Lies, deceit and manipulation unmasked


Lies, deceit and manipulation unmasked

KERNEELS BREYTENBACH on new books about mendacity, narcissism, drug abuse and mayhem.


THERE'S a scene in an episode of Seinfeld in which George Costanza says: “It's not a lie if you believe it." For years, I believed The Beatles were the real McCoy — until I read Peter Brown and Steven Gaines's The Love You Make in 1983. Then Peter Doggett finally lifted the veil in 2009 with You Never Give Me Your Money.

Not so fab

The Fab Four were human, all too human. Great musicians, no one will argue about that. But their behaviour and habits were not exemplary and rational in every way.

Some of them were unpleasant people, naughty as attention-seeking children, or egotists on a spectrum that can never be calibrated. And they, especially the one with the spectacles, were so stupid with money that they bankrupted the group's biggest dream, Apple Corps, in a matter of years.

The interviews Brown and Gaines conducted with the Beatles, their loved ones, their managers and their parasites were not fully exploited in The Love You Make. The matter is settled with All You Need Is Love: The End of the Beatles. Where The Love You Make is written in delightfully readable prose, All You Need Is Love has the unedited interviews, with a small piece of contextualisation before each interview.

It doesn't always read easily, and Brown and Gaines surely have good reason for it. Now you can make your own inferences, for example, about Yoko Ono's honesty and sincerity. The twists she takes in denying that John Lennon was a long-time heroin addict are a unique kind of backstage rhetoric. One races through this book, it's incredibly engaging reading.

Paul McCartney, he of the baby face, was the driving force of the band, the one with the music brain. He is also a complete narcissist. Lennon spent his whole life searching for a mother figure, then went to hide behind her skirts. George Harrison was the mystic who was in love with Ringo Starr's wife and tried to hide it for years. And Ringo? Well, he's the same kind of person as Pink Floyd's Nick Mason — unwilling to take sides between the band's big egos and an alcoholic before he was 30.

All You Need is Love by Peter Brown and Steven Gaines was published by Octopus and costs R465 at Exclusive Books.

Manic spin doctor

Whether it's a coincidence I don't know, but in the same month Phil Elwood's All the Worst Humans was published. Elwood is one of those subspecies of humanity who were still known as “spin doctors" a few years ago. He was an image polisher for Muammar Gaddafi's family. He promoted Bashar al-Assad of Syria with as much ingenuity as he sang Russia Today's praises as a credible alternative to Fox News and CNN.

If the money was right, Elwood could get things done for anyone. When Qatar snatched the 2022 World Cup from under the US's nose, Elwood was the mastermind behind the sultanate's campaign. He used a speech by Michelle Obama to sink the US cause. The irony is that the sheikhdom cheated on Elwood's company and acquired its services for a song. (The aftermath was abhorrent, with corruption detected by US authorities — but Elwood didn't appear in the FBI's sights until later and for other reasons.)

Elwood did everything on the principle that once something appeared in print, it was true. Facts were unimportant. You just had to draw first ink with your version. Bell Pottinger's tricks were copied from Elwood — in the days when he worked for Peter Brown at Brown Lloyd James (BLJ), he became known as the man who could set alight any advertising campaign.

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At one stage, the Psy-Group of Royi Burstein was his largest client. In the Mueller investigation into foreign interference in the 2016 US presidential election, Elwood was a witness — but also the man who obscured his own role by launching an attention-grabbing story about Israeli spies. He could, because Elwood was the man who helped launder the Israelis' money.

For anyone who followed the unmasking of Bell Pottinger as a PR aide of the South African state capturers, All the Worst Humans reads like a manual for news manipulators. Still, there's something strange about Elwood's story. You finally realise exactly how good Peter Brown's machinations around the Beatles were at the time. Brown is, all things considered, one of Elwood's mentors. But Brown fired Elwood when one of his gambles failed, and he acquired other mentors — including Richard Levick of Levick Strategic Communications, someone for whom no razor could be too sharp.

Everything Elwood learned from Brown and Levick one can consider “tricks of the trade". On the ethics spectrum, their lessons fell beyond unethical. But Elwood was a very different creature, and you read some parts over and over to believe your eyes. Elwood was almost never sober. He was bipolar (and surely needed certain types of medication) and increasingly depressed. He tried to commit suicide with Xanax. He had a marijuana safe in his apartment, and in some of his encounters with the Israelis of the Psy-Group he was so high that in hindsight he couldn't remember the people's names or faces.

In a few places in his narrative, he reveals that he developed a huge problem with cocaine. Looking at his writing style, it suddenly makes sense. It's that speed you'll find in a Robin Williams riff, the grandiose leaps of imagination that tells you this guy has listened to Fleetwood Mac's Tusk 80,000 times. He schnarfed in the senior league. He knew no boundaries. He thought nothing of selling lies as absolute truth.

How awful. Should one believe Elwood? Well, we still listen to The Beatles, don't we? And, humming away, we read international newspapers, and watch the big TV news channels with their revelations and big scoops, only slightly uncomfortable with the fact that most of the news was delivered by Elwood's descendants.

All the Worst Humans by Phil Elwood was published by Henry Holt and costs $23.36 at Amazon.

Must-read books.

♦ VWB ♦

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