Memory is a tricky thing, but there are key, resilient things in my mind that stay stored there. I recall my grandmother screaming, “They shot the president!” up the stairs as my mother gave me a bath. I also remember watching JFK’s funeral a few days after that because of two specific images – his little son saluting on the steps and the horse with no rider. I don’t remember anything else besides those things, but they are vivid in my mind now.
A few months later another visceral moment is etched in my brain – the first appearance of The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964. I was only four years old, but I had heard my parents and grandparents talking about this “Beatle thing” as they referred to it over Sunday dinner. As was the tradition, my grandparent’s watched good old Ed every Sunday night, and the conversation got me wanting to watch too. Now, I had seen plenty of old Ed before, mostly being intrigued by the mouse puppet Topo Gigio (just the way Ed said that name is seared into my memory) and Señor Wences the ventriloquist.
I particularly thought this was a children’s show because of that silly mouse, but there were always other great acts and Nana and Pop loved seeing the acrobats, the plate spinners, the dancers, and singers that appeared every week. I thought they all were famous and, coupled with sitting through The Lawrence Welk Show with them as well on Saturday nights, I am not sure what kind of influence this all had on me except to think everyone on these shows seemed to be having fun.
The night we watched The Beatles is like a static film clip in my mind. My little sister had already been put to bed, and I recall wearing my cowboy pajamas (of which I must have had ten different pairs) and a cowboy hat as I sat on the rough carpet in front of the sofa, where my grandparents sat. My parents sat in chairs on opposite sides of the sofa. I recall Sullivan announcing the group, hearing the audience squeal, and then something of them bowing when it was all over. The rest of the time I may not have been looking at the black and white images on the old Zenith as much as dozing off and dreaming of Rawhide and The Virginian (my favorite cowboy shows at the time according to my father).
What I do know is that this had a profound effect on me because after that I started noticing all songs my mother listened to on the radio. Before that I had no clue as to who was singing what, though I had some clue as to who Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra were (two of my parents’ favorite singers). I also knew who Bing Crosby and Perry Como were because my mother had played their Christmas albums only a few months before again and again as she decorated, wrapped presents, and wrote out Christmas cards.
Now I started to discern in a very subtle way that there were vast differences between what I had seen on TV in those Beatles guys and the rest of the stuff I had been digesting. When the Beatles came on the radio even Mom sang along with the songs, but she stopped if Nana came in. I guess she wasn’t sure about them or Nana’s perception of them (more likely), but now I was convinced that The Beatles were something I needed to hear again (and again and again).
Depending on how old you were when The Beatles first came to America, there was a period of growth and then one of rejection followed by recognition and deep appreciation (at least that was my path). Much of this had to do with my parents, who were fine with mop-top Beatles but started to question things when they changed (again and again) and “became weird.” Looking back on it now, I am sure that they could not have stayed “mop-tops” forever, just as apparently today people like Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber, and company could not retain their former teeny bopper images to please their fans.
Unfortunately, as The Beatles became themselves rather than their former and more palatable (for some) corporate creation, fans were shaken up. I was too young not to follow my parents lead, but then I came to my senses and appreciated that change was a necessary and compelling thing for the group, just as it inevitably would be for me. What happened to The Beatles is nothing short of extraordinary. They went from those first fledling moments on a cold Sunday night in February 1964 to a juggernaut that literally rocked the world.
There is no reason to go into the story here; it is well known, but how it affected everyone is very personal. For me it was an awakening, although very small at the time. I went on to carry a Beatles lunchbox to school. In fact, I had several of them finishing with a Yellow Submarine one that I only wish I had retained. I recall giving it away as a teenager to a friend’s little brother along with baseball cards and a James Bond attaché case. Oh, the pain, the pain!
Yet once I became older and the group had already broken up, The Beatles’ influence made me want to write, to travel, to act, and to experience the world. One of my first trips involved going to London with the goal to get to Liverpool. Just as The Beatles had their defining initial career moments in my city, I had some epiphanies in their hometown. I went to all the obligatory sites, drank a pint in The Grapes (their favorite pub), saw a show in The Cavern Club (the exhumed version of the place that launched their careers but had once had been filled in to make a parking lot), and hit Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields if not forever at least for time enough to understand the impact of these places on their lives and music. I sat on the bench with the Eleanor Rigby statue, stood in the doorway with the John Lennon effigy, and noted the plaque that rightly touted “Four Lads Who Shook the World.”
Over the years since I have visited every continent except Antarctica, and all of my journeys were no doubt inspired by the Fab Four (if they could do it, why not I?). I tried to follow their careers after the band dissolved, but must admit I own just one post break up album by Ringo, a few by George (including the amazing All Things Must Pass), many more from Paul and his bands on the run, and even more of John’s (culminating in his last Double Fantasy). Sadly, I don’t have anything recent by Paul or Ringo; and that doesn’t mean I don’t still like them, but more that the newer songs are farther removed from Beatles and thus infinitely more depressing. I tend to like to imagine them as young, healthy, and together, not as Paul and Ringo – the “surviving” Beatles.
We all spent the years of wanting and hoping The Beatles would come together as it were, and I recall watching Saturday Night Live when the offer was made for them to reunite (even Ringo would get a little share). Little did I know that John and Paul were together in New York City that night watching the show. Many years later I learned that John and Paul debated about heading over to the studio to have a little fun with Lorne Michaels (perhaps on the air of a live show?), but that never came to pass. Imagine, just imagine, if it had.
Of course, 1980 changed the course of every Beatles fan’s life. I know the tears I cried when John died, and it was less my mourning the now total impossibility of a reunion (by 1980 most of us mostly knew that it would never happen anyway) than weeping for John’s death and loss of my own innocence, my expiring youth that had just had a cruel and sadistic slap to the face. All things seemed possible in 1964, but now just 16 years later John was dead and there was nothing left to say about The Beatles or anything else for that matter (at least that was how I felt at the time).
It has taken people a long, long time to get over John’s death, and every time December comes around I get emotional again. I have thought about The Beatles in one way or another every day for some reason since 1980. There are always reminders in New York. We can recall those innocent pictures of them frolicking in Central Park before their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, or many years later the images of John and Yoko strolling peacefully through the same park. We can think of the frenzy around the theater on Broadway or the barricades holding back the frenzied crowds of girls outside The Plaza Hotel. There is Madison Square Garden, where I went to see Elton John and Lennon came out and brought down the house, and I recall seeing John walking down Central Park West and forcing myself to not even look his way, fighting every instinct inside of me to be a freaking out looney fan.
Now, all these years later that February night long ago still remains. I remember the carpet burns on my butt from sitting there on the floor, the rabbit ears on top of the Zenith that had aluminum foil taped around the top, and the smell of Nana’s furniture polish on the coffee table next to me. I am still thinking of that night, of the grainy images in my brain, and the vague happiness of songs that seemed if not sung by angels at least by some beings that were not of this planet.
50 years ago today the legend began and helped us to see the world in a different, wonderful new way. Thank you, John, Paul, George, and Ringo for everything, especially for teaching me that we all can take a sad song and make it better, that we can imagine a world where all we need is love, and that it is all up to us to give peace a chance.
Despite everything that has happened in these past 50 years, Beatles fans, their music lives forever, and you know for that you should be glad. Yeah, yeah, yeah! Yeah, yeah, yeah! Yeah!
Photo credits: ny daily news, fanshare.com, knoxnews.com, liverpool.fluxtime.com