For Just Like Them: A Piece by Piece Guide to Becoming the Ultimate Thinking Person's Beatles Fan.
Introduction: A Golden Guide to Beatles
There was a time in my life when my passion for music was total, in large part because of how I’d first experienced the Beatles, and the ways people talked and wrote about them.
My passion hasn’t diminished, but it’s changed. One of the reasons is because I read everything there was to read about the Beatles, and what started out as an encounter with ideas that seemed unique at the time did so mainly because I was new to everything. It was only in time that I realized how so many people said the same things. The same way. With the same points of focus. The Beatles, though, always felt new, no matter how many times I heard a song, an album, a live performance. Thus, I often found myself at Beatles-rooted loggerheads.
I was one of those kids who liked to know what he was getting at Christmas—it was always CDs and books—so that I could look forward to what I’d soon be immersed in, and then immersed, presumably, for the rest of my life. I lived to see a new take on “A Day in the Life” or a Beatles gig, but one that wasn’t done for show or attention, that tendency writers have—more than ever, thanks to the performative influence of social media—to say, “Hey! Look at me! Do you notice how out there I am with this pronouncement of mine!”
Eh. You weary of of that. Today, we call it the Hot Take. We all know when we see the Hot Take. They’re dreary and, ironically, predictable.
There was one in The New York Times about how Yoko Ono was the real star of the Get Back docu-series, because she was this intrepid, feminist performance artist on account that she can be seen knitting during the sessions.
No one actually believes this, of course; that’s not the point of the Hot Take. Just like having this basic version of a clue isn’t Ono-bashing. The thrust/gist/gooey nothingness of the Hot Take is intellectual chicanery and insincerity. There’s no substance, value, or any effort to make anyone actually care, save insofar as they say, “I can’t believe I clicked on that.”
The Beatles deserve so much better. I’m not sure they get it as often as we might just assume they do just because they’re the Beatles.
What I’ve lived for, in part, are words that make me experience the world differently, including parts of the world I know as well as I know anything. The Beatles fall into that latter category. But as I’ve gone along in life, I’ve learned that there’s not a lot that helps me with that second case. There are books and writings that are rammed with factoids, for instance. What the Beatles, for instance, called themselves, long before they were the Beatles, for two weeks in the late 1950s.
Okay. That’s fine. But what can I do with that? I can know it. Realize it is there in the factoid storehouse section of my brain. But is it adding to my life? To my understanding of this art? To anything about myself? Does it enrich the listening experience for me? Make it feel like I have “new” music to listen to from this band I’ve listened to so many times? Not really, right? It’s fine. But fine doesn’t thrill me. Does fine thrill you?
Then there’s what I call quotage, where our eyes all but skim a page looking for quotation marks, because the author’s own prose is almost irrelevant. We’re there for what Paul McCartney said to George Harrison on a spring day in 1968. It can be prosaic, nothing more involved or involving than what you might overhear that morning at the greasy spoon around the corner from your home. But it’s a Beatles quote…so…what? That alone makes one reach for the old kit bag of exclamation points?
There was this great series of vinyl bootlegs called At the Beeb that numbered among the first sets of unreleased Beatles music I tracked down. Gorgeous covers. As you got deeper in the series, those covers would feature teasers like, “And with more Beatles chat.” What I loved about said badinage was that this was akin to passing through the wardrobe and into Narnia, Beatles-style. You were in the clubhouse with them as they spoke to each other in ways that I always felt was how they spoke to each other in “real life.” Those BBC sessions—especially the ones from 1963—were as close as we get to being in the Beatles’ tree fort with them. That’s so different from some random quote, though, that has its value often primarily because of the name of the person who said it—not what they said and the significance of those words.
Once a publisher wanted me to write a book on the Beatles’ on The Ed Sullivan Show. Not about the music, though, or how those appearances fit into the culture, changed the world—changed it for real, without any hyperbole needed, thank you very much. You’re going to want to l listen to those Ed Sullivan performances closely—there aren’t many better vocal moments in the history of the Beatles’ catalogue, for instance, than when John Lennon concludes the middle eight of “This Boy,” his voice hanging out there as naked as a voice has ever been, one of the most stirring moments from perhaps the greatest rock and roll singer of all.
I mentioned ideas along these lines to the would-be editor, but they had no interest in them. What they wanted me to do was track down the coat check girl who interacted with Brian Epstein, and get a quote from her while she was still alive.
Is that interesting? To me, as a lifelong Beatles diehard, who craves Beatles-related stimulation, it’s not. It’s minutiae. Fine for reference, but not for reading, and certainly not for thinking. And it’s damn fun to think about the Beatles. And, I’d add, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually profitable. It’s good for a person. Good for the band. Good for society. Culture. The world.
Another time I was talking to a producer for the Beatles channel on Sirius Radio who said that their focus was “experiential access” to the Beatles. In other words, the person who had served George Harrison tea once upon a time. That would beat any idea, any discussion, any well-made theory, I was informed. “He took two lumps of sugar, not just one.” Um, okay. Rock on, brother George!
I kept looking around, and this was so much of what I was seeing and reading, and it made me think, “What are we doing here? Who is this for, really?” I thought it was gross, limited, mindless. The opposite of what the Beatles themselves were about, are about, in the larger sense of what they offered, what their art holds up as in terms of ideals and absolutes. Creative ideals and absolutes. Thoughtful ideals and absolutes.
Writing as often as I did and do on the Beatles, being known for my Beatles writings, the things I say that others don’t, I became aware of certain trends of expectations and lowered standards. The internet had a lot to do with it, and our culture of victimhood and having this need to be agreed with—in the form of Twitter and Facebook likes—did as well, or else thinking we’ve been personally attacked, or aren’t smart enough, worthy enough.
