Friday, October 9, 2015

Beatles Confidential: Mark Lewisohn In His Own Write

The Beatles arriving at New York's JFK Airport on Feb. 7, 1964. (Photo courtesy the U.S. Library of Congress)

Mark Lewisohn, the world’s only full-time Beatles historian, is a right scholar. In July, when the sun was shining and most Londoners were outdoors basking in the rarity of a cloudless English morning, the bespectacled Briton was ensconced inside the fortress-like British Library, quietly perusing a half century’s old clippings file having to do with the National Theatre’s 1967/68 stage version of In His Own Write, the 1964 book by John Lennon whose birthday it is today. Victor Spinetti, the Welsh actor who had appeared in such Beatles films as A Hard Day’s Night, Help! and Magical Mystery Tour, had directed the play for which Lennon had written additional material, and the reviews had been mixed. The comedian discussed the production in papers released to the public following his death in 2012. National Theatre stalwarts, Sirs Kenneth Tynan and Laurence Olivier, also had referenced In His Own Write in correspondence of their own. Lewisohn, who makes it his business to know everything there is to know about the Beatles “It’s my life’s work,” he proudly declares   has read them all. But on this particular day he was on the lookout for additional details that would give him the full, unabridged picture   the who, where, how and why   of what actually had happened. “I go anywhere where I can find something new, new to me anyway,” he said during a coffee break in the library’s light-filled canteen. “I’ve been researching the Beatles since the late 1970s, and the fact that there are still things new to me is extraordinary. But that is very much the nature of this subject: there’s so much material to be found.”

Some of that new material, recently unearthed, will be exposed much later in future volumes of All These Years, the mammoth three-volume Beatles’ history Lewisohn was contracted to write in 2004 after first establishing himself as the world’s most foremost authority on the band. His previous books on the Beatles, each praised for their depth and breadth of knowledge and the brisk insightfulness of their prose, include The Beatles Live! (1986), The Beatles Recording Sessions (1988), The Complete Beatles Chronicle (1992), and the co-authored (with Piet Schreuders and Adam Smith ) The Beatles’ London (1994). As well, Lewisohn worked as a researcher and consultant on the 1994-95 Beatles Anthology project, collaborating closely with Beatles producer George Martin in producing the three double-CD audio release. He has written liner notes for the Beatles’ re-releases and for Paul McCartney’s solo albums. All his experience and understanding of the Beatles is brought to bear on his unauthorized Beatles’ biography whose first volume, Tune In, was published last year to critical acclaim. The highly anticipated second and third volumes are projected to follow sometime in the next decade. The precise publication dates are unknown. The release of the books depends very much on the pace of the research, which Lewisohn admits is slow. But, as he explained in a conversation touching on the enduring appeal of the Beatles, and why the remaining members of the world’s greatest band appear to want nothing to do with his definitive history, Lewisohn explained that scholarship of the sort he is committed to pursuing just can’t be rushed: “This project is about leaving no stone unturned, and that’s a time-consuming process. If I stop researching today because everyone’s saying, ‘Hey, I want to read it now’ I could miss some vital thing that must be written into this history. Content is paramount.”

Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn. (Photo:Eddie Janssens)

dk: How do you find these rare bits of new information about the Beatles?

ml: It’s a question of going to the right people, gaining their trust, asking the right questions in the right way and finding out what they have. Documents are also surfacing on the Internet more or less every day – and though they represent a fraction of what I already have, I’ll always look at them because I must see everything.

dk: Boomers, people who lived through Beatlemania, and the Beatles’ phenomenon in the flesh so to speak, are now of an age when they may be passing on their archives before they themselves pass on. So I am wondering, are you seeing an increased availability of material now as fans – and the Fabs themselves – are aging?

ml: That’s a good question. I think the answer is yes, but there’s always been a steady stream of material any way. The fact is that people who were part of this history are now at an age where they’re leaving us, passing things on to their children – so yes, new things are surfacing. Letters people had written or received and which they weren’t previously volunteering for public consumption, are now being revealed by their descendants. Information comes from all manner of sources and one has to keep an open mind to it.

dk: How do you mean?

