Saturday, May 30, 2020

Bodies, faces, voices

Amy and I lent our bodies, faces, and voices to today's peaceful but rousing protest in town. The chants were righteous and moving, the faces masked but loud. With the pandemic in mind, being a part of a crowd is not an easy choice to make, but this is important, in fact essential, and we tried to maintain social distancing. Hand sanitizer was freely distributed.

As we were pulling out of our parking space to leave, a police officer drove into the lot in a large vehicle, stopped to block traffic, and got out. He walked toward a small group of protesters with signs near the edge of the lot. We got worried, and alertly watched as he approached them. He asked the group if they had a camera, and when they handed him their phone, he gave them time to pose with their signs. He snapped a picture, returned the phone to them, and said, "This is a good cause." A very nice ending. We're proud of DeKalb today.

Say his name: George Floyd.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Fran the Fan (from Liverpool)

This advert appeared on the back of the Beatles' "Day Tripper"/"We Can Work It Out" 45 sleeve, issued by Parlophone in England on December 3, 1965, the same day as Rubber Soul. I recently picked it up (I'm collecting the original Beatles U.K. singles, long-overdue) and was knocked out to see this narrative playing out, an of-the-era advertisement for a Morphy-Richards hairdryer. "Fran" and "Kate," two Liverpool lasses, are inspired to start up a fan club for the Frantics, a fictional northern band destined to be "the biggest group in the country next year." (We'll see.)  The girls are far more interested in the Frantics' "Walt" and "Pete" than in their own boyfriends. Who's the moody, arty one with the goatee? Anyway, the girls are amped to be the band's first real fans—"practically their best friends!" Kate enthuses, helpfully holding the dryer as Fran composes a careful letter to "Sam Bruce, the Frantics' manager."

All innocent fun and enthusiasm, of course, yet the girls' wide-eyed hopes of securing relationships with a rock and roll band, as embedded in an ad for a hair dryer, evokes the era in pretty graphic ways. Gender role playing, the power of the beauty-industrial complex, biological determinism playing out in the bedroom as "Day Tripper" spins on the hi-fi, that sly song's teasing, one-night-stand, weekend girls playing out another, dirtier story altogether. Ah, pop music.


Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Six to eight weeks

In 1988 I moved from the Washington D.C suburbs to Appalachia, specifically Athens, Ohio. The area's honeysuckle air, verdant, surrounding hills and hollers, and winding rural roads were a world away from the bustling region I'd left. Let's just say that the recoil was awesome, though it didn't take too long—a couple of months—for me to adjust, and ultimately to fall in love with the town, now one of my favorite places on earth. Yet it had its drawbacks in the beginning, among them a certain pre-Internet cultural isolation that left me feeling very alone, positioned far from the kinds of places—rock and roll clubs and record and used book stores, in particular—that I'd taken for granted in Maryland and D.C. Athens had a couple of good used record stores (which later became very good) and Columbus, Ohio and its cache of terrific stores and clubs, not to mention the 'hood surrounding the Ohio State University (this Bobcat won't capitalize "the") was an hour and a half away, but my car was a piece of unreliable junk that I didn't much trust.

So I turned to mail order, and introduced myself to such outfits as Estrus, Get Hip, BOMP, and Norton Records (whose wonderful co-honcho Miriam Linna was crushed to learn, after I'd put in my first order, that, no, sorry, I wasn't related to that Joe Bonomo). Suffice to say that those early orders, which were few and far between given my pitiful graduate student bank account, were the start of a long relationship; I still get a buzz from putting in the occasional record order through those and similar-minded vinyl-junkie outlets. And in this current quarantine and subsequent shuttering of so many record and book stores, mail order business is more vital than ever. Consider putting in an order. Many labels and stores are offering some sweet deals.

