for the roaring voice of the God of Joy!”
― Euripides, The Bacchae
Scene: an olive grove, warm and shadowed under the fading sun. Summer, a year when years weren’t measured.
Women in various states of undress rest in the shade. Some of them still sport the elaborately threaded hairdos of the well-to-do, now beginning to unravel in the heat. A pile of sweat-stained togas lie at the foot of a tree. Those who aren’t naked wear the skins of animals: bull, lion, leopard, buck. A fly lands upon the face of a sleeping matron, her cheek smeared with the makeup she applied just minutes before the call came. A young girl, fourteen or fifteen years of age, leans upon a staff entwined with ivy. Her gaze casts to the horizon beyond the trees.
She can hear it: music. Distant drums, skirling pipes. She takes her thyrsus in hand and thwacks it against a tree. Drowsy eyes open. “They’re coming!” she says, her voice rising. “He is here!” Her smile exposes her eyeteeth. The women and girls stand. They turn towards the sound. As one, they run.
She screams when she sees the band, her ululating trill the sound of a wild bird set free. She drops the thyrsus the better to run harder, her arms pumping, her hair whipping in the dry wind. She can see the men, their bare arms shining as they beat the drums. In their midst strides a huge bull, and upon its tawny back, He sits. At the sight of His face, the matron trips over her own feet and tumbles to the dirt. The maenads weep and sing and shout as they sprint the final distance to the band of men. The musicians scatter but continue to play.
The bull rears and snorts at their approach, but He is calm. His black curls touch the base of His slender neck as He lifts His head. The women circle the bull, their upturned faces rapt. He lifts a wooden chalice and pours upon their opened mouths and hands a dark red liquid. The young girl’s eyes roll back in ecstasy. The men quicken their drumbeat as the women begin to sway. A shaking hand reaches for His garment—a tentative touch, then a pull. They converge upon the bull and the god, clutching, grasping, rending. He welcomes them, spreading His arms wide as the maenads joyfully tear Him apart.
Their screams merge with the high whistles of departing trains. In their tweed coats and loafers, they run: girls with bobbed hair, boys in suits. To eyes watching fifty-one years later, their conservative clothes make them look strangely mature. They tumble pell-mell through the station, chasing three young men who laugh as they escape the stampede. The men dart and caper and climb, egging the crowd on until they reach the safety of their train. There, they meet the fourth of their band. He tears off his fake beard and boards the car with his mates. The mass of squealing fans breaks asunder as the train pulls out.
The Beatles’ apparent glee at being pursued was for the cameras, of course. Just months before filming, their fame in the UK was already so great that none of them could step outside without dodging mobs of youngsters, all grasping for a word, a hug, a lock of hair, a scrap of shirt, or a pound of flesh, if a Beatle wasn’t careful. Director Richard Lester’s kinetic lens focused upon these four men and ignited them like so many ants under a magnifying glass. A Hard Day’s Night captures The Beatles on the very leading edge of superstardom, and it’s no wonder they all look so bemused. Yes, they signed up for this. But did they have any inkling as to what they were getting into? How could they? They were so young.
I’ve watched the opening chase of A Hard Day’s Night countless times, and every time George Harrison trips, falls, and laughingly picks himself up, I think, he was only 21 years old. The older I get, the more my heart hurts at the sight of Paul McCartney’s cherubic grin. Their youthful energy is a surprise no matter how many times I’ve witnessed it on screen. Alun Owen’s script documents the truth of The Beatles’ hectic touring life, and aside from occasional flights of fancy (John Lennon phasing through solid matter) and the omission of unsavory activities (tweaking on legal speed), the documentarian nature of the film isn’t just a stylistic choice. The guys really were that funny, and their band was as tight as hell. All of that was real.
As were their fans. Girls that are now older than my own 60-year-old mother shake in the throes of hysteria forever enshrined. The Four’s legend wouldn’t exist without all of those tears. The extras in the train station were actual fans, and those faces, twisted with unbelievable longing, are the heart of A Hard Day’s Night. There’s just no faking the jet-engine roar of their love. In fact, the entire first day’s shooting of A Hard Day’s Night was scrapped due to the fans’ zeal. The shoot’s clapper-loader, who bore a passing resemblance to the Four, was chased from the set by Beatlemaniacs. He dropped and destroyed the negatives from the previous day as he fled.
When I watch them run, I always wonder: what on earth would those girls have done if they had actually caught a Beatle? Do I really want to know?
Scene: A darkened bedroom in a house on the outskirts of a mid-sized town in Texas. Winter, 1995.
I slammed the alarm off as soon as it blared. It was 2AM, and not even the dog stirred as I got out of bed, pulled on a sweatshirt, and gathered my ritual items: sheets of scribbled notebook paper and a long butane lighter. I held them under one arm as I tiptoed downstairs and through the garage. Soon the dead grass of winter crunched under my feet, cold in their flip-flops. A white half-moon lit my passing. Once under the shelter of the live oaks surrounding the pond, I laid my things out on a concrete picnic table.
I looked around once more to make absolutely sure I was alone. Rituals of such great import brooked no compromises. Satisfied, I shucked off every piece of clothing and stood, naked and shivering, in my parents’ backyard. In as meaningful a voice as I could muster, I read aloud my tribute to John Lennon on the 15th anniversary of his assassination. Whatever earnest things I said are thankfully lost, as I committed the words I wrote to the lighter’s flame. I hugged myself as the paper blackened, a burnt offering. Magic had been done, I was sure of it. I wriggled back into my pajamas and returned to my bed, where I eagerly awaited prophetic dreams.
