This weekend’s New York Times Book Review tries a fun musical experiment, inviting singers Suzanne Vega and Nellie McKay to review two Beatle books, respectively, Paul McCartney: A Life by Peter Ames Carlin and John Lennon: The Life by Philip Norman.
I don’t know if Suzanne Vega is widely known today, but in the 1980s she had a cool artistic presence in the music scene something like Ann Beattie’s cool artistic presence in the fiction scene. I’ve never read her prose before, and her McCartney article begins with surprising banality, expressing something we’ve heard many times before:
I was one of those little girls who loved the Beatles in the 1960s. Yes, Paul was my favorite Beatle back then, with Ringo in close second place. As I got older I appreciated John’s wit and George’s spirituality, but it all started with Paul and his dark beautiful eyes.
Vega isn’t blown away by the book she’s reviewing, and her article begins to walk a strange edge as she accuses Carlin of predictable writing even as her piece struggles with over-familiarity. She is funny, though, about his pretentious touches:
Why are shores always untrammeled? No one ever seems to write about how trammeled most shores actually are these days.
Can’t argue with that. Vega never locates her book-reviewing voice (exclaiming “This is good stuff!” after citing a passage that isn’t even particularly good just doesn’t fit the NYTBR style guide), but she does begin to assemble a convincing case against Peter Ames Carlin’s biographical skills, as when Beatle friend Astrid Kirchherr is “described as an ‘inspiring photographer’ when the context would seem to imply ‘aspiring photographer.'” Ouch.
Vega easily establishes her knowledge of Beatles trivia (I’m a bit of a Beatles know-it-all myself, but I’d fear going head to head with her in a trivia contest) and one wishes to know how well she might have written this piece if she’d been impressed by the book she read. Paul McCartney’s own creative brilliance is unfortunately completely absent here, and it’s also confusing to learn that Carlin’s mission in writing this book was “to present McCartney as more artistically and intellectually complex — and more ambitious — than the sweet and bubbly caricature we have known.” An excellent earlier biography of Paul McCartney by Barry Miles called Many Years From Now established this point, and was especially strong on McCartney’s strong connection to the London experimental lit/music scene that produced bands like Pink Floyd and the Soft Machine in 1966 and ’67. We naturally assume that John Lennon would have soaked in this scene, but it was McCartney who took it all in.
I don’t know who Nellie McKay is, but her review of Philip Norman’s biography of John Lennon is one of the cleverest articles I’ve ever read in this publication. Rather nervily and without explanation (though the Book Review editors provide one) she writes her entire piece in the punny, bawdy, slangy and James Joyce inspired language John Lennon used in his own books In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works. It’s nice to see McKay paying tribute to these underrated books, and her impression of Lennon’s style is uncannily great. I don’t even know if Lennon played his own game this well. Here’s McKay on the Beatles’ early days:
Deforming a band took conservatives and phunning. Larfing with skittle and covers meant going unheard in a confession where the violence is everything. Timbers flewed in and stout based on the penance they played, their ingrationship with other cads, and hairpile.
The article is a real performance, and McKay even manages to use this mangled language to lecture author Philip Norman (who she refers to as “Phyllis Diller”, while she calls The Life “The Wife”) on his glossy understanding of World War II:
… over 60,000 couscous objectors in Bitbum abourne hardly inflies universal constant, and the fomming of Heroshimmy and Maserati, nevermin ye Humbug and FloJo, nevermin the cursed use of napalm and kernment camps, sugar this a rather glib point of view.
Indeed, and indeed Norman’s “minions on songs ar argibabble” too, though McKay ultimately likes his book. Forget the book — I love this article. Her reviewer’s credit mentions that the most recent Nellie McKay album is called “Normal as Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day”. I am going to be buying this album.
Unfortunately the disparity in style dooms the Book Review’s musical experiment: there is no harmony between Vega’s sensible brief and McKay’s creative swoop. Another minor chance for harmony is missed when Lisa Scottoline reviews Elysa East’s true-crime story Dogtown — Beatles fans will recognize “Dogtown” as the title of an excellent song by Yoko Ono, but this goes unmentioned here.
The rest of the Book Review takes second place: a Jeannette Winterson cover piece on a biography of Patricia Highsmith that doesn’t interest me because I’ve never read Patricia Highsmith, Liesl Schillinger managing to avoid cracking Roman Polanski jokes in a generally favorable review of Jim Harrison’s The Farmer’s Daughter that scolds him for his views on inter-generational sex, and an enticing introduction to Marie Ponsot’s Easy by poetry critic Stephen Burt.