beatles

All I really wanted for Christmas

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal.

My younger brother, James, still believed in Santa Claus and I wasn’t about to tell him otherwise – not on Christmas morning. Besides, evidence of Santa’s visit to our Providence home was everywhere. The Stella D’oro cookies we had left out on the coffee table were gone, and there were gifts under the tree that hadn’t been there the night before.

James couldn’t wait to play with the toy that had been at the top of his list: Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots. The two of us frantically pushed on our plastic joystick controls, unleashing uppercuts in hopes of disengaging the opposing palooka’s head from his shoulders. Boxing was big in December 1971. Nine months earlier, Joe Frazier had defeated Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight crown. I had wanted Ali to win because my father was rooting for him. Dad had tried to explain to me why Ali changed his name from Cassius Clay and opposed the Vietnam War, but I didn’t really understand. I just knew Dad was for Ali, so I was, too.

My older brother, Rob, was thrilled with his new Panasonic cassette player and radio. We marveled at how it could record songs from our favorite pop music stations without picking up any room noise. After the breakup of the Beatles, we were always searching for new bands to listen to. I liked Badfinger and was pleased on Christmas morning when a present of telltale thinness turned out to be their latest LP. Still, I hoped rumors of a Fab Four reunion would someday come true.

“Go get dressed, boys,” my mother called out from the kitchen. “Your father will be here soon.”

It was the third Christmas since our parents had separated, and this time seemed easier. When my father moved out, I didn’t want anyone to know.

He left notes for my brothers and me, and I swallowed hard as I read mine: “The court has said I can’t be with you all the time. I don’t think Mommy was happy about this, but I didn’t help her make any other choice.” By the end, I was wiping my eyes: “Say your prayers, keep your room neat, and be a good boy. Mommy and I love you very much.” I hid the note in my sock drawer.

My father arrived with two large shopping bags filled with gifts. He and my mother exchanged polite hellos without making eye contact. I had never heard them argue or speak badly of one another, either before or after the separation.

The five of us gathered in the living room by the glowing tree, and Dad passed out presents: a microscope for Rob, a basketball board game for me, a Hot Wheels race track for James. Then it was our turn: Rob handed our father a footstool he had made in his junior-high woodworking class, and James and I gave him the striped blue tie our mother had helped us pick out at Midland Mall.

“What’s in the other bag?” Rob asked.

“That’s for you, Norma,” my father said, looking at my mother.

“Oh,” she said, surprised. Rob and I exchanged glances. This was a first since the split.

My dad lifted an old kerosene lantern from the bag and placed it carefully on the coffee table. The lamp’s metal had a blue-green patina, and a red bow was tied around the worn handle. My father said he had found it in South County. My mom loved antiques.

“Why, thank you, Donald,” she said softly. “How sweet of you.”

After my father left, I was happy to see Mom give the lantern a prominent place atop a bookshelf in the living room. I wanted to believe they still had affection for one another. Wasn’t the lantern proof of that?

The Beatles never reunited; neither did my parents. While a John Lennon lyric had told us “all you need is love,” I’d eventually come to understand that sometimes it’s more complicated than that.

 

Confessions of a lifelong Beatlemaniac

As appeared in the Providence Sunday Journal, February 21, 2016.

I wasn’t one of the 73 million Americans who watched the Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, two days before my fourth birthday. But soon enough, Beatlemania would sweep me up too.

Later that year, as my mother prepared our family’s traditional fish dinner on Christmas Eve, my older brother, Rob, and I sat on the living room floor listening to Meet The Beatles! on a portable record player. My grandfather, who lived upstairs in our Providence double-decker, walked in from the kitchen.

“Where’s the Christmas music?” he said, pointing his smoldering Dutch Masters cigar at the spinning vinyl.

“Papa,” Rob said. “It’s the Beatles!”

My brother shot me a knowing look. Listening to anything else — even “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve — was out of the question.

The following June, my mother gave each of us a crisp one-dollar bill at the start of our vacation in Narragansett.

“That’s for the whole week,” she said. “Make it last.”

