhapses’ and ‘maybes’, of cautions and briefings – suggestive of dealing with fine porcelain.” Of course, we notice that in all such cases the journalist does eventually get his interview, and either he realises this all along, in which case he is having his readers on, or he has himself fallen for yet another Dylan media myth, one which Dylan himself consciously uses that journalist to help perpetuate.

If the tone of the Sunday Times piece is ever so slightly snide, it doesn’t wholly detract from Dylan’s intrinsic charm and intelligence, or prevent him from throwing out an indelible sound bite. Here’s Dylan, looking back on the 1960s, “with something approaching affection”:

“I mean, the Kennedys were great-looking people, man, they had style,” he smiles. “America is not like that anymore. But what happened, happened so fast that people are still trying to figure it out. The TV media wasn’t so big then. It’s like the only thing people knew was what they knew; then suddenly people were being told what to think, how to behave, there’s too much information. It just got suffocated. Like Woodstock – that wasn’t about anything. It was just a whole new market for tie-died t-shirts. It was about clothes. All those people are in computers now.” This was beyond him. he had never been good with numbers, and had no desire to stare at a screen. “I don’t feel obliged to keep up with the times. I’m not going to be here that long anyway. So I keep up with these times, then I gotta keep up with the 90s. Jesus, who’s got time to keep up with the times?”

Another English article which laments the precarious process of securing an audience with Dylan, is his 1989 ‘Q’ magazine interview, notable for having given birth to the phrase ‘Never-Ending Tour’ (though whether this now universally accepted term was coined by Dylan, as suggested in the piece, or by the journalist, Adrian Deevoy, is still disputed). In the run-up to the repeatedly-delayed meeting, Dylan’s manager warns Deevoy that Dylan doesn’t like publicity:

“He hates it. Doesn’t need it. He just turned down the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. He said they should get someone off the street and interview them about Bob Dylan. That’d be more interesting. They said, Great idea, Bob, but that won’t sell any magazines. He said, Exactly. Why should I prostitute myself to sell magazines for you?”

It’s great stuff, and all the better when you realise that all these stern warnings about Dylan’s refusal to play the media game are being issued in the context of Dylan preparing to do a cover story for a magazine.

The story of Dylan’s gradual fall from critical grace, and his wholly unexpected resurrection, will one day make for a fascinating book in its own right, perhaps entitled ‘That’s How It Is, When Things Disintegrate’. Many fans experienced an understandable degree of disenchantment with Dylan during the 1980s. After all, he seemed to be cheerfully abandoning many of the facets which had made him Dylan in the first place. But the obvious relish the media took in declaring him an irrelevancy simply reflected their delight that Dylan, whom they had landed many a body blow upon, yet had never quite managed to knock out, had now seemingly collapsed of his own accord. Seeing as he finally was down, they were determined to enjoy kicking him.

If Dylan’s wilderness years began gradually, the end of that era can be dated practically to the day, his Lazarene return heralded by the release of ‘Time Out of Mind’, in September 1997. Long-time Dylan fans watched, with a mixture of amusement and disgust, as the mainstream media executed a shamelessly abrupt volte-face. Suddenly, Dylan wasn’t a has-been any more! In fact, the media soon found themselves going to the other extreme, fostering a culture of unquestioning Dylan worship, meaning Dylan can now put out a relatively lacklustre album, such as ‘Modern Times’, and have it hailed as a masterpiece. This in itself has now given rise to a rash of articles in which critics decry other critics’ ridiculously uncritical Dylan fervour, all the while ignoring the fact that this is simply a result of the media’s own over-compensation for all those years they spent writing Dylan off. The extent to which Dylan himself must find all this amusing, is something we can only speculate about.

Dylan’s work having taken on a new lease of life, which he sustained and even surpassed on his next album, ‘Love & Theft’, his interviews also entered a new phase, becoming expansive and contemplative. Dylan’s old humour was intact, but in a new, mellower form. He now displayed a twinkly-eyed, wise old geezer-ish charm, and if he held any grudges over the shoddy treatment he’d routinely received from the press during the previous couple of decades, well, he was too polite to let it spoil the party.

