In Their Lives
Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs
Edited by Andrew Blauner Blue Rider. 300 pp. $23
Does the world really need another book about the Beatles? The people behind In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs think so, and they've come up with a seemingly irresistible wrinkle: Ask a lineup of literati to choose the Beatles song that means the most to them.
The most predictable thing about this endeavor is how predictable it is. The Rule of Themed Anthologies says that one-third of such collections will be thought-provoking and insightful, one third will be just OK, and one third will be tossed-off words from writers too guilty or desperate to say no to the commissioning editor. In Their Lives satisfies this formula with eerie precision.
Writing about "Eleanor Rigby," Rebecca Mead notes, with typical clarity and grace, that the song, "which so perfectly captures the pathos of loneliness, was generated in an atmosphere of intimacy and friendship . . . a product of the extraordinarily fruitful four-way marriage that was the Beatles collaborative."
Chuck Klosterman performs a wry and original bit of speculation, suggesting the "lurid outlier" that is "Helter Skelter" is both more and less than it seems. And Pico Iyer swims against the tide by admitting that "the Beatles have never been a group I've enjoyed," picking "Yesterday" almost at random.
Best of all is Gerald Early's essay on "I'm a Loser." Early is African American, and he grew up with the sense that the early Beatles were not "for" him: Their music was intended for white girls, and their "appeal was for me to the wrong color and the wrong gender." Early thus has the experience, unique in this book, of his love for the most popular band in history felt as a form of outsiderness.
After that, the essays begin to betray a fatal sameness. Ask a bunch of middle-age white people what their memories of the Beatles are, and of course you're going to get a bunch of watery slop about formative memories; of course, half of them are going to tell you about their kids.
This doesn't mean the Beatles don't matter anymore. You just have to dig deeper than this book can to penetrate the mystery. Nicholas Dawidoff, in one of the more thoughtful entries, observes that the music of the Beatles makes it "possible to experience the essential pop music self-delusion with them, that something so massively well-known could still be personal to you."
That "self-delusion" sold untold millions of records. "Self-delusion" is also, by definition, invisible to the self but apparent to the observer - or reader.
This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.