Thursday, May 31, 2007

Meet the Beatles, Again

I was very moved by John Colapinto's admiring and sensitive interview with Paul McCartney in the New Yorker. It's not online but an audio tape of Colapinto is, talking about the interview.
I have not read the biography of the Beatles, and though they were huge in my childhood and adolescence, I had forgotten them lately. But as I read about some of the songs this man wrote, and his relationship with John Lennon and the fact that neither of them could actually read or write music, I had a strong desire to revisit their amazing output again.

My mother used to boast that I made her buy me my first Beatles record at the tender age of 3. It was Meet the Beatles and I had her playing it over and over, scratched out of recognition, until it occurred to her that she could buy another one and defer going crazy until the next one came out. The last Beatles record my parents chose for me was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. By then I was 7 and after that I picked my own. The Beatles were my religion for a while. I experienced prolonged spiritual ecstasies as I bought, opened, danced and made up words to their records. I was moved by the playful energy of the music, by the urgent vibrancy of the young male voices. When songs were sad I knew their sadness was honest and simple, not hokey and twisted like Mexican telenovelas. I also bonded with my parents over the Beatles. My mom told me that when they first came out, they were really shocking, at least to her. She didn’t like them. They were too rebellious. They looked weird with those mops of long hair and the skinny jackets and skinnier ties. My dad liked them from the very start. He once informed me that he could not abide Paul McCartney. He much preferred Lennon, despite his self-important antics and the hideous, talentless wife. I was surprised because McCartney seemed to me to be the goody two shoes of the pair and thus, a better role model for me. I thought it was very cool that my dad liked the less saccharine Beatle. My dad had a way of revealing what little of his rebellious soul he had left in him with comments like that. For instance, when I asked him about marihuana some years later he said, “Don’t try it. It’s too good.”
“Love”, “girl”, “you”, “dance” “happy”: I could understand most of what the first Beatles’ records said, but Sgt. Pepper was like the Rosetta stone. I went from Meet the Beatles to Sgt. Pepper with only the benefit of A Hard Day’s Night and Help! in between, but no Revolver or Rubber Soul, so it was a major shock. Something had changed that made my spine tingle. For starters, that album cover looked like an altar for the Mexican Day of the Dead. My dad tried to explain who some of those in attendance were at the funeral of the electric guitar. I recognized Marilyn Monroe and Chaplin, but that little kid slumped in the corner looking right at you in his striped pullover gave me the creeps. There were people even my dad didn’t recognize, and he knew everything and everybody. I had no idea of what the songs of the Beatles meant and that made Sgt. Pepper all the more esoteric. A song like “For the benefit of Mr. Kite” ignited my imagination with strange, almost apocalyptic images, perhaps because the only words I understood were “fire” and “horses”. The word “handkerchief”: in “She’s Leaving Home” was the object of almost Talmudic speculation. Some years later I was slightly disappointed to learn that it is something to wipe your nose with. There were lyrics in the inside jacket. That was new. And why were the Beatles wearing those lollipop-colored satin jackets and alarming facial hair?
“What happened to them?” I asked my dad. “Drugs”, he said. Both my parents blamed it on the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whom they viewed with distrust, just as they blamed the Beatles’ later demise on the wives – Linda and Yoko. My mom hated the wives. Linda was the bland, charmless, shiksa heiress to the Kodak empire, and Yoko was Japanese, ugly, unkempt and obnoxious. They were both singularly untalented but were bent on making art and music as if they were gifted by association (this was the received wisdom at home. Don't shoot the messenger).
Until fairly recently, listening to the opening chords of any song of those first records -- “Anytime at all”, or “I’ll cry instead”, made me feel what can only be described as instant joy. Not the memory of joy, but joy itself, bubbling up from a hidden recess in my self, concrete in the quickening of my heartbeat, the swift appearance of a smile in my face, the lifting of burdens off my back.
Then, not too long ago, as I copied them into my ipod, I found their eagerness to please irritating, which disturbed me greatly. They seemed too bubbly, too easy, and they didn't uplift me anymore. What happened to me? Better not think about it too much. I stopped listening. Yet after reading Colapinto's piece I'm ready to open my heart to The Beatles once more. I'm pretty sure they will not disappoint me and I will not disappoint them.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous5:51 PM

    Did you (open your heart to them)? What happened then?
    I am older than you, yet much of my growing up was decorated by the Beatles. They 'burst onto the scene' when I was about 14 (brand new hormones coursing through my body, transforming me). They transformed me too. Or maybe they were just part of a general cultural transformation that was happening then--there WAS a cultural revolution. My fave was George, the quiet, introspective and 'spiritual' Beatle. Paul was to me insipid, and John was a bit too coarse for my taste. Ringo was a love, but I couldn't find him attractive. So George colored my dreams, waking or sleeping. It's hard to describe, but the music and the guys and just the force of them made a huge difference in my life. When I listen to them now, the joy (as you aptly labeled it) comes flooding back. The brilliance of George Martin's arrangements and production astounds me; back then I was just swept away by the songs. I will always adore the Beatles, and feel thankful that I grew up with them. They enriched my life immeasurably. They still do, but I can only listen for short periods. You can never go back, they say. I don't want to tarnish the rich wonder of it by over-exposure now. I just saw Paul McCartney last night on the PBS special about the making of Tony Bennett's duets CD. I am more convinced now than ever before that he and John Lennon needed each other, and apart were never to match the magic and dynamics of the combination. And Paul still is insipid. I'm sorry, but he's just not that talented, his work just not that interesting.