In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs
“The garden of life is strewn with such dormant seeds and so much of art blossoms from their unwilled and unwillable awakenings.”
By Maria Popova
And now for something a bit out of the ordinary: When editor Andrew Blauner invited me to contribute to an anthology of essays by some of his favorite writers about their favorite Beatles songs, I did something I rarely do — I accepted, because a particular Beatles song happens to be a significant animating force in my family story.
The anthology is now out as In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs (public library), featuring contributions from wonderful writers like Pico Iyer (“Yesterday”), Rosanne Cash (“No Reply”), Rick Moody (“The End”), Rebecca Mead (“Eleanor Rigby”), Roz Chast (“She Loves You”), Jane Smiley (“I Want to Hold Your Hand”), and Adam Gopnik (“Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”).
Here is my essay, as it appears in the book.
by Maria Popova
My parents fell in love on a train. It was the middle of the Cold War and they were both traveling from their native Bulgaria to Saint Petersburg in Russia, where they were to attend different universities — my father, an introvert of formidable intelligence, was studying computer science; my mother, a poetry-writing (bordering-on-bossy) extrovert , library science.
An otherwise rational man, my father describes the train encounter as love at first sight. Upon arrival, he began courting my mother with such subtlety that it took her two years to realize she was being courted.
One spring morning, having finally begun to feel like a couple, they were walking across the lawn between the two dorms and decided it was time for them to have a whistle-call. At the time, Bulgarian couples customarily had whistle-calls — distinctive tunes they came up with, usually borrowed from the melody of a favorite song, by which they could find each other in a crowd or summon one another from across the street.
Partway between the primitive and the poetic, between the mating calls of mammals and the sonnets by which Romeo and Juliet beckoned one another, these signals were part of a couple’s shared language, a private code to be performed in public. Both sets of my grandparents had one. My mother’s parents, elementary schoolteachers in rural Bulgaria who tended to an orchard and the occasional farm animal, used a melody of unclear origin but aurally evocative of a Bulgarian folk song; my father’s parents, both civil engineers and city intellectuals, used a fragment from a Schumann waltz.
That spring morning, knowing that my mother was a Beatles fan, my father suggested “Yellow Submarine.” There was no deliberation, no getting mired in the paradox of choice — just an instinctive offering fetched from some mysterious mental library.
Eventually, my parents got pregnant, got married, had this child. They continued to summon each other, and eventually me, by whistling “Yellow Submarine.” Although I didn’t know at the time that it was originally written as a children’s song, it came to color my childhood. I had always wondered why, of all possible songs saturating their youth, my parents had chosen “Yellow Submarine” — a song released long before they met. My father wasn’t much of a Beatles fan himself, and yet that spring morning, he was able to open the cabinet of his semi-conscious memory, fetch a melody he had heard almost twenty years earlier, and effortlessly whistle it to his beloved. The familial whistle-call became a given in my childhood, like math homework and Beef Stroganoff Sundays, so it wasn’t until I was in my early thirties that it occurred to me to inquire about how “Yellow Submarine” wove itself into the family fabric. The story of how that seemingly random song had implanted itself in my father’s mind is the archetypal story of how popular music, and perhaps all popular art, is metabolized in the body of culture. Once it has entered the crucible of consciousness, a song becomes subject to a peculiar alchemy — the particularities of the listener’s life at that particular moment transmute its objective meaning, if there ever was one at all, into a subjective impression. That impression is what we encode into memory, what we retrieve to whistle twenty years later. The artist’s original intent is melded with the listener’s personal context into an amorphous mass of inexpressible yet unforgettable unity — a dormant seed whose blossoming depends on the myriad factors fertilizing the surrounding soil. That the seed was planted at all may remain unheralded until the moment of its blossoming.
My great-grandfather — my father’s maternal grandfather — was an astronomer and mathematician born at the dawn of the twentieth century, into Bulgaria’s nascent monarchy that followed five hundred years of Ottoman slavery. He lived through two World Wars, then watched his homeland, battered by centuries of oppression and brutalized by decades of war, crumble into communism when the monarchy was overthrown in the 1940s. The pernicious anti-intellectualism of the communist regime took great pains to silence any cultural signal from the other side of the Iron Curtain. On the radio — then the dominant form of mass media — Western broadcasts in translation were banned and their frequencies muffled. But because so few Bulgarians spoke non-Slavic languages, the government didn’t bother to muffle foreign broadcasts in the original — those were just buried on hard-to-find frequencies.
Witnessing the timorous promise of freedom succumb to dictatorship must have been unbearable for my great-grandfather. Somehow, he hacked his transistor radio into the frequency of the BBC World Service and, well into his fifties by that point, set about teaching himself English. He acquired an English dictionary and a few literary classics through some underground channel — from Jane Austen to first-edition Hemingways, which survive to this day in my grandmother’s library — and began underlining words, filling the margins with translations, and code-cracking English grammar. It was a small act of rebellion, but a monumental one. By the 1960s, he had become fluent in English, with the BBC as his sole conduit to the other side — a lifeline of intellectual liberty.
