The Beatles and the Day After

The Beatles - Fab Four
John Paul George and Ringo

What would it feel like to wake up on a Monday morning and realize one is bigger, more popular, more sought after, better loved, lionized by more people than ever thought possible? What would it feel like to wake up on a Monday morning and suspect a path started that is something bigger than oneself, something new that has the latent power to change the world? What would it feel like to wake up on a Monday morning and realize one has the talent and the industry and the good fortune to be in a band that can perform original songs with such an overriding energy that they touch lives, change lives, even challenge those who live those lives?  

Not bad, one assumes.

On the Monday after Ed Sullivan, the four lads, the boys, the fab four, John, Paul, George and Ringo, The Beatles, rested at the Plaza in midtown Manhattan. They held a long news conference with reporters, many of whom had taken to the Liverpool wit.  The boys had won over many of the hard boiled New York newsies. They had charmed them, and the four musicians with the hair appeared to be more than a Sullivan novelty item. Some even suspected that at a fundamental level The Beatles had caused something to happen. Some believed that something had changed. Of course, in February, 1964, nobody knew the ways and to what degree everything was about to change.

One can imagine the feeling of accomplishment, of self-confidence, of the peace inherent in the lull after an experience so extraordinary that the passage of time, itself, seemed to be an insult to the enormity of the event.  After all, this was before instant replay, instant recording and access to the replay of everything. It was a time when all events so experienced were relegated only to the halls of memory. There was no sense that one could catch it at some later time.  Watching The Beatles for the minutes they were on the screen required focus. But baby-boomers were better at watching TV than anybody. The TV was theirs. It was their friend, companion, baby sitter, tutor and escape. Boomers were the first “children of the screen.”

The next day, the day after, that morning in America, perhaps the first morning in America since the prior November, the buzz (though it was not called “buzz,” then) was all Beatles all the time.

A brave few who had tolerant or absentee parents brushed their hair down over their foreheads and, like the first soldiers to storm the beach, ventured forth and awaited the ridicule that was soon to follow.  One young artist drew Ringo’s face in profile fifty times and in the playground before the school bell rang, sold each portrait for a quarter, a 1964 quarter. At least one nun bemoaned the fact that these four Brits had overwhelmed her students – Brits who, in all probability, were members of the Church of England. They were not, not that it mattered then, now or ever. But it was 1964 and the nuns, like too many Catholics, had divided the world into us and them, Papist or damned, Roman or lost, Catholic or without hope. Hard to believe, but true.

On the day after Ed Sullivan, parents went about their business. Fathers put on the grey flannel and drove the Chevy, Pontiac or Ford (all-Detroit and only Detroit) to the train station for the ride into the city. On the commuter train they read the papers and saw that 73 million viewers had tuned in to see the English band their kids couldn’t stop talking about. They shook their heads and wondered what the huff-a-puff was all about. Sure, they had weathered Elvis, and he was a rare phenomena, but that southern boy could sing. And he was good looking, too. Then they realized that they too had been part of the 73 million, that they too might have to contend with all this nonsense until the fickle gods rested their laurels on the head of some new Frankie out of Philly.

Mothers with aprons would command the kitchen and consider how they might have to navigate the ruffled waters of change. Was this anything to worry about? They’re just boys, after all, and they seemed harmless enough. They even sang a Meredith Wilson song. “There were bells on a hill …” From The Music Man, it was. The cute one sang that. The one the youngest daughter likes. But all that hair. It just does not seem right. Boys are boys and girls are girls. And they should not blur the boundaries. If God had wanted boundaries blurred he would have done it in his own way, and not with crazy hair styles. Probably wigs, one mother said to herself, knowing that the boys didn’t wear wigs, knowing that they were from Mars or England, which in 1964 was about the same thing.

On the day after the world changed, the world looked pretty much the same. Change begins with the smallest distinctions, the tiniest separation of lines forming the angle that increases over time. In two or three years Bob Dylan’s prophecy of changing times would be realized through the influence of the four lads, The Beatles, who’d stopped touring because the noise had all but destroyed their ability to play live.

They were artists, in every sense of the word: artists or one artist, the sum being greater than the parts, and like artists they retreated to the studio where they could hear again the sounds and words that welled up from their sub-conscious and flash-fired their imaginations.

