Sunday 30 October 2016

Mark Lewisohn tunes into Toronto

Renown Beatles historian, Mark Lewisohn, recently concluded a three-week research trip to Cleveland (the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame archives) and New York for volumes 2 and 3 of his epic biography, Tune In, by sitting for an interview at Toronto's Metro Reference Library.

An overflowing audience of over 200 heard the Englishman answer questions about the Beatles pivotal year, 1966. After all, his talk was part of the ongoing Beatles 50 T.O. celebration, centering on an exhibition [read the Rowboat's review here] and featuring walking tours, more talks and even a fashion show.

Lewisohn confirmed that the Beatles were first heard in North America on a Toronto radio station, “because Canada has a strong connection to Britain that American doesn't have. Canada tuned into the Beatles before America did."

Here are some more insights Lewisohn offered:

About the Yesterday and Today butcher cover:

This was an attempt by the photographer, Bob Whittaker, who was edgy and liked to do impressionistic work...The Vietnam War is raging by '65/66 and America is deeply involved in it and that is part of the ferment that is going on in this period. It was just a comment, but they obviously could have said, "No, we're not doing that." They didn't. They joined in and did the session.

George never liked it very much, but he did go along with it. John Lennon was the one who pushed for this to be an album cover. There's something extraordinary about a guy who will want something like that as his album cover when you consider that most people believed that the Beatles' core audience was young girls. So, this is a very shocking thing to do, very much in-your-face as we would call it these days. But that's what they wanted.

In Boston there's a swamp filled with 30,000 of these record covers. I was last week in Pennsylvania with a guy who used to work at the Capitol Records pressing factory and his job was to dispose of (I'm not sure) 10,000 record covers. He had to watch them be pulped at a shredding place.

Would Elvis had been asked if he was bigger than Christ or was '66 the year it had to happen?

The times they were a-changing. Everyone was growing up....Through the sixties the audience is maturing. With the Beatles comes an advancement in that maturing process, then others join in like Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones...

The Beatles were always different in England. When they came here to North America or anywhere they were travelling, they were “on.” They were like working. When they were home in England, their lives were so much different, much more calm and they were always open to reasonable approaches from journalists that they liked. They were interviewed extensively. They had none of the protection that the stars surround themselves with these days. You could phone up the office and say, “I'd like to interview John ideally tomorrow for Sunday's paper." The PR person would phone John and he'd say, “Yeah, okay.”

In this case, Maureen Cleave who was a journalist for the London Evening Standard who they really, really liked – because she was smart and savvy and interesting and witty, and John had a bit of an affair with her once. In 1966, she approached Brian Epstein and said, “I'd like to do in-depth interviews with all four of them and with you Brian, and these will run one a week in the London Evening Standard, whole page. I'll just go over to their houses and we'll talk."

In John's one, he said he was reading a lot, as he always was—he was a voracious reader of books and newspapers—and he just said that the Beatles in a sense were more popular than Jesus, because churches in England in the 1960s were empty....We can get 50,000 people to our shows, and the churches were empty. That in essence was what he was saying. As John said later, he wasn't knocking Jesus for that or boasting that we are bigger, more important. It was just so common. It ran in the British newspapers.

There was one letter in the Guardian about what an interesting remark to make. I'm not sure if that's true, but interesting. And then it went quiet. There were a couple of pieces in America. Funnily enough, there was a piece in a Detroit newspaper in April. The piece ran in England in March, but in July it got picked up by one of the American teenage girls magazines called Datebook.

Datebook put it on the cover: We're bigger than Jesus. And it just kind of sparked. They never held it against Datebook. They liked the editor very much. They kept a relationship with him. [Managing editor Danny Fields, who explains why he published the “Jesus” remark in the video below.] He was on that tour. He was not booted out. He wasn't responsible for the chaos that ensued.

In the new film, Eight Days A Week, Paul McCartney remembered the bigger than Jesus rumpus. What a big story that was for a few days, and says that John was a broken man by it. I'm really cross about that, because John was not a broken man by that. I wish Paul hadn't said that, and it's not right. But on camera that day he chose to say that and they included that, and that's going to be part of the history now. John was never a broken man and John apologized only for the way in which the words were couched or the fact that anybody may have been upset by it. He never actually apologized for what he said.

The second book takes place after 1962. Where are you going to end up after the second volume?

In the asylum, I think.

How are you going to approach this, because a lot of what's happening after December 1962 [where volume 1 ends] doesn't happen in England anymore. How are you going to span the globe and go through all the libraries and dig out this information?

(thinks about it) Yeah. (audience laughs) I'm not quite sure. I've been researching volume 2 and 3 from the beginning. I started this project in 2003. When you do a project like this, the research you just have to find whatever you find whenever you can find it no matter what period it belongs to.

The focus in the earlier years obviously was the early years. I was always finding good things for the next two books. Now, my focus is strictly volumes 2 and 3...

I've been a lifelong lover of libraries and archives and there is a great deal to be found if you know where to look and you have the sensibility for how libraries and archives work. The Beatles' story has the very richest of paper trails. Not just paper. There's every kind of artifact you could ever imagine that is out there waiting to be found. A lot of it is known about substantially, but there is plenty more.

I came away from New York with that [spreads his arms] many original carbon copies of letters from the Beatles' management office from the 1960s, almost every one of which is revelatory, almost every one of which allows me to put real flesh on the bones of a story that people think they know but actually don't, because the tellings of the history tend to haven the sequence of: they made this album, then they went on tour, they made this album, then they made that film, then they went on tour.

What happens in between is as interesting if not more, because I want to make these books – as the first one is – about human beings. I hate the word “icons” or “iconic.” It's overused to death. Or “legends.” The Beatles weren't legends or icons. They were just human beings who expressed themselves this way and found that that was having a major effect without them wishing it on the whole world or substantial part...

I want to tell the story from the inside out, who they were, how they coped with everything that was going on, what their homes lives were like. I'm interested in what happens the day after the tour finishes and they're back home and they need to come down again and start seeing their friends and smoking what they want to smoke. Also, I want to look at it from the outside in, because the Beatles' effect on people everywhere on all ages, colours, creeds, classes was unparalleled.

Hair is the ultimate symbol of revolution in the sixties. It's the ultimate thing to piss off your schoolteacher or parent or factory foreman -- and that was entirely due to the Beatles. It was a revolution and that needs to be told....

I haven't started writing volume 2, and that will take a while, because the assimilation of this material is an immense undertaking, just the structuring of this. I like information and detail in these books, but I don't want the reader to be bogged down in that. I really want this to be a light, engaging, easy page-turner, which is not an easy thing to accomplish with the density of information... 2028 might by when volume 3 comes out, but I might still be researching it. It'll be when it'll be.

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