Saturday, February 8, 2014
A lifelong admiration for the music of The Beatles
Fifty years ago this week, The Beatles first performed on "The Ed Sullivan Show," and America and the world were changed forever.
There are all kinds of commemorations and reports about the significance of this event. I liked this Wall Street Journal video that explains how The Beatles' arrival was a perfect storm that helped pull America out of its collective depression following the Kennedy assassination. It didn't hurt that they were great singers, songwriters, musicians and performers whose manager was great at marketing and whose record producer may be the best who ever lived.
I was born in 1965, so I didn't experience the first wave of Beatlemania firsthand. I came of age in the 1970s, and became aware of the band probably soon after Capitol Records in 1973 released the albums "The Beatles 1962-1966" and "The Beatles 1967-1970," greatest-hits packages better known as the "Red" and "Blue" albums.
1973 was the only year all four Beatles had hit albums: "Ringo" spawned "You're Sixteen," "Photograph" and "Oh My My," George's' "Living In the Material World" gave us "Give Me Love," John had "Mind Games" and Paul released the classic "Band On the Run."
By 1976 I was a full-fledged Beatlemaniac. I watched live as George Harrison performed with Paul Simon on "Saturday Night Live" at Thanksgiving, with Lorne Michaels' running gag about offering The Beatles $3,000 to reunite on TV. As 1977 dawned, I listened all night as Casey Kasem counted down "American Top 40" for the year and cheered when "Silly Love Songs" by Paul McCartney & Wings was No. 1.
Of course, by then John Lennon had indefinitely removed himself from public life. Between ages 11 and 15 I devoured everything Beatles, memorizing every lyric, every note of every song. I collected every one of their group and solo releases: imports, rare B-sides, bootleg live recordings, books. By 1980 I knew as much about The Beatles music as anyone not directly associated with the band.
In 1978 I went on a week-long river-rafting trip in Idaho with my parents. One of the guides had a guitar and played Beatles songs at my request. When the trip ended I curled up in a seat in the back of the bus taking us back upriver, and the boat guides came over to the back door to say good-bye.
"We'll miss you, and will always think of you when we hear The Beatles," one of them said.
I cried. I've always hated goodbyes.
Words cannot express how profoundly my personality, my appreciation for beauty and art, my outlook on life and myriad other defining traits were shaped by the music of The Beatles. I suppose my obsession was fueled in part by the hope that one day The Beatles would get back together, an eternally optimistic sentiment that only Cubs fans would understand.
Imagine the excitement I felt as 1980 drew to a close and Lennon's "Starting Over" was released as a single. His album "Double Fantasy" was the first new Lennon music since I had become a Beatles fan, and I suppose I felt like someone with a Ph.D. in modern English literature being told J.D. Salinger was publishing a new book. I never thought I'd see the day. The day came, but all too quickly the dream was over.
If the events of Dec. 8, 1980 had never occurred, I'm convinced The Beatles would have reunited, recorded and even performed music live together again. Time would have healed the ugliness of the business dealings, the bitterness over lawsuits, and their friendship and mutual love for each other and the music they made would have prevailed. Though I suppose one of the most enduring qualities of the band is that they never had the chance to reunite, and their musical legacy was preserved.
What made The Beatles so special? For me, simply, it was the music. How it matured throughout their recording career. Those songs about love and loneliness helped me through those difficult teen years. The harmonies and double-tracked vocals that made their sound so distienct. Lennon's raw, primal-screaming, teddy-boy, rock 'n' roll energy and Harrison's gently weeping, spiritually inflected guitar playing and McCartney's rare gift of pure melody. It was all so perfect. And then it was gone.
After Lennon's murder I gradually allowed my interest in The Beatles to lapse. I continued to collect their new records for a few years, Ringo's "Stop and Smell the Roses," George's "Somewhere in England," Paul's "Tug of War." I have a 12-inch vinyl single of Paul and Stevie Wonder doing "Ebony and Ivory." But by Paul's 1983 "Say, Say, Say" duet with Michael Jackson, I stopped. I loved George's 1987 "Cloud 9" and his work with the Traveling Wilburys, but sadly I don't own his late-in-life solo releases, which I hear are excellent.
I found the demos and outtakes on "The Beatles Anthology" collections interesting, but my passion for Beatles music has tempered and is now more like nostalgic fondness for a past lover. I find that all these pieces that reveal more and more about their writing and recording process somehow diminish the magic of their music. Great magicians should never reveal the secrets of their illusions.
I still enjoy hearing Beatles music when a song comes on the radio, or when Paul performs at the Super Bowl, Olympics, a big music festival or on a late-night TV show. I saw him in concert at Wrigley Field not all that long ago. If I ever had the chance to meet him I would just want to say, "Thank you for all the music you've made. You changed my life and brought me much happiness."