After being wooed by four mop-haired musicians in matching black turtlenecks harmonizing “Help!” on a television screen, 5-year-old Rob Sheffield became a Beatles mega fan.
“Don’t you know that band broke up?” his parents would ask. “They don’t exist anymore,” his teacher would say. It was the early 1970s, and while they weren’t wrong—The Beatles called it quits in the final months of 1970—they weren’t right, either.
Sheffield had seen them, right there on TV. He heard them with his own ears, on the radio and the vinyl records he played.
Almost five decades later, Sheffield, who has written about music and pop culture for Rolling Stone since 1997 and is a New York Times best-selling author of five books, is still listening to The Beatles.
In advance of a reading from his latest book, Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World, at CitySpace on Thursday, Sheffield, who lived in Charlottesville and hosted a rock show on WTJU for many years before moving to Brooklyn, told us that in addition to checking out Paul McCartney’s set list from the previous night, he’d been listening to The Beatles just a few hours earlier.
The song was “Tell Me What You See,” a track on the B-side of Help!, the album that hooked him.
It’s “one of those Beatles songs that nobody seems to care an awful lot about,” the band included, says Sheffield.
Sheffield can’t stop thinking about this. It’s a “perfect example” of the band’s brilliance, that in 10 minutes, just to fill space on an album, “they could come up with just an absolutely, unbelievably beautiful and tender song like ‘Tell Me What You See,’” he says.
That re-listening, remembering, and discovering, which occurs often for Sheffield and for billions of other Beatles fans, is what prompted him to write Dreaming the Beatles.
It’s not another Beatles story set in the 1960s. “The Beatles are right now,” says Sheffield. They are “more famous and popular and beloved now than they were in their lifetime” as a band. “They tried breaking up and it didn’t work,” he says. The music “escaped from The Beatles and the world took over.”
Sheffield says he didn’t try to interview the two surviving Beatles, Paul and Ringo—this isn’t their story. (Plus, he says they’re the only two people on the planet who could leave him starstruck. He’s never talked to Paul, but a phone interview with Ringo years ago left him “quivering in the knees.”)
It’s the music’s story, and as Sheffield wrote Dreaming the Beatles, the story grew—he knew it would. “That’s the way it goes with The Beatles,” he says. “The story never ends.”
The book has been out for two years, and Sheffield’s still having revelations about the songs, many of them tied to the six-CD White Album box set that came out in 2018, a year after Dreaming the Beatles.
There’s a version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in which George Harrison misses a high note, stops singing and quips, “Sorry, that was my fault. I tried to do a Smokey, and I just aren’t Smokey.” Sheffield is moved by the fact that, 50 years after George made a Smokey Robinson joke that he likely forgot about and didn’t think anyone outside the studio would hear, millions of people have heard that line and “felt it in their souls.”
Before that box set came out, Sheffield visited with its producer, Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer George Martin, who played him a version of “Good Night”—the last track on the White Album, with Ringo singing lead
This particular version features all four Beatles singing together—a rarity—and revealed to Sheffield beauty he hadn’t before heard in this song.
People assume it’s a Paul song, but it’s actually a John song, one that Giles told Sheffield was “too tender and melodic and emotional” for John to sing himself, so he made Ringo sing it. John himself only sang it twice—once when he showed Ringo how it went, and once with the full band—and he never told his bandmates why he couldn’t sing it himself.
Hearing this version of the song made Sheffield re-think his entire perception of John, who, at that point in his life (1968) had met Yoko Ono and was divorcing his first wife, Cynthia. Sheffield always thought of it as a “joke at the end of the album. Turns out, there’s all these emotional layers to it,” he says.
“My God!” he exclaims, basking in the warm glow of yet another revelation about the magic of the world’s most beloved band, knowing full well there’s more to come. “It’s going to take us the rest of our lives to even start listening to The Beatles.”