As cultural touchstones, the Beatles fascinate the Brantford, Ontario poet John B. Lee. His twentieth book focuses on how the Beatles, and other musical and non-musical experiences of his adolescence, permanently changed an Ontario farm boy into a poet. Reading about the powerful influence this band had on him three decades ago moved me to undertake some personal cultural archaeology of my own, which should help give a context to his poems.
Through the years bridging the end of high school and early college, the Beatles were music for me. As they progressed from basic cover versions of Chuck Berry and Little Richard to more complex songs and visions, my tastes expanded in parallel.
I'd clamp on headphones for the end of the "A Day in the Life" to hear the chair squeak after that long final piano chord, and-maybe-someone walk away. (Among the several thousand World Wide Web sites on the Beatles today is one that lists "sound accidents" like this in their oeuvre.) I'd argue with other exegetical friends about what their lyrics really signified. Did "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" mean LSD, or pounds, shillings, and pence? My friend Roger put his turntable on his residence room's window-sill, and the setting sun diffracted into wavering rainbows on the wall as we toked up and deconstructed Beatles songs.
Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's, the White Album, and Abbey Road are as good as pop music gets, enduring proof of how brilliant the Beatles were at synthesizing influences. They took black rhythm and blues, Buddy Holly's fast-moving melodic progressions, the close harmonies of the Everleys, Elvis's country blues, and British music hall songs-and made it all work together.
With their producer George Martin, they produced astounding and sophisticated mixes with very limited recording technology; and, along with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, they invented the "concept album". However, the Fab Four had limits. None of them was an instrumentalist on a par with Hendrix, or Keith Moon, or Ry Cooder. Their song lyrics, despite John's excellent word play, seldom approached Bob Dylan's. And the compositions that were McCartney's alone, without Lennon's acerbic and surreal edge, revealed marshmallow centres.
They also started a huge flow of cash, as their record sales led to the first stadium concerts, the first "rock videos" (their movies Help, A Hard Day's Night, Magical Mystery Tour, and Let It Be), and the sale of everything from Beatles lunch buckets and posters to dolls. They inadvertently launched the commercialization of pop music that evolved into the big concert "dinosaur rock" of the seventies and eighties.
But do they have any meaning beyond nostalgia? The peak of their creativity (from 1963 to 1988) coincided for many with new experiences of pleasure and freedom, as young girls at concerts screamed together in mass orgasm, and the rest of us took drugs, read censored novels, lost virginity, and left home. The Beatles were the soundtrack. They offered something for everyone: John for the intellectuals, disaffected artists, and junkies, Paul for sweetness and melody, George for Eastern-leaning mystics, Ringo for straightforward fun.
John B. Lee explores such coming-of-age and coming-into-culture experiences, in the context of his south-western Ontario of farms and small towns. That his poetry extends to both ends of this continuum gives his work a unique charm. (And some wonderful titles; "The Day Jane Fonda Came to Guelph" is my favourite.) In his latest book, he examines the impact of a huge cultural phenomenon on his own teenaged consciousness, as he came to terms with the fact that his life included cow shit and marijuana, surly relatives, and ecstasy. "I was spreading manure/ in the summer of love," one poem begins.
On the whole, Lee maintains the tension between these unlikely elements well. His standard mode is a wry, loose-limbed free verse, but he keeps the reader interested by changing gear into occasional sound and visual effects, and even some experimental non-rhyming "Sergeant Pepper Sonnets". He uses whatever works for the moment: puns, running words together without spacing, startling images that catch the ear perfectly (during a Beatles broadcast, "my mother/knitting nearby like a drummer with sticks/ and no kit").
The book has an interesting, album-like structure, with an intro, the striking, Canadian gothic "You are Snowmobiling, It is Midnight", and an outro, "The Wishbone Hung by the Water Heater", grounded in Lee's own life. In between, the poems are chronologically arranged, leading from the placid "Doris Days" of a fifties childhood through the seismic impact of the Beatles' appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, and on into Lee's early experiences with love, poetry, and buying Beatles boots, the Vietnam War, and finally the present. There are witty glosses on Beatles standards ("She doesn't love you./Na! Na! Na!").
The best quality of Lee's work is its ability to surprise-to slip a moment of sharp perception into an unlikely scene, such as a confrontation with his uncle over whether the music was too loud. There is nostalgia here; he pictures the sixties as a time when "we had nothing to regret/ when poets had voices/and people had ears" (don't they now?). But it seldom cloys. He views those years as a time not only of ecstasy and freedom but also of the strains of these on young psyches: "you either drown or learn to swim;/ you either fall or learn to fly."
And there are some intriguing undercurrents. Lee often portrays himself and others as in canine imagery ("we turned around the moment/ like a pair of tethered-together dogs/ and he released me/ from the wolf-grip of his eyes") without ever foregrounding it. He well conveys his own maturing, and the losses and gains that come with middle age. He writes to his sons, for example, as they experience their own teen-aged rebellion against his values, "I've learned something/ and I want you to ignore/ the way I learned it." He even gives vent to his middle-aged spleen in "I'm Sick of These Times".
Unfortunately, the real achievements of the writer are somewhat mitigated by shoddy publishing. Black Moss has produced poetry for a while, but its editors were asleep for this collection. This is evident not so much in the few weak poems that might have been excised-nearly every collection has those-but in the embarrassing copy-editing. Surely, there still live editors who know that the syrupy Canadian band leader Guy was no "Lumbardo", or that "or" in "Her Obsession" is a typo for "of", that Lennon was more wry than "rye", that the fraternal organization that haunts every Ontario town is not "the lyon's club", that you don't chill milk in a "frigedare", or that the Manson follower who tried to shoot Gerald Ford was not Squeaky "From". The price also seems steep for a modestly produced eighty-page book.
But these cavils should not obscure Lee's real achievement here. He has taken a subject-a band-that has been worn almost meaningless by media hype, endless replays on oldies stations, and commercialized "revivals" like the recent, substandard Anthology CD-and made it new again, by sanding it down with the grit of his own experience. Even Generation X, Y, and Z, who probably wish the rest of the Beatles would hurry up and die, might learn something from this book.
John Oughton is a Toronto writer whose fourth book of poems, Counting Out the Millennium, is being published by Pecan Grove Press in Texas. He wishes that love was all you needed.