Essays

He Loves You (Yeah Yeah Yeah)

When I was in third grade the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show.  I was called into the living room to witness this phenomenon by my parents who were in show business and therefore believed that while they themselves had little use for The Fab Four, (my father, a professional manager and judge of talent, thought the band would “never make it”), I ought to be kept abreast of whatever was “happening” even at the tender age of eight.  I watched without judgement — the Beatles seemed neither good nor bad nor even especially interesting.  What did any of this have to do with me?  I was still listening to a bright red vinyl LP of “Peter And The Wolf” with “Tubby The Tuba” on the B side.  But the day after the Sullivan broadcast, Emily C. — nine and a half and the center of my universe — taught me the drill: Put “She Loves You (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah)” on the record player, kiss the oversized areola of a Beatles button she’d purchased at Cheap Charlie’s along with several packs of Beatles cards and a not-so-cheap Beatle’s lunch box, then faint.  That’s what the grown-up girls did — scream and faint.  But try as I might, just couldn’t seem to pass out over Paul (“He’s cute”), or George (“Shy”?  “Sweet”?  “Mysterious”?  Eventually we’d learn the word was “Spiritual”), or Ringo (“I guess he’s supposed to be funny”), or even the smart, the serious, the witty, the intellectual, the “writer of wrongs”, artist, poet, and guy who would eventually publish a tiny, incomprehensible book of scribbles which proved that he was more than just a wizard of rock ‘n roll music, that he was some kind of a goddamned visionary genius — John Lennon.  Even Lennon’s soon-to-be-legendary soulfulness could not fell me.  No matter how dedicated my efforts, I simply didn’t get that rush of Moog-synthetic music in my ears which precedes a bona fide faint.             “Fake it,” said Emily.

*  *  *

The following August I went to the Beatle’s concert at Shea Stadium. In the months between the Ed Sullivan show and the live event at Shea, I had mastered the art of deception, or should I say theatrical illusion, by dramatically and convincingly pretending to swoon on the living room carpet in homage to the Liverpudlian lads.  Of course lying on the floor in a feigned faint was far too passive for the energy of an eight year old, and I secretly preferred the sessions of learning to dance The Twist under the recorded tutelage of Chubby Checkers — “Move like you’re drying your back with a giant bath towel while stamping out a cigarette with your foot”.  But if fake fainting was what it took to honor the Brits, who was I to swim against the tide?

My folks knew a big-wig in the music industry who offered us tickets to the concert.  Because it was to take place in August and we would have to make an unscheduled trip from our upstate vacation home into the sweltering city, my father wanted no part of it.   But mom, bless her acculturated heart, recognized the magnitude of the event and agreed to take me and my eleven year old sister into town to witness history.  Alas, “the baby” — our younger sister who was then three years old but destined to be forever dubbed “the baby” — was farmed out to Grandma’s for the day.  She cannot now lay claim to the minor celebrity that attendance at a Beatles concert affords her two elders.  Which may, in part, explain thirty years of sibling hostility.

When the auspicious afternoon arrived we rode the subway to the outer borough of Queens for my first rock concert.  I was not sure if this was going to rival that borough’s prior event — the 1964 World’s Fair, where you could wait on line all day just to eat Belgian waffles and listen to “It’s A Small World After All” sung by midget puppets of many lands — but the envy of my peers gave me hope and a sense of personal panache I’d longed for.  Emily seethed.

I’d never been to Shea Stadium.  I’d never been to any sporting arena except Madison Square Garden to see the circus, because my father notwithstanding, we were an “all girl” family with little interest in team sports.  I was shocked by the size of the place.  Enormous concentric ovals of seats ringed the giant playing field.  In the three o’clock quadrant stood a concert platform that by today’s standards seems barely adequate: no rear-projection video screens, no eye-splitting laser shows — just a simple, functional riser, small as an airmail stamp pasted against the expanse of the field.  I was skeptical.  I’d seen a Broadway show or two in my time, I knew that the magic was made with fancy sets, velvet curtains, amber lighting, a strobe.  Even the “Small World” puppets rated some pop-art flowers and a touch of Day-Glo acrylic to tart up their performance space.  But if the stage for this event was a flat-chested Plain Jane, the bleachers were dressed to the nines, as swollen and pulsing with freshly minted estrogen as Ann Margaret’s pout.  It seemed there were at least a million girl/women writhing in the urban heat, shifting from side to side on impatient pelvic bones or rolling the muscles of their bellies like Sultanas preparing for a birth.  And not one of them had come with their mother.

