Me, My Mom, and Paul McCartney: From the Iron Curtain to the California Desert

Me, My Mom, and Paul McCartney: From the Iron Curtain to the California Desert

Fifty years after she discovered The Beatles at secret listening parties in Communist Hungary, I took my mom to her first music festival at Desert Trip.
October 20, 2016, 7:23pm

My mother first learned English from The Beatles growing up in Communist Hungary in the 1960s. On weekend nights she'd huddle around speakers in friends' bedrooms and basements, listening to smuggled vinyl and reel-to-reel bootlegs they recorded from Radio Free Europe. They were large, cumbersome things, often warped, always murky, but effective enough to coax a group of otherwise obedient youth into Saturday night subversion.

They couldn't understand the lyrics, so they made up their own: "Ticket to Ride" was "Chicka Choo Rye," "Hard Day's Night" became "Har Daze Nigh." "Sheluzyoo yeh ye ye!," they sang with gusto, and no clue whatsoever. But she loved them, and shrieked along with the girls in the studio audiences just the same. George was her favorite.

The melody was everything. Nobody cared about the lyrics. For that they had Pete Seeger and Joan Baez and Bob Dylan—those condoned by their dear leaders. And so the subversives dubbed "hülyegyerek-frizurás"—which translates, unforgivingly, to "the boys with the retarded haircuts"—were banished to bootleg land. The idea of ever seeing them in person never occurred to her. "They may as well have been on the moon," she says.

That, 50 years later, she would be watching a Beatle with her daughter at a music festival in Amerika would've been beyond science fiction. But it's where we found ourselves, 130 miles southeast of our home in Los Angeles, at Desert Trip, Macca himself within spitting distance from us in the pit.

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Perhaps I'm biased by this bit of family lore, but there's something about Paul McCartney that makes him feel more massive than his Oldchella counterparts The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, The Who, Roger Waters, and even Bob Dylan. No one says they're "going to a Paul McCartney concert." You say you're "seeing Paul Fuckin' McCartney."

Of all the artists on the lineup, he's the only one, with maybe the exception of the newly Nobel-ed Dylan, whose musical accomplishments and accolades alone read like a House Targaryen title: He's Sir James Paul McCartney, Member of the Order of the British Empire, Macca for Short, Multi-Instrumental Solo Artist and Frontman of Wings, 21-Time Grammy Winner, Two-Time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee, Oscar Winner, and Author of Some of the Greatest Songs of All Time, Etc. But before any of that, he will always be a Beatle. And The Beatles, perhaps more than any other act represented at Desert Trip, epitomize what the festival both eulogized and elegized: The joy and sorrow of longevity.

The night before the festival, I asked my mom if she wanted to come along—I'd been trying to get her to see McCartney with me for years—knowing she'd laugh it off. She's not really "into" live music, the same way I'm not really "into" The Container Store. She'd never been to a music festival, and having inherited her skepticism, I wondered what she thought of one targeted to her—was the idea even appealing, or did she think it exploits her generation's ideals?

"I think...these guys are all going to die soon," my mom said, sinking back in her chair. "Like, when did we get so old?" She said this without gloom or self-pity, but a kind of wonder. She chuckled a little as she said it.

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The author's grandmother and mother, shortly after arriving in LA in 1968 after defecting from Hungary.

On a July morning in 1967, my mom and grandmother packed a suitcase full of summer clothes, told their friends and family they were going on vacation to Vienna, and never came back. Defecting in complete secrecy was the only escape from the abuse of a manic depressive ex-husband, and a country that offered them neither protection nor a future. At one point, they seriously considered moving to Siberia.

My mom spent her last "date" with her boyfriend (though she couldn't tell him) in his room making out to "Like a Rolling Stone"—he was more of a Dylan than Beatles guy. She never thought about where she was headed, just was what she was leaving behind.

"Remember: It could be worse!" my 92-year-old grandmother, Titi—holocaust survivor and eternal optimist—has always said.

