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Before seven-year-old Sam Smith discovered the Beatles, he and his father had little in common. Like so many other kids his age, Sam was drawn first to the Fab Four by their trivia as much as by their music and personalities. Peter Smith was content to point Sam to all the clues of Paul McCartney’s putative demise, to reveal who "Julia" was, and so forth. But soon the Beatles opened the two Smiths to each other, and to a harmonious new friendship. They found themselves using the band’s songs and exploits to fuel discussions of life’s splendid complicationsfriendship, teamwork, romance, artand its inevitable sorrowsfailure, betrayal, and mortality.
Music fans will delight in this singular celebration of the Beatles’ history and continuing cross-generational appeal. Smith takes us everywhere the Fab Four took him and Sam: from the boy’s Beatle-drenched bedroom to the circus of devotion that is Beatlefest to Paul McCartney’s childhood bedroom in a Liverpool row house. Ultimately, the two Smiths come to realize that the object of their affection transcends any facts that could ever be amassed about it. The Beatles’ essence isn’t in Liverpool or London or in heavily annotated lyric sheets. It is, of course, in their songs, and in how they help us understand ourselves and connect with each other.
With a wit and clarity reminiscent of of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity and Stefan Fatsis’s Word Freak, Smith limns the intensity of an obsession. And he evokes with wry intelligence the love a father and son can share.
|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.56(d)|
About the Author
Peter Smith is a contributing editor for O, the Oprah Magazine and has written for The New Yorker, the New York Times, Travel & Leisure, and Harper’s Bazaar. He has also written three novels, most recently A Good Family.
Read an Excerpt
Two of Us
By Peter Smith
Houghton Mifflin CompanyCopyright © 2004 Peter Smith
All right reserved.
Meet the Beatles
My son—handsome, kind, tall for his age, with a stickler"s way of talking and
a supernatural memory for raw data—was in the grip of his first-ever love
affair. Not with his homeroom teacher. Not with the little dark-haired girl down
the block. It wasn"t a crush; crushes flowered in private, then wilted. It was
less creepy, surer-footed than any obsession. Nor was it exclusive—other
kids, I knew, shared his preoccupation.
No, more than three decades after their 1970 liquidation, Sam had
fallen in love with the Beatles, a band that had burned out less than a decade
after its founding, that had released only ten hours of music. In retrospect, it
was easy to see why Sam"s seven-year-old mind had locked onto the
Beatles franchise, with its boyhood friendships and grownup squabbles, its
rivalries, love affairs, submarines, octopuses, silver hammers, newspaper
taxis, piggies, raccoons, meter maids, bulldogs, and shadowy Paul-is-dead
clues. Making lists—compiling and comparing by letter and category a little
slice of the world—has always seemed to me an especially male
preoccupation. The uninterrupted dream that is the Beatles universe lends
itself to endless poring over and mapping out. For Sam, it served as a way to
bring coherence to something elusive and overwhelming: music, and how it
made him feel; and life, as he was starting to understand what it gives and
grabs away from you.
Nowhere were the Beatles more obsessively alive than in Sam"s
conversation, beginning first thing most weekday mornings and ending at
eight or nine night. At around 7 a.m., he would pad into our bedroom, wrap
himself in a blanket, and lie stiffly breathing at the end of the bed, patiently
rehearsing and rearranging various lyrics, characters, and VH1 Behind the
Music storylines in his head. Then finally, it came out: "Dad—did you know
what Paul called "Yesterday" when he was writing it?"
"No, I"m not sure," I said, still half asleep.
""Scrambled Eggs." He wrote it with the words, "Scrambled eggs /
Oh, baby, how I love your legs." Then he changed the title to "Yesterday" later
"Wow. I"m not sure "Scrambled Eggs" would"ve worked out."
"Why would somebody love somebody else"s legs?"
"It . . . happens."
Just as I was drifting back to sleep, the voice would blurt
"Uh-huh . . . ?"
"You know John and Paul?"
"Uh-huh . . . ?"
"How many songs do you think Paul wrote, and how many songs
do you think John wrote—of all the songs the Beatles sang in all?"
"I don"t know. Paul wrote thirty and John wrote thirty- five." Or the
other way around. Or not.
"Dad, you"re wrong." A note of small-town-parade triumph in his
voice. "Paul wrote eighty-four point five-five percent of the Beatles songs.
John wrote seventy-three point six-five percent." Silence. "George wrote
twenty-two point one-five percent."
"Poor George. Third place again."
"How do you that sometimes the other Beatles weren"t all that nice
"Age difference, mostly." George was younger than the others, I
reminded him, nearly two years younger than John. And George had
worshipped John back when the boys were teenagers in Liverpool, even trying
to tag along when John went on dates. "Remember, all four of them grew up
together, and when that happens, you get caught up in certain roles. No
matter how old you get—I bet you"ll see this someday with your own sisters—
you don"t ever forget who"s older and who"s the baby." Sam had two sisters,
ages six and four. "Your roles in your family don"t really change over time,
even if you"ve changed. And the Beatles were kind of a family."
Already there were lessons Sam had picked up from the band.
Things I could teach him, or my wife, Maggie, could, using the Beatles as
real-life characters, stand-ins for guys everywhere.
