Cure for Gravity: A Musical Pilgrimage

Overview

Since the release of his first best-selling album Look Sharp in 1979, Joe Jackson has forged a singular career in music through his originality as a composer and his notoriously independent stance toward music-business fashion. He has also been a famously private person, whose lack of interest in his own celebrity has been interpreted by some as aloofness. That reputation is shattered by A Cure for Gravity, Jackson's enormously funny and revealing memoir of growing up musical, from a culturally impoverished ...
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A Cure For Gravity: A Musical Pilgrimage

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Overview

Since the release of his first best-selling album Look Sharp in 1979, Joe Jackson has forged a singular career in music through his originality as a composer and his notoriously independent stance toward music-business fashion. He has also been a famously private person, whose lack of interest in his own celebrity has been interpreted by some as aloofness. That reputation is shattered by A Cure for Gravity, Jackson's enormously funny and revealing memoir of growing up musical, from a culturally impoverished childhood in a rough English port town to the Royal Academy of Music, through London's Punk and New Wave scenes, up to the brink of pop stardom. Jackson describes his life as a teenage Beethoven fanatic; his early piano gigs for audiences of glass-throwing skinheads; and his days on the road with long-forgotten club bands. Far from a standard-issue celebrity autobiography, A Cure for Gravity is a smart, passionate book about music, the creative process, and coming of age as an artist.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
He's the Man

British musician and composer Joe Jackson is best known for a rapid-fire series of albums that emerged in the late '70s and early '80s. The first two, Look Sharp! and I'm the Man, were edgy, new-wave pop albums that placed him firmly in the then-emerging category of "angry young man" rockers such as Elvis Costello and Graham Parker. Not wanting to be so strictly categorized, Jackson dabbled in a variety of musical forms—reggae, jump-blues, traditional pop—to enthusiastic but sometimes small cult audiences. His last major popular success was 1982's Night and Day with a jazz-influenced sophistication that launched the hits "Breaking Us in Two" and "Stepping Out."

Jackson was not content, however, to rework familiar musical formulas to repeat his earlier successes. He insisted on recording uncompromising, sometimes difficult albums, mixing and experimenting with musical traditions. Often these received critical acclaim, but his resistance to creating easily classifiable work meant his records often went unheard. The difficulty in marketing his music has meant that Jackson has by and large fallen off the music industry's radar in the past decade, though he continues to compose and perform.

With A Cure for Gravity, Jackson adds "memoirist" to his résumé. But those expecting an inside look into rock-'n'-roll stardom will have to look elsewhere—this new memoir largely ignores his years in an international spotlight. Jackson prefers to describe the earlier years—the goings-on in the back rooms and the wings—the journey that led him to the verge of stardom in 1978, just before the release of Look Sharp!

The gray, clammy Portsmouth, England, of Jackson's youth sets the stage for this story of his musical education. He was an asthmatic child and a clumsy outsider at school, successful neither at math, gym, nor the pursuit of girls. His well-meaning but distant working-class parents were baffled by their son's musical ambitions, though they were as supportive as they could afford to be (Jackson's first piano was, like a kitten, "free to a good home"). But the sometimes dreary conditions only dramatically offset what is a story of transcendence: Music was what lifted Jackson out of ordinariness and into art.

The book's subtitle is "A Musical Pilgrimage," and indeed music is the structuring logic of this engaging reflection. As Jackson says, "I have to write about music. My thoughts about music and my experiences as a musician are inseparable from any kind of memoir I might attempt." Though Jackson includes the coming-of-age markers of traditional biographies—sexual longings, early girlfriends, unrequited love—Jackson gives more emotional weight to musical markers: The first time he heard "Runaway Train" on his parents' radio. Discovering scratched Beethoven 78s in a thrift store. Listening to symphonies and reading along to sheet music, trying to decipher the secrets behind such exquisite melodies. The thrill, at age 16, of Jackson's first public performance—on a creaky piano in a pub that sat next door to a glue factory. The passionate intellectual, emotional, even spiritual import of these moments is what Jackson most wants to convey.

