Thursday, 15 September 2016

Beatleness: Interview with Candy Leonard - Part 1

Candy Leonard was born in the mid-1950s and, like many of her contemporaries, grew up fascinated with the Beatles. Her other interests, sociology, psychology, popular culture, and child development, prompted a career in which she has been a child and family advocate, talk show host, and university professor. Her ambitious 2014 book Beatleness: How the Beatles and Their Fans Remade the World, combines a wealth of interview material with fans who were there in the 1960s and offers a portrait of the group and its fans in their era. The result is a rare, insider glimpse into of one of the most historically significant fan phenomena. Since publishing Beatleness, Candy has written about why we still mourn John Lennon in the PBS magazine Next Avenue, and described the Beatles impact on baby boomers for The Huffington Post. Since I consider Beatleness an insightful model of accessible writing on music fandom, I was really pleased when she agreed to an interview.


Your book is a lively popular history of 1960s Beatles fandom - a kind of contextualization of generational memory - rather than a dry academic study. Can you tell us a bit more about your methodology?

I did some interviews at fan gatherings, but I found most of the interviewees through social media. Almost everyone I interviewed recommended someone else, so it snowballed. I was sure to get people across the age range (born 1946 – 1961) and I also wanted geographic diversity. The themes and patterns that emerged, and my analysis of them, are based on data from about one hundred fifty interviews.

You decide to define music fandom as a "fun pastime" yet your discussion of identity suggests that it means more than that to participants?

Yes, fandom informs identity at all ages, but especially in the formative years, which is what we’re talking about with first-generation Beatle fans. A half-century later, the Beatles are still so profoundly important to them. I wanted to understand and explain that, and I also wanted to be clear that I wasn’t passing any judgement on these fans, or any fans for that matter.  The Beatle fans I interviewed and have met when out and about talking about the book are some of the smartest, nicest, most grounded people you’d ever want to meet. Engaging with something that brings joy, community, and allows playfulness, as fandom does, is a very healthy thing to do, at any age.

Why did you frame collective interest in the Beatles on page 267 as a "joyful trauma"?

There are some events, uniquely experienced by a cohort, which changes them, that leave a mark on them. Most of the events traditionally discussed by social historians, in this context, are terrible, horrific events, often described as “traumatic”—natural disasters, wars, the Depression, etc. Those who share the experience have a special bond; they know and understand something very important about each other, even though they might be strangers. That transformative experience comes to inform who they are. Growing up in the sixties, engaged with the Beatles, and hearing and watching them evolve for six years, was a defining experience for baby boomers, but it was a positive, uplifting, experience. “Joy” was the word that fans used over and over again. Our language has no word for positive or joyful trauma. But that’s what it was.

One of the things I really like about your writing is that it goes beyond the undifferentiated notion of "Beatlemania" as a mass phenomenon and historicizes the context and journey of the Beatles' emergent fan base.

It wasn’t a monolithic experience, and it was very much a product of and driver of much of the cultural change that was happening at the time. First-generation Beatle fans span a very wide age range, and so the experience varied depending on what one brought to it. I think my background in sociology and child development allowed me to see this, and it informed my analysis.

Did you find any Americans who first became fans of the Beatles before the Capitol marketed the band?

Yes, some fans knew about the Beatles by mid or late ’63. Some had pen pals in Europe or the UK who told them about this great new band. A few had a family member that travelled and brought back a record. But for the most part, America “met the Beatles” when they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964. It was the “big bang” for this generation.  Many still look back on it as one of the great determinative events of their lives. 

You do a great job of explaining how the social context changed in the 1960s for youth. One of the things you discuss is the Kennedy assassination. How do you see the relationship between its historic unfolding and the changing phenomenon of 1960s Beatles fan culture?

Kennedy displayed a wit, intelligence, and charisma unlike any other president. He was perfectly suited to the media age. After the elderly looking Eisenhower, Kennedy seemed to represent the ascendency of youth; he was about the future. But then suddenly he’s gone and the nation is mourning. Young people were especially devastated because this smart young president was going to lead the nation into the go-go, space age future.  Seventy-nine days later the Beatles come along­—also witty, intelligent, charismatic, and representing youth ascendancy.

