“Went to the crossroads and sold his soul to the devil to play the blues.”
These are the things I had heard over the years, but not being into the blues, I had no idea who Robert Johnson was…and this lead me to buy Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson by Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow last week and read it in 3 days. It was published in 2021 and just 270 pages (without including bibliography and index).
I’ll admit, I’ve never been a fan of the blues, though a lot of people will say it’s the roots of rock n roll. But after spending years hearing about a mysterious blues artist from the Mississippi Delta that was so good, people said he had to have gotten his skills by hoodoo or the Devil, the only way to find out for myself was to find the best book written about him. And from this list of awards this book has won, I think this one is it.
The Mississippi Delta wasn’t an easy place to grow up in the 1920’s and 30’s. Most black families were sharecroppers working for plantation owners. On the weekends, though, these hard working people would find their release at balls or jukes (without or with alcohol, respectively), dancing and listening to music. This is where Robert Johnson was born in 1911. But he wanted no part of farming, he just wanted to play music. He’d sneak out and sit outside jukes at night just to hear the music. At 11, he built himself a diddly bow on the side of the family shack (strings connected between 2 nails on the side of a house), just so he could play. Not long afterward, his sister bought him his first guitar and from that moment on, he study and played wherever he could, learning from anyone who could teach him.
How good was Robert Johnson? Listen to Dead Shrimp Blues….a song that people have insisted there was no way one man was playing…there had to be 2 guitar players, they said. But there wasn’t….this was Robert Johnson:
Robert Johnson loved women almost as much his guitar. Families would hide their daughters when they saw Robert coming…”He plays that devil music!” He would be married twice and widowed twice by the age of 25. And just when the time had come for him to become a major musical force at age 27, he was poisoned by the husband of one of his lovers.
Did he sell his soul at the crossroads? Well, this book sets out to find out the true story behind this legend…a man who influenced Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin. Well researched, the authors have found more details about this man of mystery…a man who they say would turn his back when playing his guitar, so no one could see how he formed his chords. Now, it’s your turn to decide…
As Beatles literature goes, one can never fully appreciate the care and for want of a better word research, that goes into what is termed ‘fan fiction.’ All the more surprising that an entire full-length series with a strong, funny and multi-layered female lead can leave The Beatles in a secondary narrative!
Author Kal Smagh has done a fine job integrating a fact-based historical narrative, while weaving a mystery/alternate universe character through A Cozy Beatles Mystery Series (independently published, 2021). What I found most entertaining through this 4-volume series (including a short story) was the completely formed universe that we know, and love of The Beatles wrapped around a 60-year storyline that – to be honest – really encompasses the main character, the down-to-earth, disarmingly charming Helen Spencer.
What begins in 1962 Liverpool as Helen begins her journey with Freda Kelly and Brian Epstein, winds it way through the decades as we come to see her lifelong friendship (and employment) with the band expand worldwide. Smagh’s imaginative storytelling is actually told in flashbacks for the entire series – as an elderly Helen (retired and living in Florida) is recounting her experiences to a character we as readers are not quite sure is entirely forthright in their intentions!
As individual ‘stories,’ each holds its own: Helen’s crime-solving beginnings are told in ‘Larceny in Liverpool,’ and given a short nudge in ‘Punching Up,’ then gather steam in ‘Mayhem for Her Majesty,’ ‘The Beverly Hills Burglary’ and finally conclude in ‘The Beatle Car Bandits.’ Smagh has interwoven timely characters and locations pivotal to the band’s story, while taking liberties with their dialogue and interactions.
I can say I found Helen’s story fascinating as Smagh spends a great deal of time with her and her family – and that is a tentative warning for those of you out there that are hardcore fan-fic readers. His series really hangs on Helen and her sleuthing abilities and how certain real-life elements – from the Cavern Club to London to California to Oxford University – can be stretched to fit nearly the entire history of the band’s lifespan – and beyond.
What is also crucial is to the ability to suspend disbelief in certain situations, yet find Helen’s hilarious observations and determined mindset (which is key in linking this series together) believable in this Beatles AU. What I will say – and this is a little tough with no spoilers – is that the narrative is poignantly written and very sweet as Smagh brings us to the present day. I find that in this age of cynicism and social media bashing, the ability to convey a fictional character’s travails (sometimes not altogether perfect and with hints of self-doubt and a smattering of guts) with the real-life Beatles – without graphic blandishment or judgmental abandonment – is refreshing and to be honest, entertaining and readable.
