Here’s something you might not actually know: Abbey Road is just an ordinary road. Surprising, given the notoriety of that irreverent Beatles album cover of the same name. We visited recently, and I might have expected a tourist trap of sorts: a portion of the road fenced-off, with tickets sold for something outrageous, like fifteen pounds—twenty-five dollars—per person, plus tax.
But even if that were the case, which it’s not, I think you’d feel it was worth it. You’d get some twiggy male Brit directing you to exactly what spot to stand on. You’d get imaginative, pictorial brochures in exchange for your money, giving you the road’s history, the metaphors and symbols and plenty of bizarre, captivating facts. Enough to get you to recommend the experience on-line, blog-style, or even the old-fashioned way, face-to-face; enough, anyway, to woo you back yourself.
But that’s not what you get at Abbey Road, as I came to discover. The truth was, I had no idea what to expect.
Abbey Road is in northern London, near the St. John’s Wood station and the Lord’s Cricket Ground; in other words, nowhere sexy. Easy to get to from any direction on the tube, although it’s true that I was especially adept at the underground system, which for many people is a confounding mishmash of intersecting lines. I took it seriously and fell in love with its convoluted diagramming, invented by Englishmen with a thing for trigonometry. Good for them, I thought. They know how to make travel feel brisk.
But like I said, although Abbey Road may technically be a historic landmark, tossed off in every guide to London as an iconic stopover for Beatlemaniacs, it is still just a road —in a residential neighborhood, with cars driving purposefully to and fro—maybe to work, maybe to fitness clubs, maybe to other more elegant places, like Buckingham Palace. Who knows? In any case, it is a pretty road; clean, very British, I’d say, given its modest charm: I could have walked roads like that all day, and felt myself slipping into a more appealing version of myself—someone, for example, with a greater grasp on classical aesthetics, or better yet, the ability to make music sound actually quite good.
It is, of course, the zebra crossing that draws people there. The zebra crossing made famous by the Beatles’ 1969 album “Abbey Road,” the cover of which shows the four band members walking single file across the road, as if they were school children called forth by a crossing guard in spiffy military attire. (Only George looks slightly off-balance.) As far as images go, it is neither dramatic nor creatively complex. But if you love the Beatles, you likely think the cover inspired, a tale of men you’d like to know or be, in matching stride.
I go to Abbey Road on a fabulously, unusually sunny day in March, with my husband, my two daughters, and my eighty-year-old mother-in-law. We go for my older daughter, who is only eleven but already easily lovesick. These days it’s the Beatles she loves, and she declares, on the tube ride over, that once at Abbey Road, she will get down on her hands and knees and kiss the pavement.
My mother-in-law stares at her and asks, “Have you ever done that kind of thing before?” as if she believes that if my daughter knew what that kind of thing would actually feel like, she’d curb the desire at once. But my mother-in-law is also carefree and adaptable, and if my daughter wants to kiss the pavement, she’ll most likely join her.
The reason we’re going to Abbey Road is for a photo op: my daughters, my mother-in-law and I will cross the road Beatles-style, and my husband will capture it on film.
“You should practice,” my husband says. “You have to be in sync.”
My daughters march up and down the aisle, stiff-legged, swinging their arms.
“Did you know,” my older daughter says, taking a breather, “that the white bug—you know, the car in the picture—is in a museum?”
“I didn’t know,” I say.
“I didn’t know,” my husband says.
“I know nothing,” my mother-in-law says cheerfully.
My daughters continue marching until the tube slows down for a stop and they fall on top of each other, laughing wildly.
I wonder if most Londoners have put the Beatles to rest, so to speak, and if it is generally foreign tourists who make the trek to the suburbs to check out a zebra crossing. I wonder how many people will be there, if we’ll be the only ones. My daughter’s favorite album (as of this writing) is Revolver, but Abbey Road has what she calls the most “brilliant” transition in a medley: between the songs “Polythene Pam” and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.” How she came to know about transitions I have no idea.
