“He Just Screamed and Became the Mad Fan He Wanted to Be” on Rob Sheffield’s Dreaming the Beatles*

“The argument that seems to emerge from a close listening to the Beatles’ music … is this one: by 1962 the Beatles’ mastery of rock and roll was such that it was inevitable they would change the form simply by addressing themselves to it.” — Greil Marcus
Yes, I’m writing about the Beatles. A bloody fool’s errand.

It takes a lot to get me to read any new Beatles books these days. I find they are usually badly written, like so much music criticism, ranging from merely workmanlike to gushing fanboy paeans. They divide roughly into obviously partisan hatchet jobs (Paul was a hack! John was the soul of the Beatles!) and equally partisan hagiographies (Paul is underrated, misunderstood!). Beyond that, I’ve read all the major works, loved only one of them, and feel like there are no surprises left. (For my money, nothing beats Ian MacDonald’s brilliant if snotty Revolution in the Head, which still feels like the best — if not last — word on the lads and their output. MacDonald on “Something”: “If McCartney wasn’t jealous, he should have been.”)

So it was with a healthy dose of (dare I say Lennonesque) skepticism that I picked up Rob Sheffield’s charming, engaging Dreaming the Beatles (Dey St.) on the advice of a friend whose taste I trust. (This, incidentally, is a feature of Beatles fans — we run in packs and share music and opinions, having most fun when we disagree.) If the Beatles’ career was one of constant reinvention, perhaps that’s also how Beatles fandom survives fifty years after the fact, via deft reconsiderations like Sheffield’s.

Dreaming the Beatles isn’t a conventional biography; if you want the definitive story of the Beatles’ lives, Mark Lewisohn has that covered with his in-progress trilogy. Sheffield takes a certain amount on faith, assumes that readers know the broad contours of the tale, and his compressed summaries are witty sketches that touch on all the key moments: Maharishi, LSD, Jesus, Pepper and so on:

1966: the most manic of the Beatlemania years. The lads get chased around the world, playing twenty-five minute sets that have nothing to do with the increasingly complex music they’re exploring in the studio. A long-forgotten John quote about religion — “we’re more popular than Jesus now” — gets dug up and creates a scandal in America. A Ku Klux Klan protest outside their Memphis show draws eight thousand people. The butcher cover gets censored. Murder threats. Harder drugs. Uglier mobs. Dreadful flights. And in their spare time, the Beatles make the greatest rock album ever, Revolver.

Where he shines, though — for my money — is in conveying the earnest enthusiasm of the fan without tipping into cloying or mansplaining; for all his adoration, he’s clear-eyed enough to call out the stinkers and missteps, sees the faults and virtues, and sometimes even recognizes that faults and virtues are not so easily untangled. But it’s all done from a place of love, no axes being ground here. And if you were listening to what the lads sang in ’68, you already know that love is all you need, and is the best possible starting point for this, well, for any discussion.

Yet I think Sheffield’s most original contribution to the vast trove of Beatles literature is his look at each subsequent decade — the 70s, 80s, 90s and aughts — where he examines the ways the Beatles legend shifted and found generations of new fans each time. It’s a personal, idiosyncratic look at the impact of the music on a worldwide generation (no, generations) through the lens of a single fan who came just after it all passed (as I did) but has been closely watching ever since.

He demonstrates independent judgment, he’s not in the tank for any individual Beatle. Each gets his due, each gets hisknocks. He calls some obviously wrong (“I Will”) and some shockingly and unexpectedly right (“Cold Turkey”). I never thought “My Love” was quite as bad as all that but he makes a strong case. He’s also wonderfully observant, writing movingly about the magician who had the horrible misfortune of following the lads on the Sullivan show. And he uncovers a nugget or two I’d never heard before, including this one which made my cry when I read it aloud to my girlfriend:

One night in America, Brian Epstein gave himself permission to live out his deepest fantasy — he slipped to the back, under cover of darkness, just another anonymous body in that ocean, and let himself go. “He told me that just once he allowed himself to go to the back and stand at the back with all the girls in a concert in America,” pop manager Simon Napier-Bell told biographer Debbie Geller. “I think it was one of those stadiums where there were probably 25,000, 30,000 people, and he went into the crowd of girls and he just screamed like one of the girls, which he said is what he’d always wanted to do from the first minute he’d ever seen them. He spent his whole life being restrained and wearing suits and suddenly he just screamed and became the mad fan he wanted to be.”

They owed Brian so much and he ended so sadly; but he got to scream at least once. It’s an image that simultaneously makes me love him and breaks my heart for him.

I’m thinking about the points Sheffield makes in this book as they relate to my daughter, who loves the Beatles, knows their names, knows their voices. I’ve been training her, after all, since she was two. Have I brainwashed her? Maybe — she sees my delight every time she gets one right (“What’s this song called? Who’s singing?”), and what kid doesn’t want those reinforcing high fives? But she also asks for them randomly, in the car, “Dad, play ‘Things We Said Today’” and then I know that she gets it, all on her own.

I suspect the story of every individual Beatles fan is, as Sheffield reminds us, an intensely personal one. Perhaps it’s this way with all crazed music fans, I don’t know. I do know that I played in a Beatles band for four years, when I was sixteen to twenty, and it’s the closest I’ve come to that kind of seamless, mystical friendship that Sheffield describes here. The four of us, we just knew stuff. Or we felt like we did anyway. (That’s me on the left, age 20 at our last gig though, like the Beatles at Savile Row, we didn’t know it at the time.)

Now I’m over 50. I haven’t seen Paul in concert in a long time. I’m not sure how I feel about the spectacle of a 70-something rocking out to a stadium of 40 and 50 somethings, though clearly the embarrassment is more mine than his. And if Sheffield’s conversational, easygoing and intimate book has showed me anything, it is, as he says:

If for you rock and roll is about nostalgia, the Beatles are your best weapon. If for you rock and roll is the long, hard fight against nostalgia, the Beatles are also your best weapon.

Goo-goo-ga-joob, dear friends.

(And PS, if you’re one of those sad, benighted souls who still thinks of the Beatles as moptop pop singers, watch this and if can’t admit that they totally rock that shit, then we need to go drinking and have this one out … Jim.)

*Cross posted from the TEV newsletter.

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