“I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Timequake. “I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, ‘The Beatles did.’ “And maybe the less one knows about the Beatles, separate yet unequal parts of a perfect pop machine, the more benign they appear. Yet every recent book about the band— including Bob Spitz’s sprawling, meticulously researched, and carefully sourced action verb of a biography—must ultimately contend with the darkness at the center of each tome: John Lennon.
Lennon was born during a Liverpool air raid, and you can hear that primal scream all the way through the amplified epic Spitz splits into eras of “Mercy,” “Mania,” and “Mastery.” Hundreds of fresh interviews, unprecedented archival access, and the purchase of Lennon biographer Albert Goldman’s unused interviews add welcome new details to the band’s earlier and later years. The group’s Liverpool and Hamburg stints are particularly well covered in all their rough black-leather glory. Absent fathers and strong mothers who died too soon loom behind the Lennon-McCartney (if not the Lennon-Epstein) love story. Barry Miles’s fascinating authorized McCartney bio, Many Years From Now, provided a solid corrective to the Lennon-centric view of the Beatles’ success. And while Spitz doesn’t exactly hop on that pendulum swing, he’s definitely in the anti–Yoko/Allan Klein camp.
Spitz hits the Lennon-as-drug-addled-emotional-cripple note with jarring frequency, a riff that often obscures the bad-boy rock expressionist’s outright genius—just listen to a bootleg of the “Strawberry Fields Forever” demos recorded only weeks prior to what Spitz calls Lennon’s “apogee of drug taking and self-abuse.” Otherwise, Spitz has done a masterful job of focusing his kaleidoscope eyes on the greatest pop thing since Jesus.