It’s a great pity – which will perhaps be corrected in future editions – that Rolling Stone’s own 2006 Dylan cover story, beautifully written by the obviously Dylan-savvy Jonathan Lethem, was just too late to make the cut for inclusion here. Lethem’s piece begins with a classic Dylan line – “I don’t really have a herd of astrologers telling me what’s going to happen. I just make one move after the other, this leads to that” – and only gets better from there. We even get the marvellously self-reflexive spectacle of Dylan musing on Martin Scorsese’s ‘No Direction Home’ documentary, and its depiction of Dylan’s 1960s:

“You know, everybody makes a big deal about the Sixties. The Sixties, it’s like the Civil War days. But, I mean, you’re talking to a person who owns the Sixties. Did I ever want to acquire the Sixties? No. But I own the Sixties – who’s going to argue with me?”

We may well speculate that articles such as the ‘Spin’ piece, or some of the many missing British interviews, have been the victims of bias: pushed out to make room for more Rolling Stone pieces. Fair enough, but then why omit the short but significant David Fricke interview from 2001, in which Dylan explains why the original take of ‘Mississippi’ was held back from ‘Time Out Of Mind’:

Asked why he recut “Mississippi” for Love and Theft and produced the album himself, Dylan replies, “If you had heard the original recording, you’d see in a second. The song was pretty much laid out intact melodically, lyrically and structurally, but Lanois didn’t see it. Thought it was pedestrian. Took it down the Afro-polyrhythm route – multirhythm drumming, that sort of thing. Polyrhythm has its place, but it doesn’t work for knifelike lyrics trying to convey majesty and heroism.

“Maybe we had worked too hard on other things, I can’t remember,” Dylan continues, “but Lanois can get passionate about what he feels to be true. He’s not above smashing guitars. I never cared about that unless it was one of mine. Things got contentious once in the parking lot. He tried to convince me that the song had to be ‘sexy, sexy and more sexy.’ I know about sexy, too.”

To mark the release of his 2001 album, ‘Love & Theft’ – which included a re-recorded version of ‘Mississippi’ – Dylan gave an utterly compelling, often hilarious press conference in Rome, probably his most enjoyable and illuminating post-millennial press encounter, inexplicably missing from Rolling Stone’s collection. One particularly piquant moment comes when neither Dylan nor the assembled journalists are able to fill in the blank in the following Dylan lyric:

“Inside the museums, [ ? ] goes up on trial”

Dylan refuses to accept one journalist’s insistent claim that the missing word is ‘history’, but is also unable to supply a correction. After a five minute break, during which both parties have been able to discover that the correct lyric was, in fact, “Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial”, the journalist involved asks, “Isn’t it the same thing?” Dylan replies, “Similar. Similar.”

You could argue that space cannot be found for everything. But then again, there are a number of eyebrow-raising inclusions here. Two interviews by Karen Hughes is two too many; the best you could say about these is that one of them is very brief. Robert Hilburn, of the LA Times, is reliably uninspired, and it’s a shame that the book ends with one of his pieces, complete with risible section headings such as ‘His Constant Changes’ and ‘Exploring His Themes’, and in which Hilburn rehashes all the most well-worn nuggets of ancient Dylan history: is there a Dylan fan alive who needs to hear, ever again, the tale of Dylan’s pilgrimage to Woody Guthrie’s sickbed?

What’s worse is that Dylan is evidently quite comfortable with Hilburn, and would give some interesting answers, if only Hilburn would ask for them. Given the chance to discuss, in detail, that wild and woolly late-period Dylan classic, ‘Highlands’, and having suggested to Dylan that “there are a dozen lines in that song alone that it’d be interesting to have you talk about”, Hilburn alights on the one single line in the song, on the album – hell, maybe even in all of Dylan – that’s least in need of explanation, elucidation, elaboration or discussion of any kind:

“…how about the one with Neil Young? ‘I’m listening to Neil Young / I gotta turn up the sound / Someone’s always yelling, / Turn it down.’ Is that a tip of the hat or…?”

