If I had to choose my all-time favorite book -- biography or otherwise -- this would probably be it. Certainly, the fact that it's about a Beatle auto...moreIf I had to choose my all-time favorite book -- biography or otherwise -- this would probably be it. Certainly, the fact that it's about a Beatle automatically moves it toward the front of the line. But why choose this particular book -- which I've re-read more times than I can count -- when there are so many other Beatle bios out there? Simple: this one's terrible.
No, really. This is a train wreck. Goldman has a major axe to grind, and over the course of 700-plus pages, he grinds his axe to iron powder. Lennon comes across as a mainly lucky, mostly untalented, naive bisexual musician with serious mother issues. It's Character Assassination to the Extreme -- of Lennon, Yoko Ono, and almost everyone but Paul McCartney -- and you'll find yourself marveling at the body count Goldman leaves behind. Every page contains one cynical, sneering appraisal of Lennon and his work after another, with Goldman trashing Lennon's motivations and so often rooting for him to fail that it begs the question of "Why in the world would you devote 700 pages and seven years of your life to a subject you obviously can't stand??"
I don't know the answer, but I'm glad Goldman did it anyway -- because this one is so gawdawful that it's terrific.
(Review from my website at brianjayjones.blogspot.com) (less)
There's a moment from the film Pulp Fiction that ended up on the cutting room floor in which Mia Wallace asks Vincent Vega whether he's an Elvis man o...moreThere's a moment from the film Pulp Fiction that ended up on the cutting room floor in which Mia Wallace asks Vincent Vega whether he's an Elvis man or a Beatles man. "You might like both," she tells Vincent, "but you always like one better." I'm a hardcore Beatles fan, but I'm still fascinated by Elvis -- especially the post-GI, bad-movie making, white jump-suited, bloated karate Elvis. And that's why I bypassed completely Last Train to Memphis -- the first book in Guralnick's two-part Elvis bio, which tells the story of Elvis' meteoric rise -- and headed right for the good stuff.
Guralnick tells Elvis' story in a clear-eyed manner, spinning a story that's almost Shakespearian in its tragedy. And it quickly gets ugly, as Elvis corrodes into a lazy, strung-out fat kid, distracted by go-carts, badge collecting, and playing cowboys and Indians with his sycophantic Memphis Mafia, all the while derailing his own career, despite an incredibly forgiving fan base. From one oh-my-gosh, no way! moment to another, Guralnick delivers the goods, careening like a barely-controlled jalopy toward the decidedly non-glamorous ending we all know is coming. Look away? Heck no. Cringe-inducing? Heck yes. Awesome.
Not bad. While I'm an enormous admirer of his music -- especially of his commitment to old school blues -- I didn't know much about Clapton going into...moreNot bad. While I'm an enormous admirer of his music -- especially of his commitment to old school blues -- I didn't know much about Clapton going into this. So if there were stories that have been rehashed time and time again, they were all new to me.
That said, my complaint echoes that of several other reviewers: Clapton moves so quickly through some major events that you hardly realize they've passed without some more explanation. The demise of the Yardbirds? Clapton was an admitted elitist/purist. The demise of Cream? They didn't get along. The Dominos? Ego. It gets right to the point, I admit, but not always enlightening. Other times, he seems to contradict himself (one of his times in rehab, he says, was incredibly useful, but then he admits he did little more than the bare minimum of what was required of him -- a sort of huh, wha? moment), when what was likely needed was simply a bit more explanation. (Arriving at the last chapter, however -- titled "A Year on the Road" -- you'll be presented with an almost mind-numbing amount of information on what Clapton watched on television, shot during hunting trips, gave as Christmas gifts, and so on.)
