Read an Excerpt From Rob Sheffield’s ‘Turn Around Bright Eyes’
Turn Around Bright Eyes is Rob Sheffield’s new memoir about “the rituals of love and karaoke” – a tale of how belting out shaky versions of “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” “Say My Name” and countless other songs helped a widowed pop-culture addict find true love again. Like much of the book, this exclusive excerpt is a mix of personal history and great rock criticism, and it manages – no small feat – to say something fresh about the Beatles. For Sheffield, a longtime Rolling Stone contributing editor, picking a favorite Beatles song is a matter of supreme importance; that song is also subject to change at any moment, depending where you are in life. And as Sheffield traces his journey from a “She Loves You” guy to a “Strawberry Fields Forever” guy, he realizes that, for John Lennon and Paul McCartney it was shared sorrow that helped shape some of the greatest songs ever.
“She Loves You” and 99 More of the Beatles’ Best Songs
1983: You are seventeen years old, and you have collected many theories about the universe. But there’s one thing you know for a fact. You are certain, as you will never be certain of anything else, that the greatest song in the history of the world is “She Loves You.” By the Beatles. Obviously.
If anyone asks your favorite song, you will instantly answer, “She Loves You,” and explain why in detail (which might help explain why nobody asks). Because you’re a sullen teen boy, and this song is the sullenest, teenest, boyest song imaginable. Those drums. Those guitars. The wild mood swings in the vocals. You’re the boy in this song, you think to yourself. This is you.
At some point in your early twenties, you’re startled to realize that “She Loves You” isn’t your favorite song anymore. You have switched allegiance to “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” You are now certain, as you will never be certain of anything else, that “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is your favorite song of all time, in case anyone asks. (Some people do ask – by now you have made friends who also like to talk about this stuff. One of them is the girl you hold hands with.)
You’re not sure how “I Want to Hold Your Hand” took over from “She Loves You.” The change happened gradually, without you noticing, and you’re vaguely pissed. It’s like finding out your right and left lungs traded sides – it might have no visible impact on your day-to-day life, but it still feels like a major decision you should have been consulted about. It’s a big deal.
1963: John Lennon and Paul McCartney are in a hotel room in Newcastle, England. In a few hours, they’ll be playing a concert with their band, the Beatles. Right now, they’re sitting on their bed (the Beatles are still sharing hotel rooms on the road). They hold acoustic guitars, writing “She Loves You.” Tomorrow they finish it up at Paul’s dad’s house, while Mr. McCartney sits in the next room watching the telly. Paul’s dad thinks the song is corny. He asks them if “yeah, yeah, yeah” shouldn’t really go “yes, yes, yes.” They tell him no, no, no.
They take it into Abbey Road the next week. Their producer, George Martin, has his doubts. He asks, “Isn’t this a bit unhip, laddies?” Paul insists, “It’s great!” So they knock it off in one afternoon session, and it becomes their biggest hit, the best-selling single in the history of England. (It holds the record until 1977, when Paul tops it with one of his solo hits.) “She Loves You” becomes their introduction to America on The Ed Sullivan Show. The “yeah, yeah, yeah” chant turns into their trademark. The Beatles become the four most beloved human beings on the planet and remain that way forever.
1975: The first Beatles record you own, a birthday present from your parents, is a Dutch anthology called Beatles Greatest. You spend hours listening to it, sitting on the living room floor next to the ancient record player. Although you don’t realize it yet, only one of the speakers works, so you’re only hearing half the music, but it doesn’t matter. The best song on it is “She Loves You.”
“She Loves You” is a song everybody knows, a song everybody has heard a million times. So it’s easy to overlook how bizarre it is. It’s easily the weirdest song the Beatles ever wrote.
The plot: There are two boys talking, a Beatle boy (John and Paul blending their voices) and a mean boy. The Beatle boy has a friend, who happens to be the girl in love with the mean boy. The Beatle boy was hanging out with her yesterday, listening to her talk about her broken heart. So the Beatle boy steps in as a messenger of love. He tells the mean boy to apologize and rejoice in her love. John and Paul sound so bitchy, as if they can’t be- lieve what an idiot this other guy is. But they love singing about the girl. When they switch the subject back to her, that’s where they brighten up and turn into a “yeah, yeah, yeah” machine. That’s why the song makes you feel happy, even though every- body at the end is alone and frustrated and bitter.
