What the Beatles Reveal About Fame

I've never really been much of a Beatles fan. To me, the music of the '60s means Motown or Woodstock, not the British invasion. My ignorance of the Fab Four is usually seen as a bad thing. But this time, my lack of knowledge has paid off. I had such a ball reading You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup that once I finished, I returned to page one and read it all over again. I knew nothing about the band—not even Ringo's real name (Richard Starkey)—so I was riveted by little tidbits that Beatlemaniacs probably know from birth, like the fact that John Lennon really did set Yoko Ono up in a hospital bed during the recording of Abbey Road, their last studio album, and none of the other Beatles attended McCartney's wedding to Linda Eastman in 1969. But, as fun as it was to read about the world's most famous band as if it were breaking news, the book truly shines as a cautionary tale on the perils of fame. We live in a fame-obsessed world with people willing to do just about anything for their own 15 minutes. (Anybody remember balloon boy?) And yet, on some level, we must know how damaging fame can be. I could spend the rest of my column just listing stars who could not stand up to the pressure (Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain, Britney Spears, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, and all child performers, except perhaps Shirley Temple and Neil Patrick Harris).

Certainly, the Beatles knew the cost of fame, but too late. By the time they began straining against the restrictions of celebrity, they were the most famous people on earth. As author Peter Doggett writes in his introduction: "The public basked in the freedom that the Beatles evoked; the Beatles simply wanted the freedom not to be the Beatles. Through the late 1960s, while listeners mapped out their lives in their songs, the quartet plotted an alternative vision of the future in which they would be liberated from the four-man shackles that they had forged." If Malcolm Gladwell is right, it was the 1,200 live gigs at strip clubs in Hamburg, Germany, that made the Beatles great. But as Doggett proves, it was the particularly corrosive nature of fame that not only broke them up, but made it impossible for them to be in the same room. They never seriously considered getting the band back together, despite offers that hovered at about $1 billion.

I know what you're thinking: "How bad can it be to be rich and famous? They were in a successful band. It's not like they had to escape from Cambodia." And I agree with you on some level. But we all know starvation and tyranny are bad for you. It's the consequences of celebrity we're blind to. Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th-century British prime minister and no stranger to renown himself, said it best when he remarked: "Fame and power are the objects of all men. Even their partial fruition is gained by very few; and that, too, at the expense of social pleasure, health, conscience, life." To that list, I would also add money and privacy. And what goes for even the most inconsequential star goes double for the Beatles, who have sold more albums in the U.S. than any other artist in history and were still topping charts in the 21st century. I don't want to spoil Doggett's truly wonderful book by telling you all the best bits, but, borrowing Disraeli's list, I'll give you just enough to make my point:

1. Social pleasure. Lennon and McCartney met in 1957 when they were 16 and 15, respectively. Their musical collaboration and friendship is the stuff of well-worn legend. But by the end of the Beatles' seemingly interminable breakup, they were incapable of having two civil conversations back to back. They savaged each other privately and in the press, but were never able to escape the influence of their formative years together. It was not until just before Lennon's death that he and McCartney were able to resume a semblance of their old relationship. And in telling the story, Doggett refuses, to his credit, to romanticize the bickering and bitterness that would take over their epic friendship or to take sides.

2. Health. None of the Beatles escaped their massive use of drugs and alcohol without consequence. Lennon struggled with heroin, Starkey with alcohol, Harrison with cocaine. McCartney, of course, was busted for pot possession on three continents. Worse than the toll that the rock-star life took on their bodies was the fear of violence at the hands of disturbed fans—fears that would, sadly, turn out to be valid.

3. Conscience. If the members of the Beatles had a conscience, they kept it quiet. They treated other people abominably and with no regard for the consequences. Doggett doesn't pull his punches to protect their legacy. Like most who have reached the top of their fields, flush with accomplishment and money, the Fab Four could be complete jerks who believed their own spin. Each chapter has a different bad guy, as one and then another Beatle steps in with the kind of antics only a rock star could think of. Lennon once sent a balloon as his representative to an important meeting. McCartney left an "anonymous" note for John and Yoko that read, "You and your Jap tart think you're hot s--t." Harrison slept with Starkey's wife. Starkey, of course, discussed the penis sizes of the Beatles with Howard Stern, on the air. Fame, it seems, makes an ass out of everybody, not just Tiger Woods and Lindsey Lohan.

4. Life. The assassination of John Lennon by Marc David Chapman in 1980 is only the most horrible example of the danger their lives were in. Harrison was stabbed nearly 40 times by a man who broke into his house. Just a couple of years later, in 2001, as Harrison lay dying of cancer, a doctor allegedly forced him to autograph a guitar.

5. Money. One of the moments in You Never Give Me Your Money that certainly gave me pause was Doggett's assertion that at the height of all the lawsuits surrounding the breakup, the Beatles were providing full-time employment for five law firms in London and New York. Amazingly, though they would never perform together again after 1969, the Beatles would remain tied up in a financial partnership forever. Fame, it seems, attracts lawsuits as well as adoring fans. And wait till you get to the part about all the millions that were stolen and/or wasted by managers, advisers, healers, and hangers-on. About three quarters of the way through the book, I actually became grateful I wasn't rich. Few people entered the Beatles' life who did not have the intention of making money off them. It's a wonder these fellows ever trusted anybody.

6. Privacy. Doggett uses McCartney's separation from Heather Mills in 2006 as an example of how crazy a lot of people still are to know every detail of the Fab Four's life. Imagine what it must be like to be unable to go get milk without causing a media frenzy—and then imagine living like that for more than 50 years. Britney didn't make it 10. But their music continues to move people, and perhaps that's comfort enough. This week, President Obama awarded Paul McCartney the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. McCartney becomes only the third person to receive it, and the first non-American. The girls might not be screaming and fainting over them anymore, but even now, after so much, they are still breaking news. And as Doggett reminds us, "The music needs no mythology: it is both timeless and a staggeringly accurate document of the age from which it came ... Their collective genius created something that not even money could destroy." I wonder, though, if the Beatles knew what the future had in store for them, whether they'd do it again. Would you?