I recommend getting all 4 books (including the short story) for the complete picture and then giving the series 4 out of 4 beetles!
Note: Amy Hughes and Jenn are presenting to you another duel review of a recently published Beatles book.
Amy Hughes’ review:
While the world of academic studies continues past the history of The Beatles’ lifespan, I will never tire of the deep dive (yes, an overused term, I admit) with regards to those whose research and passion go above and beyond the usual biographies and fact-checking in the world they helped to define during those 10 glorious years.
Author Ken Campbell has given an intriguingly personal, yet historical account of the band in that crucial decade with authority and dare I say, love. The Beatles and the 1960s: Reception, Revolution and Social Change (Bloomsbury, 2021) captures what few volumes are able to do: give those details that are already familiar to the devoted and yet place these memories inside a contextual, readable and relatable narrative, not usual for this style of book.
Campbell, as a noted scholar and historian, has been able to pluck out the familiar anecdotes and incidents intrinsic to The Beatles intensely devoted fans, yet crucially place all of this into graphic perspective. I didn’t just find this a dry timetable of distant facts and stories, but rather a highly important historical treatise, gathering steam from Kennedy to Kennedy, from Profumo to Paris.
Most importantly, Campbell has woven many interviews from male and female fans who lived through the Beatles in real time, especially as the songs were released then. How they reacted, how they changed as people, what they decided to aspire to in their life… their words are quite honest, insightful and at times humorous when juxtaposed against some of the more serious situations that were rumbling around the world during The Beatles musical lifespan.
While most of their early days were void of political commentary (much of it culled at the behest of manager Brian Epstein), as the decade wore on (and the band’s personal fortunes, both personally and musically changed), the group were able to divulge highly individualistic comments, ranging from Lennon’s famous Christ comment to McCartney’s LSD revelation and Harrison’s stance on Transcendental Meditation and his love of India.
Of course what is most important to The Beatles legacy is the music and how it became the yardstick for which all others were measured. Campbell does a superb job of invoking the “which album is better” debate (‘Revolver’ vs. ‘Sgt. Pepper’) by suggesting that each – only separated by a year’s time – are highly influenced by each of The Beatles contributions and experiences. While the aspect of their stoppage in touring surely impacted the sound of ‘Pepper,’ which had the benefit of time, money and energy, one can see how it can also be viewed as dated, closed and vintage in many respects. Of its time in 1967, it is absolutely certain. Viewed from afar, however (and with Lennon’s pithy recollections of lifting off from newspapers and LSD-inspired laziness juxtaposed to McCartney’s workaholic attitude), it suffers greatly. ‘Revolver’ on the other hand (and near to the ‘White Album’ in a sense) has aged much better.
Taken with the charged and scarred political atmosphere, 1968’s ‘White Album’ and more pointedly The Rolling Stones’ ‘Beggars Banquet’ heralded a coming of age for both bands. But it also signaled the change in personal gain for both fans and the bands themselves. The gap between radicalism and protest coming from Lennon and Jagger seemed somehow removed from reality. And while Campbell’s interviewees were handed a newer version of both, laced with the mature viewpoints, inner soul seeking, and mouthy call-to-arms, one began to wonder if these ‘pop stars’ really understood their audience anymore.
As 1969 came over the horizon, the political juggernaut that was Richard Nixon was coming into play and conservatism on both sides of the Atlantic are covered neatly by Campbell as the 60s come to a close. As is well-documented, The Beatles time in January was taken up with the ‘Get Back/Let It Be’ sessions which segued into separate career pursuits, both musically and personally. McCartney and Lennon’s marriages in March were the focal point of the group’s splintering dynamic, though not entirely the cause of tensions mounting within the band. And while managerial efforts were thumping across the table (also well-documented from those times), the real maelstrom of publicity was whether the group would lash themselves down at Abbey Road and produce an album.
While the namesake studio and album seemed to signal a return to the classic group sound, it was also a foreshadow of life events to come. While Lennon and Ono had used their marriage to cajole world leaders to seek peace and McCartney retreated to home, farm and studio production of others, most of the summer of ‘69 was taken up by other sounds: the Stones’ Brian Jones’ death, Apollo 11, Woodstock, Chappaquiddick, Vietnam and the notorious Manson murders. In short, an upheaval that signaled an end to the ‘Summer of Love’ and yet gave growth to the four members, most pointedly the one soul who had come across as the most troubled and withdrawn Beatle: George Harrison.
