Shades of Life

Feature: The secret behind the enduring appeal of The Beatles

Getty Images
• May 22, 2017 5:00 am


Rob Sheffield, Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World

Andrew Blauner (editor), In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs

Brian Southall, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band: The Album, the Beatles, and the World in 1967

Mike McInnerney, Bill DeMain, and Gillian G. Gaar: Sgt. Pepper at Fifty: The Mood, the Look, the Sound, the Legacy of the Beatles' Great Masterpiece

This is a story that begins, or at least I think it does, with a green farmhouse surrounded on all sides with corn. In the yard there is a birch tree with a tire swing and three big barns full of haystacks and bats and broken glass that never cuts your feet. On the first floor just off the kitchen is a room that was probably meant for sewing that doubles as a bedroom and in it there is a silver boom box with blue buttons. Then there is a car, probably a red 1995 Pontiac Grand Am with a rear-loaded six-disc changer, but possibly a much older Lincoln, brown and rusted with a yankable hood ornament and, in the numberless crevices of the vast back seat, pebbles, nickels, Soapy's Car Wash tokens, twigs, and McDonald's French fries impervious to decay.

It was in that house, which no longer stands, and in that car, whichever one it was, that I first remember hearing the Beatles. The record was not Sgt. Pepper or the White Album. It was not 1, the chart-topping compilation of chart-toppers, which had not yet been released, much less advertised relentlessly during the 2000 World Series. It was the 1997 version of the Yellow Submarine soundtrack, purchased by my mother at the Virgin Megastore in Chicago (also gone) while on a trip with my grandmother. Why this former Prince fangirl and rap aficionado had decided to purchase this compilation of her aunts' favorite band, I could not say.[1] I’ve never asked her about it because, if I'm being honest—and here I invite as much crude psychoanalysis of motives and mental habits as my critics please—I prefer beginnings to be suffused with mystery.

Does that matter much—listening to something for the first time, I mean? We don't remember our first birthdays; we almost always remember our first kisses. My first Beatles song, or at least the first one I am conscious of having heard and enjoyed and puzzled over and skipped to on the boom box, was "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band." For years, I mentally supplied what I considered a missing word, "Marching," after "Club" in the title, though curiously not because I had seen the boys in the most ridiculous of all their outfits on the cover of the LP. I don't know how significant it is that I remember being impressed at what I thought of as the "yelling." Here were guys who yelled, who were having a great time yelling, and the words they were yelling were silly. The words of the other songs were silly too, submarines and rocking-horse people with s'mores in their pie. But the words were also sad and, occasionally, scary. I have a vivid memory of driving back from Indiana a few weeks after my introduction to Sgt. Pepper. There is a tornado. Mom is grim and determined, as always. My siblings are oblivious. I am frightened. No one else is thinking about hell or about what there might be if there is no hell. Why am I the only person I know who feels depressed every time my friend's mother has to take her home? How come only I worry that no one really likes me and wonder what the point of going to Mass is? "In the night when there's nobody there…"

And then somehow the Beatles pass out of memory for two or three years until one day I find myself sitting under a spell of incomprehension trying to figure out what that thing about the "guru diva [sic]" on the radio was. Later there will be moments of dumb awe in front of the speakers, alone and with cousins and would-be band mates. There will be St. Vincent de Paul thrift stores and decrepit antique shops in tourist towns. There will be computers and long talks and yearning and dancing and posters on the wall. There will be the interrogation on the subject of the Vietnam War of a handyman while home "sick" watching Yellow Submarine for the 50th time, and takoyaki and a KFC you can smoke in. There will be interminable poker games and evenings that end lying on the floor surrounded by beer bottles waiting for "A Day in the Life" to crescendo. There will be two births.

According to Prof. Colin Campbell and Dr. Allan Murphy's magisterial Things We Said Today: The Complete Concordance of The Beatles' Song Lyrics, the noun that occurs most frequently in the band's recorded output is "love." But you would have guessed that. Nor would the results be any different in a concordance to Ray Davies or Stevie Wonder or even Willie Dixon. Still: The fact is suggestive somehow. If love is the great Beatles subject, though, it is only because love is the great human subject. And what do we do with love? We celebrate it sometimes in raucous little bursts of untrammeled enthusiasm. But that is not the kind of thing most of us have time for when we are busy living, "when I [we] think of love / As something new." What we do with love in art is to remember it. And so yes, love is the principal subject. But the primary mode is nostalgia.