Kennedy talked about a “New Frontier,” but the Beatles suggested a new New Frontier. And the media much preferred writing fluff pieces about the Beatles (which sold newspapers to fans hungry for those early factoids) to writing about Oswald, Ruby, and the Warren Commission. So in addition to raising the national mood, they also seemed to replace something that was lost. They empowered young people to think about the future in a new way, just as Kennedy’s Peace Corps did. Like Kennedy, the Beatles were youthful, cool, competent citizens of the world.

The seventy-nine day period between the assassination and Sullivan is an historical corridor, with the “Kennedy sixties” at one end and the “Beatles sixties” at the other.

Elvis gets quite a lot of mentions in your book. What did you find out about the numerous comparisons with him at the time?

There are four Beatles, so all else being equal, they were already four times more interesting than Elvis. Their presentation was a richer stimulus, more to look at. Beyond that, they wrote their own songs and played their own instruments. Much more DIY—again, youth empowerment and ascendancy.  The Beatles had a completely different style, communicating rebellion in a softer way. Elvis could be androgynous at times, and was certainly an innovator in many ways, but the Beatles’ androgyny presented a new paradigm for masculinity.

Though they arrived on the scene only eight years after Elvis, the media environment was significantly different. America—indeed, the world—was much more media saturated. Plus, the Beatles had a much larger potential fan base—the entire baby boom demographic.  I mention Elvis a few times to show how the Beatles’ goal of being “bigger than Elvis,” was met, but proved to be more complicated, and less appealing, because of the larger scale, their talent, the times, and who they were as people. Fans came to rely on the Beatles and they played a role in fans’ lives, because of the turbulent times, that Elvis never played. Fans looked to them for answers; or, more accurately, fans seemed to find answers, or meaning, in the Beatles work, especially from Rubber Soul on.

I was interested to see you mention the 1962 court ruling against sanctioned prayer in America as part of its changing context. Was Lennon's 'bigger than Jesus' a particular sore point in light of such secularization? Did Beatles fans say much about that?

Fans clearly recall what I refer to in Beatleness as “the Jesus kerfuffle,” and most agree with both what Lennon was trying to say in the Evening Standard interview, and with how the US media spun it.  The backlash against the Beatles, the record burnings, etc., really shows how much of a threat the Beatles were to the Establishment in 1966. There was a Time magazine cover story only a month or so before, which asked, in a bold red and black cover “Is God Dead,” and talked about the decline of religion. And of course the Supreme Court ruling on school prayer, which caused great controversy only a few years before. So certainly Lennon’s comments fed into that. What the Establishment didn’t realize was that their extreme reaction to Lennon’s comments elevated the Beatles’ cultural authority even more.

There is a lot of debate about the role of popular music in political mobilization. I was interested to read how one fan describe the Beatles, in effect, as alternative leaders, presenting a "morality and code of conduct" at a time when distrust in politicians was growing. Based on the evidence you found, how much did the group simply reflect their fans' values and how much did they shape them?

It was both. They were a half-generation or so older than most of their fans, and they were like cool older brothers or uncles who were at the cutting edge of everything, and had the means and the lifestyle to be aware of and engage in the world in ways their fans could only imagine. And so boomers looked up to them. They were authority figures. The Beatles were dismissed by the press as a fun but ultimately unimportant teen phenomenon, until Rubber Soul. That album elevated their authority in the eyes of both critics and fans. That album also marked the beginning of “close listening,” and boomers’ sense that the Beatles were not merely entertaining them, but that they were communicating to them. And what they were communicating was important and useful; there seemed to be truth in it. By the summer of ’67 they were the voice of the counterculture.

To what extent do you think Beatlemania was a rehearsal for the more radical youth movements that developed into the late 1960s?