When The Beatles finally made their appearance, I could barely make out their faces.  They were tiny, distant figures marooned on the makeshift stage.  How could this be?  The Beatles I knew were larger than life — The Beatles of the TV screen and the album cover, The Beatles of mass marketing and mass hysteria, warriors of the “British Invasion” who had come to reclaim the colonies one teenager at a time.  And wasn’t that was the whole point of The Beatles — that they loomed?  But here were four little dots, bobbing on a life raft like an impersonal and indistinguishable set of tin soldiers.  The moment they made their way from the bowels of stadium into the blinking August light, the screaming, sobbing and yes, fainting, began.  Still, I was able to recognize the opening chords of “She Loves You” before the din became deafening.  From then on I heard not a note of any of the songs.  The Beatles might have been playing “Tubby The Tuba” for all I knew.

The real show wasn’t on stage, but at the edge of the bleachers where a not-so-thin blue line of New York’s Finest linked hands made a human barricade between the fans and playing field.  Tidal waves of girls wailing like mourners at a jazz wake rolled down from the stands to heed the call of their own private Sirens and throw themselves against the jagged rocks of the policemen’s chests and outstretched arms.  But no one reached the laden oasis in the center of the field.  With work-a-day calm and precision, the cops simply scooped up the girls in a counter-wave, depositing them back into the stands and awaiting the next onslaught.

I wondered what, exactly, these fanatical devotees would have done if they’d reached their goal. What was a brief moment in close proximity with a real live Beatle actually going to achieve?  Sure, one might grab a thread from George’s velvet collar or wipe a swath of magical mystery sweat off of John’s brow for use in a poultice or potion.  But why go to all the trouble of attacking your obsession if it’s unlikely to yield, say, a proposal of marriage?  Or at the very least, an invite to a Mod party somewhere off of Carnaby Street the next time you happened to be passing through London town?  And surely throwing oneself, beet-faced and sloppy, onto the stage in the middle of a concert was no way to get Pauly to pop the question.  With the cold and jaundiced eye of youth, I could see that.  Even a few years later, when the skepticism of childhood was lifted by my sudden realization that James Taylor was going to marry me, when I used my copy of “Sweet Baby James” to do the closest thing to French kissing one can approximate with a two-dimensional photo on an album cover, when I realized that we were destined to live in deeply meaningful wedlock because I was the only female he’d ever come across with sufficient poetry in her soul — even then, I had the sobriety to know we’d have to be formally introduced.

Straining in the bleachers at Shea, I was more than a little annoyed that I couldn’t hear anything except the hoarse cry of a generation.  I liked The Beatles for their songs.  I knew all the words, I could sing the exact harmonies which I’d surreptitiously studied while enacting unconsciousness on the living room rug or during times when Emily wasn’t around and I sat hunched over the built-in speakers of my low-tech record player — I couldn’t understand why these girls wouldn’t want to hear the music!  But as I watched them manufacture tears on cue and transform their baby faces into masks of rapture and pain, I realized they knew something I didn’t.  Something essential and frightening and glamorous and just outside my reach.  While I was critical, I was also envious.  At eight, poised not quite at but near the edge of that cliff, I yearned to inherit this world of Eros and its many manias, Beatles and otherwise.

I tried to run down to the edge of the bleachers on the next pulse of hysteria, but wouldn’t you know it?  My mommy stopped me.  Which may, in part, explain thirty years of mother/daughter hostility.

* * *

Today I am sitting in my apartment watching the much touted television event, “The Beatles Anthology”, with another in a long line of men-I-sleep-with-who-like-me-a-lot-but-don’t-want-to-be-my-boyfriend.  This one is a professional musician and a self-proclaimed Beatles expert.  The Beatles changed his life, he tells me, they are the whole reason he became a musician.  I ask him what it was about their music that inspired him to his chosen profession.

