"How did you get so into the Beatles"?
It has to be the question I'm asked most frequently, fielding it after almost every speaking engagement. And given my relatively young age of thirty, it is perhaps the most obvious of inquiries. With my peers more interested in the music of Brittney Spears, Eminem, Limp Bizkit, and Korn, why and how did I find the Fab Four?
My interest in the Beatles stems directly from my father's interest in the band. He was 10 years old when the band debuted on Ed Sullivan on 9 February 1964, and like many Baby Boomers remembers the occasion vividly (including my grandmother's quote, "That's the last we'll ever hear of this band!"). So he grew up listening to the Beatles and eagerly awaiting each new single and album release.
I, then, grew up listening to the band through him. Grocery run? Let's put in a Beatles tape on the way! I can't remember a time when I wasn't aware and appreciative of "She Loves You", "Lady Madonna", "Help!", or any number of their other songs.
When I entered graduate school at Boston University in the fall of 2008 was around the time the stereo remastered CDs were released - that big black box containing their complete official oeuvre, which I now consider the definitive collection.
My experiences in grad school heavily shaped my aesthetic preferences. When I arrived in New England, I identified more as a "serious" classical musician than a pop musician. I remember joking with friends about creating a Facebook group called "I hate pop culture". And while I never actually initiated such a group, it displayed my dislike of the commercial drivel known as pop music. With Northeastern schools maintaining a reputation for intellectual rigor, I eagerly anticipated my graduate studies.
My primary interest in Beantown, however, was the new music scene. I reasoned (wrongfully as it turned out) that because there were so many concerts and new music performances on the East Coast (certainly far more than we had in Wisconsin or Indiana), that was evidence that the new music scene was healthy and thriving. Unfortunately, that confused the notions of quantity with quality. I attended dozens of concerts, many of which were new music oriented (as many as four per day) and heard several hundred premiere performances. While a small handful of them stood out from the vast oceans of mediocrity, the overwhelming majority left my memory within minutes. I also noticed a pattern regarding the audiences: There were typically more people performing on stage than there were listening in the crowd. Yes, Boston had an inordinate quantity of new music performances, but that did not translate into quality of music, which consequently failed to develop a substantial following. After a year of consistent disappointment, I just couldn't take much more. I remember walking out of one concert because American Idol was on in an hour and I knew it would be more musically stimulating and satisfying than anything I was currently hearing.
Around the same time, I re-discovered my love of baseball. As far back as I can recall, I've been fond of baseball. For a few years I fell under the spell of football (I was living in Indianapolis when the Colts defeated my Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI on 4 February 2007), but facing a dismal present in 2009, I found solace in returning to the past - including my boyhood obsession with America's National Pastime. This was greatly enhanced by my proximity to Fenway Park, home of the storied Boston Red Sox, who had recently won the 2004 and 2007 World Series. Similar to that day I abandoned the live concert in favor of American Idol, I recall a date in the spring of 2009 when I had the choice of attending a concert or listening to the Sox game on WEEI radio (not even watching it on TV - I was a poor starving grad student and couldn't afford the New England Sports Network or the MLB.TV streaming internet subscriptions). I chose the latter. And I never regretted it.
In another nod to my past, I also rediscovered pop music. Having more or less shunned it during my undergrad and early grad years, I now embraced it. From summer 2009 through summer 2010 I lived in Revere, MA and commuted by subway to the BU campus. During those daily 60-minute rides each way, I listened to countless hours of music - and especially Beatles music. I thus returned to the music I grew up with, but came to it with more musically experienced and educated ears - and ears starved of musical engagement and enjoyment. That gave me a new appreciation for music I was already quite familiar with, an appreciation based on my own terms rather than on my father's.
On one such train ride I listened to the album Magical Mystery Tour. Though conceived and released as a double EP in England, the American release (the version I was listening to) was a full album, which supplemented the original British tracks with several singles ("Strawberry Fields Forever", "Penny Lane", "I Am the Walrus", "All You Need is Love", and "Baby You're a Rich Man"). When "Walrus" played, it suddenly dawned on me how historically important the Beatles are - they're so much more than just catchy pop music, but a landmark in 20th Century music.
