Coming Out Together: The Beatles Songs of My Young Gay Life (1963–1970)
by Bob May, October 13, 2020
For Sam, who asked.
It’s Autumn, 1969, and I’m listening to “Here Comes The Sun” from “Abbey Road” with its incredible six-part bridge. I’m 19, and standing, watching the sun come up through a wall of windows on the 27th floor of the Fox Plaza in San Francisco. I’m in the apartment of my friends Kirk and Peter, who are a couple, and my lovers — it’s the 60’s, remember? The stereo is excellent. George Harrison’s voice is warm, full and resonant;, and the bass notes are especially visceral and thundering. I may be coming off LSD; I don’t quite remember. But it’s all magical, and for a moment the whole world seems to both stop and come together simultaneously. (“Come together, right now, over me.”) The moment is frozen in time.
I came to this place by a circuitous route.
Flashback to December 1965: I’m 15 and I’m in Minneapolis for Christmas with my Dad’s family. My mother is in bed down the hall with pneumonia. I am sleeping in my uncle’s basement. I’m sporting a blonde Beatles bowl haircut. The androgyny of it gives me some sort of special permission to begin to be myself.
“We Can Work It Out” was the Beatles’ Christmas release that year. Even the cover sleeve looked like Christmas:
It has always sounded like a barrel-organ Christmas song to me:
Life is very short
And there’s no time
For fussing and fighting, my friend
So I’ll ask you once again
Try to see it my way
Do I have to keep on talking
Until I can’t go on
Boy you see it your way (“Boy?”)
You run the risk of knowing
That our love will soon be gone
We can work it out
We can work it out
Earlier that year, McCartney had beautifully captured the ache in my 15-year-old heart, that had only the barest inkling of love, but understood this:
Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away
Now it looks as though they’re here to stay
Oh, I believe in yesterday
Suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be
There’s a shadow hanging over me
Oh, yesterday came suddenly
Why she had to go I don’t know she wouldn’t say
I said something wrong, now I long for yesterday
Yesterday, love was such an easy game to play
Now I need a place to hide away
Oh, I believe in yesterday
I’m 15, and walking west toward the sunset on Lincoln Avenue in the block just east of Citron in old downtown Anaheim, just in front of Visser Macre’s flowers, probably coming from Licorice Pizza records, when suddenly it hits me full- on, with the full meaning of the secret, only half-sensed, that’s been lurking in the shadows of my mind for years: I’m gay. My face flushes, and I have to sit down on the low wall by the side of the sidewalk.
And then, in a next wave, the whole weight of millennia of prejudice crashes down on my 15-year-old Southern Baptist consciousness with a palpable thud: I’m damned. Going to hell. It knocks the wind out of my lungs. My mind spins and reels. Nothing will ever be the same again. Like acid.
“Suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be.”
All through the 1960’s, as I was coming into myself and discovering my homosexuality, certain Beatles’ songs became milestones and mirrors of my life as though they had been written for me. This is a remembrance of those songs and the events in my life I associate them with.
Personally, I tend toward a love of classicism (my first records were all classical music), so it’s not surprising that many of my personal favorite Beatles’ songs have elements of classicism: ballads, love songs, songs with orchestral backing and abstract music.
My understanding of the Beatles’ appeal and success is based on four well-documented observations:
1. John Lennon and Paul McCartney rarely wrote together. Though they were credited as co-authors (and, in fact, they were), original ideas were created and developed in isolation. Those ideas were then brought to the studio, where good nature and mutual respect created the collaboration: adding harmonies, arrangements and splicing in additional ideas. But the unique sensibilities of the individual writers accounted for their incredible variety of subjects and styles, ranging from Baroque (McCartney) to minimal (Lennon), from sentimental to abstract. This duality was never more clear than in the 1967 release of the double-A-side single, with “Penny Lane, “ (clearly a McCartney composition) on one side, and “Strawberry Fields” (a deliberately fragmented piece of Lennon psychedelia with Harrison on sitar thrown in) on the other. Interestingly both are sketches of two real locations — one a London street, the other a Liverpool garden from Lennon’s childhood — but with entirely different approaches. Just listen and compare:
Clearly, both Lennon and McCartney were channeling similar storytelling impulses, but— being who they were — diverged stylistically in the telling. Yet, they supported and optimized one another in the execution and performance of each work.
