Getting Back to a Beatles Christmas

My teenagers don’t like the Beatles and don’t even understand their attraction. It’s hard for me to bend my mind around, because my experience of the Beatles has been their timeless and global presence. They show up gloriously in so many memories.

Twist and Shout’s “Shake it up, Baby!” brings me back to a college luau with my besties. I sang along to Hey Jude as it played on repeat during car rides on winding roads in Europe. Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds played the first time I’d seen the Apple label spinning on a record player. I instantly loved the song, and begged my cousin to play it over and over while I danced around in the platform heels I’d taken from her two older brothers, both sporting the long hair look the Beatles inspired.

Perhaps I should have played the Beatles more for my own children, because at this point neither shows any interest, let alone the reverence the music deserves. It was with this reverence that I anticipated watching Get Back this holiday season. I expected to hear many of my favorites in the course of its seven plus hours. What I didn’t expect was how much I would enjoy watching their creative process.

While I’ve been a fan of their music, I’ve never explored the history of the Beatles as a band. At the beginning of the documentary, I couldn’t figure out how – or even if – they would pull off anything resembling success. Having allowed themselves around 14 days to write more than as many songs, and entering the scene with dour looks and a constantly present Yoko, I had my doubts. It was a bit of a nail biter.

By part three, though, as they worked out the final versions of some songs and were just beginning the writing of other recognizable classics, I got a lump in my throat as the messiness resolved. Lennon’s early reminder that he did his best work when their backs were against the wall was a testament to their comfort with the chaos, and the payoff it would yield. Creation has to include a level of tension, a willingness to explore without perfection, and an ability to disassemble and reassemble to bring out the best in anything. It was an unexpected treat to watch all of that transpire on the screen.

It was also a treat to watch producer George Martin’s interaction with the group. I had been impressed by his 1998 release of In My Life, featuring a cadre of celebrities covering Beatles classics in unexpected but undeniable style. Sean Connery’s voice on the title track was about the only way I could imagine that song getting better. Get Back hints at Martin’s ability to do that, though. His understanding and appreciation for the music, and his commitment was obvious. You could imagine him having enough of a handle on the essence of it to give it a second life.

It was personally fitting for me to watch Get Back during the holiday season. Some of my earliest Christmas memories include decorating the tree while listening to the Hard Days Night soundtrack. We usually listened to Christmas music, but when this album surfaced among the LPs, I liked it too much to take it off. I played it over and over again, dancing around to it.

Perhaps the best encapsulation of how much the Beatles have meant to the world and its people shows up in the movie “Yesterday”, which I caught on the big screen with a dear friend before the pandemic drove us from theaters. In it, a phenomenon leaves the world with no memory of the Beatles. Main character, Jack, however, recalls and begins to recreate their music to wild worldwide enthusiasm. When Jack learns that several others with memories know what he’s doing, he expects to be turned in as a fraud. But no – they wouldn’t do that. They’re grateful that someone is able to fill the world with the Beatles again.

It’s a construct that wouldn’t work for most other bands, but it completely makes sense when it comes to the music of the Fab Four. A world without their music is a world less grand. Having a bird’s-eye view of how it came to be is Get Back, and it’s worth the time to watch.

Note: Get Back is streaming on Disney Plus at the time of this writing.

A blooming pink rose on piano keys

You never know where you’ll find some heart and soul.

When I was five, my family walked across the street to our neighbor’s house for a party. The homeowners were a young couple. The man’s name was Neil. I only vaguely remember what he looked like, and less about his wife on that day. I don’t recall going back afterwards, although we may have, children’s memories being what they are.

What I do remember is that Neil had a piano, and he let me sit down and play it. In a matter of minutes, Neil taught me to play one part of “Heart and Soul”, and he played the other. Then we switched parts. Those minutes must have appeared completely inconsequential to observers. They were not. The making of music with black and white keys reached right into my heart.

Before I go on, please know that I did not become a professional musician. Don’t wait for me to tell you when I hit the big time or about all the lives I’ve touched. It didn’t happen that way for me. This is just a story of a girl and a piano, and how an encounter with Neil and his piano cleared an enchanted, winding path that I still revisit from time to time.