I was also hoping to learn a bit more about his relationships with some of the icons of rock and roll, especially his hot-somewhat warm friendship with George Harrison. Clapton, however, was more interested in exploring his own inner demons, and the shrapnel he often splattered on friends and family as he worked to overcome his addictions (the saddest story is, perhaps, that of Alice Ormsby-Gore, who seemed to gamble her future and happiness on Clapton). Still, it's admirable when a major star can write such a warts-and-all portrayal of himself. While Clapton eventually becomes the hero of his own story, it's a long time -- and large body count -- in the coming.
To Clapton's credit, it's definitely not ghostwritten, as it jumps around a bit, loses track of "characters" and resorts to some clunky phrasing -- just as one would telling their story aloud. As a result, Clapton comes across as an honest storyteller, if not an entertaining one.
Recommended for its honest story, though not necessarily the complete one.(less)
A terrific primary source -- but definitely not for those who are unfamiliar with the Beatles and their story. This isn't a biography, it's transcript...moreA terrific primary source -- but definitely not for those who are unfamiliar with the Beatles and their story. This isn't a biography, it's transcriptions of interviews with the boys and those around them, snippets of news releases and news stories, and transcribed appearances on television or radio shows, all presented in roughly chronological order. Badman provides (rightly) only a minimal guiding track, stepping in only to gloss a name or straighten out a disparity in dates. What he won't do is try to straighten out or explain events or stories, because -- with the advantage of hindsight -- watching the key players try to explain everything themselves is part of what makes this so fascinating.
Even if you're a hardcore Beatles fan, there's lots in Badman's book to like, and much that's probably new to you. For one thing, you'll get a better feel for the kind of mind-numbing, eye-glazing interviews the Boys had to sit through, especially early in their career. We've all seen the interviews compressed to their soundbites for documentaries, but Badman lets us see what gets edited out in the interest of time -- mainly one stupid question after another ("Do you get dandruff with all that hair?") which the Beatles, for the most part, answer gamely until around 1966, when John Lennon finally unloads on a reporter for asking "What do you want to do when you grow up?" ("Why are you being so horrid?" one reporter sulkily asks Lennon afterwards.)
But it's not just the media that bumbles through interviews; sometimes the Beatles do, too. I was surprised by how non-responsive or rambling their answers could sometimes be -- particularly from Paul McCartney, who could obviously make his charm go a long way, but when you read his remarks on the page, they don't always make a lot of sense. You can also see the Boys reverting to "talking points" for many questions, answering questions the same way, even when cornered individually.
Badham also reproduces several documents I'd never seen before: the original lyrics for "Yesterday" (as "Scrambled Eggs"), filed when Paul was simply trying to get the song down on paper with placeholder words; the various press releases from Apple as the wheels were coming off (and when is someone going to write a history of Apple?); a snippet from a 1969 newspaper floating John Lennon as the lead role in the upcoming Jesus Christ, Superstar.
Finally, reading interviews and press releases from That Moment In Time -- when they had no way of knowing what was coming -- the end of the Beatles really isn't all that obvious. All four of them continue to speak relatively well of each other in interviews (except for George when speaking of Paul) and indicate that they are still interested in working together if the right project comes along. It's no wonder fans were so shocked when McCartney finally announced he was leaving the group (months after Lennon had already privately left) -- there was little indication of disarray or disagreement in the press, not even from the Beatles themselves.
There are places in the book where some interviews or television appearances have obviously been misheard or transcribed incorrectly (at one point, someone describes a crowd of people at an airport as looking like "a sea of hands" from above, when it was probably "sea of ants") but such errors are easy to overlook in this goldmine of a Beatles book. Highly recommended -- but, again, not for those who are unfamiliar with the Beatles story going into it.
Absolutely marvelous. Martin explains why he thinks his kind of comedy works, and how he developed it. Plenty of fascinating vignettes about life in t...moreAbsolutely marvelous. Martin explains why he thinks his kind of comedy works, and how he developed it. Plenty of fascinating vignettes about life in the armpits of showbusiness, as Martin worked his way from the magic shop at Disneyland, to Knott's Berry Farm, to dingy clubs, ski lodges, bars, and hotel lounges -- all the while honing his craft, developing the bits that worked and discarding those that didn't. And what makes it so interesting is that Martin will tell you why bits worked or didn't.
