Book Review: ’150 Glimpses of the Beatles,’ by Craig Brown

By Craig Brown

Unlike so many authors these days, with their long subtitles and longer introductions that tell you what’s about to unfold, Craig Brown just dives right in. No theme, no preamble, just glimpses of the Beatles (although not always of the Beatles themselves), and it’s up to you to put it together. And as with the Beatles’ music itself, I liked it more the more it went along.

The most puzzling part of this often witty book is how much space he devotes at the beginning to (what becomes) a running feud with the curators and guides who take Beatle tourists through the storied Liverpool sites. Why so much punching down to set us off on our journey? Brown concludes one contretemps with the put-down “Yet so far he” — the guide — “hadn’t said anything that I hadn’t read countless times.” Well, I thought the same thing on many pages of this book.

And that’s not a complaint. I like the old stories — frankly, if I wanted something challenging to read, I wouldn’t be reading “150 Glimpses of the Beatles.” (Brown’s previous book was “Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret.”) Glimpse No. 53 begins: “For Christmas 1964, when I was 7, my brothers and I were given Beatles wigs by our parents.” If you change 7 to 8 and brothers to sister, I could have written the exact same sentence. So I knew I was disposed to like this book — and I did.

[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of October. See the full list. ]

But with a Beatles book, one always has to ask: Who is this for? Ringo is 80; if they remade “A Hard Day’s Night,” Paul could play the part of the granddad he was looking after in the film. For the younger reader who’s heard the music and now wants to know the stories behind it, good news, because they’re only clichés if you’ve heard them a hundred times — so for me, there were quite a few clichés: that the Lennon-McCartney magic came from the “intermingling of the dark and the sunny,” or that each member personified a different element: “John fire, Paul water, George air, Ringo earth” (although I’ve also heard they were like a Chinese banquet, one sweet, one sour, one salty, one spicy). Or the old one about how the timing of the Beatles’ arrival in America was so key — that for many “two events will always be linked: The assassination of J.F.K. was winter; the Beatles are spring.”

For this reader, when Brown tells one of the Beatle stories I’ve heard many times and now adds information I didn’t know — or the telling detail that was missing for 50 years — the book is an utter delight. I knew the Beatles were introduced to LSD by their dentist, but now I know exactly who that guy was and how that night unfolded (if you can trust a 55-year-old account from people who were tripping for the first time). The Dylan-turns-them-on-to-pot-for-the-first-time scene, which all Beatlephiles know, also comes to life now in a way it never had before. As does George’s visit to Haight-Ashbury in ’67, which I’d always seen rendered as disillusioning, but according to Brown was life-threatening. I knew the Beatles had their sexual awakening in seamy postwar Hamburg, but I didn’t know that John and Paul actually watched George lose his virginity. This band was tight!

According to Brown, John hit on both Jane Asher before she was with Paul, and on Pattie Boyd while she was with George. Wow. And how fascinating to find out that the famous picture of the Beatles in Miami with the not-yet-champ Muhammad Ali is kind of a lie: It’s not a photo-preserved moment of the rebellious youths of their day recognizing kindred spirits in each other. The Beatles didn’t like Ali (then Clay) at all, and had wanted to pose with the champ, Sonny Liston — and Ali didn’t like them either.

Now, do we know that all these things are true? To quote you-know-who, it doesn’t matter much to me. I doubt if there can ever be solid proof that in 1969 John suggested to Paul they undergo joint trepanning, where you have a hole drilled into your skull. Whether this was related to John’s being with Yoko at that point, the author does not say — but one would not be wrong to infer it. As many writers have been before, he’s pretty hard on Yoko, and his description of Yoko’s pursuit of her prey is riveting. I didn’t know that Yoko wooed John with daily letters the entire time he was in India, or that she camped out on his driveway, and once jumped in his car. “Yoko’s strength lay in perseverance,” he understates.

Again, who knows what’s true — and to his credit, this is something Brown acknowledges, citing how many of the famed moments in Beatle lore are remembered and recounted differently by different Beatles’ biographers and principals, not unlike the way the four Gospels do not everywhere match. The Creation Event — the day John met Paul at the fete in Woolton on July 6, 1957 — is such a moment, and Brown doesn’t try to umpire a final version, he gives you them all. Same with the ugly moment when John beat up a man who joked Lennon might be gay. Yes, not even the Beatles could be totally woke in 1963.

Also like the Bible, “150 Glimpses of the Beatles” is a kind of anthology — from an author who, if I can believe the sources list in the back, read hundreds of books written by Beatle biographers and entourage members, and plucked the moments he found the most … and that’s the question, the most what? Important? Telling? Quirky? One thing most Beatle fans would say makes us love them: On their albums, there was very little filler, all of it was good. Ahem.

For example, there’s a running theme of “What ifs?” that sound like something you’d resort to on a very long car trip, including a really annoying reimagining of history where it was Gerry and the Pacemakers who made it big, and the Beatles who were a footnote in musical history. But it’s dumb, because there’s a reason that it happened the way it did, not a quirk of fate. The Beatles recorded 200 terrific songs, and the Pacemakers two. And if you don’t know who Gerry and the Pacemakers are, I’m not sure this will be all that interesting to you anyway.

“150 Glimpses” is best when Brown poignantly chronicles the toll that being a Beatle took on these four still-young men in the 1960s — the photos of them that went from smiling to unsmiling — “crushed by the weight of the world’s adulation.” And there’s a book within the book about how it turned out for ex-Beatles Stu and Pete, Beatle-for-a-week Jimmie Nicol, the long-suffering, Hera-like Cynthia Lennon, and other supporting cast members and day players caught in the orbit of the sun gods. Spoiler alert: not well.

In describing watching a Beatle tribute band, Brown says: “One half of your brain recognizes that these are not the Beatles: How could they be? But the other half is happy to believe that they are.” It’s like that with this book. Would it have been better if it were 99 glimpses and I didn’t have to wade through glimpsing Margaret Thatcher, or who was standing inadvertently in the background of the “Abbey Road” cover, or whatever happened to the Singing Nun? Yes, I think it would — but you can’t always get what you want. Wait, that’s the Stones.


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