Review: ‘Beatles ’66’ by Steve Turner

Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year by Steve Turner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh no, I thought, when a friend recommended Steve Turner’s “Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year.” Another Beatles book? I love the Beatles, but is there anything fresh to say, besides what the indefatigable Mark Lewisohn is putting in volume 2 of his exhaustive biography? (Don’t die, Mark!)

Well.

Not only is “Beatles ’66” a worthy addition to the Beatles literary canon, Lewisohn’s going to have to dig deeper to find a few nuggets that didn’t make Turner’s book. It helps that Turner has followed the band since the ‘60s and is as well-connected as any Beatles expert, quoting from personal interviews with Cynthia Lennon, McCartney paramour Maggie McGivern, various members of the Fabs’ inner circle, and even some tangential folks, such as tour assistants and DJ pals. Moreover, he seems to have read every article about the band in ’66, including mentions in Indian newspapers and American teen magazines, and has enough knowledge to put it all in context with events of the epochal year.

So, why is 1966 so important? In Beatles lore, it’s 1967 that’s the peak of the mountain, the year the band released the “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever” single and, on June 1 – practically the very center of the year – “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” only to be followed by the apparent first forebodings of the band’s downfall, with the death of manager Brian Epstein and the failure of the “Magical Mystery Tour” movie.

But, as Turner makes clear, 1966 was the year the band truly went from the lovable mop-tops of Beatlemania to serious musicians – not least to themselves, though the first glimmers of the “adult” Beatles could be seen as far back as the “Help!” soundtrack LP. The year began with “Rubber Soul” in stores and “We Can Work It Out” atop the singles charts. By year’s end, the group had gone on a disastrous tour – enough to put them off touring completely – released “Revolver” (still their best LP, in my opinion), weathered the “bigger than Jesus” controversy and recorded “Strawberry Fields,” with “Penny Lane” and “A Day in the Life” just around the corner.

Paul McCartney immersed himself in avant-garde music, leading to the tape-spliced squalls of John Lennon’s LSD-influenced “Tomorrow Never Knows,” while George Harrison took formal lessons on the sitar in India. Ringo relaxed with his family and played the best drums of his life, partly thanks to new Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, who sharpened the sound of the rhythm section.

Moreover, it was a year in which energy and tumult were present in equal measure, with musicians and other artists feeding each other’s creativity. In May, the Beach Boys’ Brian Johnston journeyed to London with the landmark “Pet Sounds” and was greeted by Beach Boys fan Keith Moon, who helped introduce him to Lennon and McCartney – both of whom were hugely moved by the record. (McCartney has often said that “God Only Knows” is his favorite song.) The Animals’ Chas Chandler brought Jimi Hendrix to town later that year, blowing away a room full of the UK’s finest guitarists; word was that Eric Clapton retreated to his house for days on end to practice.

The Kinks were still big; the Who was the band of the moment (the Beatles loved the Who’s edgy, power chord-filled singles); and Bob Dylan came to town, making John Lennon uncomfortable.

Just typing all that is making me gasp for air, but there was more – besides “Revolver,” notably a global tour that forced the band off the road once and for all. Why play when nobody can hear you, when the press corps’ questions are still stupid and dull, when you’re practically killed while running from a van to a hotel to a hall to a plane?

Turner digs deep into all this, turning up new tidbits every chapter. I had no idea that the Kinks’ Ray Davies felt threatened by the Beatles, giving “Revolver” a lukewarm song-by-song review. (Ray! “Face to Face” is just as good!) Or that McCartney was such a fan of Rene Magritte. Or that there was a plan for the Beatles to record at Stax Studios in Memphis … and get together with Motown’s Holland/Dozier/Holland. Or that the band was actually friendly with Art Unger, the editor of Datebook, the magazine that reprinted Maureen Cleave’s fateful “bigger than Jesus” Lennon interview in America. (Datebook did play up some of Lennon’s more provocative quotes, but to be fair, none of them had made a ripple in the months the interview was around before it appeared.) Or that the “Sgt. Pepper’s” cover was partly inspired by a list Frank Zappa had included with the Mothers of Invention’s “Freak Out.” (The Mothers would repay the favor(?) with the cover of their 1968 LP, “We’re Only In It for the Money.”)

