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I was responding to a comment regarding the podcast Another Kind of Mind, and the application of “emotional intelligence” to The Beatles, and as I wrote the water grew deep enough for me to want this to be its own post.
I have long thought—since 1995 or so, when the Anthology finally belched out all the last tracks worth hearing—that the great undiscovered country of Beatle fandom was trying to figure out what the experience was like for John, Paul, George, and Ringo. What, day by day, LP by LP, million by million, did it do to them as people? And we have had over a decade of great fun here at HD doing so; I’m glad this kind of approach seems to be catching on. The idea that these four Englishmen were actually people, not songwriting, peace-advocating, macrobiotics-shilling automatons, or bland mannequins, every shadow bleached out by the glare of the spotlight, is as exciting to me now as it was twenty five years ago.
But the strength of this kind of empathy-based analysis also contains a very great weakness, which is a bit difficult to see at first. Applying one’s own life experience to that of a Beatle–which I do constantly, obviously–assumes that one’s life is similar in some fundamental ways. That there is a shared ground of humanness, or of culture at least, between we fans and them Beatles. But what if there isn’t?
Right off the bat, most of the people applying this emotional analysis are products of this time and place, not that time and place. I was born in 1969 in the U.S.; London in 1967, much less Liverpool in 1957, only exists in my imagination. Like the fellas under discussion, I’m a cisgendered heterosexual white English-speaking man living in the West; but I’m a different class, a different nationality, a different educational background, I have a disability, and I’m a generation younger. Sometimes I might be able to intuit correctly; but in lots of cases, The Beatles might as well be from Mars. So all my conclusions, even the vehement ones, are conditional and held with an internal suspicion that I am full of of it.
So that’s me. But what about fans in general?
First, ironically, is the barrier of fame. The Beatles were massively, impossibly famous from an early age; this changes a person, because it changes the world a person lives in. People, even relatives, treated them differently. They could go a lot of places you and I could not, but also couldn’t go a lot of places we can. I don’t think it’s bullshit when Paul said he missed “riding the bus.”
In addition to inhabiting a gilded cage, J/P/G/R were monitored constantly via photographs and interviews — and a certain type of fan (wrongly) looked to them for guidance. This gave their every public action and utterance a weight that yours and mine do not have. When they took LSD, it was international news; when one showed his willy in public, it was a scandal. So in addition to all the normal no-fly zones that a cisgendered, heterosexual Englishman might possess in 1969, for the Fabs, it was worse. For them, then, there was an immense sense of consequence to purely personal decisions that mere mortals don’t have to contend with.
Then there is the fact of wealth, which changed how they spent their time. The Beatles were massively wealthy, which means that the main activity of most people’s lives — working for others to stay alive — was not something they did. In some ways, they were free. But they were also freighted by something that we can’t relate to: everyone who met them thought that they could change their lives with a smile, so nobody ever told them “no.” They were surrounded by people who wanted something from them, and would do almost anything to get it (including, perhaps, kill them — it happened to Hendrix). Being in that position — whether you’re Nero or John Lennon — messes with your mind. At the very least, it engenders a really huge paranoia and alienation, and feeds a kind of megalomania that you and I just can’t relate to. To put it another way: yes, it was the drugs that made John Lennon declare that he was Jesus, but after Beatlemania, you can’t blame him for jumping to that conclusion. It was only slightly more unlikely than what actually happened.
Then there is the question of talent. I’m a pretty talented guy; I’m sure many of you are pretty talented, too. We have, as they say, our moments. But the Beatles were freakin’ geniuses, upon whose genius was built a whole new profession and industry. Closer to home, John and Paul needed to keep being geniuses for the game to continue and everyone’s bills to get paid. The pressure on them was unfathomable, immense, and it’s only because it happened so young that they didn’t freeze up instantly.
It is incredible that John, Paul, George and Ringo kept the game going as long as they did. After 1964, nobody assumed that they would stay popular, much less continue to innovate while making more and more money. Like I said, I’m a talented guy, who has worked his ass off writing since age 12 or so. I’ve had some success. I’ve even had fans, and endured the sensation of not living up to their expectations, something I suspect J/P/G/R felt a lot. But even with all this, I cannot imagine what it was like to be a Beatle, in an artistic sense; the Beatles were unique even among the universe of their peers.
The Beatles got everything they wanted at a very early age, then looked around and thought, “Is that all there is?” Most of us walk around in pursuit of sense gratification — looking for sex, or food, or comfort. The Beatles had that permanently secured by 1965, 1966 at the latest. Which is when they began investigating psychological/spiritual gratification, sometimes through religion, sometimes through drugs. There is a desperation here, a kind of boredom, that normal people do not have to contend with.
I could go on, but you get the picture. Beatle desires were not necessary normal desires; Beatle morality was not necessarily normal morality; Beatle fascinations were not necessarily normal fascinations — because their lives were not normal lives. Their experience was so singular in so many fundamental ways. What were they like as people? What were they like behind closed doors? With all the photos and recordings we feel we must know them…but particularly as I age, I feel it’s impossible to know them. The emotional interplay between the four men was mediated by many powerful factors, some of which were quite unique, and to use one’s own human-sized beliefs and opinions to predict their mental/emotional state is…guessing.
So, out of respect to the guys, I try to show my work. “As someone who has meditated, I can say that…” or “This behavior seems like codependency, as defined like this, and here’s why maybe that was happening…” This allows the reader to check me. Fans love to feel they know these Fabs — myself included — and make declarations about them. That’s more acceptable to me when we’re talking about John and George; it’s less so when we’re talking about Beatles who are still alive.
When we speak about them, we are speaking about ourself. So if you want to understand The Beatles, I suppose the only hope is to understand yourself. And even then, I suspect they will always remain blurry, cloaked in a shimmering, confining nimbus of myth and legend. Mere mortals cannot understand John, Paul, George and Ringo any more than an ancient Roman cobbler could understand Caligula. And if he could for a moment, would he wish for ignorance again? Screened off from the rest of us by sex and fame and money and power and drugs and ennui, we perceive The Beatles through a glass, darkly. That is our pleasure and our pain, and perhaps theirs as well.