She is still just a little girl.
She disentangles herself from her sister. “Paul made drawings of the cover before they photographed them,” she tells us.
“How do you know all this?” my mother-in-law says.
* * *
My daughter—short-haired and anti-girly; earnest but shyly goofy—has five magazines exclusively about the Beatles that she takes to school in her backpack every day. She shares them with her friends at snack-time, quizzing them on Beatles trivia, although they, as of yet, barely know who’s who. She tells them she’ll award them points for every song they can come up with that she doesn’t recognize. They remain stuck at zero, notwithstanding the determination of their efforts—they use Google to find songs the Beatles were performing in Hamburg in 1960, all of which my daughter proudly, mystifyingly knows. She brings, as well, a tin lunchbox in the shape of a submarine, brightly yellow, and wears a red t-shirt that reads, simply: John, Paul, George, Ringo in black, square letters. I take note of the hierarchy: standard, obvious—always John first, the cynical, cerebral leader, and poor Ringo, that pint-sized, grizzly-looking homely man, always dead last.
Take the obvious. My daughter is obsessed. Quite literally so, such that her devotion is more like a full-blown love, with all the thrilling, consummate yearning that that entails. I think of the girls witness to the first time the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show and wonder if even they were as entangled in such busy, prodigious emotion. She acts less like a young person with a first boyfriend than someone who has just discovered the vast, dreamy potentials of an enduring romantic life. It is a love she feels physically, theatrically. She literally shudders with elation. People are always a bit surprised by her emotion, it being 2014, after all, not 1964. She knows nothing of popular contemporary singers for pre-teens like Taylor Swift—her name perhaps, her “bright red lips,” but not her music—and seems unfazed by, or rather unaware of her social weirdness. My husband and I worry that she is alienating her friends—“who was ‘Hey Jude’ written about and by who?” she asks them, as if the song itself were overtly familiar to them—and we warn her gently that perhaps she should talk about stuff her friends know something about.
“They’re fine,” she tells us calmly, her lovely, dimpled face defeating us with its charitable stillness. “They like learning.”
She came to the Beatles through the song “Blackbird,” written and sung by Paul McCartney. From there, the flood—assaultive and all-at-once—had her almost immediately drowning. She has declared them The Greatest Band in the World, Ever. She has no specific favorite, as she hates to hurt anyone’s feelings. I want to remind her that they—John, Paul, George, or Ringo—would never actually know, but it is exactly the way she has grown up treating her stuffed animals—rotating, for the sake of fairness, who gets to sleep with her each night—even though, I might have tried pointing out, they are not actually alive.
The Beatles are for me no less the ideal of passion. Personally, I adore Paul the most—I once had a parakeet I named McCartney—but all four do it for me, and I tell my daughter how each had his brilliant impact, not to mention attractively unfussy facial hair.
My daughter asks me if I was alive during the years the Beatles ruled the world. That’s how she puts it—ruled the world—and I realize that she is not being hyperbolic. The Beatles then were indispensable, beloved. Everything they did made people fall down in worship. John Lennon wasn’t far off when he said, with disastrous results, that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. I missed the whole thing. My dad listened to them, stacked their albums upright against the speakers. He was a high school English teacher. One year the school’s female a cappella group got up on stage in assembly and serenaded him with “I Will”. My father had his followers, too, and if kids were going to show their devotion to him, it was going to be the Beatles that helped them do it.
Now it is fifty years later. My daughter cuts out a picture of the mop-haired days of the Beatles from her Time Kids magazine, of them in concert fifty years ago to the day, with its headline: We Loved You, Yeah Yeah Yeah! Across the picture’s bottom, she writes: Adelaide Loves You Still! I begin to understand how an aspect of her love is competitive, setting her against the rest of the so-called Beatlemaniacs, past and present. It’s not exactly that she wants to be their #1 fan; she simply sees her loyalty as something to be celebrated. And it should be celebrated, I think: how many besides her know how to beat the world at its own game, this game of spurious devotion and fraudulent expectations?
