Growing up, my dad hated The Beatles. Then again, my dad also hated being a dad and basically opted out of that role. Let it be, as Paul would say. But when you’re a kid with that kind of emotional absence plenty of surrogate dads step in. These men seem to sense their loving expertise is desperately needed; teen girls, for all our haughty skepticism need earnest devotion like we need air. So, my Beatles dad was my choir teacher, a lowkey musical genius named Dana Libonati who, for some reason, taught choir in my tiny hometown of McMinnville, Oregon. Before I met Rob Sheffield I was positive no one on the planet loved The Beatles more than Dana (I’m not being disrespectful, he insisted we call him by his first name).
I mentioned he was a musical genius? Dana used to create his own personal arrangements of Beatles songs designed for four or five parts so my choir could sing them. We did “Gotta Get You Into My Life.” “Can’t Buy Me Love.” “In My Life.” So many more. He would sit behind the piano, charging through the chords on accompaniment while simultaneously directing us, furiously flipping pages and either scowling when we missed our parts (it was often the first sopranos, my section, falling short) or glowing when the five-part chord hit like pure glory.
To hear The Beatles, sung back by our voices, was his favorite thing in the world, I think. At the time I thought it was funny to me how much he cared, I couldn’t understand it. Now I recognize it for what it really was: Love. My love story with The Beatles begins with Dana, was built upon the fierce love he harbored for the band, but I’d all but forgotten that gift he gave me until Rob Sheffield asked me to recount it for him, When did I meet The Beatles?
Sheffield’s book on the band, Dreaming The Beatles, came out last year to the kind of critical acclaim that most authors can only fantasize about. For Rob, this undivided praise is starting to become routine. Except it isn’t. Even after two decades plus of writing enthusiastically, sweetly, sagely, and fervently about music, there is no toppermost (Beatles joke, sorry) moment where Sheffield taps out. Sheffield’s adoration for The Beatles is matched only by his twinkling prose. He is laughing along with their silliness, held captive by their intimate tensions, utterly blown away by their creative escapades. When reading, so are you.
To crack open Dreaming The Beatles is less an exercise in reading than it is strapping into a carnival ride, full of highs and lows, bright lights, impossible emotions, and the head-over-heels kind of love only temporary bliss can breed. It’s thrilling to participate in a piece of writing that is so meticulously and lovingly constructed, it’s devastating to realize how short this band’s time together was, and it’s astonishing to see how deep and wide their legend endures. This book is not so much a book but a love story, one that even the most derisive Beatles denier will want to be a part of by the end.
This love story was just too good to leave it at that. Though the book came out in 2017, it’s getting a paperback reprint for this year that’s officially in stores and on sale today. The new paperback version of the book includes an additional chapter, a postlude devotional on “Hey Jude” — a personal favorite track of mine — and for the occasion I seized the opportunity to talk with Sheffield about The Beatles, particularly the band’s relationship to women, how to tell if you’re a John or a Paul, and what it means to participate in one of the greatest love stories ever told.
Starting off, I wanted to note that you’ve written several incredibly beloved books, and I wanted to ask you, when does an idea sort of move from long-form essay, or feature territory into, “Okay this is a book,” territory? Particularly with this one because it’s clearly been a lifelong love affair, so I’m wondering when the germ of the idea to write the book came into fruition?
I guess because it’s something that I have written about all the time, and have wanted to write about all the time, and really just wanted to understand better. I think with pretty much all my books I’ve written them because there was something that I wanted to understand better. I don’t think any of my books ever found the secret that I was looking for. I don’t really write books where I figure something out and explain it for you.
This was a book where I just had this question that I keep coming back to, which is: “What is it about The Beatles that makes them so immortal? Why are The Beatles more popular, not even more popular than they were when they existed, but more popular than ever? And what makes them the world’s favorite thing?” So for me, it was just the thing of just lifelong love and fascination with this music, but just sort of ongoing shock and joy at the fact that it just keeps expanding.
