So much is being written about this being the 50th anniversary of the Beatle’s invasion of America and while I could not be more thrilled to participate in all the nostalgia, I do find that a certain, deeper level is almost universally ignored in most people’s memory pieces.
For me, The Beatles, beginning in 1963, saved my life, rescued it really, and their own individual lives continue to act as a template for me to this very day.
As many have noted, way back in 1963, we were all in deep mourning. For those who were not there, it was not unlike how shattered Great Britain was after the death of Princess Di. Here in America it was exactly like it was immediately after 9/11.
The Kennedy’s were America. They were young, beautiful, vital, compassionate, stylish. They were our royalty and we adored them. Jack Kennedy did not look or sound like any other living politician. Impersonators loved to imitate him on the Ed Sullivan Show. We all imitated him. We all wanted to be him. I mean, not only was he handsome but he was adventurous. He didn’t even wear a hat or coat during his freezing inauguration and that made him seem even more darning and bigger than life. Defiant in a confident way. He didn’t swagger. He just loved life; women and Cuban cigars, Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. When the film "Dr. No" first came out it tanked. But after Jack admitted a penchant for the James Bond novels, overnight the film became a huge hit.
This was an age where heroes meant everything to us. These were the days of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris (I saw Roger hit his 61st). Cowboys of the old west like Bat Masterson and The Rifleman were all over TV and who did not want to live on the Ponderosa? The Cartwrights: all cool. Guns and holsters: cool. Astronauts: cool and so easy to look up to: literally.
These were impossibly giddy times. Those were the days that had a Worlds Fair every 25 years in New York. The future was something that we dreamed about with our eyes open. There were no wars at the moment, so we could indulge in the day to day lives of the Kennedy’s and simply love them for the way that they loved John John and Caroline.
And then in a matter of seconds our lives were assassinated.
We were not just stunned and saddened. We were dead. Our blood was the blood that was on the streets of Dallas. November ’63 was cold and gray: it was like all the color of the world had been drained out and we were all cadavers: bone white zombies. Daddy was gone, slain by a cheap, less than $100 mail order rifle and it was just impossible to accept and process. To this very day. It had to be a conspiracy. It had to be. A mousy nobody lusted for all the thunder that was reserved exclusively for the God of Thunder and he just took him down with a slingshot? Impossible! Unacceptable.
So we have kept Kennedy alive to this day. He’s still alive at the beginning of the Zapruder film. Jackie is still in pink, clutching roses. Reality is so hard on us sometimes, that all we can do is cling to images just so we can get through the day. We need to see the same pictures, hear the same stories over and over again just like little children, because, just like then, we need to be comforted. We need to know that we are safe and not in someone else’s telescopic lens.
Every single image burns like an eternal flame in my mind: John John saluting. Jackie walking with Bobby and Teddy in the procession. The casket in the rotunda. These are not just scrapbook pictures. These are photos that live in our soul, that never, ever go away.
And just like after 9/11, it seemed that it was impossible to go on. Life was without purpose or even dimension really. Grown men on TV like Walter Cronkite, wept openly. Our parents wept openly. The grown up masks were all off and the stark reality of pain was etched in their faces.
The 1950’s were all about paranoia and the fear of an imminent nuclear strike. We spent more time ducking and covering than anything else. A sudden siren would send shock waves of fear through my central nervous system. Were we going to die a Hiroshima nightmare death today? Right now?
And then came Elvis, whose unbridled, hip shaking, jungle tribe music was something that anyone with a youthful pulse could plug right into. He was FREE and by associate so were we. I was too young to "get" Elvis… but there was something intoxicating and dangerous about him that thrilled me.
And yet, in 1963, pop music was all very polite and beach party innocent. A bespectacled singing nun had a huge hit for God’s sake. Civilized society rejected rock and roll. Some faiths condemned it because it was threatening. What John Lennon would say years later was already true: rock and roll was becoming the new wave. The next religion. We were poised. Ready. We were all on the edge of the plank, ready to dive right in as soon as the time was right.
And that time came right after the three bullets shattered Jack Kennedy’s skull. Right after the death of Oswald and right after the period of mourning was over.