“A few of my friends and I cut school and went to see A Hard Day’s Night.  All the screaming teenage girls throwing themselves at those guys?  ‘Man,’ we said, ‘this is the life!’”

The Beatles — unlike the compulsory swoons of prior generations such as Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley — had the distinction of being able to steal the hearts and awaken the libidos of scores of young women while at the same time not alienating the guys.  In fact, my subjective memory of Shea as having been awash in nothing but weepy femininity aside, the boys often were — and are — bigger Beatlemaniacs than the girls.  But in demonstrating their fervor for the Holy quadrangle they didn’t learn to “fake it.”  They learned the guitar.

* * *

Several years after the August ’65 concert, as I entered the morass of adolescence, I bought a beautiful Martin D-35 steel string acoustic.  I learned enough chords to play some tepid folk songs and tried to join in the fun. But not long after having discovered it was a young girl’s fate to have to feign a form of le petit mort in the service of Beatlemania, I discovered another trait apparently associated with the inheritance of multiple X chromosomes: chicks could only play the tambourine.  Not the guitar, not the bass, and certainly not the drums, God forbid.  If you really had to be part of the band instead of simply “with the band”…well then, you could shake a tambourine.  Just as I’d sat in kindergarten years earlier being told “any one of you can grow up to become the President of the United States,” knowing all the while that only half of us really could (and then only if we were White), I now understood that, even though I was the owner of my own spectacular Martin D-35, there was no point in trying to use it to live the Life of Riley-The-Rock-Star.  Sure, Jefferson Airplane had a lead singer who was a woman, but she didn’t make the music, she didn’t wail acid riffs on an electric “ax” slung low on presumably well-hung hips.  Sure, Joni Mitchell was brilliant, successful and respected, but her metier was more folk than rock — delicate, elegant and soulful, but did anyone ever coin the phrase “Michellmania”?  The message was clear: unlike Hendrix or Clapton or JohnPaulGeorge&Ringo, in fact, unlike almost any idiot boy who could manage to strum a six-string in these United States, playing the guitar would not make me sexy.

Having the guitar, providing the guitar, was another story. Boys followed me home from school begging for a chance to finger its mother-of-pearl-studded neck and pick out the opening bars of “Blackbird” on my shapely Martin, endowed with much more sensual proportions than was I.  I learned to lend them the thing whenever they asked, to hang out nearby striking suggestive poses, to hum a timid harmony.  But I never tried to play “Blackbird” myself — at least not in their presence.  In 1972, the rules for playing music with the guys were analogous to those for playing cards or chess or sports in my mother’s day: If you want them to like you, let them win.  I was already a committed feminist on a political and social scale, yet somehow this did not extend to interpersonal dynamics or the sacred realm of rock ‘n roll.  Sitting at a boy’s feet, feigning adoration for his shut-down, distant, self-involved brand of sexuality, I accepted instrument worship as the closest I would ever come to love.  Occasionally I shook a tambourine.

All of which may, of course, in part explain thirty years of male/female hostility.

* * *

“The Beatles Anthology” continues as my ersatz paramour and I drink French wine and engage in three-dimensional French kissing.  Here’s the appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.  There’s the clip from A Hard Day’s Night which so inspired my spark.  Now the concert footage from Shea Stadium…I fancy I hear more than he does in the rhythm and cadence of the crowd, that something about this melange of screams is more specific to my ear because I haven’t simply acquired it through the pale facsimile of film.  I was there, I heard the real thing — this soundtrack isn’t my source of information, it’s the playback button for a live memory. This thought emboldens me and I begin to fantasize: Perhaps that day in ’65 the cameraman, in documenting what seemed a modern mass miracle, happened to capture my own tiny epiphany on film.  I search for a shot of myself among the throng.  I don’t find it, but I find again my wonder at the aching virgins who surrounded me with their wall of sound some thirty years ago, blotting out the songs of the Beatles but introducing to my consciousness to a more ancient tune. Glancing sideways at my companion-of-convenience, I yearn for a dose of the fever which happily poisoned those young girls’ blood in order that I might now be transported and anointed by that kind of suffering, so that I might finally, genuinely faint.