His two most poignant (and to this day) most popular compositions – ‘Something’ and ‘Here Comes The Sun’ – were the jewels that shimmered on each side of the album. While Lennon’s ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ was a thick chunk of vocals, synthesizers, knotty bass lines with a droning abrupt ending, Side Two’s medley from mostly half-finished songs was brought together beautifully with the support and wisdom of George Martin.
The autumn of 1969 – while ‘Abbey Road’ was showing it’s grandeur – had the curiosity of the ‘Paul Is Dead’ spectre mixed into the fold. As Campbell points out, all the signs were (supposedly) there as he generously gives way to the acres of coverage that were posted by not only fans but serious rock writers. McCartney defiantly stonewalled the entire debacle, only to be tracked down in Scotland and resigned to quote that he was in fact, still alive as Campbell delves into the relationship between fans relationships with a band like The Beatles and their emotional reactions to breakups and death.
This mindset quickly became apparent as those January 1969 sessions would soon become the band’s swansong. As we have recently witnessed, that time period is covered with misinformation and hazy recollections of sour relationships. In accordance with the publication of this book, Campbell can only cover what was available as far as the film and album, both of which suffered greatly in the wake of the public announcement that the band was no more by May 1970.
The dissolution of the group has – and Campbell quotes Lennon directly – been compared to a divorce. While the tightest pairing of Lennon & McCartney would draw the strongest connotation, the entire band were moving in different directions, both personally and musically. As Campbell notes in Joshua Wolf Shenk’s ‘The Powers of Two’ he quite rightly identifies reasons for a split in partnerships: wedges (where something comes between two people) and stumbles (unable to clear obstacles in the path). No one thing or incident defined the break, not Yoko Ono’s presence or the disagreements on Allen Klein as a business manager. Everyone had simply grown up. As had their fans.
Some fans did not simply care about The Beatles and their influence during the 60s; they came to view them as a cultural phenomenon, one that changed their lives forever. As Campbell concludes, the 1970s began with growing cynicism and doubt. The Beatles would splinter into their solo careers and as we know, Lennon would rage with his ‘Plastic Ono Band’ release, McCartney would be the self-styled DIY with ‘McCartney’, Starr would go nostalgia with ‘Sentimental Journey and Harrison – he would emerge from the ashes and fly the highest at the start with ‘All Things Must Pass’ and ‘The Concerts for Bangladesh.’
The 1970s would give more of the four – in spurts of grandeur or depths of questioning – but the one overriding question was who would succeed them. Campbell puts forth with some intrigue Steely Dan and of course The Who and The Stones. Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd are also a strong consideration and even The Police, Elton John (not thru coincidence I may add!) and even Bruce Springsteen.
However no one person or collection of people or movement or genre would replace The Beatles. As Campbell cannot ignore Lennon’s death in 1980 (and how could that not be ignored), we’ve come to appreciate that short time that they did change us for the better.
One of the very first things I noticed when I thumbed through the book was the small font. This obviously isn’t an author error but none the less, it did hinder my ability to read for long stretches of time without having to rest my eyes. Maybe they were aiming for the under 50 crowd? Well, that’s not me!
Second thing that became a standout issue…HOWEVER. Yes, the word ‘however’. I was only on page 58 when I realized the word kept appearing again and again. Since Amy had a .pdf copy of the book, I sent her a text and asked her to do a search on the word ‘however’. She shot back with a total of 199 times does the word appear in 226 pages. Eegads! This always makes me wonder…who is editing the book if I’m the one noticing these things? Is this another publisher issue or author issue?
Twelve more pages into the book, I came across the following sentence:
Without the music, it is safe to say Beatlemania would not have existed; if people did not like what they heard on the radio or the Ed Sullivan show, people would have quickly lost interest. – Page 70
I’m just going to leave that there and let you judge for yourself. Needless to say, I didn’t make it much further…only to page 102. It’s not that it’s a bad book…it’s a scholarly study. Not my bag. Ken does a great job of sourcing out his material, and I was actually happy to see a couple friend’s books among those listed in the extensive Notes and Bibliography (they take up 1/6 of the book). I just didn’t feel like I was reading anything new. HOWEVER, a newbie to the Beatles world may find this all very interesting. And for that reason…
It’s taken me a couple days of thought to figure out how I want to approach reviewing this book. That’s not a bad thing…and it’s not necessarily a good thing. I can’t even think of what category to put this book in…autobiography? self-help? enlightenment? Let’s just go with ‘all of the above.’
