band—a romantic, dirge-like, Leonard Cohen sort of ensemble, singing, or rather slowly breathing (thinking itself funereally sexy), “Oh please” (pause, cigarette) “say to me” (looks at shoes) “you’ll let me be” (confiding to the microphone) “your man.” Thank god for the drive, the energy, the high-calorie, major 7th choogling of the first number in the second half of the show that night—“I Saw Her Standing There.” It put all doubts to rest.
It wasn’t simple, turning this mass music, this public music into something utterly private, which is what it became for me. There was, for one thing, the lack of a personal record player. The family stereo was in the dining room, and it seemed that whenever the Beatles shouted or screamed or hit the high “hand!!” in the chorus of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” one parent or another would come through the swinging door from the kitchen. Those uncouth noises, those high notes, belonged to me the same way so many other things did at that age. They were mine by right of embarrassment. They didn’t embarrass me in themselves, but hearing them in the presence of someone else did. I was never going to be part of that squealing, smelling salts crowd, sharing publicly what I felt for the Beatles. There was no need to see the Beatles live. I had only one chance to do so, and it was no chance at all. We moved to Sacramento, California, a month or so before the Beatles’ final concert at Candlestick Park. I have been forever glad that I was only fourteen at the time, new to California, unable to persuade anyone—especially my Midwestern parents—that I could find my way alone to San Francisco and the concert.
Once in California, I came at last into possession of a private record player. And until much later, long after they had broken up, I always tried to listen to the Beatles by myself. I remember, early on, still in Iowa, listening to “Please Please Me” with my brother John. I remember because John, who must have been six or seven, asked me if that was a harmonica we were hearing. With the addled assurance that Peter might have felt the night the cock crew thrice, I assured him it wasn’t. (It was, of course.) I also somehow managed to leave Iowa with an electric guitar, an old harlequin Supra. I learned to play it by picking out the riff to “I Feel Fine.”
I can’t account for all the ways those songs found the heart of me. They weren’t really about anything. I never imagined that the lyrics of an early Beatles song might be a way of Cyranizing some peach-like imaginary girlfriend. (I saved the Beach Boys, so endlessly sincere, for that.) The lyrics of those early songs expressed nothing by word. All that mattered was the pulse, the changes, the emotional dynamism, the unexpected. That becomes clear watching John Lennon singing (with Paul) “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on Ed Sullivan. John is not yet the walrus, not by a long shot, and yet one still wonders, “ You want to hold her hand ?” I was eleven, and I wanted to hold her hand. I had no idea there was anything beyond hand-holding (witness Miss Gaynor and Mr. Brazzi) until my parents, realizing I was a sneak thief, hid an especially medicinal guide to sex, or rather the apparatuses of sex, in their bedroom bookshelf. That book had the lyrics, or perhaps the recipe, for sex, but it lacked the music of sex and the very thing the Beatles projected: emotion. Curiously, what they projected wasn’t an emotion directed at someone else. It was an emotion directed back at them, and through them their astonishing music.
I wasn’t allowed to buy long-playing albums, so I collected the early songs on 45s. The difference between the British and American releases caused some chronological confusion, but each new single added to what felt like a continuing crescendo of hope and expectation, followed by a momentary strangeness that soon deepened into intimacy. The walls and ceiling of my Iowa bedroom