Does the world really need another book about the Beatles? The people behind “In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs” think so, and they’ve come up with a seemingly irresistible wrinkle: Ask a lineup of literati to choose the Beatles song that means the most to them. Since everyone likes the Beatles, the results are practically guaranteed to please.
Well, maybe. But the most predictable thing about this endeavor is how predictable it is. The Rule of Themed Anthologies says that one-third of such collections will be thought-provoking and insightful, one third will be just okay, and one third will be tossed-off words from writers too guilty or desperate to say no to the commissioning editor. “In Their Lives” satisfies this formula with eerie precision.
The only sensible approach to evaluating such a book is to enumerate the successes, of which there are several. Writing about “Eleanor Rigby,” Rebecca Mead notes, with typical clarity and grace, that the song, “which so perfectly captures the pathos of loneliness, was generated in an atmosphere of intimacy and friendship . . . a product of the extraordinarily fruitful four-way marriage that was the Beatles collaborative.”
Chuck Klosterman performs a wry and original bit of Klostermanian speculation, suggesting that the “lurid outlier” that is “Helter Skelter” is both more and less than it seems. And Pico Iyer swims against the tide by admitting that “the Beatles have never been a group I’ve enjoyed,” picking “Yesterday” almost at random.
Best of all is Gerald Early’s essay on “I’m a Loser.” Early is an African American and grew up with the sense that the early Beatles were not “for” him: Their music was intended for white girls, and their “appeal was for me to the wrong color and the wrong gender.” Early thus has the experience, unique in this book, of his love for the most popular band in history manifesting as a form of outsiderness. He examines the implications of this phenomenon with measured gravity and concludes that he and a like-minded peer “were, if anything, fighting, unknowingly, against the racial politicization of taste.”
Early’s contribution inverts the book’s basic conception so radically that it’s a little difficult to take the essays that come after it seriously, especially as they begin to betray a fatal sameness. This is less a failure of imagination than a function of demographics. Most of the essayists are well-established writers of a certain age who, like their editor — indeed, like this reviewer — are slightly too young to have experienced the Beatles contemporaneously. This results in a surfeit of fractured childhood memories, breathlessly relayed but, like most childhood memories, essentially interchangeable. “The turntable on our Heathkit stereo spins,” Ben Zimmer recalls, in a representative passage. “I hear John’s electric piano wobbling between two notes.”
A good percentage of the writers report on how their own offspring also love, hate or dance to Beatles songs. One goes so far as to describe, with hipster-dad smugness, his son’s prowess at a “School of Rock” program, with its “Music of the Beatles” show. Joseph O’Neill tells us that his 2-year-old daughter “squawks” in annoyance at any song that is not “Good Day Sunshine.” Even the reliably flinty Francine Prose falls prey to the lunacy, co-authoring her entry with her granddaughter and reporting that “we’re all delighted that Emilia likes the Fab Four.”
Depending on the reader, such passages generate either a sense of warm, inclusive identification or something rather less appealing. A book that strenuously celebrates the spectacle of middle-class white writers and their tots bonding over the Beatles may strike some readers as a bit precious. Even those who are essentially simpatico will conclude, perhaps reluctantly, that most of these essays are not terribly interesting or original. If you ask a bunch of middle-age white people what their memories of the Beatles are, of course you’re going to get a bunch of watery pseudo-Wordsworth slop about the plasticity of formative memories; of course, half of them are going to tell you about their kids.
This doesn’t mean the Beatles don’t matter any more — it just means that you have to dig deeper than this book is able to if you want to penetrate the mystery. Nicholas Dawidoff, in one of the collection’s more thoughtful entries, observes that the music of the Beatles makes it “possible to experience the essential pop music self-delusion with them, that something so massively well-known could still be personal to you.”
The power of that “self-delusion” sold untold millions of records. “Self-delusion” is also, by definition, invisible to the self, but apparent to the outsider observer — or reader.
Michael Lindgren is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.
Edited by Andrew Blauner
Blue Rider. 300 pp. $23