Yesterday a video was circulating on Facebook featuring former Beatle Paul McCartney leading carpool karaoke king James Corden on a tour of the Liverpool of his childhood. While obviously the whole experience was carefully choreographed, it has the Beatle-esque air of pure spontaneity to it as Paul shows up at some of his old haunts, including the house in which he came of age and wrote those delightful ditties of yesteryear like “She Loves You” along with his songwriting pal John Lennon. (I was watching with my 9-year old daughter Hannah and had to explain to her what “the bog” means in British English.) There was also a precious scene on Penny Lane where the barber gets to play with Paul’s graying locks, and the whole shebang culminates in a pub where Paul and band play impromptu hits from Beatle days as customers feed their requests into a jukebox. The entire piece has a whimsical and indulgent feel to it, bordering on melancholy—as when James breaks down while singing “Let it Be” in the car with Paul, after Paul explains that his mother Mary came to him in a dream, giving him that song. Well, after all what Beatles fan wouldn’t have such an emotional reaction? I know I would. I’m sure if I were to meet Beatle Paul in the flesh, I would simply break down before I could even compose myself to shake his hand. It would be like meeting a close friend or relative you were sure had died, but who proves to be alive after all.
While I’ve written quite a lot on my blogsite about other bands that rocked my world in junior high and high school, the Beatles were my musical foundation. They were there with me almost from the beginning. Sure, I was also listening to classic children’s folk songs and such, but from the time I start having memories of childhood, the Beatles are there. One of my earliest memories, must have been four or five years old, is of playing Sgt. Pepper’s while working on a pile of colorful building blocks in my dad’s apartment. Another is of putting the Yellow Submarine album on heavy rotation while jumping around in my room in our first apartment in Acton Mass at Richard’s Crossing, not far from where we’d later settle on Windsor Ave. The songs were mysterious and haunting and for a child of five or six years old they conjured up both bright and dark worlds. “Hey Bulldog” with its devilish riff and lyrics. And the feedback loop of “All Too Much.” When you’re that age, your brain is the perfect home for such nonsense. And Yellow Submarine the film was in circulation at that time and for sure I went to see it on the big screen with my mother. For decades to come, that film would inhabit my subconscious world and would reappear in various guises in my dreams. It is still the primary textbook on how to bring down authoritarian regimes.
Then there was Abbey Road. That album entranced me and my classmates in first grade at McCarthy-Towne school in Acton and I have deep associations with that first year of proper schooling—even today hearing “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” makes me think of that classroom taught by Sue Waterman (yes, I still remember all my grade school teachers’ names and faces very well). That kid Maxwell—there was something in him in all of us, some impish desire to smash the authority figures who were holding us down and keeping us from having the fun we wanted to have. A-and, that dude in “Come Together”—what a mishmash of hippy imagery that any kid growing up in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s could relate to. I remember we turned Beatle George Harrison’s upbeat song “Here Comes the Sun” into “Here Comes the Bus” and sang it every morning when the bus arrived to pick us up for school. Ringo’s song “Octopus’s Garden” couldn’t have been more meant for children—you have to be six or seven to really get this song! And the mysticism of that album—the haunting “Because” with its ethereal chorus—it doesn’t get any more Beatles than that! When you are at the age when you are wondering what makes the sky blue, you get this song.
But it was the medley on Side B that really made a deep impact, and all the fantastic characters that appear in it—Mean Mr. Mustard, Polythene Pam, the girl who “Came in Through the Bathroom Window”—and I still associate this song with the bathroom in my elementary school. The nonsensical Latinesque dirge of “Sun King”, the maudlin “You Never Give Me Your Money”, all leading to the finale with “Golden Slumbers” and “The End” followed by the little surprise of “Her Maj.” For a six year old, this was Manna from Heaven. To this day, this section of Abbey Road remains for me one of the most profound experiences in music. There are still nights when I will dream of a snatch of music from Side B and wake up with tears in my eyes.