Jen Croneberger knew from a very young age that she wanted to write and publish a book and finally in her 30s she got around to achieving that goal. The book is a collection of 60 posts from her personal blog where she explores and examines her life experiences from the past and present.
Is this a feel good book? Yes, but it also made me angry at times. I’d put it down for days and eventually pick it back up again and only to find another beautiful story from her life’s journey. The book will make you reflect on your own life choices and how you approach various situations in your own life.
Confused? I can’t find the right words to tell you about Jen and what she stands for, so here is a video of her giving one of her TEDx talks:
These Five Words Are Mine is a book you will read and then want your friends to read and probably like me, you won’t know why…but you’ll just know that more people need to connect with Jennifer Croneberger and her work. And for that reason…
Each set out on their own path, yet within the circumstances of the ‘60s music and art scene, diverged at various points along the way. This isn’t a highbrow, how-the-stars-and-planets -aligned tome. It points to the inevitable for the times: Dylan breaking the barriers of folk and be damned; The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson as the troubled genius who saw beyond the accepted musical norms and finally The Beatles whose presence not only affected the aforementioned but occupied a massive, revered space that neither they nor anyone could have foreseen.
The hindsight for this book proves entirely relevant as Meddings intersects the creative influences of that time with the development of his own understanding of musical composition and theory. Translated: he gets us to the core of why we love those unexpected chord changes, why we hear something different every time we listen to every song. And why getting a handle on a note from ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ to ‘Good Vibrations’ to ‘Paperback Writer’ leaves us more confused than ever.
One overall aspect here are the underdogs in this character study: the members of The Byrds. The scattershot pickings when viewed from afar (covering Dylan, influencing George Harrison, conflicting integrations and genres that were amplified by Wilson) is indeed intriguing. I found entire backstories on the individual members enhanced the merit of their music and needed to be brought forth in the context of this narrative.
But while Meddings sets the needle into the groove of where this all began – the very late 50s to be fair – the crux of this book really centers on Wilson. He is living and breathing music. Not content to play in a band and wear the stereotype facade of the perceived groovy ‘California lifestyle,’ Wilson reaches for stratospheric goals that as we see moved his mind far beyond what Lennon & Co. were tripping to with recreational drug use.
Wilson and the magnum opus of ‘Pet Sounds’ has of course been acknowledged by McCartney as the trigger for ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ start. Dylan on the other hand – in an oblique way – had already pushed the buttons and pissed off the folk purists with his jump into electric-land. Meddings gives us a view that while there had to be changes coming, the face of folk’s movement didn’t have to be nice or polite or meek. And if Wilson placed his Moog-minded, choral-vocal beauty out there, musicians like McCartney had to step out or be run over.
Meddings does conclude ‘What They Heard’ on what I would consider a downturn. As he ruefully reminisces that the paths of the book’s subjects did not cross over much past their heyday and obviously with the loss of Lennon in 1980, that was put to pasture. He does however lend a bit of spark for Dylan in recent years. While McCartney and Wilson have in varying degrees struggled vocally as they age, Meddings puts forth the fact (and I agree wholeheartedly) that Dylan is the one who has aged the best; growing into his voice – the nasal growl – and his learned historical and extensive references for 2020’s epic 17-minute ‘Murder Most Foul.’ Dylan with all his work is still a hard act to categorize to this day.
Charting the course from 1961-68 gives the reader a concise snapshot of where they all stood – eyeing each other through music, personal connection and as this book notes, how all of those ingredients combined gave us what we have today, most importantly for the better.
The title of this book couldn’t be more appropriate! How many of you have actually heard of Andy Cahan? I know he’s been making the rounds on social media this past year promoting his book The Most Famous Musician You’ve Never Hear Of, which he wrote and self-published in 2020, but prior to that…did any fans know him? And does it matter if the fans knew who he was when he was known to everyone in the rock n roll industry in the 60s and 70s?
