The first time I witnessed just how angry old people get when young people don’t respect the Beatles enough was at a Billy Crystal stand-up show in the early ’80s. My dad took me, despite the fact that I’d never heard of Billy Crystal and had little to no interest in seeing him in concert. (I was in the midst of a deep Richard Pryor obsession, and I suspect this father-son outing was his attempt to deprogram me.) I only remember one joke from Crystal’s act — not because it was funny, but because of the audience’s reaction. Crystal was talking about how young people are idiots (I’m paraphrasing), and to prove it he recounted an awkward exchange with his daughter, when she asked him, without irony, “Daddy, is it true Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?” The audience howled, not with amusement but unmitigated rage. Their faces went red, the veins on their foreheads throbbing like cartoon exclamation points. With just a little encouragement, they would have happily formed a lynch mob and chased Crystal’s daughter into the countryside with pitchforks and torches, cornering her in a windmill and burning it the ground.
I was only 12 at the time, and though I was well aware of McCartney’s pre-Wings creative period, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the crowd’s fury. Yes, Crystal’s daughter was obviously a moron. Not being aware of the Beatles is like not being aware of Mozart or Lincoln or Jesus. You don’t have to be a fan, but you can’t exist in the world and not have at least heard those names once or twice. But judging by the vaguely violent grumble coming from Crystal’s audience, you’d think they were South Carolinians being told about gay Muslims performing abortions at God-defying weddings. The old guy sitting next to me — he was probably no older than 50, but he seemed ancient at the time — kicked the seat in front of him and literally harrumphed, like a Dickens character. “So fucking typical,” he muttered, like Crystal’s daughter had personally insulted everything he held dear. I was actually a little frightened. I considered asking my dad if we could leave early. If we stayed till the end, it seemed entirely possible that a gang of riled-up Baby Boomers would spot my greasy adolescent complexion, block the exit and demand that I provide answers to Beatles trivia before allowing me to pass.
“But this isn’t really about whether Paul McCartney should or shouldn’t be recognized by kids who only communicate in 140 characters. It’s about how Baby Boomers are essentially bullies about their musical memories, particularly when it comes to the Beatles.”
Those bad memories came crashing back last week, when Paul McCartney ignorance reared its ugly head once again, and the mob responded with the same white-knuckled outrage. You all know the story by now; McCartney sang at the Grammys, some youngsters tweeted about not knowing who the fuck he is, and the Baby Boomer generation screamed as one “release the Kraken!” To be fair, the tweets of shameless Fab Four nescience, while admittedly cringe-worthy, didn’t say anything that wasn’t technically true. McCartney is a white dude. His new song, “My Valentine,” did indeed suck. And he is, by all accounts, “hella old.”
The real embarrassment came in the backlash again these tweets. The Huffington Post called them “ignorant and shameful.” A writer for the website Zap2it considered these kids proof that “we’ve somehow failed as a nation.” The tweets from humorless McCartney fans were somewhere between passive-aggressive melodrama and a Chris Brown first date. “I’ve lost the will to live,” moaned one Twitterer. “If someone asks you ‘Who is Paul McCartney,’” observed another, “you are perfectly within your rights to break their iPod in half and pee on it.” And it only got worse from there, with the injured parties screaming (I assume) about dark caves full of rats, the 2012 Mayan apocalypse, and how a failure to recognize a Beatle is grounds for being evicted from the planet.
It’s not debatable that a failure to recognize Paul McCartney makes you stupid. But getting angry about that stupidity is like going to the Special Olympics and slapping every contestant as they cross the finish line. At least they’re trying. At least they’re asking about Paul McCartney. And they’re definitely not the only ones asking stupid questions about popular artists. During the Grammy broadcast, I turned to my wife and said, with a smug tone I thought sounded clever, “What’s a Skrillex?” I own Give My Regards to Broad Street in several media formats, but I’m only just now hearing about Skrillex. I don’t want to get all religious on you, but this seems to be one of those “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” kinda deals.
But this isn’t really about whether Paul McCartney should or shouldn’t be recognized by kids who only communicate in 140 characters. It’s about how Baby Boomers are essentially bullies about their musical memories, particularly when it comes to the Beatles. As a kid, I was only ever almost slapped by an adult once in my life, and it was for claiming that “Come Together” was an Aerosmith song. (It wasn’t a family member, and I’m not sure if that makes it more or less creepy.) I came of age musically in the ’90s, and if somebody who’d only just gotten pubic hair asked me “Who the fuck is Kurt Cobain,” I can promise you that I wouldn’t urinate on their iPod. But tell somebody of a certain age demographic that you thought the Martin Scorsese documentary about George Harrison wasn’t all that interesting, and they’ll give you a look like you just called their mother a whore.