Less than an hour later, Rob handed his dollar to the cashier at Adam’s variety store in exchange for 20 five-cent packs of Beatles cards. I stood at the counter, eyebrows raised.

The cards featured stylish black-and-white photos of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, and facsimiles of their autographs. I was aghast at the instant evaporation of my brother’s allowance. But as we flipped through the images again and again, the payoff began to dawn on me. The cards reaffirmed what we had felt the first time we heard “I Want To Hold Your Hand”: the Beatles were cool and, by extension, so were we.

That afternoon, ignoring my frugality for a moment, I slid a dime into the jukebox on the boardwalk at Scarborough Beach and played the Fab Four’s latest chart-topper, “Ticket to Ride.”

Their hits kept coming: “Help!” in July; “Yesterday” in September; Rubber Soul in time for Christmas; and the remarkable Revolver eight months later.

And then, during the Summer of Love in 1967, my father brought home Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

“Everyone’s talking about this,” he said, handing us the Beatles’ new LP.

The cover art, with its photomontage of famous people, was unlike anything we had ever seen. “A Day In The Life,” with its rising orchestral glissandos, was unlike anything we had ever heard. And I loved that the lyrics were printed on the back cover. As the music played, I sang along.

In late September, Time magazine arrived in the mail, and the Beatles were on the cover. The story inside hailed them as “messengers beyond rock ‘n’ roll.” I didn’t understand the references to Schubert and Cole Porter, but I soaked up every word.

By then, I wanted a Beatles “mop top,” but my parents insisted on a “regular boys’ haircut.” Waiting at Lanni’s barbershop one day, I was shocked by a front-page headline: “Paul McCartney fighting lip cancer!” I reported the grim news at home. My father, a resolute introvert, howled before enlightening me about the journalism standards at the National Enquirer. Rumors of Paul’s death two years later would find me less gullible.

The Beatles charted 27 number-one songs before breaking up in 1970. People are still listening today. After going live on Spotify last December 24, Beatles tunes were streamed more than 70 million times in just three days.

Years ago, I smiled the first time I heard my daughter singing along to John Lennon’s “In My Life” in her bedroom. Juliana was a fan too.

This past Christmas, I handed her a flat, square present topped with a big red bow.

“No way!” Julie said, after stripping away the wrapping paper.

She beamed at the framed album cover – the original Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that my father had given to Rob and me back in 1967.

“And there’s a bonus,” I said. “The record’s inside.”

“My friend has a turntable,” she said. “We can play it!”

Drop the needle, Julie. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

109 Seconds of Beatles Brilliance

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There are Beatles songs more popular than “There’s A Place,” including the twenty-seven that topped the charts in both the United Kingdom and United States.

There are Beatles songs more ambitious. “A Day in the Life,” “I Am the Walrus,” and the suite on the second side of Abbey Road come to mind.

But I find myself equally drawn to the second-to-last song on their debut UK album, Please Please Me, which was recorded 52 years ago today. “There’s A Place,” which I didn’t discover until the mid-1970s, is 109 seconds of Beatles brilliance.

I wasn’t one of the 73 million who watched the historic Ed Sullivan performance on February 9, 1964, two days before my fourth birthday. But soon enough, Beatlemania would sweep me up, too.

The following Christmas Eve, my brother Rob and I listened to Meet The Beatles while waiting for our family to have dinner with my grandfather. “Where’s the Christmas music?” he asked. “Papa, it’s the BEATLES!” we said. Our tone suggested that the thought of listening to anything else – even a yuletide chart-topper like “Silent Night” on December 24th – was absurd. Papa dragged on his cigar and walked away.

In the summer of 1965, at the start of a family vacation, my mom gave Rob and me each our $1 allowance. “That’s for the week,” she said. “Make it last.” Later that day, Rob spent all his cash all at once – ten packs of Beatles cards at 10¢ apiece. I hedged and bought five packs. Rob still has his cards stashed away in a shoe box somewhere. Turns out they were a good investment. Just look up Beatles cards on eBay.

Such were the ripples of Beatlemania. And then there was the music itself.

