Before seven-year-old Sam Smith discovered The Beatles, he and his father Peter had little in common. But the band that debuted in the 1960s, opened a path to a harmonious new friendship between the young boy and his dad.
Father and son found themselves using the band's songs and exploits to fuel discussions of life's splendid complications, discussions that included friendship, teamwork, romance and art. They also discovered life's inevitable sorrows -- failure, betrayal and mortality.
Peter Smith, author and father, stopped by The Saturday Early Show to talk about his new book, "Two of Us: The Story of a Father, a Son and the Beatles," that chronicles the impact the band has had on his relationship with his son.
Smith says he came to realize that his young son, Sam, was drifting away from him and discovered, through one of Sam's homework assignments that he missed his dad when he spent so much time at work, and longed for more time with him. That realization led to Smith's looking for ways to develop a closer bond with his 7-year-old boy.
Here are excerpts from a discussion we had with Peter Smith before his appearance on our show:
Why did you decide to introduce your children to the Beatles?
Well, I was never a jock, and neither is my son. So playing catch with my son was not in the cards. But we needed to find a topic over which we could start talking. Every father-son memoir had as its focus a bonding through little league or soccer -[there] never seemed to be anything cultural.
And I was getting really tired of songs about ducks and barley and peanut butter sandwiches - all those silly kids songs. My wife and I decided we needed to find all something we all can listen to. So growing up a Beatles fan, just like my wife, we figured we could play some Beatles music and see if any of them caught on to it. And my son was pretty much hooked right away. The music of the Beatles wasn't completely free of drug and sex references, but they were less obvious than the lyrics of some of the other bands, like the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin. Plus, with all the current music being put out these days, none of it can compare to the music of the Beatles.
Also an interesting thing about [the Beatles] is that their music is so visual and stimulates the mind. The music is almost cartoonish - references to animals, and strong visual images, like strawberry fields. And each member of the band took on their own cartoonish identity.
Why do you think Sam got so into the Beatles?
He must have seen in me an excitement - here was something I still liked, something I knew a lot about, something passionate in my life. I told him how I introduced my dad to the Beatles when I was a little boy, and how I was able to connect to him through their music. And now I was introducing my little boy to the Beatles. I would tell him about my childhood.
Did you sense a change in Sam as he became more and more into the Beatles?
Definitely. At first he'd want me by his side when he listened to the Beatles - it was a little scary for him. Lennon was scary.
He wanted me to explain things to him. For example, he must have listened to "All Things Must Pass" about 500 times, and then turned to me one day and asked, "What does all things must pass mean?" So we would talk about death. George Harrison was his favorite Beatle, and when Harrison passed away, he was upset. But I would explain to him that dying is a part of living. The music and the lyrics would lead into long conversations about the things that really matter. We'd talk about work - and I'd tell him that although the Beatles were extremely famous and rich and talented, they had to work really, really hard for it, teaching him that success is back breaking, and doesn't happen by accident. And when he learned about the breakup of the band, it upset him, because he thought, "If the Beatles can break up - they were like a family - so can my parents." So that would lead to a long conversation about relationships and family.
Sam was also obsessed with making lists, and he'd memorize Beatles trivia books. After a while, he knew far more about the band than I did, and ended up teaching me a lot about them!
The book's climax - your trip with Sam to London and Liverpool - was sort of anti-climactic. You had a sense that Sam was no longer interested in the Beatles and Liverpool was kind of disappointing.
The trip was so anti-climactic! Liverpool is a struggling city and when we got there, all the sites were pretty bland. You create these incredible images in your head of what Penny Lane looks like and Strawberry Field looks like, and you're sort of let down when you see them in person. But to me, that's art at its best because the Beatles were able to make you believe through their music that these places were magical and beautiful. It was someone's imagination. It was a beautiful creation. Thats what artists do.
Were you worried that since Sam's interest in the Beatles was fading that your relationship with him would suffer?
A little bit. But we had so much fun on our trip talking about anything and everything, being two guys on vacation together, drinking coffee, just hanging out that the Beatles became an afterthought. Our relationship didn't fall apart because Sam was no longer a Beatlemaniac. I realized I no longer needed the Beatles as a focal point that created conversation, which was the best feeling.
Is Sam still crazy about the Beatles?
