Beatles’ Haircuts


Splayed across my parent’s bed after an early evening summer shower, a towel wrapped around my waist while beads of water slid into a pool in the scoop of my belly button. A radiance from that Indian summer day seemed to linger, illuminating the moment as if from within. It was the hour I would later learn to call ‘the time between the dog and the wolf’, that quiet break after the spirits of the day have departed and before those of the night arrived: a small clutch of moments in which the world hung suspended between the bright quotidian and nocturnal uncertainties.

In this outwardly serene moment I was trying to excise images from recent memory like cutting someone out of a photograph.  But trying to not remember something is counterproductive, making it more insistent and vivid. I was a member of a small Boy Scout troop associated with the Saint James School and Parish where I went to school and served as an altar boy. Over the course of the year, I had been subjected to the regular hazing and intimidation all the younger boys endured before and after troop meetings on Friday nights at the Parish hall. I could also thank the Boy Scouts for my introduction to binge drinking when after the meetings most of the boys met in the schoolyard to pass around noxious alcoholic concoctions raided from parents’ liqueur cabinets.

I may have been a fervent altar boy but I was also feeling the tug of the dark side, so I begged my parents to cough up the money to send me to Boy Scout Camp in New Hampshire that summer between 7th and 8th grade. During daylight hours those two weeks were mostly unremarkable filled as they were with the incessant swatting of mosquitoes and black flies, tipped over canoes, pointless hiking and dangerously unsupervised archery sessions. In the evening after marshmallows turned to fiery asteroids and wildly implausible ghost stories were told around the campfire, either the adult troop leaders snuck away to local bars every evening or they passively condoned what was essentially a reenactment of Lord of the Flies in the dark. After the embers were doused and we were ordered into our sleeping bags, a power shift occurred when the oldest and most sadistic boys assembled themselves to make a plan.

Each night one of the ‘tenderfoot’ tents was designated for attack. After four nights of waiting in terror, it was finally our turn. Shadows and shouts surrounded our tent while they alternated ‘Indian’ war yelps with goose-stepping. Thrusting their arms into the tent they plucked us out while we screamed and cried for help. Circling around they taunted us with threats, some were armed with spear-like branches, others had flashlights. They commanded that we take off our pajama bottoms and then they knocked us to the ground. I was grabbed by the ankles by two of the boys and dragged into the woods. Running and laughing, they pulled into me deeper into the darkness as my skull bumped along the ground, the flashlight beams chaotically danced along the under branches of oak, maple and birch. When we came to a halt on a carpet of pine needles, my legs were dropped and I was poked with sticks, but they were oddly tentative with their probing as if they did not want to commit to actual penetration. I could hear the distant squealing of the others while I attempted to protect myself and after a while the sound and prodding dissipated and I was left in silence.

But I was trying not to imagine this when I twisted my still damp torso to reach for the radio on my parent’s bedside table and tune it to my favorite station. I was, as always, hoping to hear a Beatles song.  In the instant before the DJ dropped the needle in the groove, an air of heightened expectation grew, like that moment on Christmas morning just before tearing the paper off the gifts. Would it be John’s insistent voice edged as it was with impatience or Paul’s sweet boy lilt?  Would the opening notes sound out the jangle of the 12-string guitar, a fuzzy bass riff, a string quartet or even the unsettling metallic twang of a sitar? When it clicks, the mysterious power of pop music is that it feels like it belongs to you, that some mysterious formula of melody and beat has utterly captured you in your moment. An intimacy not contradicted even if millions of people across the world feel exactly the same way about a particular three-minute confection.

I was eight years old when the Beatles’ first hits were filling the airwaves. Like an endless summer day playing outside, Beatle songs were fun, energetic, bouncing melodically with the rhythm of our running, pedaling and jumping. My best friends’ names were John and Paul so I always had to be George while we sang along with our records in the basement, using pool sticks for guitars. I began to take notice of music, how it marked differences between people, important differences; the looseness of my jazz-loving neighbor when he got out of his car, or the patrician air of another neighbor whose windows were always leaking symphonic whispers. My parents, if they listened to music at all, went for guys in suits and cardigans, Dean Martin, Perry Como or Robert Goulet, who clearly could carry a tune but did not inspire emotional buoyancy.



Although I was too young to indulge fashion fads like letting my hair grow over my ears, wear paisley shirts with wing-like collars or bell-bottom pants, I considered these things manifestos of difference.  Mom still shopped for my clothes but I saved my allowance each week to buy 45s of the Rolling Stones, the Temptations, Herman’s Hermits, the Animals, the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Supremes, Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Who, The Doors, and of course, the Beatles. In 1966, when I was 11, their double-sided single Paperback Writer and Rain was the first record I bought with my own money. Through music I was building a bridge away from the familiar and toward a vague but seductive future of teenage freedom. Like legion of other adolescents, I cherished both the separation from my parents and the tribal connection to other young people that music kindled.