Some of the best moments here come when genuinely engaged interviewers get Dylan talking about a subject he actually feels like discussing, such as songwriting. One piece which certainly can lay uncontroversial claim to being ‘essential’, is Paul Zollo’s long, detailed Dylan interview, for ‘Song Talk’ magazine in 1991:

ST: Would it be okay with you if I mentioned some lines from your songs out of context to see what response you might have to them?

Dylan: Sure. You can name anything you want to name, man.

ST: “I stand here looking at your yellow railroad/in the ruins of your balcony… [from ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’].”

Dylan: Okay. That’s an old song. No, let’s say not even old. How old? Too old. It’s matured well. It’s like wine. Now, you know, look, that’s as complete as you can be. Every single letter in that line. It’s all true. On a literal and on an escapist level.

ST: And is it truth that adds so much resonance to it?

Dylan: Oh yeah, exactly. See, you can pull it apart and it’s like, “Yellow railroad?” Well, yeah. Yeah, yeah. All of it.

ST: “I was lying down in the reeds without any oxygen/I saw you in the wilderness among the men/I saw you drift into infinity and come back again…” [from "True Love Tends To Forget"].

Dylan: Those are probably lyrics left over from my songwriting days with Jacques Levy. To me, that’s what they sound like. Getting back to the yellow railroad, that could be from looking some place. Being a performer you travel the world. You’re not just looking off the same window everyday. You’re not just walking down the same old street. So you must make yourself observe whatever. But most of the time it hits you. You don’t have to observe. It hits you. Like “yellow railroad” could have been a blinding day when the sun was bright on a railroad someplace and it stayed on my mind. These aren’t contrived images. These are images which are just in there and have got to come out. You know, if it’s in there it’s got to come out.

Notice the way Dylan goes back to fill in more detail about the yellow railroad. Who could ever have expected Dylan to talk so openly, so straightforwardly, and about such specific details? By engaging Dylan on a subject he is genuinely passionate about, and which won’t open him up to any potential labelling or categorization, Zollo elicits one of the frankest, most revealing discussions of song-writing Dylan has ever granted.

Conversely, by repeatedly hammering away at a subject Dylan most definitely does not want to be open or honest about, Kurt Loder gets a classic Dylan interview of quite a different kind, for Rolling Stone in 1984. The world was still reeling from the shock announcement that Bob Dylan had undergone a conversion to Born-again Christianity – an event which, in the eyes of many Dylan fans, still lacks a serious rival for ‘most embarrassing occurrence in the history of the known universe’ – and Dylan was in full Fire & Brimstone mode:

KL: Do you still hope for peace?

BD: There is not going to be any peace.

KL: You don’t think it’s worth working for?

BD: No, it’s just gonna be a false peace. You can reload your rifle, and that moment you’re reloading it, that’s peace. It may last for a few years.

Cheery stuff. As he’s wont to do when badgered about his political views, Dylan refuses to even admit that he has any. When the admirably tenacious Loder tries to pin Dylan down on the assumed metaphorical subject of ‘Neighborhood Bully’ – a strong candidate for the coveted position of ‘Dylan song most Dylan fans love to hate’ – Dylan refuses to admit that the song is in any way political, “because if it were, it would fall into a certain political party. If you’re talking about it as an Israeli political song – even if it is an Israeli political song – in Israel alone, there’s maybe twenty political parties. I don’t know where that would fall, which party.”

“Definition Destroys”, Dylan once announced. And one tactic he has refined to perfection over the years is pretending to be unable to define, within context, the meaning of everyday words. Like a threatened squid puffing out a defensive cloud of ink, when pestered with attempted discussion of uncomfortable subjects, Dylan retreats into a dense fog of semantics. Here he is, telling Christopher Sykes that there’s nothing ‘political’ about ‘Masters of War’:

“I don’t know if even ‘Masters of War’ is a political song. Politics of what? If there is such a thing as politics, what is it politics of? Is it spiritual politics? Automotive politics? Governmental politics? What kind of politics? Where does this word come from, politics? Is this a Greek word or what? What does it actually mean? Everybody uses it all the time. I don’t know what the fuck it means.”