Much Beatles conversation has become more akin to cheerleading. Waving the pom-poms. Simply saying “Everything is awesome!”
Again, is this interesting? Does it feed your passion?
If anything is actually awesome, it’s worth more than talking about it as though it were automatically awesome. It deserves better, because it is better.
But when people cheer for the Beatles, they’re often cheering for themselves. Their presumed excellent taste, their “expertise,” even if they don’t possess any in actuality. Have never put the time in, never read that much, never vigorously exchanged views. They want comfort, and comfort often is based on there being no stakes, and people enabling other people. No hard stands, no thoughtful vetting. And, sadly, minds that have a tendency to close, which isn’t very Beatle-y.
This cheapens the Beatles experiences, and we should do what we can, if we care about the band, to put a stop to it. Likewise, there’s nostalgia. I had an editor at another venue who was always talking about pressing “the old nostalgia button.” For the clicks. I find that depressing. I’m a “always be moving forward” kind of person, and I think the Beatles were that kind of band. Great art is always moving forward, long after its made. But that takes a contribution from us, too. We have to be engaged with it. Actively. With spirit.
In my career of writing about the Beatles, I think I’ve been someone who takes a different tack, teases out what is there, but what isn’t talked about, thought about, maybe even heard. I believe in giving readers an experience as well, where the language is part of the package. Too often when I read about the Beatles, I feel like I can skim what I’m reading. The writer’s own voice almost doesn’t matter, or could be anyone’s, plugged into the Prose Machine, and then coming out the other side.
But as the Beatles said, we take away what we put in, and to me that means you think hard about the Beatles, you vet vigorously, you write hard (at night or otherwise). Maybe you go back to the music and you hear it anew, or you have some document that’s now primed to blow your mind and become your all-time favorite piece of work by the band after Revolver having been your favorite for the last thirty-five years. Take a step back, Ms. Rigby!
Beatles people know about the famous 585-minute session that produced Please Please Me, but what if one were to say that they had another epic session, that created more music, in terms of quantity, and music at an even higher artistic level? Hot dog, right? Who doesn’t want to get in on what that’s about? Or what’s the best gig the the Beatles ever gave? How about the year that was the most emblematic of everything the band ultimately was? Or the bootleg that, were it officially released, would be an all-timer of a live album to join the ranks of the Who’s Live at Leeds, Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, Jerry Lee Lewis’s Live at the Star Club? What do the band’s two greatest love songs say about the similarities and differences between the Beatles’ resident geniuses?
These are the topics that fire my Beatles love and attention, my passion, my endlessly evolving curiosity, my own Beatles writing career, and I think they’re the stuff of really knowing these artists and entertainers. Being an expert. Which is more than chiming in on Twitter on John Lennon’s birthday and typing, “GOAT!”
But where to start, right? Or: Where to keep going?
That led me to this book, which I realized some time ago that I’ve always really been writing, with the Beatles pieces I did, how I approached them, why I proposed them, and how I approached this band. How I grew, over decades, in how I approached the Beatles themselves.
There’s this live recording from Swedish radio in April 1967 from the Byrds, big-time friends of the Beatles, where Roger McGuinn explains the thinking behind “So You Want to Be a Rock Roll Star,” that they wanted to provide people with this kit, a list of ingredients, for where to start, how you might go about becoming a rock and roll star.
I always dug that, and I thought, “What about a kit to help someone become a thinking person’s Beatles fan? An expert! An expert with utility and purpose!”
I think we need Beatles fans who are thinking people. I believe the Beatles are helped by such people as well, and will be helped in the years, decades, centuries to come. Waving pom-poms doesn’t do much to stoke fires, to refresh, to energize.
The Beatles want us to be as engaged with their work as possible. Any great artist does. We can’t let our ears, eyes, and views become calcified. There’s a lot of newness to be had. Newness takes all forms. Sometimes, it’s thinking and feeling in such a way that you’re hit harder by someone’s work. Hit deeper. Hit differently.
When I was at ESPN The Magazine, I had an editor who told me that when I was writing a piece, I should imagine that it was for some college freshman who could read it, pull factoids from it, and then establish dominance over their new roommate on the first weekend of the year by how much they knew.
It’s horrible, horrible advice, complete with that idea of the fake expert, which is all for show and vanity, and not dialogue and community. Nor enrichment. Greater enjoyment. But what if there was a kit? A guide? A recipe to becoming an expert on these marvelous things called Beatles? In a cool way. Not a “let’s regurgitate this stuff that’s been written a million times” way.
As a kid I loved those Golden Guide nature books. That had them for everything: snakes, sea shells, birds, plants. You could fit them in your pocket, carry them around on your person. They were these troves. I was so into reading them and learning. Deep learning, that was fun and painless. Stimulating. I loved nature to an extreme degree, but those books helped me love it even more.
If it was raining, I’d think, “Hey now! Stop that—I want to explore!” prompted by the Golden Guide I was devouring at the time, as I hope Beatles fans old and new devour this book. But that rain was awesome, because it had a way of stirring up the world outside, so that when you got back (huzzah) out there into it, the experience was different, just as it was different for all of the plants and animals you’d been reading about.
So this is a Beatles Golden Guide, and in the spirit of John Lennon, it brings the rain. And acts as a kit. To help make all of our Beatles talk go just a little bit further, to become a little fresher, and I think more fun and rewarding. And that’s only something that ever seems to make the music feel that way, too. Don’t need to be an expert to figure out that that’s pretty sweet. But might as well become an expert—or expand that expertise—at the same time though, right? I mean, we’re all here. We’re all listening. Let’s do it up.
What do you say, incoming experts? Are we ready?