In time for the 40th anniversary of “Paperback Writer” comes this thousand-pages-give-or-take-a-few, overblown account of the already obsessively chronicled Fab Four.
The Beatles come in for some rough treatment, à la Albert Goldman, at the hands of Spitz (Shoot Out the Lights, 1995, etc.), who seems taken only with the always affable Ringo Starr. To his credit, he gets the origins of Ringo’s nickname right, something many of the 500-plus books on the Beatles haven’t managed. To his credit, too, he works with a broad range of reference materials, correcting the record at points, amplifying it at others, and here and there making news: It may surprise many readers, for one thing, to know that the Sgt. Pepper sessions were energized by cocaine, and to learn of the band’s ruthlessness in conquering the Liverpool music scene—which included stealing Ringo from a rival group. Still, Spitz stacks up demerits. Like Goldman, he seems to work from a deep dislike for John Lennon, who was, by most accounts, nowhere near as demonic as Spitz has it; the dislike deepens when Yoko Ono, self-absorbed dragon lady, comes into the picture (“she jumped into the smoky spotlight, clutching the mike with both hands and screeching into it like a wounded animal”). Of Lennon the drug-dependent bad boy, Spitz writes: “With his painfully thin frame, gaunt face, stringy, unkempt hair, and bloodshot eyes, John looked demonic, like a zombie had claimed his tormented soul.” Paul McCartney and George Harrison have it easier; they’re merely egomaniacal and spoiled. Coupled with pet peeves, a tin ear (do gargoyles caper?) and some curious notions (that, for one, Harrison professed “traditional Christianity”), this obese book seems less the “definitive biography” Spitz proclaims than another exercise in ax-grinding for profit.
For completists, a necessity. Others will want to consult Hunter Davies’s The Beatles, which, though 38 years old and problematic in itself, is a pleasure to read.