John Lennon in 1964.
ml: I do a lot of lateral thinking about where things might be found. For instance, one of the things I’m researching at the moment is the National Theatre’s 1968 production of John Lennon’s In His Own Write. There are files about this in several places, including here at the British Library, which has the papers of the office of the Lord Chamberlain. He was the state appointed censor of theatrical material, active for centuries, though in 1968 his rein was about to end. The last embers of the Lord Chamberlain’s influence were brought to bear on the Lennon play, and the British Library has the files. The National Theatre also has a file about the play, and so it goes, on and on. I look everywhere for anything that might tell me something new, and then I bring together all the pieces.

dk: But what about people who didn’t keep records, but who nevertheless were witnesses to history? We are also losing them to the aging process but without any papers to back up what they experienced. That looks to be an increased challenge.

ml: It’s a challenge, one I’ve been aware of from the start. I’ve been interviewing for this project since 2003, talking to people then who won’t appear until volume three.

dk: Just to get them before they go?

ml: Yes, but I didn’t get everybody. People are dropping off the perch right, left and centre at the moment, and I have to accept that I can’t get to everybody. Another concern is that even the people who haven’t yet left us may not be as sharp mentally as they once were. The aging process takes its toll on everybody and is no respecter of fame or fortune. But what more can I do? I work long hours every day – I can’t do any more than I’m doing now and I don’t have the funds to employ a team of people. It’s just me on my own, doing my best. But I’m not short of material. I’ve already got way more than I need for volumes two and three, in terms of research material.

dk: Can you qualify that? What is way more?

ml: Substantially more. I couldn’t possibly use everything I’ve already got. I already have enough to write volumes two and three.

dk: Really? You could start now?

ml: I could, but I won’t. I’ve not yet found everything I’m looking for – and that, in a nutshell, is one of the things that differentiates this project from any other. Typically, an author will look at what he or she has and say “I have enough now; I can write the book." But with a project like this, it’s not about quantity; it’s about quality. Well, it’s about quantity and quality. Merely “having enough” is irrelevant because there’s still more to be found, and there are discoveries, both big and small, that could substantially enlighten or alter this history, things I’ve not found yet. I’m not going to stop looking just because I already have a welter of material.

dk: Have you started writing any of it?

ml: No.

dk: And remind me again, what is your timeline for volume two – ideally?

ml: I’m still shooting for publication in 2020.

dk: So you do have some time.

ml: Not much.

dk: How long is the writing process, usually?

ml: I only have the first volume to go by and the statistic I remember most vividly from writing Tune In was that by the time I reached 1962 – which is approximately what the other years are going to be like from this point forward – it took longer than real time to write. It took over a year to write that one year.

dk: So you don’t know when the little bell will go, tinkle-tinkle, in your brain, signalling that you start writing?

ml: I’ll know when I’m ready.

dk: You’ll know?

ml: Well, I have to. This is a creative process so I’ll know when the moment comes.

dk: It seems that 1966 could be a good break-off point for volume two, do you think? 1963 to 1966, Candlestick Park?

ml: I still haven’t decided where volume two will end and volume three begins. 1966 could be a suitable division but even within that year there are different possibilities. As I’ve said all along, I don’t want to decide at this point, and it isn’t yet necessary. The material will tell me.

The Beatles in their last official public concert, San Francisco's Candlestick Park, August 29, 1966.

dk: Did the success of Tune In reap any tangible rewards: Did Paul thaw out? Did more people approach you?

ml: Because the book has an appeal for more material, as does my website, a lot of good stuff has come out of the woodwork. Really interesting things have been sent to me by complete strangers. In fact, I’d like to refresh that appeal now, to anyone reading this interview. I am forever looking out for something I might not already know. I realize no one can be sure what I know and what I don’t know, but if anyone out there has something they think is unusual or interesting, some piece of information, some document or photograph or recording, I’d be pleased to hear about it. People with information to share can contact me through my website.  I’m prepared to be bombarded with things I’ve already got for the possibility that a single piece of paper might be new to me. Another consequence of volume one’s success is that it seems to have elevated me as a historian.

dk: In what way?

ml: One example is that I’m being invited to speak at academic conferences, and these occasional bookings are funding the project, enabling me to buy at least some research assistance. These invitations also take me to countries I need to visit anyway, to spend research days in libraries and archives, so they are an effective use of my time. I wasn’t getting these offers before Tune In, so that’s a handy consequence.

dk: Has the project attracted a patron? There are certainly very deep-pocketed Beatles’ fans around the world who might want to support you, I would think.

ml: No, it hasn’t.

dk: Would you like that kind of help?

ml: I might consider it if the conditions were suitable and the offer came without strings. It would have to be for the love of the art, a love of the Beatles’ history and a desire to support its preservation. But I’m not looking for it – I’m just busy getting on with the work.

dk: How do you support yourself financially?

