My parents, like those of a lot of kids in my generation, thought the Beatles’ music was a suitable alternative to the “baby Muzak” of traditional lullabies, which once comprised the soundtracks of pre-K lives. The Beatles’ blue, yellow and white periods (so-called for the dominant colors of their album covers, respectively “Sgt. Pepper,” “Magical Mystery Tour,” “Yellow Submarine” and the eponymous “The Beatles,” more popularly known, of course, as the “White Album”) were well-suited to capture young imaginations thanks to their kaleidoscopic imagery and fairyland arrangements.
I was hooked. To compound matters, the animated flick “The Yellow Submarine” was in heavy rotation on KQED, or “channel nine,” which is how alphabetically-challenged kids like me knew it. That the number nine cameos in at least a couple Beatles’ tunes suggested some sort of metaphysical kinship between the channel, which was also the home of “Sesame Street” and thus the electronic repository of numbers, letters and the sundry other alphabet blocks building young minds in Northern California circa 1975.
Of course, I couldn’t quite characterize it as such back then, it was more like I thought that Bert and Ernie and the cartoon versions of the Beatles were in cahoots with this whole “numbers” thing, which probably accounts for my feeling that numbers are inherently silly and that math is tantamount to sketch comedy.
Anyway, my media diet back then was as inoffensive as carrot cake with carob chips. Until I began to understand the words.
The existential dread inspired by John Lennon’s “Nowhere Man” was to be expected, I suppose, given the song’s accusatory tone and rhetorical switchbacks like the line, “Isn’t he a bit like you and me?” That can be heavy for a four-year-old, who’s really only just learned the difference between the concepts of “you” and “me.”
The lyric that really got me, however, was in that paean to precipitation, “Rain.” The song, as everyone knows, is a polyphonic drone, a sort of sweetly-hued dirge that manages to be tuneful despite the fact that it’s essentially just a weird chant. But that’s not what irked me. It was the lyrics – specifically, the opening lyrics – that haunted my wee mind: “If the rain comes / they run and hide their heads / They might as well be dead.” The concept of death is troubling enough for a young child to comprehend, but to have the Fab Four gleefully condemning whomever “they” are for avoiding inclement weather was a tad troubling.
And now, three decades or so since I first heard the track, the tune came tumbling back to mind, the way it often does when it rains, as I darted out a café door and sloshed to my car parked on the Plaza. Suddenly, I felt that I had finally joined the doomed “they,” the Liverpudlians admonished in the lyric. I shielded myself from the downpour (ironically, I now realize) with a copy of the Sun. This was precisely the sort of precaution that I would never have taken as a drama club dropout, who thought it somehow dashing to have rain-soaked hair, occasionally mopped by a woolen trench coat sleeve. (What a putz.)
When I was younger still, the world was (to borrow a term from e.e. cummings) puddlewonderful and always good for a playful soak. That era was clearly before “pneumonia” had any meaning for me beyond a quick exit from a spelling bee. Now, as I eke this note out, repeatedly sneezing ever closer to the great beyond, I feel that, “I can show you that when it starts to rain / Everything’s the same.” Brought to you by the number nine, number nine, number nine and the letter Y.