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Once There Was a Way: What if The Beatles Stayed Together? by Bryce Zabel

Once There Was a Way: What if The Beatles Stayed Together? by Bryce Zabel

Buy Once There Was A Way at Amazon.

Read author Zabel’s biography on Goodreads, and you’ll find an impressive resume steeped in sci-fi and speculative fiction, and it’s not limited to book format. Once There Was A Way is an alternative history, and while it is a work of fiction I hesitate to call it a novel. It’s not a narrative in the traditional sense, like previous Beatle-related fiction reviewed here. Ian R. MacLeod’s Snodgrass stands out in my mind because it also asks “what if?” That story followed John Lennon in a life of near squalor, having left The Beatles before reaching any level of international fame. Once offers not just a “what if” but “what could have been.”

The book begins in 1968 at the dawn of the Apple age, with John and Paul about to announce its genesis on The Tonight Show. Immediately the trajectory veers from actual history. Reality shows (or it would, if the full footage still existed) John and Paul had to settle that night for a substitute host, Joe Garagiola. Book John and Book Paul have enough sense to hold out for the real thing, and Carson jumps.

From there we’re treated to a story laid out in lengthy Behind The Music style as The Beatles flirt with divorce but ultimately agree to probationary periods of togetherness for the sake of keeping Apple viable and solvent. They agree to completing film and album commitments, yet take turns gazing longingly at the exit. Unlike bands that stay together for the paycheck despite passing their prime, The Beatles continue to spin gold.

Zabel threads in non-events ingrained in band lore (the invitation to Woodstock, the Lord of the Rings adaptation) and makes them happen. As the band’s life span lengthens, so some of the individual achievements in song become those of the group. Some moments in the story seem almost too far-fetched and Forrest Gump, even for speculative fiction, but as escapism it inspires a smile.

My big issue with the book was the style. Once I realized I didn’t have a straight narrative story I felt apprehensive about following through. The strength of Once There Was A Way comes in the characters. If you’re big on The Beatles you’re more likely to enjoy this than a non-fan. After getting through the initial chapter about The Tonight Show, I found my groove and finished this with good speed.

As for how long The Beatles remain together in this book, and who survives to the end, I won’t spoil it. I will say Zabel’s ending probably reflects the feelings of a number of fans who had hoped for more after 1970.

An ARC from Netgalley was received from the publisher for the purpose of this review.

Rating: B-

Kathryn Lively is looking for her next book to read.

Ringo: With a Little Help by Michael Starr

Ringo: With a Little Help by Michael Starr

Does Ringo Starr get enough credit as a musician? Other professionals have cited his influence on them, mainly by virtue of The Beatles’ reach and an equal focus on all four members. Think of how many kids watched the band on Ed Sullivan and went on to pursue music – not all of them became guitarists.

Others may argue that Ringo is no Buddy Rich or Neil Peart – then again you can reverse that argument. How well would Neil and Buddy have paraded through A Hard Day’s Night or mugged through Help! and The Magic Christian without Ringo’s effusive charm? Legend has it Buddy once told a young fan, “fuck off, kid,” so it’s safe to say we wouldn’t have heard him narrating any Thomas the Tank Engine stories.

Ringo was/is a drummer, memorable enough to make Best Of lists, and more so an entertainer. Think of each of the Beatles movies: Ringo has a significant side story in AHDN, is practically the focus of Help!, and opens Yellow Submarine and Magical Mystery Tour. Sometimes people debate over rock groups and the possibility of expendable members. Ringo isn’t one of them.

Ringo the musician is not without his critics, but it’s not enough to dismiss his skills entirely. He can claim a fair number of fans in the industry. While he didn’t enjoy lasting solo success on the music charts compared to the other ex-Beatles, he never had a problem lining up capable sidemen for his albums. Check the liner notes of any of his records – each is a who’s who in classic rock. I can’t say if these music makers expected high sales, but it’s clear they believe enough in Starr’s talent to give their time to him.

Despite five decades in the public eye, you don’t find much in the way of detailed biographies on the man. Look on Goodreads, and you’ll see his photography collections, and a few bios with negative reviews – claims of poor writing and research. Michael Starr’s Ringo: With a Little Help (AMZ / BN / ITUNES) may very well set a precedent. Like other Beatle biographies, this is an unauthorized work – author Starr (no relation, of course) even notes a Facebook post from Starr’s official page denying any participation in the book’s creation. It’s possible Starr isn’t interested in having his whole life story told, which makes sense considering the professional and personal nadirs revealed here.

The tone of Ringo, however, is kind. Ringo reads quite the opposite of Howard Sounes’s Fab:An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney. Where Sounes’s biography teeters between disappointment of and scorn for its subject, Ringo is almost apologetic in recounting post-Beatles struggles, as though the author doesn’t want to put the star in a bad light. Even so, consider the content to work with: a string of low-charting solo albums (when they did chart), low-grossing movies and failed TV pilots, and a decade’s worth of drunken debauchery. Hey, it happened, but Ringo survived. His All Starr Band is on it’s thirteenth tour, and he’s about to be inducted solo into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Granted, it’s being done not as a performer but under the title of Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence or whatnot, but the Rock Hall could simply have let the Beatles induction suffice for him.

On top of all this, he’s 75 and looks 40. Eat your broccoli, kids.

