Sometime around the beginning of my eighth-grade year, the most popular girl in my class came to school in a tie-dyed Beatles t-shirt and Birkenstocks with her brand name soccer shorts. And suddenly, seemingly overnight, all the girls that had been crushing on George Michael started talking about Jerry Garcia all the time. It was 1989, but at Asheville Junior High School, anyway, the sixties had properly begun.
There were a lot of reasons for this sudden historical blip. It was the 20th anniversary of everything that happened in or around the summer of 1969: Woodstock, the Manson Murders, all our parents’ failing first marriages, the one time the ex-cop that did the Just Say No presentation in your public school district tried pot with his buddy Dave before an Iron Butterfly show but Dave got the acid-laced pot and he will spend the rest of his life in a padded cell believing he is a tall glass of cold orange juice. This is what happens when you do drugs, kids. Also, we were all about thirteen, on the precipice actual full-fledged teenager-ness and all the sex, drugs and rock and roll that implied, which meant we were at least 80% focused on the possibility of achieving sex, drugs and rock and roll at all times. What decade better illustrated the beautiful and liberating promise of sex, drugs, and rock and roll better than the 1960s? Certainly all the TV movies promised titillating nudity and freedom and much easier access to weed than any of us could work out at the time. And after so many years of popped collars, boat shoes, and tight-rolled jeans, it was as if adolescent America woke up one morning and collectively questioned whether it was ever, truly, hip to be square? Or was that just some lie our ex-hippie parents told us, so they’d feel better about voting for Reagan that one time? (It was)
In any case, the 60s thing was like an infection that roared through the school and left the cafeteria reeking of patchouli and Pink Floyd fans. The kids who’d actually grown up with weirdo commune parents and totally arbitrary dietary restrictions (a not-insignificant population in my hometown) started getting invited to parties and treated as sages. There was were shocking number of beads and Baja jackets. The boy who’d scandalized the cafeteria the year previous with his Dead Kennedys t-shirt showed up with round, wire-rimmed glasses the second week of eighth grade, and the girls in Social Studies were all ohmigod, John Lennon.
I’d cut my hair short over the summer to dispense with the remaining bits of spiral perm and quietly adopted a wardrobe of mostly black, following my crash course in New Wave via punk rock Nanny the spring before. I was definitely into fashion but not on trend, certainly any trend that involved crocheted vests and tie-dyed Duke University t-shirts (I mean, seriously). I still wanted to talk about New Order, or, in a pinch, Neneh Cherry or those new Madonna videos, because they were kind of awesome right? I mean, I’d just learned the word ‘transgressive’ and I was dying to use it to discuss “Like a Prayer.” And suddenly everybody was flashing peace signs and going on about hobbit-infested Led Zeppelin songs.
As far as the sixties went, I thought maybe I liked The Beatles, a musical opinion about as uncontroversial as I like beaches and fun. Unlike the rest of my generation, I hadn’t grown up on the Beatles. My parents were big music fans, but neither liked nor listened to much of what was traditionally understood (at least in those days) as “classic rock.” Nowhere in either of their record collections would you find a single Beatles LP. When pressed, they both said they liked “Rocky Raccoon” (kind of a deep cut, but okay) , and Nina Simone’s cover of “Here Comes The Sun,” which my mother played so much when I was toddler that she warped the track on the record.
I thought maybe I’d give The Beatles more of a a shot, because it seemed like something I should know about. So when the next occasion came that I was dropped off at the mall and left to wander with Irish Name through the oddly calming, peach soap scented teal excess of late 80s suburban retail, I slipped into Record Town and pulled out copies of The Beatles 1967-1970 and The Beatles 1962-1966 on cassette. I had enough money for one and recognized more songs off the former. “Maybe you should get the other one,” I said. “We can copy them and trade.”
Irish Name looked dubious. Irish Name always looked dubious. She pointed out that the buying a tape would mean she could not afford embroidery floss, and without embroidery floss, she could not make any more friendship bracelets. I looked at her arm. She had on about seventeen, plus a couple skeins worth of thread wrapped around several pieces of hair. I didn’t think she needed any more embroidery floss. “It’s for your own good,” I said.
“What if I don’t like The Beatles?” she asked.
I rolled my eyes and said something like “Seriously, Irish name? Everybody likes The fucking Beatles,” relishing the f-bomb, even if it did come out with a bit of lisp through my braces
When I got home from the mall, I went up to my room, unwrapped the tape, and put on my headphones. I hit play and lay back the pillows, feeling the cross breeze between my two open bedroom windows, as those dreamy, muffled flutes kicked off “Strawberry Fields Forever.” There were abstract strawberries printed between the leaves and vines of the wallpaper. They looked extra red in the golden hour light. And I remember thinking, well this is just about perfect, right before I finally realized for the first time, why the man at the had the supermarket deli counter had sung Alison Fields Forever, when I walked past. Oh, cool. And before I even to the second track (“Penny Lane”) or even second verse, I tumbled head first into my first real music obsession.