And P.S.: Turner even alludes to the “Paul Is Dead” rumor, given that, if you believe the elaborate tapestry about that story, Mr. McCartney died early in the morning of November 9, 1966 (the day after a “stupid bloody Tuesday” row). Turns out Paul was in Kenya, getting away from it all.

For all of these “whoa” moments, though, what impressed me about Turner’s telling was a sense that 1966 was very much part of a continuum – not just for the Beatles, but for music and art in general. I don’t know why, but having heard and read so much about these events for years, I picture them as discrete pieces, as if they have no connection to events of the years before or after, because they’re so different – as different as Herman’s Hermits is from the Jefferson Airplane. But of course they’re all related – just ask the Monkees, spun off of the “Hard Day’s Night”-era Beatles, about their 1967 opening act, the Jimi Hendrix Experience. And the Beatles were pals with the Monkees, particularly Micky Dolenz.


Turner manages to link everything together. The world of “Beatles ‘66” was a small one, all seemingly mixing at the Bag o’ Nails or the Scotch of St James, reading the same books and aware of the same trends – and then pushing them in new directions and suggesting new works to investigate. I’ve long thought that 1966 was the greatest year in pop music history (“The Ballad of the Green Berets” and “Elusive Butterfly” notwithstanding), but “Beatles ‘66” also suggests that it’s one of the great creative years, period, a time when you could still bring outré ideas into the mainstream (a book called “The Passover Plot” informed Lennon’s religious thinking) and make them palatable to the masses.

Of course, part of the reason that happened was the miracle of the Beatles, who had the ability to soak up so much diversity and re-create it as something fresh. It’s happened since – I think of the line that connects the comedy of the Goons and Nichols and May to Beyond the Fringe, Monty Python, National Lampoon, and “Saturday Night Live” up to “The Simpsons” – but it’s become the exception in our splintered, overly attention-demanding times. We’ll never see the likes, or the life-force, of the Beatles again.

Makes me want to turn off my mind, relax, and float downstream.

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Reviews: Atwood’s ‘Testaments’ and ‘Handmaid’s Tale,’ Hamill’s ‘Drinking Life’

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had such high hopes for “The Testaments,” Margaret Atwood’s sequel to 1986’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” I read the latter in my early 20s and remember being impressed; since then, I’ve read several other Atwood novels, and though she can be arch and dry to a fault, I revel in her language and plotting. Indeed, the “MaddAddam” trilogy, about the world after an ecological disaster, is filled with barbed company-name puns and a delicious black humor that makes the book seem not quite as removed from our current times as you’d like.

Unfortunately, there’s little of that wit in “The Testaments.”

Oh, Aunt Lydia – the creepy mother figure of “The Handmaid’s Tale” – is back, and there’s a conniving depth to her that seems plausible in light of the previous book. But her chapters make up just a portion of “The Testaments.” The rest concerns two youthful women whose lives intertwine, finally, with Aunt Lydia’s, but lack her three-dimensionality.

Indeed, as the book races to its conclusion – a revelation that could bring down Gilead, the future religious fundamentalist America country founded after a coup – “The Testaments” becomes nothing more than an old-fashioned potboiler, and not a very good one; you can see developments coming several chapters away.

I wonder if Atwood considered telling the book entirely from Aunt Lydia’s perspective. Certainly, she’s created enough of a backstory to do so; Lydia was once a feminist lawyer forced to renounce her past, and the chapters about her life are the book’s most affecting. However, time and again they’re interrupted with the chronicles of Daisy, a Canadian teenager, and Agnes Jemima, a Gilead-raised girl. When that happens, the book turns into mediocre YA reading.