Speaking of mothers, I once saw a guy in my high school get publicly humiliated because of his mother’s Beatles fandom. It was in a creative writing class, and the teacher, in a last-ditch attempt to connect with students who didn’t give a shit about creative writing or school in general, asked us to share our favorite pop songs with compelling narratives. Everything we mentioned was on heavy rotation on MTV at the time. The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance” (but just for the video with the midget). And then this guy — I forget this name, let’s call him Curt — shouts out, “The Beatles’ ‘Eleanor Rigby’.” And the entire class erupted in laughter. It was like he just walked into the room wearing nothing but tighty-whiteys. “The Beatles?” one of the popular girls with enormous hair exclaimed. “They’re so old!” Curt tried to backtrack, claiming that he only knew about the band because of his mother, who forced him to listen to their stupid hippie records. But it was too late, the damage had been done.
A few months later, he killed his mom.
No, seriously. He shot her during an argument at their home, and then dragged her body into the trunk of his car, intending to bury it in a nearby forest preserve. He almost made it, but a cop pulled him over for having a busted tail light and noticed the stench of death. It was a huge scandal at my high school, something that friends and I from back in the day still talk about whenever we get together. “Remember that guy who killed his mom?” one of us will say. And then we’ll all solemnly nod our heads, like we grew up in the ghetto and matricide was just a normal part of our day-to-day lives.
I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who thinks Curt killed his mom because of Paul McCartney. Now granted, I have no evidence whatsoever to back this theory up. I never knew the guy, and my only memory of him, besides hearing that he was in jail for involuntary manslaughter, is that classroom full of teenage girls mocking him for knowing a Beatles song, and his desperate attempts to shift the blame to his mother. I’m no criminal lawyer, but that seems like a reasonable enough motive to me.
“Just let the kids enjoy their Lil B and you go play ‘Dig a Pony’ for the zillionth time and nobody needs to get hurt.”
It’s been almost 25 years, but I suddenly feel like I need answers about my non-pal Curt. Is he still in prison? Or, because he was a minor when he mowed down his mom like Dillinger, maybe he’s a free man, trying to forge an adult life and forget his shitty high school experience like the rest of us. How great would it be to talk to him, and finally get some answers about why he did what he did. I make some calls to high school friends (actual friends) who might’ve known Curt personally, or at least have some idea of his whereabouts. Nobody seems to know anything, and most of them can’t even recall his name. “Are you sure it’s Curt?” one of them asks. “I’m pretty sure it was Craig. He always wore that ratty Member’s Only jacket, remember? Yeah, weird guy. Not ‘clearly going to murder his mom’ weird, but, you know, ‘whippets in the parking lot behind the gym’ weird. I don’t know, is that the same thing?”
It’s probably for the best that I didn’t find him. Because Curt, or whatever his name is, obviously wouldn’t tell me what I wanted to hear. If I actually had the balls to ask him the big question — “Why’d you kill your mom, dude?” — which seems unlikely, given that I never exchanged more than two words with him back when we actually had something in common, I’m almost positive he’d tell me that his relationship with his late mom was complicated and sad and involved years of emotional and physical abuse that had nothing to do with forcing him to listen to Beatles albums. But in my imagination, our conversation would go something like this:
ME: You killed your mom because she made you listen to the Beatles, right?
ME: Was it a specific album, or just the Beatles in general?
CURT: I hated all of it, but Abbey Road pushed me over the edge. There’s maybe two or three good songs on that record. The rest of it’s shit like “Oh! Darling” and “Octopus’s Garden.” Oh god, it’s just terrible. Try listening to “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” twice a day during your early teens and tell me you wouldn’t shoot somebody in the face.
ME: You couldn’t just tell her you weren’t a fan?
CURT: Not a fan of the Beatles? You ever try telling somebody in our parents’ generation that the Beatles aren’t the greatest band in the history of the world? It’s like telling ‘em Dylan can’t carry a tune.
ME: They can be thin-skinned about their icons.
CURT: I never hated the band. But the constant reverence is exhausting. And for a 16 year-old boy, to be surrounded with nothing but Beatles songs, forced to repeat the lyrics to “Norwegian Wood” every night as a bedtime prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I once had a girl or should I say she once had me,” it doesn’t prepare a guy for the outside world. You don’t feel comfortable having any kind of musical discovery of your own. And it ostracizes you from your peer group.
ME: I guess that’s true.
CURT: I don’t feel good about murdering my mom. But what choice did I have? Some days, I wish I didn’t have any idea who the fuck Paul McCartney is.
I don’t know if there’s a moral in all this. It’s hard to impose meaning on a tragedy that happened decades ago, and didn’t involve me in any direct way. But history, as they say, is written by the winners, and as I seem to be the sole graduate from my suburban Chicago high school who remembers Curt and his murderous rampage, when he cast off the shackles of musical oppression and cried to the heavens “I don’t need to hear ‘Hey Jude’ ever again for the rest of my life, thank you very much,” I’m the only one in any position to say what lessons are to be learned from his sad tale.
The next time you hear or read about a teenybopper dissing a Beatle, maybe you just shut up about it. Because one of these days you’re going to push too far and end up in a shallow grave, or worse, the trunk of a teenager’s car with busted tail lights. Paul McCartney is and always will be a legend. We all get that. Even those of us who’ve never heard of him are well aware that the old fart was a big deal to you. But we don’t all need to like what you like. Just let the kids enjoy their Lil B and you go play “Dig a Pony” for the zillionth time and nobody needs to get hurt.