But in the end, he would teach us more than we could ever teach
him: names, dates, working song titles, even the Liverpool bus routes Paul
and George took as adolescents. An excellent though reluctant piano
student, Sam"s ears picked up little things in Beatles songs that my own
ears trampled and crushed—a near-imperceptible rattling at the end of "Long,
Long, Long," caused, Sam told me, by a half-drunk bottle of wine vibrating
atop the Leslie speaker in the Abbey Road studios ("Blue Nun," he clarified);
the swirling, geyserlike sound effects in "Yellow Submarine" deriving from
Jo blowing bubbles through a straw while George swished water around in
a bucket; the barely audible percussion in "Lovely Rita" caused by the
Beatles dragging metal hair combs through sheets of toilet paper; the
symphonic crescendo that caps off "A Day in the Life" culminating on the
chord of E major. I knew none of these things.
Eventually Sam would roll off the bed, and a few minutes later
from his bedroom, I"d hear the opening strains of "Taxman," the genial hook
of "We Can Work It Out," or John Lennon"s elegantly acid vocal from "A Day
in the Life." It was like being sawed awake, and for the umpteenth time since
this had all started, I experienced a few tormented moments of self-doubt:
This was our fault, wasn"t it? And it was OK, right?
"Could you turn that down a bit?" I"d yell, coming into his room to
help him mobilize. As he dressed for school, Sam casually explained to me
that Paul McCartney had written "Getting Better" during a walk in the park
with his sheepdog, Martha, and that John Lennon wrote "I"m So Tired" in
India, when he couldn"t get to sleep. Oh, and did I know that Father
McKenzie from "Eleanor Rigby" was a stranger"s last name that Paul swiped
from the London phone book (though he composed the song using the
working name "Father McCartney"), and that it was Ringo who came up with
the line "Darning his socks / in the night"?
It wasn"t just Beatles data he knew cold. He was also casually
acquainted with the group"s sidemen—B playing the keyboards
on "Get Back," Eric Clapton donating a guitar solo as a favor to George
Harrison on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"—as well as with assorted
Beatles" cameo players, girlfriends, wives, and children: the Stu Sutcliffes
and Pete Bests, the Cynthias, Yokos, Maureens, Pattis, Lindas, Julians,
Stellas, and Heathers. He also knew the solo work each Beatle had put out
after the band dissolved, from Ram to All Things Must Pass to Sentimental
Journey to Double Fantasy.
His third-floor bedroom wasn"t an all-American room. It was an all-
English room, lacking only a three-pronged outlet and a draft. Fab Four
memorabilia rushed at you as the door swung open. A Beatles "65 LP hung
on the near wall next to a faded print of Klaus Voorman"s intricate Revolver
cover. An antique Beatles lunchbox sat hunched on his windowsill. Directly
across the room from his bed hung a two- by-three-foot blowup of the zebra-
crossing on the Abbey Road album cover. Taped to its bottom rim were two
dozen or so postcards of the Beatles in various incarnations: nervously
endearing in their first suits; martial-looking in Sgt. Pepper regalia; seedy-
looking and estranged for The White Album; and finally, lost in their own
bickering thoughts as they jammed on a Savile Row rooftop during an
overcast London afternoon in Let It Be.
In Sam"s dresser drawer sat a Blue Meanies T-shirt and a Beatles-
faces necktie; on the room side of his door hung a Beatles calendar he could
glance at when he wasn"t telling the time with his Yellow Submarine
wristwatch; on one of hi sconces hung a white plastic pendant you see
draped on hotel doorknobs, except rather than saying "Do Not Disturb," this
one read, "It"s Been a Hard Day"s Night." Next to his portable CD player sat,
scattered and mostly caseless, the scratched CDs of Help!, A Hard Day"s
Night, Sgt. Pepper"s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The White Album, Please
Please Me, Magical Mystery Tour, Abbey Road, Meet the Beatles, Revolver,
Rubber Soul, both volumes of Past Masters, the two slightly redundant
greatest-hits collections The Red Album and The Blue Album, the recently
rereleased Yellow Submarine soundtrack, and a hard-to-find double CD called
The Beatles Live at the BBC.
Enough already—but there was more. In his bookcase, beside
The Lorax and a couple of Harry Potter books, sat nearly a half dozen
battered paperbacks devoted to Beatles trivia, to Paul-is-dead clues and to
the origins of every Beatles song ever recorded, including ones I"d never
heard of, like "Youngblood" and "Cry for a Shadow" and "I"m Gonna Sit Right
Down and Cry over You." Downstairs, scattered among the videos and DVDs,
were his copies of Help!, A Hard Day"s Night, Yellow Submarine, Magical
Mystery Tour, The Compleat Beatles, the eight-volume Beatles Anthology
(the Let It Be video was tied up in litigation, though he"d seen that, too), and
a couple of cheap-o, foreign-made knockoffs with titles like Beatles Bonanza
and Beatles Uncollected —The Lost Archives.
Directly over Sam"s narrow bed, in a purple frame, hung the pièce
wasn"t very enthusiastic when Sam told my wife and me that he
wanted to write Paul McCartney a fan letter. "He"s probably incredibly
overextended," I told him, adding that Paul McCartney was (well,
undoubtedly; I couldn"t say for sure) a horribly busy person with a global
songwriting empire to run, and music to write and record and produce, and
grown children to tend to, probably an altogether overly written-to person.
Plus, I"d done enough interviews with well-known people to know that most
celebrities were less affable than their public images would lead you to
believe. "You have to be a bastard to make it and that"s a fact," John Lennon
said once. "And the Beatles were the biggest bastards on earth."