Which is to say that I have, and always will have, immoderate affection for this little tune by a band I knew nothing about, but whose name and song title caught my eye as I leafed through the grainy pulp pages of a catalogue. (The now-defunct My Old Kind Of KicK blog subsequently filled me in on the band's history, which was far more lively than I was aware at the time.) I can't now rank the single up there with the best of the best in my collection, but when it arrived at our house in the wilds of tucked-away little Athens, the horizon expanded and brightened a bit: I knew now that I could order tough-sounding rock and roll via the mail, and six to eight weeks later I'd be spinning discs. This single kept me a rockin' boy. Thanks, Clint Clinton, wherever you are.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Walter Lure survives

To Hell and Back: My Life in Johnny Thunders's Heartbreakers, in the Words of the Last Man Standing, written by Walter Lure with Dave Thompson, is an ideal rock and roll memoir. Reading it gives the impressions of having stumbled upon Lure in a talky, generous, above all clear-eyed mood, eager to share and to tell the truth. What Lure may lack in intense self-interrogation he more than makes up for in forthrightness. His book is very much a junkie memoir: foregrounded ultimately is the quest to score. A quarter of the way into the book—which primarily covers the first two years of the Heartbreakers' existence—Lure's already an addict, and when he's off the stage, his main preoccupation is getting more drugs, through the generosity of friends and strangers, via dwindling advances from record labels, or the cash drummed up by the various and many "rent parties" that he and whatever lineup he's in throw. 

The Fleshtones' co-founder and bass player Marek Pakulski, himself a survivor of heroin addiction, once put it to me this way: "Heroin...obviates the need for people, whereas alcohol allows you to be present in social situations. Heroin says: You don’t need that anymore. You and whatever your income is, the guy you buy your drugs from, and your house: this becomes your little triangle." What rescues To Hell and Back from the potentially narrative-deadening routine locked within that triangle is the happy fact that in the late 1980s Lure cleaned up for good, and while in the clutches of heroin kept a regular diary. Hence, in writing about the fog of smack addiction, dateless days, and preoccupations, he can lean on some structure. There are evocative details about visiting London and recoiling from the culture shock, the dynamism of playing onstage, well and poorly, both the conflicts and the camaraderie with like-spirited U.K. punk bands, good sex, anonymous sex, and fraught relationships, and the infamous recording and mixing epic of the Heartbreakers' sole album, the fantastic L.A.M.F.. In Lure's telling, Johnny Thunders, who Lure had known off and on before joining his band, fully lives up to his myth/image as the gloriously decadent junkie surrounded at all hours by disciples and hangers-on happy to hook him up, hopeful that some of Thunders's "glamour" might rub off them. Thunders is To Hell and Back's mercurial figure—as infamous when he's not around as when he is—frustratingly circling above Lure's more comparatively down-to-earth desires to get, and to keep, working,

Even given the relative assurances of diary entires, what's especially appealing about Lure is the dry skepticism he directs at his own past as that past as been remade my myth-makers. The venerable CBGB, long accepted as the hallowed ground of NYC punk, was just that, Lure acknowledges, but also something else. "'Punk' history tends to regard CBGB with a lot more affection than it perhaps deserves," he writes, adding, "Hilly Kristal himself merits every kind word that has ever been said about him—without him, and his vision, New York would never have seen the musical explosion that followed."
That’s true, but for me, mention of CBGB conjured another memory entirely, of the Sunday afternoon a couple of years earlier when a college friend of mine invited me down to a dive bar in the East Village to watch his country band play a show. I went, and it was a dreadful place, the kind you never wanted to think about again‚ which, at the time, seemed very likely because country was CBGB's specialty. But it wasn't mine. 
Of course, it didn't turn out that way, and returning there for the first time only revealed that CBGB had only gone downhill since my last visit. It was a shithole, and just as you don’t think kindly of your cat’s litter box, no matter how much you love your cat, that damp, narrow room with its barbed-wire acoustics and broken-glass ambiance was a place you visited under sufferance not for fun.
A rock and roll lifer fan, Lure has attended (and remembers!) many shows in his lifetime, including seminal early gigs such as Humble Pie's 1971 Fillmore show and Woodstock (where, improbably, he ran into Thunders) and his love of 1950s and 1960s AM radio rock and roll is as palpable in the Heartbreakers' songs as it is in Lure's fond, if tempered, recollections of singers and bands. About his own band's legend, Lure acknowledges that their reputation as a great live outfit was (mostly) accurate, yet he's bemused at the way history can be re-written and accepted as gospel. Shaking his head in front of his open diaries, Lure writes, "To be honest, and I'm going to have to confess to this on a few occasions later, as well, the various history books and lists of our gigs include a lot that I have no memory of whatsoever and didn't note in my diary, either. Meaning, either I’ve always been forgetful or, and this is equally plausible, they’re shows that perhaps were scheduled and announced but didn’t ultimately take place for some reason." He adds with a smile, "I must admit, though, I especially enjoy reading about the shows we are supposed to have played around England when I know for a fact that we were elsewhere on that date." This leavening of hyperbole with dry fact serves Lure's memoir well, and underscores the simple fact that the story he tells is less about the making of legends than it is about men working hard, or trying to, dealing with the pitfalls of the recording and touring industries and their own bank-depleting addictions while trying to remain passionate about making music. 

