Note: I wrote this for Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Live Wire” radio show. It aired on Saturday, and you can find the podcast, and more information about the show, here.
The first thing we did was have an argument.
This was before the music started, before the animation lit up the TV screen, before we’d even attached the toy guitars and drums to the shiny white box that would allow us to spend the weekend pretending to be the Beatles.
“Put that down! You do NOT know what you’re doing!” Anna, who is 14 years old snapped to Teddy, her 11-year-old brother, who shot back instantly. “Shut UP!” he wailed. And I’m pretty sure he was coming up with something even better when both kids turned on their 7-year-old brother, who had started pounding on the pretend drums with the pretend drum sticks.
“MAX!” they shrieked in an uncanny unison. “LEAVE THAT ALONE!”
This was when I dove in, as all good dads must, bellowing that they ALL needed to be quiet, and fast, or else I was going to unhook the whole goddamn thing and take it RIGHT BACK to where it came from.
Now, look. I understand that that was an unproductive, and arguably damaging, way to restore family order. But it was also the moment that made me believe that the four of us really could step into the Beatles’ boots for a weekend. Because that was when I heard the echo of Ray Connolly’s voice.
Ray’s a writer I met in London last year when I was digging up information about Paul McCartney. And he knew what he was talking about, because he’d really been there, from the stoney filming of “Magical Mystery Tour” in the summer of 1967 to the grim, prolonged break-up in 1969 and early 1970. He hung out with the Beatles at work and at home, and came away with a significant realization.
The first thing you need to know about the Beatles, he told me, is that they were a very normal, very dysfunctional British family.
Each bandmember, Ray explained, played his own archetypical role: John was the ne’er do well father; Paul was the hard-working mother who held everything together; George was the clever, slightly surly adolescent; and Ringo was the adored baby brother in the corner, playing happily with his toy aeroplane.
“You could tell they loved each other,” Ray said. “Just like they made each other miserable.”
That’s the sort of transcendent thought a Beatle biographer lives for. And it gave me even more to think about once the kids got the gaming system wires hooked up, handed me a guitar and let me take my place in our own dysfunctional family
The point of Beatles Rock Band is to simulate the songs’ rhythms and melodies on the pretend instruments, following a simplified music chart that unspools over a quartet of animated Beatles, who perform the song either onstage or in a vaguely psychedelic fantasy scene drawn from the imagery in their songs. It’s all pretty dreamy but what really caught my eye was the joyous expression on the Beatles’ animated faces. The way they moved with the music, and the secret smiles they shared when one caught another’s eye in mid-performance. And no animator had to invent that – you can see the same thing in films of the Beatles‘ real performances. No matter how bitchy they got with one another, their music was a physical manifestation of the love that held them together.
Maybe that’s why the snarling in my house ended once the first bars of “I Saw Her Standing There” scrolled across the screen. The kids and I took turns on the guitars and drums and microphone, working our way through the songs and marveling again at how elegantly composed they are, how full of wit, intelligence and a sweet-natured sense of fun. Max took the microphone to sing “Yellow Submarine,” and the machine seemed delighted to hear this little boy chiming away, even when he forgot the words. He’d give a high-pitched whoop to fill in a bar and the game would reward him with a spray of gold sparkles and a word – FAB! – that seemed to come straight from Pepperland.
Then they were off to “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Hey Jude,” and I was in my own ‘60s daydream, remembering when I was younger than my own children, listening to these same songs in my parents’ living room, hearing the sound of endless imagination and limitless possibility. Do you believe in a love at first sight? What do you see when you turn out the light? With the Beatles in the air the answers were unequivocal: Yes; and everything.
This was a gift my parents gave me, along with the occasional withering comment that will still, in a dark moment, leap back into my sad, insecure mind. At which point I’ll hear myself snapping the same thing, more or less, to my own kids, only to see my own childhood angst reflected on their faces. The more a family changes, the more everything stays the same.
Particularly when it comes to the inevitability of growing up. The Beatles left home in 1970, scattering to new homes and families and, in John and Paul’s case, bands that included their new wives. But the music they had made together — the sound of friction blooming into harmony; of hope rising over darkness — defined something the world could never forget.
Is this why kids take so naturally to the Beatles? It’s hard to say, though not nearly as difficult as it is to explain to a child how someone could love John Lennon’s music so much that he would want to kill him.
I prefer to think of the way I felt in 1995 when I first heard “Free As a Bird,” the song the surviving Beatles constructed from one of John’s old demo tapes. Get past the otherworldy echo in John’s voice and when the other Beatles gather to sing with him it really does seem like their voices are tangling together as they always had, inspired again by the love they never lost for one another. “Home and dry,” John sang. “Like a homing bird I’ll fly.”
At our house the hour was tilting toward bedtime. The surly adolescent was sharing the sofa with her annoying brother, both of them lost in the music, their soft hands wrapped around their guitars. The baby brother had put down his sticks and crawled up into his ne’er do well father’s lap. The room was warm, the music was in the air. As long as that’s true there’s always a way for a family to get back home.