But mostly, I didn"t want Sam to get his feelings hurt when several
years went by and he still hadn"t gotten an answer. "Paul probably gets
truckloads of mail," I explained. My wife made a face at me. I was being a
"I don"t care if Paul doesn"t write me back," Sam said.
So that night, Maggie and I helped Sam improvise a short,
heartfelt letter to Paul McCartney, which included a crayoned drawing of a
smiling, left-handed guy holding a guitar. If I were Paul McCartney, I would
have liked getting something like this in my mailbox—a note complimenting
me on my voice and bass-guitar playing, particularly on Abbey Road, and
closing with the words, "I love you, Paul." The next day, I mailed off the letter
to Paul"s London offices, then forgot about it.
School ended; the neighborhood thinned out as neighbors left for
vacation; parking places showed up on our street; air conditioners dripped
onto sidewalks and gardens. Weeks went past.
I remember the night clearly. We were in the harried first minutes
of returning from a week at the beach, the car double- parked outside, our
accumulated mail splashed across the dining-room table, when I caught sight
of the beige, official-looking envelope addressed to Sam. I noticed that my
son"s name and address were neatly typed out on a computer label, that
there was no return address, and that the envelope bore the faint pink smack
of a U.K. postmark.
A few moments later, Sam said, peacefully, happily, "Paul wrote
"Paul who?" I had come up behind Sam now, and I noticed the
signature. "Oh, shit! I mean—" My wife let out a scream, then clapped her
fingers over her mouth. "Oh, my God, I can"t believe it," I heard her say
through her fingers. Then she screamed again, but without fingers this time.
The letter was typed on a business-size cream-colored sheet,
with "Paul McCartney" preprinted in dark, wiry script across the top.
Addressed to "Samuel," and composed in thoughtfully plain language that
any child could understand, Paul thanked my son for his words about his
singing and bass-guitar playing. He was surprised and also happy, he said,
to find out that there were seven-year-olds in the world who knew and liked
Abbey Road. The letter closed by relaying warm wishes not just to Sam, but
to Sam"s parents.
The signature was in a dashing, daunting black ink, and
the ney of McCartney, Paul—now indisputably the kindest, finest, greatest,
best, most generous, and brilliant Beatle, the group"s guts, soul, brains, and
heart—had drawn a doodle of a beaming, freckled, round-faced kid, as if to
say, Thanks for your drawing. Here"s mine.
"I told you he"d answer me," Sam kept saying as we all read and
reread the letter, putting it down and picking it up countless times. (That
night, I slithered into Sam"s room where he lay asleep to pore over the letter
again, to suck up meanings from its every word, to memorize every loop of
Paul"s signature. My best to you and your parents. Parent. That was me, the
parent. Yessss! ) Ten feet away from me, Sam was enjoying the pure sleep
of a boy who lived in a just universe: you write someone a letter; he"ll write
About a year and a half earlier, I had started to realize that my son and I were
The signs were slight but they were accumulating. For the longest
time, I hardly noticed them; I was too busy. Which was, as I think back on it,
a large part of the problem.
Though Sam didn"t want to hurt my feelings, it was obvious that
he preferred spending time with his mother, his babysitter, his two sisters,
his friends, the risk-loving kid next door, the Border collie two doors down,
anybody but me. Earlier that year, he"d brought home a simple drawing from
first-grade art class. Titled "My Family," the picture showed four figures of
various sizes, all wide-eyed and genially, generically beaming. There was one
problem five people in our family. "So where am I?" I asked with
false casualness. "Oh," is the only thing Sam said, his green gaze drifting
down to his knees. Then, "I think maybe you"re in another one."
I was finding it harder and harder to talk to my seven-year- old. My
conversations with him started off fluently enough, then stiffened, froze, and
broke off. How was it possible, I wondered over and over again, that I could
feel awkward around Sam? Of all people? Seven years earlier, I could
remember him bundled up between my wife and me, gorgeous in his infant"s
moody indignity. He was as compulsively watchable as the Zapruder film.
Looking down into his crib day after day, month after month, I
could understand finally one reason why weddings were such tribal events.
The families intuited that their features would someday end up mashed
together in the faces of future grandchildren. My mother and my wife"s father,
warmly collusive during our wedding, now met up permanently in Sam"s
eyebrows; my dad acknowledged me in a friendly glance from his coastal
grave; my sister-in-law"s bottom lip pursed up in annoyance against my great-
grandmother"s top lip. Ancestors on both sides crowded into Sam"s face,
jostling for placement. Somewhere in that checkerboard of features, too, were
glimmers of his own future face: a teenager sealed in his room; a college boy
hobbling on taped crutches; a new father; a farmer; a chef; a diplomat; a
bond salesman; a retired rug merchant; an Oscar winner for Best Animated
Short. Whatever made him happy: that was my only ambition for him.
As the first of what would be three children, Sam was our practice
baby, the test case. He taught Maggie and me how to be parents. As a
reward for his patience, we gave him excessive caution and great food. He
ate the expensive Earth"s Best brand (his younger sister got Gerber"s, and I
joked that his youngest got dead mice; the more children you have, the
sloppier you get).