2. They were greater than the sum of their parts. Like a perfect team, where the weaknesses of each member are counter-balanced by the collective strengths of the whole, each composer also enlisted and encouraged the skills of their other bandmates: George Harrison brought superior musicianship and musical curiosity to his contributions, and no one in rock had a steadier backbeat or driving sense of a variety of rhythms than Ringo Starr, whose playing spanned hard rock and English music hall with equal aplomb. Together, they were Kismet. With such individual and passionate sensibilities, there were bound to be conflicts (all teams fight; it’s part of their normal growth) and indeed their late surge of energy and innovation burned them up even as it burned brightly. But in the best of the music, the conflicts never showed. All that was evident was the brilliant whole, made up of the brilliant disparate pieces. It is one of the reasons repeated listening always leads to new discoveries in the rich tapestry of their music.
3. There was a fifth Beatle. . And he was their producer, George Martin. As they evolved, and at their peak of creativity and innovation, this brilliant musician and engineer both realized their visions and brought them new ideas. His relationship with the band was symbiotic. Probably most of the technical and musical growth came from him, both by encouraging them, and by running with their ideas. Multi-tracking, symphonic backing, dynamic stereo mixing and more were all his doing. He added to, and framed, their abundant talent so ingeniously that he elevated them to the top of popular music history. To understand George Martin’s gift to the Beatles, you only have to listen to “Sgt. Pepper” on headphones, with your eyes closed, and hear the horse ride by from left to right at the end of “Good Morning.” Genius. And absolutely new at the time.
4. They tapped into their zeitgeist. They both led and reflected the public’s thinking and feelings about contemporary events. The had an uncanny sixth sense about the various moods of their times and their listeners. All these are evident in the angst and ennui of “Nowhere Man”“ and “She’s Leaving Home,” in the fun of “Back In The USSR” and “Sgt. Pepper,” in the anger and social criticism of “Revolution” and “Eleanor Rigby,” in the idealism of “All You Need Is Love” and “It’s All Too Much,” in the longing and heartbreak of “Michelle” and “Julia” and so on. Everything they were feeling, we were feeling too. Chicken or egg, the one inspired the other simultaneously, and in real time, it seemed.
Finally, their music was so hummable, so sing-able, so simple and so enticing. Singing harmony to “Yesterday” was easy for almost anyone, regardless of how unmusical they were. There was just a whole lot to enjoy.,
The Beatles emerged in the US in 1963, covering “Twist and Shout” and the similar rock ’n’ blues standards. (They had been laboring in the wilderness of Liverpool, Hamburg and underground London for years before.)
That year, 1963, I turned 13 in late April, and began 7th grade at Ball Junior High, in Anaheim, California in September. John Kennedy was assassinated on November 22nd. We were all sent home from school. LBJ became president. The Beatles broke through that year with “She Loves You” and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”—straight-ahead upbeat rock ’n’ roll.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
On February 9, 1964, the Beatles fly flew into America and appeared on Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night variety show on CBS for the first time. I was planted on the front room floor of our tract house in Anaheim on the thin tan carpet in front of our black & white television, as enthralled as any of the screaming teenaged girls in the live audience or the millions of others across the country. Clearly, you can barely hear the music over the screaming, but it doesn’t matter. They were young and boyish and energetic in tight grey lapel-less suits, and whenever they shake shook their bushy heads, my heart beat faster; my face flushed and my crotch throbbed stiffer. (I’m gay, remember?)
I am am suddenly a teenager, and it is is all about sex. The Beatles turn me on. They make me feel good: full of the possibility of young love.
