Monday, June 12, 2017

Sheffield (and me) Dreaming the Beatles

I wasn't a Beatles kid--except in the sense, as Rob Sheffield wonderfully invokes in his terrific new book, Dreaming the Beatles, every American (and maybe every modern Western person on Earth) who lived in the second half of the 20th century both was and is. We all heard the songs, either directly or as reflected in the songs of others, and they got into our heads. For myself, my earliest memories of the Big Important Bands of Pop Music were a function of the rock music I got off AM radio back in the 1970s--the Rolling Stones, the Who, Boston, etc. The Beatles--either as a band or John, Paul, George, and Ringo's solo stuff--was surely mixed in there, but it wasn't until a good 10 or 15 years later that I really started to excavate those memories, to listen to those Big Important Bands and get a better sense of who these rock and roll and pop artists and bands were and what they'd accomplished. And what did I find, over the years of listening, exhaustively, to the songs of the Beatles? That Sheffield's basic thesis is correct: the music and style and legacy of the Beatles quickly became and still remains a near-omnipresent cultural force, one that so many of us (even--and maybe especially--those who insist otherwise) cannot help but creatively realize or just outright recognize in near every pop song we ever listen to. We might as well dream the Beatles, because we're hearing them just about everywhere we turn, anyway.

Sheffield's book isn't a history of the band--though he synthesizes a huge number of histories that have been written of the band, and repackages their insights into a couple of dozen vaguely chronological chapters which become brilliant snapshots of the Beatles and their Meaning For Us All. Mostly, the book is a 1001 miniature essays and aperçus, wonderful fan-boy observations and geek-outs and occasional (sometimes genuinely harsh, but never not loving) snarks. He won my love with his song chapters: one on the underappreciated gem "Dear Prudence," another which actually found something new to say about the exhaustively documented "Strawberry Fields Forever," and one which made a case for a mostly ignored favorite of mine, "It's All Too Much." He won my respect for his several chapters on the individual Beatles, which were never contrarian for the sake of it but which nonetheless leaned into dominant Beatles myths in important ways (as someone who has for years called George my favorite Beatle, Sheffield's unapologetic consideration of Harrison's inconsistency and half-heartedness, his occasional desire to have it both ways, to benefit from but nonetheless not be of the Beatles, and how that is reflected in his solo recordings, gave me real food for thought). Above all, he captivated with his breezy yet sharp sociological survey of the roots and consequences his Beatles world, which is also my own.

Sheffield is about three years older than me, and the way his deeply religious (Roman Catholic, specifically) youth became part and parcel of how he thought about the pop music he loved and the world of sex and friendship and geekery and art that it opened up to him was something I could instantly relate to. His take on what the legacy of The Rolling Stones meant versus the legacy of The Beatles for us Generation X kids is really kind of profound. And his take on how our collective memory of that Beatles legacy shifted over time is even more so. He hones in how that memory was marketed and sold to succeeding waves of young people; he makes a good case for seeing the 70s Beatles legacy (trashy yet massive selling collections like Rock 'n' Roll Music and Love Songs, along with the slightly more respectable Red and Blue collections, which were the holy texts that I discovered in South Korea on my mission) as differing markedly from the 80s Beatles legacy (the whole Baby Boomer re-appropriation of The Beatles, what with 20th anniversary re-releases of the original albums and a host of "you-had-to-be-there" declamations all over television and the movies), and both of them being very different yet from the legacy of the Beatles in the 1990s and beyond (including everything from Live at the BBC to the Anthology albums and more). The book is more than just a wonderful re-telling of a hundred fascinating parts of the Beatles' story; it's a manifesto for making the Beatles our (my) story as well.

Anyway, if I haven't sold you on it yet, there's this: Sheffield is fine and funny writer, and there were a dozen points in this delightful read where I was barking out loud with laughter. Your mileage my vary, of course, but let me throw out some of my favorite passages here to encourage you:

When talking about the recording of "Dear Prudence," which John had written while they were in India, and was worked out in the studio during a two-week period when Ringo was on break from the band:

"John, Paul, and George mesh beautifully, as if they're smoothing over the conflict, or looking for the sun beyond it....They might be trying to remind themselves of why this used to be fun. John hiccups like Buddy Holly, as if this is the song Buddy would have written in 1968 if he'd given up his seat on that plane, lived into the Sixties, and tagged along with them to Rishikesh instead of that dweeb Mike Love" (pp. 24-25)

Keith Richards, talking about the "sheer sexual exhaustion" which the Beatles faced with having to deal with screaming fangirls all the time:

"'Three thousand screaming chicks could just wail you out of the whole place'....All those years of screamers took their toll--especially since the Beatles were way ahead of the Stones when it came to on-the-road girlie action. 'They talk about us, but the Beatles, those chicks wore those guys out. They stopped touring in 1966--they were done already. They were ready to do to India and shit.' Well argued, Keith" (p. 163).

Talking about the, at the time, terminally uncool Paul, taking of the usual step of an actual political stand, in which he angrily denouncing Margaret Thatcher and her cuts to support for health workers in the National Health Service in a personal telegram:

"McCartney warned, 'What the miners did to Ted Heath, the nurses will do to you'....[T]he telegram was a major U.K. scandal, with Tory politicians denouncing him....Many rock stars talked shit about Maggie--Elvis Costello, Morrissey, Paul Weller--but Paul was the one more famous than she was. He had something to lose by hitting send on this, and nothing to gain. What, you think he was trying for coolness points? This is Paul McCartney, remember? He was in the middle of making Give My Regards to Broad Street. He could have clawed Thatcher's still-beating heart out of her rib cage, impaled it on his Hofner on live TV, and everybody would have said, 'Yea, but "Silly Love Songs," though'" (p. 255).

Anyway, it's a great book, and everyone should read it. And, just because I've been listening to the Beatles all while writing this blog post, here's a quick alphabetic Top Ten, ten Beatles tunes that, if I had to choose right at this moment, I'd insist be on the desert island mix-tape to keep me sane if I had to do without all the rest. I purposely tried to hit as broad a range of albums as possible--and looking it over now, I realize I've left anything from Revolver off my list. Which, of course, is unacceptable. But that's why coming up with only ten Beatles songs will always be unacceptable. They're too much with us--or, at least, too much with me.

"A Day in the Life"
"Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite"
"I'll Be Back"
"I'll Follow the Sun"
"It's All Too Much"
"Maxwell's Silver Hammer"
"Penny Lane"
"While My Guitar Gently Weeps"
"You Won't See Me"
"You've Got to Hide Your Love Away"

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