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Lessons from the Beatles

Writer connects with his son in 'Two of Us'

By Todd Leopold

Writer connects with his son in 'Two of Us'

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(CNN) -- Peter Smith tried everything. He played catch. He read books. He tried music.

But it was the same old story: A father and son drifting apart.

Smith had seen it with his own father, a caring but distant man. The two got along, had a relationship of silent understanding, but given the lack of communication, "a whole life slipped away between us," Smith has written.

He didn't want it to happen with his own son, Sam, but Sam wasn't fond of Peter's tastes. Peter played the Stones, Dylan, UB40, Patti Smith, Steely Dan. "Turn it down," Sam said. Sam was 7; he listened to Raffi and the Sugar Beats. That music made Peter's teeth hurt.

Then came the Beatles. Sam was hooked. He memorized lyrics. He learned the history. He played "Abbey Road" over and over. He picked George as his favorite; it was only natural for a kid whose personality had been described as "soulful."

Peter and Sam Smith had found some common ground.

The connection went beyond music, Smith, now 44, says. Sam had questions about the Beatles' lives (and deaths), their lyrics, their times. Peter used his questions as a way to talk about universals: friendship, love, obsession, religion.

"I was so fascinated by how much life stuff came up in the Beatles," Smith says in an interview from his home in Northampton, Massachusetts. Boys, he adds, often don't ask direct questions about big things; they need a tertiary topic of conversation. In the case of his son, the Beatles "allow[ed] all of it to bubble up."

Coming to terms

Smith -- a longtime magazine writer and contributing editor to O: The Oprah Magazine -- has turned his and Sam's story into a book, "Two of Us: The Story of a Father, a Son, and the Beatles" (Houghton Mifflin).

In the beginning, Peter Smith fed his son's hunger for everything about the Beatles, buying him all the CDs and encouraging his musical talent. But Sam -- a wise child -- could usually see the bigger picture.

There was a trip to a Beatlefest, a regular convention of Beatles history, Beatles paraphernalia and Beatlemaniacs -- the latter occasionally all-too-fixated on their favorite band. Peter Smith believed he and Sam could pass half a day in the convention hall. Sam soaked in the atmosphere for a fraction of an hour and decided it wasn't him.

George Harrison was Sam's favorite Beatle.

Peter Smith understands. He was rather uncomfortable himself.

"It was like a feeling of defeat. Living 40 years ago hung heavily in the air," he recalls. "But I'm glad we went -- if only for 17 1/2 minutes."

And there was George Harrison's death. While anchors droned on about how the guitarist "had lost his valiant struggle with cancer" -- a euphemism that Peter quickly rebuffed, telling his son that Harrison had simply died, nothing more or less -- Sam had already put the experience in perspective.

As he and his father played a game of one-on-one later that day, Sam spoke up. He felt sad, but also glad that Harrison wasn't suffering anymore. "He had such a great life, too, Dad," Sam added. "What was he going to do next? What could a person like George Harrison do next? ... I mean, he'd already done everything in his life."

A 'great pride'

The book actually originated with the trip that forms the end of the book, a father-and-son journey to Liverpool. Smith had intended to use the excursion as the subject of a magazine story, but found the city rather bleak; all the places that seemed to exist in Technicolor in Beatles' songs were rather mundane and gray in person.

He decided to broaden the topic: instead of a Liverpool travel story, it would be a journey between father and son. "I noticed there were next to no books out there in which fathers and sons bonded over pop culture," Smith says.

Sam Smith is12 now and his Beatles obsession has faded. He's entered adolescence, and Peter Smith notices subtle differences. "I can see him waving from the deck" while Peter stands on shore, is how he puts it.

But the relationship between father and son is strong now, and Peter Smith isn't worried about growing distant from his son anymore.

"[Growing up] happens to every boy -- it's supposed to happen," he says. "And you have to be vigilant. But as long as I keep the connection there, it'll be OK."

And as much as the son has learned from the father, the father has learned as well.

"My relationship with my son is really one of my great prides," says Smith. "What I've learned is that you don't have to do what your dad did to you. I wanted a terrific relationship with my son -- and I have. And the Beatles helped immeasurably."

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