But that period did not just end. It came in the form of a seismic event. A life earthquake. The kind of eruption that doesn’t kill… but rather forms instant paradises.
I remember the first time I saw The Beatles. It was on a segment of Jack Parr. His daughter, Randy, had been in London and had eye witnessed and filmed the tsunami that was on the way. The audience roared at the images and Parr was typically droll and befuddled. To me they looked like new animated cartoon characters: the kind that would dance around the streets of Disneyland. I was fascinated… and confused, because clearly, something very real and very powerful was going on here. It was, yes, both foreign and far away and could easily be explained as a silly culture acting silly. But I heard something beneath the mania. I sensed something… wonderful.
And then… just like in a movie or a novel, I went into my room, switched on WABC on my transistor radio (the internet connection of the day) and what came rocketing out like a heat seeking missile was "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and like in a science fiction movie suddenly every single cell in my body woke up. Every single fiber of my DNA flattened and then was reborn. It was like I was directly receiving a personal message from Planet Teenager: life was not only BACK… but it came in every single color of the rainbow. It was HAPPY. It was HAND CLAPPING.
It was like every single hand clap matched a beat of my heart. It was musical. It had melody. Harmony. What were those: guitars? Three voices? Those drums were almost deliriously thrilling. It was like someone super smart had figured out a way to package all the joy that we thought long lost and turning on your radio was the equivalent of opening the single greatest Christmas present of your life. In the moment? Kennedy who?
The floor was replaced by clouds and we were IN FLIGHT; free flying really, with no seat belts or life preservers. There was nothing scary or dangerous at work here. It was seductive. Sweeter than Elvis… but not completely detached from him. THE NEXT BIG THING had arrived. This was it. This was the second coming. Alijah was here and he was moving in. This transcended every single religion on earth; in fact it probably got the atheists dancing. This AN EVENT in three and a half minutes. This was your very first ice cream, your first cupcake, your first kiss all rolled into one. It was a smiling, four headed animal right out of a fairy tale that was cuddly and full of love. This was not simple teenage idolatry This was not some manufactured 16 magazine pin up or just another movie or TV star. This was… fresh. New. Exotic. A not-American tonic that went down as easy as Coke. And just like Coke, you were hooked. The thing about pure happiness is that the minute that it ends… all you want is MORE. And to a starving nation of broken children, ages 2-100, the troops had arrived and the war was finally over. We were liberated. We did not need permission because once you are thrown into the pool, you are pretty much soaking wet and you really don’t care that you still have your The Sundays best suit and shoes on.
Plus, this separated us from the grown up world — a world where Kings and Queens, Princes and Princesses were slaughtered. Now we had ourselves an instant, insistent, irresistible alternative that was not some made up fantasy. This was evidence of pure, exhilarating magic. This was like the first time you entered a baseball stadium big.
But the part that I mentioned earlier, the part that almost always goes unnoticed is the subtext of Paul and John. Death and tragedy had visited them both at very early ages: both lost their mommies and coped with it differently. John became enraged and was mean to the world; troubled by his rage from being abandoned by a magical mom who had already abandoned him once and the tender age of 15 or 16 16, just as he had fallen in son love with her again… just as he had reclaimed her and she him… she was struck down and killed. Paul lost his mum to breast cancer (just as he would lose Linda years later. And his present wife survived her bout with it). So they KNEW death. They KNEW sorrow. They KNEW abandonment.
Just like we had.
John and Paul belonged to their very own, very exclusive Fight Club with it’s own restrictive rules and exclusive rights. But more important they were BONDED. Little had to be discussed. They had been bitten by the Elvis bug and already sensed, no, they KNEW their fate; their destiny. Their was only one way out and that was by creating the most optimistic world that you could possibly, well, imagine. (How wonderful that thanks to one brief later in life utopian song, John would almost own the copyright on the word).
