Most coffee-table books require only idle passages of flipping between their weekly maintenance dustings. This is not that kind of book. It is far too valuable to be consigned to the coffee table and much too revealing to be left with pages unturned. Perhaps the only way to associate this sacrament with coffee table traditions would be to take it to a little local coffee-shop and curl up with it on a corner couch. It might even merit a beret.
The first four chapters of The Beatles Anthology belong respectively to John, Paul, George and Ringo as they recount the early years of their lives. Although there are bytes and pieces that are part of what everyone knows -- John's moving in with his auntie, Paul's playing of the bass by default because none of the other guitar players in the band wanted to give up the six-string -- these are extremely detailed autobiographies, and I've never had near the complete picture of any Beatle that I do after reading firsthand accounts of these childhood escapades, accompanied by the fruits of a thorough sacking of the four family photo albums.
John's narrative is unique, both in his personal childhood section and throughout the book. Nearly everything contributed from Paul, George and Ringo came from comprehensive interviews they gave a few years ago for The Beatles Anthology documentary on television. Their stories have the perspective of 25 years to a lifetime of hindsight, constructing memories with the foreknowledge of the narrative's full arc.
John's passages throughout the book hail from a wide range of interviews, writings and comments made over a nearly 20-year period from the early '60s right up to his death in December of 1980. There is a different kind of truth to his statements, drawn from a variety of perspectives from different periods of life, sometimes dealing with immediate events but more often reflecting back on his past, each time from the evolving perspective of a different phase in his life. It's the crystallization of that eternal youth offered to those who die too young. John is very much frozen in time, robbed of 20 more years to fashion what he wanted to say about being a Beatle. Often a single paragraph comes from two or three different sources and times, seamlessly blending into one sustained voice. It's nothing short of a magical editing job by the team of Brian Roylance, Julian Quance, Oliver Craske and Roman Milisic.
After the first four chapters, the rest of the book is a year-by-year collaborative storytelling, putting the fab four's lives as The Beatles into their own words. And the telling is fascinating, the ultimate antidote for the insatiable appetite we have for The Beatles. In as much as any biography is a retreading of old material, I can grant that there's no "new" ground covered, but I defy anyone to read these 340,000 words without learning quite a Beatle-bit. I am stunned that their memories are this good, recalling the kind of minutiae only an archivist would thirst for, but quenching that thirst beyond all expectation.
From one perspective, this gargantuan publication is so all-encompassing that it compresses the several-year-long rite of passage we are all entitled to into a three-week vacation with the telly turned off and a stack of CDs for musical accompaniment. Holding the book in your hand is like having unlimited access to the definitive archive, from the intimate stories, the reluctant honesties and the personal photographs to the scrawled song lyrics, travel itineraries, postcards, telegrams, sketches and doodles. It's even an interactive experience, as I find myself having more and move conversations with the book, talking into its margins as I transcribe the dialogue between the inspiring and compelling source materials and the reactions they evoke.
Among my highlighted discoveries is the Beatles' ongoing association as kids with literary heroes like Dylan Thomas, Samuel Beckett and D.H. Lawrence, fancying themselves stepping into those shoes the way a kid on the court may see himself as Michael Jordan charging the basket. I light up at the image of a 16-year-old Lennon trying to transpose the banjo chords his mother taught him. There's something thrilling in Paul's recollection of the lengths he would go to find a new chord, hunting down a kid a few neighborhoods away who was rumored to know B7th, and setting up the aura that an adolescent George created with his priceless repertoire of chords.
George's description of his first girlfriend is charming, admitting that "she probably didn't ever think she was my girlfriend. You never know when you're young; you just fancy somebody, or someone's in the same room as you, and you end up thinking they're your girlfriend." Likewise, his description of his "first shag" in a bunkbed in a room shared with John, Paul and Pete Best is voyeuristically endearing. "They couldn't really see anything because I was under the covers, but after I'd finished they all applauded and cheered. At least they kept quiet whilst I was doing it."
The most consistently intriguing parts of the book come in the early sections, when The Beatles were far less documented than they became once their popularity stuck. I hadn't known they had once, pre-"Ringo," gone through a phase in which they changed their names to Paul Ramon, Carl Harrison (after Carl Perkins) and Long John. And I somehow never imagined them as a van band, slogging through road trips and having their share of crashes after graduating from hitchhiking. Later, the van is replaced by John's Rolls Royce chasing George's Ferari at 90 mph while the former shouts over the loudspeaker mounted on his hood: "It is foolish to resist! Pull over!"
Any struggling new band can relate to the years when The Beatles couldn't afford decent lodging while "on tour," and would go through their whole Hamburg stints without a shower. They have plenty to tell about marijuana and acid later on, but their early experience with being given "slimming tablets" to help them stay awake during 12-hour gigs in Hamburg may be even more interesting, with George recalling, "we were frothing at the mouth. ...We went berserk inasmuch as we got drunk a lot and we played wildly and then they gave us these pills. I remember lying in bed, sweating from Preludin, thinking, 'Why aren't I sleeping?'"
Despite the wonderful photos and a dynamic, layered layout style that keeps the eye active with a wealth of visual imagery, it's the text that is most captivating. I'm a sucker for creation stories, and it's easy to go wild over hearing John explain how they hit on the key chord that made "I Want to Hold Your Hand" so good -- sitting at the piano with Paul in Jane Asher's cellar and heading into the "I think you'll understand" line: "Paul hits this chord and I turn to him and say, 'That's it! Do that again!' In those days, we really used to absolutely write like that -- both playing into each other's noses."
Don't bother with any second thoughts or hesitations about picking up The Beatles Anthology for yourself or as a gift. It's well worth whatever you pay for it (you can find it locally anywhere from $32 to $70). Sell the car, if you must, and quit your job while you're at it. It's a laptop holiday, a one-way ticket beyond the magical mystery tour inviting you to turn on, tune out and turn the pages.