When his nine grandchildren were entrusted in his daytime care, he decided to weave this surreptitious insurgency into his legacy by teaching them English. He would take them to the park and when the time came for their afternoon snack, he wouldn’t feed them until they were able to ask for their sandwiches in proper Queen’s English.
The BBC World Service was always on in the kitchen and in the late summer of 1966, just before my father’s sixth birthday, “Yellow Submarine” was on heavy rotation — it had been released on August 5. One morning, my great-grandfather decided to use the song as an opportunity for another English lesson with the kids. Perhaps because this was in Varna — Bulgaria’s naval capital, where the city’s celebrated Naval Museum is still housed in a giant decommissioned submarine — and perhaps simply because he was a little boy and little boys have such obsessions, my father was enamored of submarines and instantly took the bait. He fell in love with the song, learned its melody, and memorized the lyrics.
He grew up, fluent in English and German (my great-grandfather had also hacked his way into the Deutsche Welle), and although his obsession with the engineering of military vehicles and vessels never left him, the yellow submarine became a distant childhood memory. But it left a vestige, invisible and dormant until it was fertilized by the unlikeliest — or is it the likeliest? — of catalysts: love. The garden of life is strewn with such dormant seeds and so much of art blossoms from their unwilled and unwillable awakenings. In a marvelous yet hardly surprising parallel, the very origin of “Yellow Submarine” intimates such boyhood vestiges.
Paul McCartney wrote the song as a nonsense children’s rhyme to which the Beatles added an irreverent edge.
In the town where I was born
Lived a man who sailed to sea
McCartney’s grandfather, Joseph, grew up near the Liverpool docks and played the E-flat bass, a giant tuba-like brass instrument. Lennon’s grandfather, George, was a lifelong mariner who was aboard one of the first three-masted ships to sail around the world. After he met his wife at the bustling old Roman seaport of Chester, he retired into domesticity by taking a shoreside job recovering wreckage from sunk submarines. McCartney later recounted that he wrote “Yellow Submarine” by making up a melody in his head and letting it carry the story of “an ancient mariner, telling the young kids where he’d lived.” Could this “man who sailed the sea” be an amalgam of these two boyhood vestiges?
It is, of course, a perennial mystery how the innumerable fragments of experience we amass in the course of living come into contact with one another, how they are fused together in the combinatorial process of creativity and transformed into something new. Impatient with mystery, we tend to seek to fill the unknown with easy explanations. When “Yellow Submarine” was released — on the other side of “Eleanor Rigby,” on the same day as Revolver – people rushed to presumptions about the obvious agent of transmutation: This, after all, was the middle of the 1960s and the Beatles had just begun experimenting with psychedelics. But while John and George were busting open the doors of perception with acid, Paul was largely uninterested in such synthetic aids — bursting with creative energy, his spiritual electricity was self-synthesized. Although he insisted over and over on the innocuous origin of the song, throngs of critics both professional and self-appointed continued to interpret the song as an ode to psychedelics.
If psychedelics played a role at all, it was indirect — at most as a cross-pollinating agent of adjacent imaginations. Since the Beatles shared so much of their lives, Paul was inevitably immersed in his bandmates’ newfound wonderland of psychedelia and absorbed its rousing visual language. According to a Beatles intimate quoted in Bob Spitz’s excellent biography of the Fab Four, one of those early acid experiences produced “marvelous visions” of “rainbow-colored submarines” — an image so wild and whimsical that John and George, in their wide-eyed exhilaration, likely enthused about it to the rest. Paul might have folded that image into his mental catalogue of fragments — in fact, his first draft of the lyrics included multiple submarines of various colors before they were distilled into the sole yellow submarine. (Donovan added the line “Sky of blue and sea of green” — a welcome reinjection of color into the final yellow monochrome.)
McCartney had written the song for Ringo Starr, who was “very good with kids,” deliberately keeping it “not too rangey in the vocal range” for Ringo to perform. It was a perfect fit — the song became by far the most successful Beatles track with Ringo as a vocalist. But there was something else, something singularly magical, that lent it timeless luster and increasingly timely allure today. Its recording was a jubilant celebration of phenomena that have since gone just about extinct — the communal element of making art and the messy, hands-on craftsmanship of sound.
On May 26, 1966, the Beatles packed into Studio Two along with a motley cast of Abbey Road regulars and irregulars, spearheaded by legendary producer George Martin.
And our friends are all on board
The gang proceeded to fetch an arsenal of noisemaking tools from the utility closet — chains, whistles, buckets, glasses, wind-makers, thunderstorm machines, wartime hand bells, hooters, ship’s bells — which quickly cluttered the studio’s spacious wooden floor as the cacophonous crew set out to create the song’s weird and wonderful aural atmosphere. The cash register that would later ring up Pink Floyd’s “Money” appeared from somewhere. An old-fashioned metal bath was dragged in and filled; the Beatles’ chauffeur, Alf Bicknell, was assigned a chain to whirl through the water.
