Monday, 26 July 2010

Meeting Magic Alex

I'd read the cuttings, scoured the books on my shelf, and I was on my guard. I felt cynical, wary, even a little nervous. I was, after all, about to meet a man who - according to Beatles legend - had been cunning enough to bamboozle the world's most successful entertainers into providing him with an endless cash-flow and a purpose-built branch of their Apple corporation.

The man I met in an Athenian bar, seven or eight years ago, was slim, gently elegant, disarmingly charming, and generous beyond the demands of the occasion. He was instantly recognisable from the Apple promo photos of 1968; despite recent ill-health and a heavy smoking habit, he looked youthful for a man in his early 60s, even charismatic. And he loved to talk. Once he'd established that my companions and I weren't there to crucify him, he was almost alarmingly eager to talk about the old days - sometimes openly and at enormous length, sometimes with a sly smile and a flirtatious hint that he knew far more than he could possibly tell.

I spent a long afternoon that passed into evening and then night-time in his company; then another day in his villa on a Greek island, a night's vigil at a local bar, and a final morning around his hillside swimming pool. My cynicism survived for no more than an hour, after which I fell under his spell. Of course, he talked about the Beatles, and about his continued friendship with Lennon, Ono and Harrison way beyond his last documented appearance in their story, circa 1969. He devoted a long lunch to an urgent recounting of his side of the Apple Studio debacle - claiming, in brief, that the studio installed at Apple in 1969 was taken from his workshop while he was out of the country, without his knowledge, and had been intended only as a demonstration of how a multi-track system might work, rather than something ready for installation. As I recall, he pointed the finger at some Abbey Road staff who, he suggested, had most to lose from Apple creating a working studio, as they would lose the Beatles as clients. He described how, later in 1969, he returned to London, and discovered that the new Allen Klein regime at Apple had closed down his Apple Electronics lab, chaining and padlocking the door shut. None of the Beatles had bothered to tell him that his days of scientific experimentation on their behalf were over.

There was more, much more - about his involvement, as a security consultant, with many of the crowned heads of Europe (and he had the photographs of riotous parties to prove it); his friendship with several members of the British Royal Family, including Princess Diana; even hints that he knew the whereabouts of the legendarily lost Lord Lucan. In the classic Greek tradition, there was plenty of hyperbole and exaggeration - it is, I have been told, a Greek habit to say "thousands" when you mean "several". But every time I started to doubt his word, he would open a cabinet and produce dozens of unseen photographs of the Beatles in India, or his Mediterranean cruise with the Lennons in 1969. Most dramatically, he turned on his computer in a busy cafe and said, "Have you heard this?" John Lennon's voice echoed out of the tinny speakers, making a wisecrack about "the Alexis Mardas rock'n'roll band", before launching into an affectionate song about his friend, recorded during the Indian adventure of 1968 - and completely undocumented by any Beatles scholar. "I have hundreds of tapes like this", he said proudly, and whether he meant 600 or half-a-dozen, I was suitably impressed.

For a while we kept in touch, and every so often I think that I should try to track him down again, and find out exactly how many photos, and how many tapes, are hidden away in his vaults. Most of the time, though, I'm happy to remember his conversation and his kindness during those three days in Greece - evidence enough for me to testify here and now that Alexis Mardas, regardless what he said and did in the late 1960s, has been dealt a rough hand by almost everyone who has written about his enigmatic involvement in the Beatles' story. I didn't want to appoint him as "my guru", like John Lennon did; I didn't even think he was 'Magic'; but I was convinced that he was much more than the caricature that appears under his name in most Beatles literature.

Heroes & Villains No. 3: Magic Alex

It was John Lennon who coined the nickname 'Magic Alex'; Lennon who described the Greek science prodigy as "my guru"; Lennon who was Alexis Mardas's best man at his 1968 wedding in London; Lennon who set up Apple Electronics as a vehicle for Mardas's inventive skills; Lennon who kept faith with his friend by holidaying with him on a yacht around the Greek islands after the completion of Abbey Road; and then Lennon who, in a fit of post-Primal Therapy passion, betrayed that friendship by effectively denying that he had ever been close to Mardas.

Thereafter, the man Lennon once thought was Magic has been stereotyped in Beatle history as a con-artist, a charlatan, a fraud. He had to carry the entire blame for the debacle of the unfinished and unworkable Apple studio in January 1969. He was lampooned as the 'inventor' of schemes that were far-fetched, impossible or plain silly. And he has, as far as the world of the Beatles is concerned, been absent from the scene for the past 40 years.