But as Sam got older, I seemed to be mummifying before his
eyes. I didn"t really know what to talk about with him. More often than not, I
found myself standing across the room from my son, my posture defensive,
my voice thinner and higher than usual. I couldn"t tell him "I love you" without
shuffling around like a hayseed. He makes you nervous, I realized during one
of those times, with stabbing wonderment. The up-close, burrowing-mole
carnality of him as a baby now felt dreamt, psychedelically distant. At the
ages of seven and forty, my son and I were like two teenagers suffering
through a series of jumpy, forgettably inept first dates.
It would begin first thing in the morning. I walked Sam to school
past the supermarket and the overflowing trash barrel on the corner. "So," I"d
say, "what"s on the roster for today?"
He didn"t know roster. Why did I use words like that around
him? "I mean, what"s up, what"s happening for you at school today?"
He glanced up at me, having absorbed without comment the false
note. "I don"t know, really. Just . . . the usual."
"Hmmm." Then, as I spied a fam newspapers,
candy wrappers, and restaurant menus now spinning before us on the street
corner, I"d offer up a winning remark like, "God, look at all this junk."
Otherwise our walks were, for the most part, silent, until I kissed him
fumblingly on the forehead good-bye, and then he"d run up the steps into
Was this how I"d end up lodged in his memory, that arbitrary
judge that I knew firsthand could recall the one cloudy day in a week of
sunny ones? "Yeah, my dad was like the third ghost in A Christmas Carol,"
the adult Sam would say gloomily to his wife. "The faceless one in the black
cape who went around pointing at things."
Instead of hanging out with my family, I worked. When I wasn"t
locked in my office, I was out looking for work, or traveling on behalf of this or
that project, scrambling toward a future so easeful and palm tree–lined it
would afford me . . . time with my family.
Was I missed all that terribly? I doubted it. What did fathers do
precisely? In my experience, fathers often had a pretty easy time of it. They
received abnormal acclaim for seemingly minimal effort—bouncing a kid on
their shoulders or remembering to put matching socks on an infant in
At the same time, I could sense fatherlessness when I came
across it in other people. It was the vague, yearning quality I saw in some
guys whose dads had died young, or who were drunks, or who had otherwise
gone missing. It had the force of a craving—blunt, ardent. It was probably no
coincidence that John Lennon, who was raised by wome said
of his childhood, "The men were invisible," was the angriest, most self-
destructive of all four Beatles.
Before Sam was born, I gave myself a solemn lecture, filled with
clumsy double negatives: You will never not discuss with your son important
topics. You will never not not reveal yourself to him. You will never not have
time for him. You will not work too hard, or shut your kids out of your office,
or your life. Then I"d breached each one of these commandments.
Maybe I was simply communing with my own father.
My dad was a schoolmaster, a locally legendary one. An owlish,
eccentric, crew-cut, suavely disheveled man who spent nearly four decades
teaching English at a New England private school, he was a Bostonian by
birth and by temperament, and a paradox: a soulful, conservative man who
loved jazz; a former miler addicted to cigarettes; a law-school dropout; a lover
of Shakespeare, Tennyson, omelets, good wine, and Alvin and the
Chipmunks. Rumors chopped lightly around him—that he was paid a dollar a
year, that he"d been a World War II navigator who"d flown twenty-three B-17
missions while most soldiers could manage only three, that is, if they came
back at all. Number one wasn"t true; number two was, though I only stumbled
upon the details a decade after he died. Relatively old when he had my sister
and me (forty-two), he frightened me when I was little—he seemed grumpy,
self-absorbed, his thoughts someplace else—and though his humor and
decency were obvious to all, and our relationship over the years was loving, it
was shyer and mo than I would"ve liked. Early on, I think he decided,
with some relief, that I "got" him, and he "got" me, and that part of what made
our connection so first-rate was that neither of us saw the need to make it
any more explicit. I took this as the natural order between fathers and boys
(it fit perfectly my own shy nature), and so a whole life slipped away between
us. Looking back, I was as much to blame as he was. So I grew up with a
belief that the most important things in life—what you were feeling, what you
believed in—led by silent example. This was, after all, one of the marks of his
These guys saved the world. What else did you want from them?
More. At least I did.
Yet, without thinking about it, I christened my fatherhood by
repeating the approach I"d grown up with. It was like blowing a pointless red
heart into the sky: Dad, I"m like you—aren"t you proud of me?
I hadn"t the slightest idea who I was as a father. I didn"t even want
to talk about it. I was jammed in the hinge of two colliding generations, my
dad"s and my own, adhering to and not liking elements of both.
Then one day, I was leafing through Sam"s schoolwork, which the
school sent home every month or so. His teacher had asked the class to fill
in the answers to five or six mildly probing questions. In response to "What
makes you sad?" Sam had written, "When my dad goes away." Two lines
beneath that, in answer to "What makes you happy?" he"d written, "Spending
time with my dad."
I didn&q think, how to react. I was sandbagged —
shocked that my son needed me and unhappy with myself for not seeing
more clearly that he did.