Does everyone go through an intense Beatles phase? It certainly seems that way. The song, then maybe the Greatest Hits, then the individual records. Maybe Sgt. Pepper first because it’s Sgt. Pepper and you expand out in either direction, getting to the White Album on a birthday or special occasion because it’s a double album and expensive. Maybe you got to “Happiness in a Warm Gun” a little faster if you’re younger than I am came up with the internet. You also had Wikipedia to read up on the individual songs instead of checking out books in the library and combing through back issues of magazines. Maybe you Google-mapped Liverpool, street-viewed Penny Lane, followed Paul McCartney on Instagram, and saw all the pictures of all the eras without having to spend your babysitting money on some overpriced scam of a fan rag in the magazine racks at B.Dalton But I don’t mean to uphill, both ways in the snow you. An obsession is an obsession, no matter what speed technology allowed it to be played at.
Mine took about a year before I got to the point that I could authoritatively tell you my favorite Beatles record (Revolver) or happily bore perfect strangers with the stories about lyric puns and anecdotes about George Martin. It was at least a few months before I started dreaming up elaborate, embarrassing alternate histories in which a wildly talented, fantastically beautiful, impeccably Mod avatar of me became both a muse and a musical collaborator (in later versions, she would also have a thing with Bob Dylan before touring with Bowie, and then moving to New York to hang out with Warhol and Lou Reed and whole crowd at Max’s Kansas City because of course, she would), because the worst thing about getting into music as a teenage girl is realizing how few interesting parts there are for you in the story if you’re not interested in visualizing yourself as wife or groupie, and the girls that are interesting usually end up getting blamed for ruining everything.
Irish Name tried to keep up for a while. She dutifully dubbed her tapes for me. She really liked “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” But she was a reasonably sane and normal human being, for whom music was something you sang along to on the way to school or played in your bedroom as ambient background noise. She didn’t need to know the precise mechanics of how “Day in the Life” worked. She wasn’t interested in every song that inspired “Norwegian Wood” and then every song it would go on to inspire (she wasn’t even interested in whether the lyrics were about arson or not). She didn’t need to borrow my copy of “The Lives of John Lennon,” and no, it wasn’t just because her youth pastor told her it was libel or sinful (or maybe both). Even Ivy League, my friend most likely to follow deep into nerd territory, started glazing over when I did the whole but did you hear that? That sound? Wasn’t that the coolest thing you’ve ever heard? Want me to play it again? Should we start a band?
It might have been Ivy League’s tacit reminder that I might be better off occasionally shifting back to what are you wearing to eighth grade formal that kept me in check. And to be clear, I wasn’t only about the Beatles, even then. I did theatre. I was way into Gothic novels. I was in love with John Cusack and River Phoenix. I might have addressed my diary to Hey Jude for a while (true), but I still copied Cure lyrics, and made field trip mix tapes with R.E.M., the Violent Femmes, the B-52s, and “Vogue.” I was learning how music worked, in its mechanical sense, via weekly piano lessons that had only, in the last year, started to pay off with these beautiful, complicated pieces that made me feel like an actual musician and not just a wrist and fat fingers pounding out scales. I was starting to arrive at conclusions about what I liked, whether it was music or books or art or ideas. For the first time I could remember, it didn’t feel like I was just parroting the opinions of a person I wanted to be like, but establishing the foundations the person I thought I could be.
It’s weird the think of The Beatles catalog—this hugely popular, almost universally beloved pop cultural monolith—as tool to refine a very personal notion of taste and identity. But because it’s The Beatles, nobody really pays attention when you dig around for your own thing. There’s always lot of other people in those stacks. And it doesn’t really matter if any of them agree that with you that “I’m Only Sleeping” is the secretly the best song on “Revolver.”
Being a music fan, once you strip away the conversations about gear and process and cultural import, is still a subjective, emotional thing. And when you’re a young woman listening to pop music, there’s always some part of you that is the “you” in the songs written by men, which is (or at least was) most of the songs, and often times picking a new favorite is like getting seduced by the best pick up line. At fourteen, I figured out that I kind of liked ones that came with a a little grit under the nails, a suggestion of danger, some barely restrained anger, because, like, my baseline is always a little furious, even, maybe especially when I’m feeling flirty, so we’ll have that in common. I don’t mind if a clever song gets a little fresh every now and then, so long as it can turn a phrase (all definitions). And, if you’re going to trot out a dumb platitude or make some hokey declaration in the chorus, you better come out strong and make me believe you mean it. Because I listen to a lot of music, guys. I’ve heard it before and probably better. Like, Otis Redding better.
I spent a lot time trying to sort myself out by trying to figure out who my favorite Beatle was. It never went well. I wanted to say it was Paul. His was the face I stared at most often on the poster—the only band poster, incidentally, on my bedroom wall. Paul was cute. He wrote cute songs. He seemed nice-ish, for a probably egomaniacal rock star. Elvis Costello liked him. The cool kids were always into George, because George honestly seemed like he never had to try very hard to be the coolest. Being into Lennon was such a try-hard, rookie move, mostly predicated on the whole saintly, hippie Jesus thing that felt sort of post-Beatles and definitely post-assassination. I hated “Imagine” (and the accompanying video, which I hold at least partially responsible for the enduring popularity of white wall-to-wall carpet among Baby Boomers). Also, he was abusive, neglectful, and mean. A not-great friend. A seriously bad boyfriend. But, my favorite Beatles songs were mostly more on the Lennon side of the Lennon/McCartney partnership. And I liked the smirky round-faced Lennon that was too clever by half in early interviews, the guy that introduced, then sang “Twist and Shout,” in a way that perhaps made the Queen Mum blush. Even then, at fourteen, I was beginning to realize my personal weakness for bastards probably meant that most of my favorite artists would end up being problematic men. Why would my favorite Beatle be any different?
