Sunday poetry: "The Beatles at 80"
When I first encountered the Beatles (courtesy of another generation's vinyl records, circa 1988), they were in their forties. As of this writing, they are now in their eighties -- both of the surviving members have passed that mark, and George Harrison, the youngest of the four, would have passed it on Feb. 25 this year. Relatively soon, they will all be gone. As for our fascination with the Beatles -- our addiction to their music and their endlessly retold story -- I cannot imagine when it will end. For now, all signs indicate that they will join that select group of artists, from Shakespeare to Mozart to Dickens, who rise above fashion and trends and simply become part of our shared consciousness.
The other week, the Los Angeles Times dubbed them "secular saints" of our time. The Beatles were definitely not saints -- even a polite biography makes that clear -- but it is apparent that our attachment to them goes beyond the music itself. More than any other rock band (frankly, does any even come close?), the Beatles have an uncanny way of sweeping aside the countless stories of infighting, drugs, ego, and infidelity and allowing us to revel in the image they created. Or images, really -- whatever prism we regard the band through, it represents some quality that we yearn for in ourselves. If we want to thrill to an underdog story, we can cue up the movie Backbeat or read the accounts of the band's hardscrabble days in Liverpool and Hamburg. If we want a delirious success story, complete with matching suits and cheeky humor, Beatlemania suffices. We can turn to Rubber Soul for cool introspection, Sgt. Pepper for bold experimentation, side two of Abbey Road for pop music that seems to tap into another universe of wild abandon. If we want them as superheroes, there's the movie Yellow Submarine. And if we want catharsis -- the realization, and maybe the comfort, that even perfect things must shatter -- we can pull up any of the many books and documentaries about the group's breakup.
There's another reason why I think the Beatles' story resonates so much after half a century: namely, because it's so short. The span of time rom Ringo Starr's joining the band in 1962 to the final touches on the Let It Be album in 1970 covered less than eight years. Fans have a right to wish there had been more music in the years after. But we've seen how that that story played out with the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, the Who and countless other classic rock bands; with few exceptions, it plays like a decade or so of genius followed by a long, slow diminishment. What Calvin and Hobbes is to comic strips, the Beatles more or less are to rock and roll: sometimes close to a perfect entity, an astonishing streak of creativity and invention that simply stopped at its peak. The Beatles never had a personnel change, never held a reunion tour, never put out a genuinely bad album. Their history has the highs and lows, the complex personalities, the sweep and romance of great fiction. The next century can do its best to offer us a story as good.
What if they were still with us, then? In early 2012, as the band's 50th anniversary unleashed a new flood of Beatles merchandise, I found myself gazing at the displays in Barnes & Noble and then wrote the poem "The Beatles at 80" -- a revisionist take on history in which all four members are still alive, long retired as musicians, and venerated now as politicians. It was first published in Poetry Quarterly in 2012, and this week, it appears in the Journal of Radical Wonder. At the time, I thought it was a humorous piece; looking at it 11 years later, it feels more wistful. George Harrison, asked about a possible reunion with the other three, once replied, "The Beatles will exist without us." That will be true soon enough. If those four brilliant, imperfect men were here today, we would thank them for the legend.
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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.