Why we believe in yesterday
George Martin has died, and one of our most beloved cultural resources has diminished yet again. The time has come, perhaps, when we can start counting on two hands the number of players in the Beatles’ story who are still with us: Paul, Ringo, Yoko, Pete Best, a few smaller supporting characters. Then contrast them with those we’ve lost: John, George, Stuart Sutcliffe, Brian Epstein, Cynthia Lennon, Linda McCartney, Allen Klein, now Martin as well. A list like that brings to mind a couple of solo Beatle lyrics: “All things must pass,” if we’re feeling philosophical, or “The dream is over,” if we’re not.
I doubt there will ever be another rock band as big as the Beatles, for the simple reason that the world lacks the energy for another. Two years ago, on vacation in Liverpool, I took a historic bus tour—the Magical Mystery Tour, of course—through a series of sites from the group’s formative years. Frankly, it was hog heaven: the four members’ childhood homes, the window of a room where John and Paul once penned songs together, the roundabout mentioned in the lyrics of “Penny Lane.” At one point, the bus driver slowed down and pointed out a dirt path where John used to walk on his way to school. It goes without saying that iPhone cameras were swiftly deployed.
Even still, for me, the bus ride was enough. Every couple of years, it seems, the Beatles become the subject of another definitive, no-stone-left-unturned biography, and I haven’t mustered the energy or time to read them. When Bob Spitz’s nearly 1,000-page The Beatles: The Biography came out in 2005, it seemed like the ante had been upped for good; then, in 2013, came Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In, which is almost exactly as long—and, for that matter, is the first part of a trilogy. That isn’t even taking into account the many books on Lennon, whose personal and artistic quirks seem to provide a constant challenge for biographers seeking to reconcile “Imagine” with “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.”
I haven’t pored through the latest books, but whatever myth they shatter or nuance they uncover, one thing fascinates me above all else: the insatiable craving our culture has to know more about these men. At what point do we simply not need any more information about the four residents of England who created “Hey Jude”? The Beatles’ music is wonderful, but many artists create wonderful music. They were a hugely popular band, but any given week, someone has the No. 1 song on Billboard. It could be said that Beatle biographies mostly sell to those who lived through the 1960s, but I recently visited a high school whose music students, producing a live performance of the White Album with historic video segments between tunes, told me things about the band that even I didn’t know. To tweak a line from Bob Dylan—perhaps the only rock performer in history to attain a mythos close to the Beatles’—something is happening here, and we don’t quite know what it is.
Well, maybe there’s a near-answer. I’m currently making my way through Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal, a remarkable book about how narrative is an integral part of human nature. Our instinct, Gottschall writes, is to organize the chaos of life into structured accounts, and we like to do so in broad strokes: the valiant hero, the dastardly villain, the insurmountable obstacle to overcome. We immerse ourselves in stories as a form of escapism, but the stories themselves take us right back to our own problems and fears; we just let Jay Gatsby or Katniss Everdeen deal with them instead. Indeed, I’ve always wondered if the true appeal of the Beatles’ story is the fact that we see so much of ourselves in it—both our dreams and our sober reality. If the band’s story ended in, say, 1965, it would essentially be Rocky with music: Four not-very-rich boys form a band, cut their teeth in the seedy dives of Liverpool and Hamburg, score a record contract against all odds and then, almost literally, conquer the world. Contrast the euphoria over the Beatles in 1964 with, for example, our modern respect for Adele; could you imagine a teeming crowd, held back by police officers, packing the airport to witness her first footstep on American soil?
Probably everyone who has watched A Hard Day’s Night has fantasized, just for a moment, about being one of those four smiling men being chased at the train station. But if the Beatles’ story had gotten just that far—if the band had continued for a bit past the first flush of Beatlemania, decided it wanted to try new projects, then shaken hands and called it a day—it almost certainly wouldn’t be netting major publishing deals in 2016. Rather, the true interest starts after the joyous early years. After the early burst of success comes true rebellion: the band refusing to become Hollywood rock stars, spurning the matching suits and releasing a torrent of albums that redefined rock music as a high art form. On a grand scale, this is the equivalent of telling our boss what we really think of him and then shaking the company to the ground with our dynamic, original ideas. Being chased by screaming girls may be exciting, but slamming that piano chord at the end of “A Day in the Life”—and more or less inventing the concept album with it—has far more resonance, at least in hindsight.
But none of us are the Beatles, and by 1970, neither were the Beatles themselves. If there was a moment that ineffably proved the band’s status as cultural icons, it was the publication several years ago of Peter Doggett’s book You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup. That’s right, an entire book about a rock band’s dissolution—something highly unlikely to happen when Arcade Fire packs it in. If Greek mythology depicted the downfall of gods and Shakespeare wrote about the tragic flaws of kings, then it may be inevitable that our fascination with the Beatles extends to their messy ending. In fact, maybe relief is as good a word as fascination—we don’t like our icons to be too much better than ourselves. Just as our own marriages leave childhood friendships behind, so did John and Yoko’s; just as we find ourselves fed up with our jobs and circumstances, so did George and Ringo when they temporarily stormed out of the band in the late ‘60s. Life didn’t permit the Beatles to stay young and fresh forever, and indeed, if we created their story as fiction, neither would we. As Gottschall notes in The Storytelling Animal, we only allow wish fulfillment for so long.
Instead, we crave catharsis, and the Beatles certainly gave us that. From the Reeperbahn to the London rooftop concert, the band’s story fits snugly into a timeline with a beginning, middle and end—far more consumable than those of, say, the Beach Boys or the Rolling Stones, who stayed together for half a century through personnel changes, reunions and steadily diminishing cultural clout. However many pages it takes to tell the Beatles’ story, it has the snap and story arc of a classic novel. And in the context of that narrative, every character takes on larger-than-life dimensions. This Thursday, the headline of Martin’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times read, “Producer rescued the Beatles from obscurity.” Rescued—that’s a word we typically reserve for heroes. And on the front page, centered above the fold—well, that’s typically where we post their obituaries.
This is the blog of Michael Miller, a longtime journalist, poet, publisher and teacher. Check here for musings, observations, commentary and assorted bits of gratitude.