Andy “Panda” Cahan has worked with everyone…I wouldn’t even know where to start naming names…and he does such a great job of it on his own throughout this 344 page autobiography that reads like a Who’s Who directory of the rock n’ roll industry! Just look at the list on the cover (Hendrix, Ringo, Nilsson, The Turtles, Little Richard, Dr. John, Ray Bolger, Grace Slick) or page through the 10 page index in the back of the book. And the stories…oh, the stories. He tells them with such enthusiasm as if they just happened last week and also provides a pictorial history to go with them It’s as if he had a photographer following him around for 3 decades! If you want to read a more extensive, but still not complete, list of who he’s worked with, go to his Amazon page and click on the book cover to preview the first 10 pages of the book.
This isn’t a deep book. This is a fun book to read. Published in a softcover 8.5″ x 11″ format, it’s large enough to be a coffee table book, but a bit awkward for reading in a bar (yeah, I took it into a cigar bar to read!). This is a book you’ll want to just kick back and read while slouched in a comfy chair with a cup of coffee. The print is rather on the large size, but I believe the book was packaged to help enhance the photos that go along with the short but sweet stories on every page. As the cover says, “A Rock and Roll Scrapbook…”
For those diehard Beatles fans who are wondering why I haven’t listed this book as OT (off-topic), every Beatle gets a nod in Andy’s book and he even had the pleasure of working with Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney. You’ll even read his tale of spending the evening at May Pang’s apartment. Always the gentleman (well, 90% of the time), Andy doesn’t kiss and tell, so it’s up to us guess what happened. Oh la la…
So, here’s the not so good news about this book: Andy Cahan really should have had a professional editor and formatter go over this book before self-publishing it. Though, I honestly believe he could have gotten an actual publisher behind it. Still, you’re going to come away from this book feeling like you know “Panda” and he’s an old friend that you can’t wait to meet up with again and hear more stories! And for that reason…
I rate this book, 3 out of 4 Beatles!
P.S. – If Andy hasn’t friended you on Facebook yet to sell you an autographed copy of his book, you can find him at www.facebook.com/andy.cahan. You just simply send him $60 through FB or PayPal and he’ll mail you a copy. It’s all on the up & up and cheaper than Amazon!
However, I cannot tread too heavily on how Kruth chose to structure the chapters in regards to context and explanation of influences – past and present. While showcasing a view of Lennon and Ono in that time period, he also dives around in many corners, explaining and expanding on various historical incidents – both in The Beatles and solo Lennon that defies sequencing – and also wades into a good portion of the times that propelled ‘POB,’ some political and some personal. It makes for a challenging, non-chronological read.
Kruth’s own voice is quite unique in that he opines on how various family, ‘characters’ and associates influenced the Lennons’ life story and how and why it drove them to extremes, most notably the time spent with Arthur Janov with his Primal Scream therapy. The narrative here is primitive and raw but what most benefits the reader in “Hold On World”’ is not John Lennon’s transformation from his years in one of the most influential bands of the 1960s to stomach-churning, searing early-70s provocateur. It’s the insightful and haunting life of Ono and how her version of ‘POB’ came to fruition.
Most listeners know that an album takes months to conceive and record. Ono’s ‘POB’ was done in one day. You read it right. Recorded and mixed with the same musicians – Lennon, Ringo Starr, Klaus Voorman and George Harrison – Ono’s shrieking “like a giant radioactive insect from a 1950s horror movie” had the desired effect: it one fell swoop she was able to stand alongside Lennon as both a collaborator and artist… and also managed to sustain the pure energy needed to keep up with Lennon as a musical supernova.
Ono’s unconventional upbringing – bookended by World War II and her meeting with Lennon – is ripe for dissertation within these pages. As Lennon was channeling his painful past (the abandonment issues brought on by his parents’ separation) into a commercially-acceptable package, Ono was dealing with her private demons, most notably the miscarriages she suffered which were couched in the standout song from ‘POB,’ ‘Greenfield Morning I Pushed An Empty Baby Carriage All Over The City.’
Moved at a 180-degree angle from her accepted distorted keening, ‘Greenfield’ has a haunting, mesmerizing backbeat (enhanced by Harrison’s sitar contribution), while Ono’s mono-symbolic vocals give way to iridescent bird calls – not unlike Lennon’s ‘Across The Universe.’ Kruth also gives over several pages to the performance of trumpeter Ornette Coleman and Ono’s collaboration ‘AOS,’ recorded in 1968. While Coleman had already embraced free-form jazz, the inclusion of Ono’s vocals helped propel this style beyond what would be musically and culturally ‘acceptable.’
