Interest in the Beatles has never really waned, but the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (released on June 1, 1967) has prompted a new wave of remembrances, celebrations and tributes to the Fab Four. An expanded reissue of Sgt. Pepper’s goes on sale later this week, Sirius XM satellite radio has launched a 24/7 Beatles channel, and the BBC plans a round of special radio and TV programming to reconsider the groundbreaking album.
On the literary front, several new books on the band and its music are being published to coincide with the anniversary, including a nostalgic and entertaining essay collection, In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs. Edited by literary agent Andrew Blauner, the collection includes pieces by 29 notable authors and musicians who were asked to name their favorite Beatles song and explain what the song means to them. Writers from Jane Smiley to Adam Gopnik accepted the challenge, delivering thoughtful and often deeply personal reflections on how the Beatles rocked their world.
“When I think about ‘She Loves You,’ and how much I loved that song, how new it sounded, and how happy it made me feel to hear it, I think about how much it represented the mirage of a possible future, one that was more joyful and more interesting than my lonely and borderline-grim childhood,” writes New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast in the book's opening essay.
We asked Blauner to tell us more about how the collection was assembled and what he—a lifelong Beatles fan—learned from reading the 29 essays.
This collection has an extremely impressive roster of contributors. How did you go about finding writers and musicians who have a particular fondness for the Beatles?
Thank you. It was a combination of going to people whose work I admire, writers whom I knew liked the Beatles, or who were at least interested in and/or knowledgeable about music, while others were shots in the dark—writers who have great voices, styles, insights, whether the subject matter was going to trigger them or not.
It’s axiomatic that some of the best writing about sports is done by people who are not sportswriters per se. Maybe something akin to that could be said about music writing. And I thought it was telling and auspicious that even some of the people whom I asked, but who could not contribute for one reason or another, still engaged with the idea and mentioned what their song would have been. I met Natalie Merchant, invited her and she broke into “Fixing a Hole.” Jonathan Lethem said that he’d have done “And Your Bird Can Sing,” which, interestingly, is what my brother, Peter, writes about in the book. I think the only person who did not respond was President Obama, though I reckon I already knew what his choice would be (read: “Michelle”).
What matchup of song and author surprised you the most?
Hmm, maybe Rosanne Cash and “No Reply.” Or David Duchovny and “Dear Prudence.” David is a longtime family friend, going back to childhood. He’s also, now, a prized client, and he wrote the intro to one of my other collections, Coach. I knew what kind of writer and thinker he was, and I knew that he knew music, and, coincidentally, he just hosted the Kennedy Center tribute to John Lennon. But I had no idea what kind of piece he would write in this context. And I was very happily surprised by what he wrote about “Dear Prudence.” At the Kennedy Center tribute, he said, “ ‘Dear Prudence’ wasn’t a happy song. It was complicated. But it revealed character; told a story. It was jarring in a profound way, and since then I’ve demanded more from my art and entertainment.”
This book not only has personal reminiscences about the music, but also some very interesting Beatles trivia and history. What new things did you learn about the Beatles from these essays?
A lot, actually, including the fact that only two covers of Beatles songs have ever reached number one (you can find out which songs in Thomas Beller’s piece). Virtually all of Chuck Klosterman’s piece about “Helter Skelter” is a revelation. And thanks to Elissa Schappell, I now have an entirely new appreciation for, and understanding of, “Octopus’s Garden.” And while I’ve listened to so many of the other featured songs thousands of times before, some I will never hear quite the same way again, because of what the contributors wrote—Rosanne Cash on “No Reply”; Nicky Dawidoff on “A Day in the Life”; Mona Simpson on “She’s Leaving Home”; Gerald Early on “I’m a Loser”; and many more.
Why did you decide to arrange the book chronologically, by the date of each song’s release?