By necessity and through luck, Lure ultimately discovered other ways to survive. He was an employee of the Federal Drug Administration during the Heatbreakers' early days—that he doesn't have to make too much of the irony for it to resonate indicates just how absurdly thick that irony is—and in the last, harrowing days of his addiction, and for decades beyond, he worked on Wall Street, an equally improbable job for a smack-addict who wore bandaids on his face and played rock and roll in dim, sweaty clubs. Yet this work ethic, exploited early on to maintain his addictions, kept him alive. At the end of the book, he writes soberingly (in more ways than one), "if [the Heartbreakers] had gotten any bigger back then, we all might have died a lot earlier, given our proclivities at the time, and I include myself in that. One of the main reasons I survived was the fact that I had to go out and get a job. Johnny, Billy [Rath], and Jerry [Nolan] never had to do that—Johnny never worked a day in his life at a regular job."


Lure's happy fate is his book's happy ending. Near the end, he makes a simple but startling observation that casts so much of what he'd experienced, and written, in sharp relief: "Boredom was a relatively new sensation for me, and it was ugly. Powerful, too, in a sinister way."
It drives people to the most extreme lengths in an attempt to avoid it. I know “boredom” was very much a part of the punk ethic, and it was incredibly hip to claim you were bored—but actually being bored, as opposed to affecting weariness with the world, is a very different emotion.
A striking insight, simply stated, and one that goes to the heart of To Hell and Back: Lure survived Punk in part because he was able to make the crucial distinctions between myth and reality, between posturing theatrically and living authentically. That so many of his contemporaries, battling image and truth and drugs, couldn't, or wouldn't, see that clearly, is a testament to Lure. And now, standing, he gets to look back.

Lure, left, with the Heartbreakers at Max's Kansas City, 1978

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Revisiting Roxon's Rock

I've been dipping into Lillian Roxon's influential Rock Encyclopedia lately, eager as always for on-the-ground reportage of the late-1960's rock and roll scenes. An Australian, Roxon was dubbed the "Mother of Rock." She wrote pop music criticism and journalism before turning her attention to sexual politics and feminism. Born in 1932, she died of an asthma attack in 1973.

The massive Encyclopedia was published in 1969 (and revised in 1978). Roxon's entires, ranging in length from single sentences to multiple pages, blend journalism and wit, and are equal parts forthright and idiosyncratic. She was slightly older than the Beatles generation, and perhaps her point of view—appealingly skeptical, fan-ly yet clear-eyed—was shaped by that. What's especially captivating in hindsight was the Encyclopedia's appearance at the hinge of the 1960s and 1970s. Many changes on the rock and roll landscape were forthcoming, not least of which the rise of virtuosity, "progressive" ensembles, more baroque stages, and the widening gap between performer and fan—nearly all of which Roxon smelled in the air as she was working on these pieces. ("Multimedia is moving in and the rock light show will be a big part of it," she predicted, correctly.) And yet: as she wrote, Brian Jones had only just died, and Gene Vincent, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin were all very much alive, the latter three buzzing with the promise of bold futures. Tommy and Led Zeppelin II had just been issued, too close to Roxon's deadline for their track listings to appear, though the Four Seasons' psychedelic political concept album made it in. "Groupies" earned a respectful entry. Neil Young had just hooked up with Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and "Supergroups" were all the rage. The Encyclopedia begins with an entry on "ACID ROCK" and ends with one on the Zombies, who'd released Odyssey And Oracle the year before. So, the quote-unquote 1960s were still very much alive. After all, the Beatles were (still) together (barely). 

