#39: The Beatles, "Please Please Me" (1963)

39 Please Please Me.jpg

My niece learned about presidents the other day. She came home from preschool with a handcrafted portrait of George Washington cut out of construction paper, with googly eyes and cotton ball hair and a straight line for a mouth. She showed me her creation over FaceTime, proudly holding it up to the camera.

“And who was George Washington?” I asked.

She blinked her big blue eyes and pointed to the cotton balls. "These is his hair!"

I was relieved that she didn’t have an answer. Because understanding George Washington will eventually lead to understanding the presidency, to understanding power, to understanding oppression, to understanding that the first president was a slave owner and the current one...I’ll stop there. At three years old, my niece sees in the world in watercolor instead of ballpoint pen. It is precisely because I am not her mother that I feel charged with painting these broad strokes. I’m the Cool Aunt, a tastemaker guiding her spiritually while simultaneously protecting her from the corruption of context. A large part of that effort involves the Beatles.

I realize that they’re not even mine to pass down—Grammy and Papa, who came of age with the Beatles, have done a fine job of it. Every time I buckle my niece into her carseat, she makes the same request. “Beatles?” she chirps, and I know to put on the all-Beatles channel on satellite radio. There are some songs she definitely knows by heart—“Eight Days a Week,” “Yellow Submarine,” “All Together Now.” But on the few occasions when I’ve put on E Street Radio or the Underground Garage stations instead, she hasn’t seemed to notice.

So what are the Beatles to a three year old? They are not a cultural touchstone, they are not social currency. They are not even four lads from Liverpool. She has some notion of stardom—I’ll never forget the look on her face when she a saw a photo of her mother posing with Elsa and Anna at Disney World, a mixture of wonder and betrayal. But she wouldn’t know Ringo from Adam. As sincere as her head bobs and hand claps are, I wonder if loving the Beatles is a learned behavior not unlike listening or sharing. Is she pleased because of the inherent magic of the melodies? Or she is pleased because she can tell that she’s pleased us?

Given my age, the Beatles are not a memory, but a bedtime story. It began, once upon a time, in 1963. While she was just 17, you know what I mean. Apparently, we did know. The Beatles’ debut album was a stick of dynamite, and the big bang of Beatlemania set a new world in motion. Or so I’ve been told. I don’t know how old I was when I learned their names, who was the Cute One and who was the Quiet One, who sings lead on “Octopus’s Garden.” But for as long as I can remember, the Beatles represented a golden age that I was born too late for—a time when my parents were young and the streets were paved with tie-dye. 1960s America might has well have been Oz. I had to know more. I had to know everything.

When my niece hears “Twist and Shout,” she twists, she shouts. I do the same, but I also think about how the song was recorded in less than 15 minutes, how much better it is than the original version, how John Lennon had a wretched cold and blew out his voice for weeks afterward. I wonder whether there should be a comma after the first “please” in the album title “Please Please Me.” I make a mental note to Google if anyone’s written an oral history of shooting the parade scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. There are plenty of songs I listen to without considering the biographies and procivilites of the performers. But when it comes to the Beatles, I’m so enchanted by the mythology that it's not enough to just listen. I must study, contextualize, grapple.

*

The fact that John Lennon beat his first wife has come up a lot recently, cited in dozens of articles and think pieces about men accused of abusive behavior in the wake of the MeToo movement. Most people seem to put John Lennon in a different category than R. Kelly and Woody Allen—maybe because he’s dead, maybe because he acknowledged his behavior (however glibly) in song lyrics instead of getting caught and denying it. The consensus seems to be that the Beatles are uncancelable anyway, too big to fail. But if I’m unwilling, maybe even unable, to disavow the band, I can certainly knock down the pedestal I’ve put these men on since I was a child. I remember a homework assignment in elementary school in which we had to decide who should go on an imaginary new $3 dollar bill (this was two decades before the campaign to put Harriet Tubman on the 20). While my classmates picked Martin Luther King and Sally Ride and other figures from our history textbook, I chose John Lennon.

In a piece grappling with disturbing allegations against Ryan Adams, Amanda Petrusich writes:

“...I also wonder if there’s a way for critical discourse to make more room for the receiver—to give more credit to our own consciousness, and the magic it makes of sound. That communion, after all—between player and listener, in which both parties create something extraordinary together—is just as sacred. Perhaps we can start to look for the genius in there instead.”

It’s too late for me, but I want my niece to love music, not musicians. I want to rid her taste of idolatry. Or at the very least, keep it away for as long as possible.

*

I got a practice-run at motherhood last December. While my sister recovered from a heart procedure, I took care of my niece and her five-week old baby brother, changing diapers, cutting off sandwich crusts, and fielding questions about where Mommy was. First it was “Mommy is sick,” and then it was “Mommy has a boo-boo.” I didn’t want to ruin her concept of a hospital—the place where her new baby brother had come from just a few weeks earlier, a happy place.

On the day of my sister’s surgery, I was in charge of picking my niece up from preschool. Overwhelmed by a lack of sleep and thoughts of the worst case scenario, I broke down in tears on the drive over. I pulled down my winter hat low to hide my face from her preschool teachers, but I couldn’t tell if my niece noticed my swollen eyes and blotchy cheeks as I carried her back to the car.

I buckled her in. “Beatles?” she chirped. After I turned the key, it was as if I had placed a needle on a record. The song began: Hey Jude...

We na-ed and na-ed and na-na-na-na-ed all the way home, slow over the bumps in the road. She cracked up when I howled in sync with Paul’s Jude Jude Jude Judey Judey OW WOW OW OW!  In our metal cocoon, for seven minutes and eleven seconds, things were better. That, she definitely understood.

—Susannah Clark