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Heartbreak at Abbey Road

Standing at Abbey Road does create a slight connection to that moment fifty years ago, but it also demonstrates Time’s power to wall us off from history.

Ten years ago, I signed onto Beatlemania.  I was 40 at the time browsing the aisles at a nearby Best Buy when I spotted the Beatles CD’s on display in the music section.  If you recall, 2009 was the year of the great re-release.  At the time, streaming services were unheard of (at least by middle-agers such as me), and vinyl hadn’t quite become the en vogue pastime that it is now.  I don’t remember what thoughts accompanied my impulse to buy that first disc, but I do remember running my index finger along the bright yellow top of Magical Mystery Tour, flipping it over in my hand, and taking it with me to the register.

What a difference a couple of decades make.  Some 22 years earlier, while cruising my hometown as a high school senior, two buddies popped a Beatles cassette into their stereo.  I was unimpressed at the time.  I thought the Beatles “sounded old.”  I couldn’t get past that hollowed-out, tin-pan sound which I thought of when I heard any recorded music from either the 50’s or the 60’s.

But that teenager who ignored lyricism for the sake of 80’s synthesizers was, in 2009, an English teacher who had just finished a master’s degree heavy on Yeats.  Instead of the late 80’s, Mystery Tour  sent my thoughts to 1967, when my then high school-aged parents heard it all for the first time.  In three-and-a-half minute bursts, I felt what it was like to be them.

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Building My Library

For the next six months I patiently waited for each paycheck and gradually bought one album after another.  Rubber Soul was next.  Let It Be followed.  By the time I had dumped them onto my iPod, I had taken the Beatles to bed with me—sleeping with my earbuds jammed into my head like a 15-year-old.  I spent hours that spring and summer sitting on my back patio absorbing the sunlight and listening that steady mixture of John morose sorrow paired with Paul’s effusive hope.

Today, my classroom proudly sports an enormous 5’x7’ Abbey Road poster hanging near the whiteboard.  At home, an Abbey Road blanket covers the couch seat in my den, and yet another poster displaying the famous crosswalk adorns the wall beside my office desk.  I won’t pretend that I am the Beatles’ greatest fan.  But I will say that they entered my life at time when I needed good art in the worst way.

The Last Leg of Our Trip

After we arrived in London for the last leg of our trip to Europe, I left Heathrow a different person.  Six days in Sweden had changed me.  Profoundly so.  But as I trod each stone in Stockholm and all the corners of Gothenburg, Abbey Road always sat at the top of my mind.  After staring at those white lines in that English pavement for the last decade, I was finally going to stand on them for real.

As soon as we had reached the famous crosswalk, however, I wished I had never come.  This wasn’t the first time I felt this sort of disappointment.  It had struck me during an almost identical sort of pilgrimage.  When I walked the paths at Walden Pond two years before, I was flooded with an intense grief.  The despair of seeing a place I held sacred reduced to a wading pond for a bunch of fat, bloated, pasty-white New England hillbillies and their screaming children crushed me.  By contrast, Abbey Road’s carnival of human indulgence was more international in nature, but it had the same effect on me.

Standing by the curb I watched, wincing, as one family repeatedly stepped onto those famous white stripes.  Each trip across was punctuated by a caricatured spread-eagled pose: left leg as far out in front as possible, their boot heels jammed into the pavement.  Right leg splaying just as far to the rear, the flats of their toes suspending their weight.  One arm (sometimes the correct one, just as often not) stuck out forward, perpendicular to the street, all five-digit flexed as wide open as possible.  The other arm flailing behind at roughly 45 degrees.

The first shot didn’t look right…apparently.  Neither did the second, or the third, or the fifth.  By about the seventh try, they huddled around their friend’s camera (that loyal, faithful Annie Leibovitz among them who took shot after shot after shot) and nodded in approval.  Meanwhile, as the photo-shoot unfolded, traffic sputtered through, often backing up some six or seven vehicles at a time.

“I’d like to get to work,” one driver said, half leaning out of the side window of his lorry.  “But I can’t because of all these fucking people!”

His anger was real.  Palpable.  The more I soaked in the frustration among the drivers and the ordinary pedestrians just trying to get past the chaos and go on with their day, the more I found myself less a pilgrim than an invader.

Shared Experience in Different Ways

And then my attention turned back to all those “pilgrims.”  Watching that initial family make their sixth and seventh forays across the stripes—hell-bent on getting that perfect shot, I couldn’t help but wonder: who among these folks really appreciates what actually happened here?

You can look at the Abbey Road album cover as the bit of pop-culture art that it is, something as iconic as the Star Wars logo or the image of Count Chocula.  But when I look at that photo, I see one of the final happy moments taking place during the slow, painful death of the world’s greatest friendship.  Research the Beatles’ biographical history, and you’ll find out quickly enough that by 1969, the band was kaput.  Going through all the idiosyncratic, paradoxical juxtapositions that dying relationships endure.

By the time the Fab Four walked across that street, they’d had enough of each other.  Yet, they had also bound themselves to each other in ways that they never would with anyone else in the world.

In a way, everyone crossing Abbey Road on that frigid October morning were like the Beatles: family and friends who had gone through their own bitter feuds and travails.  But few of us have lived out our lives in a fishbowl as clear and as vast.  Our privacy, our intimacy, allows us the sort of emotional and intellectual wiggle-room that those four never had.

Whiffs of the Past

Going to Abbey Road was always about more than striking the same pose that everyone else does.  For me it meant standing on that hallowed ground and feeling John Lennon’s hollow pain in “Nowhere Man.”  It meant feeling the suffocating love in George Harrison’s “Someone.”  It meant tapping into Paul McCartney’s aching desire to continue being a Beatle, to find a way to get all the boys back to the way things were.

But things were never going to be the way they were.  Things never stay the same, no matter how much we want them to.  And maybe that’s the reason we cling to history (especially cultural history) with such fervor.  In the lives of our artists we see the lives of the people we love, lives captured in a precise moment in time.  Life is, after all, much like Keats’ once suggested—long periods of mundanity spent dwelling on those fleeting moments of joy.  The Beatles were together for such a small window in history, and the time they spent actually getting along and enjoying the ride was a fraction of that.

Some might argue that the beauty of Abbey Road (which I suppose applies to Walden Pond as well) is that it’s a living monument.  Still in use by the regular folk.  Still repaved and repainted by London’s street department.  If anything, coating the intersection in amber and enshrining it as museum would take something away from it—would ruin it somehow.

I didn’t want to admit it at the time, but in retrospect I think they were right.  Seeing all those folks make their goofy poses annoyed me…sure.  But they were there, nonetheless.  It mattered enough to people that they showed up and ground traffic to a halt just so they could tell their friends that they too had traveled to rock-and-roll’s great Mecca.

At my fiancée’s insistence, I finally crossed.  I didn’t “assume the position,” so to speak.  I walked across with my own stride.  I scowled in one photo.  Forced a smile in the second.  A part of me regrets that I didn’t cut loose and have fun with the crossing, but I think most of me would have regretted it more if I had.

About Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He also contributes to the craft beer website Indiana on Tap and writes for other publications. He started learning to play guitar last fall, but he remains terrible at it.

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