- 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.
For Gould, who venerated the New Yorker, Brackman had touched on a secret fantasy. “I did what I always do. I procrastinated for a couple of weeks.” Then he sat down, wrote “a really good cover letter” and mailed the first chapter to Shawn. A week later, the phone rang at 10:30 on a Sunday night. “We had young kids. Nobody called us at 10:30,” Gould recalls. “I was one step from yelling, ‘Who the hell is this?’ Then I heard a little voice, talking as if across a great distance: ‘Mr. Gould? This is William Shawn.’”
Days later, Gould had a book contract. “William Shawn took it from being a project to a book,” he says. “He saw the dimension, the ambition of what I was doing. My aspirations were elevated.” Shawn read Gould’s work-in-progress, taking him to lunches at the Algonquin. Gould describes it as a “very complicated relationship. He was the benevolent father, endlessly patient, endlessly appreciative.” What makes that complicated? “Well, we all have our real fathers too,” Gould responds mordantly.
Two years later, Shawn died in his sleep. Publisher Roger Straus assigned Gould to a younger editor, Jonathan Glusman. Despite Glusman’s enthusiasm, Gould found it hard to write. “I felt orphaned, like the psychic apparatus propping me up wasn’t there anymore.” Everything he wrote seemed inadequate. “I have perfectionistic tendencies,” he admits. “I spend too much time beating up on myself.”
There were external obstacles, too. Both Gould’s parents were terminally ill, and his marriage dissolved. In the difficult months after his divorce, the book he’d been avoiding for nearly a decade became a sort of life-raft. Then a friend set him up on a blind date, saying only that the woman had blond dreadlocks. (“I assumed she was white, not African-American with ironic blond dreadlocks,” Gould laughs.) His response to painter and professor Lisa Corinne Davis is evidenced by the Lennon/McCartney lyric he wrote in her copy of Can’t Buy Me Love: “Changing my life with a wave of her hand.”
“Lisa kept saying, ‘You have to write this.’ She didn’t have to say anything—it was just being around that forceful, dynamic energy, that striving approach to life.” (A friend puts it more bluntly, “Lisa gave him a much-needed kick in the ass.”) Gould started writing in earnest. But there was one more bend in the road. In 2005, Glusman left Farrar, Straus and Giroux in an acrimonious fallout with Straus’s successor. Assigned to another new editor, Gould felt orphaned all over again. (“My editors on this book were like drummers in Spinal Tap,” he quipped at the Kleinert.)
Glusman soon landed at Random House’s Harmony imprint, and wooed Gould there, offering “the kind of editorial attention nobody gets anymore.” They went over the unwieldy manuscript page by page, spending hours on the phone. “I really learned to write by editing,” Gould says. “Repetition is a form of insecurity.”
Can’t Buy Me Love’s first prepublication review, from Kirkus Reviews, was so awful, Gould’s editor hid it from him. A week later, Publishers Weekly rolled out a starred review, calling it “brilliant,” and Booklist and Library Journal weighed in with raves. Next came an effusive spread in the New York Times Book Review’s music issue. Seventeen years after he set pen to paper, Jonathan Gould had his hole in one.
His next project will be a narrative history of soul music in the 1960s, focusing on Motown and Stax, Detroit and Memphis, Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding, and the infusion of a gospel spirit into black music and black politics in the 1960s. Just as Can’t Buy Me Love parses Britain’s obsession with class, the new book will examine America’s obsession with race. “Hanging around the edges is a much larger question about America and popular music worldwide: What is this thing all us white people have about black music and black culture?”
Gould also hopes to learn “how not to spend this much time on a book. Don’t be a perfectionist until it’s time, don’t polish until the very end, don’t have something to prove in every sentence. The great thing about playing music, especially live, is you do it and you’re done. One a.m., two a.m., you pack up your stuff and go home. The nightmare about writing is it’s never done. It can be an ecstatic experience, putting not just those words but your whole world in order. Other times, it’s an impenetrable, godawful mess. What I’ve learned is to welcome the godawful mess, to have the confidence to know I can clean up any kind of mess eventually, so let it happen, just get it out there and then deal with it.” He pauses. “There’s some larger metaphor in that.”
Jonathan Gould’s coffee is gone, but one question remains. How does the professional drummer rate Ringo Starr, often reviled as “the luckiest man in show business”? Gould smiles indulgently. “What more would you want?” he asks. “Ringo never burdened the music with the sound of a whole lot of drumming going on. He did what he needed to do and no more. That’s true of writing, too. That’s true of everything. That’s what it means to be good.”