Views & Reviews: The Beatles 1

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All About Paul

I spent last weekend listening to the Beatles. That is to say, I spent last Saturday afternoon at my new girlfriend’s apartment in Brooklyn where I stretched out on a sunny spot on the living room rug and listened to The Beatles 1, the latest Beatles re-release featuring twenty-seven number one hits that did more to define love and sex for the baby-boom generation than Jesus Christ and Alex Comfort combined. Every song on The Beatles 1 presents a slightly different take on love, beginning with “Love Me Do” and ending with “The Long and Winding Road,” a late-period Paul McCartney song that is equally appropriate for weddings and funerals. The Beatles 1 was the best-selling record in America last week. I was curious to see whether the emotions in the music would make sense to me again, now that I was in my thirties, and maybe but not yet definitively falling in love.

My new girlfriend and I are getting to know each other better. We are at the stage in our relationship where I am beginning to relax into the promise of a new kind of happiness that appears to be as clear and blue as the sky in the ads for Zoloft and Wellbutrin. I offer her my coat when she is cold, and ask her deep, probing questions about her parents and her favorite Beatles songs in the same easy, deceptively casual voice that I might use to ask whether it is snowing in Boston or sunny in L.A. Her answers are seldom if ever obvious. She approaches my questions like a trick shot artist prowling a pool hall. When she banks a particularly difficult shot, she ducks her head, and allows herself a private, inner-directed smile.

My original plan for the afternoon was to get stoned so that I could fully inhabit Paul McCartney’s bass lines. My girlfriend lives in Brooklyn Heights, and my Ziploc baggie of high-grade pot is sitting in an earthenware jar on a bookshelf in my apartment back in Manhattan. I turn up the bass, and relax into the supersaturated stereo sound which expands with that same surge of pleasurable anticipation of the future that my girlfriend and I are secretly imagining together as we drink our tea and talk about the songs. Her favorite Beatles hit is “Ticket to Ride.”

Most people who take the Beatles seriously as art, especially men, go through the necessary phase of seeing the band as a collection of mediocre personalities and semi-talented musicians who were blessed with the opportunity to serve as extensions of the reigning genius of John Lennon — an understanding that is not in any way diminished by Lennon’s awful solo releases culminating in Double Fantasy, a record that can be blamed in its entirety on Yoko Ono. Having bought into the received narratives of the Beatles experts since the age of twelve or maybe even nine, I can make the case for Lennon’s greatness with barely any effort at all. He inhabited the full range of masculine emotions that have always been attractive to men and women alike but have little place in current popular music outside the precincts of rap and a few aging punk bands. He was smart, angry, funny, vulnerable, jealous and controlling. He radiated sex. He met groupies backstage in the Hamburg clubs and pulled down their panties and fucked them standing up against the wall. As for McCartney, he was something else entirely: he was a one-man band, and easily the best bass player of his generation, outside of Memphis and maybe Detroit. He was the sentimental, middle-class man who loved Magritte, Cocteau and his wife Linda, and translated Lennon’s angry intelligence into well-crafted pop songs. One imagines McCartney setting Lennon’s angry, associative rants to music, and then taking Linda out to dinner somewhere smart. One expects that his wife gave him head on some regular basis. They collected antiques. They drank fine wines.

My new girlfriend likes my identification with Lennon. She likes that I am wearing a T-shirt and jeans, and that I am sprawled out on the floor in the sun.

I have no strong feelings about “Ticket to Ride” despite the fact that I’ve heard the song approximately a hundred or more times in the course of a lifetime. “Ticket to Ride” is a Lennon song. It sounds different this time, because it is my new girlfriend’s favorite song. What I am hearing now is an oddly ambivalent and baffled example of Lennon’s inability to reconcile his desperate need for love with his destructive need for control over the object of his desire. The girl that is driving him mad is going away. Good riddance, Lennon sneers. There is ice in his voice. Her emotions are shallow. She’s hurt him badly. He coils himself up behind the microphone in the recording booth. He jabs a finger at the men behind the glass. “Don’t know why she’s riding so high/ She ought to think twice, she ought to do right by me.” But in his heart, he admires the strength that allows her to throw off the weight of his emotional demands and his anger and his need for control and walk out the door. The final longing chorus of “My baby don’t care” is the highest praise that the singer can offer. The girl he loves is nobody’s fool. She knows that John Lennon is an asshole.

“It’s her song,” my new girlfriend says from her place on the couch. “Not his.” She talks some more about how the girl owns the song. She thinks that Lennon’s anger and his longing are sexy. The sun is moving slowly across the rug. The afternoon is almost over. In an hour, I will take the subway home.

“Maybe McCartney’s emotions were just as honest as Lennon’s,” she suggests. ” He just wasn’t as angry. And he loved his wife.” I met Paul McCartney backstage at a concert once, I tell her. He was wearing cowboy boots with two-inch heels, and he was shorter than I am, a small, well-formed man with the pleasant, unpretentious manner of a master carpenter who makes superbly finished dining room tables out of maple and oak. I used to listen to John Lennon on the radio when he stopped by WNEW to talk about the music he loved. He was angry, he was a great artist, he tried not to be angry, he married Yoko Ono because she wrote the word “yes” in very small letters on the wall of an art gallery in London. Then he wrote “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” became a heroin addict then some weird sexless Moonie, lost contact with his emotions and destroyed whatever was left of his manhood and his art.

The night John Lennon died, I left school early and stood outside the Dakota. Everyone around me was holding candles and crying. I cried too. John Lennon was dead. Paul McCartney was alive. Twenty years later, it seems easy to say that Lennon and McCartney were two different but equal types of man. I expect my new girlfriend to be pleased with my answer. We have spent the last two days straight together. Sitting next to each other on the couch feels almost familiar. I like the way the sunlight comes slanting in through the bay window in her living room, and highlights the reddish tints in her hair. I am getting in touch with my inner Paul McCartney, I tell her. She smiles. But she is not dumb.

“You don’t have to be Paul McCartney if you don’t want to,” she says.

The Beatles 1

The Beatles


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