The other ‘P’ word that sets Dylan’s evasiveness gland pumping is, of course, ‘poet’. Like the Bible which he has so frequently mined for phantasmagoric imagery, Dylan’s combined historical body of published conversation can almost always be relied upon to provide a conflicting statement for any given interview quotation. And probably no subject makes this clearer than the age-old question of whether Dylan is, or considers himself, a poet. His interviews are riddled with contradictory claims about the meaning of the word ‘poetry’, and whether or not it applies to what he does. Robert Shelton reports Dylan claiming to be a poet ‘first and foremost’, and also denying any connection with the concept of ‘poet’. Asked by Nora Ephron if he considers himself primarily a poet, Dylan replies, “No… That word doesn’t mean any more than the word ‘house’”. In Zollo’s Song Talk interview, Dylan lapses into a long reverie on the meaning of ‘poet’, mainly focusing on what a poet isn’t: “Poets don’t drive cars. Poets don’t go to the supermarket. Poets don’t empty the garbage. Poets aren’t on the PTA…” And when he starts in on what poets do do, it’s still in fairly negative terms:

Dylan: The world don’t need any more poems, it’s got Shakespeare. There’s enough of everything. You name it, there’s enough of it. There was too much of it with electricity, maybe, some people said that. Some people said the light bulb was going too far. Poets live on the land. They behave in a gentlemanly way. And live by their own gentlemanly code. And die broke. Or drown in lakes. Poets usually have very unhappy endings. Look at Keats’s life. Look at Jim Morrison, if you want to call him a poet. Look at him. Although, you know, some people say that he really is in the Andes.

Zollo: Do you think so?

Dylan: Well, it never crossed my mind to think one way or another about it, but you do hear that talk. Piggyback in the Andes. Riding a donkey.

Go to Part Three: I Don’t Do Interviews >>

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“Human language is the cracked kettle

on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to,

when all the while

we long to move the stars to pity.”

You Never Give Me Your Money

‘You Never Give Me Your Money: The Battle for the Soul of The Beatles’

by Peter Doggett. Published by The Bodley Head Ltd; 400pp; £18.99

by John Carvill

Do we really need another Beatles book? There must be, what, hundreds of them by now, right? Actually, the tally isn’t that vague, because last year, what the world was waiting for was finally published: a book about Beatles books. The elaborately named W. Fraser Sandercombe’s indispensible compendium, ‘Beatle Books: From Genesis to Revolution’, lists over 1,400 books about the Beatles; and of course, that total is now out of date.

Despite this apparent superfluity, however, a more useful question would be: is there anything more to be said about the Beatles? The answer to that one is, unquestionably, yes. For one thing, the vast majority of Beatles books cover the same old ground, sometimes inaccurately, often superficially, and almost always with a total absence of the sort of passion, personality, and verve which so enlivened the Beatles’ music.

Another factor is the tendency of many Beatles biographies to sort of peter out towards the end of the group’s recording career, leaving the messy and summary-defying subject of their breakup relatively undocumented. Bucking this trend, Peter Doggett starts his story at roughly the point most Beatles books begin to tail off. Although the book’s title implies that it focuses solely on the convoluted and contentious business relationships that helped to break the group up, a more accurate (if less poetic) title might be, ‘The Beatles: What Happened Next’.

After a brief prologue, in which he employs an almost cinematically vivid style to describe Lennon’s murder at the pudgy hands of Mark David Chapman, Doggett’s savvy, tightly controlled narrative follows the Beatles from their Sgt. Pepper peak as “princes of pop culture”, through the edifice-rupturing death of Brian Epstein, their last days at Abbey Road, the “agonising corrosion of 1969”, chequered solo careers, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions, the Anthology series, and so on; all the way up to the recent, long-anticipated release of their remastered CDs.