In her author's note, Roxon complained of the inherent frustrations in writing about musicians and bands at the end of the decade: "Trying to get the rock world to keep still long enough for me to take its picture was one of the most difficult tasks in putting this book together," she writes, adding, "Groups split even as I wrote of their inner harmony, and got themselves together just as I had acknowledges their tragic demise."
Too many people blinked when I clicked the shutter—but then, isn’t this restlessness exactly what rock is all about? The madness and desperation and constant shifts of power. I wanted to record the facts without losing the feelings. In the end, though, the music itself has to tell the story. This book is the companion to that story.
If the landscape was constantly shifting, many of Roxon's observations were thoughtfully weighted—one ear to the past, one to the future, and she's always careful to (attempt to) place artists in context. Already the Grateful Dead, with only two albums under their belt, "were not so much a band as a social institution." With their "natty striped blazers," the Cyrkle offered "crystal-clear college rock" (what a difference a generation would do to that term!). Turned on by the ongoing dynamism in the air, Roxon often made bold predictions concerning the legacies of certain bands. About Jefferson Airplane, she wrote, "Years, or maybe centuries from now, someone will discover that there really was a music of the spheres, and it will sound not unlike the music the Airplane plays in the moments of its highest flight." (One wonders what Roxon would have made of the high-flying Starship.) Soft Machine "have been called the Futuristic Beatles," she notes, "and years from now, when we fully understand their combinations of John Cage, Stockhausen, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, we might agree." She made the same guess about the Fugs' eventual place in rock history. And what of the Rolling Stones, who at the close of '69 were ascending into the far reaches of their peak years? "The group is still strong and together," she observes. "Jagger is becoming a film star (Performance and Ned Kelly)." Alluding to Jones' death, she added, "But nothing is the same. How could it be?"

Altamont hadn't occurred yet. One ear on the past, one to the future.


My favorite entry in Rock Encyclopedia belongs to this upstart band of kids:

Word is, they're in the studio now.


Roxon's wide-view take on scenes and developments are worth reading, as well. About "Electronic Rock," she observed, regarding the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper, that "only with electronics can you get those eerie nonhuman sounds, echoes, distortions, sound effects, and only in a studio can you produce them." She notes that "People had experimented with electronics in rock before...but until [Pepper] the mechanical tinkerings tended to take away from rather than contribute to the emotion of the music."("Was it a Beatle triumph or an engineering triumph or both?" she asks smartly.) She goes on to reference the United States of America, Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, the Silver Apples, and the Byrds, bands that designed their own electronic equipment "so they could create studio effects on stage in live performance." "Interest is growing," she reports, "and the day will eventually come when bands will bristle with electronic equipment and use tapes, gadgets and trickery to get a variety of noises not yet heard on the rock stage." (Alas.) She takes on "Head Music" and "Acid Rock," dryly reporting that "some music is more appropriate to certain chemical states than to others." Interesting also is her excitement about the "Discotheque," then a relatively new development. Joints such as Le Club, Arthur, Cheetah, the Electric Circus, Trude Heller's,  the Scene, Ondine, Salvation, The Barge, and Whisky A-Go-Go weren't only intimate venues to hear live bands, many of which were getting a foothold, but also "meeting places of just about anyone you've ever wanted to see. If you can find them in the dark, that is." This entry was followed by the helpful command, "(See the TWIST)." One ear on the past, one to the future.