And that was just the beginning of my life-long love affair with the Fab Four. Revolver may have come next, I’m not quite sure, but I do remember during the years when my mother was still single and we lived with the Emerson family on 14 Newtown Road (what a magical home that was! Will have to write about it someday...) that my “brothers” Jon and Ben Emerson had that album and we used to listen to it frequently. While living with the Emerson family, I recall being given the Magical Mystery Tour album as a birthday or Christmas gift by my maternal grandfather Ellsworth Ellingboe—this may have been in second grade—while spending the holiday in their home in Wilmington DE. Once again, those songs were perfect for that age—from the eponymous song to “Hello Goodbye” to “Bluejay Lane,” and they still conjure up memories of making clay figures with my mother and walking about on the rocks in the creek in the forest down the road from my grandparents’ home.
At some point, the album with “Rain,” “Lady Madonna”, “Paperback Writer” and “Hey Jude” snuck in there. For some reason, these songs remind me of apple-picking in the farms and fields around Acton with Jon and Ben Emerson. And from the “Let it Be” album—I have a distinct memory of singing “their gonna crucify me” at the top of our lungs with Jon whilst riding on the roller-coaster at Canobie Lake Park in New Hampshire.
Another very distinct memory is going with my Grandfather Stanley Field to a record shop in Washington DC to buy the White Album, and putting it on heavy rotation in the upstairs apartment where we lived on Newtown Road (just above the daycare center that Carol and Bill Emerson ran, which was formerly a barn). We had a balcony overlooking the back yard which led into magical gardens, groves, and a pond perfect for ice skating, all soundtracked to Beatles albums that I played on the balcony to broadcast out into the back yard. I associate that album in particular with the Blizzard of ‘78, and with building tunnels and igloos in the snow during the magical week we were all off from school. The one song that perplexed us all was Revolution 9, which we played incessantly, looking for clues and trying to understand why they made this song (I wasn’t yet clued in on who Yoko Ono was or her avant-garde background). Later I kept the insert poster from that album on my wall when we moved to Windsor Ave (after my mother met my future step-father in ‘78). The other songs on the album were of course just as mysterious—“Glass Onion”, and “Happiness is a Warm Gun”. Combined with “Strawberry Fields” and “I Am the Walrus” from the Magical Mystery Tour, these songs were guaranteed to blow the mind of an eight-year old. “Piggies” was a song we all loved. And then there’s the mind-blowing “Blackbird”, such an innocent yet subtly profound song that I associate with summer walks along the ancient roads of Acton Mass.
Aside from Pepper’s, Rubber Soul seems to be the only Beatles album I recall my father owning and playing. So I have many memories of playing that album in his apartment on California Street in the Dupont Circle area of DC, before he met my step-mother and they moved to a home in Takoma Park MD. Again, this would have been late 1970s. I associate that album with the childhood memories of playing with Dad and with my sister in his apartment and in the local parks and gardens (he also introduced us to Fats Waller, kicking off my lifetime love for early jazz, but that’s another story). Same with Revolver. The song “For No One” has an indelible association for me with sitting in the gardens of Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown while reading the Narnia Chronicles (which I devoured in fourth grade). Both Rubber Soul and Revolver still have associations with walking the cobbled streets of Georgetown searching for coffee beans and jelly beans.
On my tenth birthday, my mother took me into Boston to see the show “Beatlemania”. That was a glorious day for sure, which included a visit to the Prudential Center and a walk in the Boston Commons, and the consumption of a great deal of sugary sweets. By the time we were halfway through the concert, which was the most magnificent thing I’d ever seen—watching them change into their different costumes as they went through the chronology of the Beatles’ development was fabulous—I was sick to my stomach and had to be taken home early. Since white chocolate was the last thing I’d consumed that evening, I developed a long lasting aversion to the stuff and always associate it with the Beatlemania phenomenon.
My Beatles journey tended to go backwards from there, deep into their early years. In fifth, sixth and seven grades, I collected their earlier albums such as Meet the Beatles and Introducing the Beatles. I remember in seventh grade, the Police were popular (this was the very early 1980s) and one day in school I was listening to a tape on my new Sony Walkman (perhaps the best gift I ever received or ever will), when a student asked me what I was listening to. Oh, it’s a song called “Every Little Thing She Does”. “Cool,” he replied, “The Police!” I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was early Beatles. It just didn’t seem cool at all.