I love what you wrote, on that same note: “At this point, rock and roll is famous because of what The Beatles played.” (p. 7) Especially as rock is fading in significance, The Beatles aren’t.
There was a time when Shakespeare was the biggest guy in the Elizabethan theater. As time went on it became that if we know of Elizabethan theater, we know of it because that’s what Shakespeare did. Ben Johnson and Christopher Marlowe, guys like that, they did kind of what Shakespeare did around the same time.
Something else that immediately stood out to me in reading your take on them is the delight you take in the inherent humor they shared, particularly among themselves. So I wondered if you can talk a little bit about how that silliness is a part of Beatles DNA?
They’re so funny. The first time I ever saw The Beatles, I don’t know what it was for you. For me, it was the movie, Help!, which is 1965 comedy, and it’s a pretty silly movie. The Beatles themselves weren’t 100% proud of it after they did it, John Lennon called it crap. But for me, that was the first time I ever saw The Beatles, and the very first thing that blew my mind was just how funny they were, how much they enjoyed each other. Like it’s funny that Help! is sort of a caper movie, it’s kind of like an episode of Scooby-Doo to a large extent, but The Beatles were so funny, and constantly making jokes. One of the first songs in the movie is “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” and they’re all playing it together in the living room, and it just blew my mind to see these four boys in a room sharing this really intense sad emotion, and then communicating about it together.
Another thing that I loved was your empathy for both John and Paul, and the way their relationship defined what went on in the band. I loved when you were talking about John writing “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and then Paul writing “Penny Lane.” The competition, but also the deep respect and mutual admiration, and the necessary they had that tension to become what they became. I wonder if you could expand a bit on the archetypes of the John and the Paul, and how you see those out in the world?
You have Johns, or you have Pauls in your life, and you know which one you are. To an extent, there are people who are sort of chaotic and dramatic making a scene like John. And there are people who are sort of more orderly and thinking rationally, cleaning up the messes the Johns make. And it’s funny that the bonds between John and Paul, which continued after they broke up and vowed to have nothing to do with each other, and really tried to stress how different they were from each other, and separate themselves from each other, and yet through their lives they could not get away from each other.
I love the story when John had been retired for a few years and he wanted to start listening to music again. So he hires a driver to drive him up and down on The Long Island Expressway, while he sits in the back listening to the radio and he hears this new song, this kind of synth-pop song. He says, “Well, this is really good. Turn it up.” And he listens for a minute and then he says, “F*ck a pig! It’s Paul!” And it’s like they just could not get away from each other. It’s funny when you think of how young they were when they met, they were just 15, 16 in this totally nowhere town, and they’re working-class boys who, the world pretty much expects nothing from them, and they were able to discover this in each other and bring it out of each other, and inspire this lifelong struggle in each other, and it’s completely unbelievable.
To me that’s where the magic of the whole Beatles phenomenon comes from, just that really intense communication between these two teenage boys who recognized something in each other. It’s just a real love story that, they went through periods that they were really determined to move past the love story, and begging to make the world fall out of love with them as a couple, and yet to the very end of his days, like the interviews he was giving in the last days of his life, people were asking, “So, are you still in touch with Paul?” If you imagine back in time to the person you were in love with when you were 19 and having to force them into your life every goddamn day, that would be very exhausting. They met when they were teenagers and had a spiritual connection, a love connection, and a musical connection. Ever since they tried to break up but they just keep ruining each other’s lives, writing songs about each other. It’s this amazing lifelong thing.
My question is, if I love Paul does that mean I’m a John?
Wow, that’s a good question. In some relationships I’m the Paul… in most of my relationships probably I’m the Paul, wherein other relationships I’m the John. It’s a lot more fun to be the John. As Paul would often say, “Look, I didn’t choose to be this way. I’d like to be John. Like just pop off, off the top of your head and in insult people and then like never think about it again. I don’t like being the careful one.” But, Pauls, we’re peacemakers, and that’s I guess a nice way to put it. But we kind of look enviously at the Johns, who make trouble.
