We Can’t Work It Out: Why I Finally Broke Up With the Beatles
I know all the songs and so do you — I’ve known them all since I was a kid. But I not only know them all, I can play and sing them all — take your pick, from “Love Me Do” to “The End.”
Not so many years ago I would park my then-new car outside the front door of coffee shops where I was playing guitar and singing on Long Island, hold up the keys and announce, “If you can stump me on the Fabs, I’ll give you my wheels.” Or if I happened to have a hundred dollar bill, I’d pin it to the wall behind me and offer it to anyone who could name a Beatles song I couldn’t produce in three seconds.
But the game was rigged — you couldn’t beat the house.
Every now and then I’d get an aficionado who would call for “You Like Me Too Much,” “Not a Second Time” or maybe “The Sheik of Araby” from the Decca audition. I loved those challenges. But the requests I really appreciated were ones like “Your Feet’s Too Big” or “Red Sails in the Sunset” from the pre-“Ed Sullivan Show” December 1962 Star-Club performance in Hamburg, recorded with a single microphone placed in front of the stage.
Why would anyone bother to learn all this material?
Why does an alcoholic take a drink, a gambler lay down yet another bet? Because I was an addict, that’s why. As any 12-stepper knows, you don’t realize the extent of your addiction until you give it up.
The revelation that my obsession had turned into a problem came in February 2019, after I flew myself and my guitar to Los Angeles to audition for “America’s Got Talent.” There I spent seven hours in a vast, packed auditorium mingling with people in chicken suits, kid comedians, guys on stilts, singing nuns and stage moms. I did my usually surefire “Beatles Salad Bar” medley, in which I jam as many bits of songs, riffs and licks as I can into five minutes, using a timer. It usually ends up being about 60 songs.
But neither I nor the moderator, who sat at a desk and didn’t look up the whole time, was at our best after being there all day, and they’d given me only two minutes, not five. I knew it then — I’d flopped. But I didn’t just fail. I’d spent hundreds of dollars to fly thousands of miles, book a hotel and audition with a medley of songs by a band that had broken up nearly a half century before, instead of showcasing one of my own songs. After performing for my entire adult life, I’d lost myself as a musician. It was my Beatle bottom.
I knew right there it was time to stop relying on the Boys to get across. “No more Beatles,” I vowed, “just be yourself.” And so I began the process of turning them loose in my head.
Cold turkey was the way I went. So, off all my devices went the Fabs, and out of my mouth and guitar and piano came not a single “Baby’s good to me, y’know” or “Try to see it my way” or “Let me tell you how it will be.”
Would this abstinence last? I didn’t know. Even for the casual fan, the de-Beatle-ing process is not easy. You can’t escape their songs any more than you can escape “Hotel California” at Applebee’s or Billy Joel’s “My Life” at the mall.
At first, I was shocked at how very saturated I’d been all these years without even knowing it. Aside from the music itself, there was also the need to know everything there was to know about the band’s history, individual personalities, the dramas with wives and ex-wives, the children, the brothers, the sisters, the parents, the aunts. I used to observe every Feb. 25 (George’s birthday), June 18 (Paul), and July 7 (Ringo) and Oct. 9 (John). I’d bought and immediately read, often several times, every book about them that I could find. The internet had only made it worse. I’d been saturated.
The first Beatle-free days were tough. Soon a week went by. A month. And something happened. It was as though I’d woken up from a deep sleep and was now available anew to the musical world. Amazing grace.
Still, there were moments of overwhelming nostalgia.
“Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you, tomorrow I’ll miss you” was the melody that hit me right in the heart about six weeks into my No Beatles diet. Ditto “Can’t Buy Me Love,” a song for running and jumping and falling down like the Fabs did in “A Hard Day’s Night,” even if you’re a grown man waiting in line at a post office. But I held fast.
Soon enough, trouble came knocking in the form of “Get Back,” the three-part, nearly eight-hour documentary detailing the making of what would become the 1970 “Let It Be” album. When the film was first released in November, I kept getting texts, emails and phone calls from other obsessives who for some reason thought I was going to pay to watch what I hear is an awfully long show about songs that I know backward and forward but that I’ve never been on fire about. For me, early Beatles equals best Beatles. My Beatles all dress alike, have the same haircuts, tour the world and go “Woo!” My Beatles do not dig ponies. My Beatles don’t even have enough money to give George his own microphone.
It mattered not that I said, to everyone, loud and clear, “I don’t care.” People ran around that like a 15-year-old fan running around a police barricade at Shea Stadium in 1965. Billy Preston’s keyboard mastery, they said, must be witnessed, as must the construction of the song “Get Back” or even the wonderful restoration for its own sake — the color, the sound. I am going to be an old man soon, I told them, and I do not have eight hours to devote to “Get Back.” I’ve bought every Beatles album on LP, 8-track, cassette, CD. It’s enough.
None of these people knew, of course, that I’d quit. Even now, I find the repeated demands that I watch and discuss “Get Back” dangerously familiar:
“Have a drink!”
“Have a smoke!”
“Have a cupcake!”
“Have a Beatle!”
But why go back? Do the Beatles care if I live or die, if I am happy or sad?
The best rationale, in the end, came from a member of the band itself. George says, in an interview on the TV show “West 57th Street” in December 1987: “It’s Beatles this, Beatles that, Beatle, Beatle, Beatle, Beatle. In the end it’s like ‘Oh, sod off with the Beatles,’ you know?”
Josh Max is a musician and author.
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