by Jerry Waxler
“Beatles.” This word contains the memories of a generation. Who among us has not seen videos of them waving as they disembarked from the plane on their first American tour? As they’re playing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the Ed Sullivan show, the camera pans to the girl screaming so hard she has to hold onto her face with both hands so her head won’t explode. Since such scenes were part of your life, you might want to tell about them. But to a listener these culturally loaded words sound like clichés. Events that happened to you also happened to hundreds of millions of others. We’ve heard and seen these images until we are weary of them.
If you tell a story with loaded words, people will hear what they already know, rather than learning about you. The loaded words will wash out the individual meaning from your story. So how do you write about the past, without falling into this trap? Use the storyteller’s advice. Slow down, set up the scene, and tell the reader how they affected you in particular.
So how could I unpack the meaning of the word Beatles and turn it into a unique image in my own life? I can see myself standing at the record store in Madison, Wisconsin, where I stopped on my way home every day from class, to stare at the rack of new releases. My mind was blazing with an almost supernatural desire, as if each album might release a Genii that would grant my every dream. But describing a boy standing at a record rack doesn’t give the reader much to go on. To share my unique feelings, I have to set up a scene in a way that you’ll be able to relate to.
Here’s a piece of advice on this topic by author and writing teacher Philip Gerard, from his book “Writing a book that makes a difference.” He says, “The key is always to include your reader in the process by which you arrive at your position. Instead of demanding that the reader experience anger or love simply because you say so, create for your reader the same experience that led to your reaction.”
So I try to remember a scene that would help me show my relationship to music in the sixties and I remembered the summer when the Revolver album was released. At the beginning of my sophomore year, I wanted to get back to campus early. When I returned in mid-August, all the summer classes were over, and even the faculty and staff were away on vacation. Madison, Wisconsin was essentially a ghost town. I didn’t have anywhere to live yet, but an acquaintance was out of town and told me I could crash at her place.
I walked in to the apartment building, musty from years of student tenants, and set down my belongings. My stuff was stored in another friend’s basement so all I had with me was a suitcase and the Revolver, which I had picked up from the record store on my way in to town. As soon as I sat down, I took out the album, turning it over and searching the graphics, the liner notes, and even the names of the production staff as if they might reveal some secret.
Ripping off the flimsy cellophane, I pulled the record envelope out, and then grabbed the record by the edges between my open palms to avoid letting any finger oil smudge the surface. Positioning the record over the turntable, I dropped it gently, feeling the anticipation not only that this would be the first time I listened to it, but also disappointment that this would be the last time I would ever listen to it for the first time. This troubled me because records lose 40% of their quality after the first playing, wearing down the little plastic ridges that jiggle the needle to create the sound.
In rapt attention, I turned towards the speakers and listened. And as I entered each new song, I felt a wave of excitement. Somehow the Beatles had broken with their genre over and over, as if they were inventing a new style of rock and roll in each song. I was especially smitten by the haunting violin accompaniment like cries of sadness, wails really, on “Eleanor Rigby.” I wondered who she was, and why I felt so drawn to her.
That afternoon, I left the apartment to buy food, and I saw a girl walking my way. A person! As she came nearer, I smiled. The smile of a stranger always made me feel okay, like the world was safer and more fun. So I smiled at this stranger, and she kept walking past me, as if she didn’t see me. Despite the long, cruel winters, Madison in August is blazingly hot and muggy. I looked around at the apartments that would in a few weeks be teeming with kids living in every possible space. The houses had not been painted recently nor were the gardens groomed. It was a student neighborhood, run by landlords we never saw, and kids who were just passing through. And now they were empty. I wondered where my home was. Certainly not Pennsylvania. I was no longer a child, and it was time to get away from there. And I didn’t feel at home here either, where there were no other students, and the only person I saw didn’t even smile at me.
The one thing I did have, the one element in my life that made me feel connected at that moment was the Beatles. Their passion for breaking with all the things that were wrong with the world leapt out at me. But rather than providing simple answers, they asked questions, set to music. Not just any music but orchestral music and fresh melodies and rhythms. They poured their creative energy into the album to let me know they shared my sense of urgency. We had entered a pact in which we agreed that our questions were important, were powerful. I closed my eyes, and hummed along with the lyrics, already starting to burn into my memory.
All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?
I too lamented about life, while those violins tore into my heart. Hearing the lyrics made me feel more peaceful, understood, and one with the world.
There’s nothing like a powerful piece of writing to serve as a fine example. I especially like that you wrote it yourself, rather than finding another author to cite.
Thanks so much for your comment, Sharon. It’s terrific to hear you call it powerful. Like they say about firewood, it heats you twice, once when you cut it and then again when you burn it. Writing is like that. It warms you when you write it and then again when someone gets something out of it.