By that time it was clear that my musical tastes were not in sync with the rest of the world. The world was moving forward while I was going backward in time. By eighth grade I had stopped listening fanatically to my Beatles albums—maybe by that time I knew them all so well they had ceased to be so mysterious or revelatory. And there was so much other great stuff to feast one’s ears on, and soon I was lost in a different world of heavy metal, punk, hardcore, ska, reggae, new wave, and so on (see my other blogs on this topic). Still, the Beatles grounded it all and occasionally I would return to the Fab Four to ground myself back into their mysteries.
It wasn’t until early adulthood that I returned to the subject do a proper study of the Beatles. Between college and grad school I collected several books on the Beatles, which are still a cherished part of my book collection to this day. One of the most interesting among them was the memoir of “fifth Beatle” George Martin, called All You Need is Ears, which my dad gave me as a gift. Then in grad school the documentary film series on the Beatles was broadcast on TV—I remember watching it in my studio apartment on 113th and Broadway, and it was a revelation. The recordings that came out around the same time of Beatles songs in progress was also revelatory—you got to hear their creative process in action, and it gave you a better perspective on their art and how much painstaking work went into each masterpiece they created. And then there were the two additional songs that project gifted the world, two unfinished, unreleased works of John Lennon that the other members helped to complete, “Real Love” and “Free as a Bird.” It was as if the Beatles had been resurrected, which in effect they had, temporarily bringing John back to life.
This brings me to the memory of Beatle John’s tragic and senseless death in 1980. I was in sixth grade at the time. I know this sounds mystical, and it might be a conflation of memories, but I distinctly recall the night he died, I had a dream that the Fab Four were driving away in a Volkswagen Beetle waving goodbye, whilst leaving me on the curb waving at them. The next morning, my step-dad came into my bedroom to tell me the shocking news. Our entire class was despondent that day. One of John’s final songs, “Watching the Wheels” had just come out on the airwaves recently and we all loved that song. It seems to be a goodbye song in retrospect. To this day, the death of Lennon for those of us who experienced it is probably not unlike the assassination of JFK for those Americans who came of age in the 1960s.
Speaking of Beatle dreams (and I still have them to this day—recently one about meeting Beatle Paul and singing with him. This was before the James Corden video came out by the way). One of my most memorable Beatle dreams happened around seventh grade. I dreamt that I was making my way up to Heaven, climbing along a system of stairs and ladders and passing through magical Chinese and Japanese gardens (perhaps presaging my engagement with the Far East), and that finally I reached a shining bridge stretching across the clouds, and as I crossed that bridge, I could see the giant faces of the Fab Four in their Sgt. Pepper’s guises—they were singing in unison as I made my way across the bridge to the gates of Heaven. Perhaps this dream helps explain my life-long interest in the work of Carl Jung. Thinking back on it, there was always a mystical Asian association with the Beatles, since they’d spent time in India and some of their songs were influenced by Indian music—that was George’s contribution of course, as I later discovered.
The Beatles were and still are my ur-band. They defined music for me and for a whole generation of youths who grew up in the late 1960s or early 1970s with their music. I think it was probably a more profound connection in many ways than for those who experienced them firsthand in the 1960s, since those people were already entering into adulthood and their musical tastes had already been formed. For those of us weaned on the Beatles from early childhood, the connection is a deep one.
When I first learned to play piano in grade school, there was a Beatles songbook on the piano scoreboard. It was gifted to my mother by my father not long after their divorce in the early 1970s. Attached was a note with the quote “With a little help from my friends...” I think the Beatles really helped me get through some of those rough times. To this day I look upon that songbook as my bible (somehow my mother knew that it really belonged to me). It would take me many years—decades in fact—to learn how to play their songs on piano. Meanwhile I took up guitar, starting in junior high and continuing in grad school. The first song I learned (my dad taught it to me) on guitar was probably in fourth or fifth grade, and it was “Eleanor Rigby”, which I reckon was their first great masterpiece of lyricism. I guess it was the easy chords—deceivingly so since it is actually not such an easy song to play. But like most beginners my first chord was E minor and that happens to be the base chord of the song.
Now, more than forty years after I began my musical journey, I can play just about any Beatles song on guitar or piano passingly or at least recognizably well. To be sure, the Beatlemania producers won’t be knocking on my door any time soon, but there you have it. The Beatles were my primary inspiration to place music at the core of my existence, in my personal life and in my career as a historian and a writer.