Music, he argues, is what gives him a glimpse of the divine. Jackson, a graduate of the prestigious Royal Academy of Music, has a solid technical background in both the study and composition of music, but he suggests that all the technical prowess in the world will not alter its mysterious beauty. "It's as though I've learned, like a carpenter, how to measure and cut and mould and join. But whereas a carpenter knows that wood comes from trees, my material is like some sort of Kryptonite from another planet."

To be sure, such musical alchemy also requires hard labor and sheer brute willpower. Though his philosophical reflections on music are where this account most comes alive, Jackson also seems to relish relating the often excruciating travails of a young musical hopeful. Buffered by the time and space that separates him from these memories, Jackson painstakingly describes all the indifferent pubs, hostile crowds, cheap equipment, unflattering outfits, and cheesy backup gigs, painting a memorable portrait of the joys and frustrations of an ambitious young musician.

These nuts-and-bolts, descriptive memories of Jackson's early career provide the ballast for his spiritual reflections on music; they supply the details required to provide a tangible sense of how music provided meaning to a particular life. Jackson easily traverses the distance between the strictly technical and the spiritually transcendent aspects of a musical career, creating a compelling, complex portrait of one man's musical history.

Caitlin Dixon

Caitlin Dixon is a freelance writer and filmmaker. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Patricia Fieldsteel
Lerley has compiled an invaluable work for the general reader on an overlooked subject.
New York Times Book Review
Adam Langer
Joe Jackson's A Cure for Gravity is witty, smart and crisply written.
Book
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
To the credit of popular 1980s British singer/composer Jackson ("Is She Really Going Out with Him?" "Steppin' Out"), there is little melodrama to this book--his hit recordings, beginning with Look Sharp! in 1979, receive only brief mention in the final chapters. Instead, Jackson presents a portrait of the artist as a young geek, detailing the quiet undulations of his life as an intensely introspective, gifted musician growing up outside of London, studying at conservatory and touring around in much derided bar bands. We see the 14-year-old Jackson obsessing over Beethoven's Eroica symphony ("As the fanfare comes to a halt, there's a pregnant pause: What's this lunatic going to do now?"); we see him on his way to the Royal Academy of Music ("As the ferry docked, the workers poured like a sluggish plague of locusts through the Dockyard Gate, and I boarded the London train"); and we see him pouring beer on drunk women during bar fights in obscure locations. Fellow musicians, no matter their chosen genre, may see themselves in Jackson's accounts of pathetic pub gigs and unpleasant music industry dealings. Jackson is an easy, natural writer, sometimes an excellent one. He is often funny, and though a bit digressive, the book is worth reading for its style alone. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
Famously private English rock musician and songwriter Jackson recounts his life and career. He describes himself as a Beethoven fanatic when a teenager and tells of his early club gigs and touring bands, and his rise to fame with the release of his album in 1979. He does not index or reference his autobiography. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
San Francisco Chronicle
Clear, precise, and often witty.... Jackson certainly has the talent to be a literary star.
Billboard
An antidote to the chest-puffing fantasy of many rock memoirs.
Kirkus Reviews
One of New Wave's original "angry young men," Joe Jackson highlights his journey from Portsmouth, England to the Royal Academy of Music to pop star in this lively musical memoir. Jackson, who emerged in the late `70s as a contemporary of Elvis Costello and Graham Parker, and went on to score pop success with such songs as "Is She Really Going Out With Him?," "Steppin' Out," "Breaking Us in Two," "Jumping Jive," and "I'm the Man," has proven to be one of rock's most enigmatic performers. In fact, he's often been accused of being confrontational and pretentious. The latter trait is evidenced early in A Cure for Gravity, and often slows down the flow of the book, as Jackson eschews the linear autobiographical route for sometimes lengthy digressions into a form of music criticism (on subjects that range from Steely Dan, whom he calls one of his biggest influences, to Beethoven). It's not that his views aren't interesting, as he clearly knows his material; it's that they disrupt what is a sometimes comical, dead-on portrayal of coming of age as a musical outcast. Growing up in a portside town as a young asthmatic, Jackson was gawky and unathletic, a deadly combination that often attracted what he calls the "hardnuts" (bullies who ostracized him for being different). However, by the time he was a teenager, he'd discovered his musical gift, first playing solos in local pubs (despite being underage), then looking for bands to showcase his talents. His tales of the horrible gigs he had to take early on, as in a Greek restaurant where his group backed up a screaming singer and a belly dancer, are often as hilarious as those in The Commitments. Jackson has a remarkable recollection of hisdays as a struggling musician, and those anecdotes not only entertain, they make Jackson remarkably human, a characteristic not even his fans have always seen. A Cure for Gravity should be required reading for anyone who's ever attempted to start a band, either for fun or to make it as a professional musician. And even those who've only thought about it as a passing fancy will find much delight in this touching musical journey. (Author tour)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780306810015
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press
  • Publication date: 11/2/2000
  • Edition description: 1st Da Capo Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 286
  • Sales rank: 609,604
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 9.04 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Joe Jackson's internationally best-selling albums include Look Sharp, Night and Day, and Body and Soul. He has also composed music for film, video, and television. A graduate and now a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music, he divides his time between New York City and Portsmouth, England.