"Titi looks older every day," Mom said the night before the festival. Barring the odd vacation or work trip, they have never gone more than two days without speaking to each other. "Sometimes I think she's just waiting to die. I'm nowhere near there, but I didn't feel like this ten years ago. Now it's in my head when I go to bed: Like, that's it? Most of my life is over."

At 2 PM on Saturday my mom texts me that she's coming, and that she is in fact on the freeway and would arrive in two hours. I need to buy a ticket on Stubhub. My mom doesn't do this—spontaneity, any of it—and has little patience for sentiment or excess, both of which would be in ample supply at Desert Trip. She's the kind of woman who will treat herself to a Michael Kors handbag, but remove all of the logos and insignias before wearing it in public.

She calls me three more times: Once to ask what she should do if she can't find the ticket pickup location, even though she's still two miles away, again to ask if she should wear sneakers or sandals, and a third to tell me she's here.

After enduring the right of passage that is Find Your Friend at the Festival (Texts would read: "Mom, send me a picture of where you are." "Lemonade stand." "Can you please send a picture?" "Someone just hugged me! :-)"), my mom, somehow, makes it into the pit before I do. I hand her a beer, and we walk toward the stage, where Neil Young and Promise of the Real are educating us on the finer points of vitality via a 25-minute version of "Down by the River."

She's amazed at how close we are, and wants to get closer. She pushes past a bootleg Keith Richards and a lead-lidded drunk who insists that Neil looked right at him, and almost immediately starts taking photos on her phone. She chews people out for trying to push in front of us. She grabs me to take a selfie. She dances to "River" and pumps her fist to "Rockin' in the Free World." She's a natural. I think about all the times she has rolled her eyes as I headed out to a concert or festival, asking when I was going to grow out of it.

While we camp out for McCartney—my mom insists—a pre-show soundtrack of Beatles and Wings songs plays, accompanied by a slideshow of Macca-through-the-years, in case you forgot that Paul McCartney was in The Beatles. He was the festival's cheesiest act by a mile, all sepia photographs, peace sign projections, and pyrotechnic bombast. He's also the only artist who can get away with it.

If Dylan deals in philosophy, The Stones in immortality, and Neil Young in authenticity, McCartney deals in hope. He is, as Young would dub him during their surprise duet, the Charlie Chaplin of rock n' roll: A tragic artist trading in innocence and pathos, defiantly vulnerable and unapologetically fun.

The rock n' roll success of McCartney's Desert Trip peers' was predicated on their ability to not give a damn, but McCartney's has been the opposite. He's a fastidious, resilient showman, fine-tuned and rehearsed down to the stage bows, key adjustments, and inter-song banter. If he strains on some high notes, he can still wail for Linda on "Maybe I'm Amazed"—but not without first honoring current wife Nancy on "My Valentine." He'll school us all in regret and forgiveness with Lennon homage "Here Today," then insist "Now let's have some fun!" before jumping into the glorified children's song that is 2013's "Queenie Eye." In a life marred by grudges and loss, he's preserved the Beatles' self-abbreviated legacy by celebrating the past via the present, whether that's collaborating with Kanye or playing "Let It Be" for the umpteenth time, because he knows it might help you do the same.

McCartney's music, with The Beatles and otherwise, is so pervasive, so reclaimed through the pop cultural osmosis of supermarket aisles and high school dances, car commercials and dive bar cover bands, it's foolish, if not impossible, to qualify outside of personal contexts.

The Beatles, more than any other musical act, epitomized the soft danger of rock n' roll—the long embraces and dance floor imperatives that seem preposterously innocent now, but genuinely were innocent then. Their early hits weren't about the devil or drugs or getting your rocks off. They're "I Saw Her Standing There" and "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." It's decidedly unpolitical: "Twist and Shout" became the soundtrack to the ultimate safe rebellion movie of all time, Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

But for people like my mom and grandmother, the unpolitical was inherently political. If stolen kisses and holding hands could undermine the state, then what of the sounds that eschewed translation? Watching her update Facebook at the festival, it's strange to think she also remembers what music sounded like before rock n' roll: "Kind of crappy homegrown pop with unoffensive lyrics," she explained. "Rock and roll was entirely different, original, something we could feel in our bones, but not necessarily define."

