Beatles' newest chronicler was not a big fan

March 27, 1995|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

For a guy whose new book, "A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles," offers a rigorously researched, exactingly accurate picture of how the Beatles' recordings came to be made, Mark Hertsgaard is not much of a Beatle maniac.

Sure, he knows more about the band than most people. After all, he read literally every book on the subject, pored over every interview he could find and listened to 50 hours of unreleased Beatles and John Lennon recordings from the EMI archives at Abbey Road in London. Ask him about any single in the Beatles catalog, and he can explain exactly what is known and not known about how the song came into being.

But ask him what it was like to grow up as a Beatles fan, and stumped.

"I did see the Beatles on 'Ed Sullivan,' " says the Baltimore-born writer. "But I didn't get into them, really, until I was in college."

Even then, it was hardly the focus of his life. Hertsgaard, 38, was a tad too young to have been swept up in the first wave of Beatlemania. "I remember thinking it was exciting," he says of the Sullivan show broadcast. "But until I researched it, I couldn't have told you what they sang. It was just these boys, and they had their names under them on television, and there were all these girls in the stands who were screaming. But I was 7 years old -- what was I supposed to think?"

Politics was a far more pressing interest in Hertsgaard's life. In fact, that's mostly what he has written about over the years. His first book, "Nuclear Inc.: The Men and Money Behind Nuclear Energy," was an investigative account of the American nuclear power industry; his second, the highly acclaimed "On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency," examined the way Reagan administration spin doctors manipulated the media in the early '80s. In between, he'd written about environmental and political issues for everyone from The New Yorker and Vanity Fair to The Nation and Le Monde.

How it began

So how did he wind up writing a Beatles book?

It wasn't anything he would have predicted. Even when he was working on a profile of Beatles archivist Mark Lewisohn for The New Yorker -- the assignment that led to "A Day in the Life" -- Hertsgaard scoffed at the idea of doing a Beatles book.

"Lewisohn kept saying to me, as we were doing these interviews, 'You know, you should write a book about this.' And I said, 'Thank you very much, but this piece is quite enough. I'm doing another book and am very committed to sticking to that.'

"But I realized [later] that I had read all these books on the Beatles while doing the profile on Mark, and there wasn't any book that did justice to the music. Almost all the books were about their private lives and were very sloppily reported. I was just astonished to look at no documentation and blind quotes." Part of what got Hertsgaard going was the chance to set the record straight, "to go through like an investigative reporter or an investigative historian and say, 'OK, after 30 years, what do we know about this? What can we say is true? What do we have to say we don't know?' "

Access to archives

But the other spark had to do with the fact that, while working on the Lewisohn profile, Hertsgaard had been granted access to the Beatles archives and listened to hours upon hours of studio material that almost no one outside the Beatles' inner circle had ever heard.

"I got a question the other day, saying, 'Oh, that was a very clever trick to get inside the Abbey Road studios,' " he says. "It was not a clever trick at all. At that time, I had no intention of doing a book. But if I'm going to write about Mark Lewisohn, it's not because he's an interesting person. It's because he wrote this book, and I need to compare what's in the book to what's in the vaults.

"The Beatles themselves were not happy that I was allowed in there, by the way," he adds. "It was decided by EMI [the Beatles' British label] officials. Lewisohn doesn't have the power. As the archivist, he was never even allowed in the archives. That's how secretive that stuff is."

Ironically, neither the Beatles in particular nor rock in general played a large role for Hertsgaard when he was growing up in Baltimore County. "When I was a kid, we weren't allowed to buy records," he says. "It wasn't like it was some dictum, but the only records that were ever bought were very occasional. I remember my mom had one by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass,'Whipped Cream and Other Delights.' She had that, and she had Nat 'King' Cole records."

Apart from the Sullivan show, he never saw the Beatles on TV -- or much of anything else apart from seeing his dad, Rolph Hertsgaard, read the news on Channel 11. "In fact, I saw him more often on television than I did around the house," he says, laughing.

Hertsgaard doesn't have any plans for other music books. Once he finishes his promotional tour for "A Day in the Life," he wants to get back to writing "Leaving Too Soon," a book he describes as being "whether the human race is likely to be here a hundred years from now, or whether we'll have succumbed to ecological self-destruction."

BEATLES' BOOK

What: Book signing for "A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles"

When: Tonight at 7:30

.` Where: Borders Books in Towson

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