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Read an Excerpt



Prologue


The Piss and Punchup Club


I'm sitting in a Transit van in Basingstoke, a battered once-blue Transit van full of drums and amplifiers, in a dirty white concrete car park under a dirty white sky, and I'm thinking: What am I doing here?

    The rest of the band has gone for a walk, in search of civilization, and I'm keeping an eye on things. Pretty soon I'm dozing, though it's too cold to sleep. It's the sort of useless gray Saturday when everyone should just stay in bed with a good book. A blank on the calendar. Christmas and New Year are gone, and 1975 is having trouble getting started.

    I'm having some trouble getting started myself. Last night's gig was a late one and I have a lingering hangover. Not a pounding-head, churning-guts kind of hangover, but the kind where you feel sort of OK as long as you do everything slowly. I'm not sure I feel like doing a gig tonight. But if we must, I wish we could get on with it. This happens all the time: We're told to show up for a gig at, say, five o'clock, but the place is locked, silent, deserted. Eventually, around six or seven, a minion will appear, rattling a bunch of keys like some ghoulish jailer. He will eye us suspiciously. He'll ask if we're the band, and one of us will say, No! We're just four longhaired youths who like to hang around in empty car parks for hours on end in a van full of drums and amps and guitar cases. Or something to that effect. Grudgingly, the minion will open up and we'll get to work.

    In the meantime, I'm dozing and thinking. Of course I can't sleep. I wasblessed and cursed with a hyperactive brain. I ask myself age-old and portentous questions: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a sound? Or: Does music even exist, if no one's listening? I reckon it does. We don't have to actually be listening to know that masterpieces of music are always there. It's like they're just sleeping, between the pages of a score, or in those black vinyl grooves; Sleeping Beauties waiting for the kiss of our attention.

    I admit it: I have a philosophical bent. I wonder not only why I'm doing this, but why anyone has ever done it, and how. How did Beethoven manage to write that incredible Violin Concerto? I'm listening to more Bowie than Beethoven these days, but I'm thinking of taking up the violin again. It was my first instrument. If I can figure out a way to amplify it, I can use it in the band. There's a little pickup I've seen people use on acoustic guitars; it would go on the bridge of the violin ...

    I'm thinking I should listen to that concerto again, and then a big chunk of it comes flooding into my mind. It's in there! Like a record or a tape, it's actually imprinted on my brain. I can hear the part where the lyrical second theme of the first movement soars up an octave, gathering perfect little embellishments around it. Every time I hear that part, I feel tears pricking my eyelids. There's no other way the music could possibly go at that point, not one note you could add or subtract or change; and I start to wonder whether the composer really wrote it at all, or read it in the mind of God.

    And here I am worrying about a gig in Basingstoke at something called the Pen and Parchment Club. How it got a name like that I can't imagine. But, who knows, it could be the best gig we've ever done. There's a musical equivalent of the hair of the dog. You can be less than excited about performing—dreading it, even—but once you get up there, with real live people in front of you, something happens. Suddenly it's for real, you have to deliver, and all your senses are sharpened. And sometimes the worst places can turn out to be the most fun, if you can get the audience on your side.

