2. THE BEATLES
Time for another shameful confession. I only became a Beatles fan because of the whole “Paul is Dead” thing.
Do you remember that? In late 1969, rumors started floating around that Paul McCartney had been killed in a car wreck in 1965. Clues to this were supposedly scattered throughout the Beatles albums. These “clues” included such lines as “He blew his mind out in a car” and “Turn me on dead man”; the fact that Paul was barefoot and out of step on the cover of Abbey Road; and the inevitable backwards messages.
My 7th grade buddies and I got all caught up in this, and spent hours searching for clues. We never found any new ones on our own, but we pored over those which had already been discovered. And, in the process, listened to all the Beatles’ albums with a focus I had never given to music before.
Up until this point, I had dismissed the Beatles as something “girls like.” (Ah, the inherent sexism of a preadolescent.) Now I made up for lost time. Once I actually listened to them, I loved them. I spent a lot of time listening to the White Album, originally because of its wealth of “clues,” but I soon reveled in the genius of its sprawl. It remains my favorite Beatles album. But I rapidly expanded my listening to their entire catalog. Among the very first albums I purchased were Beatles albums.
But, because of the way I was introduced to them, I discovered something more than the greatest rock band ever. I discovered hidden messages. You could even say, I discovered poetry. Since we were looking for clues to the mystery, I quickly learned how to read extra meaning into the lyrics, how to go beyond what they said on the surface.
It certainly helped that the Beatles were masters of poetic subtlety in their lyrics. Songs like “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” “I Am the Walrus,” “A Day in the Life,” and “She Said She Said” (to name just a minor sampling) were (and still are) wide open to interpretation. One could spend hours figuring out what they meant on the surface, let alone deeper down.
Once I started listening for hidden meanings, I discovered that many of the Beatles songs were about -- omigod! -- sex! Whereas before my friends and I had traded “clues”, now we traded “dirty” Beatles lyrics.
“All the girls around her say she’s got it coming/ But she gets it while she can” -- “Get Back”
“She’s a big teaser/ she took me half the way there” -- “Day Tripper”
“When I hold you in my arms/ and I feel my finger on your trigger? I know no one can do me no harm” -- “Happiness is a Warm Gun”
Okay, I know that last one is now accepted to be about heroin, but to a 12 year old, it was about sex. And you know what? I wasn’t wrong. It may be about heroin, but it’s about sex too. That the beauty of poetry.
It was all a sort of supplemental sex education. But it was also an introduction to the wonders and possibilities of words, of poetry.
At the risk of sounding like an old prude, I have to say I am glad that song lyrics were forced to be subtle when I was growing up, glad that they had to hint at what they were saying. Not that I think my mind would have been twisted by more blatant lyrics. (And not that I didn’t thoroughly revel in the uncensored raunch of punk rock only a few years later.) I’m glad because having to read meaning into lyrics taught me how much you can say without really saying it. It’s the difference between poetry and pornography. Sure, porn has its uses, but so does the imagination. Poetry stimulates the imagination, while porn stifles it.
A few years later I read an interview with John Lennon. He was asked about people who read things into his lyrics which aren’t there. His response was “It is there.” He felt that if people found meaning in his words, the meaning was there, whether he intended it or not. Which I find a profound statement on how art works.
In case you’re wondering, it turned out Paul was not dead at all. But many of the clues were definitely there. Listen to the end of “I’m So Tired” on the White Album. When played backwards, John clearly says, “Paul is dead. Miss him, miss him, miss him.” It is so clear that once you’re aware of it, you can even make it out played forward (“miss im, miss im, miss im, dead si laup.”) Later speculation held that is was all John commenting on the growing rift between him and Paul, heightened by the imaginations of fans, who constantly saw things that weren’t there.
Or maybe it was just a scam to sell records. If so, it certainly worked on me.