Saturday, July 13, 2013

Evolution of a Beatlemaniac

I was born in 1977. The Beatles broke up seven years before I even existed, and I was only three years old when John Lennon was murdered. That said, there are plenty of people of my approximate age who fell in love with the Beatles and their music from an early age because they grew up listening to them with their parents, who were fans from the group’s heyday.

I am not one of those people. The house in which I grew up was an almost totally music-free zone. My parents didn’t listen to music in the house, and I don’t remember my mom even listening to it in the car—if her radio was even on (it often wasn’t), it was usually tuned to a news station. They did give me a pretty solid stereo at a young age, but if I recall correctly, its initial use was mostly for read-along storybooks that were accompanied by 45rpm records or cassette tapes. Oh, and for the Star Wars soundtrack (performed by the Electric Moog Orchestra), which I had on 8-track.

I liked music, but as my exposure was limited, my tastes were a little eclectic. The first songs I remember digging are “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” (because of this, I had a B.J. Thomas 8-track as well; I never owned a copy of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” until MP3 became a thing).

My musical breakthrough came in 1984 with the song “Thriller” and, more specifically, its music video. I was six years old, and already in love with anything remotely scary (due primarily, no doubt, to my exposure to Scooby-Doo). From the very first time I saw the “Thriller” video, I was hooked. I got the Thriller album on cassette and played it constantly until it was worn out, which didn’t take long.

“Thriller” drew me into MTV, which led me to “Born in the USA” and eventually to “You Give Love a Bad Name” and the burgeoning hair metal scene of the 1980s. Really, that’s where I turned into a full-fledged music lover. Laugh if you must, but Bon Jovi, Poison, Warrant, Def Leppard, Motley Crue, and Guns N’ Roses (etc.) filled my ears and covered my walls. I loved that stuff. Still do, as a matter of fact—‘80s hair metal still factors heavily in my iTunes rotation, complemented now by plenty of stuff that’s way more sophisticated…but, somehow, just not quite as fun.

As an aside…I mean, everyone I knew was listening to that stuff, but looking back, that’s some interesting musical material (mostly about sex and drugs in not terribly indirect language) for a kid still in elementary school. I had both Appetite for Destruction and GN’R Lies in 1988. Go ahead and look up the lyrics for some of the songs on those albums (I’ll suggest “One in a Million” for pure shock value) and imagine an 11-year-old kid jamming to them. Frankly, it’s amazing I didn’t turn out far more twisted than I am.

Anyway, as music took on more and more importance in my life, the Beatles barely entered my consciousness. I read interviews with the bands I liked and they all talked about growing up listening to the Beatles and blah blah blah, but I just didn’t get it. The only song of theirs I was familiar with was “Twist and Shout,” which would often play on the jukebox at the bowling alley when I was in a youth league. It wasn’t that I disliked it, exactly; it just sounded like primitive rock n’ roll to me. Which it was…but I just assumed that all of their songs were like that. Hence, I wasn’t interested.

There was a mention of “Hey Jude” in Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, which I read for the first time when I was probably about twelve. If you haven’t read it, it’s set in this weird, post-apocalyptic western-type world that’s obviously not our world and yet is obviously connected to our world. The main character, the gunslinger, comes to this tiny little town on the edge of a vast desert at the beginning of his quest, and the piano player in the town saloon is playing this old familiar song. Although I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, and never heard the song in question until years later, that was actually the perfect representation for how I thought of the Beatles: a relic from another world that I wasn’t quite a part of and wasn’t sure I wanted to be.

I was actually aware of the Beatles as individuals well before I realized they were members of the Beatles. My first musical experience with any of them, as a matter of fact, came on that very Thriller album which got me interested in music in the first place, as Paul McCartney joined MJ for a duet on “The Girl Is Mine.” George Harrison came into the picture in 1987 when “Got My Mind Set on You” became my favorite song for a period of time. Again, no idea he was a Beatle. I’m not sure how I knew about Ringo, but I did, mostly as a personality and general entertainer, not necessarily as a musician (the term "novelty act" comes to mind). For some reason I associate him with Entertainment Tonight, so I probably saw him on there. And I remember seeing a picture of John Lennon in his later years, looking old and kind of worn out, with short hair and those little circular glasses, and thinking, “That’s a rock star? No way…that’s not what a rock star looks like.” And again, this was him as a solo artist; no idea at the time that he was one of the Beatles.

