When I first heard the Beatles' second U.S. album, Meet the Beatles, in 1964, I was all of six, and I'm sure I thought "what's the big deal?" or something like that. I rounded the corner of our living room, peered around our stereo record player in a floor cabinet as big as a small dresser, and my sister was lying on the floor listening to "I Want to Hold Your Hand," swooning over the album cover with four moptops in shadow, and I thought, "Yuck. Girls." Big deal.
But big deal it was of course, even though it was outside the world of a six-year old. I came to the Beatles music via their last albums, Let It Be and Abbey Road, and then worked my way back through the catalog, entranced, a discography in reverse, navigating my high school years in a daze of sorts, mesmerized by great rock and roll, peeling away layers of production and multi-tracking to get to the essence of the Liverpool boys, and that's what you have with With the Beatles, the earlier British release of Capital Records' Meet the Beatles (the latter with reordered tracks, sidelined covers, and the addition of the #1 single "I Want to Hold Your Hand").
If you peruse the crisp black and white photos in this beautiful reissue, you see that the Beatles were in fact boys, youthful, the seriousness of the cover photo belied by the mostly smiling faces within. The topics about which they sing (no, that's topic, singular) is love --- lost love, unrequited love, hoped for love, and so on. I can almost (but not quite) imagine how the teenage girls fell out over these songs. . .
"Since you left me, I'm all alone" Swoon
"Close your eyes and I'll kiss you, tomorrow I'll miss you" Eyes closed, fainting
"Please Mr. Postman, look and see, if there's a letter in there for me" Puhleassse
"I wanna be your lover baby, I wanna be your man" Woah. Granted, "lover" didn't quite have the same connotation then as now.
But I'm six, remember, and I'd rather play cowboys and Indians than listen to a bunch of girls yabbering about some funny looking guys. I mean, what's the big deal?
I know now that John, Paul, George and Ringo were working nonstop, touring, barely eating, sleeping in dives, playing in rowdy bars in Hamburg, drinking and carousing, that this album was recorded in 28 hours over the course of six days (as much time as they would later spend on one song alone!), and that it was the first British album to sell one million copies. There is a lot not to admire about these guys. But two things stand out: tremendous creativity and an unparalleled work ethic. Without both, they would not have been so successful. With both, their relentless schedule and manic following nearly killed them within three years. Who would want that?
I'm not six anymore. I'm not 16 either. I can't hear this music now the way I heard it then, fresh and new, hear the needle touch vinyl for the first time, smell the record fresh out of the slipcase. Now it's an artifact, heard and experienced through three decades of listening to the music in different contexts, through countless articles I've read about them, and memorable conversations where their names were invoked. I can't any longer hear John Lennon's voice without remembering the shock of his death, how a woman in my law school class wept when she heard and left the room, without conjuring up images of lying on the tile basement floor of my bedroom riveted by the sound of their voices knowing that they could never be what they were.
They were not innocents of course. And yet it was a time of innocence, before assassinations and race riots and ugly protests. Before we knew presidents lied. Before we stopped believing in the American Dream. A time when we were all six, when we walked in wonder and were unaware of what could and did happen in a world of brokenness.
We were not innocents of course. And we can't go back. We can only go on, carrying forward all that is true, good and beautiful, waiting for a time when innocence will be restored, when songs about love have a new and deeper meaning. "It won't be long, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah." Those boys were on to something.