The tenured professor reminisces about a line that spanned blocks of his hometown one June morning in 1967. According to him, the wait ended at the front door to a record store stocked only with copies of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Smiling with retained awe, he describes walls spread with the same image: a menagerie of musicians, comedians, novelists, poets, politicians, and four women.
He stands on a kind of stage, the cushioned seats of the lecture hall tiered around him. He says never before had a pop record come with a lyric sheet. A familiar story published on fresh paper: “I used to be cruel to my woman / I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved / Man, I was mean but I’m changing my scene / And I’m doing the best that I can.” The professor introduces “Getting Better” by calling some lines “jarring.” He doesn’t specify which lines. He’s not in the habit of separating art from artist––having explained “Taxman” through George’s tax rates, shown pictures of the Penny Lane that Paul knew, pasted into a PowerPoint slide a quote from John about how “Help!” was autobiographical––but he omits the fact that John went on record a second time, in an interview with author David Sheff. “I used to be cruel to my woman… I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself and I hit.”
The following fall, for a course on sound in film, I watch a documentary directed by Andrew Solt. Within the first few minutes, John declares every Beatles song to be “a diary of who we were at the time.” The soundtrack seems intended to prove his point. After John says he lost his mother Julia twice, “once as a 5-year-old, where I was moved in with my auntie, and once again when I was re-establishing a relationship with her,” the film cuts to a concert where he sings, “Mother, you had me / I never had you.” After John admits, “I was eating and drinking like a pig and subconsciously crying for help,” the Beatles perform “Help!” at Shea Stadium. After Cynthia Lennon guesses what her ex-husband mouthed to her from a window of the train a policeman kept her from boarding, sticking his arm between her and John––“For Christ’s sake, Cyn, you’re too slow again” ––no music plays.
Pop critic Rob Sheffield begins his book about the Beatles with a tribute to the band by way of Maureen Cox Starkey. On a rooftop in January, she lent her coat to her husband Ringo so he could drum in the London cold. She was 22. After the Beatles finished the final chorus of “Get Back,” Paul thanked Maureen––“a quintessential Beatles moment,” for Sheffield. “They’re staging this self-conscious historic occasion for the cameras, John’s going into a bit of trusty banter, but Paul gets distracted by the sight of a girl clapping.” They were playing on the roof because Paul suggested it, Paul being a 26-year-old “man who’s gotten used to trusting his spontaneous impulses,” gotten used to embracing childlike disinhibition.
For the Beatles course I submit just three exams, each conducted by Scantron. My participation in discussions is neither graded nor requested; there are hardly any discussions to speak of, if discussion requires exchange. In early September, the professor claims the assassination of John F. Kennedy “paved the way” for the British Invasion, that mourning Americans were desperate for an uplift. He screens footage of the Beatles descending an airstair, waving at thousands of young people welcoming them to the United States. I want to ask, Did anyone survey these screaming girls to learn if they’d been grieving the death of a president? But there’s no precedent for challenging the professor’s authority and I’m less emboldened, less immersed in fandom, than the teenyboppers.
The professor sprinkles his lectures with hints, variations of “That might show up on a test.” I learn I am to memorize the names of men: Best, Sutcliffe, Epstein, Martin, Aspinall, Evans, Williams, James, Civil, Lester, Lindsay-Hogg, Voorman, Browne, Berio, Preston, Spector, Clapton, Klein. Eventually, I get to fill in the bubble that means Yoko Ono.
The film course, taught by a PhD candidate who’s a woman, requires a group presentation. This classroom’s floor is level, and the implication of stern hierarchy in its white concrete-block walls contrasts with the instructor’s physical practice of listening to students. She nods vigorously as I argue that Solt chose not to substantiate a portrayal of John as abusive with his music. While my groupmates and I cough and twitch, forty-six of our classmates fill out an instructor-provided feedback form. One question asks, “What was your favorite part of the presentation?” A Ryan will answer: “John Lennon…just because I love John Lennon.”
“Where do your Beatles start?” Sheffield poses the question as if he and I are having a conversation and my answer will influence his next sentence. I suppose I could pen a letter; detail the twin bed I lay on when I listened to Please Please Me for the first time. I needed to come up with my own thoughts before hearing the professor’s. I’d closed the door to my bedroom, turned off the lights, picked up my water cup to feel that it was full. During the title track, I wondered whether my classmates had also stopped tapping their toes, if they flinched at John’s gruff voice in the chorus, at the insistence behind the harmonica, at the repetitiveness.
Aged eighteen, I wear a pale blue dress on a city bus by myself. Two men get on together and one sits across from me. His pupils survey my body, slowly. He asks for my name, then my number. He tells me I look “pure.” My high school volleyball coach told me to try balance exercises at home and I regret never having prioritized them because if I get up while the bus is moving or stopping, I may well fall in the stranger’s lap. He pleads, “It would be so good.” His friend intervenes once we arrive at their stop, which is more than I’ll say of Paul, George, and Ringo.