ml: With a little difficulty, but nothing insurmountable. I did get one of the last great advances in publishing, before that world shrank.

dk: When was that, by the way?

ml: 2004.

dk: Oh, well you did: you got the last pony out of Cash Town.

ml: I did. Not only was it before the publishing world changed but it was also before the global economic crisis. The advance was calculated to see me through a projected 12-year research and publishing period, in which I would have been comfortable. Now that the project is looking more like 25 years, the same sum of money is stretching ever more thin. But I’m not complaining. While I’d be financially better off if I delivered quicker, that would be defeating the purpose of the project.

dk: So you’re making five pence an hour as opposed to five pounds?

ml: Things got very tight on Tune In. I ended up finishing that book on a bank loan, which was horrible.

dk: Heavens! I’m hoping sales have helped?

ml: Sales are always nice, but the way book contracts are designed, you tend not to see royalties until you’ve out-earned your advance – and as my advance was structured to encompass all three volumes I’m not likely to see royalties for a long time.

dk: Do you know what sales have been to date?

ml: I don’t know exactly but it’s about 100,000 copies in hardback.

dk: World-wide?

ml: World-wide, but it’s only come out in Britain and America so far. The Japanese edition isn’t out yet, an Icelandic edition is about to come out, and I’ve recently signed a deal in Brazil for a Portuguese edition.

dk: So it’s been translated into Japanese?

ml: It’s been a long time coming but the latest I hear is it’s out next year, 2016.

dk: Are there other translations you know of?

ml: I’m sure there’ll be other translations but the major ones – French, German, Italian, Spanish – have not happened yet.

dk: Why?

ml: Because the book is so big that translation costs are high. Publishers in those respective countries have done the sums and decided they can’t make it work, not least since English-speaking readers in those countries have already bought the British or American editions. The other thing about this project, as I keep reminding people, is that it’s very long. I’ve written one book out of the three so far, and anything can happen in the future. When volume two comes out, a publisher in Germany, for example, might say, “OK, I’ll do volumes one and two now.” So anything can happen, and probably will, eventually. I don’t have time to be concerned about it; my only wish is that everyone who wants to read these books should be able to do so.

dk: Yes, of course! But what’s the obstacle?

ml: Another disappointment is that my American publishers feel there isn’t a US market for the so-called “extended special edition” of Tune In, which means that anyone in America or Canada who wants to read it has to buy it from the UK and pay to have it shipped. This isn’t my fault, and I’ve tried hard to change the situation, but without success.

dk: That’s a great point to bring up again, as I did forget about that. So the North American edition is how many pages less than the British edition?

ml: The American edition and the mainstream British edition of Tune In are the same except for a different layout and Americanized spellings and punctuation. But content is identical. Then there’s the “extended special edition” which is twice the length, two books in a box, which came out only in the UK.

dk: Can you describe that for us? What is that extended edition?

ml: It’s everything I wrote, 780,000 words instead of, in the mainstream UK/US edition, about 380,000. I considerably over-wrote, you see. Well, I didn’t – I just wrote what the story demanded to be written. Little, Brown – my publishers in Britain – looked at it and went gulp.

dk: Then what happened?

ml: Once they got over their initial shock they said, “Actually, we love this; we think it’s wonderful, and we’d like to publish it in its entirety. But we still do need the smaller book that we contracted for.” Crown Archetype, my US publisher, naturally said the same – “OK, but we actually want the book we contracted, the one we can sell to the mass market.” So I had to abridge the full text to create the product most people have bought.

dk: That must have been an enormous editing job.

ml: It was a hugely difficult editing job, and could only be done by me.

dk: Only by you? I don’t think I would have been able to do that, were I the writer. I’d be too married to my work. How did you do it?

ml: Until that point, I’d always been poor at cutting my own work, because I write what needs to be written, and if you’re cutting then you’re deleting something that needs to be there. The only reason I could cut the text of Tune In was that I knew the full edition was coming out as well. Without that at the forefront of my mind the process would have been murder. I would have been murdering all the research I’d done. All the same, it was very disappointing when Crown decided there was no market in America for this big history of the Beatles.

dk: What’s the thinking behind that? Does it hearken back to the years when Capitol in America wouldn’t heed EMI in Britain in pushing the Beatles forward in a new land, feeling that a British act wouldn’t appeal to Americans? But of course history has proved them wrong. So again what’s up with that? Is it still the old story?

ml: You’ll have to ask them what their thinking is. I know that Little, Brown sold many copies to America that should have been Crown’s sale. Me, I’m just disappointed that the full version of Tune In hasn’t had the reach it could have done. That’s the most important thing. The book is a history about America as well as Britain.

dk: Very much so. And certainly in volume two, I would think, a big chunk of it is going to be a story about America.

ml: Absolutely, yes. But then, so will everything and everywhere else be a big part of volumes two and three. While the Beatles remain very much a British story, they’ll extend everywhere in the years I’m about to write.

