The death of John Lennon is, for me, one of those “you remember where you were” moments. I still recall the night when I was a student in art school, in bed in the apartment I had at the time, listening to jazz radio on one of the local college stations as was my custom while reading Cosmos by Dr. Carl Sagan, which I was also enjoying on Public TV. That night, a news bulletin announced that Lennon had been gunned down in the street. I was stunned. It didn’t hit me as hard as, say, the deaths of Gene Roddenberry and Jack Kirby would hit me many years later, but still...John Lennon, founder of the Beatles, shot in the back by some lunatic. It was unbelievable. Who would wish harm on John Lennon? Why?
Only a few years earlier, when I was in high school and the breakup of the Beatles was a recent memory, there had been a renewed wave of interest in the work of the boys from Liverpool, and a lot of my classmates were getting turned on to it. We were all old enough to remember having heard the Beatles on the radio when their work was new, and I had loved the movie Yellow Submarine when it ran on CBS a couple of times. What a great little story, I thought, and good music too. (A great many years later I would have an even more profound reaction to the movie musical Across the Universe, my DVD of which I just watched again on Thanksgiving night.) I viewed the “Beatlemania revival” of the 1970s with mild interest and curiosity, but I was seeing it through the eyes of the people with whom I went to school, and that made a difference. For at the time we were all teenagers, and my classmates were, I guess, acting their age. (I should point out that I was never really that age, or I was that age only physically and chronologically, which you’ll understand a little better as I get further into this.) My classmates were into the Beatles at a time when I didn’t really have a musical fan-identity of my own and my whole perception of music came mostly from the American Top 40 radio show starring Casey Kasem. (Would you believe that’s still on? Its star is Ryan Seacrest now.) My realization that I loved jazz would not come until my senior year of high school and the following summer, and I would come to this in the midst of the death of Disco and the rise of New Wave and punk rock. My classmates would be in sync with all these developments at the same time as their tastes and proclivities opened to other things: beer and other intoxicants, drugs and getting high, girls’ bodies...
It was the 1970s, you understand. The legal drinking age was still 18, and even then there were ways for underage kids to get loaded. In fact, it was probably a lot easier then than it is now. Rock music was a center of gravity in young people’s lives then as it is today. And adolescence is a constant of nature. So my classmates turned on to the Beatles at a time when all this other stuff was going on. At school I would listen to the stuff that they did over the weekend and be frequently appalled. I was much more provincial and judgemental as a young person than I am today. Much more. While I had the sense that there was a lot more to the work of Lennon and McCartney and Harrison and Starr than just the hormonal imperatives and dubious morality (as I saw it then) of youth, I shied away from exploring it fully because I associated it with the things my classmates were doing. Even today, there is a period of music and a group of artists towards which I feel a lingering aversion. I’ve learned to enjoy some of the work of Sting and The Police, but I never did warm up to the likes of Elvis Costello and The Talking Heads, and I wouldn’t be caught dead listening to Devo or The Sex Pistols.
Leaving aside the fact that I hate punk rock the way J. Jonah Jameson hates Spider-Man, I don’t really have positive associations with that musical era. It reminds me too much of how isolated and alone I felt as a kid who liked to get drunk on comics and stoned on science fiction, surrounded by people who only dabbled in what I took to heart. To this day, I don’t appreciate people who dabble in comics without the commitment of real fans. I think of comic-book dabblers and I remember my classmates who thought beer and other alcohol, and later pot and mushrooms and acid and cocaine, were more important than my “drugs” of choice. And too, there’s the fact that I wasn’t Out then and wouldn’t be able to process that information about myself for some time yet, so my interest in women was purely artistic and I couldn’t share in the centrality of girl’s bodies to my classmates’ existence. All I knew was that to them, all of the above were more important than what I loved, and more important than I was.
You must understand as well that back then we didn’t have anything like the kind of culture for imaginative people that we have today. At the time, Star Wars had only just barely gotten science fiction out of the back of the bookstore; the expansion of the Star Trek franchise was in its infancy; and the media and social outlets for people who have a special imagination and like to use it--except for the initial growth of comic book specialty stores, which were like oases to me--just were not in place. If you were a dedicated fan of these things, it was very possible to find yourself alone in the wilderness. I envy today’s young comic book and science fiction fans. Their experience of young fandom is 180 degrees different from mine.
(By the way, I’m not going to be so hypocritical and deceitful as to say I never drank, never got wasted, or never went to parties. Far from it, in fact, and there are people who could tell you stories. If they did, I would have to have them hunted down and killed, but still... I was just never really the “party animal” type, that’s all.)