Speaking of The Future, Roxon's entry on "FUTURE ROCK" is especially interesting, and worth quoting in full:
Some people believe that by 2001 rock will be entirely machine-made. Machines will be programmed so that combinations of different sounds will be left to chance. At-home listeners will have controls that will make it possible for them to “produce” a record—speed it up, slow it down, make it louder and softer, and separate the tracks, adding, subtracting, overdubbing—to create their own version if a hit. There will be no live performances, no stages. Music will be heard with a small circle of friends, not with a group of strangers. The sound will possibly be closest to that of the United States of America, an electronic-rock group. So many groups of the sixties have gone after a future-rock sound, however (the Byrds in their explorations of jets and space; the Jefferson Airplane in its explorations of the mind), that 2001 may very well bring a reaction against these “prophetic” sounds and move into something quite different, perhaps more along the line of Oriental music. Already the sitar, which was regarded as “boring” by musically uneducated westeners, has been taken up—and discarded. Thousands of fads are sure to come and go before 2001. There will probably be no more records, just tapes sold in combinations that can be mixed and mingled. And there will be Sunday producers (like Sunday painters) playing with sound on their home sets. Then it will be possible to have the Byrds and Beatles singing together with the New York Philharmonic. Or Aretha Franklin an Donovan and the New Lost City Rambles.The sort of thing that has been happening informally in jam sessions, and more formally on the SUPER SESSION albums, the mixing of performers who don't usually play together, will be taken for granted on tape.
Well, 2001 came and went. And thousands of fads did come and go. GarageBand and other online home studios proliferate. The average fan can in fact digitally manipulate any track they upload, whether it's theirs or someone else's. Live performances never went away (sob), but 1s and 0s allow studio "duets" to magically occur between the living and the dead alike. Records did go away (kinda), but came back—hey, so did cassette tapes. Like any bold prediction about the future, a third of Roxon's claims here are quaintly archaic, but the vast majority of her encyclopedic enthusiasms and sober reckonings have aged very well.

Photo of Roxon at the launch of Rock Encyclopedia in 1969, via NFSA

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Paul Williams wonders how

I've been re-reading a lot of original, on-the-ground music writing from the 1960s lately—Richard Goldstein, Ellen Willis, Ellen Sander, Paul Williams, Lillian Roxon, et al. Late in Outlaw Blues (1969), Williams, in the form of a letter to "Trina," who I assume was Trina Robbins, his girlfriend, muses on the mystery of writing about music, and of expression in the abstract. His tone is characteristically enthusiastic, curious, and essayistic, and if it borders on the futuristic-speculative, in which he'd later indulge, his purpose is clear: how does music do what it does? How in the hell do I do what I do? Timeless stuff, it seems to me.

"I don’t know how I get these things on paper," he marvels. "Thoughts in my mind form words on a page through my fingers; concepts come together and generate ideas, and what can I point to to say, 'I intended that'? The reader himself has no certain idea what goes on as his eyes touch the paper. He receives. I have given. But how?"
How do we get from one place to another? (Now I’m thinking out loud.) Space is conquered by movement. Freedom of movement is granted by lack of restraint. There are things I can move through—water, and air; there are things that detain me, like stone. I cannot walk through fire. How do we get from one‘ place to another? We will ourselves to move through receptive media. 
Then what are our vehicles for? They get us there safer, and faster, retarding our movement in time. We cover more space and less time. What is a vehicle for an image, a concept? Something that carries that concept, from here to there, in space and time; I hear music in New York that was recorded in Oklahoma; I hear it today and tomorrow; the musicians performed it last year. And the music itself is vehicle, just like my words on the page. Pick up a concept, stick it in the music, send it on its way.

Photo of Williams via Rolling Stone

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Little Richard is Real [re-post]

In the late 1950s, Little Richard turned his back on secular rock and roll music and entered Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, to study theology, reconnect to his evangelical Christian roots, and, to no small degree, continue to reckon with his queerness. At the beginning of the next decade he went into the studio to cut a series of spiritual and gospel standards. The first of these sessions occurred in the fall 1960 in New York City, under the guidance of producer and multi-label owner George Goldner; Richard also recorded spirituals with producer Quincy Jones in New York and Los Angeles. On many of the songs recorded with Goldner, Richard is backed only by organist Herman Stevens, aided and abetted later by dubbed group backing vocals and string sections. Over the next few years the material from these sessions were released on a number of albums, including Pray Along With Little Richard (Top Rank International), Little Richard Sings Freedom Songs ‎(Crown Records), and Little Richard Sings Spirituals ‎(United/Superior Records), the latter of which I recently picked up.