A terrific book for anyone who cares about developing their own craft -- whether it's standup comedy, acting, writing, music, or even hawking wares at a flea market. Good stuff.(less)
"In September 2003, I suggested to John's widow, Yoko Ono, that I should become his biographer," writes Philip Norman in the Acknowledgements section...more"In September 2003, I suggested to John's widow, Yoko Ono, that I should become his biographer," writes Philip Norman in the Acknowledgements section of John Lennon: The Life. However, after reading the final manuscript, "Yoko Ono was upset by the book," Norman tells us, "and would not endorse it . . . [saying] I had been 'mean to John.'"
I actually don't think Yoko's got anything to worry about; Norman's book is both clear-eyed and appropriately sympathetic as it traces the arc of Lennon's all-too-brief life and career. While there's much in here that's familiar, Norman uses both old and new sources to revisit apocryphal or second-hand stories -- most of which are familiar to Beatle fans -- and determine their veracity. He puts to rest, for example, the Did they or didn't they? question that has surrounded Lennon's vacation in Spain with manager Brian Epstein (they didn't), and accepts as fact many of the stories that expose John's darker side, such as his brutal beating of Cavern DJ Bob Wooler, or the lurid sexual fantasies involving his own mother.
There's also quite a bit that's new in here, too -- or, at least, was unfamiliar to me. Norman explores, for example, exactly what "business" Yoko was doing during Lennon's househusband years -- she was dealing mostly in mundane real estate transactions, but is also given full credit for shrewdly negotiating music contracts that maximized John's profits and protected his copyrights. He also examines some of the theater pieces that were based on Lennon's writings in the 1960s -- a hidden gem in the literate Beatle's career -- exposes a charming addiction to board games, and explains about as well as one can the complicated legal wranglings that finally dissolved the band and led to years of hard feelings.
For perhaps the first time, too, some of the supporting characters in Lennon's story finally come into their own. John's Aunt Mimi -- who can often come off as a bit of a shrew -- gets a bit of her own narrative, as Norman uses letters Mimi wrote regularly to a young female fan named Jane Wirgman to reveal just how thoughtful and protective of John Mimi could be, even as she continued to be embarrassed by his antics or appearance. You'll also have a better understanding of Freddie Lennon, John's seaman father who abandoned his wife and son, then rematerialized after John made it big. Freddie has his own reasons -- excuses -- for his actions, but for the first time, you'll have his own words and private correspondence to help you decide whether you buy it or not.
If there's a complaint I have about this otherwise thorough biography, it lies in Norman's narrative voice. Norman's prose isn't ever stilted -- he's too good a journalist for that -- but it can be somewhat stodgy (he calls the lyrics to "Twist and Shout," for example, "dippy"). He also inserts way too many clunky moments of foreshadowing of Lennon's fate, often resorting to eye-rollingly lame declarations of irony that are a stretch, at best.
For example, as the Beatles frolic for a photo session in New York during their first American tour in 1964, Norman can't help but indulge in dramatic voiceover. "Hindsight gives this routine scene a horrible irony," he writes. "Just across the park lies a craggy Gothic pile known as the Dakota Building" where John would be shot to death in 1980. Later, Norman tell us that for the 1972 U.S. Presidential campaign, "John pinned high hopes on the Democratic candidate, George McGovern, senator for South Dakota -- an omen if ever there was one . . . " It took me a moment to figure out why this was "an omen" -- until I realized it was the use of the word "Dakota" in the sentence that was supposed to be so ominous.
