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My favorite Beatle

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?

8 thoughts on “My favorite Beatle”

  1. cccH says:

    At one point, like yeaaaaaaaaaars ago, it was Paul McCartney. I had posters of him in my room and even met him when he visited my Dad’s restaurant asking for bananas while on his way to the shore (we’re from the islands). Now I can say I like them all equally as they’ve contributed some beautiful music to this warped world which I appreciate hearing every time.

  2. Sami says:

    For the most part, I’m not a huge Beatles fan these days… I loved them more when I was younger, and then my favourite was Ringo. Because he seemed cute and shy and he was adorable in Yellow Submarine.

  3. Jonquil says:

    When I was a kid, “the cute one”. By the time I was paying attention, John. John was *fierce*. John wanted the world to be better. John wanted people to be better. He was, as you say, out there with his idiocy (that bed-in!) but he did give a damn and he tried.

    However, I’d like to give a shout-out to Ringo, who appears in all the memoirs I’ve read to be a genuinely sweet human being.

  4. Rob Hansen says:

    I never had a favorite Beatle because I always loved them as a unit.
    I remember Ringo being interviewed about this years ago and he said, if memory serves, that John attracted the intellectuals, George the mystics, Paul the teens, and that he got the “kids and grannies”.

    Through most of the 1960s the best two writing teams in popular music IMHO were Lennon/McCartney and Holland/Dozier/Holland. I loved Motown’s output up until the Jackson 5 arrived, at which point I mostly lost interest. So it’s not surprising Michael Jackson’s music left me cold.

  5. Karen B. says:

    Thank you, Nisi, for giving me a reason to like John Lennon! Lots of my friends loved him for his idealism, but it just seemed so . . idealistic. Aims are good, but I prefer to be at least a bit grounded in reality, myself.

    When I was a kid, I preferred George Harrison mainly for his looks and his personality. However, Ringo has grown on me as I learn more about drummers and paid attention to his skills. I’m still not big on Paul McCartney, except as John Lennon’s collaborator. (Like Rob [waves], I think that Lennon/McCartney were far better together than they ever were individually.)

  6. Josh says:

    My favorite Beatle, with the freedom to “expand the meaning of the word”? Oscar Wilde.

  7. Nisi Shawl says:

    Hey, Josh, thanks for the expansion. Yes, Wilde was a celebrity in that Beatle sense….

    Didn’t Samuel Delany name-check Ringo in one of his early novels? Maybe The Jewels of Aptor? Many of my books are in storage at the moment, and I can’t look it up myself.

  8. Thejudge says:

    “Oh my, that bed in, was both memorable and ridiculous! My favorite was Paul. I liked his eyes and I still like him.

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