After finishing “The Testaments,” I wondered: Was “The Handmaid’s Tale” really all that good? So I reread it. The answer is Yes, for a variety of reasons.

The main character, Offred, is feisty and thoughtful, well-rounded in the best sense. The world she inhabits – a future version of Cambridge, Massachusetts – is both recognizable and alien. I can remember reading the book in 1987 and thinking how, despite the rise of the so-called Moral Majority, “The Handmaid’s Tale” was just too out there. More than 30 years later, the Christian Right has essentially taken over the moral leadership of the Republican Party, ceding the economic issues to the usual deep-pocketed Randians and cynics, leaving any remaining Burkeans and pragmatists to make common cause or abandon the party entirely. In other words, “The Handmaid’s Tale” ain’t that far off.

Atwood also creates a more layered society in “Handmaid’s,” where most of the people are more boxed in than they realize, or would care to admit. (Power has a remarkable ability to blind people to alternate points of view.) One gets a sense of the emptiness of the Commanders’ lives, the difficulty in keeping up appearances.

The upshot? “The Handmaid’s Tale” has subtlety and richness. “The Testaments” is a potboiler. Atwood has said she didn’t write it as a cash-in after the success of the “Handmaid’s” TV series, but it certainly feels like it. There isn’t a single chapter that’s as clever as the quickly drawn strokes describing CorpSeCorps or SecretBurger from “The Year of the Flood.”

(And what were the voters for the Man Booker Prize thinking when they gave that literary award to Atwood? Did they read the same book I did?)

A Drinking Life by Pete Hamill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I picked up Pete Hamill’s 1994 memoir “A Drinking Life,” I expected endless stories about the Lion’s Head pub and New York in the mid-‘60s, filled with Clancy Brothers’ singalongs, crazy newspaper stories and how Hamill recovered from his lost weekends. To my surprise, “A Drinking Life” is truly about Hamill’s life, all the way back to the 1930s and ‘40s, and spends maybe a couple dozen pages on the ‘60s.

Was I disappointed? Only slightly. Because “A Drinking Life” is one hell of a tale well told.

You have Brooklyn, the world where Hamill grew up and where he spent his first couple decades viewing Manhattan as a land that may as well been as far away as Alaska. You have his father, who spent whatever extra money he had at the bar; and his mother, long suffering; and his ever-growing family, somehow keeping it together.

And you have the booze – first in occasional sips, then in regular quaffs, finally in barely remembered rivers. But “finally” is relatively late in the book; before that, his memory is clear and discerning, with colorful snapshots of his varied life.

Hamill wonderfully confounds at several turns. At one point he qualifies for a free education at one of the best Catholic high schools in New York. At this point I expected him to find his bearings and sail through, a rich newspaper career just ahead. Nope; he left after a year. He talks about how much he loves drawing and art, and I expected him to realize he wasn’t that good and land that newspaper column we all know him for; nope, he actually WAS pretty good, even had a successful agency, but after writing a letter to the editor of the New York Post, found himself in the newsroom and decided to try a new trade.

He has a heartbreaking affair with an artist’s model while still a teenager; he lives in Mexico; he quits the Post and free-lances and rejoins the Post; he has a failed marriage. His life is the opposite of a cliché. Even the drinking isn’t as oppressive as he suggests, though there’s obviously a lot of it – “Much of my memory of those years is blurred, because drinking was now slicing holes in my consciousness,” he writes at one point – but you never get the feeling that he’s truly lost. He was a man who drank, then drank too much, then had enough sense to stop before he fell off a cliff. He remembers almost all of it – certainly enough for dozens of good stories.

“A Drinking Life” is 265 pages. Even without the Lion’s Head and the ‘60s, I could have read three times that many. I raise a glass to you, Pete Hamill — with whatever you’re drinking.

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Little Richard, 1932-2020

Little Richard has died.