I grew up listening to The Beatles. My parents played Past Masters: Volume II during summer evenings by Lake Nocona. As children, my sister and I held furious bedroom dance parties toPlease Please Me. Beatles albums and various other boomer jams were part of the air I breathed, and I gave them about as much consideration. That all changed the year I turned fifteen. The Sherman High School marching band played a medley of latter-day Beatles tunes during football halftime shows that fall. I liked the sound of “Penny Lane,” and lo, I saw the song on the 1967-1970 Beatles compilation on sale at Hastings. Marketing synergy became another synchronicity as I noticed ads all over the store for The Beatles Anthologydocumentary series and box set. I watched the first episode the night it aired.
My blood quickened as the footage rolled: The Cavern Club, The Ed Sullivan Show, Shea Stadium. Something was happening to me. Unfamiliar, delicious sensations danced down my spine whenever I heard the plaintive edge in John Lennon’s voice. A strange rapture pooled in the pit of my stomach and surged through my limbs, making me both woozy and hyperaware. I searched each moment Lennon was on screen with special intensity, as if I could divine the source of my feelings in his dark eyes. In actuality, the source was my own developing brain.
Between the ages of 12 and 20, the human brain undergoes vast neurological changes as neural pathways are opened and solidified. This is part of the reason why the music we loved in our teens and twenties retains a special magic; indeed, those are the years in which we become who we are and choose what we love. That night in 1995, I chose John Lennon, though it didn’t seem like a choice at the time. It felt more like imprinting. Like a baby bird, I emerged from the shell of my childhood that night, and the first thing I saw was his face.
I soon played my dad’s copy of A Hard Day’s Night on a weekly basis as my Beatle fever rose. Despite its vaunted pedigree of influences—cinema verite, French New Wave, Buster Keaton comedies—A Hard Day’s Night was propaganda. Its bottom line: The Beatles are awesome, there’s probably one you like the best, and you should buy all of their albums right fucking now. The film documented a true moment in time, but it also created a whimsical typography that still fascinates fans. Just like the hat of Hogwarts, the film sorted each Beatle into a school, allowing fans an easy way to categorize their love and, hence, themselves. Thus Paul was sweet and cute, John was too cool for school, George was quietly sardonic, and Ringo was a doofus. I bought it—I bought it all.
Unlike the collective joy that seized Beatlemaniacs back in the 60s, my preoccupation was a solitary one. I was a late-blooming, sheltered kid, so it’s not surprising that my first desire was for a man who was safely dead. I didn’t care. My love transcended life and death! Honestly, I wouldn’t have known what to do with a Beatle if I had one, either. Sex was out of the question. Even imagining a kiss just seemed wrong, somehow. Instead, I obsessed. For a solid year, I listened to nothing—NOTHING—but The Beatles or solo John Lennon albums. I felt guilty if I listened to anything else, as if I were cheating on him. I looked to Lennon as a martyr for peace and love, and I hoped to emulate him when I bought an old army jacket at Goodwill and festooned it with badges. I saw cosmic importance in the fact that two numbers featured in Beatles songs were also digits in my social security number. And there were the naked midnight rituals, of course. Eventually, having worn out the movies and albums, I turned to biographies. Therein came the fall.
Surprise! John was just a man. He cheated on his wives. He was a dick to his older son. He crudely mocked people with developmental disabilities. Even worse—he did drugs. Lots of them! (What can I say: I was so sheltered, I took Magical Mystery Tour at face value.) The other three Beatles were almost as bad, though they were no worse than any other reasonable human under the circumstances. Each word I read sullied my faith until, disillusioned, I could take no more. A teenaged mind rarely perceives nuance, and it almost never tolerates compromise. I tore down my posters and sold my albums to CD Warehouse. Until I turned seventeen, I listened to Beethoven, Mozart, and Liszt, old men longer dead who wouldn’t torture me with fallibility. I didn’t want reasonable humans. I didn’t want men. I wanted gods.
After all, gods have the good sense to come back to life after you’ve killed them.
Scene: the Scala Theater, London. Spring, 1964.
She was just an extra, which is why her real name has been lost to film history. Lester dubbed her “the White Rabbit” due to her white-blonde hair and sailor dress. She is the punctum of A Hard Day’s Night, the image that haunts my thoughts when happy memories of other scenes fade. While her fellow fans scream and gesticulate in a tent-revival frenzy, she stands alone. Tears shine on her cheeks. Every so often, she silently mouths a name: George. Her emotion is so abject that I almost can’t bear to look at her—not out of shame, but out of respect for her utter nakedness. Such raw love, such terrible longing. As I watch her, I ask myself, Why is she so sad?
All chases must end. The thing desired is grasped, and once held, it changes. The observer effect of physics pertains to love as well. The White Rabbit’s desire for The Beatles, along with mine and the billions of others who loved them then and now, transformed them. Perhaps this is why the White Rabbit weeps. The love she shares with other fans is so great that The Beatles have to escape it by helicopter. The film’s final shot of their ascension cinches it. Love made them too big to touch.
We want to run forever, but we can’t. We want to have a thing and still long for it, too. Entire religions and philosophies have been invented to address this mystery. Some say that there is a magic being out there that can give us perfect fulfillment after death, as long as we behave ourselves. Others teach that attainment can be had on our own, right here, right now—but only if we accept the pain change brings. The White Rabbit’s tears may never be explained, but to me, they hint at an answer. She stands at the still center within the maelstrom of desire and its pursuit. In that quiet place, pain and joy are one. Or, as a very wise, very stupid man once sang, “Nothing you can do, but you can learn how to be you in time. It’s easy.”