With Tune In, Mark Lewisohn launches what promises to be a 3,000-or-so-page trilogy about the Beatles. If that sounds like overkill, bear in mind that Robert Caro is closing in on his fifth volume about LBJ, who — let’s not kid ourselves — couldn’t even sing.
Obsessive Beatles fans will recognize Lewisohn’s name. In his on-again, off-again role as the band’s in-house historian, he’s published some indispensable books about them, including the geek’s paradise that is Recording Sessions, in which he detailed every backing vocal and bass note the Beatles ever recorded inside the hallowed white rooms of Abbey Road. Full disclosure: I met Lewisohn many years ago, and thought he was a surprisingly devout scholar and also very nice. He wrote while sitting on an ergonomic kneeling chair, so my chief memory is of him genuflecting before the Beatles.
My respect for Lewisohn aside, I didn’t relish the idea of cracking open Tune In: It’s 932 pages long and ends in 1962, for God’s sake. But by the time the boys from Liverpool hit Hamburg in 1960, I was tearing through the book with a hunger. And they really were just boys, by the way, despite being sex-crazed and hopped-up on speed so they could rock all night for drunk Germans. Here’s George Harrison remembering a singular moment from his youth: ”My first shag was in Hamburg, with Paul and John and Pete Best all watching. We were in bunkbeds. 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.”
In Tune is spectacularly well sourced and researched, and it draws on decades’ worth of the author’s interviews. Though he was once on the Beatles’ payroll, Lewisohn serves only the truth here. (It’s been decades since you could entirely trust the Beatles’ own memories, partly because of their age, partly because of their agendas.) He nails all the riveting and/or heartbreaking subplots from the band’s earliest years: John Lennon and Paul McCartney losing their mums while still in school; Stu Sutcliffe, the beloved, if terrible, bassist finding the love of his life in Germany only to die of a brain hemorrhage at 21; manager Brian Epstein failing to get the band he adored a record contract even as labels signed a group of singing trumpeters, a 10-year-old schoolboy, and a singing Canadian wrestler. The saga is clearer and richer here than it’s ever been. Lewisohn writes in novelistic detail and with the obvious conviction that none of the previous Beatles biographies have ever been good enough — even if, until this very moment, they had to be. A