"There are places I remember…." "… People and things / That went before." "In my ears and in my eyes…" "Julia" and "Norwegian Wood" and "For No One" and "She's Leaving Home" and "Wait." Campbell and Murphy are right when they summon up the ghost of Wordsworth and declare that the Beatles' music "is rooted in a powerful remembrance of the past, especially of childhood and of the great sense of loss associated with its passing" and an appreciation of the beauty of creation. They are indubitably, as the good professors say, "mystical."

The Beatles not only made music "about" nostalgia. They are nostalgia, in its most exalted sense. Maybe this is the case in certain very special ways for people who grew up buying the 45s and LPs as they were released, but I'm not so sure. In any case, it is ridiculous to sneer at the Boomer consumerism of 60-somethings who buy every single supermarket Time Life Beatles special commemorative issue and read through them breathlessly. The impulse is mistaken, not vicious or moronic. I have lived through two separate cycles of Beatles anniversaries, the last one yielding up, among other things, an excellent DVD of A Hard Day's Night and Let It Be… Naked and the first proper CD release of the original (and in the case of Rubber Soul) superior American Capitol versions of the early LPs. This time the mania is all for Sgt. Pepper's. And so while I think people are probably mistaken in thinking that what they really want to know is how many takes it took the session musicians to put together the French horns on the title track and all the other sorts of delightful but unimportant tidbits you pick up in books like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: The Album, the Beatles, and the World in 1967, I understand the tendency.

To give anything like a full or cogent account of what the Beatles have meant to me would be the subject not of what is ostensibly a book review or even an essay or a memoir but of an endless and doubtless unedifying monologue. Which is why I want now to submit a controversial opinion, viz., that the Beatles' discography—or Works, as I sort of hope we can start calling them—form a complete, cohesive artistic cycle, comparable in scope and achievement to Wagner or Shakespeare, and that listening to these works constitutes an indelible and well-nigh essential part of what it means to be human in the 20th and 21st centuries. Can we all just concede that Allan Bloom was full of it? "Popular" culture is not evil. It cannot be evil because it is not lacking in those things that are natural goods proper to the genus art.

Let me tell you what is not evil. What is not evil is what "I Want to Hold Your Hand" has to say to my not-quite-two-year-old and what "Happiness is a Warm Gun" had to say to me when I was 14. And neither of these could be further removed from what "And I Love Her" means to me at two o’clock in the morning when I am stuck at a hotel in the world’s worst city and haven't seen my wife in two weeks—regretting every single unkind thing I have ever thought about her or said to her or done to her, regretting them so much that a single impatient sigh seems to me, no, is, as cruel and cold-blooded as murder because that is what the song is about. P.G. Wodehouse re-read Shakespeare from beginning to end every year not only because there was always something new but also because even the things we haven't missed look different to us with the passing of years. As Rob Sheffield writes, in a book full of unimpeachable observations and admirably lacking in any kind of pretensions to critical omniscience or disinterestedness, "From ‘Please Please Me' in 1962 to ‘Don't Let Me Down' in 1969, John Lennon's life changes in every way, except the most important way, which is that what he cares about most singing to a girl and making her feel something." We all end up aging with him.

So while I can have a good conversation with someone—"code-switching" is the reliably vicious sociological term for it—who has never heard of the Ring Cycle or read Timon of Athens, I must admit that I have the damnedest time relating to someone with no opinion of the relative merits of the Red and Blue Albums, for whom the words "It's a love that lasts forever/ It's a love that has no past" mean nothing, whose life story could not be written, however unintelligibly, as a series of scholia to Mono Masters. I honestly don't even know if it’s possible for them to play catch-up, the way we can and do with "good" art.

And so, I have to apologize to M. Sheffield, whose book is really terrific, and to M. Southall and Mssrs. Mike McInnerney, Bill DeMain, and Gillian G. Gaar, who didn't tell me anything I didn't know in the summer of 2003 but whose work I would recommend to anyone for the coffee table, and to M. Blauner and his contributors Mssrs. Klosterman, Hadju, Moody, Iyer, Duchovny, Touré and Mmes. Prose, Bloom (who broke my heart all over again with her story about "Norwegian Wood," not only the best thing in the anthology but the best thing about the band ever written, I think), and Mead, Cash, et al. and even to the author of the introductory note, M. McCartney himself, for not coming up with more to say about their literary productions. I don't know how many of them have ever tried to review four books at once and come up empty. I would hope that all of them have been in love.

[1] Cf. "Let's all get up and dance to a song / That was a hit before your mother was born. / Though she was born a long, long time ago / Your mother should know."

Published under: Book reviews