Well, almost entirely absent. In recent years, he has reappeared on a handful of occasions to file libel suits and demand retractions when media outlets (usually famous newspapers) have lazily repeated all the old jibes about him, his abilities and his motives. He's usually won his cases, too.

As one of the very few journalists to have met Alexis Mardas (over several days in the early part of the decade just finished) since 1970, I'm delighted that he has stepped in to correct the loaded stories that have been told and endlessly retold about him since the demise of Apple Electronics in 1969. I only wish he'd done it sooner. He told me that, for many years, he was so busy in his job (more of which later) that he didn't pay any attention to what was being written about him.

I'll talk about my encounters with Mardas in my next post. Suffice to say here that John Lennon has much to answer for when it comes to Magic Alex's reputation. He was the man who built up the Mardas legend; and he was the one who tore it down, when he described his friend in Rolling Stone as "alright, but cracked". For Lennon in December 1970, Mardas was another guru - like the Maharishi, like Arthur Janov, like Bob Dylan - who had turned out to be human after all, not 'Magic'. But who was the person who told the world that Mardas was 'Magic' in the first place?

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Bad To Me?

Nobody likes to read bad reviews of their books; if they tell you otherwise, they're lying. I've been fortunate so far with You Never Give Me Your Money, because there has only been one stinker - written by original Beatles biographer Hunter Davies, for the Mail On Sunday last autumn. If it was available online, I'd direct you to it - but it isn't, so suffice to say that Davies seemed to take issue not only with my book, but also with the very idea of writing a book about the break-up of the Beatles and beyond. (He also managed to bring my recently deceased father-in-law into his review, which I felt marked some sort of historic low-point in the saga of British tabloid journalism. The newspaper subsequently apologised for this remark.)

But criticism, no matter how hurtful at the time, can be highly instructive. It gives the writer the rare opportunity to be seen as others see you - great when they're informing you that you're a wonderful human being, not so much fun when they tell you some home truths. I recently read through the 13 reviews of Money on the US Amazon site, a couple of which pointed out minor errors in the book which I hadn't noticed before. (But yes, I did indeed manage, in two separate places, to describe Steve Holly as both Wings' guitarist and drummer. Clearly a multi-talented guy . . .)

Equally valuable for me was the chance to read other people's interpretations of which Beatle(s) I favoured in the narrative. My intention was to be as even-handed as possible, but during the course of writing the book, I felt saddest and sorriest for Paul McCartney - even while I was highlighting things that he might have done and said differently. One Amazon reviewer reckoned that I showed a definite bias towards George Harrison; another, in an unrestrained attack on the book, decided that I was nothing more than another author adopting the "brown nose" position towards John Lennon, without a good word to say for Paul. ("PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE don't buy this book!", his review ends.) And another felt that Ringo came out best, whereas I was concerned that, because he maintained the lowest profile for most of my narrative, Ringo tended only to appear in the story in negative terms. Nobody, however, thought that I showed any special sympathy for Paul - which just goes to prove that the book you're writing, and the book you THINK you're writing, can be two very different things. And also that all of us, from Hunter Davies to pseudonymous reviewers on Amazon, bring our own agendas to everything we read - and write.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Group therapy

Bloomberg Business Week - not a publication I've ever read, I have to confess - recently printed this intriguing review of You Never Give Me Your Money:

I say 'intriguing', because I was struck by the idea that in recounting the sorry tale of the Beatles' break-up and its aftermath, I should perhaps (in this reviewer's opinion, at least) have offered suggestions as to how the group could have stayed together, and maximised their earning potential. And there I was, thinking that the split was inevitable because, to varying degrees, the Beatles didn't WANT to be the Beatles anymore . . .

Anyway, every reviewer is entitled to their opinion, and this was an intelligent and well-written piece. But I was even more intrigued by the thought that some form of professional group therapy might have preserved the Beatles' unity. (It worked for Metallica, apparently.) I can see it now . . .

THERAPIST: OK, now perhaps you can each tell me what you'd like to tell the others.
JOHN: Tell Paul and his ******* family to **** off.
PAUL: Tell John to leave his wife at home.
JOHN: You ****!
GEORGE: Is it time to play my songs yet?

Well, it might have worked. For me, it conjured up a wonderful vision of all four Beatles visiting Arthur Janov's Primal Scream clinic, screaming out their pain in separate rooms - and then coming back to London to record four separate Primal Scream solo albums. John would have recorded 'I Found Out', Paul could have written 'I Found Out Before You Did', George would have responded with 'No, I Found Out First' - and Ringo's offering could have been the world's first Primal Scream country album. But wouldn't their group therapy sessions have made a great bootleg?