Perhaps even more annoying -- especially to the biographer in me -- there's no sign of a bibliography, sources, or endnotes, only an index. There were several times in Norman's book when I found myself saying "Where'd you get that?" and turned to the back looking for his source, only to come up blank. Perhaps, at 851 pages, there simply wasn't enough room left. But I'm sure I'm not the only one missing it. (less)
I’m normally wary of biographies that attempt to put their chosen subject “on the couch.” I know it’s tempting, when writing about artists, writers, o...moreI’m normally wary of biographies that attempt to put their chosen subject “on the couch.” I know it’s tempting, when writing about artists, writers, or other creative people to try to view their work through the gauze of life experience, explaining their art in the context of childhood traumas, distant parents, or failed relationships. There are some no-brainers out there, certainly — one could hardly write about Edgar Allan Poe or Vincent Van Gogh, to name only two, without looking into inner demons that ended up screaming at the public from the page or canvas.
It gets harder, however, with figures that, for the most part, aren’t quite as haunted or tormented. But that doesn’t mean biographers haven’t tried. Some Disney biographers, for example, have claimed that Walt Disney obviously had a contempt for women and deep-seated abandonment issues, since several of his early films featured evil mother-figures or mothers who are dead or otherwise unavailable. It doesn’t matter that Disney’s own life story doesn’t really seem to bear that out; once you’ve got him on the couch, you can use his body of work to explain away anything. That was the sort of thing that nearly ruined David Michaelis’s otherwise dynamite Schulz and Peanuts for me — Michaelis tried, I thought, a bit too hard to use the Peanuts strip to explain Schulz’s psyche. It was a valiant effort, but I just didn’t buy it.
And that, ultimately, is my problem with On The Couch biographies: I don’t like being told that every inch of an artist’s output — whether it’s on film, on audiotape, on canvas, or on the printed page — is a channeling of some remote glob of their psyche, or reflects a subconscious effort to work out some personal issue. I believe you can understand an artist’s life by looking at his work; it’s more difficult and dangerous, however, to try to use an artist’s work to explain away an artist’s life. Ideally, one must view the artist through the prism of both the life and the art together.
That’s a roundabout way of saying that I was skeptical of Dr. Stephen Weissman’s Chaplin: A Life. It’s true that Chaplin, with his mess of a private life and in-your-face politics, practically begs his biographers to put him on the sofa — a challenge to which Chaplin biographer David Robinson all but explicitly refused to rise. But on the other hand, I did not want to be told that every Chaplin film was merely another psychological exercise in which Charlie either consciously or subconsciously tried to come to terms with some childhood trauma.
Well. In his first chapter, Weissman — a for real psychiatrist, and not just playing one on TV — immediately put such concerns to rest. Reading every Chaplin film or sketch as a therapy session, says Weissman,
“. . . does little to advance our undertstanding of how the creative process operated . . . It assumes that the comic mind operates as a seething id-cauldron automatically transforming childhood fears into schoolboy gags which are periodically belched and farted up from the steamy depths of the unconscious.”
Bingo. That’s exactly what I wanted to hear — and that’s precisely why Weissman’s book works so spectacularly well. Weissman doesn’t explain away every moment on film in psychological terms; rather, he helps the reader understand why Chaplin makes particular comedic or artistic decisions, and where in his art Chaplin has borrowed or paid homage to his parents, mentors, rivals, and the London stage.
Weissman is particularly convincing in helping the reader understand some of the broader themes of Chaplin’s work — a particularly high point is his examination of City Lights as an opportunity for Chaplin to, at last, redeem both his mother and his father. But what’s important is that Weissman isn’t trying to tell us that Chaplin did all these things as an act of psychic cleansing; rather, he’s helping us see where life experience has influenced some of the artistic decisions Chaplin made.
Further he doesn’t get you in the weeds on psychobabble; Weissman’s language is real, and readable — no long ramblings on Freud or lectures on id suppression or whatever. His themes are larger than that, which is why you’ll find them more thought provoking — and even where you don’t agree, he hasn’t become so mind-numbingly technical that you think he’s overreaching. Weissman’s so agreeable, in fact, that it’s like watching Chaplin’s movies with a good friend who’s got a particular insight into a film and doesn’t mind at all if you disagree with him. Enjoy the film anyway, Weissman would probably say.