I have no recollection of exactly how I figured out that these guys were the Beatles, but even when I did, it didn’t affect my opinion on the Beatles’ music. Remember, all I knew was “Twist and Shout,” “The Girl Is Mine,” and “Got My Mind Set on You.” Not exactly a broad sampling upon which to base my disdain. Eventually I found out that “Helter Skelter,” as performed by Motley Crue, was a Beatles cover; I thought it was a pretty radical song, but figured that was due to Motley Crue performing it way more than anything the original version may have contributed.

Hey, give me a break. I was like eleven at the time.

Not that age is really an excuse. Although my musical tastes (by which I should clarify that I really mean my taste in rock and pop; I can and do appreciate and enjoy other forms of music, but they’re not my drug of choice) expanded as I got older, my complete and utter disinterest in the Beatles remained mostly firm, although a couple more cover songs softened it just the tiniest bit in the meantime: “Norwegian Wood” done by P.M. Dawn, and “In My Life” by Chantal Kreviazuk. However, I was in my late twenties before I finally found a real gateway.

I was still working in the office at the time, and there were fierce battles between departments to determine who got to set the radio station that would play throughout the building during the day. When our department won, it got set to a classic rock station that actually lasted for a few weeks, until management figured out that the music we heard in the building was the same music being played over the telephone for customers when they were on hold, and given that some of the lyrics were very occasionally offensive, classic rock went away. In the meantime, though, I heard a lot of music that I was only vaguely familiar with previously, and I found that I liked quite a lot of it.

Now, at the time, my wife (although I don’t think her status at this particular time was “wife” yet; she was still in the “girlfriend” or, more likely, the “fiancĂ©e” stage) knew way more about classic rock than I did. So I strolled into the apartment one day after work with a song stuck in my head and said, “Okay, tell me about this ‘Man on the Run.’”

It’s not terribly often that I see Brandi’s “What the hell are you talking about?” face, but she turned it on me full blast that day. “You know,” I said. “’Man on the Run.’” I sang the chorus for her, and was a little taken aback when she rolled her eyes.

“You mean ‘Band on the Run’?”

“No, I’m pretty sure it’s…oh. Um. Hang on.” I replayed the song in my head. “Yeah, I guess that could be it.”

“Yeah, that’s it. Paul McCartney. With Wings, I think.”

And thus a seed was planted. I really dug that song, so I hopped onto iTunes and found Wingspan, McCartney’s greatest hits album. I saw that “Band on the Run” was on it, and when I played the preview, lo and behold, that was in fact the song I was talking about. I clicked around a little bit and found a few more I had heard and liked without ever knowing who did them. So I bought the album.

When I find something new that I really like, I can’t get enough of it, and I want to gorge myself on it and learn everything about it. For example, one of my favorite things right now is Game of Thrones. I don’t just want to watch Game of Thrones; I want to watch Game of Thrones repeatedly, and read the books, and collect action figures or whatever paraphernalia I can get my hands on, and move to Westeros and follow Margaery Tyrell wherever she goes (as long as she doesn’t spend too much time in Flea Bottom...or with Joffrey).

So it was with McCartney. I got really into Wingspan and played it constantly on my iPod. I knew it was just scratching the surface of a long and storied musical career, though, so I branched out. I checked out some of his songs that weren’t on the greatest hits album, and read quite a bit about him. Eventually this brought me to the Beatles, when I learned he was the one who wrote “Helter Skelter.” I tracked it down and, finally, listened to the original.

Huh. This is still pretty radical, even without Motley Crue involved.

Still, my doubts about the Beatles persisted…but a flash of interest had been sparked. I couldn’t quite reconcile “Twist and Shout” (and what I assumed was their general sound) with “Helter Skelter” (which kicked ass). So I started reading about them a little bit to get the gist of their general musical story. I saw that “Twist and Shout” was from their first album, and that it was, in fact, fairly representative of their early sound, but that their sound started to really leap into new territory starting with Rubber Soul and Revolver, and that it had continued to evolve from there.