That week, I made a full-frontal effort. I would be around more. I
would sit still for meals. I would rearrange my schedule. I would work less
and spend more time with my kids. On Sunday, I took Sam to the park near
our house. No sisters, no dog, just us. From the back, his gait uncannily
resembled my father"s—long legs, slightly knock-kneed. It wasn"t an
athlete"s walk but the amble of a thoughtful person, absent, more settled in
the head than in the body. I couldn"t help thinking that, in some ways, I was
accompanying my own father to the park, permitting him a bit of run-around
fun he"d maybe lacked himself growing up. Or maybe I was taking myself to
the park thirty-five years ago. Or maybe I should simply just stop crossing
I"d brought along a whiffle ball and a plastic bat. Setting up shop
near a group of dog walkers, Sam and I threw the fat ball back and forth a few
times. "Try and catch it like this, Sam, kind of open-handed," I called out after
a few throws. Then, "You want to give it a little twist, too."
Little twist? You mean like Chubby Checker? And wasn"t "open-
handed" a Buddhist term, not a baseball term? The ball made an ugly clap as
it hit Sam"s new glove, or the heel of my hand when he overhanded it back at
me. It was the hollow sound of the wrong myth at work. No—sports wasn"t
going to do the trick here. Plus, I cannot tell a lie: I was more interested in
introducing my kids to cultural stuff than I was in teaching them how to throw
Without being precious about it, I wanted all three of my children
to know about the cities of the world. I wanted them to learn at least one
language other than English. I wanted them to know about their ancestry, but
not be hemmed in by it. I wanted them to be street-smart, charming, and
fearless. I wanted them to be kind to other people (they didn"t have to like
them, just be kind to them) and to respect conflicting points of view. I wanted
them to be conversant with classical music, to know and appreciate jazz,
and to at least give opera a listen. I wanted them to understand music"s
power, how an old song coming from the radio could freeze you in your
tracks and invoke all the complexity of the past—a love affair, a long-gone
friend, the walls of an old bedroom, a time you thought you knew yourself
well. Could books or movies do that? Not really. And I wanted them to have
standards, for them to know "good" and "great" on those rare occasions they
came across it, as I was determined they would.
At seven, nearly eight years old, Sam was tall for his age, and slender.
Beautiful was a word a lot of people used about his face; soulful was one
they used to describe his personality. He was green-eyed, shaggy-haired,
slightly absent. There was a tenderness about him, as well as a note of
caution. It was as though he"d found out already that the world was rigged,
and you had to be careful where you stepped and who with, too. He was soft-
spoken, but meticulous with words. Sometimes he got snagged in details,
and you had to hustle him along. He could also be comically oblivious, the
sort of boy who puts his sweatpants on backward, or who Velcros his right
sneaker onto the left foot. His vagueness blurred his edges, made him appear
groggy sometimes. But it had its reasons. He was touched by things, and I
think he"d fashioned a bumper, or a buttress, around himself to lower his
chances of getting slammed around.
But this cloudy quality concealed a punctilious mind. In his most
seemingly out-of-it moods, Sam took in everything anybody said and was
able to repeat it back as if reading from a page. Once when he and I were
sorting through the toy chest in his room, I was amazed to find he could
identify nearly a hundred obscure, snapped-off or mangled toy pieces. A
fragment of gray plastic? The broken sword tip from an action figure a friend
gave him for his fifth birthday. An inch-long loop of string? From the broken
green yo-yo his cousin had given him three years earlier. A tiny green plastic
cone? Why, from the Clue game, of course.
When I read aloud to him before bed, I"d gotten into the bad habit
of paraphrasing for the sake of expedience. But he caught me every
time. ""Yes, Rusty said,"" I would drone, ""I want to go into the—"" Sam would
""Yes, Rusty exclaimed."" ""Yes, Rusty exclaimed. "Stop it, stop
it!" Cora said. Then Daisy—""
""Stop it, stop it, Cora ejaculated, tooting her shiny red horn.""
"OK! "Stop it, stop it ejaculated, tooting her shiny red—""
Nowhere was this weird precision more apparent than when he
dug into a topic, or an object, that interested him. On his third birthday, he
ignored the pile of presents in front of him, fixating instead on the fat blue
train-shaped candle atop his birthday cake. Two weeks later, he was still
playing with the train candle, attempting to stuff it inside one of his Brio
tunnels. Other minor and major obsessions followed, some generically
boyish (cars, trucks, trains, backhoes, dinosaurs), some odder: the Alamo,
the Odyssey, Dame Edna Everage.
Obsessions seemed to keep him balanced. They gave him lift,
focus, direction. Just before discovering the Beatles, he was preoccupied
with the Titanic. He saw James Cameron"s film so many times he could
recite the dialogue along with the doomed lovers. I bought him books,
posters, a foot-long inflatable Titanic to play with in the tub. I was surprised
when I found his attention riveted less on the chaos and violence of the
sinking ship than on the sadness of it all—the gallantry of some of the men,
the mother telling her little son that things were going to be all right, the
shipboard musicians launching into another chorus as the liner went down.
Then, Sam just lost interest one day. The blowup Titanic slumped
in the basket next to the bathtub, along with the broken shark, the stumpy
triceratops, and his sisters" tea set. Over the next few weeks, Sam idled
around the house like a hobo. He lazed on the couch, staring at nothing. He
timed himself holding his breath. He got into stupid fights with sisters. He
would appear suddenly in the kitchen, a stormy look in his eyes, then smile
sheepishly, explaining that he"d forgotten why he was there. He seemed to
be searching for a peg on which he could hang the rest of his life. In the
meantime, he lived out his seven-year-old"s life —school, friends, skating,
roller-blading, bike riding, pizza eating, followed by summer, then camp—but
something was missing.
"He needs a new obsession," Maggie remarked one night, "ASAP."