In a lively afterword, Weissman also does something no other Chaplin biographer has yet done: he’s dared to accept an extended 1915 interview — later published as Charlie Chaplin’s Own Story before being squashed and disavowed by Chaplin — as a reliable text. It’s a primary source detective story, and Weissman will tell you convincingly why he believes biographers, and readers, can believe it . . . even when Chaplin himself tries to tell you otherwise. (less)
An informative, almost clincal, look at the people and personalities involved in bringing Sesame Street to life. Manage your expectations, though -- t...moreAn informative, almost clincal, look at the people and personalities involved in bringing Sesame Street to life. Manage your expectations, though -- this is no year-by-year review of what occured on the show. In fact, the first show doesn't even air until slightly over mid-way through the book. Mostly, it's the story of a core group of educators, advocates, producers, financers, artists, and entertainers who turned a dinner party question -- "Can television be used to teach children?" -- into an International Institution.
Nearly all the players in here are committed to their cause and brilliant in their own ways -- and most of them also have ways of making the others around them crazy, whether its the egomania of songwriter Joe Raposo, the perfectionism of the do-it-all Jon Stone, or even Jim Henson's handwringing over being typecast as a Children's Puppeteer. The true hero here -- and thus the recipient of the most ink -- is Joan Ganz Cooney, who holds the organization together through sheer force of will and the power of her personality.
Again, manage your expectations. If you're looking for vignettes about the show and its sketches, Sesame Street Unpaved is probably the better book for you. This one is the behind-the-scenes look at the mechanics of creating, writing, directing, producing and, yes, politicking an enormously successful children's show.(less)
**spoiler alert** One of the more fun and fascinating bits of Beatles lore has always been the whole “Paul Is Dead” hoax. The story spun by that parti...more**spoiler alert** One of the more fun and fascinating bits of Beatles lore has always been the whole “Paul Is Dead” hoax. The story spun by that particular hoax is that Paul McCartney allegedly died in an automobile accident in 1966 – a “stupid bloody Tuesday” – and the heartbroken Beatles decided to soldier on without him, replacing McCartney with a lookalike, but planting clues of Paul’s demise in Beatles songs and on album covers. Books could be written about the hoax – and, in fact, a few have – but now comes Joseph Niezgoda, in The Lennon Prophecy: A New Examination of the Death Clues of The Beatles to tell us that everyone’s got it wrong. The clues aren’t there to detail Paul’s demise, Niezgoda says, but rather to foreshadow John Lennon’s violent death in 1980, payment to the Devil for a 20-year pact Lennon made with Satan in 1960.
According to Niezgoda, at some point in December 1960 — likely between the Beatles’ anticlimactic return from Germany on December 10, when the group seemed on the verge of breaking up, and their triumphant appearance at the Litherland Town Hall concert on December 27, the night it is generally accepted that Beatlemania was born – John Lennon traded his soul to the Devil in exchange for rock and roll fame and fortune. Twenty years later, in December 1980, the Devil called in the debt, using a demonically-possessed Mark David Chapman as his instrument of death.
On that wacky premise, Niezgoda devotes 186 pages to analyzing John Lennon’s behavior, scrutinizing album covers, scrubbing lyrics for hidden meanings, and generally working way too hard to come up with spooky numeric coincidences to support his theory. Like the Paul is Dead theory, I don’t buy one word of it; unlike the Paul is Dead theory, however, this one is neither fascinating nor even all that convincing. Niezgoda’s theories and his interpretations of events, lyrics, and images, are almost always eye-rollingly dopey, and ultimately require enormous leaps in logic or imagination to make lyrics, album covers, or anything else fit his theory.
