Dreaming The Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World
By Rob Sheffield
Dey Street (William Morrow)
350 pages, $31
On two autumn evenings each year, hundreds of people swarm into Strawberry Fields, the section of New York's Central Park that is shaped like a tear drop and dedicated to the memory of John Lennon.
They know to show up, because it is either Oct. 9, Lennon's birthday, or Dec. 8 -- the anniversary of the night in 1980 when he was shot and killed just across the street.
Guitarists of varying skills begin to strum. Someone may set up a portable keyboard on the "Imagine" mosaic, the center of the musical circle. And pretty soon tambourines are jangling to ragged versions of "Ticket to Ride," "Strawberry Fields Forever," or "You're Gonna Lose That Girl." Everybody sings along.
One night, the makeshift band managed to play every song from the second side of "Abbey Road," in order, from "Here Comes the Sun" to "Her Majesty." When the voices of the all-ages crowd rose together for "Golden Slumbers" -- well, I've been in a lot of churches that were less spiritual.
It's this eternal appeal that Rob Sheffield explores in his hard-to-classify new book. Neither music history nor celebrity biography nor rock criticism, it's more a meditation on the Beatles' grip on our culture and our lives.
"The John/Paul bond is one of the central mysteries of this book," Sheffield begins one chapter, "because it's one of the central mysteries of my life and probably yours."
Paul's and John's sadness over losing their mothers at an early age cemented their bond, writes Sheffield, and it crept into their brilliant joint song-writing.
"The grief," writes Sheffield, "helped bring them together but they put a lot of energy into not talking about it. So what did they do with that energy? They sang about girls."
But even these simple songs echo their losses. "I call your name," goes one of them, "but you're not there." Just another Beatles ditty that can break your heart if you let it.
In chapters with names like "Beatles or Stones?" and "God," Sheffield spins tales of personalities, fights, drugs, epiphanies, and girlfriends. It's the Beatles lore that many of us know better than our own family history, but with a smart guide helping us see and hear afresh.
And underneath it all is the big question: Why do the Beatles -- a band that was together for only nine years, 50 years ago -- still matter?
Here's one answer, to paraphrase Bill Clinton: It's the songs, stupid. Sheffield aptly compares the classic novels of Jane Austen to the Beatles' classic songs and concludes: "Some stuff is just built better."
Their structural soundness, the result of pure creative talent, is a part of why these songs (or novels) never feel dated. "There's no sense that they belong to the past because they don't."
Not just a fan boy, Sheffield, a columnist for Rolling Stone magazine, can be a tough critic -- particularly pointed about the sometimes insufferable McCartney. He writes that Paul, king of the melodic rock ballad, was jealous of George Harrison's gorgeous "Something," and tried to put his own stamp on it.
"Listen to his hyperactive bass line, where he's effectively saying, 'I'm Paul McCartney and I approved this message.' " And Sheffield takes apart McCartney's post-Beatles song, the over-the-top "My Love," calling it a cheap knockoff of "Something." (He's also none too kind to such clunkers as "Piggies" and "Maxwell's Silver Hammer.")
Sheffield considers everything from the Beatles' early performances in Hamburg, Germany to the vagaries of their post-breakup careers. While excavating the history, and reveling in Beatles trivia, he never neglects the emotions: "Over the years, your Beatles keep changing because you keep changing. You grow up, you fall in love, you lose love ... you can't go on, you go on, etc."
Somehow, Sheffield makes these pieces into a coherent whole that may not answer the overarching question but certainly looks at it from every angle. And he does it with humor, insight and charm, creating something of a classic of his own. If I'd had this book when I was a Beatles-crazed kid, I surely would have slept with it under my pillow.
Remember the scene in "A Hard Day's Night" when the four mop tops escape outdoors, bursting with pent-up energy as "Can't Buy Me Love" blasts out?
It's a jolt of pure joy -- and somehow that is the answer: In their personalities, their lives, their songs, the Beatles spoke straight to our hearts. And we hold them there.
Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post's media columnist, is the former editor of The Buffalo News.