New works about George, Paul, and the Fab Four's cultural echoes fill holes in the Beatles' lives and music
Here Comes the Sun: The Spiritual and Musical Journey of George Harrison
By Joshua M. Greene
Wiley, 307 pp., illustrated, $25.95
By Christopher Sandford
Carroll & Graf, 430 pp., illustrated, $26.95
Reading the Beatles: Cultural Studies, Literary Criticism, and the Fab Four
Edited by Kenneth Womack and Todd F. Davis
State University of New York, 288 pp., $24.95
It has always seemed to me a convincing proof of the greatness of the Beatles that the bulk of ''The White Album" -- that voluptuous crack-up of a record, full of smut and lunacy -- was written at a meditation camp in the Himalayas. Geniuses that they were, at Rishikesh, India, the Beatles answered the pull of the transcendental with an equivalent downward thrust of their own; commanded by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to focus on bliss, nothingness, and the white light of eternity, they came up with ''Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" and ''Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey." Apart from George Harrison, that is. While John and Paul strummed and swapped their ribaldries, and Ringo went home early with tummy trouble (too much spicy food), George was rigorous, sober, down with the program. It had been his idea to go there, after all. His best Rishikesh songs are solemn and beautiful: the devotional murmur of ''Long, Long, Long" and the elegiac ''While My Guitar Gently Weeps." And according to Joshua Greene's ''Here Comes the Sun: The Spiritual and Musical Journey of George Harrison," in his solemnity the heavy-browed young guitarist would remonstrate with his fellow Beatles: ''Too much time spent writing . . . struck George as a distraction from their purpose in coming to India, and he said as much. 'We're not here to talk music. We're here to meditate.' 'Calm down, man,' Paul said. 'Sense of humor needed here, you know.' "
Perhaps a spiritual biography is humorless by definition. The spirit doesn't tell jokes; it strives wordlessly for perfection. One reads of course of the constant merriment of the Dalai Lama, and the Maharishi himself was apparently quite prone to the giggles, but the mirth of these sages seems to be of a very rarefied and cosmic order. Earthly laughter -- the guffaw, the yip, the cackle -- is different, and there isn't too much of it in ''Here Comes the Sun," suffused as it is with the earnestness of the seeking soul. Greene, who met George through London's Radha Krishna Temple in the 1970s, has efficiently separated from the mass of Beatle data the single thread of his subject's religious endeavors, and writes of them with the unblinking identification of the fellow devotee. ''George had discovered singing God's glories through the Krishna mantra," we read on Page 145. ''It made him feel good; it was easy and musical. How wonderful to think that God played a flute, that he was a musician." What we have here, not to put too fine a point on it, is new age prose -- moon-faced, quietly zealous, and limpidly free of skepticism.
On the other hand, this is rather the key in which the story of guru-hungry George demands to be written. The story of Paul, flashing his two raised thumbs like a pair of small horns, necessitates a different approach. Christopher Sandford's ''McCartney," with wit and some bemusement, paints the jaunty ''head Beatle" as a comic figure on the very grandest scale: an irrepressible entertainer, a stranger to doubt, absurdly vital, rebounding from vicissitude, part of humanity's immune system. A key moment occurs in January 1980, when the first Wings tour of Japan is derailed on arrival by the discovery at Narita Airport of what McCartney would later refer to as ''a bloody great bag of pot right on the top of my suitcase." The Japanese customs officers are not amused, and McCartney is promptly incarcerated. Things look bleak; there is the prospect of a long sentence, even hard labor. To console himself, the prisoner performs an impromptu medley of show tunes and Beatles standards for his fellow detainees, thus granting his future biographer the following prize-winning image: ''McCartney had finished 'Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goo'bye' and was nearing the end of 'Hey Jude' when the consul came."
This is essence of McCartney: The Fabness -- a twinkling amalgam of professionalism, personal toughness, and showbiz brio -- cannot be dented. It drove the other Beatles mad, of course. As background noise to McCartney's monstrously lucrative solo career, Sandford gives us the nonstop whine of disapproval from the Dakota Building: ''Sell-out. . . . crowd pleaser . . . about [as] underground as my granny." Lennon-McCartney: the partnership that became a dialectic. The sharp-nosed contrarian vs. the worldwide song-and-dance man, etc. In fact, as McCartney has been at pains to stress in recent years, it was he, rather than the rock 'n' roll-loving Lennon, who was the Beatles' real innovator. This is one of the more fascinating strands of Sandford's book -- the gradual division of powers within McCartney between the avant-gardist, fan of musique concrete, and the composer of million-selling chirpy tunes. Thrillingly integrated in a record like ''Revolver," by the '80s these two personae were almost entirely distinct, as McCartney seemingly wrote ''Ebony and Ivory" and ''The Frog Song" with one hand while doodling esoterically with the other. The natural result was a measure of dissociation in both realms. Asked by the producer of his first Fireman album (an incognito foray into electronica) if he had any thoughts for a second one, McCartney handed over a note: ''The Fireman brings bison for trancing in the streets. The Fireman knows a lemon's peal . . . The Fireman understands darsh walls & emerdeen sky. Do you?" And yet the magic touch is never lost. For 30 years and more, the hits keep coming, some of them written in five minutes. Money and honors rain down. With no apparent strain he graduates from an orgiastic bachelorhood (Lennon called him a ''sex gladiator") to an almost religiously devoted marriage: Mother Nature's son, truly.
At the other end of the scale from the luminosities of ''Here Comes the Sun" and the brisk, hilarious ''McCartney" we have ''Reading the Beatles: Cultural Studies, Literary Criticism, and the Fab Four," edited by Kenneth Womack and Todd Davis, which is all knotty with cogitation and argument. Some of the writing is excellent: Walter Everett's ''Painting Their Room in a Colorful Way: The Beatles' Exploration of Timbre" marries dense technical detail to a dizzy, almost Walter Pater-esque sensuality. We learn, for example, that the horns in ''Got to Get You Into My Life" are ''miked in the bells when possible for an unnatural restriction of emphasized partials," but also that Beatle music contains ''aural analogues of the satins that come in chartreuse, fuchsia, sky blue and tomato." And a small cheer goes up from the readership when James M. Decker, in ''Baby, You're a Rich Man: The Beatles, Ideology and the Cultural Moment," describes the Beatles' folio-size ''Anthology" book as ''obscenely priced at $60." Elsewhere, however, we are depressed to find such Flann O'Brien-like statements as ''The perpetually enigmatic 'And Your Bird Can Sing' traffics extensively in various negations" and ''Whitley argues convincingly that the extensive use of bricolage makes 'The White Album' a postmodern work." Which is not to say that these statements are without insight, but simply to observe that this is a book written largely by professors for professors, and to suggest that -- having peeped in -- we quietly withdraw and leave them to it.
James Parker is the author of ''Turned On: A Biography of Henry Rollins." He lives in Brookline.