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


solecito98 said...

Do you mean Rubén Blades? A guess: You have not listened enough times the Ruben and the Jets album...

Joe Bonomo said...

Thanks for the correction!