Rockcritics Podcast: Talkin’ Beatle Books (with Tim Riley)

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November 18, 2008 by sw00ds

The latest rockcritics podcast features Tim Riley, author of one of my favourite Beatle books, Tell Me Why: The Beatles: Album by Album, Song by Song, the Sixties and After. A couple weeks prior to our chatting, I asked Tim — currently completing a large-scale John Lennon biography — to submit a list of some of his favourite Beatle books, and it’s that list which forms the basis of our conversation. We delve into more than a dozen titles here, including a few obscurities, a few ancillary titles (Aesthetics of Rock, Peter Doggett’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On) plus, of course, Tell Me Why, which, among other things, is notable for its annotated (in-need-of-an-update!) Beatles bibliography.

Big thanks to Tim for taking time out to do this (and for putting up with my usual nonsense and semi-competence).

Listen Here (approx 67 min.):


Titles discussed:

Musical interludes (in order of appearance) by: Al Green, David Hillyard & the Rocksteady Seven, DJ Dangermouse, Bongwater, Peter Sellers, Irvin’s 89 Key Marenghi Fairground Organ, unknown house artist (“Revolution”), Rainer, Sunshine Company, First Moog Quartet, Los Fernandos, Cristina, Candy Flip, Bryan Ferry, P.M. Dawn, Sunshine Company (redux).

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14 thoughts on “Rockcritics Podcast: Talkin’ Beatle Books (with Tim Riley)

  1. Steven Ward says:

    I wanna listen to this.

    But I’m suprised there was no discussion of Albert Goldman’s “The Lives of John Lennon.”

    sw

  2. Albert’s presumably as beneath consideration as he is beneath contempt.

    Dread Zeppelin once threatened to write a rock opera about him…shame that didn’t pan out.

    Andrew

  3. [...] Scott Woods talks to Tim Riley, author of “Tell Me Why: The Beatles: Album by Album, Song by Song, the Sixties and After,” about their favorite Beatles books. [...]

  4. Steven Ward says:

    Contrary to popular belief by many in the rock press, Albert Goldman, was in fact, not the anti-christ.

    I would call him a groundbreaker.

    For instance, I can’t imagine Stephen Davis’s Zeppelin biography, “Hammer of the Gods” without Goldman’s Elvis bio first.

    Word is, Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono don’t like Philip Norman’s new John Lennion bio either.

    Remember this, people used to say Goldman printed lies but nobody ever sued him.

    Why is that?

    Who is to say the people who Goldman interviewed were bad sources compared to the sources other authors used who were more repsectful?

    I don’t think Goldamn liked what he found when he did the Elvis and Lennon books.

    But what was he supposed to do? Abandon the projects?

  5. The astounding thing about the latest (I think) edition of Norman’s “Shout!” is how the author starts with John Lennon’s “rattle your jewelry” crack and progresses in the course of one long sentence to 9/11. He honestly thinks the first planted the seed for the fatal flowering of the second.

    Even now, I can’t quite believe what I saw on those two pages.

    Andrew

  6. Steven — I have a great deal of respect for the interviews you’ve written for this site — but being an apologist for a lowlife piece of literary scum like Albert Goldman is never becoming of anyone (even though I’ve read James Wolcott and Barry Miles both do it…but then the former seems to revile rock critics in general while the latter had his problems with Lennon while certainly favoring Macca).

    Goldman may not be the anti-Christ but he certainly doesn’t deserve kudos or to be termed a “groundbreaker” on a site that calls itself rockcritics.com.

    >>>Remember this, people used to say Goldman printed lies but nobody ever sued him.

    >>>Why is that?

    Because you can’t libel a dead person. And Goldman turned libeling dead people into a cottage industry.

    >>>For instance, I can’t imagine Stephen Davis’s Zeppelin biography, “Hammer of the Gods” without Goldman’s Elvis bio first.

    Why not? “Hammer of the Gods” wasn’t a bad bio…and Davis DID have the threat of being sued. Goldman’s books were much more what you’d describe as hatchet jobs. He really didn’t have anything much good to say about his subjects in any way, shape or form. We learn that Elvis wasn’t much of a singer, for instance, and that Lennon wasn’t much of a writer in those books.