Behind the scenes, John continued to rage. He made fun of cripples. He loved to flash the Nazi salute. At Paul’s 21st birthday, when a friendly to the Beatles reporter kidded John about his recent trip to Spain with Brian Epstein, inferring that it was perhaps a homosexual liaison, John picked up a shovel and bashed the reporter in the face with it. It was THAT threatening to a severely threatened, very young man. Later, when a reporter referred to him as "the chubby Beatle" he became nearly anorexic. Paul on the other hand figured out how to manipulate the world charm. He was a true world stage politician. While some attacked him for being less than substantial, in truth, behind closed doors he was the most avant-garde of the four, having been saved and housed by the Asher family of London who exposed him to the magic of London culture. And in 1964 does anyone doubt that the song "Yesterday" — the most recorded song in human history, was really about his mom? And did George Martin (who further liberated then by never saying the word "no") not understand the true feeling of that song with his mournful string ensemble?
Ringo, a latecomer, replaced the heart throb of the group (another threat). Ringo KNEWS sadness too having spent much of his life in and out of hospitals. George was simply young and not "important." His growth was shadowed and even ignored by the senior dynamic duo of the group. But his spiritual growth began with his very first song, "Don’t Bother Me." Which, although it was about him being sick, it was, I think, also about him being sick of what was and what was about to become.
So The Beatles were our perfect comrades who understood us because they understood themselves so deeply. To us it was all new… but by the time we got his with Beatlemania, they had spent thousand of hours in Hamburg in rock and roll boot camp. They were already on the fastest track imaginable, already full of pills and piss.
They were blue collar boys, just like us, who had heard the calling, both literally and figuratively. Their music was vital. Insistent. Tribal. What many of "civilized" society considered "negro music" was as pure and human as it could possibly be. The status quo was about to be blown up on an unimaginable level and London was about to become the center of the universe.
But here I am, in 2014, and the joy and the music has not diminished one bit. Nothing has changed. I am still that transistor toting bad boy/good boy of 1963. While some are re-visiting the Beatles via new packaging of their music and other merchandise, nothing has changed for people like me. It may be year 50, but it is hardly nostalgia. Not a day, an hour goes by when I don’t indulge in Beatles music. In another story, I’ll tell you how I almost met Paul McCartney not once but THREE times — and why it never happened.
But here is the final piece of this puzzle: The Beatles have never just been about music to me. I have learned how to live through their lives. I’m talking literally here. It seems as they grew up and apart, they were pioneers, like we all are, in life. I lived through their relationships, their separations (with each other and significant others) and divorce (including all the Norwegian Wood affairs). I have lived through birth and death. Cancer and more death. God, the loss of God, mediation and the discovery of drugs and spirituality.
I have learned how to survive all kinds of dependency and thanks to the two surviving members, I am learning about old age, what life will be like when I get to 64 and beyond. I have learned about business, having eye witnessed the birth of the rock and roll industry. I have learned about economics, fairness, decency and deception. I have learned about what money can do to your soul. I have learned about loneliness and abandonment. I have learned about parenting and vegetarianism. I have learned about every single genre of music from blues to jazz and classical. I have learned about filmmaking, music making, television and musical video making. I have learned about concerts and camaraderie via all the people I’ve met. I’ve learned about failure and redemption (I was front and center at the Willowbrook Concert at MSG when John played with Elephant’s Memory).
I’ve learned about sex, love and marriage. Fathering. Being true to yourself. Writing from the heart. Second and third chances. Anger and fighting and coming together. I have learned about fashion and musical instruments. I have learned how to play a few of them. I have learned about arrests, busts, lawyers. I have learned about religious fanaticism and fame. I have learned about more assassinations than I care to think about. I have learned about aunts and uncles and cousins, sisters and brothers. I have learned about war and peace. I have learned about the id, ego and superego. I have learned about success and I have learned about crushing defeat.
I have learned that in my life, I’ve love you more.
I could, of course, go on and on and on. But the bottom line is: I have learned how to live a life, by having The Beatles be guides. And that is why I think of them as Pope John Paul George Ringo.
I am still not giving up my pursuit of meeting Paul. That story will be next (Preview: it all began with a phone call in 1980 to Lee Eastman, when I worked at Disney, having read about Paul getting the rights to "Rupert Bear.")
But here on the eve of their triumphant arrival at JFK, all I can do is be grateful, that I was along for the ride. That I was smart enough to hang on and be a disciple… for the next fifty years… and counting.
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