    Someone is tapping on the van window. I sit up with a start. A face with bushy black eyebrows is peering in.

    "You the band?" asks the face.

    "Are you the minion?"

    "Wot?"

    "Yeah, we're the band, of course we're the band, open up, will you?"

    Keys rattle, and the rest of the band is sauntering across the car park.

    Once inside, the Pen and Parchment Club looks like a pretty typical "social club," a place where, for an annual membership fee, working men and their wives or girlfriends can go and drink cheaper than they could in a pub. And, on certain nights, be entertained by a raffle, or a comedian, or a struggling pop group. In this case, a struggling pop group on the way to becoming a struggling rock band.

    Either way, tonight we're going to have to struggle without the aid of a stage. What passes for a stage at the Pen and Parchment is a nine-inch-high platform about five feet square.

    We never know what we're going to find when we walk into a gig. The stage might consist of six rickety tables held together with electrical tape, or there might be no stage at all. So we have some staging of our own in the van: a pile of wooden boards with slots in them, which fit together ingeniously to form either one large or two smaller platforms. We stole them piece by piece from the drama department of Fareham Technical College, where Dave, our drummer, works as a "groundsman"—in other words, as gardener and general dogsbody. At first, we took just enough to make a drum riser. But the slotted-wooden-board habit got into our blood. We had to have more! Now we can make small stages bigger. Provided, that is, that the height differential between "our" stage and "theirs" isn't too great: On some nights people trip up in the middle of guitar solos and go crashing into my keyboards or knocking over cymbal stands. Where the platforms really pay off, though, is on those rare occasions when we get a big stage, a real, honest-to-God theater stage, and we can create two tiers: the drums and keyboards towering over the front line. Like a real concert!

    Tonight we can't come up with a configuration that works. So the drums will go on the existing "stage," and I'm going to have to set up my keyboards on the floor, which I hate. I've done floor gigs before. Usually, to add insult to injury, the band has to play in front of a huge stage that has already been commandeered by a power-crazed DJ. People stand behind me while I'm playing and make sneering comments and breathe down my neck and flick fag-ends onto the keyboards. But the Pen and Parchment isn't a dance club, and most of the floor space tonight is taken up by Formica-topped tables and chairs. With a bit of luck the punters will keep a more or less respectful distance.

    I set up my keyboards: two electric pianos. The better of the two is a recently acquired Fender Rhodes, although it has a gammy leg and tilts at a slight angle. First I have to look inside it and check the tines—the metal bars that are struck by little hammers, like in a real piano, to produce the sound. These tines are temperamental. If they're not properly aligned, the hammer doesn't strike squarely, and instead of a pure tone you get a sound like a teaspoon on a milk bottle. Tines also break a lot, and then you get no sound at all. I seem to spend hours like a mechanic with the lid off the bloody thing, cursing and kicking one of its good legs.

    The Rhodes is behaving itself today, so on top of it goes a neatly folded, slightly rancid leopardskin blanket, and on top of that, an old, legless, Hohner Pianet. The Pianet has its own problems: several notes buzz and distort, but that's OK. I actually like the buzzes, and I've decided to let the instrument sink into a natural state of decrepitude.

    Next we need beer crates. Mark, the guitarist, and I both have speaker cabinets that we can hear better when they're raised slightly off the ground. And we're in luck, because the bar, which runs along one whole side of the club, is opening up. I go over to ask for a couple of empty beer crates, and get the fright of my life. First, two colossal Alsatians jump up on the bar, barking and snarling. Then the barman turns around. Not only is he a tattooed monster straight out of Hell's Angels central casting, but he has no hands—just two shiny steel hooks.

    And no, there are no empty beer crates.

    So we finish setting up, and then we ask the man from the committee (these places always have a committee) where our dressing room is. This is said as a joke, really, and taken as one, too. The closest thing to a dressing room (says the man, who's a nice enough bloke) is behind that door out there in the lobby, the one marked Gents. But if we like we can take a slight short cut to the "stage" through the bar, under the hatch at the end. We thank the man from the committee for his help. We're a gigging band, we're professionals. We'll change in the van.

