Years ago when I purchased the gigantic The Beatles Anthology hardcover, one criticism I read bemoaned the lack of contribution from some of the more important witnesses to the band’s history: the women. When I think of all the Beatles related books I have read, I realize I have read biographies written by people who were close to the band (Peter Brown) and others by those who merely saw the Beatles as the rest of us did – from a distance. They devoted more time researching the lore and sorting the truth from legend, and so far everything I’ve read appears to corroborate, give or take a few surprises.
Getting back to the Beatles’ women, in the band biographies they are often relegated to the back seat. With solo stories, your mileage may vary. John Lennon: The Life presents the history of a man dominated by women. Well, two at least. I’ve not read bios of the other three yet, but it happened that I found a copy of Wonderful Tonight at a closing Borders and grabbed it for the TBR pile. Musically speaking, George was always my favorite, and all I know about him comes from Brown’s memoir and what I’ve since found in rare interviews and, of course, the post-Beatles music. Pattie Boyd, George’s first wife (and later, Eric Clapton’s first), is long known as his first muse as well, having inspired some of rock music’s best-known tributes. While she isn’t the first wife/girlfriend to influence a Beatle into quality songwriting (“Here, There, and Everywhere” was allegedly written for Jane Asher), I’d always thought her the most interesting. It was my hope this long-awaited memoir lived up to the hype.
The one thing I immediately took away from Pattie’s book, and this is something I’m guessing any reader would expect, was this unfortunate pattern of unhealthy relationships she endured. The beginning chapters recall, with lack of clarity, a young life in Africa in a semi-stable family. One might be envious to know a girl raised in such exotic environs, but instead we are told a story about passive parents and a father who gradually fades away, to be replaced by a stepfather who doesn’t do any better for Pattie and her siblings. Adulthood proves her first opportunity to escape and achieve happiness and a sense of accomplishment, and it’s this determination to succeed as a model that gets her the gig of a lifetime, a walk-on part in a Beatles film.
She’s the blonde and has only one line. One word, actually, but behind the scenes it was a different story. Now, I can forgive how Boyd glosses over her childhood. She seems to imply, too, she only recalls so much, but the picture of life before George that she paints offers vivid glimpses into the hip sixties, where people of all classes socialized and interacted. A brief anecdote about inviting a famous dancer to her table sticks out in my mind – what she describes, I’m sure, doesn’t happen much these days, even with celebrity accessibility via Twitter.
In some instances, though, I read a passage and wish Boyd had gone into more detail. The Beatle courtship also reads a bit rushed. Some of what Boyd relays I remember from other books and accounts of peak Beatlemania. I can also forgive her here, for she had come during the touring years and therefore didn’t have much access to the scene beyond receiving hate mail from fans. It isn’t until Clapton enters the picture that Boyd is freer with detail, yet reading through Wonderful Tonight I got the sense that there is still more to tell here.
Boyd’s voice comes off as sadly wooden, as though she’s telling us okay, you’ve bugged me for years to tell my story, here it is. Having lived the life surely exhausted her, perhaps to the point that there is no emotion left for the book. As other readers of this book confirmed, I had a problem with the time-hopping in this work. Boyd tends to jump back and forth with anecdotes – she may start with an event that happened in the mid-sixties and leapfrog a decade, then come back. If you’re the type of reader who craves chronological order, Wonderful Tonight may give you a bit of a headache. If you believe Eric Clapton can do no wrong, too, you may not want to pick it up at all.
What emotion I do sense in the book comes forth as pain, mostly where Clapton is concerned. I wouldn’t say that Boyd’s account of her second marriage is scathing, but if what she writes is the truth then my opinion of the man musicians call God is now virtually non-existent.
Once we’re past the marriages, Boyd’s life seems to waver between self-doubt and spiritual search. While she claims not to have gained financially from her divorces (she claims to be overdrawn often at the bank), she apparently has enough income to travel extensively, and the remainder of the book reads like a gossip column. She had dinner with Mike Rutherford of Genesis, she stayed at Ron Wood’s house, met this person and that. More time is spent talking about other people, and not Pattie Boyd. We know who Mike Rutherford and Ron Wood are, Pattie, who are you?
I wanted to love this book, but at best I liked that Pattie finally came forward open up about her life. I still get the sense there’s more to tell, however. That this book came out after George died made me wonder if she waited on purpose, yet she still lives now as she did when she was Mrs. Harrison, then Mrs. Clapton: as a young woman doing her best to maintain balance and harmony in her environment, and living by merely accepting what happens. I hope that’s not the case. A woman who would willingly hang-glide without a thought for the outcome shouldn’t be afraid to bare her soul.
Kathryn Lively is a mystery author who reads and drinks wine.