Dreaming the Beatles: An Interview with Rob Sheffield

Does that strike you as right? How does it seem to you? I love that record, after not caring a thing about it for years. John just started playing a Chuck Berry song (“I’m Talking About You”) and George stomped out. When he walked out of the “Let It Be”/“Get Back” sessions, it was because he was trying to get them to play “All Things Must Pass” and John flat-out refused to play it. I wish Nina Simone had made a whole album of “Nasty George” songs. Here, let me make it as blunt as I can: I don’t believe in the Beatles.” Yet a planet full of Beatle fans hear that song and shrug, like Bob Dylan’s Jehovah talking to Abraham, “You can do what you want, John, buuuut …”
I love your suggestion that the Beatles were more interesting, and perhaps more musically influential, in the 1990s than in the ’80s. Even when they weren’t working, they still wanted to spend all their time together. Does it strike you the same way, or are there other major forces behind it? How important was Brian Epstein to the band and the larger phenomenon? Now I hear my sister marvel at how crazy her kids are about the Beatles. (Like John said in 1967, in Hunter Davies’s The Beatles: “We have met some new people since we’ve become famous, but we’ve never been able to stand them for more than two days.”) Yet as soon as Epstein died — only 32, while all four lads were away, spending their holiday weekend together in Wales with the Maharishi — they couldn’t figure out how to get along anymore. But he was the only Beatle hired for his chops, and you can hear it from their earliest studio recordings — listen to how hard he drives them through “There’s a Place” or “I Saw Her Standing There.” And those were just the first songs they cut that morning, the day they banged out the album. And all over again, we act surprised when the Beatles refuse to die on us. That friendship followed them around their whole lives. I decided in my teens it was a case of you-had-to-be-there, with half the songs as filler. The Ballad of John and Yoko from 1982 (edited by Jonathan Cott and Christine Doudna) is weirdly overlooked these days; on the surface it might look like a quickie Lennon hagiography, but it’s full of amazing things, like Robert Christgau and John Piccarella’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Rock and Roll Star,” the sharpest critical-biographical sketch of Lennon ever. I guess every generation and every audience finds a way to say, “The Beatles are our thing, not your thing.”
To what extent was the fabled John-Paul connection — often used as a model for artistic energy — a real collaboration? Tell us what you mean, and why do you think that’s so? Geoff Emerick’s Here, There and Everywhere and Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions are my favorite making-of books. So I’ve just started to love “Within You Without You” in the past few weeks, after detesting it since childhood. The whole thing seemed to fall apart when he died. Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head deserves every bit of its legend. Kurt Cobain always made a point of raving about Meet The Beatles! The biggest shock for me about your book was that there was anything left to say about these guys, half a century later. — in a way, he was one-upping the 1980s Beatles mystique, killing off the myth to set the songs free. Then a few years ago “Fixing a Hole” came up randomly on my iPod, flipped me upside down, and sent me back to the rest of the album. AUGUST 12, 2017

HALF A CENTURY after their apogee and nearly as many years since their ugly self-destruction, is there anything left to say about the most chronicled rock band in history? The Elliott Smith connection is really brilliant. ¤
SCOTT TIMBERG: The Beatles tried to kill off their myth when they broke up, with lawsuits, denunciations, sheepshearing, and John’s “The dream is over.” And now they are, as you say, bigger than they ever were. I think you’re totally right. Right up to the weekend he died, the four Beatles were closer than ever. Nobody could replace him emotionally. He gave them all the courage to come screaming in. As a great man once sang, “It’s a love that lasts forever, it’s a love that has no past.”