As I waited in semi-darkness for the song that might thrill or bore me, I ran my fingers over my torso; I liked to tickle the skin of my chest in a circular pattern, raising hard ridges around my nipples. A soft breeze parted the lace curtains adding goose bumps to my already excited skin. The Young Rascals song How Can I be Sure? began playing.  It wasn’t the Beatles but it was a good song, with a swirling accordion and evocative lyrics that got the core question of any 12-year-old:

How can I be sure, in a world that’s constantly changing? How can I be sure, where I stand with you?

My fingers crossed a patch of newly sprouted hair in my armpit. I twisted my neck to see what felt, under my probing digits, like a bristling thicket but I could not get a clear view.  I was as alarmed as if I had grown another head, as if my body were suddenly another’s. With my arm raised, I sprinted to the bathroom mirror.  The faintest tendrils, a few delicate curls that had not been there yesterday unfurled like spring grass.  I gaped in the mirror for an extended panicked moment. As if to reset my body, I repeatedly pushed at the roots to return them below, to the unknowable darkness from whence they came. I felt possessed by demons; that something uncontrollable was now occupying my soul.  What was this wispy betrayal emanating from my body? I grabbed my dad’s razor.

And then I thought of the Beatles’ moustaches.  It was the fall of 1967, the Beatles’ album Sergeant Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band had just been released and as ecstatic and challenging as the music was, I was equally disturbed by their facial hair.  The cute mop topped boys who glowed with mischievous enthusiasm had transformed into hairy and scary-looking grown up men. They did not resemble the men of my immediate surroundings who, even if they developed a bit of stubble on the weekends, always had clean-shaven faces leaving for work Monday morning.



It wasn’t that these Beatle-men were clothed in colorful patterns, or had longer or strangely cut hair, that bothered me.  Odd details undermined the promise of boyish continuity like the circular lenses perched on John’s face that emphasized his bird-like nose and bleary / weary / watery eyes, suggesting he had seen things I could not even imagine. The album featured a cardboard insert that provided sergeant stripes and a droopy moustache you could cut out and clip on to the columella – that fleshy divider between the nostrils. This was not an option for me because it was those hairy caterpillar like things clinging to their upper lips that threatened me most.  Ringo’s soul patch was particularly unnerving – that minor eruption of thistle tucked under his lower lip made me want climb back into my mother’s womb. Maybe that’s why it caused such a disturbance; it reminded me of whence I came.




In early 1968, a portfolio of photographs by Richard Avedon appeared in Look magazine. There were four separate portraits in a gaudy psychedelic palette and a somber black and white group photo in which George and Ringo still had mustaches but at least John and Paul were clean-shaven. The now-iconic psychedelic portraits were a singular esthetic encounter for me. George seemed to embody a spiritual flame, encased as he was in orange and green, while Ringo, balanced between blue and sepia, proffered a dove on his right hand. John and Paul both were lit by a solarized magenta on one side of their face. On Paul the magenta blended soothingly with cyan but on John it clashed violently with a fire engine red of his hair and the electric yellow background. Lennon’s portrait is more two-dimensional symbol than human likeness. I was reminded of the movie The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy lands in Munchkin land and the black and white world of Kansas is replaced by the otherworldly colors of Oz. Similarly, I too felt transported, suddenly and irrevocably by those photographs.  The realm of school, home and friends, paled in relation to this heightened chroma and a subtle but nagging impatience with the familiar began to grow.



My friends and I had an unspoken challenge to see who could grow the longest bangs before our parents dragged us to the barber. Billy next door was able to slip one particularly long strand into the corner of his mouth. He would pull out the wet end like a painter’s brush pronouncing ‘Voila!’ We were amazed, Billy showed us how to tuck our hair behind our ears to keep it out of our eyes, an essential strategy in delaying parental intervention.  My bangs served a dual function; alerting the world that I was in on cultural changes and also to hide the eruption of pimples and blackheads on my forehead.  My hated barber, who cut my father’s hair when he was a kid, lifted my bangs in a showy display whenever I was forced to sit in his chair, blaming the blemishes on my girlish hairstyle.

Billy, although only a year older, was to my eyes an entirely different category of human.  In retrospect he was indolent to the point of being inert.  He spent entire days on the couch in his makeshift basement listening to records and adjusting his bangs. His lips usually had a faint glow from the fluorescent orange peanut butter crackers he nibbled unremittingly. When he did venture outside to play catch or a game of evening stickball, he only wore socks on his feet, which gave his little sprints around the bases a prancing quality.  Despite this, or maybe because of this, I had a crush on him for the entire summer of 1966.  His hair looked a lot like John Lennon’s on the cover of Rubber Soul.  One afternoon with nothing at all to do, I found myself sitting next to Billy on a pile of bricks in front of his house.  I was kissing him repeatedly on the shoulder and giggling. Quick little pecks that he protested meekly.



