My View from South Hill
Saturday, April 10, 2010
I still remember the Monday morning, in fifth grade, when I learned the discomfort of being caught in a “Catch-22.” (It was a few years yet before I would learn the phrase.)
Becky, a classmate, asked me what I had thought of the appearance of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show the night before. I considered my response carefully, since Becky was one of the cutest girls in the class and her opinion mattered.
“I liked them,” I finally ventured. “Everyone likes them, so you’re just going along with the crowd,” Becky replied. “Well, I didn’t like them that much,” I countered. Becky didn’t hesitate: “You don’t like them because you're jealous of all the attention they are getting.” Apparently Becky was as smart as she was cute.
Such was the status of the Beatles at about the time I was first becoming aware not just of popular music but of popular culture more generally. You had to have an opinion about them, and that opinion was for some reason evaluated as an important part of your identity. Growing up means discovering a world wider than that of family, friends, neighborhood, and school. For me and for many others of approximately my age, the Beatles were an essential part of the exploration of that wider landscape, with all its mystery and challenge. Their music, their haircuts, their “four lads” camaraderie (only later discovered to be a public relations fiction), the contrast between John and Paul, the contrast between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the enigma of George, the reassuring goofiness of Ringo, the riddles behind the lyrics of such songs as “Norwegian Wood,” “Eleanor Rigby” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” … the Beatles offered an emerging adolescent a lot to ponder. The negative reactions of many adults to the Beatles phenomenon, so obviously overblown even in the eyes of an eleven year old, just added to the riddle that the Beatles seemed to present.
Forty years ago today, Paul McCartney announced that the Beatles would never again play together. I was at that moment on a school tour of the Soviet Union (another band that has since broken up). Given the impermeability of the Iron Curtain at that time to any information from the decadent West, I was probably one of the last members of my generation to learn that our world had changed. It came as a shock.
The relatively short life cycle of the rock ‘n’ roll band is today well known and something to be expected. Apparently the fusion of individual artistic identities into a collective vehicle for fame and fortune makes for a combustible situation. But back in 1970, when the Duke Ellington Orchestra had played for decades and when bands such as the Glenn Miller Orchestra survived even the death of their leader, we had the illusion our bands would go on forever.
I claim no insight into whether the Beatles made an enduring contribution to the world’s treasure of music and musical forms. I only know how important they were to a narrow generational band of Baby Boomers. Not that there is anything unique about that generational power; I suppose Miley Cyrus (or is it Hannah Montana?) is having the same effect on young people today. On the other hand, there may be something unique about the Beatles after all. WICB airs its Breakfast with the Beatles program every Sunday at noon; Breakfast with the Jonas Brothers just doesn’t have the same ring.
So -- Thank you, lads. You changed our lives in ways that I and my generational cohort cannot fathom, if only because we cannot imagine a world in which you never played.
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