    Besides, Kitty Kelly’s “tell all” bios came before Goldman’s “Elvis.” Hell, “Elvis: What Happened?” came weeks before Elvis died. Groundbreaker? I think not.

    >>>Word is, Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono don’t like Philip Norman’s new John Lennion bio either.

    And word is that Norman suggests there was a sexual relationship between Lennon and his mother in the book (haven’t read it myself). As Julia’s been dead since the ’50s and John dead for decades, who in the fuck, besides possibly Yoko, would know that? Dee Presley, who Elvis despised, also wrote in her money-grubbing book that Elvis and Gladys had sex. OK, then…but it sure gives new meaning to the classic rock battle cry of kicking out the jams, motherfuckers.

    >>>Who is to say the people who Goldman interviewed were bad sources compared to the sources other authors used who were more repsectful?

    I’ll say it right here. Loud and clear! Research some of the subjects he used and, more importantly, didn’t use.

    >>>I don’t think Goldamn liked what he found when he did the Elvis and Lennon books.

    I think Goldman absolutely relished what he “found.” And a lot of what he “found” is total garbage. The opening chapter of “Elvis” — about a Las Vegas appearance — has fact after fact after fact wrong in its depiction. How do I know? Because I was actually there! And it didn’t happen that way! In the opening chapters of Lennon, he claims one of John’s favorite songs was “Ain’t That A Shame” by Fats WALLER (rather than Domono). He also claims Lennon based every song he wrote on “Three Blind Mice” (yeah, right). So how can you trust anything the man writes when he gets those basic facts wrong? That’s just the tip of a huge iceberg, by the way.

    In “Elvis,” he quotes Sam Phillips as saying “If I could find a white man who can sing like a nigger….” Doesn’t matter that both black and white people have now said on the record that Phillips would’ve NEVER, EVER used that word. As Greil Marcus pointed out in his “Lies about Elvis, Lie about Us” review of the book in the Village Voice, it was now recorded in an official book documented as “history.” And sure enough, a few years later, in a book called “Elvis for Idiots,” they quoted Phillips using that exact wrong world. For idiots, indeed.

    The one thing Goldman may deserve credit for, perhaps, is discovering Col. Parker’s illegal alien status. But Nash and Guralnick certainly would’ve uncovered that themselves in his definitive bio. Note that Guralnick also covered some of the darker aspects Goldman sensationalized (and even outright lied about) in his books…yet he did it with the compassion and empathy that his subject deserved. Imagine Goldman writing about Lester Bangs as opposed to someone sympathetic like DeRogatis. Or imagine Goldman writing about you eating a very juicy and messy burger, “the juice disgustingly running down your face and chin…” It’s easy to play that game. Alanna Nash used many of the same sources that Goldman used for her books…and yet her books (including a good bio of Parker) don’t come off as ugly and hideous. Goldman obviously had contempt for his subjects and he had contempt going into the projects. He was worse than that TMZ show and that’s pretty damn bad.

    Dave Marsh liked to point out that Goldman was a “defrocked academic professor.” Whatever the case, I own his “Sound Bites” book, and way before he decided to pursue a career in necrophilia, he frequently referred to rock music (and even Leonard Bernstein, for that matter) as “vulgarizing” the culture. He obviously disdained the fact that NYC saloon/high culture had been replaced somewhere along the line by greasy-haired, uncircumcised hillbillies from the South. There’s even a UK documentary film that I saw on PBS decades ago about searching L.A. for Phil Spector — and they used Goldman as the anti-Phil talking head so that he could once again (sounding like the closeted queen he always seemed to be; DiMartino and I made a crank call to his residence years ago; someday maybe I’ll write about that) say that rock, and Spector in particular, “simply vulgarized” popular music in America.

