(Just got back online, lol – promoted by buhdydharma )
This diary is all about the Beatles. It is not particularly political or topical, though some politics do sneak in. I offer it here mainly as a diversion.
I work on diaries like this when I need something calming, something to stave off however briefly the unyielding onslaught of relentlessly bad news – something to ease my woe and soothe my worried mind. Reminiscing can sometimes do that for me, and what more pleasant subject to reminisce about than music? Sweeter still, to my taste, the Beatles. Not to dismiss all the other greats, I love them all, but the Beatles were special in my life.
Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup
They slither wildly as they slip away across the universe
John Lennon – Across the Universe
The Beatles phenomenon coincided with my adolescence. Perhaps more so than any other generation before or since, the fate of my own was profoundly intertwined, as odd as it may sound, with that of a rock ‘n roll group. Perhaps odder still, it was four working-class lads from Liverpool, England known as the Beatles. Their recording career spanned a mere seven years but their impact was so great that in 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked them number one on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
They were just kids when the Magical Mystery Tour began…and the way they came out of nowhere and took the world by storm, bowling us all over and taking us along for the ride was worthy of the lofty cosmic title.
The Beatles Era
My generation grew up with the Beatles and the rock ‘n roll tsunami that they unleashed upon the world. The 60s were very strange times and the Beatles, being the hottest thing in pop culture ever, became a big part of the cultural mix and the huge wave of change that washed over the country and the world. It was a time of great turmoil. John F. Kennedy had just been killed, and we were beginning to hear of a bitter conflict in a tiny Asian country called Vietnam. Kids were being drafted left and right, black people were being denied civil rights, the conservatives were undermining our government and our people and the sheer injustice of all that was happening was tearing people apart. The Beatles helped keep the kids together.
The four young musicians who made up the Beatles were under such a microscope that they virtually lived their lives on the public stage. We all followed the ongoing story of the lives of Beatles, their changes, and their reactions to everything that was going on, all on the evening news with varying degrees of fascination. When John said something about Nixon or peace or Vietnam, everyone heard. As fortune would have it, they were four very intelligent young men. John Lennon, in particular, had an affinity for cutting through the bullshit – but they were all seekers, and when they discovered a truth, they passed it along through their music, their public comments or their actions.
“It just was a gradual development over the years. I mean last year was ‘all you need is love.’ This year, it’s ‘all you need is love and peace, baby.’ Give peace a chance, and remember Love. The only hope for us is peace. Violence begets violence. You can have peace as soon as you like if we all pull together. You’re all geniuses, and you’re all beautiful. You don’t need anyone to tell you who you are. You are what you are. Get out there and get peace, think peace, and live peace and breathe peace, and you’ll get it as soon as you like.”
As we were changed by events, so were the Beatles. Their music kept pace with the sociological revolution that was taking place in those times. As we became hippies, experimented with pot and LSD, and grew in our opposition to the Vietnam War – the Beatles and their music chronicled our evolution revolution.
To a very large extent Beatle music was the soundtrack of our times. It may seem silly in retrospect, but at the time we all felt it in our bones.
As they grew and times changed, and the war in Vietnam became a larger and larger part of our cultural experience, the music of the Beatles became more and more serious, more questioning and more rebellious – more in tune with the sentiment of the times. Their music affected those of us who listened to it religiously. Our travails with the war in Nam, the draft and the antiwar/youth movement it provoked affected them in return. There was a robust counter culture that had formed over decades, of which the hippies were but a part, the civil rights movement was in full bloom and there was widespread social disaffection. There was paranoia in the wind due to the war, the drug war and the burgeoning police state. We all watched on the evening news as black people were beaten in the streets of Birmingham and elsewhere. And the masses, the silent majority, were so steeped in propaganda that they couldn’t think straight – not unlike what we’ve seen lately. There were all these strange forces and synergies at play. Because of the weird confluence of historical events and cultural upheaval, for that one brief time in history, as never before or since, rock ‘n roll became a major force in the larger culture. Music mattered more than a lot of other things in those days. Some truths are easier to address though music or art.
With our government lying its ass off to us about Vietnam, the war on drugs, civil rights and all sorts of other things, the truth as always was hard to find. Ours came to us on rock ‘n roll records. It was an odd phenomenon, perhaps akin to the Daily Show thing. Real truth has a way of coming at you sideways.
