My friend Elise Bryant wrote a play called The Zoo-zoo Chronicles about her life on the University of Michigan campus in the 1970s. In the first scene, Elise’s stand-in moves into a four-bedroom dorm suite with three white women. As an ice-breaker, one of the white women asks their new Black (we capitalized it back then) roomie, “Who’s your favorite Beatle?”
Silence. For three full seconds.
Elise’s stand-in rises in righteous anger. How dare these strangers assume she likes a Beatle, any Beatle, Beatles qua Beatles? Corporate rippers-off of Black culture, lily-white wannabe Blues singers, what would any self-respecting Black woman see in them? After making it clear the answer is “None of the above,” Elise’s stand-in goes on to become fast friends with at least a couple of these women, bonding in sisterhood with them over sit-ins; student strikes; love ventured, gained, and lost; all the standard 1970s joys and perils of life. What sticks with me, though, is that initial moment of hegemonic attitude and challenge, that culture clash right at the beginning, that careful mapping out of common ground and unacknowledged gaps in the “favorite Beatle” call and response.
Because I did have a favorite Beatle. Still do.
When I was six I saw the Beatles’ debut on Ed Sullivan and knew this was gonna be something big. Drew them with my Crayolas playing Gibson guitars when teacher told us to illustrate Kalamazoo’s industrial base in action (Gibson had a factory there). After college, singing with my rock band, I studied the chord progressions for Beatles’ songs like “Yes It Is,” then stole them and wrote my own.
Why? Was it because I wanted to be white? No.
Because they were good.
It’s not inconceivable that whites sometimes admire and emulate the cultures of people of color. And sometimes it works the other way. Sometimes it’s not a matter of being forced to accept the dominant paradigm but rather of identifying with certain of its elements….
John Lennon was my favorite Beatle, right from the start, though it took me till after his assassination to articulate the appeal. Basically, I loved Lennon for his unabashed idiocy. The man was never afraid to make a fool of himself. Audacity wins me over every time.
Is it audacious to take the stance of a cultural tourist towards territories supposed to be well inside the boundaries of the dominant paradigm? To treat as fodder for my own dreams the harmonies and psychedelic insights of white men given license to rebel? To tune myself to the excellencies they discovered within themselves almost by accident?
Maybe it would make as much or more sense to expand the meaning of the word. Say my favorite Beatle is Michael Jackson. Or Prince. Or Sly Stone, or George Clinton, or Jimi Hendrix, or any of the other small-b-black rockers trampling down marketing categories with gorgeous unconcern. Ya think?
Who’s your favorite Beatle?