You have to admit: Teenage boys do not have conversations like this very often. If you overheard this conversation on a bus, it would be the weirdest thing that happened to you all day. You would get to work and tell everyone, “Guess what I heard? Two teenage boys were talking about their love lives and one told the other to apologize to a girl. Kids today – they are so free and open with their feelings!”
But the generosity of this song is overwhelming. There’s no hint that the Beatle boy covets this girl for himself. (That would be a different song – it would be “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl.”) For that matter, there’s no hint that he wants the boy. (Then it would be Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl.”) The Beatles just root for the girl to get what she wants.
All the pain flies away in the “yeah, yeah, yeahs” and “ooohs,” as if they’re trying to sing like flirty girls and seduce this boy into surrendering to love. The Beatle boy tries to translate girl language into boy language, repeating what the girl told him to say, yet making it irresistible to the boy who’s listening. To bring these tormented lovers together, they have to become superhu- manly pretty. Liverpool love ninjas, to the rescue.
There’s a lot of misery in this song, but there’s also fun, and the Beatle boy is having most of it.
1991: You are in your early twenties. You are young and in love and you spend a lot of time listening to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” – partly because of the Al Green version, partly because you’re young and in love so you finally have ears to hear all the joy in the Beatles’ version. The girl-crazy howls and drum crashes, the brash confidence of it, the way the boy is on fire and will explode if the girl doesn’t touch him right this second – this seems more complex to you, more urgent than any other song you can think of.
One day you’re drinking tea with your mom and she asks why you want to marry your girlfriend. (You’re just twenty-four – too young.) You’re a rock geek, so you give a really arcane answer comparing your girlfriend to the Beatles. You quote a line that the critic Greil Marcus wrote about the Beatles, calling them “a rock and roll group that combined elements of the music that you were used to hearing only in pieces.” This sums up your relationship. Needless to say, your mom thinks you’re ducking the question.
If you ever told your girlfriend about this conversation (you never did – it just never came up) she would have gotten it. She’s also a rock geek, the kind who also can quote Greil Marcus lines from memory. She’d love being compared to the Beatles, with a quote from one of her writer heroes. Maybe you should have told her.
Your mom loves the Beatles, too, but she isn’t a rock geek, so she thinks you’re chickening out of giving her a straight answer. You think you gave her the most honest answer possible. But you and your mom can both agree: You’ve just demonstrated why you’re lucky you got someone to marry you.
1995: You are still in love, though not quite so young. You’re twenty-nine and married and still in grad school. Love is exhausting and it’s hard work. You had no clue it would be so complicated. “She Loves You” sounds different now – when you hear it, it doesn’t seem like there’s such a big difference between the two boys in the song. Sometimes you even notice a warmth in it you didn’t notice before. Maybe the Beatle boy isn’t sneering at the other boy; maybe he’s just trying to help him out. It’s like Paul McCartney is putting a brotherly arm around your shoulder on the bus after school and saying, “Didn’t you know, chum? Nobody told you before? That girls are like this? Well, now you know. Girls are crazy, and they do not get less crazy when you make out with them.”
“It’s too late, Paul. She doesn’t love me anymore.”
“Nah, it’s not too late. She loves you. She just thinks you’re a little dim.”
“I guess I am dim, Paul. Can I call you Paul?” “Of course.” “I think it’s too late, Paul. I blew it.” “She still loves you. I don’t love you, by the way. I think you’re a wanker and she could find six of you for a shilling, but it’s you she fancies and don’t ask me why. I’d say you still have another eighteen to twenty-four hours to apologize before she finds some- one else to cry about.”
“I have no idea. Girls are like the White Album.”
“What’s a White Album?”
“Erm . . . that comes a few years later, but trust my time=traveling perspective here. A White Album is a double-album mess that goes on too long and has all these songs you think should have been done differently. Moments you prefer to skip. ‘Wild Honey Pie’ and ‘Piggies’ and ‘Revolution 9.’ Those songs could give pot a bad name.”
“That comes later, too. It’s a drug. Oh, and then there’s my song about the raccoon, but I like that one.”
“You’re losing me, Paul.”
“Girls are the White Album and they all have ‘Revolution 9’s. They have all that stuff you wish you could edit out. There’s this Anthology documentary, many years from now, where everybody complains about the White Album. George Harrison thinks it should have been edited down to a nice, tidy single album. So does George Martin. Hell, even Ringo. And finally I lose me rag and I say, ‘It’s great! It sold! It’s the bloody Beatles White Album! Shut up!'”
