Sunday, December 15, 2002

The Inner Beatle

A Paul McCartney concert was broadcast on one of the TV networks in prime time recently. I didn't see it all, but I gather it was from his most recent U.S. tour, perhaps selected from several shows.

I was impressed by one thing I did see: the audience. Unlike some other concert films (the famous Simon and Garfunkel appearance in New York's Central Park which was recently rebroadcast on PBS, for instance) there were lots of shots of audience members while Paul and his new band were performing. Not wide pans of screaming and waving figures, but shots of individuals. That's perhaps partly in deference to the Beatles' first film, A Hard Day's Night, which also focused on individuals in the audience reacting-screaming, crying, moaning, jumping joyfully up and down, swooning, mooning and so on, to wonderful effect.

It still seems especially appropriate during Beatles songs. They don't scream anymore, though they do cry---more because of the songs and the lyrics (to "Let It Be" for example) than because they're overwhelmed by a Beatle's presence. But mostly they sing.

As far as America was concerned, the Beatles existed for maybe six years, from 1964 or so until the end of the decade, from "She Loves You" to "The Long and Winding Road." But their music-and some of the music made by each member since the Beatles broke up-has been essential to lots of people in several generations now. And it's not just one generation introducing another to this music. I remember visiting some college friends in the 1980s whose son had seen "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" with that great "Twist & Shout" parade scene, and at first he thought the Beatles were a new group. Several generations have discovered the Beatles on their own.

So as Paul sang his Beatles songs, the camera found many individuals in the audience, of all ages and races and genders, transported not just by listening but by singing along, or at least lip- synching the lyrics. And clearly, it was more than audience participation. You could see it in their faces: though the only person who actually looked like a Beatle was Paul, they were all Beatles inside.

That was the secret of the Beatles. Girls swooned, women were turned on; they wanted the Beatles. But boys and men wanted to be the Beatles. There's even a line like that in a short film I saw in the late 1960s I'm convinced is the fabled "Amblin'"-Steven Speilberg's first film, the one he named his company after. A young woman picks up a young male hitchhiker and takes him to a secluded cabin. As they sit before the fire she asks him what he wants to do with his life. He shrugs and says he wants to be a Beatle.

We are who we pretend to be; or more properly, we are some ongoing mixture of what we were born with, what happened in our lives, and an amalgamation of everyone we pretend to be.

The first way we learn is by imitation. Kittens learn to kill mice by watching their mothers. The Haida woodcarver learns by imitating a master. Humans probably learned to sing by listening to birds and animals.

Imitation deepens with admiration. Observing, we identify. Later we may enact what we observed, and become who we imitate. This is very probably how dance and narrative began: enacting the animals.

Our era gives us thousands of fully enacted stories in books, pictures and especially on screens of our choosing. We identify; we experience vicariously. It is another way we learn, and another way we become. For the length of a movie, we are the hero. We are the bard and the star, the singer, the words and the music, for the length of the song.

Now when they hear those songs, everyone can get in touch with his or her inner Beatle. That part of them that wants to sing their heart, the "crosscurrents of wit and pain" as somebody once described the Beatles music, that swirl from their lives.

For those moments, you can see they are transformed. It doesn't matter what they look like on the outside. They become what they see and hear, and for a moment they experience a communion not only with the real Beatle up there, but with something otherwise hidden, partly formed and unexpressed but important, essential, in themselves.

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