    Now we have an hour or two to kill, so what do we do? We go to the pub. What else? Sometimes we buy a bag of chips, or some egg fried rice from a Chinese takeaway. Usually we nurse a couple of pints and some crisps for as long as we can. We don't like to drink too much before a show. It might make us sloppy, and cause lapses in the professionalism we're working so hard to cultivate these days. Besides, we can't afford it.

    An hour later we're in the van, all trying to change at the same time, and I get fed up with being elbowed in the face. I decide to change in the club toilet after all, which is a bad move, since there's about three inches of water on the floor. I lock myself in a cubicle and somehow improvise a technique of changing while alternately balancing on one foot, cursing, and propping myself against the toilet seat. Finally, I emerge resplendent in a pair of burgundy flares, dark red platform shoes, a cheap off-white nylon shirt, and a gold Lurex waistcoat with black starburst motifs.

    Meanwhile, back in the van, Graham, the bassist, is getting into his lemon-yellow crimplene suit. Crimplene, it turns out, was not the ideal material for that friend of his mother's to make the suit from, since it's starting to stretch and lose its shape here and there. But it doesn't look too bad yet, especially when worn with a black shirt, red tie, and aviator shades. Graham, dark-haired and currently bearded, looks like a particularly effeminate Mafia hit man.

    Dave, the drummer, is putting on his favorite black-and-white striped satin shirt and baggy pants cut off just below the knee, which he wears over black tights, with hi-top basketball boots.

    Mark's outfits are always the most flamboyant. After all, he's the front man. Tonight he's wearing gold lamé hipster flares, a floral-print blouse, and a black chiffon scarf. Graham's sister isn't here tonight, but Mark's doing his own makeup now, just like she taught him: mascara, eyeliner, a little bit of rouge. Mark likes the whistles he gets when we walk on stage. You have to get a reaction, he says. Every night I cross my fingers and hope it's the right kind.

    We're taking a bit of a chance with our clothes, but we got fed up with the band uniform we started off with: matching black-and-silver patterned sweaters and black flares. Hideous, but we had to make an effort. As we're constantly reminded by the small-time agents and club owners who book us, a gigging band has to be smart, in places like these! You can't just wear any scruffy old tat, like the bands in those big-time London rock clubs! So smart is what we've tried to be. More recently, though, we've come under the heady influence of glam rock. Now the bookers can't quite decide whether we're smart or not. So far, we seem to be getting away with it.

    And finally ... Showtime!

    Time, once again, to disarm and charm that great beast called The Audience. Time to focus all our energy into making a connection, into making something happen. We can feel it, when we're winning them over, and it feels good. Everyone, band and audience, merging into one entity. And on a really good night—and this rarely happens, but we get glimpses of it—we're flying. It's as though music has the power to neutralize the force of gravity. We're like those lunatics you see on TV who jump out of planes and link arms in free fall. They never look as though they're actually falling, but floating, as though time is standing still. And maybe those glimpses are what keep us going, like a drug fix taking us out of the clatter and grind of normal life.

    The first of our three forty-five-minute sets is uneventful, but this is normal. People are still trickling in. Most of them seem to be middle-aged bruisers with long sideburns who won't leave until they've had at least eight pints. Their pudding-fed wives are dressed, if not to kill, then at least to inflict grievous bodily harm, in shiny metallic stuff and earrings like Christmas-tree ornaments. Then there are old folks who drink bottles of stout and stare at us blankly through thick spectacles. God only knows what they're thinking. And at the other end of the scale, sullen greasy-haired youths, a year or two underage, who'll be either our biggest fans or our worst tormentors.

    Most nights, early on, we're ignored, which is good. A bad gig is where they unplug your amps in the middle of a song and throw them out into the car park, and you can forget about getting paid. Hopefully, as the evening rolls on, we'll get scattered applause, a few shouts of "bollocks" and "get off," some drunk howling like a wolf at the back, and a few people dancing. And that'll be a good gig.

