Beatlemania ravaged the world yesterday, and I got hit pretty hard. I felt the first ominous symptoms a week ago when I saw the nifty commercial that blends beared John, shaggy Paul, brooding George and affable Ringo with modern city dwellers on Abbey Road. Everything that had once seemed to me cheesy or opportunistic about Beatles Rockband suddenly seemed inspired, natural and a perfect way to celebrate an enduring legacy. After all, it was John who said of their breakup, “It’s just a rock band breaking up. The albums are there if any one wants to be nostalgic…”
Well, it turns out people do. I didn’t buy Beatles Rockband yesterday (no Wii or PS3), but I felt the sickness all the same, watching a Beatles Anthology video on VH1, staying up late into the night (when I should’ve been writing this post!) listening to all the Beatles albums on my iPod on shuffle, being--yes, John--nostalgic. But Beatlemania isn’t a condition, it’s a disease. A chronic, nasty virus from which one is never completely inured or inoculated, like the flu or a bad gambling habit. When it hits, it hits hard and you fall all the way down. Forget cures. There is no cure. All you can do is sit down in a safe place and give way to the reverie that is the greatest story and the greatest art the 20th century produced.
George himself called their drama “The Great Novel,” self-deprecatingly of course. But it certainly is that. The Beatles remain a symbol of the entire idea of the 20th century, their escapades a perfect fulcrum right in the heady middle—everything the Western world was striving towards and the aftermath it faced, dealt with, avoided or escaped in the years to now. They carried within them and without them the dreams, fears and intimate perspectives of billions. And they spoke for everyone—not just their own generation, but the several since all the way down to the eight year olds tuning up for their first crack at “With a Little Help from My Friends.” Beatlemania—truly, a nasty epidemic. And the recovery is non-technical and imprecise.
At a certain point in my early-mid twenties, I took the Beatles, with a little help from my friends (and weed, shrooms and cough syrup), head on. This was the post-Anthology world where many of my era had begun to re-examine and re-evaluate the music they’d heard from their mothers and fathers, in the background, on the hi-fi, or sung quietly as a rocking chair lullaby.
My friends and I didn’t just try to listen to the songs that had somehow slipped throught the cracks, but to revive the actual experience of them. It was a kind of sorcery, I guess, conjuring the past (and the dead, too—John and then George). There was something something occult and magickal about the project, undertaken in our lazy, experimental but totally committed way. Living in the blissful, sun-kissed realm of Beachwood Canyon, we were conspiring to replay the entire decade of the Sixties all over again.
We started around Hard Day’s Night, but tended to really get down to bid'ness with the post-Revolver psychedelic period. I glossed over the early Beatles material, for the most part—the mop tops and cheeky winks, the speed, the screaming girls and the matching suits. That was my father’s Beatles.
Growing up, my dad only had three Beatles records, all of which I currently possess: Meet the Beatles, The Early Beatles and Rubber Soul. That is the point where he got off the train, his ticket stamped, thanks for the ride, daytripper. After "Norweigan Wood," his bird flew him elsewhere, and then on to Saigon. That was the point where things just started getting a little too weird, I suppose. In retrospect, having known the man as intimately as I did, it’s no surprise.
Nor should it be any surprise that that is exactly the point I picked up the trail and started forging my own Beatles experience. The psychedelic Beatles is potent, terrifying stuff filled with leery menace below the brimming love. It is Satanic, in the sense the Rolling Stones always talked about, but the Beatles actually conveyed. It carries not the just the contusions and confusions of four evolving, perplexed men, but the passions, experiments and equivocations of an entire percolating culture at a crossroads. Deep shit.
You try listening to "Revolution #9" in bed alone with the lights out high on Robitussin and tell me what you think. If it doesn’t totally freak your head, you might just understand them on a new level. A level which completely defies the feel-good Abbey Road Rockband commercial or the strangely watchable but utterly ridiculous and bone-headed Across the Universe. But it’s a part of the experience that should be met—along with “Fixing a Hole,” “For the Benefit of Mister Kite” and other lovely terrors.
Which makes it so refreshing to go back to their early songs. The brash, effervescent energy that cracks and bristles through every cut. The popping, whip-like rhythm and timing of a well-practiced band in the groove. It is to bathe in the waters of Eternal Youth. John was a perfect teenager, even then his lyrics were imbued with a kind of sneering, sarcastic double-take, as on “Ask Me Why” when he sings, “I love you, ‘cause you tell me things I want to know…” But that’s part of the high hubris of youth, so brazenly beautiful because it’s primed for such a fall.
The fall will come, we know. We’ve experienced it. If you want it sooner than later, just click a song ahead on your iPod or reset the game for “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” But The Early Beatles is pre-Fall stuff. Energetic, ecstatic, shimmering, sexual, Apollonian and Dionysian, desperate to rock, desperate to please. The Great I AM, and they are, and always will be.
For all that culture has made of them and dragged them through and re-introduced and repackaged, they deserve to be remembered this way.
THE BEATLES THE EARLY BEATLES, 1965, Capitol Records