In the Washington Post’s recent America’s Next Online Columnist contest, one piece of advise for the contestants was that they should avoid anniversary columns at all cost. The may be an easy five hundred words for the writer, but they’re group-think feel is likely to bore the reader. I won’t say that was why I managed to miss out on writing about The Beatles for one of their marquee events last year (release of remastered box set, 40 years since the release of Abbey Road), but it is true that the sheer volume of commentary made me feel I didn’t have much to add at that time. But the most important lesson with regard to anniversary journalism probably is that The Beatles are one of those band that don’t need an anniversary to justify their place in the public discussion.
But now that we’re talking anniversaries anyway, my most important day in Beatles history was always November 29, 2001. More than thirty years on, it had anything and everything to do with their active years. It was the day that George Harrison died. Upon hearing the news, I remember asking my teacher for permission take the rest of class off to read web obituaries instead, and amazingly, he obliged, being a Beatles fan himself. After Michael Jackson died, a wrote a couple of pieces about how many of us feel the need to share in the collective grief, no matter if we were actual fans or not. But unlike with Michael Jackson, whom I had not listened to for years, George Harrison’s death came at a time when I was growing into a somewhat obsessive Beatles fan. It was a John Lennon moment for my generation, only with sadness in place of anger. That night, I sang Beatles songs with my brother and my best friend throughout the night. For years, November 29 was our Memorial Day not only for George Harrison, but for The Beatles.
If my experience is anything to go by, however, the road to individual Beatlemania can be a rocky one. In my childhood, I had two impressions of The Beatles: One was that they represented the kind of music my dad liked, which mostly meant it was really, really old. The other was from the Beatles songs that were used in English class, songs so simple they could serve as an English-language training ground for Norwegian seven-year olds. Say what you will about Ob-la-di Ob-la-da, When I’m Sixty-Four or Yellow Submarine; if you grew up believing that The Beatles played some kind of kids’ songs for old people, you could be forgiven for thinking that Beatlemania as rite-of-passage seemed a little far out.
But I was getting there. My actual journey to embracing The Beatles was fairly non-spectacular (more on which in a moment), but when you’re in Norway, there’s another, more romantic route; through reading. The recent appreciations of JD Salinger have read like a long list of personal manifestations of how he shaped people’s history of reading. In Norway, the last twenty-five years have seen a novel with a similar effect, but with a far clearer and more positive link to the Beatles than that of Catcher in the Rye.* In 1984, Lars Saabye Christensen published Beatles, a novel about four Beatles-obsessed guys coming of age in mid-sixties Oslo. The identification with Beatlemania that the book invites have opened the eyes and ears of many a reader, and to this day I’m very grateful that my brother reacted to the novel in such an unoriginal way. After reading it, he started listening to Sgt. Pepper, and soon we were both starting to reassess our previous perceptions of The Beatles.
When I read the novel a little later – I loved it, of course – there were things I couldn’t quite relate to. I never got the Beatles vs. Rolling Stones rivalry (I didn’t understand why you necessarily had to prefer one over the other, any more than I understood how anybody could prefer Stones to The Beatles. I’ll probably never be much of a Stones fan), and I never got particularly agigated about the favorite Beatle discussion, either, although it continues to foster much disagreement. More important, though, when it comes to getting me to embrace the musical tastes of my parents’ generation, I think only Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous was more important than Saabye Christensen’s novel. When I finally started listening to them, I discovered that not only were The Beatles much, much more than their ever-present classics; when Yesterday, Let It Be and Help broke free from their sixties aura, I even had to admit that their heightened status was completely deserved. If this was what it was like to become more like your parents, maybe it wasn’t so bad after all?
When The Jayhawks released a best-of compilation last year, I wrote about a tendency from hardcore fans of any stripe to write off people who discovered their music in this way as somehow lesser fans. Sure, we might accept you as a fan, but you’ll never be our kind of fan, because you haven’t learned it the hard way (read: gone to the shows and/or bought all the albums). And while I know it’s an extremely arrogant attitude, I admit that I’ve at times been guilty of it myself. Which only serves to make my relationship with The Beatles supremely hypocritical. Or rather, that this approach is not only excluding toward people who actually like the same music as you, it’s also too self-absorbed. Every generation should be given the opportunity to discover The Beatles on their own terms. That flatly excludes such an elitist approach. Write it down as another New Year’s resolution.
The previous paragraph was just a verbose way of saying that, although Sgt. Pepper was certainly an eye-opener, my definitive Beatles breakthrough actually courtesy of one of the most perfect shortcuts in pop history; 1, the 2000 compilation containing The Beatles’ 27 chart-toppers in the UK and/or US. But for some reason, I the breakthrough actually happened before I even owned it. I had gotten to know a guy (the same guy I would croon Harrison classics with a year later) who shared my Beatles interest, though on a far more developed level. I can’t quite explain this, but after we had fired each other up about its awesomeness (and just to remind you, we’re talking oldies here, from I Want To Hold Your Hand to The Long And Winding Road), in the end I was literally physically aching to have my own copy. When I finally got my hands on it, it was just as rewarding as I had expected it to be. I may have gone on to the studio albums now, but whenever I decide to put 1 on, I can still, in a slightly different form, feel the excitement that greeted me back then. I know it by heart.
But here we have to return briefly to the codas of hardcore fans. While they can be obnoxiously arrogant times, there’s also something almost vulnerable about their dedication. I get the feeling whenever my favorite artists or bands release a sub-par record; it has to be something wrong with me, it just needs more time, etc. Likewise, hardcore fans are afraid that they will somehow lose interest, move on, that what they dedicated so much time, energy and passion to will someday feel meaningless. That’s the fear I sometimes have about my relationship with The Beatles. I don’t listen to them nearly as much as I used to, and how I listen to them has changed, too. It’s been years since I last listened to their entire discography from beginning to end (which I used to do about three times a year when I was in my mid-teens), and I don’t even necessarily listen to entire albums anymore. My inner purist constantly tells me that there’s no cheap way to real appreciation.
But does that really means that I’m a lesser Beatles fan than I once was? I guess not. Sure, if I had never heard Abbey Road from beginning to end I would’ve missed what makes it great (The Long One, stretching from You Never Give Me Your Money to The End), but isn’t there also a chance to discover things about them that I wouldn’t have otherwise? Yep, there is. First and foremost, the privilege of picking and choosing from the best catalog of pop songs ever recorded has allowed me to rediscover the greatness of the evergreens, the songs I thought I would never again consider fresh or exciting. Suddenly even Let It Be, or Hey Jude or Yesterday are like new. (Who knows, maybe it’s because Let It Be doesn’t have to be dragged down by it’s decidedly mediocre host album? I mean, Maggie Mae? One After 909? Dig It? Seriously?) It’s about being able to dive in and bring your favorites, without taking the whole package (Ain’t No Reply great? Or I’ve Just Seen A Face? Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds? For No One? The Fool On The Hill? She Came In Through The Backroom Window? Blackbird? Eleanor Rigby? You get the point.)
I think it boils down to that The Beatles is no longer a shared experience for me. We no longer meet every November 29 to honor George. But it’s because don’t have to. The Beatles is in our pop music DNA. I love them every bit as much as before. Being alone with them just takes a little time getting used to.
* As the Salinger obits no doubt have reminded you John Lennon’s murderer mentioned Catcher in the Rye as a source of inspiration.