And the band begins to play
At the end, the band’s road manager, Mal Evans, grabbed a bass drum and led a conga line around this makeshift wonderland of music-making to the collective incantation:
We all live in a yellow submarine
Yellow submarine, yellow submarine
There’s a wonderful symmetry here, between the childlike playfulness that filled the studio and the sensibility of the song itself. More than that, the recording session stands as a testament to the song’s true intent — an ode to pure fun, nothing more and nothing less. But while fun — the exultant joy of creation — has always been a major animating force of art, it has never been a sufficient raison d’être for art criticism. In one of his beautiful 1930s essays on music, Aldous Huxley — perhaps the patron saint of psychedelics and a prominent paste-up presence in the iconic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover — remarked on the “absurd multiplicity of attributed ‘meanings’” that music can invoke. “Yellow Submarine,” due to its nonsensical lyrics and its particular placement in the chronology of the Beatles as odd bedfellow to “Eleanor Rigby” and creative counterpoint to Revolver, lent itself to particularly extravagant interpretations, from the sociocultural to the political. One folk magazine took it to be an anti-Vietnam War anthem. The great African American poet, dramatist, and essayist Amiri Baraka saw it as a pathetic paean to white privilege. The English music critic Peter Doggett remarked, “Culturally empty, ‘Yellow Submarine’ became a kind of Rorschach test for radical minds.” (We can put aside for a moment the notion that childlike wonder and sensorial delight amount to cultural emptiness — a lamentable bias that warrants a separate essay.)
This question of the song’s meaning reached a crescendo when it was adapted into an animated feature film two years later. What began as a throwaway licensing deal and a mere afterthought for the Beatles became a messy parable of the rift between culture as creative communion and culture as commodity. Before “Yellow Submarine” conquered the airwaves as the highest-grossing single in the UK the year of its release, the Beatles had agreed — or, rather, their manager Brian Epstein had procured their impetuous agreement — to contribute an original soundtrack and lend their endorsement to a cartoon adaptation by King Features, which had already adapted the life and music of the Beatles into five dozen cartoons. Young painters were recruited from local art schools and an impressive crew of animators, inkers, background artists, and sound engineers was hired from all over the world — Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, Scotland, Spain, the U.S. and all over the U.K. As the animation crew worked day and night for eleven months, the Beatles, not quite realizing what they had agreed to, began actively resenting the very idea of the project and treated it like a tedious chore they just had to get out of the way. The film was ultimately finished with very little and very begrudging input from the band.
Its premiere at London Pavilion in July of 1968 sparked a heightened state of Beatlemania. Fans loved it, most commentators loved it, and even the Fab Four had to admit its charm. But amid the flurry of enthusiasm, the few shrieks of criticism became emblematic of the cultural unease which “Yellow Submarine” sparked — a discomfort with an uninterpretable open-endedness that resists the categorization by which we navigate and process cultural material. The irritation of this unease was best captured by Daily Mail entertainment columnist Trudi Pacter, who complained that “the Beatles stubbornly continue to experiment” instead of sticking to the formula that had already proven their music wildly successful. It’s a grievance both utterly ridiculous and utterly human: We yearn for art to surprise us, but we also yearn for the control, for certitude, for knowing what to expect from those we’ve come to trust. But what made the Beatles a cultural force was precisely the stubbornness with which they continued to experiment forward into greatness. “Yellow Submarine” was a particularly successful experiment.
Full speed ahead, Ms. Pacter, full speed ahead!
It is precisely this uncomfortable open-endedness of meaning that drove generations of critics to fill the abyss with manufactured meanings. Interpretation, of course, always reveals far more about the interpreter than it does about the interpreted. Just two years before the release of “Yellow Submarine,” in her terrific treatise “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag bemoaned the reactionary “arrogance of interpretation” and called it “the revenge of the intellect upon art.”
And yet the interpretation of art is inescapable, and this might not be such a bad thing after all. “Yellow Submarine,” more so than the average song due to its nonsensical nature, has meant different things to every person who has ever heard it and filled it with subjective sense. It meant different things to my great-grandfather, to my father, and to myself. For the old mathematician, it signified a vitalizing act of intellectual insurgency; for the little boy, a playful and infectious wink at a childhood obsession; for the young man in love, a thread stretching backward and forward in time, connecting him to his childhood self and to the future wife who would beget his own child. And although I, that future child, never got to meet my intellectual insurrectionist great-grandfather, I am linked to him by DNA and by a song from long ago, embedded in my father’s synapses and worn note-bare by my mother’s lips.
“Once a poem is made available to the public,” teenage Sylvia Plath once wrote to her mother, “the right of interpretation belongs to the reader.” It is by this right of interpretation that popular music, popular culture, and perhaps all culture belongs to us at all. It is by this right that art is always appropriated by life, that a catchy song with no particular meaning, eavesdropped on by a little boy with his ear pressed to the Iron Curtain, can be woven into a family myth across time and space. This is what popular art does at its best — it provides a screen onto which vastly different people in vastly different circumstances can project the singular meaning of their lives.
In Their Lives features twenty-seven more essays on beloved Beatles songs, cross-pollinating personal histories with cultural history in a poetic intersection of memoir, music, and the collective legend-making of great storytelling.
Published May 23, 2017