A set of es­says on the Bea­tles that’s only partly fab

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY MICHAEL LIND­GREN book­world@wash­post.com Michael Lind­gren is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to The Wash­ing­ton Post.

Does the world re­ally need an­other book about the Bea­tles? The peo­ple be­hind “In Their Lives: Great Writ­ers on Great Bea­tles Songs” think so, and they’ve come up with a seem­ingly ir­re­sistible wrin­kle: ask a lineup of literati to choose the Bea­tles song that means the most to them. Since ev­ery­one likes the Bea­tles, the re­sults are prac­ti­cally guar­an­teed to please.

Well, maybe. But the most pre­dictable thing about this en­deavor is how pre­dictable it is. The Rule of Themed An­tholo­gies says that one-third of such col­lec­tions will be thought-pro­vok­ing and in­sight­ful, one third will be just okay, and one third will be tossed­off words from writ­ers too guilty or des­per­ate to say no to the com­mis­sion­ing ed­i­tor. “In Their Lives” sat­is­fies this for­mula with eerie pre­ci­sion.

The only sen­si­ble ap­proach to eval­u­at­ing such a book is to enu­mer­ate the suc­cesses, of which there are sev­eral. Writ­ing about “Eleanor Rigby,” Re­becca Mead notes, with typ­i­cal clar­ity and grace, that the song, “which so per­fectly cap­tures the pathos of lone­li­ness, was gen­er­ated in an at­mos­phere of in­ti­macy and friend­ship . . . a prod­uct of the ex­traor­di­nar­ily fruit­ful four-way mar­riage that was the Bea­tles col­lab­o­ra­tive.”

Chuck Kloster­man per­forms a wry and orig­i­nal bit of Kloster­ma­nian spec­u­la­tion, sug­gest­ing that the “lurid out­lier” that is “Hel­ter Skel­ter” is both more and less than it seems. And Pico Iyer swims against the tide by ad­mit­ting that “the Bea­tles have never been a group I’ve en­joyed,” pick­ing “Yes­ter­day” al­most at ran­dom.

Best of all is Ger­ald Early’s es­say on “I’m a Loser.” Early is African Amer­i­can and grew up with the sense that the early Bea­tles were not “for” him: Their mu­sic was in­tended for white girls, and their “ap­peal was for me to the wrong color and the wrong gen­der.” Early thus has the ex­pe­ri­ence, unique in this book, of his love for the most pop­u­lar band in his­tory man­i­fest­ing as a form of out­sider­ness. He ex­am­ines the im­pli­ca­tions of this phe­nom­e­non with mea­sured grav­ity and con­cludes that he and a like-minded peer “were, if any­thing, fight­ing, un­know­ingly, against the racial politi­ciza­tion of taste.”

Early’s con­tri­bu­tion in­verts the book’s ba­sic con­cep­tion so rad­i­cally that it’s a lit­tle dif­fi­cult to take the es­says that come af­ter it se­ri­ously, es­pe­cially as they be­gin to be­tray a fatal same­ness. This is less a fail­ure of imag­i­na­tion than a func­tion of de­mo­graph­ics. Most of the es­say­ists are wellestab­lished writ­ers of a cer­tain age who, like their ed­i­tor — in­deed, like this re­viewer — are slightly too young to have ex­pe­ri­enced the Bea­tles con­tem­po­ra­ne­ously. This re­sults in a sur­feit of frac­tured child­hood mem­o­ries, breath­lessly re­layed but, like most child­hood mem­o­ries, es­sen­tially in­ter­change­able. “The turntable on our Heathkit stereo spins,” Ben Zimmer re­calls in a rep­re­sen­ta­tive pas­sage. “I hear John’s elec­tric pi­ano wob­bling be­tween two notes.”

A good per­cent­age of the writ­ers re­port on how their own off­spring also love, hate or dance to Bea­tles songs. One goes so far as to de­scribe, with hip­ster-dad smug­ness, his son’s prow­ess at a “School of Rock” pro­gram, with its “Mu­sic of the Bea­tles” show. Joseph O’Neill tells us that his 2-year-old daugh­ter “squawks” in an­noy­ance at any song that is not “Good Day Sun­shine.” Even the re­li­ably flinty Francine Prose falls prey to the lu­nacy, co-au­thor­ing her en­try with her grand­daugh­ter and re­port­ing that “we’re all de­lighted that Emilia likes the Fab Four.”

De­pend­ing on the reader, such pas­sages gen­er­ate ei­ther a sense of warm, in­clu­sive iden­ti­fi­ca­tion or some­thing rather less ap­peal­ing. A book that stren­u­ously cel­e­brates the spec­ta­cle of mid­dle­class white writ­ers and their tots bond­ing over the Bea­tles may strike some read­ers as a bit pre­cious. Even those who are es­sen­tially sim­patico will con­clude, per­haps re­luc­tantly, that most of these es­says are not ter­ri­bly in­ter­est­ing or orig­i­nal. If you ask a bunch of mid­dle-age white peo­ple what their mem­o­ries of the Bea­tles are, of course you’re go­ing to get a bunch of wa­tery pseudo Words worth slop about the plas­tic­ity of for­ma­tive mem­o­ries; of course, half of them are go­ing to tell you about their kids.

This doesn’t mean the Bea­tles don’t mat­ter any­more — it just means that you have to dig deeper than this book is able to if you want to pen­e­trate the mys­tery. Ni­cholas Daw­id­off, in one of the col­lec­tion’s more thought­ful en­tries, ob­serves that the mu­sic of the Bea­tles makes it “pos­si­ble to ex­pe­ri­ence the es­sen­tial pop mu­sic self-delu­sion with them, that some­thing so mas­sively well­known could still be per­sonal to you.”

The power of that “self­delu­sion” sold un­told mil­lions of records. “Self-delu­sion” is also, by def­i­ni­tion, in­vis­i­ble to the self but ap­par­ent to the out­side ob­server — or reader.

IN THEIR LIVES Great Writ­ers on Great Bea­tles Songs Edited by An­drew Blauner Blue Rider. 300 pp. $23

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