image: Dayton Daily News Archive (MS-458), Special Collections and Archives, Wright State University
I get into the habit of playing Abbey Road before work. One morning, the artificially cheery “Help!” starts blaring into the silence I expected after “Her Majesty.” I think about how, for so long, my perception of the Beatles was all sheen and high gloss, all twist and shout, all yeah yeah yeah. Romanticizing distance gives an easy inroad to fantasy: these cute young men just want to hold your hand and let you drive their car.
I imagine scenes from twenty years before I was born: bouncing hair on a black and white TV, an implanted memory. A wide shot of girls, mouths agape, hands waving frantically or pressed to flushed faces, arrested in the same adolescent daydream. People screaming so maniacally we made up a word for it. Far-gone, this euphoria feels inevitable, predestined, inert.
But then Paul starts singing “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” and I gasp. I know I’ve heard this song before, but it’s fixed so deep in my consciousness that I forget it was ever a thing that was written. The melody feels like a part of me from lost time. The movements pull me back to girlhood. In the moment, I mistake this fluttery, fanciful feeling for pleasure. I realize later it is the birth of an ache.
I don’t blame myself for unwarranted optimism. I have always loved sad songs that sound joyful.
I’ve just seen a face
I can’t forget the time or place
Where we just met
She’s just the girl for me
And I want all the world to see
I know that I’m going to want some time with this one. When the song ends, I hit the backtrack button. Then I hear a soft, winding guitar I don’t recognize. I realize I had missed these first ten seconds; they are part of the whole. A crevasse inside me widens. I start to either imagine or remember a man with a guitar, one hand on the neck, one hand picking and strumming, sending these chords cascading at me. He wants me to guess the song title. I can’t, so I just smile at him instead.
Had it been another day
I might have looked the other way
And I’d have never been aware
But as it is I’ll dream of her
I know I am choosing to enter a trance when I set the song to auto-repeat. I’ll listen for maybe twenty minutes, maybe two hours, maybe days on end. I lock myself in this headspace to see what it does for me.
Take two minutes and turn it into eternity. Line up stretches of two minutes and let them create a world of cacophonous emotions. For two minutes, I get to dream about the man with the guitar all I want. My bopping head swirls with memories of ambiguously intimate moments, and fantasies of definitively intimate moments that won’t come to pass.
I blanket my interior world with compounding two-minute plays of a shallow love song. Two minutes where I never remember to listen to all the lyrics in order. Two minutes where I obsess over scraps, never bothering to knit together the whole meaning. Two minutes locked in rhythm. Two minutes bolstered by refrain. Two minutes of in-the-wind infatuation.
Falling, yes I am falling,
And she keeps calling
Me back again.
I like this song because it just says “falling.” It truncates the “in love.” I like truncating love, too.
I like it because Paul sings about a girl he doesn’t know at all. He’s singing about a face. Why is any one particular face your favorite? What if you love the wrong face?
I’ve known fantasy and I’ve known love, and maybe it’s heresy, but shallowness appeals to me. If it’s just a face you’re dealing with, you get to write both parts.
I have never known
The like of this, I’ve been alone
And I have missed things
And kept out of sight
But other girls were never quite
I left love behind last year. I decided that it didn’t serve me anymore. There was too much real life in it: too many decisions of what to make for dinner, too much stress over getting the bills paid, too many arguments about dirty dishes, or too-tender crushes, or why I have to be so mean sometimes.
My ex-partner once told me he felt like he was competing with phantoms. The man with the guitar wasn’t the first. I also wasted energies on a poet, a drunk, a gardener, on basically anyone who laughed at my jokes, was kind to me, or gave me the right kind of crooked smile.
We shared a bed for five years. Sometimes he’d reach for me as I slept, and I pushed his hand away. I didn’t want to be tethered to reality, not even by love. I’ve started to wonder if my addiction to dream is my most self-destructive quality.
There are no more lyrics to quote. Everything repeats from here.
“When ‘Help’ came out in ’65, I was actually crying out for help. Most people think it’s just a fast rock ‘n roll song. I didn’t realize it at the time…But later, I knew I really was crying out for help.” John Lennon, http://www.beatlesinterviews.org/dbjypb.int3.html
 I force myself to write this without searching the internet first. I know his voice by now. I know his style. Why don’t I trust myself to remember anything?
 A friend recommends I cut this line, saying “This is how you play a guitar.” He makes me wonder: What is the purpose of examining a surface? Sometimes we put extra words in songs or essays because we want you to spend the extra time with us. Paul doesn’t say “I can’t forget the time or place where we just met” because it’s crucial information. He’s just extending the rhyme, filling out the verse. Giving you extra space to imagine that face.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis, music as politics, etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
Cate Root is a writer who lives in her own mind, but her body wakes up most mornings in the French Quarter. She is one of the producers of Dogfish Reading Series in New Orleans. Follow her on Twitter @cateroot.