Maria Popova perfectly nails the challenge of a book like this – where a series of writers share their personal opinion as to how, where and why a particular Beatles song – when she notes in her own essay on Yellow Submarine that, ‘Interpretation of course always reveals far more about the interpreter than it does about the interpreted.’ Well, exactly! Rorschach caught on to that one years ago as did I suppose the ancient Greeks who looked at the stars and saw warriors, scorpions and entangled fish where you might see a ducky and a horsey. Or was that Charlie Brown and some clouds? I do get you two confused sometimes.
Interpretation is one of the basic, occasionally annoying, habits of humankind. You wake up and it’s raining cats and dogs, splattering their paw-like drops against the windows. Your first thought after that observation is an interpretive, ‘What does that mean for my day?’ And from there you can optimistically take the weather as an opportunity to drag the trenchcoat out of the closet and pretend you’re Humphrey Bogart on your way to work, or instead mutter dark and fitful prayers because good Lord you only just bedded those tomato plants last weekend and now they’re going to drown.
This is all well and good and as I say it’s instinctual so there’s no point in being concerned about the need to interpret our surroundings. It only becomes a problem when we expect someone else to give a good goddamn about our personal interpretation. Your tomatoes are lost? Tough luck, but excuse me I’m busy right and now with a black-and-white fantasy about the sultry gaze of Lauren Bacall. Stop mucking around with the movie playing within my mind.
Which leads us to In Their Lives. I found myself engaging with this book in the grumpiest of moods as it was the equivalent of looking at the photos of someone else’s summer vacation, someone who is blithely ignorant to the fact that you were stuck in the office on the hottest two weeks in July while this selfish bastard was basting himself in coconut oil on a distant beach. Show me the picture where the crab bit you in the balls – that picture I’d love to see!
Let’s take Eleanor Rigby for an example. To me, that song will always remind me of our parish priest who had grown up with my mother and her brothers. He used to come over to our house every Sunday evening, after work in priest-speak, where he’d sit and watch Murder, She Wrote with Mm and then leave right afterwards. I’d look at the two of them (Mom was long, long since divorced) at think, ‘Bloody hell, why didn’t you two get married back when you had the chance?’ And I’d start silently hearing the string octet playing those famous bars and always preceding the chorus: ‘Ah, look at all the lonely people.’ Now that was and still is my version of Eleanor Rigby. If yours, as with Rebecca Mead, is a version that’s all about the divorce of the couple next door that mucked up your childhood playmate’s life, well that’s your life and not mine. Your visceral reaction is not the same as mine and on the whole I like mine better because I’ve had it longer. Or to put it another way, I’m not looking to replace any of my emotions, so stop trying damn it.
All of this would be forgivable – or at least an attempt at forgiveness would be made – if the writing within In Their Lives was all top quality. Well, sorry to disappoint you but after all I got there first, the writing is as uneven as a teeter-totter with a fat kid on one seat. Where it’s good, as with the aforementioned Maria Popova essay or the one by Pico Iyer on Yesterday, the writing is memorable and informative as there the essays take the individual songs into places that have some educational or philosophical value. Popova’s essay spawned my thoughts on interpretation that you’re reading here (you can either thank her or curse her for that), while Iyer takes Yesterday as a diving board from which to dive into some quite incisive commentary on Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen (‘Leonard turns over the self-betraying cruelties of the heart with a density and grave sophistication that owe as much to Dionne and the Metaphysicals as to the Hank Williams he celebrates.’), Van Morrison and others.
On the other hand, specifically the hand that keeps reaching around your throat in attempted strangulation, there is utter self-indulgent claptrap like Gerald Early’s essay on (thank you Irony Gods!) I’m a Loser. Early takes a deep breath and basically mentions every record he ever heard on every radio station during the decade of the Sixties. The effort must have taken him at least twenty minutes and not a moment less. Believe me, his is not the only one that reads like it was dashed off on toilet roll during a bathroom break. Then again there is the meta level of doing just that. When Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention recorded their grand piss-taking at The Beatles’ expense, they named the record
We’re Only In It For the Money. Exactly.