Part of the problem is that Niezgoda is completely humorless. Sarcasm, satire, puns and plays on words are completely lost on him. Lennon’s wit—one of his most enduring traits—baffles Niezgoda, as does Lennon’s use of metaphor and delight in wordplay. And Niezgoda—who calls himself a “life-long Beatles fan, collector, and scholar”—doesn’t seem to be able to put Lennon or his quotes in context. He can’t tell when Lennon is joking, bragging, or being dismissive. He’s absolutely tone deaf.
Anyway, to spare you from ever having to read this thing, I’m going to give you a rundown of some of Niezgoda’s claims to give you an idea of just how loopy, and how spurious, Niezgoda and his claims can be.
Early on, in a chapter titled “Bewitchery of the Masses,” Niezgoda asks how to explain the enormous effect the Beatles had on their fans. How does one account for the swooning, the fainting, the screaming? Could it perhaps be their undeniable charisma or talent? Ridiculous, Niezgoda says; those are exactly the kinds of “intangible” and “indescribable” qualities that manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin ascribed to the band—and they’re indescribable, Niezgoda says, because they were a gift from the Devil. So, Niezgoda’s first “evidence” of demonic influence is Beatlemania itself, in all its inexplicable, unexplainable wonder.
It’s not enough to sell one’s sell to the Devil, though—as Niezgoda explains earnestly, one must also do all he can to actively deride God and religion. Therefore, any time Lennon mentions God, religion, Christ, or his soul, Niezgoda pounces. While he naturally makes hay of the “bigger than Jesus” statement—though not as much as one might expect, giving it only eight pages—any other reference to God is dissected looking for hidden meaning. For example, when John Lennon, following the massive Shea Stadium concert in 1965, remarked that it was “louder than God,” Niezgoda arches an eyebrow curtly. “Why did he chose that analogy?” Niezgoda demands. And when an exhausted Lennon tells childhood friend Pete Shotton at the height of Beatlemania that he often feels he’s sold his soul, the nonplussed Niezgoda can only take the most literate Beatle literally.
Niezgoda is at his most bizarre, though, when analyzing music, lyrics and album covers. The intricate, interwoven images on the cover of Revolver don’t trouble him all that much—but he’s convinced that the album’s name has to be a foreshadowing of the kind of gun that would be used to kill Lennon fourteen years later. Certainly, the name Revolver has nothing to do with the fact that vinyl records were played by placing them on a turntable that revolved at a certain speed—thus making any record, in a sense, a “revolver,” right? Again, that sort of word play is lost on Niezgoda.
He’s more fascinated by the infamous “butcher cover” for the Yesterday … And Today album—with the Beatles in butcher smocks covered with dismembered dolls and raw meat—which Niezgoda is all but certain is Lennon’s nod to “the most reviling sacrifice to Satan . . . the killing of young innocent children—infanticide.” Niezgoda quotes Lennon’s enthusiasm for the project (“I would say I was a lot of the force behind it going out,” Lennon once said) as the final word on the impetus behind the photo—but either doesn’t seem to realize or completely ignores the fact that both Paul McCartney and photographer Robert Whitaker have claimed credit for the idea, too. Whitaker’s version, in fact, holds up to the most scrutiny, as the photo was actually part of a series of artsy photos Whitaker staged, including one in which George Harrison appears to be driving nails into Lennon’s head. Lord knows how Niezgoda would have interpreted THAT photo.
The real stretch, however, comes in his scouring of the cover of A Collection of Beatles Oldies—a relatively obscure album released in the UK and Australia in late 1966. While the Paul is Dead crowd point to the drawing of the car getting ready to crash into the lounging figure’s head as a “death clue” for Paul’s alleged death by automobile, Niezgoda’s got something much more clever in mind: “[The figure’s] right crossed leg, with only slight imagination, can be seen as the letter ‘J,’ and it rests aside the word ‘OLDIES’ . . . [t]ogether, they spell ‘JOLDIES’”—or, as Niezgoda explains, “JOL (John Ono Lennon) DIES.” Cue the thunderclap and opening notes of Toccata and Fugue. And don’t try to tell Niezgoda that Lennon was 16 months away from changing his middle name from Winston to Ono when the album was released—he’s already ahead of you: it’s a “craftily constructed prophecy,” don’t you know?
