During my recent interview with author Mark Lewisohn about his monumental new biography of the Beatles, “Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years,” he very briefly let slip a comment that might qualify as favoritism, something that doesn’t figure into the book itself, an even-handed, deeply researched account not only of the group itself but also of the world they entered and eventually changed with their music.
At 944 pages, it’s an imposing book, all the more so when you realize it’s the first of three volumes, the other two expected to land successively six or seven years down the line from the first installment.
Considering the book constitutes interwoven individual biographies of each member of the Fab Four, Lewisohn cited a comment Ringo Starr has been making during interviews in conjunction with the release of “Photograph,” the new collection of photos he took before, during and after his tenure in the band.
Starr often says he hasn’t chosen to write a formal autobiography because “People are only interested in those eight years” he was a Beatle. As he told The Times recently, “I had a life before I was in the Beatles, and I’ve had one since.”
Said Lewisohn, “What he didn’t know all the time he was saying that is that I was doing it. I’ve done the best possible job I can, and he’s right, it is a tremendous story.
“His story, the Richy Starkey story, is one of the real strengths of this book,” Lewisohn said. “Despite the strength of John, Paul and George’s stories, the Richy story -- it’s R-I-C-H-Y, that’s how he spells it, he always writes it with a Y -- is about the strongest of them all.”
Indeed, after three serious brushes with death from childhood illnesses, Starr emerged from the hospital where a volunteer had brought percussion instruments in to help young patients with their recoveries and joined a skiffle group at the factory where he landed a manual labor job.
“His mother’s friend around the corner would say, ‘See you on the Palladium, son, see your name in lights!’ It was more than fantasy -- it was beyond the realm of possibility, really, but he dreamed it,” Lewisohn said. “And there could be no greater pinnacle for anyone growing up in England at that time than to be on the London Palladium.
"But he made it, he made it within five years and then found there were pinnacles beyond that -- well beyond that; bigger and greater pinnacles on an almost weekly basis, from that point onward, that haven’t even really finished yet.
“That’s a tremendous story,” Lewisohn said.
As part of his in-depth research, Lewisohn also has debunked a humorous knock on Starr’s drumming abilities, long attributed to John Lennon. For decades, people and media outlets have repeated the anecdote about Lennon being asked whether he considered Starr to be the best drummer in the world. The oft-quoted response: “He’s not even the best drummer in the Beatles.”
While it sounds like the kind of acerbic comment that might have come out of Lennon’s mouth, Lewisohn says no.
“The London Times newspaper quoted John Lennon ‘famously saying that Ringo wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles.’ John Lennon never said that, famously or otherwise, and that is the London Times quoting him,” Lewisohn said, making a point about his motivation for trying to separate fact from Fab Four mythology.
“For me, it’s [a case of tracking down] when did he say this? I’ve heard every John Lennon interview, I’ve read every John Lennon interview, I never saw that quote. So when did he say it, let alone when did he famously say it?” he said. “I determined to get to the bottom of it. And it’s actually a TV comedian’s joke from three years after John was killed, in 1983. So John Lennon never said it -- and wouldn’t have said it.”
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