What remains is a final critique on the “Lennon Remembers” interview, first published in Rolling Stone in 1971. The caustic wit, the deep-seated pain he levied against McCartney and producer George Martin and the circus atmosphere known as The Beatles came down like a sledgehammer. While Wenner published the interview in book form (costing him his friendship with the Lennons), the myth-busting conversation contained contradictions that Lennon later regretted. The dovetailing into more political ground with the release of ‘Sometime In New York City,’ a loose collaboration with Frank Zappa, the continuing paranoia and battles with immigration effectively eroded the Lennons high profile prophesying.
Lennon/Ono shared a great love and however their messages came across to the public during Lennon’s lifetime was both unifying and divisive. Kruth has painted a rich mural, which can be a little demanding on the senses, given the textural background that this complex couple projected. While I highly recommend this read for those who would appreciate a deeper delve into Ono, I will say that overall it can be a tricky read.
The Beatles and academia may not appear mutually connected, but be that as it may, I have in my casual research of reading material on the band, found a treasure trove of essays, papers and with scholars, their ability to take an in-depth analysis into what is loosely defined as fandom.
I want to add a few words here: this book is primarily an academic study and is a globally researched project that reflects how the band’s influence imparts nostalgia not from a whimsical standpoint, but as a deep-seated thought-provoking exposition that leans on the reader to get underneath the superficial.
Having noted that, I was taken with Mills’ observation on the beginnings of The Beatles’ sexual attraction to their first fans: the ‘Beatles Monthly.’ As it was the authorized inside track to ‘the boys’ at their start, Mills details the fan letters, the photos and the (mostly, early on) young girl obsession with them. Whether it was their clothes, their hair, their humor, their ‘British-ness,’ young fans were given a packaged version of their ‘lads,’ while letting loose the repressed feelings that were a staple of the times: they screamed and cried at their concerts. As has been noted in more recent books, these girls were the first real supporters of The Beatles and their reaction(s) reported by a (mostly) older, male press did not help to explain the deep-seated attraction and calling they felt in wholly and explicit terms.
While those girls grew up and began careers (with a little help from their friends, The Beatles), Mills moves onto the next phase: fan conventions. The gut-wrenching hysteria was left behind for a next gen communal gathering, a positive environment (as with The Fest For Beatles Fans and International Beatles Week) and more to the point, a place where fans (male and female) have a shared understanding of each others’ love for the band. The atmosphere most notably was one of indifference in the 1970s, until John Lennon’s murder in 1980. Nearly immediately after, the psychological understanding of fan ‘obsession’ changed. Mills goes into detail his reasons for who Mark Chapman was (a mentally disturbed individual) and also into the background of Michael Abram, the schizophrenic person who nearly killed George Harrison in 1999.
Mills correctly identifies that both of these men were not ‘fans’ or could even intellectually connect the dots to their victims. They could not break the cycle of singular isolation and became fixated with an alternative mindset. Fan conventions are diametrically opposite in their group atmosphere and jovial celebration of life. The clear demarcation of the two worlds is one that Mills gives great attention to.
One group of people that can cause a divisive issue are what Mills terms the ‘super-fan journalist.’ He takes to task the most prominent authors of Beatles non-fiction (Hunter Davies, Philip Norman and Ian MacDonald) and proceeds to dissect the apparent and not-so-apparent bias that permeates their writings. Davies (the author of The Beatles authorized biography, 1968) and Norman (author of Shout! from 1981) are given the harshest criticism and not without merit: each has had blatant prejudice against certain Beatles and both have heavily revised their opinions in the intervening years. MacDonald on the other hand did not pretend to write a history of the group per se, but offered his stylistic, one-of-a-kind prose that has grown in favor since first published in 1994 (MacDonald died by suicide in 2003). Mills offers up MacDonald as someone who did not pretend to understand The Beatles’ lives, but instead retrospected their work, thereby creating progressive nostalgia for a new generation of fans.
