The zen of Yellow Submarine


When we had our first kid — lo, these almost nineteen years ago — we learned pretty quickly that most media produced for children in this era is toxic to adults. Nickelodeon shows, Disney Channel, inane computer animated features or, worse, live action films of dogs with computer animated mouths. No thanks.

When other parents would complain to me about the horrible music they had to endure in the car — I never could get down with that Wiggles shit or whatever it was called — I would give them a stern talking to: Jesus gave us the Beatles, I told them, so that parents would never have to listen to that garbage, and so kids didn’t grow up with stunted aesthetic sensibilities. Even if your kids won’t listen to anything else you own, they’ll listen to the Beatles.

Fast forward to kid number three. His sisters are pretty much all grown up, and though they spent many years listening to the Beatles and grew up with a Beatles poster on their wall that I’d purchased for my room when I was a kid, they’ve settled into their own musical tastes. And number three, who likes to sit in the back seat controlling the iPod plugged into the dash, is a little bit of a Beatles fascist. It’s about to drive us all insane.

He’ll listen only to the Beatles. Nothing else. (As I type this he’s on another computer in the same room, watching Beatles fan videos on YouTube.) And for the longest while it was only Yellow Submarine.

Of all the songs to get stuck on, “Yellow Submarine” is probably one of the most mind-numbing in the group’s repertoire. Try listening to it for months on end, time after time, to the point that you have every lyric, every bit of orchestration memorized. It starts to appear in your dreams, which take on psychedelic hues. (“Dad,” he calls from the computer across the room, where he has a search window open. “How do spell ‘yellow submarine’?”) You might drop him off at nursery school, get back in the car, and drive halfway home before you realize it’s still on. It colonizes your brain to the point that you fear that your aesthetic sensibilities will be stunted. Suddenly the smugness I used to display to other parents — just play the Beatles! — has returned to haunt me. The Beatles are the enemy. And to make matters worse, the kid’s older sister has turned against him. Thirteen years different in age, they fight over the car stereo. (“UGH! I can’t listen to ‘Yellow Submarine’ another time,” she howls.)

To survive, I’ve developed a few strategies. One was to find alternate versions. This one, from the first season of Sesame Street, helped quite a bit. If you know Sesame as well as I do — see above about the three kids bit, and did I mention I run a vintage Sesame Tumblr? — you can make out the voices: Henson, Oz, and Spinney. It’s unusual to hear them all together like this. Think about how much fun this must have been to make:

It’s better than the original. But it will only keep you sane for so long. Then I started focusing on the album’s later tracks, the film score, which really are the record’s saving grace. These provided me with an excuse to talk to the kid about orchestras — to listen for specific instruments, to match the score’s sequences to the film’s action, to find the right words to describe the mood being invoked. But that has its limits too: how many times does any of us want to think of new words to describe the sound of the blue meanies on the hunt?

Eventually I realized that I would have to use each new occasion of listening to “Yellow Submarine” as an opportunity to cultivate mindfulness. I breathe. I meditate. Or I pretend I’m listening to WFMU, maybe a conceptual piece by Kenny G in which he plays “Yellow Submarine” over and over for his entire show. I can usually handle it that way: the zen of FMU. I try to find that sky of blue and sea of green deep in my own consciousness.

If all else fails, I turn the song into cosmic allegory. The car we’re driving in becomes the yellow submarine. The body becomes the yellow submarine. The family unit becomes the yellow submarine. The human condition becomes the yellow submarine. In the town where we’re born we encounter old men who’ve been to sea, and they tell us of their lives in the land of submarines. But then the chorus kicks in and *surprise*! We’ve all been living in a yellow submarine all along. Are we trying to get to the land of submarines or have we been kidnapped and hauled there against our will? Is the land of submarines adulthood? But before you know it, the entrance to the parking garage has come into view. Breathe. You’re home. It will start all over again, of course, as soon as you’re upstairs and in your apartment. Breathe. Zen. Take a good look at this little Beatles fascist, singing his guts out. And — poof! it’s true! — you may be living beneath the waves, but you’ll realize that the land of submarines is a perfectly fine place to be.

5 responses to “The zen of Yellow Submarine”

  1. T-Mo says:

    Maybe you could start working in some other Beatles’ songs by having a viewing of “Help!” and then playing the album. The movie is goofy enough, like a live-action cartoon, that it might appeal to the young chap. From there, you’ll be on Let It Be and the White Album in no time.

  2. Bryan says:

    Well, I fudged a little for the purposes of the post, going back in time a couple months. He’s actually since branched out to just about the full Beatles catalog, but it’s still all Beatles all the time (with the exception of an odd request for “Call Me Maybe”). He jumps around from album to album but he still has somehow memorized the sequencing of almost every one of them. If you ask him which album a song comes from, he can often tell you not only which album, but which track it is. It’s kind of cute, but we would also like to listen to something other than the Beatles every once in a while. You’re right: he went straight to the White Album, thanks to all the little silly songs, and of course he devoured Sgt Pepper’s. The funny thing is I used to think it was early Beatles kids would like most, and in my imagination the late Beatles were more complicated and sophisticated. But one of the things that repeated listenings have taught me is that I really have come to prefer the earlier albums, Rubber Soul back. He’s really hooked on this song, the rhythm guitar on which (played by Lennon) sounds a bit like a precursor to Johnny Marr.

  3. Farrell Fawcett says:

    Bryan, thank you so much for such a personal confession here. I liked this post A LOT. I’ve missed it. God bless you for educating me (us) about Basquiat and the Taylor Meeds of the world–I need and enjoy those little lectures–but what I really love is when you get a little more intimate and show us the underbelly of your regular life. Raising kids is fucking torture sometimes. Weird how it’s exposed this side of the Beatles that is hard for me to put my finger on sometimes–that the Beatles appeal to the most childlike part of our evolving musical tastes. Thanks for writing about that. And Jesus, what a little smarty-pants that Cho-cho is growing up to be. Who woulda ever guessed it?

  4. ssw says:

    Just want to acknowledge that I’m reading this post, while in the other room my kid is listening to Yellow Submarine. Deep breathe.

  5. ssw says:

    I can’t even look at the attached Sesame Video. Can’t. Even. Do it.