The Beatles: Yesterday and Today
This review originally appeared here

The Beatles: Yesterday and Today

TWO OF US: The Story of a Father, a Son and the Beatles, by Peter Smith. Houghton Mifflin, 206 pp., $23.

MAGIC CIRCLES: The Beatles in Dream and History, by Devin McKinney. Harvard University Press, 420 pp., $27.95.

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., January 2, 2004) -- A funny thing happened when the rock and roll generation grew up. Those who once wielded "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" as a club to beat their parents into submission became parents themselves. They discovered that the songs they used to listen to in large part to annoy their parents actually made great children's music.

Think of the Beatles. "Yellow Submarine," "Octopus' Garden," "IAm the Walrus" - what were these if not children's songs? Indeed, John, Paul, George and Ringo were such lovable little rascals that they were at one point turned into a Saturday morning cartoon.

Peter Smith happily stumbled upon this realization when he found himself at an emotional impasse with his 7-year-old son, Sam. They were "like two teenagers suffering through a series of jumpy, forgettably inept first dates," he writes in "Two of Us," a tender, humorous memoir of father-son bonding over the Beatles.

All it took was a car ride and a cassette copy of "Abbey Road" to launch the pair on a two-year- long odyssey to Pepperland. Obsessed, Sam began amassing Beatles trivia the way other boys classify dinosaurs and collect Pokèmon cards. En route, there were stopovers at a Beatles fan convention, a surreptitious venture into the illicit world of Beatles bootlegs, a pilgrimage to the Dakota, where John Lennon was slain, and, in the culminating episode, a trip to Liverpool.

The journey is not entirely smooth or without its disappointments. Smith knows that eventually, he and Sam will need to move beyond their shared obsession. "I worried that without them Sam and I would begin groping for common ground again, that, basically, if my son broke up with the Beatles, he'd break up with me, too," he writes.

But having shared the lessons of male camaraderie, friendship, loyalty, teamwork, marriage, family, death and divorce that the Beatles' story imparts, when that day inevitably arrives, father and son are better equipped to head off together down that long and winding road. For Smith, at a crucial moment in his life as a parent, the Beatles sealed the generation gap.

Like Sam, Devin McKinney was too young to have experienced Beatlemania firsthand, but with "Magic Circles," he pulls off the extraordinary feat of reconstructing what it was like to be on the magical mystery tour from the point of view of fan and Fab Four alike.

Using literary techniques of montage and free association not unlike those found in the Beatles' more psychedelic songs, McKinney spins a fabulous, fabulist psychic and social history of the band - from the "toilets" of Liverpool and Hamburg to the roof of Abbey Road studios. The story is pieced together from documentary sources but with the connective tissue and analysis provided by his own prodigious imagination.

For example, McKinney suggests that the Beatles' "mania" was an outgrowth of their early residency at Hamburg's Star Club, where in "the tightest, most intense space imaginable" they violently collided with an audience still hung over from the Holocaust. "Their mania became a huge, open arena for the unregulated discharge of submerged energies - their own, and the audience's," he writes.

Occasionally, McKinney gets carried away. He reads the infamous first cover of "Yesterday and Today" - a photo of the Beatles surrounded by hunks of bloody meat - as a surrealist project about blood sacrifice and atavism, whereas it could just as easily be explained as a subliminal play on words - "Meat the Beatles," if you will.

But McKinney deftly describes the sound of the Beatles' recordings and their effect on listeners. Early songs such as "Please Mr. Postman" and "Money," he writes, "go so far past the songs' textual preoccupations ... they cease to be about anything other than the unprecedented lunacy of the people performing them." The songs on "Rubber Soul," he says, "all had something piercingly, gratingly wrong with them, some prickly edge to aggravate the ear." He challenges conventional wisdom about "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," complaining that the perennial favorite "posed no confrontation, and demanded none in return," consigning it in the end to the status of a "hippie talisman."

At the heart of the book is McKinney's idea of the "magic circle" and how it played out in the wider culture of the decade: "At certain points in the '60s, the feelings people had for the Beatles ... came together and formed a circle - a magic circle, a sphere of fantasy within which mutations of thought were formed, the unimaginable was imagined, and action was taken."

This phenomenon manifested itself in myriad ways, from stadium concert frenzy to political demonstrations to conspiracy theories to the Manson family murders. Ultimately, though, it best describes McKinney's project: a detailed, exhaustive and creative look at the Beatles that challenges readers to hear them with new ears.

[This review originally appeared in NEWSDAY on January 4, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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