The Beatles

The Biography

by Bob Spitz

Hardcover, 983 pages, Little Brown & Co, List Price: $29.95 | purchase

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Title
The Beatles
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The Biography
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Bob Spitz

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Book Summary

Challenging popular myths attributed to the Beatles, an extensively researched band portrait traces their individual experiences of rising from young, angry rock-and-roll musicians to fame.

Read an excerpt of this book

Also by Bob Spitz

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Beatles

Chapter One A Proper Upbringing

[I]

Water. Those who were drawn to it-the seafarers to whom the infinitesimal lap against a bow and the white blown spray prefigured a window on the world, the merchants and craftsmen who plied goods from the North and Midlands into commercial dynasties, and the dockhands and laborers bred to keep the machinery moving-allowed the mystery of the Mersey to lay hold of their imagination. The river, with its dark, brooding magnetism, drove the city as if throughout its existence it had been waiting for a subject as pliant and as pure as these shores, those spiny timber docks, that rim of sea. This wasn't a typical Lancashire shoreline, fashioned for pleasure boats and sunbathers, but a remarkable seven-and-a-half-mile natural harbor studded with chocolate-dark rock that clung to Liverpool's lofty townscape like a dressmaker's hem. The nucleus of the dock system, with its imposing mass of antique structures-warehouses, embankments, swing bridges, overhead railways, and gates-fed a humped dense center of red brick and church spires, itself a sort of iron splash that provided a nicely supporting symmetry all around.

The people living within these confines saw the seaport as a threshold on the horizon. Beyond it, an invisible world beckoned. Not a day passed when detachments of tall-masted ships weren't diligently on the move, bound for one of the globe's imagined corners.

Liverpool considered itself "the Gateway to the British Empire" for its mastery of imperial trade. And yet to the rest of the country, especially those living in tweedy London, Liverpool was an anglicized Siberia: desolate, insular, meaningless-out of sight, out of mind. Hardworking, dressed darkly, and forgotten. The prejudice was no secret, and it made those men and women of the North fierce and intimate. People from Liverpool called themselves "Scousers," giving their common kinship an exalted magic, in much the way that Ozark Mountain dwellers are called hillbillies. The term was derived from the nautical lobscouse, a sailor's dish consisting of meat stewed with vegetables and a ship biscuit but revised over the years by the Irish custom of keeping a pan of scouse stew simmering on the stove all week, to which table scraps and leftovers were added as they became available. "Scousers have a fierce local patriotism," says Mersey Beat founder Bill Harry, who grew up in the center of town at the same time as the Beatles. "It's like belonging to your own country. A real Scouser believes he is fighting everybody else in the world, and that everyone is against him, especially Londoners. He defends this position eloquently-with his fists."

Like many seaside boys, the four young men who would form the Beatles were absurdly modest, considering the outlet water provided: "to be the best band in Liverpool" was all they ever wanted. The Mersey was their only river.

Two hundred years before the Beatles crossed the water to "take America by storm," the ships of Liverpool rode the seas in service to the upstart colonies, whose landowners coveted burly African slaves. Merseyside magnates, loathing the practice of slavery but drunk on its profits, sent "stout little ships" laden with blue and green Manchester cottons and striped loincloths called "anabasses" down the Atlantic to West Africa, where, on the swampy, malaria-ridden island of Gore, they bartered textiles with Arab and African flesh peddlers for human cargo. This, according to ships' logs and harbor records, was the first leg of a triangular route for the so-called African trade, a twelve-month journey that required an arduous "middle passage," docking next in either Virginia or the West Indies, where cotton or sugar, respectively, was then dispatched to Liverpool.

Liverpool thrived on the backs of slaves-thrived and thickened. Historian J. A. Picton points out how new structures expressed an elaborate Grecian influence, with ornamental columns and peaked roofs, so that "everything was modeled on the Parthenon." The city's growth mushroomed dramatically, and sailors and dockworkers, trusting in the promise of wealth, came to claim it. By 1800, Liverpool had become the richest city in Britain and second only to Lyon in all of Europe. A determined new race of longshoremen scuttled along the Kings Dock's great tobacco bonded warehouse and into the mazy Duke's Warehouse terminal, where barges were unloaded as they floated through its unorthodox arched brick caverns. The sunstruck warehouses thronging Jamaica Street bulged embarrassingly with lavish cargo. New construction abounded like milkweed.

Normally, where money and success flowed, civic pride followed, but not in this case. The slave trade, made grotesque and untenable by public indignation, was finally abolished in 1807. The merchant princes conveniently converted their ships to carry produce, and for a few years prosperity endured. Eventually, however, fruit proved no match.