Before this, music was Elvis (did nothing for me); Lawrence Welk (my parents’ favorite) and (thankfully) “Surfin’ USA” by the Beach Boys.
Check this out:
Like Dracula and his bride with accordions.
In the midst of this vast wasteland of dullness, it is was 1964 and I turned 14 in late April and began 8th grade at Ball Junior High in September.
At this that point, I was the neighborhood babysitter. One of my clients had a set of encyclopedias with which I attempted to continue my sex education, but all I can could find about my sexual feelings was under the heading: Sexual Pathology.
This vision of myself and my future was quite a weight on a 14-year-old’s shoulders. It would be decades before psychiatrists declared my kind sane, sodomy laws were repealed, and churches became welcoming. Every direction I looked was dreadful. I was far, far away from today’s open, freer world.
LBJ was elected outright in November 1964 and would escalate the divisive Vietnam War which had already dragged on for years. The country’s streets are were filled with protesters, and gradually music — both rock and folk- — — became more than entertainment: it became the testimony of a time and place.
In 1965, the Beatles released their album “Rubber Soul,” which evidenced the creative restlessness that would define their greatest work and that of their generation.
The same year, I discovered the novelized biography “I Give You Oscar Wilde” by Desmond Hall in paperback at the7-Eleven and sneaked it home. I read about “shedding a pearly dew” on bedroom sheets with wide-eyed interest. Suddenly, there was another side to the story and a defense for how I was feeling.
Of course, my mother found the book and asked, “Are you a homosexual?” I answered (not too cleverly), “Well, if I were, I wouldn’t tell you.”
In my defense — I was 15, remember — and had never really done anything, anyway. Never tasted the forbidden fruit, pardon the pun. It was all just wet dreams and crushes at this point.
My mother didn’t pursue it; she was probably happier in denial.
In August of that year, the Beatles seemed to be reading my mail with “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” which, with the exception of a couple of pronouns, seemed to be speaking directly to me:
Ev’rywhere people stare,
each and ev’ryday.
I can see them laugh at me,
and I hear them say:
Hey! You’ve got to hide your love away.
Hey! You’ve got to hide your love away.
It was my very own “The Love That Dares Not Speak It’s Name.”
In 1966, I turned 16 in late April, and, on August 28, the Beatles released “Revolver” in the US, a year after “Rubber Soul,” kicking their oeuvre up several notches to an even newer level of experimentation. They are were now producing radical new work on a regular yearly basis, each release building on the latter. I began my Sophomore year at Anaheim High in September. The music from “Revolver” — with its stream-of-consciousness and witty cynicism — was everywhere on the radio.
In 1967, I turned 17 in late April, and on June 1st the Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely-Hearts Club Band,” their masterpiece, and the first rock concept album ever.
One song dissolved into the next, each seeming to counter the last, as a new expression of a multi-faceted single evolving theme and the stereo not only placed the band front and center, but also moved audio elements from side to side.
Listening to “Sgt. Pepper” on headphones, in the dark, was the closest to a psychedelic experience I had ever had.
Meantime, philosopher Alan Watts was telling me in his books and speeches that each one of us is but a single unique facet of a universal One.
The Beach Boys grew out their hair, learned to play the Theremin, and answered “Sgt. Pepper” with “Good Vibrations,” which also becomes a favorite. It was as if the Beatles were pollinating artists all over the world.
The first Summer of Love followed that July in the Haight Ashbury of San Francisco. Who’s to say the Beatles didn’t spawn it, along with Jefferson Airplane and others. The zeitgeist was not lost on high school kids in Anaheim.
In 1968, I turned 18 (and legal in California) in late April, and begin my senior year at Anaheim High in September. “Sgt. Pepper” had impacted me so thoroughly that I produced a “Happening” for a school assembly in which I recreated the “Sgt. Pepper” cover:
That’s me just left of center with my hair parted in the middle just left of center, pretending to be Oscar Wilde.
