It’s a warm day at some point in the mid-1970s, and I’m at the record store about to pick out the first album I’ll buy with my own money. I am five or six, and my grandmother has taken me “uptown” in Salisbury, North Carolina, to the record store on Innes Street. One of the family legends—a legend in my mind, at least—is about my mother being a child and going uptown with her own grandmother. Mamaw would dress them both up, and they’d wear white gloves, 2as you did. Here I am a little over twenty years later, probably not dressed up at all. I’m wearing shorts or jeans, most likely. Possibly a sundress my mom made me on the sewing machine. (Those mother-daughter sundresses are the only thing I remember her ever sewing.) Anyway, the fifties are over, and even the sixties, and here I am gloveless about to buy a Beatles record. Before I go in, I ask Joe—my mother’s baby brother—which one is best, and he says, “All of them.” I feel momentarily at sea, as part of the fun was going to be impressing Joe with my purchase. But Joe walks away from us on the sidewalk to go look at bikes, and I must make the decision on my own, armed with the knowledge that there’s no wrong choice. (Or is there?) Finally, after some consternation, I buy Let It Be. The Beatles all look friendly on the cover. Except John. Well, Ringo looks a bit fed up, as well, now that I look at it. Or maybe just tired.
In an earlier, scene I’m even younger, maybe four. If I am four, Joe is nine. We’re on Gates Street in front of my grandmother’s house, standing by the curb. (Is this when I still call her Mama sometimes because Joe does?) He is having me say the names of the Beatles. I don’t remember if this is for his own amusement, or if he is having me do it for someone else, as a sort of party trick. “Paul, George, John, and Ringo,” I say, my preferred order. “No,” he says. “You’re supposed to say John, Paul, George, and Ringo.” I refuse. Paul is first in my heart and on my list.
I am seven and Joe is twelve. We are sitting in the spare room watching a TV broadcast of Yellow Submarine. My grandfather is downstairs in what is normally the den, but he is on a bed in the middle of the room, dying. My mother and I are visiting from Knoxville, where she is a graduate student in psychology. She works in the animal behavior lab, feeding newborn mice to the two-headed snake. She won’t let me watch them eat, but I’ve looked at the mice, naked as thumbs, wriggling in their box. I don’t know how the occasion of the trip has been presented to me. Often when my mother had to give me bad news, she presented it as something that “could” happen, and I would be shocked when it did. Before we went to the airport—which in itself was unusual, as it’s only a four-hour drive between the two towns—she had picked up some medicine at the pharmacy in Knoxville to bring with us to Salisbury. Now I wonder what it was. Morphine? But why wouldn’t they have had that in Salisbury? The pharmacist was very nice to me and gave me a coloring book and some crayons for the trip, free of charge. I knew then that something strange was happening. I didn’t know the word for it, but I recognized what it was: pity. Joe and I sit and watch, immersed in the world of the Blue Meanies and the acid-mild cartoon Beatles. And then my mom and grandmother are walking into the room, both crying a little. Before they can say anything, Joe is yelling, “Noooo!” and either rushing out of the room or toward my grandmother. I have to wait to be told before I get it. My grandfather is dead.
My mom’s second husband plays the Rolling Stones loud. Really loud. I am in second grade, third grade. The sound is an assault, both for the sound itself and the self-centeredness of the act. This is not all that he was—he also brought me stacks of 45s from the record store where he worked. I had most of the hits of 1979-1981 in a box in my room. Steve Martin singing his novelty hit “King Tut”; Pat Benatar; “Cruel to Be Kind” by Nick Lowe. My tastes in pop music at this age were broad and ecumenical. But the Rolling Stones it takes me much longer to like. For years it was Beatles over Stones.
When I am nine, I live with my grandmother for half a year. My mom is on the verge of divorcing her second husband, but I don’t know this, either. My grandmother is still in a state of stunned depression that I now realize was probably grief and tiredness. Joe has started high school and has grown to over six feet tall, seemingly overnight. Occasionally he will deign to speak to me. He does let me scratch his feet with the letter opener, but I must stay on my end of the couch. One night after we are all asleep, someone bangs on the door loudly until we’re all awake. It is Mike, Joe’s friend from down the street. A guy with what I would now describe as an odd energy, Mike is a little older, but hangs around with all the kids. Now he is at the door late at night, weeping, hysterical, and demanding to speak to Joe. John Lennon has been shot.
The next day, Granny is peering out the front window at dusk to see if anyone has a candle out for John, muttering, “I lit one for Kennedy, but I’m not lighting one for him.”