    Marcus wrote me a note after I wrote my own Elvis review for Creem, suggesting that we’d hopefully only have to be fighting this battle for a little while longer. I continue to fight it. As the great music writer Stanley Booth said to me years ago in Memphis (at an academic symposium on the fifth anniversary of Presley’s death) when I jokingly dared to quote something Goldman had written about Presley: “Albert Goldman is a puke. He’s a fucking puke.”

  7. Fuck it. Here’s my Creem review. I don’t know where the Lennon review I wrote for Radio & Records is right now:

    Goldman Ain’t Nothin’ But A Hound Dog!

    Bill Holdship, Creem, February 1982

    Elvis by Albert Goldman (McGraw-Hill)

    ALBERT GOLDMAN’S “definitive biography” of Elvis Presley not only viciously attacks the greatest cultural hero of our century, but it confirms once and for all a suspicion I’ve had about Goldman ever since I read his decadent, “oh-isn’t-it-terrible-that-he-was-a-perverted-junkie” account of Lenny Bruce’s life several years ago. The man definitely has a few demons of his own.

    It’s no secret that Elvis was a miserable, paranoid drug addict during his final years, but it’s hard to believe that he was the utter monstrosity Goldman portrays him to be in this book. If we’re to believe Goldman’s account (and it isn’t easy when one considers that 90% of his “facts” lack any sufficient documentation), the King never did a single good thing in 42 years of existence, while his entire life and career, not to mention the musical form he spawned, was nothing more than a sick joke. Even when Goldman portrays some of Elvis’s more benevolent moments, such as his habit of giving lavish gifts to friends and complete strangers, it is always attributed to “stupidity.”

    Goldman condemns virtually every aspect of Elvis’s life. His father, Vernon, was a “dullard and a donkey.” He had the misfortune of being born a Southerner (read: “weird hillbilly”), a portion of the American population that apparently inspires Goldman with contempt and disdain. His high school major was shop, “the dumbest of all dumb activities in this dumb working class school.” The weird clothes Elvis wore as a teenager (which would later revolutionize the adolescent fashions of the 50′s) made him look like “a homosexual in drag.” Graceland’s interior resembled “a whorehouse,” Elvis’s wedding was “comically vulgar,” and his wife, Priscilla made “a bizarre madonna” at the time of their “spoiled little” daughter’s birth. Goldman even ridicules Elvis for breaking down hysterically at his mother’s funeral (the weakling!), which only serves as a prelude to his description of Elvis’s own funeral as “about right for some cornball country yodeler.” Of course, this comes after a gory, detailed account of the King’s autopsy.

    We’re told that Elvis’s artistic career was a total fluke or a masterful con job on the part of Colonel Tom Parker, and we learn, after all these years, that Elvis really wasn’t that much of a singer. Elvis’s early musicians (men like Scotty Moore, Hank Garland and Chet Atkins) are lumped together as “mediocre cornballs,” while his initial TV appearances made him look “like a little boy desperate to go to the bathroom but too embarrassed to ask the way.” Best of all is the insinuation that Elvis stole his singing style from demo records by other vocalists, as well as stealing his “sexy” Las Vegas act from the “virtually unknown” Tom Jones. (Oh, yeah, that must be related to the time in the 50′s when television would only show Jones from the waist up!)

    Most annoying is that Goldman seems to view himself as a psychoanalyst in a league with Sigmund Freud (he informs us, among other things, that Elvis collected guns because he had an unconscious “obsession with killing human beings”), and this device reaches a nauseating head when he takes on Elvis’s sex life. We learn that Elvis had a small penis, which he referred to as “Little Elvis,” and because he wasn’t circumsized, “he saw his beauty disfigured by an ugly hillybilly pecker.” We also discover that “Elvis was a lifelong masturbator” (Oh, God, say it isn’t so!), as well as a violent sexual voyeur with a fetish for women wrestling in nothing but white panties. Goldman believes that this perversion stemmed from Elvis’s unresolved Oedipal complex, as well as a childhood incident in which he saw “two little girls tumbling together on the ground with their dresses rising to show their crotches.”