For the past year, my wife and I had been looking for an alternative to
children"s music. Unfortunately, we weren"t having any luck, and our family
had splintered into stubborn, highly opinionated musical camps. Maggie liked
listening to the news, Motown, and classical music. I liked pre-1965 jazz,
requiems, and call-in psychology shows. The two girls were partial to music
from the Madeline cartoons and soundtracks of Disney movies that featured
gutsy, scantily clad heroines. Sam"s taste in music was more scattered and
quirky, and he tended to welcome repeated hearings of the same song—
Enya"s "Sail Away," for example, or Roger Miller"s "King of the Road."
All three children seemed to enjoy a mild-mannered Canadian
singer named Raffi; a group of kinetic musicians called Rosenshontz; and the
Sugar Beats, who mostly sang knockoff covers of old Motown hits.
It wasn"t that this music was terrible, because it wasn"t. It was
just that after the four hundredth or so listen, your ears began to revolt
against the republic of childhood. You ju couldn"t face hearing another song
about a baby bat, or a peanut butter sandwich, or an oat. Three little cats.
Five little frogs. Six little ducks. These kid-friendly melodies stuck in your
head and swam relentless laps there. I"d begun to fall asleep at night
humming "Joshua Giraffe" and "Robin in the Rain" and "Spider on the Floor,"
forgetting that once, I"d thrashed around in the sixteenth row of a Clash
concert, and had beer sprayed on me at CBGB"s. Or was that somebody
Around this time, I noticed the first streaks of popular culture
penetrating my kids" lives. Groups that were more brands than bands. One-
hit phenomena. I loved a few things I was hearing (the Spice Girls, Eminem,
the Yeah Yeah Yeahs), but overall the musical landscape felt empty, and
worse, ephemeral. To paraphrase an old Woody Allen joke, the food was
terrible and there were no second helpings either. This junk was the
soundtrack to their childhood? What about talent? What about music that
lasted? What about songs that were about something? Or even deliberately
not about something? In short, I reacted in the same way my own parents
must have greeted the music I dragged home thirty years ago.
Then it hit both of us: Why not introduce the kids to the Beatles?
As the Beatles" breakup neared, John Lennon complained that the
band offered something for everyone. Even "grannies" liked them, he said, the
implication being that he"d disgraced himself as a rock "n" roller. He might
have been just as unhappy that today the Beatles appeal so visceral
children, but it"s a fact, maybe even a phenomenon. In spite of Lennon"s
efforts, nearly a half-century has defanged the group, reducing its innovations
and iconoclasms to something warmer and fuzzier. By the time Sam
stumbled onto the band, a small industry had arisen, shrewdly linking the
interests of thirty-something parents with children in CDs like Baby Road,
and offering up the notion that you could rear kids as hip and knowing as,
well, you. Other CDs for kids repositioned certain Beatles songs as easily
digestible sermons for the very young: "With a Little Help from My Friends"
(buddies are important), "Here Comes the Sun" (hey, it"s not so bad),
and "Mother Nature"s Son" (being outside is healthy). What"s
more, "Octopus"s Garden," "All Together Now," and "Yellow Submarine" are,
at heart, children"s anthems.
Marketing aside, the Beatles" universe offers up the dreamy self-
containment of any great magical realm. The songs are laden with animals
(piggies, bulldogs, kittens, walruses, birds, blue jays), cartoonlike characters
(Bungalow Bill, Rocky Raccoon, the Sun King, Polythene Pam, the
Eggman), and blazing images (strawberry fields, tangerine skies, glass
onions, poppies on a tray). The Beatles" lives weren"t at odds with these
images but extensions of them. What"s more, the band gave off a spotless,
infectious energy, a cleanliness that satisfied but didn"t overwhelm Sam"s
growing appetite for grownup music and older-guy role models.
The Beatles were cool. Good-look Confident. They never
seemed to be posturing. They weren"t ashamed to smile. They weren"t harsh
or boorish. They were witty, goofy sometimes. The songs and the
instruments were bracing and exotic—sitars, Mellotrons, piccolo trumpets,
Indian table harps, a forty-one-piece symphony orchestra— and they also
offered great variety: if you didn"t like one cut, chances were good you"d like
the next. Thanks in part to their carefully idealizing early films, each Beatle
came across as recognizably distinct and shaded in with the broad strokes
of fairytale characters.
Plus, how do you define charm? Narrowly speaking, it is the
ineffable capacity to be unselfishly pleasing. If you"re charmed by someone,
you"re put at your ease. The Beatles" version of charm—a capacity to be
rebellious without being rude, smart-assed but in a way that made you root
for them—came across from their first press conference.
Still, in the end, what happened to Sam had more to do with
Beatles music than anything else. Forty years later, it was jolting, familiar,
and, at the same time, exceedingly strange. It could still give you goose
bumps. Unusual among rock songs, you could make out every single lyric.
Sam found the melodies easy to memorize. Over time, I would recast the
decision to introduce the Beatles to the kids as more personal and
complicated than simply finding music all five of us could bear listening to
inside a car. The Beatles gave us a sidelong means of telling the children
about the people we were, or thought we were, once.
