Mark Lewisohn’s Toronto Public Library talk attempted to restore breathless wonder about the Beatles

The UK author's Beatles biography combines the rigorous research of a World War II history tome with the plot drama of a Game Of Thrones-style epic – and there's more to come


Imagine a Beatles biography that combines the rigorous research of a World War II history tome with the continuously unfurling dramatic plot of a Game Of Thrones-style epic. Mark Lewisohn had this thought, or something like it, in 2003, and went about purging his life of virtually all non-Beatles-related activity from that day forward. 

Ten years later, in 2013, the first volume of the wryly titled The Beatles: All These Years showed up on bookstore shelves, taking us all the way from the lineage of Ringo Starr’s grandparents to the moment right before the crushing onset of Beatlemania in 1963. Lewisohn expects to finish the second volume, which will cover 1963 to 70, in 2020.

His appearance at the Toronto Reference Library on Saturday, October 22, marked the end of a three-week research trip of gathering new material for this book, some of which he promised would significantly change the way we think about the story of Beatle-mania.

Disputes about the Beatles’ musicianship almost always feel like a show of faux contrarianism, but it’s important to acknowledge that their enduring popularity is due in part to the sheer volume of ephemera produced during the Beatlemania years. Nothing enables fandom more than an endless rabbit hole of historical documents and collectible items. 

It’s perhaps for this reason that you wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between the audience at the TPL on Saturday and a roomful of Coronation Street enthusiasts. Grand cultural narratives have a way of ossifying under the weight of mega-fandom, imbuing older fans with a duty to preserve the myth in some form, while limiting access to new perspectives. 

Tethered as it was to Toronto’s ongoing self-celebration of the handful of times the Beatles flattered us with their attention, this event seemed pitched toward that type of Beatles fan who might get worked up about Rihanna fans who don’t know who Paul McCartney is but has never heard Frank Ocean’s lovely interpolation of Here, There And Everywhere on White Ferrari.

For his part, Lewisohn wants to blow up the myth and put it back together again in a better form that will restore the kind of breathless wonder present when these events unfolded. At the prompting of moderator Piers Hemmingson, he ran through some of the high-profile Beatles moments of 1966 – their final tour, the infamous “butcher” album cover, the making of Revolver, John’s “bigger than Jesus” comment – enlivening each story with fresh detail and a range of new perspectives. 

He’s alarmed by the way these stories have been smoothed over and whittled down to the point of being essentially untrue, even briefly critiquing Ron Howard’s documentary Eight Days A Week for peddling a few stale myths. The Beatles story needs to be untidy and complicated if we are to understand it at all, Lewisohn contends. We just need to wait until about 2030 for him to finish telling it. 

music@nowtoronto.com | @streetsbag

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