Growing up, my dad hated The Beatles. Then again, my dad also hated being a dad and basically opted out of that role. Let it be, as Paul would say. But when you’re a kid with that kind of emotional absence plenty of surrogate dads step in. These men seem to sense their loving expertise is desperately needed; teen girls, for all our haughty skepticism need earnest devotion like we need air. So, my Beatles dad was my choir teacher, a lowkey musical genius named Dana Libonati who, for some reason, taught choir in my tiny hometown of McMinnville, Oregon. Before I met Rob Sheffield I was positive no one on the planet loved The Beatles more than Dana (I’m not being disrespectful, he insisted we call him by his first name).
I mentioned he was a musical genius? Dana used to create his own personal arrangements of Beatles songs designed for four or five parts so my choir could sing them. We did “Gotta Get You Into My Life.” “Can’t Buy Me Love.” “In My Life.” So many more. He would sit behind the piano, charging through the chords on accompaniment while simultaneously directing us, furiously flipping pages and either scowling when we missed our parts (it was often the first sopranos, my section, falling short) or glowing when the five-part chord hit like pure glory.
To hear The Beatles, sung back by our voices, was his favorite thing in the world, I think. At the time I thought it was funny to me how much he cared, I couldn’t understand it. Now I recognize it for what it really was: Love. My love story with The Beatles begins with Dana, was built upon the fierce love he harbored for the band, but I’d all but forgotten that gift he gave me until Rob Sheffield asked me to recount it for him, When did I meet The Beatles?
Sheffield’s book on the band, Dreaming The Beatles, came out last year to the kind of critical acclaim that most authors can only fantasize about. For Rob, this undivided praise is starting to become routine. Except it isn’t. Even after two decades plus of writing enthusiastically, sweetly, sagely, and fervently about music, there is no toppermost (Beatles joke, sorry) moment where Sheffield taps out. Sheffield’s adoration for The Beatles is matched only by his twinkling prose. He is laughing along with their silliness, held captive by their intimate tensions, utterly blown away by their creative escapades. When reading, so are you.
To crack open Dreaming The Beatles is less an exercise in reading than it is strapping into a carnival ride, full of highs and lows, bright lights, impossible emotions, and the head-over-heels kind of love only temporary bliss can breed. It’s thrilling to participate in a piece of writing that is so meticulously and lovingly constructed, it’s devastating to realize how short this band’s time together was, and it’s astonishing to see how deep and wide their legend endures. This book is not so much a book but a love story, one that even the most derisive Beatles denier will want to be a part of by the end.
This love story was just too good to leave it at that. Though the book came out in 2017, it’s getting a paperback reprint for this year that’s officially in stores and on sale today. The new paperback version of the book includes an additional chapter, a postlude devotional on “Hey Jude” — a personal favorite track of mine — and for the occasion I seized the opportunity to talk with Sheffield about The Beatles, particularly the band’s relationship to women, how to tell if you’re a John or a Paul, and what it means to participate in one of the greatest love stories ever told.
Starting off, I wanted to note that you’ve written several incredibly beloved books, and I wanted to ask you, when does an idea sort of move from long form essay, or feature territory into, “Okay this is a book,” territory? Particularly with this one because it’s clearly been a lifelong love affair, so I’m wondering when the germ of the idea to write the book came into fruition?
I guess because it’s something that I have written about all the time, and have wanted to write about all the time, and really just wanted to understand better. I think with pretty much all my books I’ve written them because there was something that I wanted to understand better. I don’t think any of my books ever found the secret that I was looking for. I don’t really write books where I figure something out and explain it for you.
This was a book where I just had this question that I keep coming back to, which is: “What is it about The Beatles that makes them so immortal? Why are The Beatles more popular, not even more popular than they were when they existed, but more popular than ever? And what makes them the world’s favorite thing?” So for me, it was just the thing of just lifelong love and fascination with this music, but just sort of ongoing shock and joy at the fact that it just keeps expanding.