My contemporaries, the bulk of my generation, were not just fans of the Beatles – we were followers. There is a strange but very real sense in which they led the way for us through the minefields of the 60s…with, of course, a little help from their friends.
I was 12 and living in France when I first heard of them. They became very popular very quickly in Europe. No kid my age could avoid the Beatles magazines and rags. The damned things were everywhere. These guys were really all the rage in a way that may be hard to fathom now. Beatlemania is the term that was used to describe the unprecedented hyperventilation they caused.
My family returned to the states in ’64 where I was one of the first kids on my block to have a Beatles album, having brought it with me from Paris. We arrived in the states, just in time to watch the Beatles in their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on our living room television. Believe it or not, their American debut on the Sullivan Show was a major cultural event, though only the kids and guys like Sullivan seemed to understand that at the time.
It all started simply and innocently enough, becoming more serious over time. Their first efforts, when not covers of earlier recordings, tended to be what John would much later come to refer to as ‘silly little love songs.’
This is the first Beatle’s song I remember hearing. This one’s a Lennon/McCartney original…and pretty much a silly little love song to be sure – but a rockin’ one.
The Beatles – I Want to Hold Your Hand
British rockers were introduced to rock ‘n roll through American records, by and large. Old blues pieces, R&B, delta blues, rockabilly, etc. The Beatles covered many of the songs that inspired them such as the following:
The Beatles Twist and Shout
And this one:
The Beatles – Please Mr. Postman
Along with meteoric success came intense pressure to perform and to create. Fortunately for us, they rose to the challenge. The song-writing team of Lennon and McCartney in particular flourished under the pressure. The following are just a few examples in no particular order.
The Beatles – I Feel Fine
The Beatles – Rain
The Beatles – I Should Have Known Better
You’re Gonna Lose That Girl
The Beatles – I need you
The long succession of love songs led inevitably, one might be forgiven for thinking, to one of the great anthems of the age. IMO, it is a brilliant jewel of a song that shimmers and shines all these years later, reflecting still the hopeful dream of an idealistic generation – that we would come to treat each other with respect, dignity…and yes, love.
This song embodies what our friend Seneca Doane has called a fine poetic truth – but for those with the least bit of poetry in their souls, poetic truths matter too.
All You Need Is Love – The Beatles
Along with many of us, the Beatles dove headfirst into the era of psychedelic exploration…and say what you will about mind-expanding substances such as LSD or mescaline, they raised the consciousness of many of our best thinkers. Even if there were freakouts, burnouts and wrong turns aplenty, there were also breakthroughs and revelations. We all learned that it is possible, if not highly desirable to rethink almost everything. As a side note, how sad it is that those who think small rarely welcome breakthroughs in consciousness – and how sad it is that so many of us think so small. Apparently, there are always those among us who would keep us all cavemen and drive us hurtling backwards as they cheerlead the thuggery, the meanness and the madness – ahhh, but not those Beatles.
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds
In the midst of all the craziness, one thing we had in abundance was a deep sense of community. We embraced each other as brothers and sisters, and it is at least arguable that we were less socially isolated than we are today. We all learned to lean on each other. The Beatles celebrated this aspect of the times with the following:
With a Little Help From My Friends
I don’t know that the following song is particularly profound or illustrative of anything. It’s just a beautiful song that I’ve always loved.
John Lennon – Jealous Guy
Which brings us to a song that still resonates for me across the intervening years. After all, we all want to change the world.
The Beatles – Revolution
John Lennon was the most political Beatle. After the band broke up he went on to record Working Class Hero, Give Peace a Chance, Power to the People, Instant Karma, Imagine and many other politically oriented songs. He and Yoko devoted themselves to the cause of peace, and for a time were among the leading antiwar activists in the world.
The impact of John and Yoko’s push for peace was so great that the man who wrote All You Need is Love, became a major focus of our ever-heroic FBI. Ya gotta love the irony.
Whether the Beatles were a profound cultural phenomenon, just another rock ‘n roll band or something in-between, one thing is certain, it was one hell of a ride. Thank you John, Paul, George and Ringo for inviting us all along for the Magical Mystery Tour. Speaking for myself, I’m mighty glad to have been there – and I am grateful for the excellent company.