“Damn, Paul, how many White Albums did you make?”
“There’s only the one, see. When you fall in love with a girl, she’s the bloody White Album. That is what you whisper to your- self, when you don’t understand her at all. You just keep telling yourself, she’s the bloody Beatles White Album and there’s only one of her.”
“Is that true?”
“How would I know? That’s what I tell myself anyway. If you can’t deal with a White Album, you’re better off with a girl who is a James Blunt album.”
“Who’s James Blunt?”
“Well, here’s me bus stop. We’ll get to James Blunt next time, or not. But we’ll get to the White Album someday. And pot.”
1997: It’s the late nineties and you are alone. You are sad all the time, which is exhausting (in addition to everything else it is) and boring (ditto) and “She Loves You” is too sad to listen to at all. You are going back and listening to Beatles songs that you ignored in your twenties, like “Strawberry Fields Forever.” You first heard this song one Christmas morning, seconds after rip- ping open the shrink wrap on The Beatles 1967–1970, aka the Blue Album. You’ve always liked “Strawberry Fields Forever,” but now you’re really hearing it for the first time. John sings like he’s down and he doesn’t want to talk about it. He feels old and used up. So do you. (He’s just twenty-seven, you’re just thirty-one, and yet here the two of you are, arguing over which one is wearier like a couple of old Irish ladies.)
John sounds sad, but he’s also bored by the dullness and mo- notony of being sad. He sings about it like he doesn’t want to talk about it because his sadness is the least interesting thing about him, even though at this point in his life it’s practically the only thing about him. Nobody knows if he’ll ever not be sad, including him. And he knows everyone around him feels a little guilty for being bored by how sad he is. (Misery might love company, but it’s rarely mutual.) He doesn’t blame them, because he’s bored by it all, too.
So what does John think about all this whole sorry state of af- fairs? “I think I disagree.” In your present mood, this seems like the most brilliantly funny line John ever sang.
Nobody knows if your present mood is just your present.
Maybe it’s not a mood, maybe it won’t end. It shouldn’t be that way. It’s all wrong. At least you think you disagree.
Paul loves modern girls the way he loves modern rock & roll. Has any songwriter, male or female, taken so much joy in female company? He just relishes being around girls, whether or not he has any romantic interest, breathing in their presence. It’s all there in the way he sings about the nurse in “Penny Lane,” the one who sells poppies from a tray and feels like she’s in a play. He’s just dreamily noticing her, imagining what it’s like to be her. He wonders what she thinks, and how she feels.
Who else sang about women this way? Nobody. If Mick Jagger wrote that song, the nurse would have been wearing fishnets. If Lou Reed wrote it, she would have sold him some pharmaceuti- cal groovies. If Bob Dylan wrote it, “nurse” would have rhymed with “her longtime curse drives a velvet hearse.”
Paul lights up when there are girls around and gets down in the dumps when there aren’t. (Which can’t be often. He’s Paul McCartney.) He wants to hear their voices and learn their stories. He has zero interest in singing about men, unless it’s “Band on the Run,” with the Jailer Man and Sailor Sam. (Can you imagine what a terrible sailor that guy must have been? Sailor Sam lived in the desert. That’s where you go when you have an anchor tattoo but you don’t want anyone asking you to help with a boat.)
Paul likes to listen to girls, even after they go away. He still wants to think about the things she said and how they fill his head. “You won’t forget her,” Paul sang in “For No One,” not sure whether he was giving good news or bad news. But he was right. You won’t forget her. What you do with that memory is up to you.
You once had a shrink who went to Shea Stadium. She brought it up during a session and you wouldn’t let her change the sub- ject. She guessed she was around twelve. The helicopter landed on the grass and specks of brown got out; she didn’t remember any of the songs, just the roar of the helicopter. She asked, “Is this really necessary?” You insisted. So, she was a Paul girl. The Beatles played for thirty minutes, you kept her talking for forty- five, then you wrote the check and drove home. Eighty bucks you paid to hear that story, which is stupid, but you still kind of think it counted as therapy.
When John met Paul, they were both teenage boys who had lost their mothers. It’s something they had in common. Did they ever talk about it? Nobody knows. But they both knew what it was like to love a woman and mourn her after she’s gone. And as soon as they met, it was something they wanted to write songs about.
