Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Dystopian Dreams: Larry Kirwan's Liverpool Fantasy

In my book Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream, I was trying to answer a question: How did a group like The Beatles, who wrote songs about love and helped to build a popular culture based on pleasure and inclusion, also attract hate and murder. To do so, I realized that I'd have to answer another key question: Was The Beatles' utopian dream worth it?

Given that the state of the world, in the wake of the band's demise, is not the one they sung about - and hoped for - in "All You Need is Love," it was tempting to ask whether or not The Beatles truly mattered. I thought I was going to have to justify the group solely on the strength of their music until I came across, quite by chance, a book by Larry Kirwan called Liverpool Fantasy (2003). In his book, Kirwan (who was the lead singer of a New York-based Irish rock group called Black 47), imagines England without the emergence of The Beatles. Liverpool Fantasy is a dystopian, yet comical, look at the absence of The Beatles from history. It doesn't spare the reader, but it doesn't ridicule the dream the band created either.

In Liverpool Fantasy, Kirwan asks what might have happened had The Beatles broken up before their thunderbolt song "Please Please Me" had not hit the airwaves and broke them in England in 1962. Their manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin believe that their cover of the quiet ballad "Till There Was You" will do better. While Lennon balks at the suggestion, McCartney is happy to go along (after all, he sings on it). At which point, Lennon storms out of the studio taking George and Ringo with him. The Beatles are no more. Kirwan next cuts to 1987 where the picture of England isn't an artistic renaissance, but a fascist state where the National Front, bearing the slogans of the ultraright Enoch Powell, has struck a coalition with the Tory government. Unemployment is high. Racism is pervasive. And The Beatles never happened.
John Lennon is now a bitter alcoholic on the dole having watched his adolescent hopes come to nothing. His son Julian, angered by his father's emptiness, adopts the fascist dream as his own and joins the National Front. George Harrison ends up a Jesuit priest who finds his spiritual beliefs earlier in life. Without his defining moments in The Beatles, he dispenses empty homilies without hope that things will ever change. (The priest's collar hangs around his neck like a noose.) Ringo lives off the earnings of his wife Maureen's hairdressing salons. Only Paul becomes a musical success, but he's hardly happy about it. Living in Las Vegas, under the name of Paul Montana (a cute play on an early pseudonym, Paul Ramone), McCartney is the one experiencing his "fat Elvis" period rather than Lennon. Divorced and now remarried to an attractive trailer park sharpie, Paul is haunted by nightmares of what might have been. 

He's not alone.

Back in Liverpool, Lennon has to live with the curse that the promise of "Please Please Me" was never fulfilled and that thoughts of pleasing aren't now in anyone's vocabulary.

Liverpool Fantasy is a stinging black comedy telling us that whatever dark shadow was ultimately cast by The Beatles' utopian spirit, their music created a vision of life that irrevocably changed the way we see the world. Kirwan makes his characters aware of that possibility even though they never get to experience it. (As readers, we experience the absence of what we know to be true about their impact on the world and the culture.) The Beatles do, however, realize that their music would have made a different world than the one they are living in. For instance, when McCartney comes back to the dismal streets of his hometown, the city he abandoned for fame in America, he seeks to reunite with Lennon, Harrison, and Starr to begin again where he left off. But Kirwan is no sentimentalist. There are no second chances. What makes the emotional core of his book so resonant and so true, though, is that he doesn't cheapen The Beatles' lives by redeeming them from past mistakes. Liverpool Fantasy is about how you learn to live with those mistakes - maybe, perhaps, even in spite of them. 

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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