His interest level has definitely drifted away as he's gotten older. Occasionally he listens to the Beatles, and will still play their songs on the piano. Now he's more into bands like the Strokes, the White Stripes.
The Beatles are your entryway, your first tape. His love of the Beatles made him ready for what's happening now. I'm satisfied that I was able to introduce him to the best music ever created and he's a better music fan being a Beatles fan.
About the author: Peter Smith is a contributing editor for "O, The Oprah Magazine" and has written for The New Yorker, the New York Times, Travel and Leisure, and Harper's Bazaar. He has also written three novels, most recently "A Good Family." He lives in Northhampton, Massachusetts with his wife and three children.
Read an excerpt of "Two of Us":
Meet the Beatles
My son - handsome, kind, tall for his age, with a stickler's way of talking and a supernatural memory for raw data - was in the grip of his first-ever love affair. Not with his homeroom teacher. Not with the little dark-haired girl down the block. It wasn't a crush; crushes flowered in private, then wilted.
It was less creepy, surer-footed than any obsession. Nor was it exclusive - other kids, I knew, shared his preoccupation. No, more than three decades after their 1970 liquidation, Sam had fallen in love with the Beatles, a band that had burned out less than a decade after its founding, that had released only ten hours of music. In retrospect, it was easy to see why Sam's seven-year-old mind had locked onto the Beatles franchise, with its boyhood friendships and grownup squabbles, its rivalries, love affairs, submarines, octopuses, silver hammers, newspaper taxis, piggies, raccoons, meter maids, bulldogs, and shadowy Paul-is-dead clues.
Making lists - compiling and comparing by letter and category a little slice of the world - has always seemed to me an especially male preoccupation. The uninterrupted dream that is the Beatles universe lends itself to endless poring over and mapping out. For Sam, it served as a way to bring coherence to something elusive and overwhelming: music, and how it made him feel; and life, as he was starting to understand what it gives and grabs away from you.
Nowhere were the Beatles more obsessively alive than in Sam's conversation, beginning first thing most weekday mornings and ending at eight or nine at night. At around 7 a.m., he would pad into our bedroom, wrap himself in a blanket, and lie stiffly breathing at the end of the bed, patiently rehearsing and rearranging various lyrics, characters, and VH1 Behind the Music storylines in his head. Then finally, it came out:
"Dad - did you know what Paul called 'Yesterday' when he was writing it?"
"No, I'm not sure," I said, still half asleep.
"'Scrambled Eggs.' He wrote it with the words, 'Scrambled eggs / Oh, baby, how I love your legs.' Then he changed the title to 'Yesterday' later on."
"Wow. I'm not sure 'Scrambled Eggs' would've worked out."
"Why would somebody love somebody else's legs?"
"It . . . happens."
Just as I was drifting back to sleep, the voice would blurt again:
"Uh-huh . . . ?"
"You know John and Paul?"
"Uh-huh . . . ?"
"How many songs do you think Paul wrote, and how many songs do you think John wrote-of all the songs the Beatles sang in all?"
"I don't know. Paul wrote thirty and John wrote thirty-five."
Or the other way around. Or not.
"Dad, you're wrong."
A note of small-town-parade triumph in his voice. "Paul wrote eighty-four point five-five percent of the Beatles songs. John wrote seventy-three point six-five percent."
"George wrote twenty-two point one-five percent."
"Poor George. Third place again."
"How do you mean?"
"I just mean that sometimes the other Beatles weren't all that nice to George."
"Age difference, mostly."
George was younger than the others, I reminded him, nearly two years younger than John. And George had worshipped John back when the boys were teenagers in Liverpool, even trying to tag along when John went on dates.
"Remember, all four of them grew up together, and when that happens, you get caught up in certain roles. No matter how old you get-I bet you'll see this someday with your own sisters- you don't ever forget who's older and who's the baby."
Sam had two sisters, ages six and four.
"Your roles in your family don't really change over time, even if you've changed. And the Beatles were kind of a family."
Already there were lessons Sam had picked up from the band. Things I could teach him, or my wife, Maggie, could, using the Beatles as real-life characters, stand-ins for guys everywhere. But in the end, he would teach us more than we could ever teach him: names, dates, working song titles, even the Liverpool bus routes Paul and George took as adolescents.