The story is rich in ironies. Although Apple Corps, the Beatles’ overall holding company, had been dreamt up as a way of avoiding tax, it quickly “became a sketch for utopia”, offering what Paul McCartney described as a kind of “Western Communism”. But this very soon warped into a “corporate prison which would sap their vitality and their willingness to survive, and prove to be inescapable long after the utopian fantasies had been forgotten.”

The Beatles issued an open invitation to any artists who wished to have their work released under the Apple banner, and somehow, incredibly, failed to anticipate the inevitable deluge which resulted. While hundreds of unopened demo tapes piled up in a dusty storeroom, urbane Beatles PR guru Derek Taylor presided over a culture which was more cannabanoid than corporate, a freewheeling enterprise whose cogs were oiled with plentiful inebriants.

Doggett quotes Taylor himself: “The weirdness was not controlled at the start. You can’t control weirdness, anyway; weirdness is weirdness.” Visitors to Taylor’s office could not realistically expect to transact anything resembling the conventional notion of ‘business’, but they could always be confident of a ready supply of “the finest dope and whisky”. One publisher remembers a meeting with Taylor:

“The entire room was a haze of cannabis. It was ridiculous – you could hardly breathe. I asked Derek for some new photos of the Beatles, and he wandered around the room in a daze, and eventually gave me some – which turned out to be the same ones I’d given them. But that was what Apple was like.”

Haemorrhaging money at a phenomenal rate, Apple also saw its salubrious premises become a sort of way station for a variety of not-quite-desirable passers-through. Anyone who seemed to have ‘the right vibe’ was welcomed like a long lost brother. Now and then, the office would even suffer a full-on invasion of Hells Angels or, worse still, the Hare Krishnas.

Subsidiaries and sub-divisions began sprouting like mushrooms, until there were as many as 33 distinct companies “sheltered under the Apple umbrella”. Always the shrewdest Beatle, Paul McCartney was the first to realise that he was now “part-owner of an organisation that wasn’t organised”, but by that stage, there wasn’t much he could do about it. Not only that, but McCartney himself was not immune to Apple’s prevailing culture of insouciant largesse. Mal Evans, the Beatles’ gentle giant of a road manager, describes a typical Apple board meeting:

“We had a meeting to set up Apple, and we were all sitting round this big table eating sandwiches and drinking. Paul turns round to me and says, ‘What are you doing these days, Mal, while we’re not working?’ ‘Not too much, Paul.’ He says, ‘Well, now you’re president of Apple Records.’ Thank you very much!”

Another painful irony was that the Beatles had envisaged Apple as a way of allowing artists to focus on art, without worrying about business matters; but they soon found that their endless business and legal entanglements prevented them from focusing on being Beatles. During the band’s final months together, as their byzantine legal disputes and escalating interpersonal recriminations began to strangle their creativity, the happy hippy veneer struggled to conceal the much less groovy reality underneath.

There was much unpleasantness. Yoko Ono became the spectre at the Beatles’ feast, omnipresent and universally despised. Whatever your view of Yoko Ono, it’s sobering to reflect on just how much racist abuse she was subjected to, in the middle of the supposedly love-drenched Sixties, by Beatles fans and by the band themselves. At one point, McCartney sent Lennon a typewritten note which read, “You and your Jap tart think you’re hot shit.”

Probably the heaviest irony of all is the incongruity between the Beatles’ late-period peace and love anthems, and the wars of attrition they were waging on each other at the time. In between recording “conciliatory ballads” such as ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Let it Be’, the Beatles were more likely to be focused on court cases than chord changes. Conversely, in the midst of some of their most rancorous disputes, they occasionally managed to set aside their differences, as when “Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison were able to devote almost twelve hours to recording the most choirboy-perfect harmonies of their entire career, on Lennon’s composition, ‘Because’.”

The group’s numerous legal hassles stretched on for years and years, turning the Beatles into the Jarndyce & Jarndyce of Rock n Roll. There were law suits between Beatles, between the Beatles, Apple and EMI, and, later, between Apple Corp and Apple Computer; but the most impactful legal disputes related to Allen Klein, the tough-talking American manager of the Rolling Stones, who had set his sights on managing the Beatles and, with Epstein dead, finally found them vulnerable enough to succumb to his unctuous advances.

