John, Paul, Ringo and Me: Appreciating Being Alive through The Beatles

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Yep, that’s me! (a few years ago)

My father was an avid Beatles devotee, and I am absolutely certain that a Beatles song was among the first pieces of music, perhaps among the first sounds of any kind, that I ever heard as a newborn infant.  The Beatles are deeply imprinted in my brain.  Their music is part of my DNA.

My first moving experience of The Beatles that I remember was when I first saw the film Yellow Submarine on television.  It was 1970 or 71, and I was only four years old, and even after all these years and even though I was such a young child, I still remember it vividly.  Back then, there was no internet, no Netflix, no satellite television, and no cable TV.  There were no DVDs or VHS tapes.  None of that existed then.  It was very difficult and expensive to order a film, even a popular one, and I don’t think we had the right kind of movie projector anyway.  Living in rural Vermont, we received only one television station, the local CBS affiliate, and we needed a fifty-foot metal tower with an antenna on top for us to get only that one channel.  I now get thousands of channels from a satellite dish the size of a garbage can lid, so it is strange to remember how much infrastructure it took to get so little in return.

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I thought Yellow Submarine was the most amazing and beautiful thing I had ever seen or heard, and when it was over, I asked my father to play it again.  He laughed and explained that television stations have schedules and we cannot simply play it again.  So I said, why not call the station and ask them?  And he did.  And they did.  They played it again.  Not that same night, but within a short time.  It had not been scheduled, but they found a way to do it anyway.  I don’t think that would happen in many places or maybe anywhere anymore, but in a small Vermont community at that time, businesses tended to respond to their neighbors as people, and not only as revenue sources.  It probably helped that the station owner was a client of my father’s law practice and a family friend.  I watched it a second time and was even more enthralled than the first.

My father had the original single of Yellow Submarine with Eleanor Rigby, also one of my favorite songs, on the flip-side.  I completely wore that little 45 rpm bare listening to both sides over and over.  I accidentally left it by the window in the hot sun one day, and it melted just enough to be unplayable.  I almost cried.

Today I own the Yellow Submarine DVD and have watched it many times.  It is a silly story, but it is beautifully done, and is still among my favorite movies.  I have an original film promotional poster hanging on my wall, and of course I have the CD of the music.  Yellow Submarine is my favorite Beatles album, not because I think it is their best (it isn’t), but because of the place in my personal history that it occupies.  It reminds me of my father and my brother.

Please don’t ask me my favorite Beatles album.  I would be unreliable.  I would change my answer every time you asked.  Abbey Road one day, Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band another.  Then there’s Revolver (I have a giant reproduction of the album cover on my wall that is almost as tall as I am), Let it Be, The Beatles (White Album), Rubber Soul, Hard Days Night.  I also love all the earlier Beatles when they were more of a regular old blues-influenced pop rock band.

My identical twin brother also loved The Beatles.  When we walked home from school, we used to sing Two of Us.

On our way back home

We’re on our way home

We’re on our way home

We’re going home.

The list of pointless activities in which the “two of us” engaged in that song was also descriptive of my brother’s and my random doings, at least in spirit: riding nowhere, not arriving, sending postcards, writing letters, burning matches, lifting latches, wearing raincoats in the sun, chasing paper, getting nowhere, on our way back home.  I love that song, but it is difficult for me to listen to it, because my brother committed suicide at seventeen.

When we were thirteen, my brother had the idea to form a rock band with a couple friends and me, and his vision for our “sound” was “The Beatles if they had lived through the punk rock era.”  I don’t think we came anywhere near achieving that vision, but that was the idea.  We played more covers of The Beatles than by any other band, by far, although we mostly played our own music we had written.  We did fairly well and when we were sixteen got hired to play the Saturday night show at a bar in Boston.  We had to enter through the back and play behind a chain-link fence, because we were under-age.  It was like playing in a cage, but we got used to it, and the fence became a part of our “image”.  People thought we did it on purpose as some sort of symbolic artistic or political statement.  It was our own insignificant version of how some critics interpreted Yellow Submarine: the band cut off from the world.  After getting a good review in the Boston Herald, we packed the place every Saturday, but it didn’t last long.  When my brother died, the band did too.  We did not want to continue.