Paul McCartney and George Harrison, 1965.

dk: I saw in a recent issue of the British Airways magazine a story about Elvis meeting the Beatles for the first time. The headline is “Good-bye Limeys!” The article goes on to underscore how the Beatles were then perceived in America, as foreigners, even by Elvis.

ml: Yes, someone’s sent that article to me, though I haven’t had time to look at it yet. Gathering research is one thing, taking stock of it quite another. At the moment I am acquiring material so extensively and exhaustively I don’t really have the time to take it all on-board.

dk: But back to my point about the then "King of Rock and Roll" calling the Beatles a bunch of limeys. You’d expect there to have been more common ground. I mean they spoke the same artistic language; they liked the same music. But there was a divide.

ml: The Beatles were never very good at meeting their heroes. John Lennon had two encounters with Brigitte Bardot and both were awful, though he’d been idolizing her since he was a teenager. The Beatles meeting Elvis seems to have been a flat encounter for everybody – it doesn’t seem that any sparks were flying that night.

dk: Why do you think the world still wants to read about the Beatles, know everything about them?

ml: What the Beatles achieved was truly phenomenal. It was recognized as a phenomenon then, in the 1960s, which would in any case make it worthy of study now. But the fact that they’re somehow still current, that they’ve remained relevant and interesting, makes them even more of a phenomenon, because this was never likely to be on the cards – it was reckoned to be ephemeral. It’s the four of them as people – their mentality, their talent, their approach to things – that made all that happen and continues to drive the attention. That’s what interests me.

dk: Yes, they were four individuals who when they came together created something totally unique. The chemical reaction wrought by those four elements when combined together was remarkable.

ml: They turned each other on. They grooved to one another’s company, man.

dk: So when I read their story – yours hasn’t come to the end yet – but when I read about them I get the sense of a Greek tragedy, because as you get to know them, you love them, and then it all unravels for reasons that appear to have something to do with hubris or short-sightedness, and the wish is that someone or something had intervened to save them from themselves. I generally experience a great sadness after I read their story, which is a great story that flames out and which didn’t need to happen. The whole Apple debacle, for instance.

ml: I don’t know Apple was a debacle.

dk: You don’t? Or do I have to wait until the last volume to ask you? The wasted money? The clashing egos?

ml: It needs to be looked at again.

dk: Really?

ml: Everything must be looked at again. I refuse to accept such preconceived views. There are many entrenched opinions about the Beatles history – “this was a mistake, if only that had happened, Brian Epstein squandered all the merchandizing rights, Magic Alex was a charlatan, the Maharishi episode was stupid, Dick James sold them down the river, Allen Klein was the devil, Magical Mystery Tour was a folly, Apple was a waste of money” – all the usual things – but I won’t allow any of that into my head. I refuse to look at things that way. My approach is that everything must be considered anew, so I’ll gather all the information, the knowledge and information, write it without prejudice, and see what it says. Perhaps readers will still come to the same conclusions, but perhaps they won’t.

dk: Have you heard from Sir Paul and Ringo since publication of Tune In? You once said that Paul was prickly with you when you didn’t go along, factually, with something he was saying. Has he thawed towards you, as I asked you earlier and which you avoided answering?

ml: I didn’t avoid answering it, I just sidetracked myself. I’ll answer any question head-on. Then again, this isn’t a question of “thawing” because Paul and I have never been at freezing point. Anyway, to answer you now, no, I’ve not heard from Paul since Tune In was published, although his office has been in touch a couple of times.

dk: Anything from Ringo?

ml: I’ve had one moment of kindness from Ringo since 2013, which I won’t go into here, but otherwise, no. I’m not aware if he or Paul has even read it. I keep waiting for journalists to ask them about it in interviews, to look closely at any of the thousands of fascinating new anecdotes and angles the book presents, but no one has.

dk: Would you like Paul and Ringo to read it, and is that a hope or a disappointment that they haven’t?

ml: I hope they read it because this is the book they can read. Actually, I really want their children and grandchildren to read it – this is their family history after all.

dk: What do you mean by “can read”? That it’s accessible?