Just after spring break of my eighth-grade year, family friends in England sent me a Beatles t-shirt in a box postmarked from Liverpool, which I found thrilling. I wore the shirt to school with red plaid miniskirt, footless tights, and a floppy felt hat I thought was a bit Dorothy Parker but was actually a lot “Blossom.” I felt like I was communicating a solid, I can appreciate this music of the 60s without betraying my own carefully-curated, O% earth-tone aesthetic. I might have even pulled it off. The popular girl, the one who’d kicked it all off with her own t-shirt the semester previous, even complimented mine between classes.
She told me that her parents were taking her to see Paul McCartney in Raleigh over the summer. She was thrilled. Paul was her favorite Beatle. “Who’s yours?”
“Yoko,” I said, and from her expression, immediately realized this might be why I’m going to have a hard time making friends.
My parents were slow to pick up on the intensity of the whole Beatles thing. That was partly on me– I always thought letting people in on the things you liked the most was a recipe for disappointment or disaster. So I was in high school by the time Mom started sticking Beatles-related tchotchkes in my Christmas stocking. By then, I didn’t listen to the Beatles all that much anymore. It wasn’t that I didn’t still like them–of course, I still liked them, I also still liked beaches and fun– but there was so much else, a whole musical universe expanding every time I turned on the radio or went to the record store or met a new friend or went to a show or read the reviews in the back of the magazines. There was Glam and Punk and Disco and Hip-Hop. There were The Kinks. There was The Clash. There was David Bowie. There was Prince. There was Public Enemy. There was My Bloody Valentine and The Pixies and PJ Harvey and Sonic Youth. There were some real solid daily benefits to being in boarding school with a bunch of fellow music-obsessives in the early 1990s.
At the end of my junior year of high school, I was walking down out of class one afternoon when my mother and future stepfather pulled up and staged an abduction. They drove me about thirty miles down the road before they told me where we were going. “To see Paul McCartney.” Mom and Stepdad beamed. “Aren’t you thrilled?”
I was. I would have been thrilled at any chance to skip part of the school day. And Paul McCartney. I mean, the Beatles had been the center of my world, absolutely foundational. Seeing Paul McCartney was amazing, important musical milestone, even if it was different than it would have been two years earlier, even if I did so at peak seventeen year old, ohmigod, I’m so embarrassed, PARENTS!
We had a great time at the show. Future stepdad was a fan, and sang along to every song, telling stories on the way to and from seeing the Stones and the Who, off hitchhiking from Raleigh to Seattle in the summer of 1968. Unlike my parents, he was was committed classic rock fan. I remember thinking, if I’d had you around during the junior school 60s redux years, I might have actually known who Neil Young was or sussed out the difference between Lyrnyd Skynrd and The Allman Brothers much earlier. Of course, then I might have skipped my own meandering path. I might have suffered through an embarrassing Doors phase. I might not have spent junior high school taking the long way through the Beatles discography on the way to whatever came next . . .maybe hip hop, maybe indie rock, maybe working in a record shop, maybe writing a song.
A couple of nights ago ,after a conversation about a movie I probably will not see, I had a hankering to pull out the old records. These days, that’s as easy as hitting a button on an app and boom– the whole discography, plus the singles and outtakes. I don’t remember the last time I listened to Beatles albums in a concentrated way, but the experience feels a lot like returning to your old favorite vacation spot and forgetting how much cool shit you get to see along the way, with all the fine details crackling under the surface. I just listened “Lady Madonna,” a song I frankly find annoying, but Sunday Morning creeping like a nun? That’s kind of a killer line. Next up is “Strawberry Fields Forever.” I think I might take it on the headphones and sit out on the deck at summertime golden hour. If I close my eyes at just the right moment, I might be able to fit in a little time travel before dinner.
 For starters, the 1970s.
 They did have a copy of the first McCartney solo record, and bafflingly, a still shrink-wrapped copy “Double Fantasy,” that both claimed to have never seen before in their lives.
 Like you thought I wouldn’t list them. Come on. I didn’t spend fourteen years at a record store for nothing.
- A Day in the Life
- Happiness is a Warm Gun
- I Feel Fine
- I’m Only Sleeping
- Paperback Writer
- In My Life
- Tomorrow Never Knows
- Hard Day’s Night
- Norwegian Wood
- Twist and Shout
- Eleanor Rigby
- Baby, You’re A Rich Man
- And Your Bird Can Sing
- For No One
- This Boy
- Things We Said Today
- I’ve Just Seen A Face
- Dear Prudence
- Come Together
- Across the Universe