Some years ago the movie going public enjoyed the quiet and evil war a pious, politically adept mediocrity named Salieri waged against the young genius, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Salieri made the mistake often made by those who have been endowed with just enough talent or intelligence to know how mediocre they truly are. He bargained with God. He offered a deal: If he was good and pious and desirous of serving God by writing inspired musical compositions for the Church and the Emperor, then maybe God would deign to grant him the talent necessary to accomplish the task. Salieri wanted to be touched by fire. Short on talent, he wanted to be a genius; he wanted to be someone other than himself.

Granted, he was relentlessly average and relentlessly frustrated, and like many self-styled “very religious” people who will gladly trade a rosary for a sonata, he learned that bargaining with God (despite some documentary evidence to the contrary) is a transaction fraught with disappointment. The same cleric or pious civilian who’s happy to tell his flock or friend that “God’s ways are not man’s ways” can get really bitter when first-hand experience informs him or her that “God’s ways are not man’s ways.” And, for Salieri, what made it all worse was the fact that young Wolfgang was a potty mouth, given to scatological word games, puns, jokes and embellishments he’d scribble in notes to his sister and then to his intended. For Salieri Mozart was like the immature relative who doesn’t know how to behave at a funeral, because death is as foreign to the spark within, as darkness is to light. From Salieri’s point of view, the young genius was not proper, perhaps in the way puppies are not proper. Amadeus, God’s beloved was not God fearing.

Genius holds little truck with all the rules and regulations that border the vacuums resident in the minds of lesser lights. The 18th century was a time of surface, style and form, a time of rules and regs, a time when a few over-indulged and the other 98 percent went begging. Both the Court and the Church were like self-generating fractiles of “do’s and don’ts,” all of it being death to the truly gifted who’d already subsumed and accommodated the forms necessary to house the “something new” they were about to give the world.

In the beginning, The Beatles, like Mozart, smiled effortlessly, infectiously, ingratiatingly. They smiled with big grins, the kind of smiles one would hope to see at the best party of all time, the kind of smiles that say this is the high point of what life can be, enlivening, emboldening, freeing, gifting, ever new, with the infinite generosity of that inanimate voice who so often chooses the most unlikely characters to manifest a touch, a taste, a glimpse, or even the barest sweet sound of eternity.

In the end, several years after that Sunday night in February, they did not smile as much. They were not happy. They too had had their Salieri, for it is the vocation of small men to try to tear down great men. The Beatles were still The Beatles, and they had changed the world, but they had changed, too. They felt trapped. They had spent too much time in too close quarters. They had been boys, but by 1969 they had become men, and as men they had grown apart. They had gotten on each other’s nerves. They were not meant to be life-long roommates, and as roommates who had changed the world their break-up was analogous to the meltdown that can occur when a nuclear plant fails: such enormous energy once channeled, such enormous energy let loose.

In the years after, some pathetic kid would shoot and kill John Lennon. A crazed man would break into George Harrison’s house and attack him, knifing him several times, hastening the progress of the cancer that ultimately killed him. Paul would become the most powerful god in the very pantheon he and his band-mates had unknowingly prepared all those years ago. And Ringo would drink too much and lose a wife and get sober and marry a wife and remind everyone of the humanity resident in those who are truly great.

On the second day after the day The Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan, they traveled by train to Washington D.C. where they played their first American concert. On the day after D.C., they returned to New York and played Carnegie Hall. On the day after that they flew to Florida and affirmed their progress on a path they’d chosen, or the path that just happened to be theirs.

Life went on, changed, but on, and The Beatles took up their place in the collective consciousness of several generations. They were the romantic alternative to the classical group-think of the all-conforming fifties. They were the outward manifestation of that desire in every person for his or her individuality, self-expression, the power of emotions and the wisdom of intuition. It’s an innate desire, one pole of every person’s being, a desire that must make room for and accommodate its equal but opposite sibling, which is the desire for order, consistency, mathematical certitude, the empirical and its measurement, process and procedure, form over substance.

During the Great Depression and World War II, survival required that at least two generations set aside the apparent self-indulgence of the romantic mode. The claustrophobic conformity of the fifties was but an extension of the conformity of the prior decade’s classical military mind. In the mid-fifties Elvis pointed to another door; Kennedy opened it, and The Beatles walked through it, inviting everybody else to follow.

The particular periods of time when a society’s culture tends toward capital “R” Romanticism generally follow on singular, society-wide tragedies or lost wars. They tend to be short, highly charged, hyper-energized, world-changing periods of time. They do not last longer than a decade, and few would survive them if they did. But they are times to be remembered and valued, even studied, because they are also the times when cultures cleanse, renew and repopulate their mythologies and legends. On the day after The Beatles changed the world, the heavens changed, too – by a factor of four.

Editorial By Michael Hogan


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