ml: The Beatles have issues with books about them, and I understand those issues. I’ve been around them long enough to be privy to their objections about Beatles books, and how they more or less resist them all, giving them no headspace. But, obviously, babies can be thrown out with bath water. If their attitude to other books prevents them from looking at this one, that’s a pity. But it’s their life. Literally so.

dk: But you are a fan on top of being a historian.

ml: Yes, but I grew up a long time ago.

dk: What do you mean by that?

ml: In the years I worked for the Beatles I grew up. I understand that world better because I was inside it, observing it, for a number of years. So one adjusts one’s expectations and reactions to things. I wish they would read Tune In only because I know they’d be absorbed by it. There is an extraordinary history and there are tons of things I’m sure they’d enjoy being reminded of, and of knowing for the first time. But their reaction to Tune In – or lack of it – will be a matter for the biographies not yet written. 

George Harrison, Ringo Starr & Paul McCartney taking to reporters in Milwaukee 1964. (Image: Journal Sentinel)

dk: What do you think might be their biggest objection?

ml: You have to ask them that, not me. I can’t speak for them. As I say, though, the Beatles have had an attitude about written material since way back. In fact, in Tune In, I sow the seeds for that viewpoint by pointing to two examples – George in 1958 and Ringo in 1962 – when they formed the view that the written word could be inaccurate. Add more than half a century of shoddy writing and plain lies that have been written and said about them since then, pretty much constantly, and one can understand why they have the views they do. The fact that my work is cut of a different cloth might be recognized by others but not even enter their heads.

dk: Paul on the Live at the BBC tapes tells the interviewer that he finds it a downer reading about himself in the press and not believing a word.

ml: Yes. Reading rubbish, as John Lennon called it. When they got to America in 1964 there was a whole new field of rubbish being written about them that they hated and could do nothing about. The Beatles have also held a dim view, since the start, of anyone making money from them. The forming of that opinion is something I’ll be looking at in volumes two and three. There are several examples of it, and that viewpoint persists still.

dk: The whole Seltaeb thing, right?

ml: No, not that – I’m talking about authors, or photographers who sell pictures of them, things like that.

dk: Would they consider you part of that?

ml: Sure, because I’m professional and get paid for what I do – which is to write their history. In their mindset, I’m earning a living off their talents. The fact that I’m doing something creative, and devoting 25 years of my life to getting their story as right as possible, for posterity, would be irrelevant to them.

dk: Paul released a new song in which the words go, “Now everybody seems to have their own opinion/Of Who did this and who did that/But as for me I don't see how they can remember/When they weren't where it was at.”

ml: Yes, "Early Days". It came out the same week as the book. I understood where Paul was coming from, completely.

dk: Would it be too much to suggest that Paul planned the release to coincide with the publication of volume one of your detailed Beatles’ history? Do you think he was trying to tell you something?

ml: That would be too much to suggest. I wouldn’t flatter myself.

dk: But our Paul is very canny, as you undoubtedly already know.

ml: I see it as a coincidence, which I’m sure it was, but a brilliant one.

– Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.


  1. A good interview starts with good questions--and you asked them. Well done.

  2. Wow. Great read. Thank you, Deirdre.

  3. There seems to be so many "stories" about the Beatles, which just seem to get passed on, with little questioning. Mark Lewisohn does the necessary work to find out. That's good for both fans and history. Thanks.

  4. Excellent interview - I found this because I was looking for interviews with Mark about the reaction to his book, so I'm really glad you asked him all this stuff. Thanks!

  5. Just for the record (and to those publishers who don't think Americans have the attention span to finish a long book), I am one of those Americans who sent off for the extended edition. I've read both versions and indeed the longer version tells the story so much better. It provides critical context from which much of the Beatles mythology has long been separated. A true masterwork. I've even recommended it to non-Beatles-head friends as an excellent history of an important place and moment in time.

  6. Thanks a lot for this. Huge admiration for ML and the astounding work he has been doing over the years.

    A tiny thing right at the end. Paul has said in interviews that his song Early Days was a response mainly to the film Nowhere Boy. So the song coming out in the same week as the book is definitely a coincidence!

  7. Small correction. Victor Spinetti was Welsh.

  8. Mark will get to the bottom of it all. You only need to read it to know it rings of facts.

  9. Great interview! Mark's dedication to finding out the truth is a huge gift for all of us Beatle fans and our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc. who will always wonder why those four guys changed our lives way back when - even here, in far away Brazil, who never saw The Beatles perform. Regards from Rio de Janeiro.