My old colleagues at CNN are currently kitting out parts of the obit I wrote for them something like seven years ago, but I saved the file and, dammit, I’m going to run the whole unexpurgated thing. The man was a legend, and I can’t listen to a Little Richard song without feeling the ecstasy of rock ‘n’ roll running through my nervous system.

RIP, Little Richard.

Little Richard, wild man of rock ‘n’ roll, dead at 87

Sex. Wild sex. Uninhibited sex.

Sex in the morning, sex in the evening, sex all around the world. A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom, if you know what I mean.

Little Richard’s songs were about many things — ripping it up, ready teddies, girls who couldn’t help it — but above all, they were about “rocking and rolling” in its original, unexpurgated form.

“Long Tall Sally, she’s built for speed / She got everything that Uncle John need,” he belted in “Long Tall Sally,” a song rife with such obvious innuendo there was barely a need to read between the lines. “Good golly, Miss Molly / Sure like to ball,” went “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” leaving even less to the imagination. “Spinnin’, spinnin’ spinnin, spinnin’ like a spinnin’ top / Crazy little partner, you ought to see us reel and rock,” he sang in “Jenny, Jenny.”

The songs – thanks to Richard’s raucous, piano-pumping performances – created fearsome visions of teenage abandon in the minds of parents and censors.

“With Little Richard, the rock ‘n’ roll audience got the aggressive extrovert to enact their wilder fantasies, and his stage performances set precedents for anyone who followed him,” wrote Charlie Gillett in his classic “The Sound of the City.”

Sometimes that wildness kept Richard one step removed from the mainstream: “Tutti Frutti,” his breakthrough hit, was originally supposed to feature such lines as “Tutti Frutti, good booty,” “If it don’t fit, don’t force it” and “You can grease it, make it easy” – all changed at the suggestion of producer Bumps Blackwell. Even that version didn’t make it on many pop radio stations, which looked past Richard’s R&B chart-topping version in favor of Pat Boone’s more tepid rendition.

But other times, even the bluenoses had to throw up their hands at the sheer audacity of it all. In 1956, an NBC censor let “Long Tall Sally” pass because he couldn’t understand the words, and therefore couldn’t judge their propriety, according to Brian Ward’s rhythm-and-blues history, “Just My Soul Responding.”

The kids, of course, loved it. Many grew up to be rock ‘n’ rollers themselves, and they never forgot the man who helped plant the seed.

“Thank you all very much, especially the rock ‘n’ rollers,” George Harrison said at the Beatles’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He pointed to Richard in the audience: “And Little Richard there — it was all his fault, really.”

‘Richard opened the door’

Little Richard Penniman, the screaming, preening, scene-stealing wild man of rock ‘n’ roll, died Saturday. He was 87.

The pioneering Richard would have stood out in any era, but in the 1950s, when he came to prominence, he was like no other: a black man, a makeup-wearing homosexual, a flamboyant singer and piano-player who personified the “devil’s music” to Establishment guardians. Elvis Presley was one thing, but for all his pelvic thrusts and slicked-back juvenile-delinquent hair, he was at heart a polite Southern boy who loved his daddy. Little Richard, though … well, he may have come from a big Southern family himself, but he represented something else.

“Richard opened the door. He brought the races together. When I first went on the road their were many segregated audiences. With Richard, although they still had the audiences segregated in the building, they were there TOGETHER,” recalled the arranger H.B. Barnum in Charles White’s biography “The Life and Times of Little Richard.” “And most times before the end of the night, they would all be mixed together.”

Mick Jagger, no onstage slouch, was an admirer as well.

“There’s no single phrase to describe his hold on the audience. I couldn’t believe the power of Little Richard on stage. He was amazing,” he said.

Richard knew his power. “I think they saw me as something like a deliverer, a way out,” he once said. “My means of expression, my music, was a way in which a lot of people wished they could express themselves and couldn’t.”