Championed by Lennon – with whom Klein had bonded by cannily playing up his ‘working class’ credentials, as well as the fact that, like Lennon, he had lost his mother at an early age – Klein gradually won over all the Beatles except McCartney, who wanted his soon-to-be father-in-law, Lee Eastman, to manage their business affairs. This schism became a major factor in the demise of the group. Ultimately, Klein ‘got’ the Beatles, but they would not continue being ‘The Beatles’ for much longer. “As Apple aide Tony Bramwell noted, ‘Allen Klein had achieved his ambition of managing the Beatles, but in so doing, he blew them apart.’”

Klein, who Derek Taylor described as having “all the charm of a broken lavatory seat”, is usually depicted as a grotesque, thuggish figure, a cross between Richard Nixon and Al Capone. But Doggett seems unusually equivocal on the matter, de-emphasising Klein’s more negative aspects, and pointing out the deals Klein brokered which benefited the Beatles (and himself) financially. If Klein was really so bad, Doggett asks, why would three quarters of the Beatles trust him? Well, perhaps they weren’t seeing clearly at the time.

Brian Epstein had had his faults, but he was honest, well-intentioned, and regarded the Beatles as family. He had relieved them of all manner of commercial considerations, and acted as an essential ‘buffer’ between John and Paul. Essentially, Epstein had insulated them from reality. After his death, the Beatles resembled “closeted princes faced with a high-street vending machine”. They could often be simultaneously innocent and cunning. Harrison and Lennon seem to have been particularly naïve about money (not something usually said about the pecuniarily sensitive Harrison). Prone to “imagining that they operated in some magical dimension where their actions had no consequences”, they were able to “maintain their friendship with Klein and simultaneously work for his overthrow – a talent for duplicity that might have brought them success in Caesar’s Rome.” Even when they were engaged in a series of legal battles with Klein, they used him as a sort of human cash-point, tapping him for a loan any time they needed a chunk of ready cash – often so they could ‘lend’ it to an impoverished friend. At one point, Harrison and Lennon, between them, owed Klein nearly $500,000 in cash. Lennon’s mismanagement of his own money meant that when he and Yoko came to purchase their apartment in New York’s Dakota building, he had to raise funds by selling his Ascot mansion, Tittenhurst Park, to Ringo.

Over the years, Klein and the Beatles fired volleys of law suits at each other in much the same way that rival Chicago gangsters used to exchange bursts of gunfire. There were sufficient numbers of legal actions, on both sides of the Atlantic, to keep five law firms in full-time work. At one stage, the Beatles received a much-needed influx of cash, due to the spectacular success of the so-called ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ compilation albums. These collections had been conceived, and compiled, by Allen Klein, yet their success provided the funds for the Beatles to continue pursuing him through the courts.

Doggett does an admirable job of making a detailed description of business and legal intricacies seem reasonably interesting, but after a while it can get a bit wearying in its relentlessness. If reading about this threatens to be a slog, we can only imagine what it must have been like to live through. The situation was so bad at one stage, says Doggett , that “none of the four Beatles could go out in public without the risk of being served with a writ.”

Often, it was the little niggling details which caused the most damage. At a crucial juncture in Klein’s battle to gain control of the Beatles, with McCartney still lobbying hard for the job to go to Lee Eastman, the more gentlemanly Eastman sent his son, John Eastman, along to a meeting, calculating that the Beatles might respond better to someone younger and less stuffy. Naturally, Lennon took this as an unforgivable act of haughty disdain on Eastman’s part. And Lennon’s famous refusal to “be fucked around by men in suits sitting on their fat arses in the City”, led directly to the collapse of negotiations which might have prevented the Beatles’ song-writing catalogue passing out of their ownership, a situation that persists to this day.