I guess it’s that same year that John starts to talk to me from the White Album poster? My mom and I are living alone in grad student housing, and I have the poster from her original pressing of the album in my room, next to my bunk beds. I’ve developed a number of strange compulsions. I count my syllables when I speak, tapping a finger surreptitiously against my leg as I do. There’s some equation about how many steps I have to do in each sidewalk square that I don’t even remember now. And not only can I not step on cracks for fear of breaking my mother’s back, but I can’t step on the dividing lines between sidewalk squares, either. John Lennon tells me these things, and it’s possible that John is the devil. I can tell by the way he stares out so intently from the poster. Also, I think I saw a hysterical teenaged boy say something to that effect in a Beatles documentary. When I finally admit some version of these thoughts to my mother, posing it as a question—“So, do you think it’s possible that John Lennon is the devil? Can he see me from the poster?”—my mom brings a child psychologist to our apartment. He has me calm my mind and imagine that I am in a meadow of flowers. I find it embarrassing. Later my mom asks if I could see myself meeting with the psychologist every week. I’m alarmed, as I didn’t see that coming. I tell her I don’t feel that it’s necessary and I don’t want to. Nope. I won’t go. At some point, John stops talking to me.
Years later, I will teach an essay to teenagers about the subversive power of Beatlemania. The authors argue that for young Beatlemaniacs, the band offered a vision of sexuality that was “guileless, ebullient, and fun.” They suggest that part of the fun lay in the Beatles’ androgyny. While commentators like Dr. Joyce Brothers saw the Beatles’ “girlishness” as providing a safe outlet for young women’s burgeoning sexuality, Ehrenreich, et al. argue that “the Beatles construed sex more generously and playfully, lifting it out of the rigid scenario of mid-century American gender roles, and it was this that made them wildly sexy.” Some girls, in fact, likely identified with the Beatles, not just wanting to be with them, but in part wanting to be them. Reading about these theories of Beatlemania, I think back to playing the make out game with Lisa, whose parents also lived in the graduate student family apartments. We listened to Sgt. Pepper, our favorite, and I would pretend to be Paul to her adoring fan.
I find myself extremely frustrated with some boy at my dorm freshman year who acts like he can in any way school me on the Beatles. No. Another boy stands in front of my Beatles poster—the poster made up of four psychedelic portraits in a grid, which they may still sell at college bookstores—and tells me I really must try shrooms at some point. They take away your inhibitions and they’re just totally natural. My core of Beatle fandom is part of what gives me power over these boys and makes me feel not at all bad about showing them to the door when they became tedious. A core of knowledge, of desire all my own.
Before I even reach high school, my Beatles albums are stolen by my mom’s third husband, upon the occasion of their break up. When I receive my crates of records, along with my other possessions delivered from his house—no Beatles.
I’m in my early thirties, and in a quasi-dating situation with a fairly odd guy in the Twin Cities. He’s at my apartment in late winter, and we’re watching a documentary about the early days of the Beatles. We learn that we both have a deep and abiding affection for the Beatles. Even so, our connection feels somehow removed. That is, we have one, but it is polite and never quite lands. Still, there’s something deeply enjoyable about a chill afternoon of remote, companionable shared Beatles fandom. Later, he will drive me to a used bookstore and run in to buy me a gift. He wants me to have the AA handbook in order to understand him better. I refuse to take it. At home in a drawer somewhere, I already have the one my biological father sent me.
I’m between boyfriends in graduate school, driving around listening to Let It Be all these years later. I’ve bought it on CD, and I zip around whatever state I’m in re-encountering a deeply familiar album I haven’t listened to from start to finish in years. I’m making circles back and forth between the eastern states and those of the Midwest, looking for something (education, companionship, a connection to landscape). At one point, I listen to “Two of Us” and feel momentarily lost—there is no longer a “Two of Us”—before settling on a different feeling, the “two of us” as me and the Beatles, or maybe as me and some other, inviolable version of myself.
 “Beatlemania: A sexually defiant subculture?” by Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess, and Gloria Jacobs.
Joanna Penn Cooper is the author of The Itinerant Girl’s Guide to Self-Hypnosis (Brooklyn Arts Press) and What Is a Domicile (Noctuary Press). Her work has appeared in South Dakota Review, Zocálo Public Square, Open Letters Monthly, Posit, Poetry International, and other journals. Her digital chapbook of collaborative poems with Todd Colby, I’m Glad I Know You, was published by Poetry Crush. She is an editor at Trio House Press and lives in Durham, NC.
Image: The Fabulous Beatle Buddies