I think of it in terms of Ernie is John, and Bert is Paul. For whatever reason, and I’ve really gravitated to Paul, and I grew up in the ’80s when Paul was really out of fashion, and people were really into bashing Paul, and I really identified with Paul just because he was the Beatle that worked the hardest. He’s the one that said, “Hey, let’s make a record, let’s not just sit in the garden smoking weed all summer.” Of course, the other Beatles hated him for that, but that’s how they made their records.
Another thing that struck me was the way you discuss women in the book. From the get-go, The Girl and The Scream are two of the most important parts of The Beatles. And you write about Paul particularly and his adoration for women, like true, utter, pure adoration. I wonder how you see the fact that women were such a huge part of the fanbase? How that shapes the legacy of The Beatles? Because I don’t think that’s as clear a throughline with maybe other classic rockers.
Absolutely, I agree 100%. It’s really amazing honestly when you compare The Beatles to other classic rock groups, especially of their age, there’s absolutely nothing like them strictly in terms of their relationship with women. Even while The Beatles had a group, the women they chose as their partners were creative collaborators. George was with Pattie and she was a mystic seeker. Pattie was the one who told George about Maharishi, and he told the other Beatles and that set them off on their own spiritual India White Album thing. Jane Asher, Paul’s girlfriend, was an actress who knew all sorts of stuff about modern art, and classical music, and introduced him to that. And Paul was very vocal about that, where he got the inspiration from. And, of course, John with Yoko, he was very into like always making music with her.
There’s a great clip that I love when John is going on Top Of The Pops for the first time as a solo artist. He’s doing “Instant Karma,” and he’s got Yoko with him, and she is onstage knitting. She’s not playing an instrument, she’s not even banging on a tambourine, she’s just sitting there knitting and it’s almost like she’s saying, “Yes, I am part of this creative unit.” And that’s absolutely how John wanted it. You can’t imagine anybody else from The Beatles’ generation doing that. As Mick Jagger said when John was with Yoko, and Paul was with Linda, “Well, I certainly wouldn’t have my old lady in the band.” And it’s really strange that part of what drove The Beatles was they had all these questions about gender identity, and about sexuality, and these questions that they were looking to figure out in their music, but also in their lives.
Over the last couple of years there’s been a little bit of a critical reevaluation of women as music fans, and music experts, I think partially as women in other perspectives are entering a more traditionally white male narration of the story of music. From Jessica Hopper reimagining “fan girls” as experts to Amanda Petrusich in The New Yorker talking about groupies, and understanding that they provided a priceless emotional labor. What are your thoughts on the way that women played into the rockstar ecosystem? Because I think this book seems to acknowledge that in a way that I still rarely encounter.
Female listeners as collaborators is something that The Beatles always made the center of their art with, like what Jessica said about “Fan girls really should be described as experts.” The Beatles always conceived of their audience that way. I was talking with Jenn Pelly and she was discussing the famous line, “Girls invented punk rock, not England.” I was thinking, “Well, you know, girls also invented England really.” The whole idea of the rock star is something that girls created, and The Beatles very much to their credit, they knew that was what made them The Beatles. But, as they kept growing up, and they wanted their audience to grow up with them, but it’s really remarkable that they never resorted to the misogyny that came second nature to other male musicians of their generation.
Thinking about that critical consideration of the screaming fangirl, your book feels to me like it’s wide open enough to invite anyone into that space, to occupy that space. Do you see that space as something, some music fans need coaxing to relax into, or they feel isn’t accessible to them? Do you see your book as something that’s sort of inviting everyone into that space of the screaming girls?