That summer, I started my first job as a busboy at Casa De Fritos in Frontierland at Disneyland. I was surrounded by gayness, even if I only halfway sensed a vibe.
In October 1968, “Hair” opened at the Aquarius Theater in L.A., with its comic sexual anthem called “Sodomy,” its demolition of the “fourth wall,” and its nude scene. I became a “second-acter” every weekend, begging for tickets from patrons leaving the show in disgust. Sometimes they left at the first utterance of “fuck,” and I got to see almost all the show. The audience was invited on-stage at the end to dance with the cast during the finale, “Let The Sun Shine In.” Cast members began to recognize me from my weekly visits. I began to feel like I am was a part of the “‘tribe.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy would both be assassinated that year in rapid succession. Nixon would be elected by default (my opinion) in November.
It’s November 22, 1968, and strangely the anniversary of John Kennedy’s murder. I’m standing in the Titan Bookstore at Cal State Fullerton looking for the latest Beatle album due to be released that day, Beatles albums having now become something of a pre-Christmas tradition by that time. I am standing by a stack of plan white squares of cardboard, my eyes scanning the store for some sign of the album cover that’s sure to somehow top the spectacle of the “Sgt. Pepper” cover. “How on earth will they ever top it?” I wonder.
Then I look down at the white squares and notice embossed letters that spell “THE BEATLES.” I’m astonished! What a reversal, and a marvelous trick: from Baroque to minimal. The White Album has arrived!
It is was an enormous two-record experiment: part failure, but mostly revelation, including “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” with its cheeky reference to cross-dressing, straight-ahead rock, beautiful ballads, experimental sound collages; again, each new song an equal but opposite reaction to the rest. “Helter Skelter” and “Revolution” indeed.
At Disneyland, I meet Jack D. and Hilary H., both my first lovers of each sex. With Hilary, all it did was re-enforce the certainty that it was Jack I really loved, my first love. Unfortunately, for Jack, I was too young and inexperienced to be the lover he wanted. He let me down gently but firmly shortly after accepting my Christmas gift.
Now I had done something, and I had experienced heartbreak. I had fearfully carried my torch for him for more than a year before declaring my feelings. The Beatles “I Will” (to a cha-cha dance beat) from the White Album was my theme song most of that year:
Who knows how long I’ve loved you
You know I love you still
Will I wait a lonely lifetime
If you want me to, I will
The Who answered the White Album with “Tommy,” the first double-album, full-length “rock opera.” Rock music, as a form, continued to grow.
As I grieved the loss of my first love, I turned 19 in late April ’69, and three days of riots on Christopher Street in New York began June 28th. I read about it a, continent away, with wonder in the “LA Free Press.” Gay Liberation was born. And the world turned upside down for little me in Southern California. Suddenly, “Gay was Good” and I had a new hope.
September 1969 yielded “Abbey Road,” and the cresting of the Beatles’ creative journey.
With its astonishingly dynamic closing medley of “You Never Give Me Your Money,” which bled into “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window,” which bled into “Polythene Pam,” and climaxed joyfully with “Golden Slumbers;” their final all-studio masterwork represented their most mature work. Sadly, it was all quickly downhill into disintegration for the group from that point on.
Comfortingly for me, the album also continued to include their regular gender switching lyrics, as in:
“Oh’ you should see Polythene Pam,
She’s so good-looking
But she looks like a man…”
Well, you should see her in drag dressed in her polythene bag
Yes, you should see Polythene Pam
This choice, probably driven more by the chance make a quick and easy rhyme, nonetheless revealed their inherent and consistent playfulness. (It is not hard to believe then that the Beatles almost, but not quite, were briefly in talks on the follow-up script to their film “Help!” with similarly playful and iconoclastic gay English playwright Joe Orton. Sadly, it was not to be. It would have been an amazing collaboration.)
