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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2003/10/28
by Jesse Jarnow

The Beatles, 1962-1966

For my birthday, I purchased myself a copy of The Beatles’ 1962-1966
(aka The Red Album) on CD. I owned it on tape when I was much younger. It
was the first album I ever purchased myself — or, rather, chose
myself. I couldn’t‘ve been too old, probably around Kindergarten age, and
had recently seen Yellow Submarine. My mother brought me to the
record store, and I told the man that I wanted a Beatles album with both
"Yellow Submarine" and "Nowhere Man" on it. He gave me 1962-1966. I
can’t really measure my obsession with it, but I’m guessing it bordered on
total. It wasn’t just good music, it was pretty much all music (save
for Pete Seeger and the Weavers). Not a bad place to start.
Listening again now, 20 years later, is a little strange. But only a little.
The songs never left me. With the exception of a few rebellious years in
late high school, I never really stopped listening to The Beatles. Likewise,
the order of the songs on 1962-1966 veritably burned themselves into
my memory. To this day, whenever I hear any of these songs in isolation, I
immediately imagine the next song on 1962-1966 beginning on the next
beat. The CD is almost exactly as I remembered the tape, except for
the notably annoying exclusion of the 30 second Bollywood exotica/James Bond
instrumental prelude to "Help!" that began the second side. Yeah, I’m pretty
bummed about that, since that bit brimmed with an explosive weirdness that I
wish I could hear again. But, for the most part, it’s still The Beatles, who
obviously haven’t changed an iota since then.
But what is strange is trying to conceive how I listened to this music when
I was five years old. The music obviously made me feel good. Hell, it made
me feel great. And, presumably, it did so for some of the same
reasons it continues to. But, it should also go without saying that I wasn’t
thinking on any complicated level, such as "neat bassline" or "wow, that was
a cool guitar break by George; I dig the 12-string action" or "I like the
crammed-in vocals over the bridge of ‘Please Please Me’." That doesn’t mean
I wasn’t thinking in musical terms. I remember noticing things like the
opening chord in "A Hard Day’s Night" or the glassy production sheen that
differentiates "Eight Days A Week," "I Feel Fine," and "Ticket To Ride" from
the stuff that came before it, but I certainly couldn’t articulate any of
it. The only thing I could do was rewind and listen again (or, more likely,
just wait until it came around again).
My main memories of the songs, though, are of childhood distortions.
Practically each song has one or two tiny moments that made a kind of sense
to me that would later evaporate. Listening to these songs and trying to
reconstruct those interpretations is the closest tangible evidence I have to
exactly how the world looked and felt to me when I was a kid. Childhood
memories are notoriously finicky, and of course, there’s a certain comfort
in recalling them, trying to piece together those instinctual moments of
synesthesia, like how leaves smelled in the fall and how good the apple
juice tasted and how the red and black checkered pattern on my father’s
coat, not to mention its peculiar texture, somehow seemed intrinsically
connected to this. Just as The Beatles were all music, one autumn was
all autumns. It was hard to differentiate between experiences, which
made listening to songs like "In My Life," a bit odd. I think I knew that
even then.
All of this was brought to bear on my experiences listening to The Beatles’
1962-1966 — not intentionally, it just was. My understanding of the
English language was quite different. For example, listening to a song like
"We Can Work it Out," there was the lyric "we can work it out and get it
straight or say ‘goodnight.’" That’s an extremely straightforward sentiment
that doesn’t need much unpacking. But, as a five year old, my concept of the
phrase "say goodnight" was quite different from an adult’s. I heard that
line and thought of my parents tucking me in: an image of comfort. Thus, my
interpretation of that line was quite different from what Paul McCartney
likely intended. He set up an opposition between "work[ing] it out" and
"say[ing] goodnight" which was completely lost on me, because "say[ing]
goodnight" hadn’t yet acquired a cultural meaning — it was just something
my parents said to me.
And that’s not to mention the French lyrics in "Michelle." I knew they were
French — or, at least, my mother explained that to me. But that didn’t stop
me from coming up with my own words, so I could sing along. I can’t say for
sure, but I’m reasonably positive that my lyrics began with the phrase
"someday monkey," and continued on from there. The world was a big place to
me, but it wasn’t scary. It was just weird. And I took it at face value. To
John Lennon, or any adult male, there was surely something at least a little
facetious about singing a song called "I Want To Hold Your Hand." Surely,
that’s not all John wanted to do with his hands, or hers. But, hey, I didn’t
know that. He wanted to hold her hand.
But I didn’t tell anybody any of this. There was no reason to, really.
Everybody listened like that, or so I thought. As I went to school, and
noticed how other people listened to music, it became apparent that I had
created my own little world to place The Beatles into. And it was fun. They
were action figures in me head. In a sense, it’s still how I listen to music
— and, I suspect, how most people listen to music: as a series of secret
associations that produce a unique set of almost untranslatable feelings.
The next album I got, logically, was The Beatles’ 1967-1970 (The Blue
Album) and, whoo boy, everything changed. For starters, the cover really
fucked with me. The picture was clearly taken in the same spot. Depicted
were The Beatles, supposedly, but it sure didn’t look like The Beatles.
These guys had long hair, and moustaches and beards. And, why, John
didn’t even look like he was smiling! Suddenly, the very static image
of The Beatles, as depicted on the cover of 1962-1966, that I had
held in my memory, animated. Lo, there was change. But that’s
a reflection upon the occasion of another birthday.

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