    Finally, Goldman splices all the details of Elvis’s sexual history together to come up with the most stunning revelation of all – Elvis Presley was, in fact, “a latent or active homosexual” To prove his point, Goldman explains that Elvis was the prototype “punk” rocker, and the original definition of “punk” in prison jargon meant “a passive homosexual lover.” (Boy, is Joe Strummer ever going to be surprised!) Goldman even goes so far as to point out that John Lennon was actually Brian Epstein’s “punk” on a subliminal level.

    Of course, one has to question Goldman’s credibility on the basis of his many factual errors alone (i.e., Elvis didn’t sing ‘Loving You’ in Jailhouse Rock; The TAMI Show wasn’t “a TV special produced for the tube,” etc.), not to mention his negative, anti-rock views. According to Goldman, Bill Haley was “a spit-curled clod,” John Lennon was a self “parody,” James Brown was “an African witch doctor … straight out of a voodoo hongan” (and he has the nerve to label, Elvis a racist!), and the entire history of 50′s rock can be written off as nothing more than “a legion of Elvis imitators.” In Goldman’s eyes, “the world of rock” is a result of “the devolution of American society that has led to narcissistic, junked-up heroes.” On top of all this, I know that Goldman’s account of a Presley Vegas show that turned into a “complete fiasco” when scenes from the Civil War were projected on a screen behind him is a gross fabrication. I know because I was there. It was my 18th birthday – and it just didn’t happen the way he describes it.

    Now, let’s face it. Elvis Presley really didn’t deserve this book. If he had truly harmed people during his lifetime, then maybe the attack would be justified. But as far as I can see, Elvis brought happiness, joy and a sense of passion to a lot of people. He was a symbol of hope to many, and even if Goldman’s portrait was accurate, it still wouldn’t take all that away. Goldman understands that when Elvis was bad, he was horrible. What he fails to understand is that when Elvis was good, he was the greatest of them all, and if you don’t believe me, just read what everyone from Phil Spector to John Lennon to Bob Dylan to Jim Morrison to David Bowie to Bruce Springsteen had to say about it. On a personal level, I can’t begin to explain what Elvis Presley meant to a fat, unhappy little kid growing up in a small Michigan town. All I can say is I’m forever grateful, and I’m truly sorry that Goldman had the misfortune of missing what an entire generation saw in those swiveling hips and that cocksure sneer.

    The real puzzle here is trying to determine why Goldman felt the need to write this piece of trash. For one thing, he seems to take great delight in trashing the myths of countercultural icons. Lenny Bruce and Elvis Presley were both important men who changed the world by their very existence. Goldman, on the other hand, is really an insignificant little man who appears to lack any form of human compassion (I’ve seen him on TV) and seems to feel he can elevate himself by tearing greater men down. (After all, he knows you can’t legally libel a dead person, so what’s he got to lose?) What’s more, I sense a sexually demented mind behind much of the writing in this book, and the manner in which Goldman relishes detailing sexual perversion in both this and the Bruce biography reveals him to be a greater voyeur than Elvis ever could have been.

    Not only does there seem to be a deep case of homophobia running throughout Elvis, but Goldman also appears to be a bitter misogynist. In one disgusting passage, he describes the wasted Elvis as being “propped up like a big fat woman recovering from an operation on her reproductive organs.” Elsewhere, he reports this interesting detail: “Instead of pissing in a urinal, he (Elvis) would always go in a stall, like a woman.” And my very favorite analogy (remember these are Goldman’s words, not Elvis’s) – “Elvis winced at the word ‘disco,’ as if Guercio, (his conductor) had said ‘tampon’.” Somehow I fail to make the connection. Yeah, I’d say this man has some serious sexual hang-ups, but then it’s really not fair to psychoanalyze someone I’ve never met, now is it?

    In the course of his book, Albert Goldman not only insults millions of Elvis fans and attacks a dead man, he insults most people in general. He must be a very unhappy individual. and I offer him my most heartfelt sympathy. Still, I just can’t help feeling that Goldman is the type of person I’d really like to kick where it hurts someday. Yep, you got it! Right in his “Little Albert”…

    © Bill Holdship, 1982

  8. Steven Ward says:

    Thanks for the review Bill.