She has the purest of hearts, I think.
* * *
A number of times, my daughter says that her biggest dream is for Paul and Ringo to be at Abbey Road when we get there. I don’t tell her how big a crowd would gather in that event, too big and tumultuous to get close. I’d love to get their autographs for her; we would frame and hang them, and she could name all her pets after them, or at least her stuffed animals. I haven’t had much luck with celebrities—at the age of fourteen, I wrote Michael Jackson a lonely and startlingly sincere sixteen-page letter he never replied to—and frankly, used to care about them a lot more than I do now. My mother read People magazine with envious fascination, so I did, too; since she died, I can’t stand to look at it.
The crowd at Abbey Road is not big, but it is a crowd, amazingly enough. I count at least thirty people, congregated on one side of the zebra crossing or the other, in small, mellow groups of four or five. No one is in charge. No one is asking for money. The traffic is so continuous and brisk that no one dares step off the curb.
It makes no difference. Everyone standing there is happy, truly thrilled, anticipating god-knows-what.
Adelaide takes off her socks and shoes. She wants to play Paul McCartney, who is barefoot in the picture, as well as carrying a cigarette. His arm is relaxed; she dangles hers in imitation. She has a stubbed pencil for her cigarette. She pushes her hair forward to give herself more of a messy bang. She’s a glossy tow-head, but there’s nothing she can do about that.
“Who am I?” I say.
“I’m Ringo!” my nine year old, Olive, declares. Ringo is her favorite—for no reason I can fathom. I decide she is attracted to his goofy, carefree sense of inadequacy—he was the funniest Beatle, like a deliberately wacky cartoon character with a distorted body and too-large head.
“I’ll be George,” I decide. Who doesn’t like George? He was so mild-mannered and earnest that even if he didn’t blow you away with his poetic gifts, he impressed you as the good citizen-type. I like moral, responsible people.
“That means Mimi gets to be John,” Adelaide says. Mimi—my mother-in-law—smiles amenably and asks what she’s supposed to do.
“You’re first in line,” Adelaide tells her. “You get to lead the way.”
Mimi still looks mystified but is clearly ready to do as she’s told. She has a softly creased face that is still beautiful but too poised and shrewd to look grandmotherly; it is her willingness to participate in all types of situations that makes her seem ageless, genuinely blooming with good will.
My younger daughter is wearing a t-shirt with the Abbey Road album cover on it. I point out John to my mother-in-law: he has long, thick hair as well-coiffed and shapely as a doll’s and a full, bohemian beard and is dressed all in white, down to the shoes. She makes a face, slightly aghast.
“He’s a hairy dude,” I say.
“I like his white suit,” she says, and we both nod in agreement as if she really means it.
Four women next to us on the sidewalk are also preparing themselves. They look to be in their twenties and, by the sound of it, are Italian.
“South American,” my husband says later, with a teasing chuckle. “You’re a little off as far as continent, accent, and dialect go.”
One of the women—the ring-leader—has taken off her socks and shoes like Adelaide and is directing her friends to stand in a row, pulling on their shoulders and positioning them dogmatically. One slips out of line and crouches in front of Olive, pressing a pink-manicured finger to her chest. Olive stares at it cross-eyed.
“I don’t like Beatles like my friends like,” the woman says, addressing all of us. She smiles ruefully. “Who are they? Who will I be?” The woman—barely an adult, I’m thinking, still just a girl—touches each Beatle on Olive’s shirt and ends up smoothing the tip of her finger against John Lennon’s hair.
“I’m liking this one,” she says.
“That’s John Lennon,” says Olive. “He wrote my favorite song, ‘Help’.”
“And he died,” says the girl/woman sourly. “They told me.” She points to her friends and shakes her head as if they should not be forgiven. My girls know that John Lennon was murdered on the sidewalk outside of his home—I told them one day when discussing the Beatles’ personal lives, their marriages and divorces and dead wives and bitter wives—should I not be forgiven? They are, after all, only eleven and nine.
