'Beatles Encyclopedia' is no revolution

January 06, 1994|By Michael Anft | Michael Anft,Contributing Writer

On a spring weekend less than a decade ago, three bandmates and I piled into a van, rattled up the New Jersey Turnpike and depiled into the Meadowlands.

We were there for the annual "Beatlefest," a combination coming-together and excuse for mega-merchandising. Our goal was to perform three Beatles tunes during the band contest.

It could have been any other kind of popular culture festival, except that wide-eyed teens and young adults inside the convention hall sported mop tops and Beatles ties and ogled every Beatles T-shirt and tongue depressor.

In small rooms surrounding the hall, continual video replays of landmark Beatles moments ran ad nauseam. Every time Brian Epstein tapped his toe at Shea Stadium or Stu Sutcliffe's brooding face appeared in a stall shot, those assembled applauded and yelled loudly.

This wasn't just a lively retrospective. It was more like a religious revial. Epstein and Sutcliffe, who were long dead, were this denomination's martyrs. Add in a spirited (as in half-drunk) talk by could-be evangelist Billy J. Kramer (of "and the Dakotas" fame) and covers of classics by the visiting choir (my band and others), and the worship service was complete.

As the disciples of "Star Trek," Madonna and, of course, the Fab Four already know, pop culture inspires its own kind of piety and, at the same time, behavior that could charitably be labeled "ovine." My bandmates and I, aghast at the overpriced memorabilia and ironically entertained by the earnestness of the proceedings, were less polite.

"Geeks," we laughed.

Bill Harry, compiler and author of "The Ultimate Beatles Encyclopedia," is that kind of geek, but at least he's a geek with BTC a pedigree. Not too many guys went to school with John Lennon and turned that brush with greatness into a career, so let's give him a smidgen of credit for guile.

Mr. Harry was savvy enough to start a music paper, Mersey Beat, just as the Beatles were about to take off. But he's no journalist, not in the cynical, look-under-every-rock American way, at least, and his physically weighty book is otherwise light as a feather because of it.

Of course, those folks at the Beatlefest will love it, but for the fan of deeper interest, the one who insists on seeing the Fab Four as human beings and not merely a phenomenon, it's a big fat nothing.

Tellingly, there are no entries for Chapman, Mark David; or Goldman, Albert; or Weekend, Lost (although Mr. Harry three times mentions the "long weekend," then drops the matter without fully explaining the significance of Lennon's separation from Yoko Ono.)

The idea is to keep everything hap hap happy and Beat Beat Beatle-est.

Not that Mr. Harry's attention to detail can't be exhaustive. There are hundreds of entries covering every closet and Cavern in which the Beatles, in one form or another, played. There's plenty of minutiae on the most marginal of characters, like Caleb the tarot card reader at Apple Records headquarters. But do mere Beatles "fans" (not worshipers) really care about him or the band's tenuous connections to Marlene Dietrich, Cassius Clay or (egads!) Bob Eubanks?

Do they care about lists that make biblical genealogies appear, by comparison, succinct? Tour lists? Chart lists -- 11 pages of them? Lists of Apple artists, as if more than a few deserve mention anywhere?

This is the kind of unadorned, unexamined detail Mr. Harry offers: the hour certain notables were born, the smallest machinations of plot (but not the critical merits or demerits) of films acted in by Beatles, and reprinted press releases -- verbatim.

What we don't get is a writer's appraisal, that is, a combination of criticism and storytelling, matched by a healthy respect for both subject and audience. Saying that Julian Lennon, for example, "succeed[ed] as a musician in his own right" is ridiculous. (Last I heard, he was without a recording contract.) Identifying Apple hanger-on John Lyndon in one entry as "John Lydon" could particularly annoy fans of the Sex Pistols. As Johnny Rotten, Mr. Lydon was lead singer of that band, and most of its fans hated the Beatles.

Contrary to My. Harry's bland restating of pop history, the Beatles didn't just happen. They worked hard. Got big. Made mistakes. Continued to evolve. Broke up acrimoniously. Changed the world.

"The Ultimate Beatles Encyclopedia" glosses over all of that, as if to make the Beatles a token you could hold in your palm.

Like one of those tongue depressors.

Mr. Anft is a writer living in Baltimore.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Ultimate Beatles Encyclopedia"

Author: Bill Harry

Publisher: Hyperion

Length, price: 720 pages, $35

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