Arts Extra: Here, There And Everywhere

Time was when Beatles fans were starving masses. First, they hungered for a reunion-a dream that died along with John Lennon in 1980. Next, fans pinned their hopes on the Beatles's legendary archives, fantasizing that the band would start releasing secret treasures. Oddities. Rarities. Studio banter. Original takes of "Strawberry Fields Forever" (when it was just a beautiful little folk song) or "The Long and Winding Road" (before producer Phil Spector slimed it with all those sickly strings). Something. Anything.

In the early '90S, word leaked that the Beatles' company, Apple, was at work on the "Anthology" television documentary. Fans were so elated that they staked out the nondescript little elbow of road in London where the editors were working heatedly to meet ABC's deadline. When I visited the editing suite at the time, one of the producers told me that some fans had actually been pointing microphones at the building, hoping to capture any songs that might drift out the window. I asked the producer-jokingly, I thought-if fans were picking through the trash. He looked grim for a moment. "We shred everything, anyway."

The lean days are gone for good. In recent years, the Beatles have let loose with a flood of CDs, books and memorabilia that was at first exhilarating, then daunting, then wearying, then perplexing, and then maybe-I'm thinking of the rerelease of the "Yellow Submarine" movie with its accompanying flotilla of "Yellow Submarine" cookie jars and oven mitts, and so on-just a little bit crass. The "Anthology" documentary recently begat the band's coffee-table autobiography, which begat the band's greatest-hits collection "One," not to mention a dozen solo projects. Suddenly it seems possible to be sick of a band that has not existed for 30 years.

Paul McCartney, in particular, has become more of a workaholic than ever. He's clearly been driven by the all-but-heartstopping loss of his wife, Linda, releasing a CD of her music and books of her photographs, as well as a rushing-river of his own work. Even leaving aside his actual music-which now embraces pop, vintage rock and classical-McCartney recently published a book of his paintings (which I'm in no position to judge), a volume of his poetry (which I am in a position to judge), and a compilation of his greatest post-Beatles hits called "Wingspan" (not to be confused with his previous compilations of post-Beatles hits, called "Wings Greatest" and "All the Best").

Meanwhile, Yoko Ono vigilantly-and understandably-fights to keep her late husband's legacy alive, releasing Lennon's greatest hits, a boxed set dedicated to his studio outtakes and a book of drawings he'd done for their son, Sean, as well as making time for her own music and conceptual art. George Harrison could hardly be accused of living large. Still, he recently rereleased his epically long solo work, "All Things Must Pass," which includes some truly great pop songs-and at least two album's worth of stuff I plan to never listen to again. Ringo Starr? He's probably onstage somewhere, his hair in a ponytail, singing "With a Little Help From My Friends."

What triggered the deluge of Beatles-related product? There are a lot of complicated answers, which I'll get to, but let's not forget good, old-fashioned greed. Many years ago, George Harrison famously quipped that there would never be a Beatles reunion "as long as John Lennon remains dead." When the Beatles did in fact reunite for the "Anthology" project, some speculated that Harrison was taking part only because his finances had been on a steep decline. Just before the "Anthology" documentary aired-and the new Beatles song, "Free as a Bird," hit the airwaves-I asked the Beatles's longtime press officer, the late Derek Taylor, if Harrison was only in it for the money. Taylor, who was surely one of the most charming press agents who ever lived, waved the question away, then added, wryly: "Now, it may be the case that they all would like the money, because once you've got a lot of money, you do like to have more."

But greed clearly isn't the only thing driving the men who used to be Beatles-or, at least, it's a deeply complicated greed, a greed that was decades in the making. By the time the band broke up, John, Paul, George and Ringo were angry not only with each other but with the record companies they felt had always screwed them. (One of the reasons it took the Beatles so long to begin opening the vaults for their fans was that they were hip-deep in lawsuits for many years.) To this day, McCartney seems infuriated by the fact that Michael Jackson owns and controls the Beatles's publishing catalog-and he still seems competitive with Ono and with Lennon's ghost. I remember reading that, because of some strange royalty clause having to do with widows and orphans, Ono once made more money from the song "Yesterday" than McCartney did-this despite the fact that McCartney wrote it entirely by himself and was the only Beatle to even play on the recording. Think about how that must have felt to McCartney. Even if you're a knighted multimillionaire, it's got to piss you off.

So it often seems that the Beatles publish and release and rerelease partly to compete with each other and to somehow avenge old grievances against the companies that once controlled them. And there are always pragmatic reasons: tinkering with the sound quality on albums that were recorded on four-track recorders almost 40 years ago, replacing music that's gone out of print, etc. At the end of the day, Wings will probably exist only on greatest-hits compilations. How many people actually own one of their CDs? OK, maybe "Band on the Run."

The most overriding concern, of course, is the simple, day-in and day-out maintenance of the legacy. Mick Jagger's clearly going to get onstage and sing "Satisfaction" until he's on a respirator, but the Beatles don't even have the option of reunion tours. (Thank God they've resisted those special-guest-star concerts that fans are always clamoring for. Take it away, Sir Paul! Thank you, Sir Elton!) The Beatles must constantly reintroduce themselves to new generations. Yes, most kids learn "Yellow Submarine" and so on by the time they're three or four. If anything, though, that's a liability-by the time kids hit their teens, there's a chance that they'll have left the Beatles long behind, that they'll think of the Lennon/McCartney catalog as kiddie rock. The sight of their parents brandishing old "Revolver" CDs may or may not help matters. Hence, "One." It's a cheesy disc-the old "red" and "blue" albums represent the arc of the Beatles's career far better-but it looks hip, it was marketed endlessly on TV and it does the impossible of making the Fab Four seem brand new.

Even once you understand, or think you understand, what the Beatles are thinking as they bring on the flood, it still feels a little tacky and desperate at times. For my money, McCartney's new book of poetry and lyrics-yes, I know it was originally Linda's idea and so I should shut up and be polite-does a disservice to his image. He was certainly the Beatles's best musician. He's certainly been one of the century's best melody writers, and one of its freshest, most variable voices. But he was never a brilliant lyricist. (Even "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby" and "When I'm Sixty-Four" are not brilliant-and I don't know what the hell "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" is.) Seeing the words to famous tunes squirming around on the page, stripped of the famous melody and the famous voice, can be painful. Will be there be an audience for the book? Absolutely. After nearly 40 years, Beatles fans are apparently still starving. But the Beatles should think longer and harder about what to feed them.