I can still play it in my mind, like a crackly old video on a camcorder. My cousin, age four, sitting at the kitchen table, itchy skin reddened with eczema and hair cut into a black bowl. She had just arrived from Germany, and she didn’t speak a lick of English, but she sang the words with perfect clarity, and we laughed and clapped and my dad sang along: Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away…
Those too were the words he listened to decades earlier, on a little transistor radio in Vietnam in the 1960s. He would tune into the American station while he was studying for his school exams, and listen to songs whose meanings he could cobble together with his nascent English. He loved the Beatles best – they sang songs about things that were simple, like love and peacetime, when his life in war-torn Vietnam was anything but. He even had a pen pal in England, Nadine. She lived in Liverpool, where the Fab Four were from. It seemed like another world to him, but the letters were in his hands, so he knew it was real. Even when he himself went off to war, he remembered the songs, could sing them in his sleep.
And me – I grew up with those songs, too, on the other side of the world, soundtracking the car rides we’d take from the northwestern suburbs of Sydney down the coast, or up to Queensland, or just a short trip to my uncle’s house where I’d play with my cousin, whose English was rapidly improving. We would sing along to the CDs, or our dad would play the songs at home on his guitar, and we learned to harmonise together to all his favourites – the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, John Denver. He told us about how he dreamed of hearing those songs performed live, but maybe never would.
When I was in early high school, my parents hit a rough patch. Thinking about how the contours of my world might change forever, I sat in my bedroom and listened to the Beatles’ 1 record. “Try to see it my way,” they crooned. “Life is very short and there’s no time for fussing and fighting, my friend.” I listened again and again. “We can work it out.” I asked my parents to sit in the room with me and listen to the song, too. They stayed together.
My sister, two years younger than me, became even more obsessed with the Beatles when she started high school. She started to teach herself the guitar and I could hear her murmuring their songs through the wall that stood between our bedrooms, hers plastered with Beatles posters. There was nothing else in her teenage world. Years later, she would get a tattoo on her forearm of the Abbey Road cover, drawn by our dad.
With archive footage of the Fab Four’s Australian tours in the 60s released, I’m offered a glimpse into the impact on other people’s lives by the Beatles
A few years later, my older sister went to Europe and stayed with Nadine and her husband, and I followed suit when I was 21. I visited all the places I’d heard about in songs – Abbey Road, Strawberry Fields. I saw John’s house and Paul’s house. At the end of my visit, Nadine sat me down and gave me a bundle of old yellowed paper. I unfolded them one by one and my dad’s neat teenage handwriting rushed out at me, gushing about his favourite band, his favourite songs. I felt so close to him as I read his words, like I was seeing a part of him that had been hidden until then. When I brought the letters home for him, he held them in his hands and wept.
The whole family finally saw Paul McCartney together in 2017, the night before my dad’s 70th birthday. My older sister flew in as a surprise from Canada to join us, and I’d never seen someone as blissful as my usually stoic father was that night. I felt like I was there with his teenage self, a boy I never knew but couldn’t exist without.
As I sat next to him joyfully singing along for three hours, I thought about how strange and wonderful life can be. That this music had transcended so many cultures, languages and lifetimes – from Vietnam to England to Germany to Australia, 1965 to the 2010s – writing itself into the fabric of our history. With archive footage of the Fab Four’s Australian tours in the 60s released, I’m offered a glimpse into the impact on other people’s lives by the Beatles, too – people with their own fascinating stories to tell.
Australia In Colour explore's Beatlemania on our own shores. The four-part series brings Australia’s story brought vividly to life at 8.30pm on Wednesday. Available anytime and anywhere on your favourite device after broadcast on SBS On Demand.