Their mothers both get mentioned in A Hard Day’s Night. It’s a strange detail in the movie, easy to miss. But early on, Paul gestures to his grandfather and says, “Me mother thought a trip would do him good.” The road manager warns John, “I’ll tell your mother of you.” Neither John nor Paul flinches when the topic comes up. (Okay, John flinches a little. Paul lowers his eyes to the floor, total poker face.)
Both scenes are agony to watch, if you have any affection for these two boys. How did this happen? It couldn’t have been the screenwriter’s fault – how was he supposed to know their moth- ers died? Did the director know? Surely not. If he did, he would have cut the lines. The filmmakers weren’t sadists; they didn’t want to torture the Beatles. They just didn’t know. Nobody told them. Other people around the Beatles knew, though, and they must have thought about saying something, but then got scared and decided to wait for John or Paul to bring it up. Except John and Paul didn’t want to talk about it. So they just played the scene. They were used to that.
When John and Paul began making music, they already knew about losing women they worshipped. How do you live with that loss? You learn to fill your head with their voices. It’s the theme John and Paul couldn’t shut up about, from “There’s a Place” on their first album to “Let It Be” on their last. You listen to women talk, and when you lose them – when they leave you, or when they die – you replay their voices in your head to keep them close. You lie awake and tune in to those female voices, keep their hum running in your ears. She tells you she loves you. She tells you it’s all right. You never weep at night; you call her name.
The danger is you can get trapped in this echo chamber, right? You can miss out on the sounds around you, out there in the world. You might miss the voice of the woman who’s standing right in front of you, telling you something new.
For John and Paul, that meant learning to listen to adult women named Yoko and Linda. But it can be scary to turn down the volume on the past. For John and Paul, it meant breaking up the band. The transition wasn’t clean or painless; it directly affected the lives of millions of people. John and Paul formed new bands with their wives and made records where they invited their wives to sing. No other rock stars ever made such a big deal about loving their wives.
Now and then, they must have wondered if they made the right decision. They must have had doubts. All men have them, and John and Paul must have felt them deeply, because they felt everything so deeply. Sometimes, late at night, they must have remembered the promises they made to those screaming girls and wondered if they were keeping them.
2013: By now you’re older than the Beatles were when they broke up, older than John ever got to be. Your wife has gotten you into Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour, neither of which you ever liked before you met her. “The goth ones,” she calls them. These are the records that she loved when she was a sullen teen, with their creepy keyboards and lurid colors. Even the song “Magical Mystery Tour,” which always sounded goofy to you, now rocks when you notice the drums. One Sunday afternoon, you sit around your favorite vegan lunch dump Foodswings, munching your soy chicken mozzarella sub, and they put on Abbey Road. It turns out she knows all the songs on side two. You didn’t think anyone liked side two. You have chosen your mate wisely.
Your Beatles will change all through your life. Your personality changes; your world grows and shrinks and grows again. Your beliefs change. So do your friends. People you love fade away. Some of them fade back in. Your nieces and nephews are into the Rock Band video game of the Beatles, and they all want a turn at “Yellow Submarine.” Your niece calls it “the boat,” as in “I wanna sing the boat again!” When your wife sings “Helter Skelter” at karaoke, she sings the U2 version, with the skin-crawlingly embarrassing Bono introduction. “Charles Manson stole this song from the Beatles. We’re stealin’ it back!” But you start to like that one, too.
The Beatles remain universally hailed as the greatest thing ever, but somehow, you still think they’re underrated. They’re like Hawaii or Hamlet – even greater than everybody always says they are. For you and your wife, one of your favorite bands to listen to together is the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. You wear a Yeah Yeah Yeahs T-shirt when you ask her to marry you. She says yeah.
Now you’re not sure how to hear “She Loves You” – it’s so emotionally extreme, which is why it perfectly suited your teen self. You can’t stick it on a playlist between two other Beatles songs without overpowering the other two. It doesn’t fit in anywhere, like the kids in the song. Nobody sings it on American Idol. Nobody tries it at karaoke. The stop-start zigzag melody is too tricky. If this came on in a bar, people would “yeah” in all the wrong spots. Are there any other Beatles hits that nobody knows how to sing?
You owe this song a lot. You feel like the “She Loves You” guy helped turn you into the “I Want to Hold Your Hand” guy you became later, and the “Strawberry Fields” guy you never wanted to be, and whoever you are tomorrow. Maybe someday (but not today) you will give up trying to understand the song, and just let “yeah yeah yeah” speak for itself. Then it will all make sense.
And yeah I said yeah I will Yeah.