- Jennifer May
Imagine: A studio drummer who’s never written anything but letters decides to write the definitive book about the Beatles, subject of some 500 previous books. His first query letter lands him an immediate book deal. Three editors, two publishing houses, and 17 years later, Can’t Buy Me Love is complete. It gets rave reviews and goes into its fourth hardcover printing within two months.
Welcome to Jonathan Gould’s overnight success. The longtime Willow resident opened his recent reading at Woodstock’s Kleinert/James Arts Center by saying, “I’ve run out of jokes about how long I’ve been working on this book.” Then he posed “the eternal question: Why on earth would somebody publish another book about the Beatles?” As soon as he started to read, the answer was clear: Because no one has done it this well.
Despite the Beatles’ ubiquity, Can’t Buy Me Love avoids the familiar, eschewing gossip, spotlighting obscure songs, and selecting offbeat photos (not the classic Abbey Road cover shot, but the foursome lounging on the sidewalk, waiting to cross). Gould focuses on the Beatles’ musicianship, but also examines their cultural context. And he makes it swing.
An admirer of New Yorker prose stylists John McPhee and Whitney Balliett, Gould wanted to bring the same linguistic elegance to music writing. In a press release, he shrugs off the old saw that writing about music is like dancing about architecture: “What people really mean when they say ‘You can’t write about music’ is that it’s hard to write well about music. But it’s hard to write well about anything.”
Over coffee at Oriole 9 in Woodstock, he elaborates. “There are more words to describe how things look than how they sound, at least in our culture. Like Eskimos with snow, more sound-oriented cultures may have more words.” Nevertheless, Gould’s virtuoso descriptions of various Beatles songs are one of Can’t Buy Me Love’s many pleasures. Listen to him on “She Said She Said”:
“The track opens with the shrilly electrified, Bride of Frankenstein whine of George Harrison’s lead guitar, wringing the neck of a G-major chord as it caterwauls up the scale—smack into the leaden crash of a downbeat and a series of evasive maneuvers from the drums.”
Gould has a runner’s weathered complexion, incisive blue eyes, and a radiant smile at odds with the worry lines on his forehead. He can talk a blue streak, reeling out perfectly formed sentences like silk off a spool. He gives the impression of someone who can’t quite believe his good fortune, but secretly feels he deserves no less.
The author was 13 in 1964, when he watched the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. (“Just me and 70 million other Americans,” he writes.) Raised on New York’s Upper East Side, with a lawyer father, psychotherapist mother, and two much-older siblings, he attended Cornell University, but dropped out to be a rock drummer.
In 1975, he moved to Boston to study with legendary jazz drummer and teacher Alan Dawson. “I started to play jazz, bebop, really everything,” Gould says. “What’s so great about Alan is that style wasn’t the issue, the instrument was the issue.” Dawson taught him the rudiments, “all the sounds you can make with a pair of sticks.”
Gould worked as a studio drummer in Boston and New York and played for some years with a “floating ensemble” that played occasional gigs under names like The Sphincters. In the `80s, he returned to Cornell to complete his degree in cultural anthropology. Two projects inspired him: a profile of memoirist James McConkey and an independent study on post-WWII British social history, which spurred him toward four lads from Liverpool.
The first chapter Gould wrote covered the summer of ‘62, when Ringo Starr joined the band and the Beatles got their first recording contract. He describes this as a “hinge moment, like an actor who’s been rehearsing something for months and suddenly sees himself in the dressing room mirror in costume and makeup, and he is that character. For the Beatles, ‘Please Please Me’ was that moment.” The 60-page chapter took six months to write. By now, Gould was living in downtown New York with a wife and two children. One night he met lyricist and New Yorker cultural critic Jacob Brackman at a dinner party.
“Jake said, ‘If this book is as good as you seem to think it is, you should send it to William Shawn,’” Gould recalls. Recently deposed from the New Yorker, the legendary editor was now with elite literary publishers Farrar, Straus and Giroux.