    But tonight the drinking seems more reckless than usual, and the drunks are not happy drunks. They're oi-what-are-you-lookin'-at drunks, shut-up-when-you're-talkin'-to-me drunks, drunks in imminent danger of getting Out of Order. Even the laughter has an aggressive edge. The barman with the hooks has taken on a sweaty, psychotic look, and the Alsatians are barking. By the time we're halfway through our second set, we're getting nervous. There's something in the air here that we've come across before. We can almost smell it. It's hard to define, exactly, but it sure isn't peace and love.

    Right in front of me a quartet of rough girls is getting seriously plastered on vodka and lime and vodka and blackcurrant and vodka and vodka. And one of them thinks it's very funny to come over now and again, make faces at me, and bang on one of my keyboards, to sowlike squeals of delight from her pals. By the third set, the ladies have been joined by a couple of guys who've drunk enough to make the ladies look good, and something's got to give. The point of no return comes when we hit the Scottish medley.

    And what is the Scottish medley? Our third set is meant to be rabble-rousing good fun, and on a good night it is. It includes songs by Elvis and the Beatles that everyone knows, a '50s rock 'n' roll medley, and a lot of jokey, clowning stuff, including me slipping behind a curtain and reemerging (to wild applause and hoots of laughter) as Angus McSporran, wearing a long false ginger beard and a kilt (actually a tartan skirt that used to belong to my mother). We start with "Donald, Where's Yer Troosers?" I play a couple of jigs on an accordion, and we end with a rousing chorus of "Auld Lang Syne."

    This is too much for the Vodka Girls. They have to know what's under the kilt. The one who's been banging my keyboards all night bounces up and starts tugging at it, revealing the rolled-up burgundy flares underneath, and I've had enough. I shove her away; she throws a vodka and orange over me; I throw a pint of bitter over her; and whooosh! the Pen and Parchment Club erupts. A bruiser who wants to defend the honor of the ladies starts a fight with a guy who says they're just a bunch of slags and they were asking for it. Another guy wants to fight him, and another tears off his shirt, revealing rippling muscles, just wanting to fight anyone. Chairs start flying and we escape under the bar hatch and out to the car park just as the dogs are set loose.

    We lock ourselves in the van. We could be here for some time. At some point we'll have to go back in, pack up our equipment—or what's left of it —and try to get some money out of these bastards. Meanwhile, we watch the carnage. We hear glass shattering and women shrieking, and then sirens as three police cars arrive. A couple of bruised and bleeding drunks stagger outside. One has had the collar torn from his shirt. The other props himself against the wall and throws up—almost, but not quite, missing his shoes.

    "You started this!" says Graham.

    "Me?!" I say, incredulous. I didn't start anything! Suddenly I feel like throwing up, too. All I ever wanted to do was to play the piano. All I ever wanted was to make beautiful music, like Beethoven, like Charlie Parker, like the Beatles, performer and audience merging into one entity ...

    "Another gig bites the dust," says Mark, and we all groan. That's what our previous drummer Steve Hollins, the one we sacked, used to say after every bloody show.

    "The Pen and Parchment Club," says Dave. "What sort of stupid fucking name is that for a club, anyway?"

    "Piss and Punchup Club, more like," says Mark.

    Then we just sit in silence. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. Who did start this, anyway?

    Here goes the hyperactive brain again. Who started music? Surely it was always there. In the Beginning was the Note. A deep, deep note it must have been, at least six octaves below middle C. Higher harmonics slowly came into being, until a vast chord of stars and planets hummed throughout the universe. Primitive creatures crawled out of swamps to listen, and pretty soon (we're talking in Cosmic Time here) they were walking on two legs and howling Cro-Magnon arias at the moon. And over that ever-present Note, a Greek plucked the strings of a lyre, a Chinaman bashed a cymbal, and so it goes across the ages, as musical empires rise and fall: Byzantium, Vienna, New Orleans ... Basingstoke.

    I open my eyes. I'm sitting in a Transit van in Basingstoke and I'm thinking: How the hell did I get mixed up in all this?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 21, 2001

    A must read for all musicians!

    I liked the personal style of this writer and the comprehensive coverage. I have just read a newly released eBook by Elliot J. Huntley about the life of George Harrison since the break-up of The Beatles. I can highly recommend it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 16, 2011

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 14, 2008

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 17, 2008

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