The next chapters concern more modern practices of coercing the well-known entity of The Beatles by wrapping them into new technology and writing: as YouTube has allowed 21st century manipulation of their image via audio and visual mashups and next gen bloggers have re-imagined real-life events by inserting The Beatles (and their associates) into slash & tribute fiction, i.e. time-travel, McLennon and the like. Mills also analyzes award-winning ‘fanfic’ couched in the love for re-writing history vis-a-vis Kevin Barry’s 2015 novel ‘Beatlebone. Be that as the written word allows critical examination of an alternate universe, we have witnessed in this progressive nostalgia, the ultimate immersion experience come to fruition: tribute bands. Every stylistic angle – from the mop-top era to Sgt. Pepper and even painstakingly recreated classics such as The Analogues’ note-for-note live recreations of the ‘White Album’ – are given due credit. The respect that fans have fostered onto excursions and tours in cities like Liverpool, London and Hamburg fold into the reverence and outwardly devoted atmosphere when it’s shared with family and friends. These are the multiple incidents and ideas that Mills has encapsulated and demonstrated for students and practitioners of Beatle fandom.
Transformative nostalgia when applied to The Beatles universe is continually expanding and moving ahead. As recognized in these pages and acknowledged by so many, Mills has detailed the changes and moves into the unexpected areas of ‘Beatledom.’ With a caveat noted at the start of my review that this publication is more likely appreciated by the scholarly among us…
On one hand, any narrative that hinges on The Beatles’ most important moments can be considered subjective. I’m more than sure that while perusing each chapter, you as the reader/Beatles factoid gatherer/historian could compile your own list and match it to author Borack’s condensed history.
What I considered relevant were that the moments were not in chronological order, nor was the book confined to The Beatles’ inner orbit. Several passages at length called out the solo years and in that context, how each contributed to the canon of post-Beatles history.
Borack addresses the better known episodes in Beatledom: Hamburg, Love Me Do, Pete Best, Ed Sullivan, Shea Stadium, MBE’s, the Paul Is Dead hoax and even the Mono LP Box Set release. However, he also ruminates over numerous chapters concerning their solo careers and lives: Paul losing Linda tying into Run Devil Run; John and Yoko’s Double Fantasy leading into John’s death; George’s marital issues with first wife Pattie running into his 1974 Dark Horse album and subsequent tour and Ringo forming his All-Starr Band. Each chapter is headed by a quotation from a random Beatle or associate applicable to the subject matter.
While the events showcased are familiar, the narrative is casual and readable. I would not consider this a “list” so to speak, nor is it a perfunctory bulleted style treatise, pointing the reader in any certain direction. Choosing what moments to delve into is probably the most important note for anyone engaged in learning something more than superficial facts.
I will state that Borack does spend considerable time and effort in stating where most of the stories come from: mostly interviews with the press and such. A good load of quotes are coming directly from The Beatles Anthology and from Paul, his book by Barry Miles. There are also a number of rock press quotes as well, especially in context to the time of album releases from the group or in the solo years.
Overall, I found the book a good reference read and for a nice epilogue, Borack gives us his opinion on solo tracks, cover versions, and soundalikes. With all that said and sung…
Intrepid believer. Not the usual description to hang onto a 16-year-old female fan of The Beatles, circa 1964. But one that aptly fits the life events surrounding author Janice Mitchell who has now come forward with the mind-blowing circumstances surrounding the title of her book.
Be that as it may, the sum of the story doesn’t rely on the anecdotes or hard-to-believe storyline. What is documented clear and simple is Mitchell caught in the middle of a life not of her choosing and the desperate attempts to find meaning and reasoning beyond her grim upbringing. While winding the reader through the lifelines that gave her hope, one comes away with an understanding of why she needed to turn this adventure into something real, and travel to somewhere she could be happy for essentially the rest of her life.
Mitchell describes a harrowing childhood in an all-too-brief summary, riveting in it’s narrative and strikingly honest from her viewpoint. Her birth parents’ abandonment of her and her siblings forced her to live singularly with an aunt, uncle and cousin that at first glance seemed a more idyllic setting than anything she could have dreamed. But with the sudden death of uncle Mac, the closed environment of being with aunt “Toots” and older cousin Margie, coupled with a strict Catholic school atmosphere propelled her to seek out avenues of enlightenment.
From the first guitar janglings of The Beatles on Cleveland radio station WHK at Christmastime 1963, Mitchell’s world opened up. In her words, she “had something to live for.” Constructing the framework that would lead to her independence was in some way, more than she bargained for. Her alliance with KYW DJ Harry Martin – innocent on the surface from her perspective, but which proved fortuitous in just a few short months – paved the way for her first meeting with another up-and-coming British band: The Rolling Stones.