    Points well taken.

    Maybe a reassesment is in order.

    That’s just how I react sometimes to “popular” opinion.

    Maybe I’m too young or maybe I just didn’t do my homework.

  9. A.C. Rhodes says:

    Too young in what respect? Do you mean too young as far as having the benefit of being an adolescent or adult when the Beatles and John Lennon were active, or in the sense that you don’t fall into the Baby Boom Generation at all?
    Objectivity that someone from the latter end of the Boom or subsequent generations could provide may be of value here as much as experience. The shortage of media in the earlier stages of popular culture, compared to today, could be a factor. Yet, does current media saturation bring us any closer to truth? This is where the credibility of references comes in.
    In regard to Goldman, much like pop biographers today, he did have an idea of what was going to be brought forth before the chapters were written.
    And a book like Hammer, though groundbreaking in its way, doesn’t seem the best comparison to what Goldman was doing. One could argue that the subject matter was unique for a variety of reasons.

  10. Steven Ward says:

    Too young in that, Elvis died when I was 10. He did not have a significant impact on my musical upbringing. Or too young in that Goldman’s book was published before I was in high school and didn’t have any kind of impact on me at the time. That’s when everyone really attacked him. Although I have read the books since then.
    I guess I did not read the books with a fact checker sensibility as many of those who read it and critiqued it at the time did.
    I don’t know.
    It seems like maybe people gave Goldman too much of a hard time.
    Of course there is no excuse for purposeful lies on any biographer’s part.
    To call Elvis and Lennon saints might be an understatement though. Plus they were dead saints. Fans love their idols and if they are dead, watch out.
    However, I think Hammer of the Gods is a pretty good example though. Plant and Page have always attacked the book and said none of it was true. Why? Because they said it wasn’t true? Is that it? Is that enough? Is that all we need?
    Good thing we don’t hold politicians to that standard.
    I guess you can give Stephen Davis credit because he wrote about people that were still alive at least. But I’m a huge fan of Stephen Davis’s rock books anyway.
    Again, maybe I need to go back to Goldman’s books and reread them and read the criticism.

  11. Richard Riegel says:

    Steven — Check out my “Hey Conductor You Must” essay at http://www.rocksbackpages.com/article_with_login.html?ArticleID=9834
    for another take on Albert Goldman. There’s obviously a relentless strain of condescension toward the artists, running through all of Goldman’s writings about pop music, and yet I found that he exhibits some odd commonalities with Greil Marcus when it comes to their respective regard for the obelisk that was Elvis Presley.

  12. m coleman says:

    I’ve rambled on about this on ILM dozens of times but Albert Goldman’s Disco is the definitive take on that neglected subject and one of the very best books on popular music ever written. he evokes the hedonistic late 70s in over the top prose, presents a concise history of new york nightlife and treats the issue of music & technology all in about 20, 000 words. too bad it’s out of print/

  13. Steven Ward says:

    Thanks Richard.
    Great piece.
    Makes me feel a little better about my semi-defense of Goldman.

  14. john says:

    Months later, just came across this, and was intrigued by the discussion of Michael Braun. It turns out that he had died in 1997. Here’s the NY Times obit:

    http://www.nytimes.com/1997/02/02/nyregion/michael-braun-producer-60.html

    Michael Braun, Producer, 60
    Published: Sunday, February 2, 1997

    Michael Braun, one of the producers of the musical ”Titanic,” scheduled to open at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater in April, died on Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 60.

    The cause was heart failure, said his sister, Kathy Braun.

    Mr. Braun was born in New York City and graduated from Harvard University in 1958. During the 1960′s and part of the 70′s, he worked in London, writing for The Observer and The Sunday Times. He was the author of ”Love Me Do!” (1964), a diary of the Beatles’ first British tour. The book was reprinted by Penguin Books in 1995.

    From 1960 to 1963 he was an assistant to Stanley Kubrick, and he later worked for Roman Polanski. He moved to Los Angeles in the 1970′s and produced Waylon Green’s ”Secret Life of Plants” (1975).

    He is survived by his sister.

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