The irony of Desert Trip is lost on no one: The virile, writhing conviction of a generation, frozen, repackaged, and served up reheated in a sort of TV dinner of nostalgia priced $700 and up. There are entire essays that can, and should, be written about the class politics of festivals, or the overwhelming whiteness of such a festival that could not exist without black music. But calling out a business for selling a product to consumers—and make no mistake, that's what this is—or septuagenarian performers for not keeping us "woke" is a little myopic, isn't it? That's just capitalism, baby.

Real rebellion is not, all apologies to Roger Waters, guilting your crowd with Donald Trump quotes​ and Banksy-lite video graphics​; nor is it ragging on an aging generation who came out to Desert Trip for some closure. It's the beat before the harmonica comes in on "Love Me Do." It's Kool Herc in the rec room at Sedgewick Ave. It's Kraftwerk. It's the evolution that skips steps on the continuum, and that's always going to be a part of human and societal DNA.

We eulogize The Beatles in part because they're the only band that can be pitted equally against the The Stones, Elvis, and The Beach Boys. But there are no Beatles anymore. With all respect to Ringo, Paul is the closest we'll get: A comet orbiting us, streaking forward toward increasingly rare return.

McCartney's brand of hope doesn't mean everything is going to be OK. It's that things might get a little bit better, for a little while, and sometimes that's all we've got. It's that really tiny light we've got to hold onto for dear life. For two hours and 30 minutes, my mom got a chance to hold that again.

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"We were the first rock n' roll act to play Red Square," McCartney recalled towards the end of his set following "Back in the USSR." "All of the government was seated behind me on stage. The Minister of Defense comes up to me and says, 'First record I ever bought, 'Love Me Do.' Then another one comes up, he says, 'We learn how to speak English from listening to Beatles songs! 'Hello! Goodbye!'"

My mom and I look at each other and smile knowingly. I put my arm around her.

The morning they defected, my grandfather showed up at the train station, as they had feared. My mom and Titi feigned outrage at his "preposterous" idea that they were trying to secretly, illegally flee the country. It would be the only time one of his paranoid accusations proved true. She remembers him crying on the platform as he saw them off—he just knew. Six months later, he killed himself.

My mom has blocked out most of her memories from this time; Titi remains keeper of the specifics. Occasionally, details of her youth pop into her head, like seeing ketchup for the first time in the cupboard, and not knowing what it was—some exotic delicacy smuggled from the West—but for the most part, she left them behind with the reel-to-reels and coveted front-zip Levis that her father forbade her from wearing. How else do you get through something like that?

I can't imagine what that feels like, nor can I imagine what it feels like to then come up against your own mortality, and realize there are some things you can't endure your way out of. And maybe that's a relief. Maybe that means jumping in your car and going to a music festival with your daughter, because you finally have nothing left to lose.

"You know, I never thought for a minute, 'This guy is so old,'" my mom tells my friends and me over coffee the morning after the show. "The music spoke for itself. It overshadowed everything. These songs are as current and good as they were then. It lifted some of the mystery. I don't have to associate these songs forever with my life 50 years ago. I never thought I could be this close."

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At 9:40 PM, the lights dim, and the disco remix of "Yellow Submarine" cuts out. The crowd is still, and McCartney strolls out like your next door neighbor fetching the morning paper, a genteel nod and wave to the crowd before slinging on his Hofner.

The twang of "Hard Day's Night" hits the PAs, and my mother is 15 again. We are all 15 again, or whatever age we are when we first heard The Beatles. Her jaw drops, her hands jump to her face, and she screams. She bounces under the soft glow of the stage lights, and her skin is smooth and radiant; her green eyes, which have never faded as she aged, widen as she gazes upwards; her smile is one I haven't seen before. She's beautiful. I imagine her in a friend's basement, gathered close to the radio, jumping up and down and twisting her hips as she sings along. This time she knows all the words.

_Andrea Domanick read the news today, oh boy. Follow her on Twitter. _