At some point I realized that so-called "serious classical music" wasn't so serious after all. I'm willing to bet that the majority of people reading this have never even heard of Luciano Berio, George Crumb, Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Gyorgy Ligeti, or Elliott Carter - much less heard any of their music. Yet these men are consistently regarded as the leading composers of their time. By contrast, I'm willing to bet that the majority of people reading this (and, for that matter, the majority of the public at large) is at least peripherally aware of the Beatles. When I spoke in October 2015 at Grace Academy (an inner-city girls' middle school in Hartford, CT where I worked as music teacher from August 2011 til June 2015) one of my first questions to them was, "How many have ever heard of the Beatles?" Most hands (probably two thirds) went up. Then I asked a harder question, "Who can name the four band members?" Collectively they came up with John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, and George Clooney! I have to admit, that was better than I expected from 12-year-olds who prefer listening to Daddy Yankee, Nicki Minaj, and Beyonce. But even they proved reasonably knowledgeable about the Beatles. I suspect they would not have fared as well had I asked them to name members of Nirvana, the Rolling Stones, or Kiss.
Bottom line: Grad school showed me that the most substantial and historically significant music of the a half century ago was not that of Berio, Stockhausen or Ligeti, or the like, but rather that of Lennon/McCartney.
While the Beatles had certainly grabbed my attention by the time I graduated from BU in May 2010, it would be another year before fully committing to their music. In June 2011 I made a conscious decision to study and analyze Beatles music, and I won a research grant through the University of Hartford in November of that year to do just that. The way the grant worked was the university provided the university's music library with funds to make purchases at my request. With a budget of $1,100, I purchased 56 books, 10 CDs, 10 DVDs, and a set of 5 VHS tapes. While I wasn't able to keep those materials (they are now a permanent part of the library's collection), they provided the foundation on to which I've established my career. To this day I still have not read every single the books I purchased, but I have at least consulted all 81 items.
Having spent a full year wading through and digesting all of those sources, I first presented on the band on 8 November 2012, the first meeting of a six-week course through LifeLearn, West Hartford's continuing education program. That seminar eventually evolved into "The Beatles: Band of the Sixties", which I have delivered many times throughout the United States and England. With "Band of the Sixties" proving so successful (it remains to this day by far my most popular presentation), I expanded my repertoire with more focused programs, including ones on A Hard Day's Night, "Yesterday", Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, "Strawberry Fields Forever", and quite a few more. With so much public interest and so much demand from libraries, I took a leap of faith by quitting all my other jobs in June 2015 so that I could focus on the Beatles full time.
Since my dad was responsible for planting those Beatle seeds many years ago, it's appropriate that he should accompany me on my second tour of the new year. From March 8 through 24, I'll be speaking twelve times in five different states (Kentucky, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, and Arizona). It's actually the shortest American tour I've done to date by a substantial margin (though my debut English tour in July 2015 was shorter, with just five speaking engagements in ten days). The first of the twelve comes tomorrow evening at the Louisville Free Public Library:
Tuesday, 8 March 2016, 6:30-7:30 p.m.
Louisville Free Public Library, 3912 W Broadway, Louisville, KY
The Beatles: Band of the Sixties
Explore the music of The Beatles in this 60-minute multimedia presentation (part history and part musical analysis) spanning the full 1960's: beginning with the band's seminal visits to Hamburg, continuing through Beatlemania, and concluding with Abbey Road. The program will be supplemented with audio clips of music and excerpts from interviews with the band members.
Both of us will document the trip on a daily basis, blogging periodically about the experience. If the blogs receive good feedback, we'll consider bulking and polishing more for release as a book.
Here goes nuthin!
This blog is a workshop for developing my analyses of The Beatles' music.