The Goldner tracks are often disparaged. In The Life And Times Of Little Richard, biographer Charles White describes them as "pretty miserable" and "dirgelike," and down the years his opinion seems to have became holy writ, as it were. I find the recordings, on the whole, genuine and genuinely moving. True, in places Stevens's organ bizarrely mimics tones usually reserved for a baseball game, and on some cuts Richard sounds—if you can believe this—hesitant. But on standards like "Milky White Way" (words and music by Landers Coleman) and "God Is Real" (Kenneth Morris) Richard really gets inside the words and the beliefs they articulate, and it's a thrill to hear the octave leaps, graphic falsetto, and signature, aggressively ranging, joyous vocal stylings we associate with "Good Golly Miss Molly" and "Tutti Frutti" in the service of veneration and adoration (which, in his inimitable way, Richard was also doing while going on about Long Tall Sally, but that's another story). In the studio with Goldner he's relatively decorous, but the devotion, passion, and troubles are real, and whatever complications we're aware of now—Richard's intense conflicts across his sexual spectrum (what he called "unnatural affections") and across the expanse of his God's mercy and his family's and church's dogma—make the performances that much more absorbing. I hear lines like "There are some things I may not know; there are some places I can't go" and, perhaps naively, wonder what knowledge and what places are beyond his ken, if he's imagining, or not allowing himself to imagine, his own native eroticism and desires as well as grace and secular and spiritual limits. When he sings about walking the milky white way to take his stand, I wonder how he expects to find God's home, welcoming or censuring?

Within a few years he'd be rocking again, so naturally. The conflicts have never deserted him.

From the Little Richard Sings Spirituals album notes: 

Sunday, May 3, 2020

She Loves You

I recently heard Rubén Blades on Sirius reminiscing about seeing the Beatles' first performance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The Southern Command network, attached to the North American Army in Panama, broadcast the show in the Canal Zone area a week after it aired in the States. Among the band's startling visuals was, of course, the length of their hair, especially remarkable to Blades because he'd only seen hair that long on members of an Indian tribe native to Panama. Just when I thought that all of the details describing the Beatle's strange and shocking newness might have been excavated, here was a new one, and for a moment I saw the band through fresh eyes, a gift in these saturated times. Imagine seeing hair native to a Central American tribe on the heads of four skinny white kids from northern England—and those heads singing those harmonies!

Sibbie O'Sullivan faces a daunting task in her new book My Private Lennon: Explorations from a Fan who Never Screamed: how to describe an immensely popular figure in a fresh way? Her approach is to see Lennon as a kind of prism through which light enters and illuminates different corners of her life. This isn't a typical fan memoir; O'Sullivan writes about her affection for the Lennon and his band, and gushes over this song and that song, but at the service of exploring parallel's between this superstar's life and her own; sometimes, inspired by Lennon's biography, songwriting, and public performances, she ranges far away from the source, interrogating private and intimate particulars of her own adolescence and adulthood. "Life, like Beatles albums, had room for truth and beauty," she notes. "Nevertheless, my preference for John’s truth was a defining moment, one that began my own process of self-definition."

