Louisiana, The Beatles and the shared experience of music
When I was in sixth grade, I was living in an apartment with my mom and younger brother in Baton Rouge, LA. I had never been anywhere so hot. We drove the Penske down from Indiana ourselves — by which I mean my mother did it herself, while my brother and I read books in the front seat — and stood baking under an August sun for hours after we got there, taking turns dragging boxes of our belongings up a flight of stairs.
I didn’t like Louisiana for most of the time we were there. It was the longest I’d ever been that far away from my dad, and from Indiana. I missed watching the trees change color with the seasons and disappear under layers of snow. There were no trees around the cluster of apartments where we lived; there was a long, straight road, some yellow fields on the other side of a fence, and railroad tracks close enough to drown out conversations. There were no seasons, either. The heat was made worse by the fact that my school required navy blue uniforms — another first for me.
Of course, a lot of my discomfort — in fact, probably all of it — was your typical new-kid-at-school bullshit. I was new to this at the time, so it felt like a huge deal. I didn’t have any friends, didn’t know anybody, etc. There were some changes that I thought were weird and interesting — like the fact that some of my classes were taught in trailers, and that the milk in the cafeteria came in plastic baggies instead of cartons, neither of which had been the case at my old school — and some that I found downright annoying, like the fact that I’d get into trouble if I didn’t add “ma’am” or “sir” after everything I said. Above all was probably just the fact that I was a kid, and I missed home.
So the bottom line is, going to school those first few months gave me kind of a sick feeling. The bus came at six, so I’d wake up at 5:20 in the pitch black and change into my uniform. I’d get into the passenger seat of my mom’s black Jeep, and she’d drive me to the entrance of the apartment complex, where we’d sit together and wait for the bus to come. It was too early in the morning for any real conversation. Mostly we just sat, waited and watched the sun come up together. And we listened to The Beatles.
I’d listened to The Beatles before, of course, but mostly here and there — they came up on shuffle, found their way into various mixtapes. But this was every day, this was a ritual. My mom had the 1 compilation album, the one with a red background and a patchy yellow number one on it, featuring 27 of the band’s number one hit singles from 1962 to 1970. I don’t remember how it became such a pattern; I just remember that every day, this was all I felt like listening to. More often than not, we listened to it from the beginning in order, meaning that we’d always get through the same three or four songs before the bus would come and I’d have to leave.
Even now, that’s what I think of when I think of “Love Me Do.” Even now, every time I hear the ending chord of “From Me to You,” I’m absolutely certain that the drums of “She Loves You” are about to kick in, even though it takes me a moment to remember why.
Music is something that people are passionate about, and for every person, I believe this passion can be traced back to a unique root. It comes from somewhere — it’s not just that it’s music and that it’s good, it’s that it’s a factor that often colors the way that we view our own lives. For me, the root was this: climbing onto a bus in the morning with the nonstop action of “She Loves You” still pounding in my head and in my heart, tapping my foot to the remembered chorus of “Ticket to Ride” on the way to school.
I didn’t put this all together until much later, but looking back, it all seems really simple. It’s like how I love Taylor Swift because my friend and I spent middle school constantly rocking out to her first three albums, and even though I moved twice to Florida and twice came back, the music never went anywhere. When I came back to find we had forgotten crucial parts of each other, we could put on Speak Now and bake some cookies or something, letting Swift’s lyrics become the soundtrack to us slowly finding our way back to each other. I still smile when I hear a 5 Seconds of Summer song because going to a 5 Seconds of Summer concert, even though I only knew about one and a half of their songs at the time, was the last thing I did with my friends my senior year of high school.
What’s more is that knowing this about myself helps me see it in other people, too. Once, when I was living in Florida, I went to Winter Jam with a friend of mine — not because I was Christian or knew the music, but because my friend wouldn’t stop talking about how badly she wanted me to hear TobyMac and Jason Castro. She was so excited, and I wanted to see that happiness in action, I wanted to share that with her. So I went, and we jumped up and down to Christian music for a night, and it’s still one of my favorite things I ever did with her.
With music, I think, it’s easy to get caught up in the aspects of it that are the most upfront. Who the artists are, what they look like, where they’re from. The quality of the lyrics, the genre of the music. This all makes sense, and for the most part, it is a lot of what I base my taste in music on.
So when people ask me what my favorite band is, I always say The Beatles. It’s an easy answer because it’s an accessible one, and if people ever ask me why them, I usually give an answer that’s excited, yes, but restrained. I like them because they’re classic, because they’re catchy, because they did so much for music and were so important, because they’ve got enough variety that I’m always in the mood for at least one song.
And all of this is true. But when you get right down to it, I also believe that there are a lot of bands that are classic. There are lot of bands that are catchy, that have impacted music, etc. The fact is that there aren’t a lot of bands that made me feel at home the first time I moved away from Indiana. There aren’t a lot of bands that make me feel at home, every time I hear them, even now.
When I look back on Louisiana now, I don’t look back on a time that was largely unhappy. I don’t look back on a time that was largely happy, either — it was some sort of mix of both, like every year. I did make good friends there; I also had my first experience duct-taping all of my windows and evacuating before a hurricane. I finished writing my first book, and witnessed my first cafeteria fistfights and had my first awkward relationship with a boy. I missed all of my friends and my life in Indiana, but I also ended up finding a life that I liked in Baton Rouge. When I went home the following year, I returned with a strange feeling somewhere between happiness at the thought of coming back, and a new ache at having to leave Louisiana.
Between sixth grade and my freshman year of college, I would move in total seven times, and a certain part of this feeling never really went away. But it’s a feeling I love, and it’s a feeling that, for me, has always gone along with good music. I don’t think any year of one’s life can be exclusively good or exclusively bad, and I don’t think that’s how music works, either. I can tell you whatever I want about why I love The Beatles more than any other band — I could tell you it’s because they’re a great success story, or because they’re influential. I could tell you I like Taylor Swift because she’s a talented songwriter and businesswoman, or that I like 5 Seconds of Summer because there’s something honestly exciting hidden beneath their kitschy boy-band exterior (actually, I’d be hard-pressed admitting that I like 5 Seconds of Summer to anyone, but for argument’s sake).
But ask me again someplace quieter. Someplace where I have enough space to explain myself, and where I feel like you might actually be listening. The fact is that I love music because it’s one big story that I already know I’ll never know all of. I love it because it’s tied in so inextricably with experience, and because that means it can help you learn really important things about other people. And because no masterpiece of a song by itself will ever mean quite the same thing to me as it does to sit somewhere and just listen to it, right in that place, right in that moment, with somebody.