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Magical Mystery Tours:

My Life With The Beatles

By Tony Bramwell

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with Rosemary Kingsland

St. Martin's Press, 440 pages, $35.95

1968. John Lennon, recently inspired by LSD, calls an emergency meeting of the Beatles at their Apple headquarters in London.

"I've got something very important to tell you," Lennon says. "I am Jesus Christ. I have come back again. This is my thing."

"Right," responds Ringo Starr, well-used to the eccentricities of this brilliant Beatle. "Meeting adjourned. Let's go have some lunch."

At the restaurant, Lennon, unbowed, is approached by a fan eager to meet John. "Actually, I'm Jesus Christ," he insists. "Well," replies the fan, "I still liked your last record."

Tony Bramwell, long-time associate of the "four lads who shook the world," brings a wealth of such anecdote to Magical Mystery Tours, a sprawling, amiable account of life near the world's most famous and most gifted pop group. Bramwell also reminds us that the real Beatles story is far more interesting than the cloying myth of "four lovable moptops" that still clings to them today.

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The Liverpool that made them was a tough seaside town, postwar bleak, largely Irish-Catholic (like Lennon and McCartney), where outdoor toilets were still common, a telephone a rare luxury and television was BBC from 6 each evening until signoff at 9, when primitive sets threatened to overheat. "Britain was severely monotone," Bramwell writes. "English movies were austere kitchen-sink dramas. Clothes were drab. You weren't supposed to enjoy yourself." Something irrepressible would change that.

Liverpool was also music-mad. The Silver Beetles (named in homage to Buddy Holly's Crickets) were a top local "beat group" when they left for a lengthy residency in the seedy clubs of Hamburg. When they returned as the Beatles, bonded by months of squalid living, easy sex and nightlong amphetamine-driven performances, no one could top them -- anywhere.

Bramwell's story begins on Liverpool's Number 81 double-decker bus as he finds childhood friend George Harrison is part of the "direct from Hamburg" group playing that night. Carrying George's guitar into the hall for free admission, Bramwell is hooked on the hard-driving, good-humoured and charismatic group. "In a year, I went to about 300 Beatles gigs, from one end of the Mersey to another," he writes. "I never stopped."

As Bramwell moves from roadie to aide for Beatles manager Brian Epstein, Magical Mystery Tours follows the group's dizzying climb to world pop domination, then witnesses its ultimate crash at Apple Corp. -- the chaotic money pit the Beatles created to run their business following Epstein's untimely death.

Though initially "George's mate," Bramwell tells us more about Lennon and McCartney, with whom he often shares a pint and thoughts of home. Harrison retreats under the barrage of unprecedented fame to become a rural recluse, floating into Eastern music and mysticism. Ringo Starr, older and more fun-loving, enters the champagne life of movie stars and posh clubs. Lennon and McCartney walk different paths. Both are driven, incredibly gifted and haunted by their mothers' deaths. McCartney's beloved "Mother Mary" died of breast cancer when Paul was 14. Lennon, abandoned by both parents and raised strictly by "Aunt Mimi," ultimately discovers his mother, Julia, remarried and living nearby.

"No sooner was John getting to know his mother" Bramwell writes, "when, in the summer of 1958, she was run over and killed yards away from Mimi's house by a speeding policeman who was late for work." For weeks after, friends recall seeing the brash rocker alone with a "thousand-yard stare."

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Tony Bramwell seems to enjoy Swinging Sixties London more than his famous bosses, who can hardly move without pursuit by their "army of besotted fans." But he also bears witness to the "powerful . . . anger, hate and jealousy . . . that surged around them" as their bond cracks under the strain. Ultimately, McCartney flees London with poised hippy socialite Linda Eastman for a simpler life in Scotland.

Lennon's dark fate, in Bramwell's view, is entrapment by a woman who stalks him for months, desperate to exploit his celebrity and his millions. Yoko Ono finds little favour in Magical Mystery Tours -- described as "a she-wolf dressed in black," "a pain in the ass" and "such a core of negativity that she sucked the air out of the room." Ono is also credited with destroying Lennon's will, banning his lifelong friends and getting him hooked on heroin.

The portrait of Brian Epstein, the posh Liverpudlian who takes on the Beatles' career as manager and succeeds in historic dimension, is poignant. As the group becomes England's top attraction, then the world's, the gentle Epstein lives in torment, devoured by self-doubt, paranoia, amphetamine addiction and the anguish of homosexuality at a time when discovery still means jail. There is plenty of colour in Bramwell's tales of the post-Epstein Apple Corp., where frauds like Magic Alex squander thousands of Beatle pounds on whims, and where Yoko Ono daily takes delivery of beluga caviar from Harrod's.

Magical Mystery Tours also points out the sad reality that the Beatles were robbed blind. Neither Epstein nor the group understood the value of publishing, and sold the rights to their early songs for next to nothing. They also kept only a small fraction of their merchandising rights, enriching faceless businesses to the tune of £100-million.

"Looking back," Bramwell writes, "the Beatles triggered a massive social and sexual revolution." That revolution is better dealt with elsewhere. So is the Beatles' music, though Bramwell's memories of riding in the van between gigs as John and Paul jotted down million-selling song ideas ("It came easily to them") or practised the harmonies in She Loves You have their charm.

Ultimately, though, this is an unpretentious, homespun look back and a welcome addition to Beatles lore. They were kids when they began. They lived with remarkable intensity for a time. "It seemed that one minute I was young," Bramwell recalls wistfully, "the next, we were confronting our mortality."

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Peter Feniak is a Toronto writer and broadcaster.

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