To tell a story. Of a kind. In a way. To show a progression, a trajectory—the evolution, revolution, devolution. . . . From the youthful innocence, exuberance, simplicity and lightness of the early songs, through the more experimental, meditative, mature, spiritual, dark sides, and ultimately, out the other side. Maybe, too, in the way that Sgt. Pepper is considered a “concept album” (the first of its kind, some will say), so, too, is this a “concept book.”
Why do you think The Beatles have had such a huge impact on writers?
At least part of the answer to that question is that it’s a syllogism. Which is to say, the Beatles have had a huge impact on a great many different populations of people. And that includes writers. Is it disproportionately more so with writers? The way that, say, writers still tend to have AOL addresses a lot more than other people? I wish I knew. But I don’t.
Did you find that younger writers, those who hadn’t been born when the Beatles became popular, had different reactions to the music than those who were around from the very beginning?
It’s paradoxical. To some extent, yes; and in other ways, no. It’s crystallized, I think, in a piece that Francine Prose wrote with her 8-year-old granddaughter, Emilia, which addresses how the music speaks to members of different generations. ["Emilia's Beatlemania is, I think, purer than mine, less affected by history and time, more reflective of a child's love than a teenager's," Prose writes.]
Alan Light puts his finger on the fact that so many of us feel as if we’re not quite old enough to remember, that we just missed out on being there to experience the Beatles first-hand. Not to mention that, in “I Saw Her Standing There,” Paul sings, “She was just 17, you know what I mean.” We did not know.
Do you remember how you felt the first time you listened to Sgt. Pepper’s? How have your feelings about the album changed over the years?
I do not remember the first time. I turned three exactly one week after the album was released. And I imagine that, thanks to my oldest brother, Steven, if not my parents, too, that I started hearing it almost immediately. My girlfriend and I have a toddler at home, he’s two-and-a-half, and he’s already learning—and asking for—some of the songs. Anyway, over time, I remember how connected I’d start to get to some of the songs on that album, and being a bit torn between wanting to jump around, skip the needle on the vinyl, that is, to get to my favorites, vs. honoring the concept that it was meant to be listened to, in its entirety, sequentially.
To the second part of your question, well, again, it’s paradoxical, since in some ways things seem exactly the same, while in other ways I have a very different and, I hope, deeper understanding now. “A Day in the Life” is maybe the best example of that, and the famed last note, and the buildup [and down] to it. I think of it a lot, symbolically, metaphorically. Oh, and there’s also the fact that “When I’m 64,” has taken on all new meanings of its own.
Who was your favorite Beatle?
I have long liked the idea that the whole was greater than the sum of the parts when it came to the Beatles, just as it did when I played team sports. Otherwise, my favorite changed over time. It was Paul at the outset, then John, then George. Then George Martin (the 5th, or is he the 6th erstwhile Beatle?). I used to try to mimic a lot of the songs, and I could come close to getting some of them, but others, no matter what I did, how hard I tried, and without knowing who was singing lead vocals on certain tracks, I couldn’t get it. And it turns out that on those songs, it was John and Paul harmonizing so perfectly, so seamlessly, that it sounded like one voice.
What’s the one Beatles song you’ll never tire of listening to?
There isn’t just one, really. And I’m wondering if there are any, in fact, that I have ever tired of. I don’t think there are. But OK, you asked me to choose one, and so I’ll give you “In My Life,” from which the title of the book comes.
What is it about the Beatles that makes their music worth preserving and passing down through generations?
The beautiful universals, perhaps? Transcendent, resonant, passed down (and up), and across. “Come Together.” “All You Need Is Love.” “Let It Be.” “I Am the Walrus.” It’s also the great equalizer, democratizer, common ground, in an increasingly divided country and world. Beatles music never goes out of fashion. It unifies people, families. It’s a constant companion, a friend with whom to celebrate and commiserate and meditate, covering so many moods and modalities and modes. The Beatles comfort and console us, help to connect us, make us feel understanding and amplify our moments of joy.
Author photo © Maud Bryt