Long & Winding Road
Photograph by ChiChi Ubiña
(page 1 of 3)
This reporter met Spitz by chance in 1998, at the old New Canaan Book Shop on Elm Street. His name tripped a memory switch, but the usual short circuit prevented me from making the proper connection. “Well, I wrote a biography of Bob Dylan,” he said as I dealt myself a mental head-smack. Of course. I had read the book. Though expertly researched and brightly written, Dylan: A Biography (1988) is best remembered for angering Dylan’s apostolic fans. Most would have preferred to watch the great man fade elegantly into the mists of legend. Instead, Spitz had the effrontery to part those mists and discover a live human being (and occasional jerk) where the golden calf should have been.
So what was Spitz working on these days?
“A biography of the Beatles,” he said matter-of-factly. Spitz had succumbed to Beatlemania with the release of Rubber Soul (1965), on which the Fabs Four’s musical ingenuity mated with a new thematic maturity. Gone were lines like “Love, love me do/You know I love you”; soon to come were “Father Mackenzie, wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave/No one was saved.” The Beatles followed Rubber Soul with Revolver (1966) and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), stupendous advances that reconfigured the boundaries of popular music. “I could no longer ignore what these guys were doing to music,” Spitz would say later. “By the time Rubber Soul came out, they had changed everything for me. And Revolver is, I think, the most amazing album ever made. They took rock ’n’ roll from songs about cars and girls to an extraordinary place.”
But a biography of the Beatles? Spitz could not have chosen more overworked terrain than if he had set upon a Founding Father. As John Lennon put it, “What can I tell you about myself which you have not already found out from those who do not lie?” Oh, well. If anyone was crazy enough to tackle the Beatles, perhaps it should have been Spitz: Dylan had proved his investigative tenacity, and his earlier Barefoot in Babylon remains the last, best word on Woodstock. The Beatles biography would form the third and dominant panel of a glorious sixties triptych.
Back in 1997, when Spitz embarked on the project, he anticipated spending two years on it — one to research and another to write. Four, five, six, seven years passed. No book. In the spring of 2005, I called to ask what the devil had become of his presumed folly. Spitz was in an excellent mood. After two-and-a-half years of research and five-and-a-half years of writing, after $375,000 was spent chasing down 600 interviews, after a divorce, after 2,800 manuscript pages had been written and 1,900 had been cut, The Beatles: The Biography was done.
Spitz’s luxuriant gray hair had gone shimmery white since our last encounter, but his somewhat melancholy visage was unchanged. The fifty-five-year-old Darien resident admitted to being a little jumpy as the November publication date approached. If you spend eight years of your life on a single book, it had darn well better sell. Early reviews were a writer’s dream. The all-important New York Times said: “A consolidating and newly illuminating work … Time and again, it chooses perception over presumption in ways that set it off from the pack of Beatle stories.” The Boston Globe called the book “startlingly well-researched and consistently engaging.” Publisher’s Weekly gave it a coveted starred review: “With this massive opus, veteran music journalist Spitz tells the definitive story of the band that sparked a cultural revolution.”
Rock biographies typically are not very good, lacking some combination of thorough reporting, good writing and insight. Peter Guralnick’s two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis (1994) and Careless Love (1999), is usually cited as the high-water mark. Guralnick notes in the first volume, “I wanted to rescue Elvis Presley from the dreary bondage of myth, from the oppressive aftershock of cultural significance.” Spitz had similarly majestic ambitions for The Beatles, as the subtitle makes plain: This wasn’t another biography, but the biography. “I knew I had an important story — as important, historically, as Bob Caro working on Lyndon Johnson,” Spitz said. “So I endeavored to formulate a major biography of perhaps the most major cultural force of the twentieth century by using the standard biographer’s tools. The tools that David McCullough or Robert Caro or Neal Gabler would use. And those are good research and judgment, and evenhanded writing. That was my goal.”
As for the “about 540” Beatles volumes already published? “They were mostly Mickey Mouse,” Spitz declared. “Not one decent biography.” The Beatles: The Authorized Biography by Hunter Davies, published in 1968 and long taken as Beatles gospel, glossed over troubling facts like John Lennon’s episodic cruelty and manager Brian Epstein’s suicidal depression. “Paul McCartney told me that, back in 1967, when Hunter Davies was their appointed biographer, the Beatles agreed on a story of which about 60 percent is true,” Spitz said. “The other 40 percent was either made up or embellished or changed so that people’s feelings wouldn’t be hurt. And that became the agreed upon biography for almost forty years.”
Actually, good Beatles books do exist among the crush of memoirs, commentaries, chronicles, exegeses, encyclopedias, oral histories and hybrids of the above (there are even a Beatles for Dummies and a Rough Guide to the Beatles). Not one of these books, though, is a literary biography of quality. Spitz had indeed sighted a gaping hole in the bookscape. This assertion is nominally open to argument. Some cite as authoritative The Beatles Anthology, published in 2000, a lavish oral history for which McCartney, Harrison and Starr provided notes and documents and submitted to extensive interviews. Spitz smiled and said Beatle-scenti sometimes refer to Anthology as Mythology. “The Beatles in essence were the most unreliable of the narrators. They have told the story so many times that they aren’t sure what’s true or not anymore. Paul would tell me, ‘Well, I think that may have happened. I’m not sure. That could have been part of the myth.’”
Ringo Starr did not cooperate with Spitz — his manager asked for money — and George Harrison offered limited help before his death in 2001. “Like most of the Beatles, George was paranoid about saying anything,” Spitz said. “I never understood that, because this wasn’t like the Pentagon Papers. There wasn’t something dark and dirty lurking underneath. I’ve gone in and out of every corner of the Beatles story. There are no dark secrets. It’s a nice story.”
McCartney proved compliant but not terribly reflective. “I had a couple of good interviews with him, but he wouldn’t budge from the myth,” Spitz continued. “I felt that McCartney especially was the holder of a public trust, and not to deal that legacy an honest biography was, to me, a miscarriage of history. So I went to eyewitnesses and to artifacts to get the story straight.”