In the surroundings that revolve around The Beatles history, none is more fascinating than their time in Hamburg. Setting off that, author Dan Greenberger immerses his narrator and chief character Alan Levy into an alternate universe where Levy delves into the dirty, foul and fascinating period in those all-to-real hard times.
The Boys Next Door (Appian Way Press, 2020) is a coming-of-age story – albeit one that involves copious amounts of booze, drugs and sex. In this situation, Greenberger lets loose the unhinged, rogue-like characters of 1960 Beatles that we’ve come to know – all very un-PC in language, attitude and social interaction. And with Levy, migrating from the comforts of the US, he quickly realizes his standing here is on shaky ground.
Levy sets out as a post-graduate student from Columbia University with hopes for higher education in Hamburg. Nearly immediately we see him set down in that Beatle-y familiar hellhole: living in squalid conditions in the Bambi Kino, arranged by the thoroughly unlikable Bruno Koschmider and being awoken at night constantly by this band he has yet to meet. By casting Levy as an American Jew, we know right off the bat where this is headed in humor: off-color descriptions from Levy’s first-person account on the German people (and vice versa on the anti-Semitism still prevalent in post WWII Germany), the temptations of the Reeperbahn red-light district and through letters back home, we get an idea that he believes he is ‘all that’ as a poet and serious artist. Until he meets Astrid Kirchherr.
As he becomes smitten with the cooler than cool photographer, he manages to finally meet his next-door neighbors: John (all potty-mouth and pusher-of-buttons), Paul (all touchy-feely-huggy), George (all puppy-eyed and young), Pete (all nothing) and most importantly Stuart, who becomes the object of Astrid’s affection and the thorn in the side of Levy’s pursuit of her.
We get an eye-opening sense of the carnal atmosphere and near lethal encounters that The Beatles endured during that first club run. Author Greenberger weaves well-known scenes: Astrid’s photographing the band, the revolutionary haircut and the introduction of Klaus Voormann and Jurgen Vollmer with the fictionalized characters that showcase Levy’s interaction as a student which makes way for a dive down a rather unexpected path.
As posed here Levy works his way into The Beatles inner circle, hanging with them (in and out of the clubs), fantasizing that he and Astrid are a couple and using this time period to showcase the harsh realities of how life can change so dramatically – from promising student and aspiring poet to beer-guzzling, pill-popping hanger-on willing to throw away a pretty good life and become one of them. For good measure, Greenberger exits the story with Levy hastily leaving via the real-life incidents that led to The Beatles deportation and wondering about his and the band’s future; for good or bad is left up to the reader.
I found the writing style alternatingly engaging and repulsive and by repulsive, I mean the transformation that took place in Levy’s character – not the way he visualized but certainly crafted by his involvement with the group and their lifestyle. Not everyone who orbited around The Beatles in real-life at this time escaped without damage and Greenberger’s take was fairly point on without being overly maudlin or drama filled.
I also found his letter-writing to friends and family back home hysterical. Without giving away a spoiler, a near-to-the-end note composed as a bit of farewell to his best friend back in NYC had me howling at the reveal.
Appreciative of the period narrative, the immersion into the seediness that ultimately was The Beatles real growth as a unit and an unusual perspective that involved clever character dialogue…
I give this book 4 out of 4 beetles.