That same month, I entered Cal State Fullerton in September, but didn’t stay for long. I was too busy trying to mend my broken heart and exploring my emerging gay identity to concentrate on school or even go to class. I was now a park-wide janitorial sweeper at Disneyland, and flunked out of Cal State by December, a year after my break-up with Jack.
My parents, with whom I was still living, were, of course, furious. I came to the conclusion that there was nothing keeping me in Orange County and, chasing the “Summer of Love,” I hitch-hiked to San Francisco.
I lived in one room of the Hotel Paul in the Tenderloin on Geary Street, panhandling and selling the “Berkeley Barb.” I haunted the Geary Theater, literally down the street, where “Hair” had opened, and I had become a “street person” myself. The entire façade of the Geary had been painted over with an Age of Aquarius theme. Witness this fashion photo shoot at the box office door:
Magic was in the air. The Summers of Love had not yet soured. There were still flowers in our hair.
Meanwhile, I survived on “Butcher Boy” hotdogs, and found a small non-paying “job” working the box-office and snack bar at the tiny downstairs Mason Street Theater around the corner from the Geary, for a rather didactic but well-meaning transplanted off-Broadway homophile-themed musical called “Geese” by Gus Weill.
I meet Charles Pierce and Carol Doda, local SF celebs, who subsequently joined the cast. I became friends and the third part of a ménage with Kirk and Peter, the leads of the show. They moved from a painted lady on Buena Vista street to the Fox Plaza on Market (remember “Here Comes The Sun?”). It came from “Abbey Road:”
Here comes the sun, do, dun, do, do
Here comes the sun, and I say
It’s all right
Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun, do, dun, do, do
Here comes the sun, and I say
It’s all right
One evening in October, I am walking to the Paul Hotel from the Mason Street Theater after a weekend performance of “Geese.” I am waiting for the light on Geary at Mason. Just after the light changes, a man approaches in the intersection coming at me from the other side. Our eyes meet. And I know. Just like that:
It’s Him. It’s He’s the One. It felt like lightening striking and déjà vu all at the same time.
I turned and followed him and we talked for a bit, and he came home with me. His name was David. We clicked immediately. He said he’d never been with another man but had always wanted to; I would be his first. He stayed with me in my little room for two weeks. We listened to the radio and made love almost the whole time except when we went out to eat. Strangely, the song I remember most was “Is That All There Is,” by Peggy Lee (prophetic). It was my “Room With A View” at the Paul Hotel. But he had to return to San Diego to see his mom. And, not being able to find actual steady work, his leaving was also my cue to leave SF and head back home to Anaheim myself.
David and I would carry on an on-again, off-again affair over the next five years, and he would become the great love of my life.
In 1977, famed SF street photographer Crawford Barton, enamored as much as I was, would catch his twinkling eyes and flashing smile on a San Francisco sidewalk and turn it into a postcard which David mailed me:
A different story for a different day.
I’m back in Anaheim in January 1970, when “Refugees From Amerika: A Gay Manifesto” by Carl Wittman is reprinted in “The LA Free Press.” As the title suggests, it is both a treatise and a declaration of independence.
I write the author and visit him in San Francisco, and his words give sense and form for me to the nascent movement. It has continued to live, to guide and inform the movement, and can still be found in volumes of seminal gay liberation works.
I’d returned home to my parents’ house and was working as a busboy at Humpty Dumpty’s House of Eggs in Anaheim, visiting David in San Diego on weekends.
After one of those weekends, I came back home and found the locks all changed on the doors of house. My Southern Baptist parents had gone through my things and found letters from David. I found those letters and my other belongings in the trash can by the garage. I scooped out what I could save and drove away. Thus began an estrangement from my family that was total for two years and would take many more years to actually heal.
I was 20, and now, I was truly a “refugee from America.”
I couch-surfed with friends in Yorba Linda while working briefly as a copyboy for the Santa Ana Register. Meanwhile, the Kent State student massacre happened, and the shit even comes came down (i.e., cops stormed the campus) at Cal State Fullerton where I am was camping out with student strikers. Later, I slept with Hilary in Isla Vista in near Santa Barbara. It didn’t work.