After the Heart and Soul experience, my parents made a stretch investment. They sank $400 into a gently used Winter piano and signed me up for group lessons at our community college. But I hated practicing things like, “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. What was a bonnie anyway? In class, the short electric keyboard heard through headphones didn’t sound anything like the piano at my house or at Neil’s house. I wanted to play songs that sounded big and had lots of notes. I wanted to make real music.

My teacher, an accomplished Romanian concert-pianist, tried to keep me on one-handed scale exercises and one-clef songs. Finally, though, she broke the news to my parents: I had too good an ear for my own good, and not enough discipline to follow her lessons. They were wasting their money. And so, for the next six years, we dusted, polished, and walked past a silent piano in our living room.

Then in seventh grade I met new friends at a new school. They played piano…really well. Watching them play, I longed to make music again, and declared myself ready for lessons. My parents’ response can be summed up as, “Been there, done that, done pouring money into this.” They reminded me that I should feel free to break out any of the several books they’d bought last go-round, and start practicing. It was a reasonable and understandable response. And I took the advice.

After seeing the musical “Annie” and loving all the music, I got the score, and set about teaching myself to play. I broke out the old books. I learned the notes, scales, and how to read the symbols. I had a good memory, so I wrote notes to guide me, learned a few measures, memorized them, and moved on to the next measures. I spent hours each night at the piano. Eventually, I had taught myself to play most of the songs comfortably. So I asked again: Could I have lessons?

My parents agreed to give it another go with private lessons from a friend’s teacher. Each week he would put new progressively difficult sheet music on the stand, and tell me that frankly…trulyhonestly…he thought this piece was beyond my skills…but maybe I could give it a go. The psychology worked. By the following week, I had learned and memorized the piece, and we’d start the same dance over again.

This continued for several years, during which I learned my favorite pop songs, show tunes, and all manner of classical including Chopin waltzes. I still didn’t have the patience for music theory, sight-read poorly, and didn’t get a thrill from public performance, so I was never going to make any money at this thing. Still, I experienced incalculable hours of enjoyment, escape, and accomplishment during that time. It was something of an addiction. When eventually my teacher shared that he had taken me as far as he could, we tried to find an advanced teacher, but could not.

Without new weekly challenges, my mind became occupied with other high school concerns. The passion remained, despite playing only occasionally. I nixed the opportunity to go to a college where the admissions officer sneered when asked of the possibility of taking music electives. I chose a college that had a recognized music and drama school. I’d agreed not to major in music as a condition of my parents footing my very expensive college tuition, but there was no way I was spending four years at a school that didn’t see its value. And while I didn’t take lessons, I did visit practice rooms from time to time.

In my senior year, that Winter piano moved to my college apartment. It has followed me to four other homes since and is still one of my favorite possessions. I’ve played other pianos in many places over the years, including a digital Yamaha in our home that can make anyone sound like a one-man-band. The most amazing experience was playing a Bösendorfer grand piano left unlocked for a concert by some happy accident. It was big. Its sound was bigger. I had a lump in my throat from the beauty of it.

Still, the sound and feel of my Winter is warmest. The sound of my Winter is the sound of my life. It has spent so many hours with me for pleasure and for comfort. I played Christmas carols by twinkling tree lights, and welled tears of joy hearing my children practice on the same keys I loved so well. I played to heal when I was devastated, tears streaming down my face onto keys. I played when I was frustrated, and life was complicated, and nothing made much sense. Many times after playing, my head rested gently on the music stand, one hand on a key block, the other tracing the grain in the polished golden wood or fiddling across keys without any pattern or point. Those were moments well-spent, and gratitude for distractions or memories remembered.

A few years ago, after decades of my own version of carpool karaoke to anything that came on the radio, I decided to take voice lessons. I was not a natural. Still, by some good fortune and destiny, my teacher introduced some theory as part of our lessons. After decades of not caring, I was finally interested in how musical phrases came together to convey different emotions, and how the patterns and structure of a piece could feel predictable or unpredictable to a listener. It was fascinating. Although I wasn’t able to continue the lessons and focus on theory, I may resume some day. I have a feeling that when my nest is empty, I’ll again look for comfort in the keys. This time, I’ll be interested enough in theory to experience playing in a new way.