Our other two band members, Eric and Tommy, played and sang Blackbird at my brother’s funeral, but I don’t remember it at all.  I remember looking out my bedroom window the day my brother died as the body was placed into the local ambulance.  It was owned by the funeral home and also served as the hearse.  I don’t remember anything after that for many days, including anything of the funeral.  People said I was there.  Eric and Tommy had wanted to play Two of Us with a montage of photographs of my brother and me together as a backdrop, but I begged them not to.  I would have had a complete meltdown.

I recently ordered satellite radio for my car for the sole reason that they have a Beatles channel.  There are hundreds of other channels, but I don’t even know what they are.  At home, I listen to many kinds of music, but when I’m driving, I listen to nothing but the Beatles channel.

Recently when driving I was overcome with how song after song was almost perfect.  I consider myself a decent musician, and I like to write music too.  I thought, if I could write just one song that was as half as good as any of the hundreds they wrote, I would die happy, knowing I had made the world more beautiful.  How could so much creativity come from just four minds?

I know The Beatles’ impact extends beyond the human world too.  When I was in my forties, I had a Scottish Terrier named Kirby, and (no offense to all the other wonderful dogs I have had) Kirby was the absolute best dog ever.  I used to say that if people could be more like Kirby, the world would be a much better place.  Some people don’t understand what an important and meaningful bond can exist between a person and an animal, but I fully believe Paul McCartney when he said, “You can judge a man’s true character by the way he treats his fellow animals.”

Kirby was extremely intelligent, and also had an astounding intuition.  He was not usually affectionate and hated being held.  He liked to be always near me, but at a slight distance, and he sometimes didn’t even like to be petted.  On rare occasion he would jump in my lap and let me pet him for a short time, but he seemed to think those infrequent situations were intended to be an honor and privilege.  However, he had an uncanny ability to sense when I was having a hard day, and at those times, he would cuddle up next to me and lick me as if he knew I had an inner wound.  John Lennon said, “One thing you can’t hide – is when you’re crippled inside.”

When Kirby was still a puppy, I was sitting listening to the Let it Be album with Kirby dozing by the fireplace woodstove.  When Across the Universe came on, he perked up, ran across the room, jumped in my lap and nuzzled up next to me.  It was the first time he had done that.  I picked him up and put his head on my shoulder like a baby.  For the first time, he didn’t try to get away.  I stood up and gently rocked him and slowly danced around the room with him.  When the song was over, he began squirming and wanted down.  I played Across the Universe again, and Kirby let me pick him up and dance with him until the end of the song and then wanted down.  The great George Harrison song, I Me Mine, is next on the album, but Kirby obviously preferred John Lennon.  This was not a random fluke, because I repeated this hundreds of times over Kirby’s ten years of life, and it was always the same.  He did not like to be held unless Across the Universe was playing.  My dog had a favorite Beatles song.

Is that possible?  I concur with John Lennon when he said, “I believe in everything until it’s disproved.  So I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons.  It all exists, even if it’s in your mind.  Who’s to say that dreams and nightmares aren’t as real as the here and now?”  There are dreams I had decades ago that I remember better, and are far more important to me, than what happened yesterday.

When Kirby was ten, he developed terminal cancer and was given only a few weeks to live, at most.  The veterinarian gave me two syringes of morphine (my partner at the time was a physician, or I doubt he would he would have done that), and said when Kirby got to the point that he was in obvious pain to inject him with the morphine and call his cell phone.  The vet made house calls, so he would come over then to end Kirby’s misery.