That “Please Please Me” was the first Beatles single to hit #1 in the U.K. “could show up on a test.” And John, the professor mentions, said he wrote it about wanting a woman to put her mouth around him.
The first time I listen to “AOS” by Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band, I find hope. Ono’s moans crescendo, climb up to a halt. She begs, “No, no. Not yet.” Again, she moans, faster and faster, until her character insists that her partner not orgasm, or not bring her to orgasm. Then the third set of moans: they crescendo, they increase in tempo, she seems so awfully close, and, finally, she screams. She screams so many times she establishes a rhythm. The sax and drums sympathize, running and pummeling, declaring that something is wrong. Something is wrong. Intimacy in the past, no matter how recent, cannot justify intimacy in the present. The screams are demands for liberation from whatever it is the woman does not consent to. They are both piercing and hopeful.
Taking the second exam, I retrieve this fact from my long-term memory, where it had been stored, checked on, and refastened once more by the professor: George debuted his sitar with “Norwegian Wood.” I fantasize an essay question: “Did ‘Norwegian Wood’ become a hit because its heroine controls a romantic situation?” I’d like writing that I couldn’t know, the accomplishment of a hit involving some combination of the fruits of luck––money, acquaintances, physical conformity, to name a few. Time permitting, or the professor’s management of time permitting, I’d add that I love the song because John sounds like he’s honoring the heroine’s agency, his vocal melody ebbing and flowing with the peacefulness of her unfussy hospitality.
My girlfriend softens her tone, about to bear bad news. “Isn’t ‘Norwegian Wood’ a Beatles song you, um, like?” She says I might want to see something, gently flips open her laptop. Apparently, Paul told biographer Barry Miles that “Norwegian Wood” is about expecting sex from a woman. “She led him on, then said, ‘You’d better sleep in the bath.’ In our world the guy had to have some sort of revenge. It could have meant I lit a fire to keep myself warm, and wasn’t the décor of her house wonderful? But it didn’t, it meant I burned the fucking place down as an act of revenge, and then we left it there and went into the instrumental.” My girlfriend tries reading my body. I shrug. Paul McCartney has no right to decide what a Beatles song meant, let alone what it means. This is a fair interpretation: the man lit a fire because the heroine reminded him self-comfort doesn’t always require touching another person.
Typical for a Paul song, the narrator of “We Can Work It Out” acts like his perspective ought to matter more than anyone else’s. “Think of what you’re saying,” he tells his girlfriend. “You can get it wrong and still you think that it’s all right.” Meanwhile, she’s unwelcomed to assess his stance, for “only time will tell” if he’s wrong. Shortly after playing the single, the professor addresses the women in the room. Are we “shallow”? Do we like Paul just because we find him “cute”? Accustomed to rhetorical questions, the slanted space above our heads remains handless.
Perhaps I’m at my most anachronistic when looking at photos of young Paul. I see Courtney Barnett’s face––heart-shaped with mischievous eyes, thick brows, a mouth curving downward. Then I want “Boxing Day Blues,” its tension between someone whose “house has an open door” and someone who “needs a lock and a key.” Its acknowledgement of two people. Barnett’s voice sounds scraped, a torn timbre being one way of taking up less conversational space. Plus, this song about potential incompatibility reminds me of the night I played it for a crush, having glanced at her right foot during the faster tracks on the album to check that it was still tapping. We were nearing the end of a four-hour drive to a concert headlined by an indie-rock band she agreed to see though she hadn’t heard of them. In both of our respective histories of our relationship, the road trip is our first date.
Sheffield quotes Paul on the subject of collaborating, so to speak, with his wife Linda: “Everyone had every reason to slag her off. In fact, there was no reason for anyone to support her. But I knew what I was doing––as did John, having Yoko on his records. He didn’t think she was Aretha Franklin. He was in love and he wanted to make something new––something of his own making.” The critic excuses Paul, claims if he really meant it he would have married “softer clay.” Surely Paul had been reading Genesis, had gotten to the verse where God, hearing Adam hum, deems him no Aretha Franklin and resolves to make Eve. Of course, Eve shrieks in the style of Yoko and expands God’s taste.
Linda McCartney categorized a photo as a self-portrait, though centered between her and a toilet stands Paul. His legs spread, knees bent, hands positioned as if they’re also holding a camera, he mirrors her stance. To pose another person as an extension of one’s self, when the other is more famous: a demotion to stardom? Here, arguably, a self-aware demotion. Playing pop star, she relegates the greed of the role––the greed in claiming another self as well as authority over the representation of that self, as pop songwriters tend to do––to a room for human waste. The bathroom strikes me as a perfect setting for her photo. It reflects the loss of knowledge, the waste-making, inherent in learning of a person secondhand.