Finally, almost a decade after Epstein’s death had paved the way for Klein to enter the Beatles’ lives, their long-simmering feud came to a head. Lennon, Harrison, and Klein were due to attend a High Court hearing in London in January 1977. McCartney wasn’t involved, because he had refused to sign the management contracts under dispute, and Ringo had escaped because he was spending that year in tax exile. Harrison and Lennon dreaded the court appearance. “It’s going to be awful if it does come to court,” said Harrison, “a fiasco and a nightmare, because it’s going to be open to the public and the press.” Lennon, by that stage having moved to New York, was reluctant to return to Britain under such unedifying circumstances. He had always imagined any homecoming to be “a scene of triumph mixed with sweet nostalgia.” With neither man having the stomach for it, they called upon the services of “an unlikely saviour: Yoko Ono.”

After a weekend’s negotiations between Ono and Klein at the Plaza hotel in New York, an agreement was reached whereby Klein would relinquish all claim to any involvement with the Beatles, with all outstanding grievances now being considered settled, for a one-off payment, to Klein, of just over $5 million. With characteristic flamboyance, Klein issued a statement in which he praised “the tireless efforts and Kissinger-like negotiating brilliance of Yoko Ono.” Klein’s five million came “from the collective Apple pot earned by the four Beatles up to September 1974”. If this did not sit well with Paul McCartney – since he had done everything possible to avoid getting involved with Klein in the first place – neither did the subsequent revelation that Lennon and Ono had based their decisions on when and how to negotiate, on Tarot card readings.

Out of the frying pan, into the fire: in 1978, not long after the Beatles’ “seemingly endless” struggle to shake themselves free of Allen Klein had finally succeeded, “Apple managing director Neil Aspinall learned that a young computer company in California were using the Apple name and a fruity logo.” The resultant legal dispute lasted even longer than the battle with Klein, eventually being resolved in an out –of-court settlement in 2007:

“Apple Corps agreed to cede ownership of all the Apple trademarks to Apple Computer, who in return would license the relevant names back to the Beatles’ company. Forty years after it was founded and launched as an alternative to the capitalist system, Apple Corps now only existed by permission of a corporation – which, it could be argued, had kept closer to the Beatles’ original philosophy than the group had done themselves.”

Quite how it could be argued that Apple Computer adheres (or even aspires) to some sort of hippy idealism, Doggett does not explain. Another oddity is his speculation that Paul McCartney must have witnessed Beatles biographer Philip Norman declaring, on US breakfast TV, that “John Lennon was the Beatles” – otherwise, McCartney’s loathing for Norman’s book, ‘Shout! The True Story of the Beatles’, is “unfathomable”. This despite the fact that ‘Shout!’ is so unmistakably biased in favour of Lennon. Stranger still is Doggett’s defence of McCartney’s attempts to have his and Lennon’s song-writing credits changed from ‘Lennon/McCartney’ to ‘McCartney/Lennon’.

Most striking of all, however, is Doggett’s treatment of Alexis Mardas, the Greek electronics ‘expert’ known to all as ‘Magic Alex’. If Doggett is ambivalent on Allen Klein, he seems to be mounting a concerted campaign to rehabilitate the rather tattered reputation of Magic Alex. Doggett accurately states that Alex is “often dismissed” as “a ‘television repairman’ of no technical ability”, but also claims that Alex was “recognised as a scientific prodigy as a teenager”, and seems to feel that he has been unfairly maligned. Alex’s technical skills were put to the test when he was contracted to build a ‘state of the art’ recording studio for the Beatles, in the basement of Apple’s Savile Row headquarters. The result was declared unworkable by George Martin and his EMI engineers. George Harrison called it “the biggest disaster of all time”. Alex’s studio had to be ripped out, and replaced with equipment from EMI. According to Doggett, however, Alex now claims that the studio which was so mocked at the time was only a prototype, and that it had been transferred from Alex’s workshop to Savile Row before it was ready. What’s odd is that Doggett appears to be giving equal weight to the versions of this story presented by George Martin and Magic Alex, saying that “Whatever the truth, portable recording equipment had to be ordered and installed”. But Alex’s account of the matter is based on the assertion that “someone from Apple or EMI broke into his Apple Electronics workshop and transported his work-in-progress to the Savile Row basement”. How could any credence possibly be given to such a claim?