The Stones were embarking on their first American tour and were stopping by ‘The Mike Douglas Show’ (then broadcasting from Cleveland) on June 18. Invited remotely by Martin, Mitchell arrived only to be told she couldn’t enter. As was her luck, she managed to enter into The Stones dressing room, watched from the side of the stage and after, was propositioned by bassist Bill Wyman (who kissed her). Little did Mitchell know that this episode in her life would circle back around to highlight her escapade in only three months time.
Mitchell chronicles the hysteria (after she managed to get front row seats with Marty) surrounding the now well-known Beatles gig in Cleveland on September 15: the show was stopped after the third song. The Cleveland police demanded The Beatles leave the stage until the crowd was brought under control. The chaos and screaming abated with the help of DJs Martin and Specs Howard and the Beatles returned and finished the set. For all that, the thought went through Mitchell’s mind as she walked amongst the broken chairs and shredded signs: she and Marty were leaving for London at 8am the next morning for “Beatleland.”
While the ensuing days there were a mix of finding living accommodations (a flat in Notting Hill), possible job opportunities for the two (Mitchell had sent letters to both The Stones’ fan club and Brian Epstein in hopes of finding employment), Mitchell nonetheless spins an air of innocence that to some could seem incomprehensible in its lack of forethought for the future. She had secured money from her savings, as well as Marty’s college fund and the duo appeared to have it all under control, living in Soho, going to clubs nightly and even meeting young musicians – the latter with circumstances that were not wholly explained to them in detail, lest Mitchell and her friend were questioned as to their real motives.
Meanwhile… back in Cleveland Heights, the law enforcement community were actively seeking their whereabouts, circulating flyers with their likenesses and as days wore on, involving the US State Department. The flimsiest thread to their location came back: Mitchell’s letter to the Stones fan club (calling out Wyman) and Epstein had been discovered. Both girls were “somewhere” in England.
Jumping from clubs to Tube stations, roaming the streets of London and even managing to meet with their musician friends and hitchhike to Liverpool,where Mitchell was crushed in not being able to enter the Cavern Club due to time constraints… it all seemed to be working out. There had been no communication with their families back in Ohio and both were oblivious to the havoc they had caused with their departure.
As with all the good things that came of this adventure, it did eventually end. As Mitchell and her musician friend walked along Oxford Street, she was spotted by a bobby. It was over. Mitchell and Marty – handled by her account very well by the British system – were speedily jettisoned back to the US. While Mitchell continually wondered what was going on, Marty in the ensuing timeframe during the transit froze her out. Both were hauled into the county juvenile system rather brutally and Mitchell in her innocence could not comprehend what they had done wrong. Through the harrowing ordeal, she remained stoic but scarred from the experience. Remanded back to her aunt, she felt the isolation suffocating.
While she recovered, rock and roll was moving on. Mitchell’s high profile shenanigans lifted her presence to a level that she didn’t expect: while facing the judicial system in tandem with her London exploits, a judge ruled that her and Marty’s actions directly affected live performances in the Cleveland area. Such music was condemned (including a return appearance of The Rolling Stones) and effectively, rock ‘n’ roll was banned in Cleveland.
As Mitchell stewed over the insanity of the ruling, she coped with daily life. She managed one last phone call to the musician who she befriended in London. But Marty – her Beatle cohort – had moved with her family from Cleveland Heights and their last communication was in 1968.
Mitchell also moved on, married, became a journalist, then a capital case investigator in New York City. She left after the trauma of 9/11 and moved back to her hometown. And while compiling and reliving all the moments of this lifetime ago escapade, Mitchell learned that Paul McCartney had been on the precipice of seeing them off at Heathrow back in October of 1964. However, the US Embassy nixed that plan. She did end up visiting Liverpool more extensively in 2018 and again nearly came in contact with McCartney during his ‘Carpool Karaoke’ segment on the Albert Dock. She was not lost thinking about the ironic twists of her life.
Stories from first generation Beatles fans such as Mitchell’s are very rare and her insightful perceptions, coupled with her 16-year-old gumption make this memoir colorful and poignant.
I’m giving this book 4 out of 4 beetles!
Listen to Jenn’s interview with author Janice Mitchell…