Introducing his interpretation of the breakup song “Ticket to Ride,” Sheffield asserts: “Women leave simply.” He conflates singer and narrator, writes that the woman’s leaving a John who’s “not at all unsympathetic to her flight,” ostensibly not even as he ends his story with the refrain, “My baby don’t care.”
During my second week as an intern on a crisis line, the phone rings. This woman’s husband has gone to the ****, as he does every day, allotting her the usual ** minutes at home without his surveillance. She called from a landline because he’d stolen her cell again. The abuse is nonphysical but still life-threatening. She has her own refrain and it goes, “I want out.” For the past few months, liquor has kept him tucked in tightly through the wee hours, but cars weren’t made for people whose bodies have **** like hers. A cab isn’t an option under her income. She distrusts the cops. I ask, “Would it be okay with you if I talked with my supervisors about transportation?” She says yes, and to hurry. While I’m across the hall, my shift partner spots a blinking red light and picks up the phone. The woman lets her know she’s been talking with a young lady, so my partner hangs up, having meant to press hold.
Often, exchanging goodbyes with a woman who called the crisis line is the most substantial sliver of closure I’ll get from our conversation. Some women request shelter, are granted it, and never arrive. Waiting and doubting, waiting and hoping, I remember there are many girlfriends and wives without cars, many towns designed with cars as a premise, many friends who would drive but are preoccupied with their own attempts at survival. When a caller lives outside of the six counties from which our shelter accepts applicants––a rule established due to the quantity of unsafe people nearby––I consult a directory of shelters and refer her to, hypothetically, the most convenient. I don’t know if the shelter has an open bed. Supposing there is space, the staff could enforce a zero-tolerance policy at women dealing with addiction. The other residents could rock babies with reasons for crying constantly. And of course, there’s the question of how many women have told themselves they’ll call but haven’t yet. If yet will prove accurate. If they’ll reach a phone, or believe their memories, or love their abusers less.
For a 1969 entry in her New Yorker column, the feminist Ellen Willis acknowledges that John is callow, then notes within parentheses, “Callowness is part of his charm.” Willis’s contemporary Greil Marcus, in a canonized book first published five years after the Beatles disbanded, calls the quartet “heroes.” That the Beatles deserve the share of attention they’ve gotten is not among the comforting conclusions Joan Didion rejects in her 1978 essay “The White Album.” In 2012, the editors of Rolling Stone assumed access to all records and posted a list of “The Greatest 500 Albums of All Time.” Let It Be was endowed spot 392; Help!, 331; A Hard Day’s Night, 307; Meet the Beatles!, 53; Please Please Me, 39; Abbey Road, 14; The White Album, 10; Rubber Soul, 5; Revolver, 3; Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1. Five years later, around the time I enrolled in the course devoted to the Beatles, HarperCollins published the book in which Sheffield, assuming access to all living sentient beings, states that “John, Paul, George, and Ringo remain the world’s favorite thing.” On a sunny early evening in August 2019, sitting next to my partner outside of our favorite coffee shop, I heard a man bike past, his stereo blasting a bouncy bassline and these words: “Man, I was mean but I’m changing my scene / And I’m doing the best that I can.” Then, in mid-November, the haven for survivors of domestic violence where I interned raised funds by celebrating Abbey Road’s fiftieth birthday. Often, it seems there are two certainties in life: death, and the positive reception of the Beatles.
As Marcus has it, Elvis was “just a good boy, out for a real good time” when he sang, “I’d rather see you dead, little girl / than to be with another man.” According to Sheffield, “Run for Your Life” was a joke to John, implying he merely played patriarch when he echoed the same lines. When I consider how to criticize this means of entertainment, I become bored.
The professor shares an anecdote: an engineer, stepping into Studio One in late-night/early-morning liminality, witnessed the Beatles and a couple groupies marching in a circle, chanting, “We all live in a yellow submarine / yellow submarine, yellow submarine.” Collective nautical fantasizing seems fun, but if I could pop into Abbey Road at any point in history, I’d become the person who pants five times in “A Day in the Life.” I’d lean into my mic and exhale as if I were rushing to a bus, maybe pump my arms in rhythm. In an autobiographical novel, Kurt Vonnegut quotes himself: “I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, ‘The Beatles did.’” Panting along, getting to control my breathing, I agree.
The day after we lost connection, as soon as her husband leaves for the ****, the survivor calls back. “I am so glad to hear your voice,” I tell her. In a tempo slow enough to dissolve the tension my chest has been harboring since we last spoke, she says she figured I didn’t hang up on her. She and I find a local lawyer who can help her file for divorce.
Sierra Gray studied English as well as feminist rock criticism at a Midwestern university, having created the latter major because she wanted to think about dissonance as and for liberation. An anarchist, she gravitates to lyrical essays.