Kirby was getting slower, losing energy, and eventually barely ate anything, but he didn’t seem to be in any pain.  I danced with him to Across the Universe many times.  Then one day he rebounded and seemed almost like his old self.  He ate a big meal, played fetch with his beloved red rubber ball, and ran the half mile up the dirt road to play with the neighbors’ dogs.  I hoped that perhaps he might recover, but he didn’t.  It was only a temporary rally.  I think he went to visit the neighbor dogs to say goodbye.  The next day he did nothing but sleep all day and would not eat or drink.  Then around noon he lifted his head and let out a horrific howl of pain unlike any sound I have ever heard.  It was heartbreaking.  I injected him with the morphine and called the vet.  He still had appointments, but would come over to the house as soon as possible.  It was a cool October afternoon, and I had built a fire in the woodstove, so I placed Kirby on his dog bed underneath.  He always liked being near the fire.

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I had planned to play Across the Universe in Kirby’s final moments, but he had done so well the day before that I did not expect him to crash so soon, and I was not prepared.  I went to my collection of Beatles CDs, which is considerable, and looked for Let it Be.  It was not there.  Every other Beatles CD was there in its place except Let it Be.  I knew it had to be in the house, because I had not taken it anywhere, and I had just listened to it recently.  I looked everywhere I could think of, throwing sofa cushions around the room and looking in ridiculous places such as inside the refrigerator and washing machine.  I checked online, but at least at that time, it was not to be found.  It was not available anywhere for download, and I could not even find a YouTube version of it.  I found cover versions, and I could have played the guitar and sang it to him myself, but I wanted the original.  I was frantic.  I was angry at myself for not having uploaded it onto my laptop or phone.  I could not imagine Kirby’s final moments without him hearing Across the Universe.  I was just about to call my friend, Sandy, whom I knew would have a copy of Let it Be when I thought to check behind the stereo cabinet one more time.  There it was.  I had checked it before, but did not see it.   I don’t know how I could have missed it.

I advanced the CD to track three and put Across the Universe on repeat so that it would play over and over.  The very moment the first notes on the guitar played out, I heard “Hello!” from down the hall.  The vet had arrived and let himself in the front door.  I wondered whether it was meant to be that I could not find the CD at first, so that it would begin playing at that very moment when the vet arrived.  When I told the vet the above story, he looked at me like I was insane.  No really, my dog had a favorite song!  When the vet injected the medicine, poison really, Kirby went limp and was dead immediately.  I was comforted that Across the Universe played on.  At least that part of Kirby would stay with me, and it still does every time I hear Across the Universe.

I still keep Kirby’s ashes in a wooden box on the fireplace mantle, next to a picture of him as a puppy and his beloved red rubber ball.  My partner, who is also a talented visual artist, painted a semi-abstract portrait of Kirby with the red rubber ball where his heart would be.  I suggested he entitle it Rubber Soul.

The Beatles continue to be the soundtrack of my life.  When I had a shattering breakup last year, For No One kept repeating in my head for weeks and months.  There are not many emotionally painful experiences than when you are deeply in love with someone, and he used to be deeply in love with you, and then you feel him gradually pull away and sense his love slowly dissolving into nothing.

And in her eyes you see nothing

No sign of love behind the tears

Cried for no one

A love that should have lasted years

I had listened to that song for decades, but the lyrics were abstract.  I had never been on the losing side of unrequited love.  Before, the song was about some other pitiful jilted soul; it was about someone else.  Not anymore.  With For No One, I didn’t feel quite as alone in that experience.  So the song was in fact for someone.

Also at that time, I remember John Lennon’s saying, “There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love.  When we are afraid, we pull back from life.  When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance.”  I decided not to pull back from life, and opened myself to love, despite the pain.  And I am so glad that I did, because I now have a wonderful new partner who also is not afraid to love.

While I’m hoping I won’t have so many sad occasions in the future where The Beatles provide comfort, I have no doubt that their music will continue to be a major influence on my life, as it has been and will be for many people.  I was trained as a classical musician, and I love Beethoven and Chopin and guiltier pleasures such as Scriabin and Rachmaninov, among many other composers.  However, no music touches my heart as much as The Beatles.

There is a famous quote by the great novelist, Kurt Vonnegut: “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’.”  I agree.

 

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