(Paul) I feel a song coming on.
(John) Well fight it off!
The Beatles’ third theatrical film, the playfully sublime YELLOW SUBMARINE, is now up for its 50th Anniversary. (Is it just me, or did that half-century go by fast?) I had just turned thirteen back then, and an older cousin offered to take me to the movie premiere at Cinema 1 on Huntington Ave in Boston. Cousin Kenny was always trying to push me into the kaleidoscopic rainbow fireworks that were then engulfing pop culture in the late 60s, because he knew the slightly repressive regime I lived under at home.
My parents were strict fundamentalist Christians, (which of course, is not in and of itself, a bad thing); but it did mean that, for me personally, all of the touchstones of the Fab Four’s incandescent soft parade passed me by. THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW, A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, the triumphant triple-crown of music changing LPs – RUBBER SOUL, REVOLVER, SGT. PEPPER – I missed them all. One Beatle-related incident that I was familiar with – and which made screaming headlines in my household – was John Lennon’s assertion that his group was bigger than JESUS IN THE SKY WITH DIAMONDS! (My parents and their circle talked about nothing else for weeks.)
And this is what they immediately pounced on again, when Ken brought up going to see YELLOW SUBMARINE with me. JOHN-LENNON-IS-EVIL-NEVER-FORGET-WHAT-HE-SAID-ALL-GOOD-CHRISTIANS-SHOULD-BURN-BEATLE-RECORDS-MARK-MY-WORDS-ITS-THE-LAST-DAYS-ITS-THE-LAST-DAYS! and on and on. But I remember Cousin Kenny being very calm, looking them in the eye and saying softly, “Listen, John apologized on TV for what he said. We all make mistakes. You guys believe in forgiveness, right? And John has gone so far as to make amends by creating this wonderful cartoon for the kids.” (At that point, he tousled my hair.) “It’s for the children… for the children.”
Somehow they bought it – and we were off and away. While driving into Boston, Ken continued to ruminate on the theme of the rock star vs. religion. “I don’t really understand what the big deal was about the Jesus/John thing. Jesus has been around for 2,000 years. When John said that, he had only been around four years. If people are still talking about John in the year 4000, than maybe Christianity will have something to worry about!”
Hilariously enough, when we arrived at Cinema 1, I saw a plethora of John Lennon doppelgängers – each looking more Christ-like than the previous one. But that soon faded into the background, as I was totally entranced by the sheer colorful varieties of Beatle people gathered for the festive occasion. Men in djellabas and caftans mixing with women in antique paisley gowns and purple-tinted granny glasses. There were teenage girls in micro-mini skirts dripping all kinds of psychedelic chic while being surrounded by a seemingly endless horde of young boys – loud kids in KEDS, jeans and BATMAN and MONKEES t-shirts running in and out of the crowd, clutching Beatle souvenirs, and jamming their mouths with Cherry Sours and Screaming Yellow Zonkers.
It was definitely a rock and roll cinematic phantasmagoria that night. HELP! and YELLOW SUBMARINE played on one side of Cinema 1; Dylan’s gypsy-renegade British tour documentary DON’T LOOK BACK and MONTERREY POP were presented on the other screen. I bought a Grape Crush, and we settled in for an evening of big-screen Beatlemania. During the wait, the intermission and on the drive back, Kenny kept up a running monologue on the MopTops, and gave me an instant crash-course in all things Beatles. He told me that in 1964 in Florida, they refused to play unless the black kids way in the back got to come down and see and hear with everybody else. He mentioned some Paul-Is-Dead clues. (“Read KING LEAR. That will explain a lot. Parts of KING LEAR is at the end of ‘I Am the Walrus’” …And I must say, that Cousin Kenny is responsible for my having read all of Shakespeare before I was twenty-one!)
And then he started talking about The King: “Elvis made the same film about thirty straight times. The Beatles hated that. They wanted to make every movie different. So, A HARD DAY’S NIGHT was in black-and-white and took place mostly in London. HELP! is in color and went to the Alps and the Bahamas. And…”
“And YELLOW SUBMARINE is a great freaking cartoon!” I interrupted. (And two years later, the Beatles’ swan song film would be their breakup docudrama, LET IT BE. Even at the end, they were still pushing forward into unknown rock-band silver-screen territory.)
And so, I became a voracious Beatle-freak from that moment on. I kept it from my parents as best I could—not always successfully. But there was always Cousin Kenny. He and I have had a running Beatle-dialogue for decades. He called me recently from P-Town. “Did you see Paul at the March for Our Lives gun control rally in New York? He’s still out there fighting the Blue Meanies! He was talking about John. It was great and sad at the same time.”
So see YELLOW SUBMARINE for the swirling colors, the inspired music, the brilliant spoken words (GEORGE: Want a bite of my cotton candy? RINGO: Nah, disappears when you eat it. Melts before you ever taste it.), and the bad Liverpool accents – which are actually not the Beatles’ own voices (spoiler alert!). And also see it for the nostalgic rush, the embracing of a time when one of America’s most horrific wars could be taken on (and for 90 minutes at least), could be remembered and reflected upon in an alternate universe where battles are fought with apples and music and not things like Agent Orange and napalm.
YELLOW SUBMARINE. See it. Love it. And remember what Paul’s Grandfather said in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT: “Watch your brisket.”