Their conscience was rescued by American cronies, whose unlapsing resilience defied all reason. Cultivated on plantations scattered throughout the West Indies, odd lots of silky, long staple cotton had always been mixed in with larger cargoes containing sugar, rum, tobacco, ginger, and coffee that came in exchange for slaves. Most of it was unprocessed and used for hosiery and candlewicks, but in nearby Manchester, home to an influx of textile workers who, centuries earlier, had been driven out of Flanders by the Duke of Alva, the manufacture of cloth developed at an enormous rate. By 1800, 60.3 million pounds of cotton were being imported by Great Britain, every last bit of it bound for Manchester and rerouted by dealers there to mills in southeastern Lancashire, which were working at full capacity. As England's industrial revolution exploded, so, too, did the market for textiles. And Liverpool, waiting for just such an opportunity, was ideally situated, financially and geographically, to handle the business. Cotton poured into Liverpool to such an extent that boats bottlenecked in the Narrows, an exposed channel between the city and Birkenhead, and were forced to queue, awaiting their turn to unload. Practically overnight, the stubby line of docks grew to five, pushing north along the river, while port facilities ate into the streets surrounding the harbor like sets of teeth. Banks, customhouses, mercantile exchanges, and insurance and solicitors' offices were knit into the jungled fabric of new warehouses, whose vastness, Picton writes, "surpasses the pyramid of Cheops." Three magnificent churches, constructed entirely of prefabricated iron, were built between 1812 and 1814, allowing the fortunate to give thanks for this affluence. Civic buildings, skillfully mimicking the palazzi of the Medici, provided the grandeur and versatility due a thriving commercial hub.

Cotton brought respectability to Liverpool. But the water was dominant, and while its infinite resource steered opportunity toward the seaport, it also engulfed her. From 1845 to 1849, nearly fifty thousand Irish refugees thronged into Liverpool, causing near-civic collapse. The potato famine forced entire villages from their homes and deposited wave after wave of its victims onto the Merseyside docks, dumping them there like some whaler's squalid catch waiting to be claimed. Among them were the families of John O'Leannain (their name was changed to skirt the sectarian divide) and James McCartney II. A total of 1.5 million Irish crossed, some merely stopping long enough to get a ship to America, while others, made vulnerable by sickness and sudden poverty, sought permanent residence in what was already an overpopulated boom town. In a disparaging reference that nonetheless has some truth to it, historian Quentin Hughes says that "Liverpool wound up with the dross." Entire families, whose assets were often limited to the clothes on their back, crammed into living quarters unfit for human occupancy. "Many places that had one family in residence now had ... five families," Hughes points out, "with some living in the basement, where the floor was soil and [there was] no cross ventilation." In a hasty attempt to remedy the situation, developers relocated people in tracts of back-to-back terrace houses-dwellings backed onto each other and connected on either side, so that the only windows and ventilation were in the front. For both the townspeople and newcomers alike, Liverpool became a grim, confrontational city. The Irish were blamed for creating a raft of social problems, not the least of which were fire, mob violence, and an outbreak of cholera that ravaged the whole of downtown. Conversely, it was the public's cold insensitivity, the new arrivals argued, that fed these conditions and fears.

The McCartneys, who were handymen by trade, found temporary housing near the docks, where Joseph, Paul's grandfather, was born in 1866. The Lennons gravitated to nearby Vauxhall, a neighborhood of mostly Irish immigrants, just north of the city, on the waterfront. To John's maternal grandfather, George Earnest Stanley, the power of water was more alluring and secure than anything sheltered land could provide. Described as "a real old sea sailor" in the mold of Ishmael, he spent three-fourths of his life aboard merchant ships in service to the Crown.

There was nothing unusual about young men from the area being gone for months, sometimes years, on end. Indeed, it was often a reasonable alternative to the nimbus of misery on the streets back home. Stanley had no intention of scratching out a living in the poxy factories and slaughterhouses along the wharf. Life at sea meant fewer hardships and a chance to pursue his spiritual quest for "seeing the civilized world." Although he never rose up the chain of command, George became an accomplished sailmaker assigned to one of the first three-masted ships to sail around the world. That left little opportunity for proper courtship, but by 1885, George Stanley had met and married a twenty-two-year-old Welsh girl named Annie Jane Millward, one of three daughters from a severely strict Methodist clan whose matriarch, Mary, refused to utter a word of the devil's English. A devout churchgoer herself, with little tolerance for worldliness, Annie risked her piety by working for a common lawyer in Chester, and it was there, in the bustling old Roman seaport, that she eventually encountered George Stanley. George was "a tough character": relentless without leniency, demanding without compromise. But he was responsible and well disposed to supporting a family. After watching four of her uncles die of tuberculosis contracted from milk produced on the family's dairy farm, Annie was determined, almost obsessively so, to reseed the family tree, and once married, she devoted herself almost exclusively to childbearing.