Would I ever have stumbled into this had we not gone to our neighbor’s house that day? What if we’d gone, but Neil hadn’t stepped over to help me play? Every day we meet people and have seemingly innocuous interactions. Sometimes we don’t know whether or how they touch our lives. I’m sure no one at that party understood that they’d witnessed the exchange of a gift that would keep giving throughout my life.

And what if my parents had simply gone home from that party and thought of it as an entertaining evening? Instead they discussed how they could nurture me, looked through classifieds to get an instrument, found teachers, and drove me to and from lessons for years. What if they’d sold the piano when I was seven, impatient to use the space for other things and recoup at least some of their losses given my allergic reaction to structured teaching? Surely I wouldn’t have taught myself those songs from Annie, or went on to learn so many others.

We can never know how our everyday actions may shape the future for one or for many. But if we lead with our heart, lean in with our soul, we do make beautiful music together.

A drop of water in an endless sea is okay by me.

I’m a sucker for traditionally classical instruments in rock songs. Metallica’s “No Leaf Clover” played with a full symphony is probably my favorite example, but it’s not alone. This week I was transported by one of those songs, back to days long before I could put words to such preference. A song can do that. Take you back to a place and a time, the feeling of sun on your face, a breeze through a half-open car window, smelling like something close to home. You see the half-constructed jug-handle turn near the newly-built Pizza Hut…when Pan Pizza was a new thing. Your eyes stop seeing what’s in front of you for a second, a moment from years past so close you might be there now.

That’s what happened when “Dust in the Wind” – the original Kansas version – shuffled up in my playlist this week. I’ve heard it plenty of times, but in this second my eyes glazed and I was a 10-year-old in the back seat of my parent’s car. I was telling my mom how beautiful I thought this song was. The premise made sense to me, and the violin lifted my soul. She disagreed, the thought of our mortality being horrifying. But I liked everything about the song.

I close my eyes
Only for a moment, and the moment’s gone
All my dreams
Pass before my eyes, a curiosity

Dust in the wind
All they are is dust in the wind

Same old song
Just a drop of water in an endless sea
All we do
Crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see

Dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind

Now, decades later, I can understand how a mom might not appreciate the thought of us being mere dust in the wind with quite as much relish as her 10-year-old. But when I heard it this week, a different line grabbed me, and for a different reason. “Just a drop of water in an endless sea.”

You see, just before the song played, I’d gotten a notification that a high school friend had accepted an old Facebook invitation I’d sent. I felt instant joy at the memory of her smiling face, and felt we were connected again despite years of being out of touch. We had gotten to know each other in classes in high school, and connected only briefly after graduation. A few letters and calls here and there. Even during high school we’d seen each other mostly during school days. But seeing that Facebook notification I thought how much better my high school years had been having had Deb in them.

I mouthed a “thank you”, grateful for her bubbly personality, and the many laughs we’d shared. Some were predictable – like when she would arrive at the cafeteria and ask me if I’d remembered that we had a vocab quiz in English in about 25 minutes. I’d always forgotten, and would frantically grab the word list just in time, thanks to her. I can still hear her saying, “Dohhnnnaaaa, not again?!” It’s beautifully ironic that I became an English major in college, but that’s probably thanks to Deb, as well. Those reminders helped me place out of entry level English classes in my first college year. I’d replaced them with a literature class I loved so much. It inspired me to switch majors. The choice served me well.

Perhaps we are just drops of water in an endless sea. But each drop ripples, and our effects on those we touch are significant. If our voices and actions reverberate and resound, I’m glad the sea is endless. It just means our impact is that much greater.

While I still love the violin solo, the music, and the vocals of “Dust in the Wind”, I now disagree with most of its other lyrics. It’s not that they are horrible to think of, but that I no longer believe in their truth. I’m lucky enough to have crossed paths with so many who impact other people and our world in positive ways. Buildings we build may crumble, but the good we do for others remains. We are not specs of dust. We are remarkable. We are drops of water, water we all desperately need.