Beatlemania was not so much a rehearsal for radical youth movements, but more of a trigger, or catalyst.  It offered a way for every young person to identify with millions of other young people, which is one of the reasons Beatle fandom was so empowering. You were part of something much bigger than yourself; a tribe of young people. You were part of this thing (Beatlemania) that everyone was talking about, and, as the media became obsessed with the generation gap, you knew you were part of that story as well. Beatle fandom empowered young people to question reality and to think about life in new ways.  But don’t forget, this was the generation that grew up with Dr. Seuss and Mad magazine. Conspiracy theories around the Kennedy assassination also fuelled distrust of authority. 

On several occasions you mention fans going to great lengths to decipher the meanings of Beatles lyrics. Why do think they did that?

As I said above, beginning with Rubber Soul, fans started hearing more sophisticated, complex, “grown up” lyrics, many of which required “work.” But fans happily did the work because the Beatles had never disappointed them. Fans trusted the Beatles and found their words useful for navigating the journey through adolescence, or from childhood to adolescence. It’s often overlooked that the majority of first-generation Beatle fans were between ages six and ten in 1964.  As the lyrics continued to evolve, often veering quite far from the usual subject matter of pop and rock, fans continued to seek meaning in them. Lennon claims to have written “I Am The Walrus” as a way of teasing fans, and alluded to the practice again in “Glass Onion.” Discussing the songs with friends was a very important part of the fan experience. It was yet another way the Beatles brought young fans together, often in mixed age groups, for challenging and engaging conversation. Serious discussion of the texts was and is central to Beatle fandom.

There is too little sympathetic research on fandom and myth or conspiracy theory. You have some interesting things to say about how fans made use of the "Paul is dead" rumour. It struck me that rather than simply being fooled by fiction, the fans that deciphered relevant clues sounded highly playful, and participated in a collective activity that was a bit like 'spoiling' plots. Can you tell us more?

The Paul is Dead hoax was a very interesting thing, to both experience at the time and to reflect on later. McCartney had been out of the public eye somewhat at that time, and there was a sense that there were rifts in the band­—which the global spectacle of John and Yoko seemed to somehow confirm. So I think there was anxiety among fans, and the speed at which the rumour travelled, going viral before going viral was a thing, was a manifestation of that. Remember, there’s nothing fans enjoyed more than talking about the Beatles, and the Paul is Dead thing provided endless hours of fresh discussion and offered even more reasons for intense album cover scrutiny, which fans were doing anyway. My explanation for the clues is that the Beatles’ provided so much rich, dense stimuli, so much text, that fans were able to find elements that fit the utterly preposterous storyline of Paul being replaced by a double in 1966.  And so those bits were repurposed into “clues.” I suppose you might call this the first fan fiction. 

Each subsequent cohort of Beatle fans stumbles upon the Paul Is Dead hoax and is fascinated by it and looks for the clues. From Rubber Soul on, there came to be something enigmatic, in a fun way, about the Beatles, and the weirdness of the story and the clues plays into that. To this day, there is still disagreement among fans about whether the Beatles were behind the hoax.

The frenzy persisted after several months of denials from Apple, so Life magazine went up to Scotland, unannounced, to track McCartney down. Paul wasn’t happy about this, but agreed to some photos and a brief interview. He clearly states in the interview that he’s done with the Beatles, but neither fans nor other press seemed to notice this—which is another interesting aspect of this case.

With Yoko, Lennon seemed to take artistic delight in exposing versions of his private life as a way, I think, to both comment on his celebrity and support political causes. How did his fans take that?

Reactions varied. In general, fans didn’t like Yoko and thought she was a bad influence on John. Fans felt supportive of Cynthia, the mother of John’s child. So in addition to encouraging him to explore different kinds of artistic expression and be an artist outside the of the Beatle box, Yoko, unlike Cynthia, didn’t conform to Western beauty standards. She didn’t look like what a Beatle woman “should” look like. 

Fans remember being sceptical about how John and Yoko’s activities like bed-ins and bags of acorns would bring about peace, but they enjoyed watching this charismatic duo as a spinoff side show to the Beatle spectacle. John and Yoko’s activities confronted fans with conceptual art for the first time. In addition, and more importantly, fans became aware that Beatle John Lennon was against the Vietnam War; that he was explicitly taking a side in a debate that was dividing families and neighbourhoods.