Sgt. Pepper also falls under a similar scrutiny—although, unlike the Paul Is Dead gang, Niezgoda isn’t as much interested in the front cover as he is the back, where the Beatles, with the album’s lyrics superimposed over them, appear against a blood red background (nothing is ever red in Niezgoda’s book; it’s always BLOOD RED!). McCartney famously stands with his back to the camera—“turning his back on John and what he knew of the fatal pact,” Niezgoda says solemnly—but the real clue lies in the layout of the lyrics from George’s “Within You, Without You”: the words “lose their soul” are perfectly centered on John’s waistline. Pretty sinister, huh?
Even sillier is Niezgoda’s discussion of the drumhead on the cover of Pepper, an image already overanalyzed by the Paul Is Dead aficionados. Niezgoda relies on the same parlor trick as the Paul Is Dead gang, using a mirror to bisect the words LONELY HEARTS (which, he points out sinisterly, are in a different font from the rest of the drum!) to reveal a messy I ONE IX HE DIE. For the Paul Is Dead people, this convoluted hidden message means that Paul died on November 9th (with “I ONE” meaning eleven, and IX meaning 9, for 11/9). Not for Niezgoda. Instead, he reads this as a taunt from Satan to John Lennon: “I won! Nine, he die!” Nine, Niezgoda explains, is the day Lennon died—because it was already December 9th in Liverpool, you see, when John died in New York on December 8th.
That kind of convoluted numerology, in fact, is where Niezgoda becomes wearying. Lennon himself made much of the number 9 in his life—he was born on the ninth and included the number in the title of several songs—but Niezgoda comes up with some truly inane readings and sleights-of-hand to arrive at his nines. For example, he points out that if you dial the name JOHNONOLENNON on a push button phone, you get 564666536666 – and wow, look at all those sixes, which are really just nines standing on their heads. And only Niezgoda could read “One After 909” as an omen—it’s waaay too confusing to explain how it predicts Lennon’s death down to the day—all the way down to a reference to Yoko as a his “bag.”
The punch my ticket moment, though—the moment I knew Niezgoda was in way over his head—arrives on page 122, as Niezgoda does some headscratching over the band’s name:
“’The Beatles’ was a curious choice of name for a band, especially because it’s spelled wrong. In 1961, John wistfully explained to Mersey Beat where he got the idea: ‘It came in a vision—a man appeared on a flaming pie and said unto them, ‘From this day on, you are Beatles with an A’”
With an absolutely straight face, Niezgoda explains that Lennon had to spell “beetles” incorrectly so he could use the letters to make an anagram of “seal bet,” hiding in plain sight his pact with the Devil. As for the man on a flaming pie, Niezgoda points out, his gears churning, that “man on a flaming pie” scrambles as “pagan flame minion.”
Apparently, the pun on “beat” in the word “Beatles” seems to never have occurred to the humorless Niezgoda—he’s too busy making scary sounds and tut-tut noises. (As for the “pagan flame minion,” you can also anagram “man on a flaming pie” to make “film an ape moaning,” but that hardly means Lennon had hidden aspirations of being a voyeuristic zookeeper). I can’t tell if Niezgoda is being intentionally ridiculous here, or if he’s really that clueless.
Niezgoda’s last chapter contains two incredibly odd bits of contrived thinking and backwards logic. The first is a way-out reading of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake – a book published a year before Lennon’s birth, but which Niezgoda is nonetheless convinced contains prophecies of Lennon’s life and death. And that’s mostly because, at certain points over its 600 pages, Joyce uses words like “beetle,” “pepper” and “funeral.”