Wow, I hope so. To me, the screaming girl is from the demographic in our culture that is most condescended to, most taken for granted, most looked down on, most dismissed. It’s funny because in our time that is the demographic that is changing the world — and at this point shocking the world. It’s really kind of amazing to see. Something that has definitely changed as far as I can see in the last few years is artists acquiring new overt respect for these screaming girls in a way that they maybe could’ve gotten away with taking them for granted a few years ago.
But now, in what we could call the Girl Almighty Era, you look at One Direction, and their relationship to their audience, they are absolutely aware that the girls are driving the vehicle and that they’re just honored to be the passengers. Five Seconds Of Summer are the same way. One Direction always got it. BTS get it, and Taylor Swift gets it. Absolutely the days are over when artists could get away with condescending to that teen girl audience, and it’s yet another way that we see that The Beatles were ahead of their times, and ahead of everybody else. At this point, The Beatles are still ahead of their time.
I want to ask you one that’s a little bit selfish for me. My dad hates The Beatles. The fact that everyone loved them, I think for him, maybe his opinion was a backlash to that or something? Have you run into people who hate The Beatles? And isn’t that also sort of still part of loving The Beatles?
Absolutely. You know, there’s always been that thing of defining yourself against The Beatles, which is the totally like sincere and understandable response to their music. And in a way that’s part of the fan experience, you know? But, that’s part of The Beatles’ story. But also it’s something where there’s, I don’t know about for you and your personal Beatles, but there’s Beatles songs that everybody but you love. Beatles songs that only you love.
I’ve got to be honest, I’m not a big fan of “Eleanor Rigby.” But it may be it’s just a case where there’s a song, maybe I’m just temporarily burned out on it? And 20 years from now, I’ll be really feeling that song. That’s part of the way it goes with The Beatles. It’s funny because obviously I’ve been listening a lot to Taylor Swift this summer. It’s funny that she is absolutely the most Paul McCartney person on the planet besides Paul McCartney, and the things that drive people crazy about Paul are the same things that drive them crazy about Taylor.
That’s so true. Which makes sense for me because I told you I’m obsessed with Paul. I love Paul, so of course I love Taylor. It’s the same type.
Her whole sort of combination of emotional excess and totally like not giving a fuck indiscretion is so McCartney-esque. I’m kind of fascinated with Taylor’s McCartney-isms. And the things that drive people crazy about Paul, which I totally get, just seem to be the same things that drive people crazy about Taylor. The whole thing of like, “Oh, I left my scarf at your house, I’m going to get super deep sad about it for like the next seven minutes.” That is so something Paul would do, and it’s a very weird kind of beautiful spiritual and musical connection.
In the new postlude chapter you wrote for the paperback edition, Giles Martin says to you: “The problem of not being American is deliberately not being enthusiastic about stuff.” This felt so of a piece with your book, your writing style in general, and commitment to genuine enthusiasm. I wonder if this is part of what makes The Beatles feel so American sometimes, is that they were embraced so much here because there was no holding back, there was none of that British polite distance in a way. It’s maybe an American instinct to just love The Beatles and make them the biggest thing in the world. And I wonder if you saw that, what you thought about connection?
Thank you. Gosh, that’s the nicest compliment you could possibly give. To me, enthusiasm is what music is all about, and I’m interested in any music that people are enthusiastic about even if it’s not my cup of tea as music. The only stuff that’s really worth my time and energy, and commitment to write about it, is stuff that I feel genuine passion for. I think music goes more in that way now. It used to be because of radio airplay you were exposed to a lot of music you didn’t like, and so you heard a lot of music against your will. At this point, you know music more than ever is for enthusiasts. And also because of the internet you can get in touch with other people who are enthusiastic about it. I remember when I was the only person I knew who liked this band or that band, and now it’s easy to find that there are other people out there who like this stuff. So I think part of what I love writing about music is, I love learning more about that enthusiasm and that passion.
And that music is really where the enthusiasm is. And to me, that’s the purest and realest kind of love.
Dreaming The Beatles is out now on paperback via Dey Street Books. Get it here.