He also made no bones about his status. He bristled when he was overlooked in favor of other early rock figures, telling Pop Art Times, “I created rock’n’roll! I’m the innovator! I’m the emancipator! I’m the architect! I am the originator! I’m the one that started it!”

Richard Wayne Penniman was born on December 5, 1932, in Macon, Georgia. The third of 12 children, he clashed with his moonshine-selling father and was ordered out of the family home as a teenager. A white family named Johnson took him in and Penniman – who had honed his musical ability in church – started performing in their club. Depending on the story, he was called “Little Richard” either as a childhood nickname or because he was underage.

Either way, the name stuck.

A link with an Atlanta DJ led to a signing by RCA, but Richard’s recordings – in a Louis Jordan jump-blues style – failed to catch fire. For a time, Richard was a dishwasher at a Greyhound bus station.

He kept playing music, however, and in 1955 sent a demo recording to Specialty Records. Specialty’s founder, Art Rupe, liked what he heard, and asked Richard to go to New Orleans to record with members of Fats Domino’s backing band. Producer Blackwell recalled him as “this cat in a loud shirt, with hair waved up six inches above his head.” During a break in what had been a lackluster session, Richard let loose with “Tutti Frutti.”

The rest – with a polish from Blackwell – is, as they say, history: “Tutti Frutti” hit No. 2 on the R&B charts, the Top Twenty on Billboard’s pop charts and sold a million copies. Little Richard was off and running.

Up and down with the devil’s music

More hits followed: “Long Tall Sally,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” “Rip It Up,” “Lucille,” “Keep a-Knockin’ ” – 17 through 1958, including three R&B No. 1s. His live shows were electrifying, and even Hollywood noticed, with director Frank Tashlin featuring him in 1956’s Jayne Mansfield vehicle “The Girl Can’t Help It.”

Tashlin, for one, knew exactly how to exploit Richard’s energy, accompanying a sashaying Mansfield with Richard’s “Girl Can’t Help It” song. As she walks and Richard wails on the soundtrack, an iceman’s cargo melts, a milkman’s bottle erupts and a lobby voyeur’s glasses crack.

But Richard wasn’t as wild as his fainting-couch critics claimed. As Dave Marsh observed in “The Heart of Rock & Soul,” “His records featured an intensely swinging rhythm band and the music was anything but an amateurish hash, no matter what critics committed to the noble savage theory believe.”

In 1957, however, Richard lost faith in rock ‘n’ roll – and gained it on a different plane. The plane, in this case, was not just heavenly; it was also the form of transportation he rode on after a tour of Australia. Believing the engines to be on fire, Richard struck a deal with God: If the plane landed safely, he would abandon the devil’s music. It did and he upheld his agreement, enrolling in an Alabama college and becoming a Seventh Day Adventist minister. A 1965 album title says it all: It was called “King of Gospel Songs.”

In the interim, though, Richard had become a hero to a new generation of rock ‘n’ rollers. The Beatles’ Paul McCartney was a huge fan; the band covered Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” and “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey,” and its original “I’m Down” was an obvious Richard homage. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty and Bob Seger were also deeply influenced by the singer, often reflected in their singing styles.

Little Richard eventually came back to rock ‘n’ roll, touring and recording in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He added “actor” to his resume with his performance in the 1985 film “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” as well as a variety of TV guest appearances. He also resumed preaching, attacking drug use – he’d been an admitted addict, noting “They shoulda called me Little Cocaine, I was sniffing so much of the stuff!” — and sometimes (once again) condemning rock ‘n’ roll.

Aside from music, Richard’s most noted ambivalence was in his attitude towards his homosexuality. In the early days, he covered by “exaggerating his freakishness,” writes Jim Miller in the rock history “Flowers in the Dustbin.” He later called homosexuality “unnatural.” He told Charles White he was “omnisexual”; a decade later he told Penthouse he always knew he was gay.

