I used to roll my eyes when people talked about the Beatles. Maybe you rolled your eyes when you saw this article’s headline. Thank you for bearing with me anyway. I’ll make it worth your while.
I had always pictured the Beatles as a tired novelty from my parents’ past. All I knew was that they played lot of teenagey love songs in their early years, and some weird drug songs in their later years, and that they seemed to have written virtually every famous song that I didn’t want to listen to.
Gradually I came around, and began to recognize that they really were something special. I harbored an understated respect for them for many years, but two summers ago I spent a few incredible weeks devouring all twelve proper Beatles albums, in chronological order. It was magical. I was struck by how beautifully and organically their sound evolved, growing more sophisticated and mature every album.
By the final phrases of of Abbey Road, I had grown too. And not insignificantly. I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what moved me, but it definitely had something to do with the beautiful metamorphosis I witnessed.
It wasn’t the music’s development that so thoroughly affected me, though that was incredible too. It was the spiritual ripening of four young men from Liverpool, whose message to the world matured from “She loves you yeah yeah yeah” to “I’m taking the time for a number of things / that weren’t important yesterday.”
As a incurable music fan, I’ve heard many bands evolve — and sometimes regress — album by album, over the course of their careers and lives. But never have I heard such thorough personal transformations reveal themselves through recorded music. As a friend once said, “They got deep, man.”
The world watched these boys grow up, and even though I witnessed it a good forty years late, I’m grateful for the opportunity. They were certainly not afraid to be absurd, (sitting on a corn flake, waiting for the van to come) but one should not underestimate the wisdom contained in many of their songs. They even grew beards.
Here are seven gems of insight from the Beatles.
I Me Mine
Now they’re frightened of leaving it,
Ev’ryone’s weaving it,
Coming on strong all the time.
All thru’ the day ,
I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
The Beatles probably did more to popularize Eastern philosophy in the West more than any other individuals in history. In 1968 the fab four made a highly-publicized visit to India to study at the ashram of spiritual teacher Mahesh Yogi. John was famously disappointed by the experience, but his colleagues were not.
George had long been enchanted by the East, sneaking some sitar lines into Beatles songs as early as 1965, and Paul is now a figurehead for the Trancendental Meditation movement. Their unrivaled influence finally made meditation ‘cool’, and exposed legions of young and open-minded Westerners to Eastern ideas for the first time.
Upon returning to England, it struck George how deeply Westerners were absorbed in ego, and how stubbornly his own persisted in his spiritual practice. I Me Mine refers to the Buddha’s teaching that all suffering arises from thoughts invested with “I”, “me” or “mine.” In an interview, he said I Me Mine is “About the ego, the eternal problem.” George sang lead.
All You Need is Love
There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known.
Nothing you can see that isn’t shown.
Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.
All you need is love
I’d heard this song hundreds of times before I really began to appreciate the Beatles. Before then, I interpreted All You Need is Love as just a catchy, feel-good song that contained no real message beyond bright-eyed, Summer-of-67 idealism. I’d heard it all before: “Love is everything, love is all you need, love, love, love.” Not that that there’s anything wrong with that, I just didn’t feel like I lived in a world where love was always an appropriate response. I’ve since redefined love to myself, and now I see what they were getting at.
Every decision can be made from the perspective of love. Every situation can be handled with love, even tense or unpleasant situations. Whenever I detect a feeling of “wrongness” arising in the moment, I try to remember that the only appropriate response is to bring acceptance to it, and act out of love, whatever that may mean in a given situation. When I’m not wrapped up in judgments I’m able to do this.
John was right: as long as you’re looking for it, the loving response to a situation is always clear, and leaves nothing lacking. It’s easy.
I’m Only Sleeping
Everybody seems to think I’m lazy.
I don’t mind, I think they’re crazy
Running everywhere at such a speed,
Till they find there’s no need (there’s no need),
Please don’t spoil my day, I’m miles away,
And after all, I’m only sleeping.
Another Beatles song commonly misinterpreted as being about drugs. In fact, I think I was almost disappointed when I found out it wasn’t. Suddenly it seemed to lose that dark, self-destructive edge to it when I learned that it really is about the joys of staying in bed.