The second is a wacky bit of mathematics in which Niezgoda chooses three songs he believes “place the final moments of John Lennon’s life to music”: “I Am The Walrus,” “Revolution 9,” and “#9 Dream.” Niezgoda informs us that the total elapsed time from the moment Lennon was shot to the moment he died was 17 minutes—and I think we’re supposed to get chills when he informs us that the total time playing time for those three songs is 17 minutes, 42 seconds. Niezgoda provides us with absolutely no reason why there should or should not be a correlation between the playing time of these songs and Lennon’s last moments. It’s a completely nonsensical premise and farcical train of thought, and we’re supposed to somehow be spooked by it.
But that sort of spurious thinking is the norm for Niezgoda. His premise is a bizarre one to begin with, but The Lennon Prophecy is full of so many thin, lame, and eye-rollingly ridiculous theories that it’s impossible to take seriously. Yet, Niezgoda does. And “no one,” he writes in his wistful introduction, “is sorrier than I about what is written here.” Except maybe those of us who’ve read it.(less)
Beatles expert Mark Lewisohn brings the same pop culture awareness and spry writing style he lavishes on the Boys to one of England's most watched and...moreBeatles expert Mark Lewisohn brings the same pop culture awareness and spry writing style he lavishes on the Boys to one of England's most watched and (in public, at least) least admired comedians. You'll quickly find that Lewisohn's surtitle -- Funny, Peculiar -- is entirely appropriate, for what an odd, complicated, and interesting life it is, full of conflict, sadness, success, unrequited love, stage fright, and even a bit of genius.
You'll get Benny's early life, from growing up in a tightfisted family that made its money selling condoms to his brief military service and the odd jobs that would serve as the inspiration for later sketches. A lover of the stage -- though terrified of audiences -- Benny works his way through the seaside circuit (often as a straight man!) before finding his true calling, and talent, as a television comedian.
Those of us who know Benny only from The Benny Hill Show episodes that aired in the United States actually got to know Benny toward the tail end of his career, when clever comedy gave way to more suggestive sketches that had American audiences howling with laughter, but British critics and self-appointed purveyors of Good Taste groaning. Early in his TV career, Benny was admired for his quick-change ability (playing all the parts, for example, on a version of "What's My Line?"), his ability to mimic almost any accent, and his genuine charm. Even as Benny nipped the material of other comedians and (admittedly) raided old American joke books for materials, British audiences adored him, regularly voting him their favorite television personality well into the 1960s.
But even as Benny's fame soared internationally -- his agent brilliantly marketed select shows for the new syndication markets in the early 1970s -- his interest in even his own material waned, and Hill became a parody of himself, relying on bawdier material and deliberately pushing the censors to their limit.
Yet, those who knew Benny by his material would be surprised to learn that, privately, Benny was a very different man. Rather than a leering, dirty old man, he was haunted by fears of unrequited love -- and love lost to an unworthy rival -- yet once he was in a relationship, his standoffishness and apparent disinterest (which was most likely shyness) kept him from finding true love. And while he would never marry, he carried on extremely close -- and secret -- friendships with two disabled women for decades.
Even with his enormous fame and fortune, Benny was one of England's famous tightwads, living happily in his parents' unheated flat or in his own sparsely furnished apartment in Teddington, eating great gobs of cheap food, walking everywhere, and generally baffling friends who would find uncashed checks for enormous sums tucked away in the back of a drawer.
Whether you're a fan of Benny's or not (and I am), you'll be genuinely touched and saddened by Benny's final years, watching his reputation decline at home, his sad rompings with the children and families of women he could have married, and his often fractuous relationship with his family. When Benny died in his flat in Teddington in 1992, his body sat for days, slumped in front of the television, before finally being discovered by police.
All told, a remarkable story, wonderfully told by Lewisohn.(less)