An interview with Bob Spitz, author of "The Beatles"

By Steve Marinucci

(12/21/05) A hot topic lately has been the Bob Spitz book, "The Beatles," the nearly 1,000 page biography of the group's life and times. We sent a request for an email interview with Spitz and received a reply a couple of hours later. Here are our questions and Spitz's answers, both as they happened.

Q: What is your prior experience to writing biographies or books about rock music?
Bob Spitz: I have written three published books about rock music: "The Making of Superstars," "Barefoot in Babylon," and "Dylan: a biography," all of which were well-received when they first appeared. Of the three, only Dylan remains in print. I also ghost-wrote a memoir for Jerry Leiber, which was too controversial to be published.
Q: Can you discuss some of the process used in researching the book -- how much time it took, how you did the research? What was your biggest challenge in doing it?
A: I spent two years on the road, traveling from the UK to Hamburg and throughout the US talking to anyone who was part of the Beatles' amazing story. Much of that included doing more than 600 interviews and collecting almost anything available about the Beatles that would help establish the story. Along the way, I found that so many of these people had their "stories" down cold, with even the pauses and punctuation intact. They'd either been telling them the same way so often or been paid to entertain at so-called Beatles conventions that they never really stopped to re-evaluate and visualize the factual events they were recounting. So most of my effort went into getting them to put their stories aside, think about those very days, telling me in vivid detail what actually happened, how they felt, what they observed in others, etc, etc. In other words, filling in all the gaps that were left out of their smoothly-told stories. People like Alistair Taylor never really talked about how Brian looked or felt, having lunch with him after they'd first seen the Beatles at the Cavern. He remembered -- and was surprised at this recollection -- that Brian had taken a briefcase with him. That they went to Peacock's for lunch, etc, etc. Peter Brown was another one. He'd written a book about his experience that I considered to be a gossipy piece of fluff. But in a series of very intense interviews, he really opened up the story for me about Brian and what was going on at Apple. The same with Bob Wooler, Pete Shotton, all the Quarry Men, and the rest of the entourage. So that was where I tried to flesh out the story. And it was also the most difficult part of my work -- that is, getting people to put aside their carefully-groomed stories to dig deeper and be more detail-oriented.
Q:The biggest surprise or revelation you found in your research.
A: Probably that the Beatles were the hardest working band I've ever encountered. Today there is so much machinery in place to help a band get noticed, but the Beatles did not have that luxury. And so they worked -- day and night -- rehearsing, playing gigs [often 3 different ones a night], traveling like lunatics all across the north of England, honing their performance in Hamburg in squalid surroundings, and then circling the globe, playing for very little money every chance they could get. In between, they did every silly TV appearance and interview. Whew! My head spins just thinking about how hard they worked -- all the time giving the public the appearance that they were delighted by their success. What's not to love!?
Q: In your research, how did you find the Beatles as people? Were they as nice as their images?
A: I found that the Beatles were human. Four young guys who were anything but worldly. And yet their working-class backgrounds [except for John, that is] gave them the impetus to work so damn hard at the careers. Aside from that, they were the way young guys should be -- they played hard, fucked hard, worked hard, made the kinds of mistakes that anyone would at that age, and made the greatest pop music the world had ever experienced. I am completely awed that they were so human and that they came through this mania intact. And I admire them more than ever as people. They made a lot of good choices, several bad ones. Hope someone can say the same about me.
Q: Beatlemania was unlike anything the world has ever seen. How did they react to it?
A: As I said above, I think they reacted to it admirably -- more than admirably. It was an amazing thing for four young guys to handle, without that massive public-relations machinery in place today to protect them. They just flew by the seat of their pants, and they did a great job at it.
Q: How willing were Beatle associates to talk about them?
A: Some willing -- some not. Peter and Jane Asher, much to their credit, have never talked to anyone about their private dealings with the Beatles. Others, like Dot Rhone, were reluctant. Dot, in particular, has led a very private life, away from anything Beatles-related, and so I had to win her confidence and assure her that I would use what she told me responsibly. I also got very lucky finding Paul's and John's cousins and aunts, who were helpful and not professional Bealtes chroniclers.
Q: With all the Beatle biographies that have been written over the years, how did your approach to writing "The Beatles" differ from theirs?
A: I felt I could not rely on any of the previous books for much accuracy. As Paul McCartney told me in 1997, about a third of the official Beatles "biography" was made up in 1967 and most of the books that followed were embroidered from that story. No one after that really did their homework. And everyone either was indebted to one of the Beatles or inserted their opinions into their versions, which I was determined not to do. I wanted to write as straightforward a biography as possible, relying on the facts, and leaving opinions up to the reader. I was also determined to source my book so that readers would know, without a doubt, where the facts and quotes came from. I thought that most of the other books were either irresponsible -- or abysmal. Hunter Davies just wrote down everything the Beatles told him, without checking the facts. The same for Ray Coleman, who depended on their good graces to be part of their inner circle. Biographers, real biographers, can't be in anyone's pocket. And Philip Norman -- well, I think "Shout" is a hodgepodge, riddled with errors. He, too, wrote down what people told him without checking the facts. Mark Lewisohn, who is apparently writing a 3-volume biography, isn't even a writer but an accountant who has put together a few good chronologies, so I hope he has what it takes to tackle a real narrative. And I'm rooting for him. It will add another chapter to the Beatles' legacy.
Q: What is your feeling about the errors in the book pointed out by various Beatle fans? Did you feel they were insignificant or unfortunate? Do you feel your book was targeted unfairly?
A: I don't feel any way about it. First of all, I don't read the blogs or Beatles forums because they are mostly a haven for fanatics, as opposed to fans. And most of these people think they have all the answers, which they don't. Their scope is myopic. But of all the so-called errors I have heard about, most aren't wrong -- rather they don't conform to the myth. I stand on and by my research. As for the photo captions, there were a number of -- too many -- errors, for which I take the entire blame. I spent 8-1/2 years researching and writing the book -- and about 15 very exhausted minutes dashing off the captions in a room at my publishe'rs. Needless to say, I wish I'd given it a few more minutes. The mistakes were so freakin' obvious -- and they should have been caught by the proofreader, but he was probably as tired as I was. After all, it's a long book -- and a much longer manuscript [almost 2800 pages]. But they have been corrected for the 2nd edition, which is in stores now. As for the reaction to the book, the mainstream reviews have all been glowing and I am overwhelmed and delighted by the response. It was beyond my wildest expectations. However, early on, before publication, I was forwarded a vicious and mean-spirited letter by a blogger who said she was determined to discredit me. Incredibly, she hadn't even read the book, just the photo captions, but that was enough for her to send hundreds of emails and jam book-buying websites, which tells you all you really need to know about this person.. Unfortunately, I responded to her, which I regret [oh! do I regret it!], but from that moment on I decided not to give people like that any credence. So the answer to your question is: no -- I do not feel my book was targeted unfairly. The reviews have been splendid, and it is selling well. It's on the NY Times bestseller list, which is great. And I've been getting steams of email from people who are really enjoying it. The fanatics who raised a huff in the manner they did are no different than religious fanatics determined to hurt people in order to protect their extremist views. I hope they take the effort to read my book and enjoy the Beatles' magnificent story.

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