Friday, April 27, 2012

Beatles Girls, Where Have You Gone?

"A photograph is a secret about a secret...

 ...The more it tells you the less you know." Diane Arbus

I'm not sure that "haunted" is the right word to describe what these two girls have done to me since I first saw them sometime in the mid 1970s. The images are from The Beatles: An Illustrated Record, a coffee-table book written and compiled by U.K. journalists Roy Carr and Tony Tyler, a glossy must-have for Beatles fans who were listening to Wings and wondering what the hell's happened to John Lennon. (The book came out in 1975; this was the era of fake Beatles reunion concerts.) These girls are emblems of pop passion and joy, the top girl photographed at a Beatles concert sometime in late 1964 or early 1965 (note the copy of Beatles For Sale in corner), the bottom girl at a Beatles show in Philadelphia in August of 1966. In the absurd speed of the decade the girls are separated by months yet stand at opposite ends of an immense cultural front, a wide gulf with "Beatlemania" at one end, Revolver at the other.  But the countenances speak the same desperate language.

"Human faces are such a world!" said Henri Cartier-Bresson, the master of the candid photograph. The world of stories these girls spun for me. I'd love to know who, and where, they are now, but part of me is skeptical of that impulse, secretly happy, if a bit embarrassed, to let them live in my imagination, where they're less teenage girls in perpetuity—that kind of embalming doesn't interest me—than humans possessed beyond language, resorting, or elevating, to tears and mouths agape. Photos are, of course, liars, or more accurately con artists, seducing us into believing that a moment is eternal, that we can dwell in a fraction of time and believe that that instant has currency and value in the future. ("Cameras that capture the moment are giving us the impression to own it." Vittorio Canta.) After the 40-minute show, these girls dried their eyes and underarms, went home with their ears ringing, singing, wrote in their diaries, exclaimed to their girlfriends on the phone or in school the next day, the Beatles grew mustaches. But here they are eternally stilled. The first girl's expression is easily translated. The bottom girl's is complicated, and in its blend of joy and anguish, release and burden always scared me a little, faced as I was with an inability to easily file the image away in a Category. As always with adolescent epiphanies, knowledge and language took years to catch up with sensation. I couldn't shake it. She's having fun, right? She's not unhappy, right? I saw the photo before I understood that overwhelming joy and surprising release can, in a way, terrify, that teenage girls live between drama and melodrama, so this Beatles Girl will always live in my imagination as a melancholy source of unease and dissonance. The grainy black-and-white secures her in a past beyond my reach, so I can't ask her, Why do you look this way? Look at your friend.

I wonder what stories these photos tell the girls themselves now, what truths they reveal or obscure. What do the girls remember of the concerts? And did they know that they were being photographed? As I sat with The Beatles: An Illustrated Record in my basement, these two girls were living out for me a story that they have no say in, complicating my naive understanding of girlish expressions around me at St. Andrew the Apostle—confounding me when, at night, I thought I'd figured out what J. or W. meant by her look in the hallway—teasing my hormones, scoring an emotional response to music and sex that the Beatles songs only hinted at. Where'd you go, girls? Come back and explain what happened to me when I looked.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"After the 40-minute show, these girls dried their eyes and underarms....."

Or lower as Nick Tosches put in "Hellfire" (wish I had the quote but it had to do with blaming the Killer for their daughters' stained undergarments).