An excellent though reluctant piano student, Sam's ears picked up little things in Beatles songs that my own ears trampled and crushed-a near-imperceptible rattling at the end of "Long, Long, Long," caused, Sam told me, by a half-drunk bottle of wine vibrating atop the Leslie speaker in the Abbey Road studios ("Blue Nun," he clarified); the swirling, geyserlike sound effects in "Yellow Submarine" deriving from John blowing bubbles through a straw while George swished water around in a bucket; the barely audible percussion in "Lovely Rita" caused by the Beatles dragging metal hair combs through sheets of toilet paper; the symphonic crescendo that caps off "A Day in the Life" culminating on the chord of E major.
I knew none of these things. Eventually Sam would roll off the bed, and a few minutes later from his bedroom, I'd hear the opening strains of "Taxman," the genial hook of "We Can Work It Out," or John Lennon's elegantly acid vocal from "A Day in the Life." It was like being sawed awake, and for the umpteenth time since this had all started, I experienced a few tormented moments of self-doubt: This was our fault, wasn't it? And it was OK, right? "Could you turn that down a bit?" I'd yell, coming into his room to help him mobilize. As he dressed for school, Sam casually explained to me that Paul McCartney had written "Getting Better" during a walk in the park with his sheepdog, Martha, and that John Lennon wrote "I'm So Tired" in India, when he couldn't get to sleep.
Oh, and did I know that Father McKenzie from "Eleanor Rigby" was a stranger's last name that Paul swiped from the London phone book (though he composed the song using the working name "Father McCartney"), and that it was Ringo who came up with the line "Darning his socks / in the night"?
It wasn't just Beatles data he knew cold. He was also casually acquainted with the group's sidemen-Billy Preston playing the keyboards on "Get Back," Eric Clapton donating a guitar solo as a favor to George Harrison on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"-as well as with assorted Beatles' cameo players, girlfriends, wives, and children: the Stu Sutcliffes and Pete Bests, the Cynthias, Yokos, Maureens, Pattis, Lindas, Julians, Stellas, and Heathers.
He also knew the solo work each Beatle had put out after the band dissolved, from Ram to All Things Must Pass to Sentimental Journey to Double Fantasy. His third-floor bedroom wasn't an all-American room. It was an all- English room, lacking only a three-pronged outlet and a draft. Fab Four memorabilia rushed at you as the door swung open.
A Beatles '65 LP hung on the near wall next to a faded print of Klaus Voorman's intricate Revolver cover. An antique Beatles lunchbox sat hunched on his windowsill. Directly across the room from his bed hung a two- by-three-foot blowup of the zebra- crossing on the Abbey Road album cover. Taped to its bottom rim were two dozen or so postcards of the Beatles in various incarnations: nervously endearing in their first suits; martial-looking in Sgt. Pepper regalia; seedy- looking and estranged for The White Album; and finally, lost in their own bickering thoughts as they jammed on a Savile Row rooftop during an overcast London afternoon in Let It Be.
In Sam's dresser drawer sat a Blue Meanies T-shirt and a Beatles- faces necktie; on the room side of his door hung a Beatles calendar he could glance at when he wasn't telling the time with his Yellow Submarine wristwatch; on one of his wall sconces hung a white plastic pendant you see draped on hotel doorknobs, except rather than saying "Do Not Disturb," this one read, "It's Been a Hard Day's Night." Next to his portable CD player sat, scattered and mostly caseless, the scratched CDs of Help!, A Hard Day's Night, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The White Album, Please Please Me, Magical Mystery Tour, Abbey Road, Meet the Beatles, Revolver, Rubber Soul, both volumes of Past Masters, the two slightly redundant greatest-hits collections The Red Album and The Blue Album, the recently rereleased Yellow Submarine soundtrack, and a hard-to-find double CD called The Beatles Live at the BBC. Enough already-but there was more. In his bookcase, beside The Lorax and a couple of Harry Potter books, sat nearly a half dozen battered paperbacks devoted to Beatles trivia, to Paul-is-dead clues and to the origins of every Beatles song ever recorded, including ones I'd never heard of, like "Youngblood" and "Cry for a Shadow" and "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry over You."
Copyright © 2004 by Peter Smith. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.