John always insisted the song was just about sleeping, and was not meant to make any social commentary, though he was fond of deliberately misinforming nosy reporters who asked him to spell out the meanings of his songs. He was also fond of making social commentary.
The line Running everywhere at such a speed / Till they find / there’s no need is what makes me think that he was indeed pointing at a deeper message. It seems to hint that John was wise enough to see the great value in non-doing, and that the bustling crowds outside his window might one day discover it.
When I was younger, so much younger than today,
I never needed anybody’s help in any way,
But now these days are gone and I’m not so self assured,
Now I find I’ve changed my mind I’ve opened up the doors.
As far as I can tell, John wrote this song about my experience in college.
For the first ten or twelve years of my academic career, I was invincible. I got great marks, never studied, never asked for help. Through high school, my marks started to taper off mysteriously, and by the time I was in college I began to fail.
Part of the reason was that I had never asked for help in my life. I didn’t know how to admit I couldn’t do something by myself. My whole self-image rested on being smart and independent, so I thought I was a dead man if I ever looked dumb. It was a severe phobia, no exaggeration.
Near the end of one particularly dismal symester I knew I had to bite the bullet or repeat one of my courses, so I did. I walked into the instructor’s office — virtually trembling, as if I was marching to the gallows — and admitted I didn’t know what I was doing and I needed help. My questions were cleared up in a few minutes, but I had hesitated too long. I got an F and graduated three months late.
John Lennon, often uncomfortable with his past work, was always proud of Help. He said, “The lyric is as good now as it was then. It is no different, and it makes me feel secure to know that I was that aware of myself then. It was just me singing ‘Help’ and I meant it.”
The truth I tried so desperately to deny is that we need other people. There is no true independence among mortals. I had isolated myself on grounds of ‘necessary self-reliance’ for so long, yet now other people are just about my favorite part of the world. I do need them, and I love that.
Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name.
Father McKenzie, wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave.
No-one was saved.
All the lonely people, where do they all come from?
All the lonely people, where do they all belong?
I often think about throngs of young, rabid Beatles fans in 1966, rushing home from the record store to listen to their first ever spin of Revolver. After bobbing their collective heads to the straightforward guitar rocker Taxman, they must have been stunned to hear the trademark Beatles sound give way to a dark, brooding string section. It was a jarring departure from all previous songs in their catalog — one of many to come, but still the first. Certainly by the end of Eleanor Rigby they must have been moved, one way or the other.
This song just breaks my heart when I hear it. I’ve met Eleanor Rigby, many times. I’m sure you probably have too.
It’s a sad fact, but so many members of society are lonely and broken, and they do a great job of seeming not to exist at all. They’re the ones no longer waiting for their ships to come in. They’re the ones who have not made eye contact in fifteen years. The ones who really do have nobody. Some of them live in a self-created fantasy world, where their dreams did come true. Others just spend life mourning themselves. Paul pays tribute to the unseen, the shut-in, and the forgotten Miss Havishams of the world. Nobody else really talks about them.
Let it Be
And when the broken hearted people
Living in the world agree,
There will be an answer, let it be.
Whether or not you infer religious overtones into this lyric (or into your life), there does seem to be some sort of divine plan to the ups and downs of our lives. When something goes amiss, in the moment it often seems so dreadfully wrong. But when we look back on them with older and wiser eyes, we invariably see that each one of those heartbreaking episodes had just as important a role to play as our more agreeable experiences. Imagine how powerful we could be, if in the midst of a every crisis we could just remember Paul’s advice: There will be an answer, let it be.
While “let it be” is profoundly wise in its own right, the passage above contains an idea even more powerful: we all suffer, and that brings us closer. No matter what differences people have, the one guaranteed common thread among us all is that we know what it means to lose and to grieve. A timeless anthem for broken hearts everywhere, Let is Be has become a staple of soundtracks to more somber occasions; Paul had it played at Linda’s funeral.
And in the End
The love you take
Is equal to the love you make
The closing lines of the the Beatles’ swan song, Abbey Road.
No elaboration is necessary.
If any of the links to the songs are no longer valid, please contact me.
Photo by Oddsockr