Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History. By Devin McKinney. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003. [xi, 420 p. IBSN 0-674-01202-X. $46 (hbk.); ISBN 0-674-01202-X. $16.95 (pbk.)] Illustrations, discography, index.
Lying at the heart of this provocative study of the Beatles is a familiar topic in popular-music scholarship: the relationship between artists and their audiences. Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History, however, is no mere reception history; nor is it plainly academic in its approach. Devin McKinney, self-consciously positioning himself within a long tradition of creative writers on the culture of rock and roll (think Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, even Nick Hornsby), aims to shed light on the less clearly discernible, less overtly sociological elements of the relationship between the Beatles and their various audiences-from the underworld of postwar Hamburg's Reeperbahn district, to the volatile heights of Beatlemania, to the murderous trail of Charles Manson. Part journalism, part fiction, part memoir, part cultural history, this book stands out even in the vibrant Beatles literature as a true original. And even if it does not regularly acknowledge or establish dialogue with segments of that literature, it is nonetheless written with authority. Indeed, its ideal audience may be those already expert in Beatles lore, though the book will also appeal to any Beatles fan looking for a bold act of interpretation.
Two quotations from the beginning and end of the book nicely frame its primary focus. The first muses on the audience's response to the lure of an artist, and on the latent power inherent in that response:
And what do lhese singers waul i'roill usdo they want us to love them, follow them, invest out dreams in them, with the promise that they'll be repaid a hundredfold? Do they wish us to rise to meet their ambition, become an audience with its own ambition, to challenge and push them as they push and challenge us? (p. 21)
The second turns its attention to the insecurities of an artist (particularly, here, John Lennon) once an audience's energy has been unleashed:
John Lennon desperately needed a return of the love he gave out. His resentment of his audience was genuine, but so was his love of it, and so was his need to be repaid by that audience in the rare coin of deep and constant communication, in whatever form-adulation, hatred, reverence. As his fans needed him to be their distorting mirror, he needed his audience to show him, again and again, what he looked like to them, what he was to them. (pp. 328-29)
Magic Circles, then, is a book about the rubbing together of identities and the grand clash of ambitions at play in the Beatles' relationships with its public. At its best, it convincingly demonstrates that the Beatles' story can function as a prism through which one can understand the socio-political and cultural history of this era, particularly the history of the American counterculture.
The book's six chronologically arranged chapters follow the Beatles from their inception into their afterlives. Several chapters use a recurring metaphor as a poetic device. In the first, "Rude Noises from the Bog: The Beatles in Liverpool and Hamburg," McKinney fixates on the image of the toilet ("bog" in British slang). On the Beatles' second recording, cut in spring 1960 in Paul McCartney's living room, for instance, he writes: "there are a number of actual songs, and these come straight from the bog: they are damp and uncouth and have a funny smell" (p. 24). Later, on Hamburg's Reeperbahn: "It was a bigger, hotter, riskier toilet than they'd found back home, and they had their dirty fun in it" (p. 31). But he delights a tad too much in the subversiveness of his imagery-a result, clearly, of his own identity fetishi/.ing of the four crude and assaultive lads from filthy Liverpool. Later images-"meat," for example, in chapter 3 (on the Beatles in 1966), and "ooze" in chapter 4 (on the counterculture in the last years of the 1960s)-are pushed perhaps too far. …