When you look up “rock and roll” in an online dictionary, the definition should be an audio file of the Beatles ripping through “Twist and Shout.” It was the last song the group recorded in its one-day Please Please Me session – by design, according to producer George Martin. He knew the performance would take its toll on John Lennon’s voice. Whenever I listen to “Twist and Shout,” I think of Nigel Tufnel in This Is Spinal Tap: THIS ONE GOES TO ELEVEN!

The first song the Beatles recorded for Please Please Me was “There’s A Place.” It has that classic early Beatles sound: the two-part harmony (Lennon low, McCartney high), the three guitars, the sweet bridge, the rumble of Ringo’s drums throughout.

But it’s the lyric that truly distinguishes the song. While the group’s eventual breakthrough hit in America would concern itself with wanting to hold hands, “There’s A Place” is more cerebral. It discusses longing to escape to a place where there is “no sorrow, no sad tomorrow.” The persona in the song finds that place in his mind, as he thinks of the girl who said to him “I love only you.” Hello, adolescence.

Two final notes on “There’s A Place” make me like the song even more. First, McCartney and Lennon were inspired by “Somewhere” from West Side Story, which was written by Leonard Bernstein (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyric). The song opens: “There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us…” My dad loved Sondheim, and he and I spent many Sunday mornings listening to the composer’s musicals over coffee. The connection between “There’s A Place” and “Somewhere” was a sweet revelation. 

Finally, it pleases me that the Beatles recorded “There’s A Place” on my birthday fifty-two years ago today. It remains a gift of pop perfection.

Short Post On The Shortest Day

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The sun rose in East Greenwich at 7:10 this morning, but the real solar event happened almost an hour earlier. At 6:12 a.m., the winter solstice occurred. Today is the shortest day of the year.

Solstice is a great word because its Latin roots give poetic explanation to a planetary ballet. The sun (sol) appears to stand still (sistere) each December 21st or 22nd as it reaches the southernmost part in our sky. Then it reverses direction and starts an inexorable trek northward, culminating with summer solstice in June. I remember trying to explain this phenomenon to my kids with an orange and a grapefruit. Good thing they had science teachers.

It’s raining today, but that shouldn’t dampen the celebration. Tomorrow, we gain three seconds of daylight; on Sunday, seven. Break out the SPF 30 and hum the Beatles classicSun, sun, sun, here it comes…

Flamingo Guitar And Other Malaprops

When my brother was in fifth grade and I was in second, he started playing flamingo guitar. It didn’t sound like the guitars the Beatles and the Stones played. It was fancier, with abrupt rhythms and lots of plucking. Maybe that’s why it had such a curious name: flamingo? Then I saw the lesson book: flamenco guitar.

I didn’t know it, but I had created a malapropism by misusing a word that sounded like the correct one but had a different meaning. Malapropism and its variant malaprop derive from the French phrase “mal à propos,” which means “badly for the purpose.” The terms come from a character in Richard Sheridan’s play The Rivals, written in 1775. Mrs. Malaprop misuses words throughout to great comic effect, e.g., “She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.” With the play’s success in England and the colonies, her name was destined for immorality.

I meant immortality, of course. But I couldn’t resist the joke. That’s the thing about malaprops: they are funny. Check out these classics, with the correct word in parentheses:

Yogi Berra: “Texas has a lot of electrical votes.” (electoral)

Archie Bunker: “Buy one of them transvestite radios.” (transistor)

Michael Scott: “I consider myself a great philanderer.” (philanthropist)

Tony Soprano: “I was prostate with grief.” (prostrate)

Mike Tyson: “I might just fade into Bolivian.” (oblivion)

Stan Laurel: “We heard the ocean is infatuated with sharks.” (infested)

Mayor Thomas Menino: “He was a man of great statue.” (stature)

I once worked at an ad agency that offered employees a first-aid class teaching the Heimlich Maneuver. When the office manager asked each of us if we wanted to register, she referred to the life-saving technique as the Hymen Maneuver. People choked with laughter.

And then there was the three-year-old who had the misfortune of getting a rash on his private parts. He knew his parents had used an ointment to soothe his woes, but confused Vaseline with another word: “Hey, Dad, should we put more gasoline on it?”

We’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that one.

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