Regardless, he was always outrageous. He used makeup liberally, dressed colorfully, could be obstinate and preening, giving and shy. During an early ‘90s appearance on an Atlanta talk show on which I worked, he was all these things in the space of an afternoon. It must have been exhausting and joyful, being Little Richard.

There were honors, of course. He was among the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His hometown of Macon named a street named after him. He received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy and a passel of honorary degrees, including one from Mercer University in Macon in May. He even kept on ministering, conducting a wedding ceremony for 20 couples in Vinton, Louisiana, in 2006.

But honors were one thing. What kind of honor can you give a man who helped create rock ‘n’ roll? What possible words can you craft?

I can think of only one phrase.

A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom!

Review: ‘The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin’ “

The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin’ by Bill Zehme

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have a complaint about the mostly amiable “The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin’.” It has nothing to do with Bill Zehme’s occasionally purple prose, or the sometimes overly fawning tone, or the rambling organization.

It’s the layout.

Many years ago, when I lived in the New York area and took the train to work, there were people who would put on a pair of special gloves before opening their New York Times or Wall Street Journal. Why? They didn’t want to stain their hands with newsprint ink.

I wish the publishers of “The Way You Wear Your Hat” had thought of this.

The many chapters – “Pallies,” “Style,” “Broads” among them – begin with black pages laden with white print. There are also occasional lists and anecdotes (“His New Year’s Resolution Toasts,” “Francis Albert Sinatra Recalls His Debut on Earth”) also done in white-type-on-black. And that’s not to mention the type itself, which veers between frilly headings, random copperplate boldface, and pull quotes (aside from the standard text).

It’s infuriating to read. It feels like a jumbled scrapbook presented by your overly enthusiastic uncle. You just want him to take a deep breath and get his stories straight.

Too bad, because “The Way You Wear Your Hat” has some good stories. There’s a complete backgrounder of how the Rat Pack formed (it was mainly Humphrey Bogart’s doing; Sinatra inherited it, but preferred to call it “The Clan”), how fastidious Sinatra was in fashion (the precision of his cuffs, his fondness for Yardley’s English lavender soap and the color orange), how loyal he was to his friends. It’s fine, as far as it goes. It would have made a fine article, and in fact, that’s how it started.

However, as a book it’s too much of not much. Even in 1997, when it was published – not long before Sinatra’s death – Sinatra’s ways had vanished in a mist of cigarette smoke and Jack Daniel’s (two of his favorite things). His voice was still a precision instrument, his albums part of the pantheon, but though he may have been able to teach younger generations a thing or two about manners, he comes across no less a throwback than the beatniks and longhairs he disliked. After all, when’s the last time you heard a woman described as a “broad”?

Sinatra is one-third of Zehme’s “Trinity of Cool,” along with Johnny Carson and Hugh Hefner, and though all three have something to teach in their diffidence and style, all three also seem part of a vanished age, like black-and-white visitors to our HDTV universe. (Carson, whose wit is timeless, probably comes off as the most contemporary.)

Zehme is a fine and clever writer – he once did a story about Warren Beatty in which he timed Beatty’s prodigious pauses – but he lays his admiration for Sinatra on thick. This isn’t a biography – it’s more slices of life – but it still feels distinctly one-sided. There are gentle reminders of Sinatra’s vicious temper, but they’re heavily cushioned with stories of the singer’s generosity and (occasionally) remorse.

If you’re looking for a Sinatra biography – as I am, something fair-minded and comprehensive (in other words, not Kitty Kelley’s “His Way”) – you’ll want to go elsewhere. If you want a book to browse through, “The Way You Wear Your Hat” will fill the time with some nice anecdotes. If you want to lose yourself in some classic performances, there are any number of Sinatra LPs to pull up on your favorite streaming service (or, if you want to go old-school, to place on your hi-fi).

After all that, if you do pick up “The Way You Wear Your Hat,” you may want to reset the type. Frank wouldn’t like it if your fingers are blackened. He probably would have worn those newspaper gloves.

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