May 1970 was marked by “Let It Be,” shortly after my birthday. As the Beatles last album, clearly created under duress, amid strained and broken relationships, its penultimate “The Long And Winding Road” is an appropriate coda, and “Get Back” which ends the album is both a summons and a warning.
Finally, this (prophetic or ironic, I don’t know which) from John Lennon:
Images of broken light
Which dance before me like a million eyes
They call me on and on across the universe
Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letter box
They tumble blindly as they make their way across the universe
Jai Guru Deva, Om
Nothing’s gonna change my world…
Nothing’s gonna change my world…
The album marked their break-up, and is both not much more than a footnote, and yet also the fitting end of an era. The Beatles were dead. Long live their music.
“The Long and Winding Road” takes me back to Fox Plaza and the circuitous route I had taken, and how the Beatles had marked the high and low points along the way. How they had helped me make the journey both personal and memorable. Creating memories that have lasted a lifetime and made me what I am today.
Later, I would put myself through college. I would graduate cum laude, make up with my parents and see them die. I would have a 35-year-long career in business, finishing as a management trainer and consultant.
David and I would separate in 1973, and in 2000 I would learn that he had died somewhere on the road in a small town named Baxter in Northern California in November of 1996. Why he was there I would never know. Not having heard from him for several months, I’d done an internet search where I found via social security records that he was deceased, and that they had stopped paying his SSI.
He’d been dead for four years when I found out. I was living in Costa Mesa at the time to be closer to work. I looked back through my daybook for November of 1996, and realized that on the day he had died (a Thursday?), I’d had meetings and worked some overtime. A perfectly normal and humdrum day. Not even a ripple in the force.
I would never know his cause of death. I knew he was addicted to serious drugs. Had he OD’d? Had he been queer-bashed? He was always open about his sexuality. Had he developed HIV/AIDS? Much as I tried to find out, I would never know. It was all just a blank, a mystery hanging out there in the universe. (“Jai Guru Deva. Om.”) He was like an MIA, lost somewhere on a battlefield.
A little bit of me died inside when I realized that I would never…never see him again in this life.
I would have other relationships of various lengths and degrees of success, but never again anything so total and all-consuming.
I contented myself that I had known a great love, and spent long periods, sometimes decades, celibate between relationships.
I would survive the AIDS pandemic and watch a whole circle of my friends die, along with a generation of bright young men. I would retire for health reasons at 55 and lose all my savings and investments in the recession of 2009 when I was 59. I would learn to appreciate Elvis and jazz and country music.
I spent my 60’s during the 2010’s learning to live on a budget and reinventing myself.
The Beatles had started and finished separate careers, musical and otherwise, by then. Most of them had grandchildren and some, great grandchildren. John Lennon has already been dead more than three decades. He’d been murdered in December of 1980 in New York by a crazed fan — a perfect expression of the times.
“Yet each man kills the thing he loves…” said Oscar Wilde.
George Harrison would die of cancer in November 2001. (Funny, how Novembers recur with such frequency throughout the band’s chronology.)
Even my David died in November. Maybe it’s a sign.
I’m 70 now. It’s 2020. I’m living on social security (like David did) and a monthly pension and also suffering through the triple calamities of Trump, old age and COVID-19.
Today, October 13, 2020, the last remaining Beatles, Paul and Ringo, are 78 and 80, respectively. John’s son Julian (“Hey Jude”) is 57 and a musician.
Everything seems to connect up.
I was asked recently by a young gay man I know to explain why the Beatles were and are important. This memoir has been an effort to respond to that request, both as a child of the 60’s and as a gay man. I was happy to discover the music can still take me back in time.
And I am still standing on the 27th floor of the Fox Plaza in San Francisco in Autumn of 1969, watching the sun come up through the windows with the music in the background. And it’s still magical.
Here comes the sun.