On the other hand, the fact that matters such as these continue to be disputed and debated, points up another reason why books like this are still needed: the exact details of why the Beatles split have yet to be conclusively established. Klein was a big factor, as was Yoko Ono’s irreversible penetration of the Beatles’ inner circle; but if there was a ‘battle for the soul of the Beatles’, then that battle was fought between the four Beatles themselves. Despite their talent, acclaim, and success, each man suffered mightily from his own set of seemingly ineradicable insecurities. This led to a highly complex dynamic within what Doggett calls the group’s “delicate internal framework”, leading to its collapse when exposed, after Epstein’s death, to external pressures.

Many bands go on for far longer than they should, sputtering to a halt and leaving a trail of increasingly lacklustre albums in their wake. When the Beatles split, they still had plenty of creative fuel left in their tank, and there’s no doubt that, had they continued, the world would now have dozens more Beatles songs to revel in. Looking back on the final days, Paul McCartney reflected that, whatever the downsides, at least the Beatles had stayed true to their intention to “always leave them laughing”.

Even at the time of Lennon’s murder in 1980, the group were still “caught in a claustrophobic web of financial obligations”, and – at least in terms of their continuing business dealings – Yoko Ono effectively became a member of the group whose break-up she is often accused of causing. Ono’s “elevation to ersatz Beatle status presented a baffling conundrum to Lennon’s former colleagues”. As the years have gone by, Yoko’s power has increased significantly, to the extent that Paul McCartney worries what may happen to his legacy if the “seemingly indestructible” Yoko outlives him and goes on, “guiding the Beatles deep into the 21st Century.”

This is an elegantly constructed, well-written and – yes – necessary book. Doggett is clearly a Beatles fan (and confirms this in an afterword), yet he doesn’t take sides, and there are large swathes of the narrative in which nothing positive is said about the flawed individuals who came together to form the perfect pop group. The story of the four men who brought such pleasure to many millions is often tinged with deep sadness.

Dhani Harrison said, “people never got over the Beatles”, which is true. But then neither did the Beatles. Although no individual Beatle’s post-Beatles career was entirely without merit, nothing any of them did could ever hope to measure up to what they achieved together. While the world continued to wait for the Beatles reunion that would surely come one day, the individual members of the band did their best to establish themselves as separate artistic entities, people for whom ‘The Beatles’ was just one of things they did, long ago.

John Lennon was the Beatle who displayed the most tenacious determination to out-run his own shadow, trying to convince us (and himself) that he didn’t ‘believe in Beatles’ any more. His infamous 1970 Rolling Stone interview with Jann Wenner was, says Doggett, his “last great piece of concept art”. It “delivered the death knell for the whole fantasy that would become known as the Sixties.”

“Being a Beatle nearly cost me my life”, Lennon wrote, in a diary entry which was published by Yoko, after his death. If he’d said that while he was still alive, it would have sounded melodramatic. But of course, it now seems eerily prophetic.

“The dream’s over”, Lennon told Jann Wenner, “and I have personally got to get down to so-called reality.” Instead, so-called reality caught up with John Lennon – and, by extension, with the Beatles – outside the Dakota building in New York, in December 1980. Doggett reserves some of his most finely balanced prose for the description of this, the moment when the dream really did end:

“As he neared the cubicle where the night guard was sitting, a voice called from the shadows: ‘Mr Lennon?’ Then there was only a barrage of noise that echoed through his head. He stumbled forward a few paces, out of the instinct to survive, and fell to the ground. A torrent of blood, fragments of bone and fleshy tissues surged in his chest and was propelled out of his mouth, and oozed from the wounds torn in his torso and neck. His face was grotesquely squashed against the floor. There was a gurgle, which might have been a word lost in the ebb of his life force, and slowly his body rolled onto its side, having served its final purpose. Then the scene reels away, as if in horror, to a world from which John Lennon would always be absent.”