Sam found out about the Beatles start of a three-day
We—all five of us—were halfway through a six-hour car trip, racing
along a crowded interstate in central New England. Sam had the far back
seat all to himself. Attempting to stretch out while staying secure under his
seatbelt, he"d reached a tortured compromise: the reclining slouch. With both
hands, he fiddled and jabbed at the Color Gameboy I"d given him for his
seventh birthday, which we allowed him to play, with some ambivalence, half
an hour a day.
Somewhere in the middle of Connecticut, by prior arrangement,
Maggie removed the cassette of Abbey Road from her purse and slid it into
the car"s tape player.
The cruel, muffled voice of John Lennon murmuring, "Shoot me,"
the me snapped off again and again by the guitar thrust, shuddered out the
From "Come Together" to "Her Majesty"—and in
between, "Something," "Maxwell"s Silver Hammer," "Oh! Darling," "Octopus"s
Garden," "I Want You (She"s So Heavy)," "Here Comes the
Sun," "Because," "You Never Give Me Your Money," "Sun King," "Mean Mr.
Mustard," "Polythene Pam," "She Came in through the Bathroom
Window," "Golden Slumbers," "Carry That Weight," and "The End"—Abbey
Road, followed immediately by Rubber Soul, followed by an encore of Abbey
Road, serenaded us through three states.
That might have been the beginning and the end of Sam"s
experience with the Bea wouldn"t have been the first time that a rock
group had failed to make a good impression. On another car trip, I"d put on
the Rolling Stones" Hot Rocks, and Sam"s only response after a few minutes
was to ask me if I wouldn"t mind turning it down. The same went for the Patti
Smith, Blondie, UB40, Bob Dylan, The Band, and Steely Dan. Paul Simon
was OK, though Sam complained that most of his songs sounded the same.
Sam"s sisters had a soft spot for Sam Cooke, Annie Lennox, Marvin Gaye,
and Sting. All three of them liked Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, Bob Marley,
and the song "Moondance," but could take or leave everything else Van
Morrison ever recorded.
This time around, the car was silent. No one crying, or
complaining, or squabbling. No requests for juice boxes, or water, or grapes,
or apples, or Doritos, or Reese"s Peanut Butter Cups, or bathrooms, or
crayons. The back seat was as still as a valley in midsummer.
In the rush to unpack and get resettled in a new house, I forgot about the
Beatles. It wasn"t until after dinner that I noticed Sam was gripping the Abbey
Road cassette. I wasn"t sure how long he"d had it, but when he handed it to
me, the plastic was warm and thumbed. "Dad," he said in his serious way, "is
it OK for me to bring this in the house?" When I told him of course it was
(well, in part because it already was inside the house), he hesitated before
asking me whether it was OK for him to play it in his Walkman.
Later that night, I made my way into the bedroom, where Sam lay
surrounded by pillows, drinking hot chocolate. "Dad?" he said in an urgent,
stuffed-up voice (he had a cold), "You know when you hear a song and then
you can"t stop thinking about it? Even when you try to stop thinking about it?"
He was known in our family for non sequiturs, and for abruptly
resuming conversations that had taken place hours, days, even months
earlier. When he was six, we drove through Pennsylvania Dutch country. A
year later, when I asked if he wanted to go on an errand with me, he
hesitated, then told me he didn"t want to ride in a car because, "I prefer the
ways of the Amish." Another time, Maggie sat him down to go over her family
tree, which included a distant kinship with Abraham Lincoln. Six months
later, in the middle of his bath, Sam cried out suddenly, "I cannot believe
someone would shoot my poor cousin through the eyeball!"
"Sure, I get songs stuck in my head all the time," I said now.
"It"s the one that goes . . ." and Sam sang the first few bars
of "Octopus"s Garden."
I couldn"t help feeling a funny pleasure, a weirdly entrepreneurial
pride. The Beatles seemed mine, suddenly, a gorgeous thing I could pull out
from under my coat. "Ringo Starr wrote that song," I said, "with a little
assistance from the others," adding helpfully that Ringo was the Beatles"
Were the Beatles alive, my son wanted to know?
Three out of four of them were, I explained, adding that a crazy fan
killed John in front of his apartment building in 1980, in New York City. "He
was my age when he died, on; then, not wanting to imply that all forty-
year-olds were in danger of dying, I added that this was a very rare
Sam seemed confused. "So were there three Beatles or four
"Four," and I named them.
Sam mulled over the last one. "That"s not his real name?"
"Ringo? Actually, it was Richard. Richard Starkey. But he wore a
lot of rings when he was younger. So everybody called him "Ringo.""
When Sam proceeded to quiz me about each individual Beatle, I
didn"t quite know where to begin. It was like trying to describe string or grass
or the walls, deceptively commonplace objects you realized you didn"t know
at all. Later, Maggie would remind me how starved we were for Beatles news
when we were younger, compared to what we know now. How elusive the
group was, the little we knew about them communicated via dark hints,
rumors, clues, and press releases. The band"s mystery was symbolized by
the shadowy apple in the center of their LPs, a totem Sam would one day
inform me was inspired by Le Jeu de Mourre by René Magritte, an artist
whose work Paul collected. (Over the course of their marriage, Linda
McCartney bought and presented Paul with Magritte"s easel and his
eyeglasses. At least that"s what Sam told me.)
