NEW YORK — Ten hours, 28 minutes.
That was the sum of the music recorded and released by the Beatles before breaking up, a volume of work that changed lives, careers and the course of music history.
Eight years, 2,792 pages.
That was the effort author Bob Spitz put into telling their story, although editors whittled his manuscript down to 856 pages (minus the end notes).
“The Beatles: The Biography,” available Nov. 1, is a compulsively readable history that brings the same exhaustive level of scholarship to the Fab Four that Robert Caro brought to Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson.
“The Beatles’ story is all of our stories,” says Spitz, 55, a manager for Bruce Springsteen and others before turning to writing. “It is about how the youth culture emerged, the drug culture emerged, how politics rose to the fore as a universal debate. It’s about rebellion, it’s about the growth of the British entertainment system, the growth of the rock ’n’ roll entertainment system.
“The Beatles changed music forever. They took rock ’n’ roll from a medium that was about cars and girls and gave it context, interesting chord changes and true musicianship.”
Get the idea he’s passionate about the subject?
Spitz lived it, writing six days a week for six years, spending six months in Liverpool and retracing the Beatles’ steps. He could practically smell the stale cigarette smoke from the old clubs, and even ordered the band’s favorite scotch and Coke drinks just to taste what they had tasted.
A ‘newly illuminating work’
It almost makes up for the school yard beating that a teenage Spitz suffered for suggesting that the Beatles were no-talent bums who wouldn’t last; he was an avid Bob Dylan fan at the time.
He feels differently now. But his love and respect for the Beatles doesn’t blind him as a writer; he draws a complete portrait of brilliant musicians who were human after all. Several initial reviews have been positive, and his publisher’s first printing of nearly 200,000 copies is considered a positive sign of the biography’s potential.
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The New York Times’ Janet Maslin called it a “consolidating and newly illuminating work. For the right reader, that combination is irresistible.”
“As with all great history writing, Spitz both captures a moment in time and humanizes his subjects,” wrote Publishers Weekly. “While some will blanch at the unsettling dark sides of the Beatles, most will come to appreciate the band even more for knowing the incredible personal odysseys they endured.”
Spitz’s biography is one of four Beatles-related books in the stores this fall, including one each by both of John Lennon’s wives.
“I get a new Beatles book submitted almost every month, and sales are varied,” said Kim Corradini, a buyer for Barnes & Noble Booksellers. “Books that offer something new — new revelations, new photos, an insider’s view — do much better than those that are just rehashings.”
The project was daunting for more reasons than just the effort it entailed. There have been more Beatles books published than there are actual Beatles songs, and most fans have heard the same stories many times over.
Spitz, who has written biographies of Dylan and Bob Marley, was assigned by The New York Times Magazine to write a story about Paul McCartney in 1996. At the time, McCartney was working on the Beatles’ anthology project and told Spitz “they might as well call it the mythology, as only about 50 percent of it was true.”
Setting the record straight
Lennon, McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr agreed on their version of the Beatles’ story, a mix of truth and legend, and it formed the basis of what Spitz considers the band’s only other serious biography, written by Hunter Davies four decades ago. Some of the stories were told so often that the lines between truth and fiction had even blurred for the surviving Beatles.
Spitz set out to make the record straight.
“I interviewed 650 people on this,” he says. “I approached this book as if nobody had ever written a biography on the Beatles.”
McCartney cooperated, and so did Harrison before his death in 2001. Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono did not, and neither did Starr or Neil Aspinall, who used to drive the Beatles to gigs in Liverpool and now runs their business empire.
Almost more important than his recollections was McCartney quietly putting the word out to dozens of former associates, many of whom had never spoken publicly about their roles, that it was OK to speak to Spitz. Spitz also tracked down new sources. In western Canada he found Dot Rohne, who nearly married McCartney and miscarried his baby before being dumped as the Beatles were on the cusp of making it big.
Spitz so doggedly traces the band’s family history, and depicts postwar Liverpool, that Lennon doesn’t meet McCartney until page 95 of his book.
“My book is not a book of dirty stories,” Spitz says. “There are no shocking revelations. I wasn’t looking for any and I didn’t find any.”
Still, there are sublime details and myth-busters that good fans will enjoy, like producer George Martin leaving the recording of “Love Me Do” to an underling while he had a lunch date with his secretary.
One much-repeated story is that future manager Brian Epstein first heard of the Beatles when a customer at his record store requested their recording of “My Bonnie” from Hamburg, Germany. In truth, he was already well aware of them — their posters hung in his store and Epstein, who was gay, secretly liked their rough-boys-in-leather image.
Beatles had a tight bond
Spitz opens with a detailed scene from Dec. 27, 1960, a Liverpool performance where the Beatles’ improvement after a lengthy residence in Germany so startled and thrilled their hometown audience that it presaged the impact they would have on the world three years later. Spitz even reports the brand of popular hairspray whose scent lingered in the air.
He was struck by the extraordinary tight bond the four men created, personally and musically. Even during their unpleasant breakup, they still loved each other, he says. Spitz believes the split was less because of the influence of Ono than the fact that Lennon and Harrison couldn’t stand to be in the room with McCartney anymore.
The flip side is how completely, even ruthlessly, the four men would freeze out anyone they no longer had use for, as drummer Pete Best most famously found out.
The project was an intense time in Spitz’s life. He and his wife have split and he says his daughter thinks dad has a mop tops obsession.
“It turned my life inside out,” he says. “Yet I must say it was the most incredible and pleasurable experience I ever had.”
Spitz is involved in one more Beatles-related project: writing a version of his biography for young readers.
“It’s sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll,” he says, “without the sex and drugs.”
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