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Beatle Brainiac

Author Steven Stark explores how the Fab Four helped women come of age.

Steven Stark can't quite recall when and where he heard his first Beatles song. "Here's where it gets embarrassing," he confesses. "Here I am asking all these people, 'Where were you 40 years ago?' And then people ask me . . ." He racks his brain and tentatively offers: seventh grade, music class, "I Want to Hold Your Hand."

What Stark has no trouble remembering - and what prompted him to write Meet the Beatles, a book out this week - is the earthshaking impact four lads from Liverpool had on the world. "They transcended their category to become probably the most powerful artists in history," he says. "Their music is great, but so was Gershwin's music. So was Beethoven's. But the Beatles are in a different category altogether."

A not entirely happy category, Stark has concluded after immersing himself in their lives and work. "There's a way in which being a Beatle destroyed all of them, except for Ringo," Stark says. "Lennon, Harrison, and McCartney were never the same. They never recovered from the mass fame, the intensity of the experience, the intensity of the ties they had with each other. It was almost too much in a way."

That nuanced take is vintage Stark. For more than 25 years, he's explored the intersection of pop culture and politics with the lucidity of one who knows both worlds and does not uncritically accept the assumptions of either. "Our culture is our politics and vice versa," says Stark, 53. "If Titanic and Survivor are popular, it tells you something about the national psyche."

Stark's cultural antennae sharpened in 1976, when, after having grown up in Washington, D.C., and just a couple of years out of Harvard, he worked as an issues director for presidential candidate Jimmy Carter. With stock-car mania on the rise and country music blending with rock 'n' roll, Stark quickly realized the political ramifications of the emergence of Southern culture. "He had seen firsthand how a change in the culture foreshadowed and created an opening for the Carter candidacy," says Ralph Whitehead, a journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. In the years that followed - in The Boston Phoenix, in a regular op-ed column for the Globe, in the 1997 book Glued to the Set: The 60 Television Shows and Events That Made Us Who We Are Today, and as a commentator on NPR - Stark helped shape what Whitehead calls "the American-studies view of politics: that what happens in politics is often an expression of deeper cultural and psychological forces that are at work in the country."

But Stark knew that his understanding of America would not be enough when it came to writing about so British a phenomenon as the Beatles. So in 2002, he and his family - wife Sarah Wald, who took a leave from her post as an assistant provost at Harvard University, and sons Harry and Jake - left Belmont and moved to Chester, England, about 20 miles from Liverpool. Before he wrote a word, Stark spent 18 months reading virtually everything ever written about the Beatles (Meet the Beatles contains a 50-page appendix of sources) while interviewing more than 100 fans, friends, and associates of the band, along with reporters and scholars. (The surviving Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, declined to speak to Stark, but Yoko Ono, the widow of John Lennon, said yes.) To Stark's surprise, many of the women he interviewed traced their development of a feminist sensibility to the days of Beatlemania, when they, as teens and preteens, screamed for the Fab Four. "They said, 'When I look back at the person I was going to become, it began with the Beatles. Something came over me: a feeling of mass power with other women, the idea that I could do something other than what people expected me to do," says Stark. Consequently, the notion that the Beatles forged a "special connection to women" - making them a major force for gender equality at a time when most of the rock world was mired in the same old sexism - became a thesis of Stark's book. The Beatles helped overturn traditional male-female roles, he argues, by writing lyrics that presented women as fully formed characters rather than sex objects or villainous betrayers, by presenting themselves in an androgynous way, and by marrying strong women like Yoko Ono and Linda Eastman.

Tim Riley, the Concord-based author of Fever: How Rock 'n' Roll Transformed Gender in America, says Stark's book is at the forefront of a "new wave" of Beatles studies that will be published in the coming years. Riley, who has known Stark for years and read his book in galleys, says he agrees with the author that many angles of the Beatles phenomenon have not been adequately explored, including the role of strong women in their lives and art. "His book synthesizes a lot of the new scholarship that has been out there into a new narrative that has a fresh angle on a story we thought we were familiar with," says Riley.

Stark focuses heavily on the impact of Lennon and McCartney losing their mothers at an early age, and how it fed, in McCartney's case, a lifelong search for family and, in Lennon's case, a lifelong fear of abandonment (both of which were manifested in their songs). But he captures also the sheer waves of joy the Beatles sent through the world, how they transformed youth culture, legitimized rock 'n' roll as an art form, and hastened the globalization of business and communications.

Yet many forget that the Beatles no longer set the countercultural pace as the 1960s turned dark; by the late 1970s, nearly a decade after the Beatles broke up, the mystique had ebbed so much that, in Stark's view, they were seen as "just another rock group." But when Lennon was murdered in 1980, the phenomenon burst back to life. "When you read these [Beatles] websites, the Talmudic devotion and level of analysis of everything they did is just incredible," Stark says. "There really is a religious aspect to it. People need to know everything about them."

Don Aucoin, a member of the Globe staff, writes for the Living/Arts section. Send e-mails to aucoin@globe.com.

Steven Stark outside St. Peter's Church in Liverpool, where John Lennon and Paul McCartney were introduced.
Steven Stark outside St. Peter's Church in Liverpool, where John Lennon and Paul McCartney were introduced. (Photo / Paul Ellis)
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