But a few minutes later, drawing on my murky recollection of
legend, hearsay, liner notes, magazine articles, Internet ramblings, and
books I"d skimmed over the years, I managed to piece together a brief bio of
John Lennon. Middle name Winston, a nod to then
Churchill. Born, as the rest of the Beatles were, in a northern English port
city called Liverpool. "The Liverpool accent was quite distinct," I said. "Very
nasal. A lot of people believe it was caused by pollution." John was the
Beatles" leader, I went on, and the others looked up to him. He was a piece
of work, sharp, bright, belligerent, sarcastic, the author of several books—"Do
you know how unusual it is?" I broke in, "for a rock "n" roll guy to write
books?"—and along with Paul McCartney, the cowriter of most of the
Beatles" songs. Following his divorce from a local girl named Cynthia, who
bore him a son, Julian, John remarried a Japanese artist and musician
named Yoko Ono. They had one son, Sean, and lived in New York until his
"I was petrified of John Lennon back when I was your age," I added.
"I guess I thought there was something a little scary about his
face and his voice. That he was probably not very nice in person." I
shrugged. "It might have had something to do with his little glasses."
Paul McCartney. The most affable, amiable, adorable Beatle.
Versatile. Eager to please. A tendency to be controlling. The Beatle who
effectively took over the group in the late sixties. Some critics unfairly
considered Paul Winnie-the- Pooh to John"s Eeyore. "A lot of people thought
of Paul as the happy-go-lucky Beatle and John as the darker, more tortured
one," I said to Sam. A famous example of this came from a song
called "Getting Better," I went o sang (and wrote) "It"s getting
better all the time," while John contributed the chorus, "It can"t get no worse."
"Mom has kind of a crush on Paul," I said, "and on Linda. I"m sure
she"ll tell you about it someday."
George Harrison. The youngest Beatle. The son of a bus driver.
Known by many as the "quiet" Beatle (a tag loudly disputed by friends and
family members after his death). Questing. Mystical. Perennially dissatisfied.
Could be a little pedantic. It was George who introduced the others to Indian
music and Eastern philosophy. "When I say the others," I told Sam, "I don"t
just mean the other three Beatles. I mean the rest of the world, too." Of all
the Beatles, George enjoyed the most critically acclaimed solo career after
the breakup. "Paul and John didn"t really take George all that seriously as a
musician during the Beatles years. I don"t think it was easy for George, being
the youngest and being overshadowed all the time."
Ringo Starr. The Beatles" drummer. The oldest of the four.
Supremely likable, the most natural actor of the four, a comic foil for the other
three. To this day, never taken entirely seriously by Beatles fans or critics
and unjustly considered, along with George, more fortunate than fated. Still,
with his sexy/homely, underdog appearance, Ringo quickly became
America"s favorite Beatle when the band came here in the early 1960s. Not
much of a songwriter (as Ringo was the first to admit) but a chummy,
distinctively flat-voiced singer.
"So that&qu it," I said. "Four guys. Four friends." John and Paul,
then teenagers, met at a Liverpool church fete (a fete being a kind of village
social occasion, typically held on weekends, on church grounds, I explained)
where John was performing with his band, the Quarry Men. Impressed and
maybe a little alarmed by Paul"s musicianship, John invited him to join the
group. Eventually, George Harrison, whom Paul knew from riding the bus
every morning, came aboard, along with a local drummer, Pete Best, and a
guitarist, Stuart Sutcliffe. Following the Beatles" musical apprenticeship in
Germany, Paul nudged Sutcliffe out of the group and Best was later replaced
The Beatles were together for less than a decade, released
approximately two hundred songs, and broke up in 1970.
"How do you mean that they broke up?"
"They decided to stop being the Beatles. To do other things with
their lives. To get married, have kids, stuff like that."
Something was happening in Sam"s brain. I had the impression of
liquid dissolving into earth, roots jolting upward. "But why? " he asked, his
voice muted. "Why did they have to break up?"
"Lots of different reasons. They weren"t getting along. They weren"t
really sure what to do next. Both John and Paul had fallen in love—"
Things were getting complicated here, but to my relief, Sam broke
in with another question: Why did the group call itself "the Beatles"?
At the time he asked, I had no idea, though eventually I"d come
across a few theories. obviously, "beat"
swiveled nicely into "beatle." Another theory attributed the name to John"s
love of the beat poetry movement, pervasive in the mid 1950s. Later, Ringo
would recall that "beetles" was a slang expression for motorcycle chicks,
popularized, and maybe even coined, in the 1954 Marlon Brando biker movie,
The Wild One. The one thing band members and historians tended to agree
on was that John was a huge admirer of Buddy Holly and the Crickets and
sought a similar tag for his own band, one preferably involving insects.
Earlier that afternoon, at the kids" request, I"d overturned one of
the half dozen logs that enclose the driveway. It was one of our first-day
rituals. They liked watching the bugs scatter, the centipedes scare off, the
potato bugs play dead. It didn"t occur to me that when Sam asked about the
band"s name, he probably had a vivid image in his head: black, helmet-
backed June bugs, thwapping against the screens or buzzing on their backs.
He didn"t, I realized, even know what the Beatles looked like.
Copyright © 2004 by Peter Smith. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Excerpted from Two of Us by Peter Smith Copyright © 2004 by Peter Smith. Excerpted by permission.
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Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Contents 1. Meet the Beatles • 1 2. Rubber Soul • 31 3. Magical Mystery Tour • 57 4. Beatles for Sale • 79 5. The White Album • 105 6. Abbey Road • 137 7. Let It Be • 167 Epilogue 199 Acknowledgments 203 Sources 205