A book of personal essays in the 21st Century Essays series from Mad Creek Books, My Private Lennon will likely stymie a reader who's looking for conventional criticism or a chewy fangirl account. Rather, O'Sullivan wonders how her deep affection for Lennon, with whom she's been engaged in a lifelong, if virtual, love affair since hearing the Beatles in 1963, can surprise her. So, she'll make room in an essay about a photograph of Lennon as a child in which his mother's breast rests innocently on his shoulder for the contents of a private audiotape Lennon made in the late-1970s, in which he admits to sexual fantasies about his mother, which leads to O'Sullivan exploring the difficult years her mother suffered after a mastectomy, which leads to O'Sullivan considering her own breasts, her parents' decades-long relationship, and mothers in the abstract. "The more I learn about capital-H Beatles history," she writes, "the more I want to investigate where it intersects with my own history." I find this approach very appealing: a song, or an image, starts a conversation, and O'Sullivan picks up the thread to find that it leads her to her own, often private, sometimes surprising discoveries and insights about her experiences. Songs lead to a rumination on a cherished friendship that suddenly and painfully ended, to discussions of male genitalia and early (and later) sex and other intimate relationships, to parenthood, to the complexities of married love, to mistrust, to nostalgia, to the divide between public and private, to travel...Lennon's Beatles and solo songs a soundtrack to O'Sullivan's essaying mind. Because she's a smart and precise writer who trusts that the ostensible subject at hand might lead her somewhere else, and because she succeeds on that journey again and again, My Private Lennon is an engaging and provocative read.

"The effect [the Beatles] had on me felt like an unexpected acceleration into the future," she writes. "I suddenly knew what I wanted to be, to do, and what would give my life meaning."
All of this newness made me think of an old Elvis song whose three ascending distinctions now made sense to me: I want you, I need you, I love you. I began to ask myself, what did I need? What did I love? These became my primary questions, and a good example of how language shapes human motive and behavior.
Later, she observes that "To be captured by a voice is to be captured by time," arriving at a moving discovery, her book's reason for being, really: "Today, the Beatles are more present in my life than they were when I first heard them precisely because I am remembering them. Listening to them with adult ears, both feet on the ground and no teenage trembling, has made me reconsider what it means when I say 'I was there,' and in the process I’ve learned that I can be 'there' in multiple ways, that 'there' can be many places at once, both past and present. So, let’s go there."

One of the there's to which O'Sullivan refers is the Beatles' 1965 Ed Sullivan Show appearance, which she attended with a friend. She was 17 years-old. Bafflingly, she recalls little of the show, though she can remember surrounding trivial details with clarity—"Why can I remember what I ate fifty-five years ago and not remember every detail of seeing the Beatles?" she asks maddeningly—and did snap a photo of Lennon during sound check (which she includes at the end of the book.) She'd kept the photo hidden in a drawer for decades, until exhuming it in the process of writing these essays. The photo's a humming mass of energy that her book contains: I was there, and what does that mean?

Early in the book, O'Sullivan mentions that virtually every man, once he discovers that she saw the Beatles live, asks her if she screamed. She's bored with this predictable question. "Instead of asking a woman if she ever screamed for the Beatles, ask instead what she did with the love she had for them," she writes. "Did it make her a specific kind of individual? If so, what kind? If all she says is The Beatles made me happy when I was young, that’s sufficient. We need to hold on to all our happinesses regardless of when they happened or what caused them. We need to know what we love." In fact, O'Sullivan didn't scream during the Beatles' performance, that much she remembers; and she's rather proud of that fact. Her screams were replaced with the desire to dash to her local library when she was a teenager and research Liverpool, to engage with cultural conversations, to talk and think about the music as much as listen to it. She possesses the essayist's desire to know what it means to love a popular figure whom you'll never meet, to have his songs, which weren't written to you or about you, accompany you across decades, deepening your most intimate moments. 

My Private Lennon is about the Beatles' songs, of course, but it's mostly about how music gets in us and stays there, often narrating our lives for us before we get the chance, or before we possess the wisdom and language to be able to do it, or retroactively, as we recognize with warmth and love, how much the songs had to say. 


I want to add here that O'Sullivan also wonderfully defines the mystery and power of a rock and roll song, a definition I'll happily add to my growing list:
Is there another art form that packs as much life force as does a good rock and roll record? In three minutes or less, you’ve got melody, rhythm, a human voice, and a story of love, death, desire, ecstasy, betrayal, money—all the plots of human experience—contained in a repeatable, cheap, transportable format, one that can sustain a person for a lifetime.

Author photo by Ruth Sievers