Saturday, February 8, 2014

"Ladies and Gentleman...The Beatles!"

Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, a day that would change my life, though it would be another 30-odd years before I knew it. While I don't know if I can express the ways in which the Beatles influenced my life, I'm going to give it a try because that's what blogs are for.

As most of you know, I grew up as proud neo-conservative boy in the North Country of Minnesota (aka God's country). I was always liked the oldies (My spirit age has always been my actual age + 50, which is making my future that much more untenable as I approach 30), and I remember sometime in middle school asking for some Beatles music for my birthday because I wanted to be able to put on the classics: "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "Twist and Shout," "She Loves You," etc. When I opened up my birthday present up (which I believe was given by Beth Clark?) I found this cover staring back at me:

As I scanned the back, I was disappointed that the double CD was full of songs that I never heard of. What were these "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," "A Day in the Life," "I Am the Walrus," and "The Ballad of John and Yoko?" I didn't want this crap. So, I took some of the birthday money I had scored (if my memory serves me correct) and bought the "right" album:

I then proceeded to listen to this double CD over and over and over and over again (I have a penchant towards obsessive behavior!), loving every minute of it. When I finally had every word memorized and could sing along with every guitar lick, I decided to give the blue album another chance - and then my mind exploded. How could I have missed the beauty of "Fool on the Hill" and "A Day in the Life," the poignancy of "Hey Jude" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," the amazing weirdness (I had no better words for it at that point) of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "Magical Mystery Tour?" The Red Album had been my bait, but the Blue Album hooked me. I was a goner.

From then on, my mission in life was to own all the Beatles albums and research as much as I could about these four fascinating lads from Liverpool (see previous note on obsessions). I began to ask for the albums for Christmas/birthdays and save up money to snag one at a local store. Two I remember specifically: for some reason I remember purchasing Rubber Soul at the Hermantown Wal-Mart (I didn't know any better; see neo-conservative comment above); more memorable, I purchased The Beatles (White Album) in a record store in Spain on a high school Spanish club trip because I was convinced I saved a bunch of money on the dollar-to-peseta conversion (I may have saved two dollars, but I doubt I even did that). I have very fond memories of listening the "Martha My Dear" on my portable CD player as our coach bus rolled through the beautiful Spanish countryside somewhere between Segovia, Sevilla, or Granada.

Once I had obtained all of the CDs, I began converting them to tapes so I could listen to them on the way to school in my car. Beatles for Sale and Rubber Soul became the two staples of our drive (my brother, younger sister, and me) to the high school each morning, instilling in my sister a love for "Baby's in Black" and my brother an equal hatred for it (thus began the war of words between my brother and me that culminated in the great Beatles/Mariah Carey debates of vacation car-rides ca. 2000 CE). The Beatles were the soundtrack of my high school experience. They were my constant audio companion on long car trips or bus rides, the study of my papers (I wrote my senior research paper on John Lennon, which I later adapted for my 1960s class at NPU), and "Hey Jude" was the song I sang my senior year at our choir's 1960s show (to increase my pop culture credibility that year, I also played barry sax on DJ Kool's "Let Me Clear My Throat" with some of my friends for the high school talent show). I imagined it went something like this:

In reality, I was dressed as a hippie, terrified under a spotlight, and just hoping I would hit all the notes.

 I've even got to see Pete Best (the drummer before Ringo) play at the Norshor Theater in Duluth and Paul at the slightly larger United Center. My October 23, 2005 xanga entry relives the concert:

I can now die a happy man...The Paul McCartney concert, amazing. Here's some of the songs he sang:
Hey Jude, Let it Be, Yesterday (on the original guitar that he played on the Ed Sullivan show), Live and Let Die, Maybe I'm Amazed, For No One, Fixing A Hole (the last three he played by himself on the piano), I Will, Blackbird (These he played alone on the guitar), Helter Skelter, Please Please Me, Penny Lane, Jet, Band on the Run, Let me Roll it, I'll Get You, I've Got a Feeling, etc. He did two encores, sang over thirty songs, and opened with Magical Mystery Tour, does it get any better than that? No, it doesn't, to answer my rhetorical question.

I've spent many hours trying to determine my favorite album (White Album), favorite Beatle (still can't pick), top ten Beatles' song, and ten worst (these were originally my xanga posts, now switched over to WordPress since I didn't know if I would eventually lose them forever; I think trixie717, aka Amy Williams Carlson, has similar lists somewhere in the xanga world), for they form a thread that weaves through so many portions of my life.

Yet, more than that, their music has hugely influenced me. Before high school, I was a dutiful musician (mainly because my parents made me), but I didn't love it for its own sake. When I heard the Beatles, I wanted to do all of it. I learned to play the piano by plunking out the chords to the Beatles songs I desperately wanted to sing along to (and some really bad worship music, but that's a matter for another day), and I learned to transpose chords because there was no way I was hitting the notes that McCartney did. Thus, "Yesterday" went from F to D, "Let It Be" from C to A, and "Hey Jude" from F to D. I pounded on that piano (ask my parents and siblings if you think I'm exaggerating with that verb) until there was at least a semblance of the song there. I remember listening over and over and over again to the piano interlude in "In My Life" and painstakingly, with (no doubt) terrible fingering and form, learning how to play it. Next, I grabbed a guitar and started dutifully learning the chords until my fingers ached, trying to figure out bar chords so I could sing "Help!" with that difficult B minor at the beginning. The Beatles introduced me to the wonders of playing an instrument because you loved music and wanted only to make music with whatever you could get your hands on. I dare to say that without the Beatles, playing music might not have been such a force in my life, which would certainly change its trajectory (since most of my jobs over the past 8 years have involved playing a good deal of music on the piano!).

I also began to grow my hair out and bought my first pair of round classes as an homage to John Lennon. Later it would be reinterpreted by the children I student taught for as an homage to Harry Potter, which I was equally fine with.

More than all of those things, I think the Beatles helped make me a little more compassionate. I was a person who grew up knowing all the answers and having very little grace for those outside the boundaries I had set up. Yet, all their talk about peace, love, difference, and understanding might have even seeped beneath my thick skin. Obviously there was much I discarded in the way of Beatles philosophy that I'm sure harmed people too (I don't partake in transcendental meditation, drugs (which they also discarded), and the general artistic, bohemian lifestyle), but I came to see that peace and love were not simply nice theoretical ideas but things that we could strive for, that we must strive for. Peacefully coexisting with our neighbors and our world truly is a beautiful vision whose light we can walk toward. And when life got tough and anxiety got the best of me, it was sometimes nice to hear "And when the night is cloudy there is still a light that shines on me / shine until tomorrow, let it be" or "Anytime you feel afraid, hey Jude, refrain / don't carry the world upon your shoulders." Further, if God is love and love is the greatest of all virtues, then maybe they weren't so far off when they sang, "All You Need Is Love." I know that's a romantic vision and my faith needed much more than lyrics, but I think the music at least assisted in smoothing out some of my rough edges of certainty and cynicism that I carried around liked badges of honor.

So, if you haven't given the Beatles a chance, I think you should. If you do enjoy their music and have your own memories let me hear them. Either way, you should listen to the Fab Four this weekend.


  1. Hey Dave. This comment is old, but so is your last post. My favorite is also the Beatles White Album. Used to listen to these two vinyls (my age) over and over....and over again.