A cho­rus of col­lec­tive mem­o­ries

Es­says by 28 writ­ers give an over­view of the Fab Four’s ca­reer, and an in­sight into their en­dur­ing pop­u­lar­ity In Their Lives: Great Writ­ers on Great Bea­tles Songs

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Liam Cag­ney

Edited by An­drew Blauner Blue Rider Press, $23

In Ulysses, when the char­ac­ter Haines hears that Stephen Dedalus has con­cocted an elab­o­rate the­ory about Ham­let, he quips that Shake­speare is “the happy hunt­ing ground of all minds that have lost their bal­ance”. The same might be said of the Bard’s 20th-cen­tury artis­tic in­ter­lop­ers The Bea­tles. At one end of the spec­trum there’s Ian Mac­Don­ald, en­cy­clopaed­i­cally chart­ing the cir­cum­stances be­hind ev­ery Bea­tles song; at the other end, Mark David Chap­man, ob­ses­sive fan turned as­sas­sin (and I won’t even start on The Bea­tles Never Ex­isted, surely the web’s weird­est con­spir­acy site).

More placidly in the cen­tre are the rest of us, at whom this col­lec­tion is aimed. Re­leased to co­in­cide with the 50th an­niver­sary of Sgt. Pep­per’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, In Their Lives presents es­says by 28 writ­ers and song­writ­ers on their favourite Bea­tles song. The es­says are or­dered chrono­log­i­cally, from 1963’ s She Loves You to 1970’s Two Of Us. Their tone ranges from David Du­chovny’s whim­si­cal four pages on Dear Pru­dence (“I’m gonna do t hi s from mem­ory”) to Ni c hol a s Daw­id­off’s earnest 20 pages on A Day in the Life (“Who ever loved pop mu­sic who loved not at first sight?”). As well as giv­ing a grad­ual over­view of the Fab Four’s ca­reer, the es­says give a cu­mu­la­tive in­sight on their en­dur­ing pop­u­lar­ity.

The most re­cur­ring theme in In Their Lives is the role of The Bea­tles in fam­ily life and as an in­ter­gen­er­a­tional glue. Thomas Beller f rames Lucy in t he Sky with Di­a­monds in re­la­tion to his neigh­bours’ di­vorce and his fa­ther’s can­cer. Elissa Schap­pell dis­cusses how singing Oc­to­pus’s Gar­den on child­hood car jour­neys spir­ited her into the realm of fan­tasy. Francine Prose’s de­bate with her grand­daugh­ter on the rel­a­tive mer­its of Here Comes the Sun bring her back to when she first heard the song as a dis­con­so­late dropout in In­dia in 1969.

The Bea­tles are as much a part of West- ern life as wear­ing socks and shoes, so it’s fit­ting that most of the con­trib­u­tors talk about The Bea­tles’s songs in this in­ti­mate way. Like Shake­speare, The Bea­tles are myr­iad-minded.

Some es­says are in­trigu­ingly sin­gu­lar. Joseph O’Neill gives a bizarre, dead­pan anal­y­sis of McCart­ney’s ditty Good Day Sun­shine (“The lyrics op­er­ate in what gram­mar­i­ans call the ir­re­alis moods . . . We find our­selves, we re­alise, in the realm of courtly love”). Maria Popova, founder of the pop­u­lar web­site Brain Pick­ings, casts a Rilkean eye on how the os­ten­si­bly silly Yel­low Sub­ma­rine de­vel­oped a deep res­o­nance in her fam­ily life (“The story of how that seem­ingly ran­dom song had im­planted it­self in my fa­ther’s mind is the ar­che­typal story of how pop­u­lar mu­sic, and per­haps all pop­u­lar art, is metabolised in the body of cul­ture.”). Jane Smi­ley notes that “the way that the sim­plic­ity of I Want to Hold Your Hand grew into the com­plex­ity of Sgt. Pep­per echoed and rep­re­sented to me the very sen­sa­tion of ma­tur­ing, of tak­ing in the mys­te­ri­ous and mak­ing it your own, or, in­deed, your­self”. Lin­guist Ben Zim­mer per­sua­sively cham­pi­ons the non­sen­si­cal lyrics of I Am the Wal­rus, sit­u­at­ing Len­non’s cra­balocker fish­wife and semolina pilchard in the lin­eage of Lear, Car­roll and Fin­negans Wake.

There are plenty of facts and trivia. We learn in de­tail from Jon Pare­les about the musique con­crète- in­spired sam­pling tech­niques used in To­mor­row Never Knows, which an­tic­i­pate hip-hop and house mu­sic. Re­becca Mead tells us about the real-life Eleanor Rigby, buried coin­ci­den­tally in the grave­yard where McCart­ney and Len­non first met (McCart­ney says he had no knowl­edge of this).

Of course, no self- re­spect­ing Bea­tles book is com­plete with­out some offbeat tit­bits. Touré breaks from his anal­y­sis of The Bal­lad of John and Yoko to in­form us about Len­non’s pur­chase of a go­rilla cos­tume (“I thought I might need a go­rilla suit. I’ve only worn it twice”). And who knew, as Bill Flana­gan tells us, that pre- break- up the Fab Four met with Stan­ley Kubrick to pro­pose adapt­ing and star­ring in The Lord of The Rings?


In Their Lives isn’t with­out prob­lems. Edi­tor An­drew Blauner’s selections can feel parochial: most con­trib­u­tors are ei­ther New York res­i­dent or New Yorker writ­ers, and the col­lec­tion would have ben­e­fited from cast­ing the net fur­ther. There are dips in qual­ity: when some­one asks what your favourite song is, the temp­ta­tion can be over- ex­cit­edly to tum­ble out your thoughts in no par­tic­u­lar or­der, and there are a cou­ple of “What I did on my sum­mer hol­i­days” style es­says here ( such as Roz Chast on She Loves You). Some of the prose could have been more tightly edited (the aca­demic Ger­ald Early has a long­winded ef­fort on I’m a Loser in the con­text of Black Amer­ica, a good topic blandly treated). And at times a ha­gio­graphic tone de­scends (at which times you might yearn for a com­pan­ion vol­ume en­ti­tled Ha­tred of The Bea­tles).

Given the re­ceived wis­dom that pop cul­ture is egre­giously ephemeral, this book is a use­ful way into think­ing about what The Bea­tles’ en­dur­ing appeal rep­re­sents. On a per­sonal level The Bea­tles give joy and con­so­la­tion; on an in­ter­per­sonal level they give so­cial co­he­sion, the cul­tural stitch­ing of our col­lec­tive emo­tional fab­ric. “This is what pop­u­lar art does at its best,” Maria Popova writes. “It pro­vides a screen on to which vastly dif­fer­ent peo­ple in vastly dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances can project the sin­gu­lar mean­ing of their lives.”

Un­der­neath it all is the fairy­tale en­chant­ment of The Bea­tles’ songs, reawak­en­ing us to the care­free realm of child­hood.

Liam Cag­ney is an oc­ca­sional lec­turer at Univer­sity Col­lege Dublin School of Mu­sic and was short­listed for the White Re­view Short Story Prize

The most re­cur­ring theme in ‘In Their Lives’ is the role of The Bea­tles in fam­ily life and as an in­ter­gen­er­a­tional glue . . . It’s fit­ting

On a per­sonal level The Bea­tles give joy and con­so­la­tion; on an in­ter­per­sonal level they give so­cial co­he­sion, the cul­tural stitch­ing of our emo­tional fab­ric

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