The Beatles: Do you still long for Yesterday?

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series The Beatles

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NOTE from Dr. Wayne Baker: Please welcome journalist and educator Charles Honey for a thought-provoking series based on classes he has taught about the impact of the Beatles’ music. Here’s Charles’ second column …

Paul McCartney maintained that the melody of Yesterday came to him in a dream. He went around for days asking people if they’d heard it before, convinced he had unwittingly downloaded somebody else’s song. Finally, he realized it had come from his own subconscious.

Maybe that’s why the song entered into our cultural consciousness so readily. Besides being a No. 1 single in 1965, it’s been recorded by other artists more than 2,500 times. That’s partly due to the haunting melody and Paul’s plaintive vocal, bravely delivered here on The Ed Sullivan Show.

But it’s the regretful lyrics that stick in your soul:

Yesterday, love was such an easy game to play.
Now I need a place to hide away.
Oh, I believe in yesterday.

This is Paul as a 23-year-old man, already reflecting on the careless cruelty of life. So unlike the buoyant persona he exuded on early carefree hits, here he confronts loss in painfully personal terms.

Suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be.
There’s a shadow hanging over me. …
I said something wrong.
Now I long for yesterday.

This yearning for what was, to unwind time and unsay what’s been said, digs into the heart of human frailty. Paul speaks here of a love affair, but a 70-year-old man in one of my classes said it spoke to him of his younger life. For him, as for Paul, yesterday came suddenly.

Do you find sadness or comfort in this song? Does it help you accept the things you wish you hadn’t done or said?

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John jokes as he introduces Help! on Ed Sullivan.

That same year, John Lennon also revealed his vulnerability with the song Help! Cleverly masked as a bouncy rocker, it’s actually a dark admission of insecurity and need:

When I was younger, so much younger than today,
I never needed anybody’s help in any way.
But now these days are gone, I’m not so self-assured.
Now I find I’ve changed my mind, and opened up the doors.

Ever the witty jester, John joked as he introduced the song on Ed Sullivan. But laid bare on the page, the lyrics unmask a young man struggling with depression and drink: “my fat Elvis period,” he called it. In so doing, he gave his fans permission to look inward, name their hurts and reach out for help.

Does his confession give you a similar permission—or liberation?

Beatlemania still raged around them, but Lennon and McCartney were already tapping into their mortality.

Here’s Paul singing Yesterday on the Ed Sullivan Show …

And here is John introducing Help!

Care to read more?

Charles Honey is a freelance writer specializing in faith, education, music and baseball. He wrote a religion column for The Grand Rapids Press/MLive for 20 years, is a staff writer for School News Network and writes a blog on everyday spiritual experience, Soulmailing.com. He teaches a short adult-learner course called “Love is All, Love is You: The Spirituality of the Beatles.” Recently, Charles was featured in ReadTheSpirit Cover Story about his new book Faith on First.

ALSO THIS WEEK, our section on Holidays, Festivals & Anniversaries looks at the many ways the Beatles reshaped popular culture in the second half of 1965—a golden anniversary in 2015. Plus, to help you sense what it was like 50 years ago, this column includes two short videos of the Beatles taking the stage at Shea Stadium and then performing A Hard Day’s Night on that historic occasion.

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