As a biographer, author Starr appears to have done his homework. Ringo comes with an extensive bibliography and list of cited sources, though it looks as though he relied heavily on certain ones – specifically Beatles books I’ve read for the first third of the history. You won’t find many new revelations in the Beatles era, beyond the hints of reunion in the following years. One nit pick: the book states the claim of a near crime-free evening in New York during the Sullivan show, which the people at Snopes have debunked.

Ringo’s post-Beatles debauchery well matched, if not surpassed, the decadence of Lennon’s fabled Lost Weekend, only in his case it’s a Lost Decade or two. You would expect a more rounded portrayal of Ringo here, and experience his frustration of wanting to move on from the past. I get the impression, though, author Starr is more interested in protecting Ringo and downplaying some of the uglier public moments. They exist.

With the new tour and Rock Hall honors, and every year until 2020 will be the 50th anniversary of something Beatles-related, Ringo is a timely release, one for fans interested in more about the man who inspired so many to pick up sticks.

Rating: C+/B-

The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story by Vivek Tiwary, Philip Simon (Editor), Andrew C. Robinson (Illustrations), Kyle Baker (Illustrations)

The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story by Vivek Tiwary, Philip Simon (Editor), Andrew C. Robinson (Illustrations), Kyle Baker (Illustrations)

ARC received via NetGalley.

Buy the book at Amazon.com.

One thing I’ve noticed in what’s become my scholarly study on The Beatles is that one can find a wealth of information on the band, the individual members, and their chronological history. I may know more about John Lennon than I do my current president, and yet information on their manager, Brian Epstein, remains scarce. Pretty much everything I know about Epstein came from Peter Brown’s memoir, The Love You Make. I know I tend to hold up that book as the standard, but years and years after I’ve read it, the memory is fresh.

There are Epstein-centric books, though, none of which I have read: among them a ghostwritten autobiography published at the height of Beatlemania that is likely sanitized to appeal to young fans, and a more in-depth history from Lennon biographer Ray Coleman. One could guess the lack in reading material about Epstein corresponds to the short time he worked with the band and the fact he died so young. I see pictures of Epstein and imagine a man beyond his years – always mature and serious – when in fact he was only six years older than John.

We can imagine the stress of managing an extremely popular group aged him prematurely. Not only that, Epstein dealt with social prejudices that rendered him depressed and unable to sleep. A public figure comes out as homosexual today and it may not be a big deal, but in 1962 to be gay and Jewish in a tiny English port town equated to painting a large target on your head. The Fifth Beatle, a new graphic novel fictionalizing the life of Epstein, opens with the grim image of Epstein suffering a violent act in what appears to be a hustle gone wrong in a dank Liverpool alley. It’s a specter of shame and unrequited feelings that follow him through his short life, terrors he seeks to replace with success.

Fans know the legend – Epstein had little to no talent management experience, but knew the music business through the family chain of record shops. He attends a live show at the Cavern after hearing of the Beatles, and you know the rest. The Fifth Beatle vividly recreates this and other key scenes in Epstein’s relationship with The Beatles with sharp characterization and moody colors. Unlike another graphic novel reviewed here (Baby’s in Black), representations of main and supporting players take on appearances that match their personalities – genuine and assumed. Brian comes off as enthusiastic despite weary expressions, John is sharp and smirking, and Paul exudes a gee-whiz cuteness. Darker scenes position people like Colonel Tom Parker in a demonic setting and Ed Sullivan as wooden (you’ll see it soon enough), and Yoko Ono in an eerie cameo.

All through the adventure, Brian has a right-hand woman named Moxie. Whether she existed as a composite of personnel assisting the band and Epstein or as a figment of the imagination (not unlike Jessica Lange’s angel/confessor in All That Jazz) remains up for debate. Her role in the story serves to heighten one thing we’ve always known about Brian Epstein – he was lonely. He had friends and family, and while he may not have been the savviest of managers he had the respect of four lads from Liverpool for a time. Nonetheless, he had no partner with whom to share his success, and that knowledge makes this story all the more bittersweet. His premature death in 1967 is arguably the beginning of the end of The Beatles – that’s something I’ve believed for a long time. We can blame Yoko, but the smoke ignited when the band found themselves without management and couldn’t easily decide on a successor.

Anyway, I’ve followed the progress of The Fifth Beatle for the better part of a year and looked forward to reading it. Overall, I liked the story and the illustration. Fans will easily spot the lyrical Easter eggs in the dialogue, but I find things like that take me out of the story and make it a challenge to take seriously (Clockwork Angels had this same issue). I will admit, too, there are known scenes of Epstein’s life that didn’t make it to this book. George is barely represented here, Ringo even less, and Pete Best isn’t on the radar…unless you count blurred background Cavern images. Also missing or downplayed are moments of John’s cruel humor, the anti-Semitic and anti-gay slurs that reportedly drove Epstein to tears.

The Fifth Beatle is a welcome tribute to a figure sometimes marginalized in Beatles history. Petitions to get Epstein inducted as a non-performer in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame continue to circulate, and perhaps a book like this will bring more attention to the cause.

Rating: B

Kathryn Lively is the author of Killing the Kordovas, The Girl With the Monkee Tattoo, and The Rock and Roll Mysteries.