I was gleeful, completely immersed in the froth of the moment.  I glanced up to see my mother watching from our porch next door.  She said nothing, she did not smile or express disapproval, she simply turned and walked back into the house. I felt as if all the eyes of the world were suddenly upon me, pushing and prodding with the tyranny of sight that insists that all behaviors are watched.  This was, in a sense, my expulsion from the Garden of Eden. I became aware of myself as an image viewed from someone else’s perspective and I was full of shame.   Be it God, parents, teachers, or classmates, we eventually internalize the external gaze. It is the thing that keeps us in line, the self-scrutiny, the self-censorship. We police our own behavior in anticipation of other people’s observational power and judgment. We become objects of our own surveillance. We mature.

My favorite Christmas present ever was the Beatle’s White Album, unwrapped after Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve 1968. I was one of the three altar boys serving that night.  It was a coveted spot and although I felt like a pretty special eight-grader up there lighting candles and lifting Father Hughes’ vestments, I was preoccupied with getting home as soon as possible after the mass so I could open one present, as was my family’s custom. Contributing to my anxiety was the certainty that my father, who was nodding off in in one of the pews in the back of the church, would make a circuitous trip back home so that he could stop by a bar in a neighboring town that would sell him a bottle.  I had requested the new Beatles’ record as the only thing I wanted that Christmas and was hoping my parents had remembered.



Keeping dreams humble sometimes paid off. I ecstatically ripped the wrapping paper off the pale and pearly cover embossed with ‘The Beatles’. The double record opened to a list of songs and a row of black and white single portraits. In design it was the antithesis to Sargent Pepper’s garish fashion.  Falling out of an inner sleeve were the larger color versions of the four individual portraits and a collage-like poster featuring candid and snapshots such as a naked John on the phone in bed with Yoko and Paul submerged in a bathtub washing his hair.  There was something shockingly unglamorous about these photographs, but I was no longer frightened by their hair, and by extension, their visceral manhood. I too was beginning to sprout a faint assembly of whiskers on my upper lip and a dark halo of fur was beginning to gather around my genitals.

After quick kisses on my parent’s cheeks, I made my goodnights, kept my fingers crossed that they would make to bed without a fight, and ran up the stairs to my tiny bedroom. An antithesis to Sgt. Pepper, the design of the White Album was austere, it didn’t even include a photograph of them all together as a group, instead offering individual straightforward portraits. I thumbtacked the four portraits on the wall over by bed, gazing at them lovingly like the saviors they were and stayed up all night flipping the four sides of the double LP, the volume barely audible on my portable Candy-Land Blue record player resting on the floor next to my bed. Despite the low volume, my thirteen-year-old thirsty ears almost drowned in the sonic abundance; the spooky beauty of Dear Prudence, the sarcasm of Happiness is a Warm Gun, the sweetness of Blackbird, the yearning and ache of Julia and the anarchy of Helter Skelter, whose off-kilter noise was followed immediately by George Harrison’s Long Long Long, which has perhaps the quietest and most delicate structure of all of the Beatles’ songs.



The Beatles are now a museum, one with a seemingly pleasant (but self-serving) curator in Paul McCartney.  But in 1968, the White Album provided an aural space for countless musical ideas; for a pop album it was an unprecedented compendium of styles, melodic fragments, screeches, satire, and haunting love songs that taught me how to listen to music.  And there was that penultimate track Revolution #9: a collage of buried narrative, symbolic nonsense, of noise and murmurings.  Symphonic and chaotic, Revolution #9 frightened me with its violent and dreamy landscape that was somehow both intimate and abstract.  I did not understand what I meant, but I called Revolution #9 ‘sound art’; a term that for many years, I assumed I had invented.

The Beatles could have ended the album with the last enigmatic utterances of Revolution #9. After all, it is an iconoclastic statement about the possibilities of popular music. But the Beatles were never self-indulgent to the point of making their listeners uncomfortable, at least not for very long. Instead of closing on the alienation of that chaotic sound collage, they bring the listener back, to reassure them and tuck them in with a melancholy, childlike lullaby sung softly, sweetly and earnestly by Ringo.  “Dream sweet dreams for me, dream sweet dreams for you” and as if he were falling asleep himself, Ringo whispers the final words “Good night everybody, everybody everywhere, good night’ as strings wisp around his voice and fade like consciousness itself.

This was a lullaby far more comforting than the creepy outcome of ‘Rock-a-bye Baby’ and I imagined singing Ringo’s song to my own child, tucking him or her into bed and switching off the light somewhere out there in the future. And this dream has come true, thousands of times, as I have sung that song almost every night for the past 9 years to my beautiful son. And as I thank the universe for the blessing of his life and pray for his protection, I conjure the swelling strings in my mind before I begin the first verse, ‘Now it’s time to say goodnight, good night, sleep tight. Now the sun turns out its light, good night, sleep tight.” I suspect that he feels he is getting too grown up for this child-like ritual. I expect any day now he’ll let me know as much. But I think we are in a secret agreement to extend the moment, to hold on to this quiet communion, a Christmas gift from 1968.


Excerpted from the book-in-progress Girl in the Sculpture Garden: Essays from a Life Among Photographs.