In quick succession-at least, in the timetable allowed by George's stints at sea-Annie gave birth to five children, all girls: Mary Elizabeth, called Mimi; Elizabeth, known affectionately as Betty and, later, Mater; Anne; Harriet; and the youngest, Julia, nicknamed Judy, John Lennon's mother, born in 1914.

Conscientious husband that he was, George Stanley eventually surrendered to domestic reality, retiring grudgingly from sailing, and took a shoreside job with the Liverpool and Glasgow Tug Salvage Company, recovering the scattered wreckage of submarines from treacherous ocean beds. Rather than live in Liverpool center, which was still astonishingly dangerous, the Stanleys settled in Woolton, a grassy suburb outlined by dirt roads and farms.

All five sisters grew strong and inflexibly tight in a modest row house at 9 Newcastle Road, in the district known as Penny Lane. Years later, John would say: "Those women were fantastic ... five strong, intelligent, beautiful women, five sisters," as if they were a stage act: the Stanley Girls. He relished their collective spirit, and from what history has shown, they were indeed a remarkable bunch. Mimi, the eldest, assumed a matriarchal role, taking charge of her siblings in a way that eluded their abstracted mother. Mimi was grounded: a practical nurse, a lover of culture, a sharp-tongued, high-principled, duty-bound young woman who wore the kind of sensible dresses that looked as if they had been picked out for the weekly garden club meeting. "She was born with a keen sense of propriety," recalled one of her nephews. Her method was very simple: everything operated on the axis of decorum and honesty. It was all black-and-white: either you measured up or you didn't. "She had a great sense of what was right and wrong," recalls John Lennon's boyhood friend Pete Shotton. There was nothing, no situation or dilemma, that Mimi was unequipped to handle. And where the younger girls dreamed of starting families, Mimi dreamed of challenges and adventure-the kind that demanded an unusually stubborn independence. "I had no intention of getting married," she told a curious admirer, dreading the prospect of "being tied to a kitchen or a sink."

As she approached her twentieth birthday, Mimi Stanley's aspirations appeared to be right on track. Her pursuit of a respectable vocation met with early success, first as a resident nurse at a Woolton convalescent hospital and later as the private secretary to Ernest Vickers, an industrial magnate with posh residences in Manchester and Wales. Out of personal necessity, Mimi devoted herself entirely to her employer, certain that as soon as the opportunity availed itself, she would invest her savings "in a modest estate from which she could entertain scholars and dignitaries from a cross section of Liverpool society."

A confluence of events, however, placed Mimi's dream just out of reach. In the spring of 1932, when she was twenty-six years old, a short but powerfully built dairy farmer named George Smith, who lived just opposite the hospital and delivered raw milk there each morning, began courting Mimi with a vengeance. His efforts were made difficult by Mimi's frustrating indifference and her eagle-eyed father, who treated all of his daughters' suitors as adversaries. "Grandfather made it impossible for Mimi and George," according to Stanley Parkes, Mimi's nephew, who remembered watching his aunt with keen, admiring eyes. Night after night, he observed the young couple sitting in the back room at Newcastle Road, "under constant chaperone: my grandfather and grandmother always in the next room." At a ridiculously early hour, old George Stanley would barge into the parlor, shouting, "That's long enough! Away you go-home!" making it impossible for the relationship to develop. The courtship dragged on this way for almost seven years until, finally, George Smith delivered an ultimatum along with the milk. "Look here! I've had enough of you! Either marry me, or nothing at all!"

The marriage of such a headstrong young career woman to a relatively commonplace and unassuming man might have had more of a disruptive effect on the Stanley family were it not for another, more upheaving union among the close-knit sisters. Six months earlier, on December 3, 1938, Julia, George Stanley's favorite and most high-spirited daughter, stunned her father when she arrived home after a date with a longtime boyfriend and announced, "There! I've married him," waving a license as proof. It was only reluctantly, after her father threatened Julia with expulsion if she cohabited with a lover, that she proposed to-and married-the dapper young man with a "perfect profile" and nimble spirit named Freddie Lennon.

[II]

If John Lennon romanticized the memory of his mother, he took an altogether opposite view of his father. Freddie Lennon remained a vague shadow figure, an outcast, throughout John's life and, except for two brief appearances, had no direct influence on his son's upbringing. Aside from the resentment that lingered as a result of this circumstance, John's knowledge of his father grew fainter with every year. "I soon forgot my father," he told Hunter Davies in 1968. "It was like he was dead."

The Stanleys did a good job helping to put Freddie Lennon to rest. "They wanted nothing to do with him from the start," said his niece Leila Harvey. Julia's father considered him below their station, "certainly not middle class," and Mimi later said that "we knew he would be no use to anyone, certainly not our Julia."

(Continues...)