Struggling Weekly, Feb. 17, 2011
Week before last, on my “This Day in History” calendar from the History Channel, was an item about the Beatles arriving in the U.S. for the first time.
Now, unless you’ve been Rip Van Winkling it for the past 47 years, you know that that event was the start of a revolution in popular music, the British Invasion bringing American rhythm and blues back to its home in a form that changed the charts forever. And for those of us who were teenagers at the time, the Fab Four wrote the soundtrack to our high school years and young adulthood.
Last month, my older brother turned 64, and I sent him a birthday card that played upon the John Lennon-Paul McCartney lyric “When I’m Sixty-Four,” from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” I wasn’t sure Jim would get the reference — I didn’t remember him being as big a Beatle fan as I was — but he did.
In fact, when he called me last week, Jimbo said that he had taken out “Sgt. Pepper’s” on his birthday and listened to it. The Beatles’ arrival in the U.S. preceded their first appearance on the “Ed Sullivan Show,” and Jim reminded me of something I had forgotten — that we had watched it at Rick Jensen’s house.
Rick, Jim and I were three-quarters of what my mother referred to as the “Fearsome Foursome,” the fourth being Eugene “Hugo” Wells, like Rick a classmate of mine. The other two boys lived next door to each other, easy walking distance from the old home place on Russell Road; we were pretty much inseparable my freshman and sophomore years, before Jim graduated.
I’m sure that evening included some carping from Hugo, who always was kind of contrary and ended up being a Dave Clark Five fan. Usually, though, it was “Beatles vs. Stones,” as David Bowie wrote in “All the Young Dudes.”
That was just one of the aspects of Beatlemania. We tried to get away with growing our hair as long as we could — a losing battle, considering parental opinion and school rules. (We couldn’t even wear blue jeans at Milton Union.)
We eagerly awaited every new Fab Four single, several of which ended up being Christmas presents from my parents. They were inevitably No. 1 hits; the Beatles movies were must-sees.
“Sgt. Pepper’s,” a revolutionary piece of popular culture, came out just before my high school graduation. But as I moved out into the adult world, the Lads from Liverpool were on a collision course with dissolution — the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi thing, the Apple Corp fiasco, etc.
The tours had already ended — the guys couldn’t take anymore teenage screaming — and the singles became an afterthought to the albums. It all came unglued in the early 1970s, but not before producing some more really memorable music — the White Album, the second side of “Abbey Road” and the grand finale, “Let It Be.”
The group broke up, and in my opinion separately became less than the sum of their parts — the case for many of the original rock groups that split up to pursue solo projects. With Lennon, there was too much Yoko; Harrison got lost in Eastern mysticism and political causes; McCartney showed that he needed Lennon’s edge to write decent songs. Ringo was, well, Ringo — entertaining, pleasantly goofy, but not very original or creative.
Lennon was assassinated (is it 30-plus years ago that Kube called me and asked, “Who shot J.L.?”), Harrison died 10 years ago of lung cancer. McCartney’s been knighted, but acts too much like a British Lord, pompous and presumptuous; worse yet, he seems to have lost his voice.
But we’ve still got the original music. The Christmas before last, Jeanne got me the remastered versions of the albums I didn’t already have on CD; I listen and am amazed by the sound, cleaned up by modern technology. Maybe that’s because I listened to them for so many years on static-saturated AM radio, and scratched-up 45s and LPs. But the melodies and lyrics have stood the test of time, whether you listen to them on an iPod or a transistor radio.