One interesting note that I really must slip in here: Did you know Stan Lee initially wanted to call Marvel’s original and still greatest creation “The Fabulous Four”? No kidding, everything that we know today as Marvel Comics might have been built on a flamboyantly gay epithet if then-publisher Martin Goodman had not prevailed and made Stan change it to The Fantastic Four. It’s true, and thankfully so, in my opinion. And so it fell to John and Paul and George and Ringo, who hit world culture at the same time as Reed and Sue and Johnny and Ben, to be known as “The Fab Four.” True story.
Anyway, my appreciation of the Beatles and the genuine sense of art and literature that they brought to rock music didn’t come until after I was out of school. It wasn’t until then, when I had put a little distance between myself and my student days, that I felt able to explore what I had long suspected was there in those recordings.
Back in those prehistoric days, when people still listened to music on vinyl LPs and audiocassettes--you know, when the Earth was still cooling--there was a store in my city called the Music Miser. This was a little place in a basement where you could go through a collection of LPs and rent one or two to take home with you, record whatever tracks you wanted from it, and take it back to the store when you were finished with it and get some more. The Music Miser did such a good business that the gentleman who ran it--whom I remember best for his fantastic arms--was able to open a second location. (I mean really, he liked to wear these tight T-shirts that displayed how well he had built up his arms; going in there was like going to a gun show, if you know what I mean.) Unfortunately, it also did such a good business that it attracted the attention of recording companies and artist’s representatives who weren’t collecting any royalties, and faster than you can say “Napster,” the Music Miser was shut down.
This was too bad, as the Music Miser was the physical equivalent of an “album rock” radio station where you got to keep all the goodies that you listened to. I put together my first little collection of Beatles tunes from albums that I borrowed from there. It was in this way that I truly learned to appreciate what had been my first impression of the work of the Beatles from high school and later: that they grew from their pure rock-n-roll roots into artists capable of producing work of genuine beauty and refinement, and that there was a truly literate quality about the things they did. In fact, even some of their pure rock stuff suggested that this refinement was the direction in which they were headed. The Beatles, like the Moody Blues who followed them, stood at the vanguard of what would be called “art rock,” a musical genre of distinctly British origin. (In art school, I had discovered the Moodies’ album Days of Future Passed when the guy across the dorm from me was playing it. I already knew the song “Night in White Satin,” of course, and I had heard and loved “Tuesday Afternoon,” but I never realized that these tracks were part of a concept album that was expressly about fusing rock and classical styles. I made a point of getting this album and it remains a favorite.)
Anyway, the longer the Beatles went on, the more artistic and literate they seemed to get, and I was captivated by their work. In time I lost my original little Beatles collection--cassettes wear down and technologies grow obsolete--and wished I could have back all the songs I had collected and things that I hadn’t gotten round to recording before the Music Miser shut down. I wished I could do it without having to spend a lot of money and time tracking down all the appropriate CDs. When I got iTunes, I made a point of collecting everything on it that I could find that I had wanted for years and years but for which I didn’t feel like buying whole albums. The thing most conspicuously lacking on iTunes was the Beatles. (Well, actually, I wish they’d also get hold of the recordings of the defunct jazz vocal quartet Rare Silk, and I’ve actually suggested that to them, to no avail.) That is, until now.
Over the last few weeks since the big announcement was made that iTunes was finally “Beatling up,” so to speak, I’ve made my list and checked it twice (to use a seasonal reference) for “J.A. Fludd’s Essential Beatles Collection.” Out of a catalog of some 200 songs, there were a very select few that I wanted, including the ones I used to have on cassette. I finally whittled it down to a core of fifteen songs. I may at some point add a few more, but the ones I’ve collected are the ones that represent to me the Beatles at their best and most beautiful. My selections may differ greatly from yours (and yours are likely much more numerous), and as I’ve said, there may be some additions at a later date. But these fifteen were my absolute “must-haves”.
“Across the Universe” and “Lady Madonna” (The Blue Album)
“Because” and “Here Comes the Sun” (Abbey Road)
“Blackbird” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” (The White Album)
“Do You Want to Know a Secret” (Please Please Me)
“Eleanor Rigby” and “Here, There, and Everywhere” (Revolver)
“The Fool on the Hill” and “Penny Lane” (Magical Mystery Tour)
“I’ll Follow the Sun” (Beatles for Sale)
“I’m Looking Through You” and “Nowhere Man” (Rubber Soul)
“Till There Was You” (With the Beatles)
And for the record, the official Favorite Beatles Song of J.A. Fludd is “Here Comes the Sun”. With the Beatles on iTunes, I have at last gotten something that I have wanted for a great many Christmases.
Oh, and one last thing: Sir Paul McCartney read Marvel Comics (witness the song “Magneto and Titanium Man” on one of his later Wings albums, referencing super-villains from The X-Men and Iron Man) and once invited Jack Kirby himself backstage at one of his Wings concerts, so there!