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The long and winding road

Brilliance, waste, and wrangles along the Beatles’ path

The Beatles: The Biography
By Bob Spitz
Little, Brown, 983 pp., illustrated, $29.95

With the Beatles
By Lewis Lapham
Melville House, 147 pp., paperback, illustrated, $12.95

Bob Spitz's ''The Beatles" is a startlingly well-reported and consistently engaging revisionist biography of the most familiar, and arguably the best, pop group in history. Even though the Beatles story is well known, Spitz has fleshed it out fully, revealing the flawed, singularly creative human beings behind that lovable moptop image. He traces the Beatles from childhood to their 1970 breakup and suggests that what followed -- their individual recording careers, the murder of John Lennon, George Harrison's death -- is far less interesting. What makes the exhaustively bootlegged Beatles so engrossing is they seemed to speak as one voice, creating music that transcended category and embodied community. They were so good that for a brief period in the volatile, aspiring 1960s, they made us believe that all you need is love. Their story, however, suggests otherwise.

Also catching part of the Beatles vibe is Lewis Lapham's ''With the Beatles," an aesthetically appealing but ultimately disappointing little book with nifty pictures. Although charming and smoothly written, it feels like an extended footnote. That's too bad, especially considering that Lapham is the editor of Harper's magazine. The only journalist allowed into the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi when the Beatles visited it in 1968, Lapham has delivered more ''with" than ''Beatles," dropping too many of the other names in attendance at the maharishi's getaway and shortchanging the Beatles themselves. This trifle is sure to become a collector's item; not particularly illuminating, it covers ground Spitz treats in greater and more interpretive detail.

In a recent question-and-answer session with Publishers Weekly, Spitz said his book took nearly eight years to prepare and, when initially presented, was 2,700 pages. It's still huge, but it's captivating and by no means too long. Spitz meant it to be sober and truthful, he said. It is. It's also heartfelt.

What Spitz does exceptionally well is contextualize. He details the separate social contexts of each Beatle, re-creates their heady early years (the Hamburg gigs where they sharpened their craft and the Cavern gigs that seeded Beatlemania are particularly vivid), makes their oppressive, even frightening popularity palpable (fans nearly tore them apart, rushing them at concerts and making their getaways hazardous), and explains how Lennon and Paul McCartney separated under pressure from women, business, and fame.

Spitz spends several hundred pages on the formative years as Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison evolved from schoolboy band to the Quarry Men to the Beatles. Before settling on permanent drummer Ringo Starr, they shed notables such as the frail, artistic Stu Sutcliffe (awful on bass, a pro at image) and key loser Pete Best, the Beatles' penultimate drummer.

The usual ranking is Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr, but it's not that simple. Spitz makes it clear that Lennon's drive and cold ambition got the Beatles off the ground, but he also suggests that McCartney was at least as talented, was a better musician, and kept things together (albeit in his own condescending way) in the middle and toward the end.

As early as 1961, when the Beatles' young manager, Brian Epstein, began to prettify them, their dynamic, with its built-in fault lines, was apparent. An early associate calls Paul ''Mr. Show Business," adding that Lennon ''greeted each concession, each nod to conformity, with unmasked hostility."

''That was the intricate nature of the band," Spitz writes. ''It put Paul and John at cross-purposes, terrific cross-purposes, that would grow in intensity over the years. Passing was the perfect harmony that marked their songwriting relationship. In its place was a distinction so contrary, a conflict so profound, that the friction it produced built up an armor. Both men schemed aggressively to impose their vision on the Beatles. Always there was Paul's need to impose their vision on the Beatles. Always there was Paul's need to smooth the rough edges and John's need to rough them up. Somehow, it drove them to fertile middle ground. But the constant compromise was ultimately a debilitating position, and the balance on both sides could not be sustained forever."

Spitz also gives credit where it's due, to Epstein and, above all, to George Martin, far more the ''Fifth Beatle" than sycophantic New York DJ Murray Kaufman, a.k.a. Murray the K. The remarkably open-minded Martin not only encouraged the group, he held it together during such glorious efforts as ''Rubber Soul" and ''Revolver" and such bitter non-collaborations as ''The White Album," a double LP that was brilliant, though it's the sound of things falling apart.

Unlike many celebrity biographers, Spitz doesn't sugarcoat. Lennon's childhood was indeed troubled, but that doesn't excuse his meanness to his first wife, the pliant Cynthia, or how infantile he was with Yoko Ono, whom Spitz portrays as a conniving social climber and the true force behind the Beatles' breakup. Spitz doesn't spare McCartney, either, depicting him as both a musical genius (''Yesterday" is all his) and a smiling opportunist.

It's all here: the brilliance, the waste (Spitz's look at the Beatles' Apple Corps-related business is appalling), drugs soft (Dylan turned them on to marijuana) and hard (John and Yoko were deeply into heroin), and legal disputes, with ''a tough little scorpion named Allen Klein" backing Lennon-Ono against McCartney, wife Linda, and Lee Eastman, Linda's lawyer dad.

''The Beatles" is a dark, riveting fable about a group that in breaking up let the whole world down. Although they made music as one, the Beatles were individuals, too. Their complex equations are thoroughly and movingly explored in Spitz's memorable biography.

Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer in Cleveland.

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