So where was I when the lights went on fifty years ago tomorrow evening, when Ed Sullivan introduced the Beatles and Americans began to stir from the darkness that had enveloped them since the previous November, when their president was killed?
Where was I? In the basement of my Uncle Gene’s home in the St. Paul suburbs, with a fair number of my cousins. But as to the lights coming on again and American grief beginning to dissipate, well, we’ve heard that for years, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a cheap and cheesy linkage of two separate events that happened to follow one another by a little more than two months.
Not that we hadn’t been grieving since Dallas. We had. An American president hadn’t been killed for more than sixty years, and John Kennedy had seemed so youthful and so energetic that I think we saw him as invulnerable. I was ten, and after Dallas, the world felt subdued and grey, and I can only assume that those feelings were a reflection of the feelings of the adult world around me. And little things kept reminding me of our loss: I winced far past February whenever I went into the St. Cloud Post Office and saw the picture of President Lyndon Johnson on the wall.
And then came the Beatles. Were they fun? Yes. Did they deliver a new kind of music? Yes. But I’m guessing that the awareness of those things was generally evident only to pop-music listening teens and folks in the music and radio businesses. I think parents, in general, were bemused and befuddled. Folkies and so-called serious musicians were mostly dismissive or hostile. (The chief outlier among the folkies, if we can believe the stories, was Bob Dylan, who heard the future in “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” but then, Bob Dylan always was an outlier.)
Now, I love the Beatles’ music. They were the first pop/rock group whose music pulled me in, and as such, they can take the blame for everything that’s followed, including the 2,900 LPs; the shelves of reference books; this post and the 1,400 or so that have preceded it here; and the bad, mediocre and occasionally good lyrics and songs I’ve written over the years. But all that came later, spurred by Abbey Road.
When I saw them on Ed Sullivan that February night fifty years ago, I saw a band that my girl cousins liked. (I only had at that time one boy cousin near my age, and I don’t recall him being with us that evening.) I didn’t see the Beatles as a band that would change the world of popular music and the larger world around it. After all, I was ten. But I have a hard time believing that non-music, non-radio adults of the time had even a dim clue of what the Beatles would do, either. I certainly don’t think that the joyful hysteria among young people, especially among the girls, did anything more than baffle (or maybe anger and upset) the vast majority of parents in the same way as did the Beatles’ long hair – and as conservative as it looks now, it’s worth remembering that it was outrageously long for the day.
None of this means that the Beatles who showed up on Ed Sullivan’s show fifty years ago this weekend weren’t a musically accomplished band who would become even more so and who would become at the same time a cultural force with influence far greater than anyone could have imagined on that night in February 1964. That’s all true. But we didn’t know all that on that night. Looking back at history foreshortens the view: Things that developed over time seem to be jammed up one against the other, and things that happened separately at about the same time get linked, even though they have no connection other than the times in which they happened.
Having been linked in the media by newsmen, historians and hucksters for two generations, the two events – JFK’s death and the Beatles’ arrival – will remain linked in popular perception. But it might be good to remember that the Beatles were not grief counselors. They were a band, the best band in the world, and they only got better. That, I think, is the important thing to remember about the events of fifty years ago.
I’ve think I’ve posted it here before, but there’s only one piece of music that makes sense today: Here’s a rip from the A-side of the 45 that my dad bought for my sister and me in February 1964. Fifty years ago this week, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” was in the second week of a seven-week run at No. 1, and it’s today’s Saturday Single.