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Thursday, January 31, 2019

Why I'm happy to wait for Robert Caro and Mark Lewisohn



I’ve read four volumes of Robert Caro’s epic biography of Lyndon Johnson. The fifth volume hasn’t been finished yet. In the course of an excellent piece in the New Yorker he explains that that fifth volume is “some years away”. (He's eighty-three.) If you read the piece, which is about how he has researched the book so far, you understand why.  Caro's driven by a compulsion to unearth the story that has not been told, even when he’s dealing with events that occurred many years in the past and have been extensively picked over.

When he started the book in the mid-70s many of Johnson’s contemporaries were still around. He spoke to them all but felt that many of them were just repeating the old stories that they had already trotted out for other writers. He thought there had to be more to it than that. He tells the story of how he managed to get after-hours access to the modest home in Texas where Johnson grew up in the 1920s and took one of Johnson’s brothers, who was at that stage elderly and in poor health, sat him at the table where the family used to eat, positioned himself behind him so that he was out of his eye line and then gradually nudged him into recalling where each member of the family would have been seated, what they would have said to each other and, crucially, what Johnson’s father used to say to his son over that dinner table that left him with such a burning desire to succeed where his own father had failed.

In the same week I read this, Mark Lewisohn, who is working on the other massive biography that I’m going to have to wait to read, told me that he’s currently listening to all 97 hours of the original tape which was running as the Beatles recorded what would be the “Let It Be” film and album. Furthermore he was making sure he did it on the day and at the time that they did it fifty years earlier. That’s a similar kind of dedication. Wonder if he'll come up with any insights the way that Caro did. I'm sure, in both cases, it will be worth the wait.

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