It probably seems counterintuitive to learn about a band’s style by reading about them before actually, you know, listening to the music, but hey, that’s me. I’m a reader. And it worked: I was intrigued, ready to lay aside my preconceived notions about the Beatles and actually give them a chance. I had “discovered” McCartney through iTunes, but, of course, the Beatles’ music wasn’t available on iTunes at the time. So I did what any reasonable soul would do.

I went to the library.

Yes, you can get music from the library, and that seemed like the perfect way to do a little exploring without dropping a ton of money on a band I wasn’t sure if I would like or not. Since I had learned that their sound began changing with Rubber Soul and Revolver, I decided to start with those, especially when I saw that Rubber Soul’s track listing included both “Norwegian Wood” and “In My Life.”

Oh, well done, Beatles. You’ve had me convinced my entire life that you were outrageously, apocalyptically overrated, the Brett Favre of rock music, and then I go and do something crazy like listen to a couple of your albums, and it turns out you’re pretty good after all. Damn good, in fact. Well played indeed.

From there, I checked out a few other albums at a leisurely pace, depending at least in part on their availability—surprisingly enough, the Beatles are quite popular at your local public library. I don’t remember now exactly which ones I got. I remember getting 1, a compilation of their non-album #1 singles (including “Hey Jude,” which, as it turns out, is spectacular). I also checked out one of their early ones for a bit of compare/contrast, and was pleasantly surprised—not as enjoyable as the later stuff (at least not for me), but way better than I expected.

So at this point I had gone from distaste to disinterest to curiosity on my way to becoming a casual fan. Then, for Christmas in 2010, Brandi got me a hellacious gift: the entire Beatles box set containing all their albums and non-album singles. For weeks I filled the house with it to the exclusion of just about anything else, and I was hooked. And as with anything else, I wasn’t just listening to the music, I was reading books about the music and the band (which, given my general non-interest in non-fiction, is pretty significant), watching YouTube videos, looking up detailed info on the songs’ background, you name it. I’m to the point now where I’m thinking of writing a close reading of the lyrics to “Hey Jude,” and hearing “Two of Us” or “Tug of War” (or any of a number of songs about the contentious Lennon-McCartney friendship/partnership) at the right time (say, after a couple glasses of wine) can get me to wax embarrassingly philosophical.

And still, my interest continues to evolve. I continue to accumulate solo albums from both Lennon and McCartney (who is currently in the midst of remastering and reissuing his solo and Wings albums, which is convenient), and eventually I’ll probably do the same for Harrison (as when I got interested in McCartney, I have his greatest hits and a smattering of others). Ringo, not so much; from what I’ve heard, his solo oeuvre is, ah, not exactly my thing.

The great thing about this, aside from enriching myself with the music of the Beatles and their solo careers, is that it’s opened me up to the possibility of embracing other bands I was not so keen on. I’ve already conquered Led Zeppelin—their complete catalog on CD was my Christmas gift from Brandi this past year. And although I don’t have quite as high hopes for this one, currently in my possession is a 2-disc greatest hits set (Grrr!) from the Rolling Stones. They do have a couple of songs that I really like (“Beast of Burden,” “Start Me Up”), but I’d say the vast majority of their stuff just doesn’t do anything for me. So I’m going to jump in with both feet and see if I can find a way to see what other people see (or hear, more accurately) that I’m missing.

Anyway, all of this culminates on Sunday night, when Brandi and I are going to see Paul McCartney, live and in concert, in Indianapolis. I tried to get tickets when he played Cincinnati a couple of years ago and couldn’t quite swing it, so when I heard he was coming to Indy (not quite as close, but close enough), I jumped on it right away. After all, Sir Paul is getting up there a little bit, and you never know when he might decide to hang up the touring shoes.

It seems fitting, considering how he was at least tangentially involved in my initial interest in music in the first place (his duet with MJ), and turned out to be my way into the Beatles. Seeing a Beatle is as close as I’ll ever be able to come to seeing the Beatles, and either way, I expect it to be pretty awesome…perhaps all the more so given the long and winding road I took to get here (see what I did there?).

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