“Yup,” says Olive regretfully. “He was shot.” I look at her: she doesn’t strike me as permanently scarred. But death, for her, is not a scary, traumatic outcome—she reads the Harry Potter books over and over and thinks of the number of characters who die as pieces of necessary narrative business.
The woman looks too melancholy to speak. Her friends call her. She turns to look at them, turns back, and speaks to Olive only: “Too sad to be him. I be Ringo instead.”
Olive squeals. “Me, too!”
Adelaide wants us to get ready. I watch a group of Asian men line themselves up in correct Beatles order and dart into the road. They stop in the middle of the crossing and position themselves according to the stance of each Beatle, a mix of casual and egotistical. A car honks viciously and drives around them. They dart to the other side.
Now it’s the women’s turn. They are talking loudly, arguing it seems about who gets to be George Harrison. George Harrison is last in line, dressed head to toe in denim—the most strikingly bohemian. I can’t tell if he is the popular choice or the reject.
The ring-leader pushes them again into order, and they wait, watching the cars. The ring-leader yells something I assume to mean “now” because suddenly they are sprinting into the middle of the road and skidding to a stop with military precision; they can’t spare a second. They take position, legs astride. They seem to be walking even as they aren’t moving a muscle; it is like the illusion of cinematic magic. The Beatles are there! We all see it—and are enthralled by it. Adelaide edges closer and whispers, “John. Ringo. Paul. George,” counting off her heroes with a breathless joy.
A car slams on its brakes. Its driver rolls down the window and swears viciously, temperamentally, like he wishes they were all dead. The four women scurry off stage, giggling apprehensively. The driver presses on the accelerator. He gives them the finger.
My daughters stare at this gesture as if personally affronted.
“Some people are just mean,” says Adelaide with finality. She raises one fist. “I am Paul!” I don’t dare tell her that she looks nothing like him, except maybe the eyes, which are brown and baby-creased.
“Our turn,” she says, and steers Mimi to the edge of the sidewalk.
There is no wondering anymore if I make sense as a Beatle—I am one, and as much as George Harrison may seem as far from my identity as a person can be, his life-soul and my own merge into a natural, albeit hazy co-existence . . . Will I ever know what it is like to be so massively gifted?
I softly sing the lyrics to “This Boy”.
“That’s not a George Harrison song,” Adelaide tells me. “John Lennon sang that.”
“It’s the only song I know all the words to,” I say.
Mimi stumbles into the road.
“There goes John,” I say.
Adelaide pushes Olive. “It’s time!” They stumble after, and I step off the curb last with ramrod legs and ideal posture. My husband is several yards away, on the other side of the road where the sidewalk forms a hillock—all the photographers are gathered there, shouting commands as they snap.
“Keep your eyes on the prize,” he yells, a dubious attempt, I suppose, to keep us in character.
We don’t look at him but stare across the road, our strides off-kilter and Mimi too many steps ahead, but I can tell from the indifferent dangle of Adelaide’s faux cigarette that she is at one with Paul—though unlike his actual feelings in the actual moment, perhaps, her exuberance is at its peak.
Am I imagining it or has traffic come to a standstill? Has time come to a standstill? Are the four of us in such perfect sync with the hip aesthetic vision of four decades ago that all else in the world has quieted long enough to give us this moment of unequivocal connection?
Or are we about to get run over?
“Get out of the road,” my husband yells, and lifts his camera to show he’s gotten what he wanted.
Indeed, there is a long line of cars to our left, one of which lets out a grotesquely loud honk, a nefarious sound that makes my heart race. We scurry to the sidewalk like reprimanded children, and the cars pound past with unrequited urgency.
“Phew,” says Mimi.
Adelaide smiles knowingly. She flips the pencil to her mouth and takes an imaginary puff.
“That was the greatest moment of my life,” she says. “Let’s do it again.”