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Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class. The John-Paul bond is such a bizarre story — these nowhere boys, in this nowhere town, a place where nobody expects or wants them to become artists, but they meet up to write songs from the heart together. Sgt. So strange to think how young he’d still be today, in a world that is completely different because he made everybody else fall in love with his Beatles fantasy. I guess that’s the thing with the Beatles — you never run out of surprises. In a series of loosely related chapters on subjects ranging from Rubber Soul to the Sgt. John, Paul, George, and Ringo were more shocked than anyone at how the world went right on loving the Beatles, after they fell drastically out of love with each other. Then suddenly he says, “Fuck a pig, it’s Paul.” They couldn’t get away from each other. I love Nina Simone’s version of “Isn’t It a Pity,” from 1972 — she brings all this bitter rage to it, as if she thinks George was pulling his punches. Kathleen Hanna had a great line in one of the early Bikini Kill fanzines: “Find the biggest bitch in your town and start a band with her.” That’s basically what John and Paul did. So many moments come and go when people think it’s the finale — the breakup in 1970, John’s murder in 1980, the 1 (One) compilation in 2000, The Beatles: Rock Band video game in 2009. And, of course, there’s Lewisohn’s Tune In, the first volume of his All These Years trilogy — I sure hope we all live long enough to see the next two installments come out. Give me the courage to come screaming in.” It’s such a raw and open John song, totally baring his soul, but he can’t sing it unless he knows Ringo’s got his back. (You could argue Elliott Smith did for George what Robert Pollard did for Paul.) I hadn’t thought of that, but Gen X definitely allowed the “Underrated Beatle” to build his mystique. He was never going to catch up to John and Paul. It’s always been easy to sleep on Ringo’s musicianship because he’s so many other things — so charming, so funny, such a friend to octopuses. John Lennon singing “God” is basically him saying, “What do I have to do to convince you people to stop caring about this stupid band I was in? There’s an instrumental “Within You Without You” that really hit me — it’s like “Venus in Furs” or something. It’s my favorite story in music, and, really, my favorite story anywhere in our culture. My favorite Ringo moment is the “Don’t Let Me Down” outtake where John asks him to cue the vocal with a cymbal crash: “Give me a big ksssshhhh. Ringo could have retired at lunch and he’d still have given the world a brand new beat. Brian Epstein is so crucial. Did that surprise you too, that there was this vast space left to explore? That happens in so many of John’s most honest songs, from “In My Life” to “God” to “Ticket to Ride” — those songs don’t happen without that Ringo groove as the emotional anchor. So now I feel waves of empathy and even affection for this song, which is more than I’ve ever felt for it. I think that has something to do with the acrid side of his music. The 1990s were such an exciting decade for music — so much innovation, so many fans spending so much money on so many CDs — and the Beatles felt like an active part of it, from Radiohead to the Wu-Tang Clan. When my sisters and I were little kids growing up in the 1970s, it was comical for our parents and teachers how crazy we were about the Beatles. What is your favorite book or books on the Fabs? Their story has just kept growing, long after the four Beatles figured they were finished telling it. There’s something a little scary about that. I was always put off by the preachy vocal, but now I notice how close the lyrics are to “I Think We’re Alone Now” (a song I’ve always loved as sincerely as I’ve hated “Within You Without You,” a song that feels real in all the ways “Within You Without You” feels phony). George is such a fascinating figure — revered around the world as a guitarist and songwriter, yet always going to be the junior partner in this band. ROB SHEFFIELD: It’s so strange — the Beatles are much more popular now than they were in 1970, when they broke up. Even after they broke up, they kept bouncing songwriting ideas off each other, aiming answer records at each other. They didn’t always write together — but they kept inspiring and challenging each other, like when John brought in “Strawberry Fields Forever” and Paul tried to top him with “Penny Lane.” Even when they weren’t in the same room, they were writing Lennon-McCartney songs. What the hell happened? I can’t quantify it, but my hunch is that Ringo’s esteem has been rising lately among both musicians and our journalistic colleagues. Pepper’s album cover, the McCartney song “Maybe I’m Amazed,” and the oddball 1976 collection Rock ’n’ Roll Music, the Rolling Stone columnist — who was born the year Revolver was released — looks at the band from his own Gen-X, square-Catholic-bookworm perspective, and makes the result feel like a revelation for all of us. Half a century ago, the Beatles story was just beginning. And if so, what might have inspired it? Pepper’s, which just marked a fairly public anniversary, polarizes opinion, especially among younger people who did not live through it. Nicholas Schaffner’s The Beatles Forever is such a gem — it was my childhood Beatle tutelage, published in 1977, yet when I go back to it now as an adult, I’m still blown away by how fresh it is, how full of humor and mischief and insight. Peter Doggett’s You Never Give Me Your Money is a startlingly fun tour of the breakup years. The George revival — his reassessment as an important songwriter and overlooked talent during the Beatles years — has always seemed to me a Gen X thing, in part because of the role of Elliott Smith. Then the story goes on. I corresponded with Sheffield, who lives in Brooklyn, over email. I just went to Abbey Road to hear the fantastic outtakes on the new anniversary edition. In the 1980s, the Beatles were always shadowed in this kind of maudlin boomer-nostalgia haze; the ’90s are when the music broke free of that. How bizarre is that? They gave each other no peace. Rob Sheffield’s new book Dreaming the Beatles looks at the Fab Four from a fresh point of view: as a group that only acquired its meaning — and widest level of fame — in the decades after its breakup. So I’ve been listening to it a lot the last few years. I love the story John’s limo driver tells — it’s 1980, John is in the back of the car, listening to the radio, really enjoying this new hit song called “Coming Up,” wondering who the singer is. So as far as I’m concerned, the arguments are just starting and my favorite Beatles books have yet to be written. So I wanted to look at the Beatles not as some distant magical event that happened in the 1960s, but as something that kept happening in the ’70s and ’80s and beyond. All those moments looked like proper Hollywood endings. This isn’t something anybody intended to happen, least of all the four guys who actually played in the band. It turns out there is. That might be the most baffling mystery in the Beatles story — we still keep underestimating them.