I didn’t hear the Beatles until I was fourteen. This seems unbelievable, since I grew up in the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century, but, barring singing “Octopus’s Garden” in elementary school, it is true.
I heard them for the first time on a tape that a girl I was staying with was playing over and over again. I no longer remember who she was, only that I was staying with her and her mother for a few days because my mother was traveling for work. The girl was my age and got all her clothes from a store at the mall that sold all sorts of basic (for the late 1980s) garments in cotton knit mix-and-match colors, so you could get leggings and miniskirts and unisex tshirts and so on and just throw any of them together and they’d look good. I thought it was odd and appalling at the time, although I now wish I had access to such a store. Anyway. Her wardrobe is irrelevant: the point was she had this tape, and it had “Love Me Do” and “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “All My Loving” and all the other songs expressly written for teenaged girls, even the ones who would never be described as teenyboppers. She played it a lot, though not enough for my taste, and then I had to go home. I didn’t hear the Beatles again till a year later, when we moved back to Iowa City and I could go to the Iowa City Public Library and grab a stack of records (real LPs back then, still) and sit for hours at a turntable with a pair of old plastic headphones and listen and listen and listen.
Before the Beatles I had two tapes. One was a copy of Paul Simon’s Graceland that I borrowed or stole from my grandmother. The other was a tape I had made of songs from LPs of my mother’s — songs from A Prairie Home Companion record, and Woody Guthrie songs, and songs from Judy Collins’s third album, where she has short hair and is wearing very blue eyeshadow and singing “Masters of War.” I listened to those tapes every night. I didn’t know about college radio, which I would have loved. I had heard only NPR and snatches of whatever top 40 stations my classmates listened to, stations that played “Red Red Wine” and “Groovy Kind of Love” every morning for weeks in a row. I hated that crap. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but when I heard the Beatles, I thought I’d found it.
It was not easy in the early 1990s to listen to any music you wanted. You had to buy it, or get someone to dub it for you, and in order to do that, of course, you had to know what it was. By then I had discovered college radio, and I still have mix tapes that include things like “Some Song I Recorded Off the Radio in ‘92.” I didn’t have much money, and I didn’t know anyone who owned Beatles albums, and so I listened to them by going to the public library. I started with the early stuff, as you do, and then I moved on, as you do. But it felt subversive and dangerous and secret, sitting there in that carrel and copying out all the lyrics to “A Day in the Life” or “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” thinking about the Fool on the hill and wondering if I’d ever have an apartment where I could tell a guy to go sleep in the bath.
I never stopped listening to the Beatles, even after I stopped spending all my spare time in that library carrel. Eventually I had money and friends, and I bought and dubbed albums. I saw A Hard Day’s Night for the first time in college, and from then on every time that group of us ran across a field, we’d sing “Can’t Buy Me Love.” I drove around suburban New Jersey late at night with a friend listening to The White Album, “Happiness is a Warm Gun” playing at full blast and both of us just anticipating those chords that mark the chorus and just living them, speeding down a dark road and then waiting in the driveway because it was too good to turn off.
But I never listened as much, or as frequently, or as often as I did those first few years until now. And now I listen, oddly enough, because of a two-year-old and a five-year-old. The two-year-old is my son; the five-year-old is his half brother, and the Beatles are their favorite band. My son wakes up the in the morning, walks to the stereo, points, and says, “Beebles!” until I turn on Help! On Sundays when we’re all together, we watch A Hard Day’s Night and look for live performances on YouTube. There are a stunning number. When “Tomorrow Never Knows” starts playing and John starts singing “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream / Turn off all thoughts, surrender to the void,” the five-year-old says, “This is a song about chilling out and relaxing,” and we, the grown ups look at each other in a freaked out way and then say, “Yes, this is a song about chilling out and relaxing.”
It’s stunning to watch them. Like me at fourteen, they have no concept of the Beatles as THE BEATLES. They aren’t a cultural signifier or a famous band to my son: they are just a thing that he loves, unreservedly. They sing and he dances and I sing and I think how strangely my life has turned out, how I live in the same town and even go to the same library, though it’s been rebuilt and isn’t the same any more, and how I had so many of the experiences I dreamed of back when I was a teenager sitting in that carrel, and how now I’m having experiences I never would have dreamed of then, backed by the same sound track. Let me take you down. I’d love to turn you on. All you need is love. Love is all you need.