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The city has been awash this week in exuberant nostalgia for the Ed Sullivan Show-era Beatles, and I have found myself oddly delighted to be carried along in its tide. This weekend, while walking through midtown I came across this:
While I was taking the latter picture, a TV reporter and cameraman doing man-on-the-street interviews about The Beatles’ anniversary approached me, and I chatted with them. It turned out they were from Al Jazeera America, though I have no idea if they used the footage. They asked me what I felt about the Beatlemania moment, and I actually came up with something halfway intelligent, so I thought I’d expand it here.
One of the great joys of The Beatles is the complete lack of irony or cynicism in both their lyrics and their music. Consider the early songs: as Paul McCartney reminded us from the stage of the big televised 50th Anniversary concert on Sunday night, the first song he and John Lennon ever wrote together was I Saw Her Standing There (“How could I dance with another…”). I Want to Hold Your Hand seems quaint now, but its emotion is utterly honest—it does not sound like two songwriting professionals, one of them married, writing down for a teenage audience, it sounds like a personal moment being written, and perhaps relived, with absolute conviction.
And so it would stay with every album: the omniscient narrator in She’s Leaving Home (off Sergeant Pepper) sees the girl’s need to leave home as honestly as he sees the mother’s heartfelt response to her absence; there’s no cynicism about the mother, just a revealing comment that helps explain the daughter’s decision. She may be self-centered, but she cares enough to feel the moment sharply. This opposed to the Stones’ Mother’s Little Helper, in which the mother’s response to the rather pedestrian realities of her life is to run to the doctor for more pills to numb her emotions, culminating in a prediction of her eventual overdose. A protest song, mildly, but irony and cynicism are undeniably part of the tools of its construction.
So: a universe of clear and unironic emotion came over on that Pan Am plane from England, 50 years ago. But part of the great fun of The Beatles of that era, before they retreated from public presentation and just concentrated on studio music, was how damn funny they were—and that humor is laced with irony and cynicism. (Moptop-era press conference. Reporter: “Do you think Ringo is the best drummer in the world?” John: “He’s not even the best drummer in The Beatles!”) There is a lot of cultural frisson to be gained from this simultaneous juxtaposition of opposites, as Bob Dylan would be the first to tell you, were he in the mood. But transparently honest songcraft coupled with good looks and brutal insouciant wit doesn’t explain the screaming girls that gave a full-throated sob of joy and longing and recognition as the lads got off the plane at Kennedy, arrived at the Ed Sullivan Theater, played their songs and left. The band were no strangers to Beatlemania, but their earlier singles had not charted as highly in the States as elsewhere. Given that, the cultural moment they walked into when they arrived in America was so big it took them by surprise. It turned out they were precisely the right people for the job—they needed America, and America, or at least an enormous slice of the American demographic—obviously needed them.
And, looking up at the facsimile scrim on the Ed Sullivan Theater last Sunday, on camera with Al Jazeera, I suddenly had a strong emotional recognition of something I’d previously only considered intellectually.
They played the Sullivan show on February 9, 1964. That’s less than three months after November 22, 1963. Kennedy gets assassinated in Dallas, and 80 days later America goes Beatle-mad.
Now, it’s not like pop stars hadn’t had screaming fans before—the bobby soxers at the Paramount didn’t exactly preserve decorum when Sinatra hit the stage. However, The Beatles’ Sullivan moment was big enough, and public enough, to be mystifying to the culture as a whole. (As related elsewhere in this blog, the night they were on Sullivan my maternal grandfather was utterly baffled by the phenomenon even as I wanted to be in the room with the television to see it.)
But there’s no mystery if you consider the screaming, crying, sobbing emotion unleashed by The Beatles in the light of an overdetermined reaction to the Kennedy assassination. America had just lost a young, charismatic President. The Beatles presented an opportunity for a convulsive national orgasm of sobbed joy, the life-affirming sex after the funeral. But beyond sex appeal they offered interpersonal humor in the service of songs of transcendent irony-free innocence. It’s hard not to be cynical about the world after a popular president is taken from us. But in The Beatles’ world, innocence was a given and cynicism an impossibility, and that was something to hold onto and scream.
Merriewold: odd little community in upstate New York. Not an intentional community; more a private enclave. Lake, woods, houses. Lots of theater people—at the center, George Abbott, who had a house there. Theater producer/director/writer/all-around champion who lived to be a vigorous 107. Directed the original Broadway productions of Pal Joey and On The Town, back in the ‘40s. And Damn Yankees and Pajama Game, for both of which he also wrote the book. And Where’s Charley, which had starred Allyn Ann Mclerie, Matt Gaynes’s Mom.
Years later George Abbott’s second wife, Mary Sinclair, painted my mother. After she found him cheating, after she left him, after she fell in love with another woman. The painting is a definitive picture of my mother in her prime in the ‘70s. But that was yet to come.
George Abbott’s house was big, as I remember it the biggest around, and just up the road from the lake. Our house—the house we had rented from friends—was further along that road and then another road off, small, considerably distant from the lake. After us, the asphalt ended, the road turned to tire ruts cutting through bushes.
This was where Matt Gaynes and I spent the summer of 1967—I turned 9, dreamy, introverted, overweight. He was three months younger than I, but taller, more present, less awkward, and he never had a weight problem.
Sam and Grayson—my Mom and Dad—had rented the house for the summer from friends to debate (and perhaps postpone) a decision they didn’t want to make: whether or not they could continue to attempt lives as a writer and actress in New York City, or whether the economics had so turned against them that they had to give up their dreams and all the work they had done—my mother both off-Broadway and on, my father writing for television and garnering interest in his plays—and go back to my father’s one-stoplight town in Ohio to take a job in his father’s rubber glove factory.
I was aware we were poor. We lived cheaply; we were not extravagant. Money was always an issue, a subject of conversation, an insurmountable truth. One reason we were in Merriewold was that it was cheaper to be there than in New York City. Another reason was to be in the orbit of George Abbott and his retinue. What was once called social climbing is now called networking, and Mom, as an actress, and Dad, as a playwright, had put themselves into proximity of one of the American theater’s great powerhouses. And then Mom blew it all by getting cast in a soap opera with vampires.
Famously, Grayson was in New York one Manhattan summer temperature-inversion heatwave day in June; she had just come in from errands, stripped off her clothes and had one foot in a cool shower when the phone rang. She stood perched for a second, her foot wet, debated not answering it, but she wasn’t bodily in the shower yet so she pulled out and went to get the phone. It was her agent offering her a short role on Dark Shadows. The show’s lead was a vampire; Mom was to be a famous hematologist investigating the vampire’s victims; she would threaten the vampire’s identity and be killed off in a couple of weeks. We needed the money. She took the job.
Thereafter, Mom commuted to Merriewold as the production schedule allowed, taking the bus to Monticello, the closest town, us all rattling back and forth to pick her up in one of her father’s used-car-lot cars, Dad setting up his typewriter to write on the wooden porch, Mom studying her scripts on the couch in the living room. She brought foods from New York—black raisin bread, I remember, and soap, and no doubt wine for the two of them.
A potato chip can—Sam would say tin, the Ohio word—large enough for a child to embrace. After the chips were gone, I caught a catfish in the lake, a big monster, green and whiskered, and filled the can with hose water to contain him. He was an object of fascination, a species utterly alien, and when he died Matt Gaynes and I buried him in an inappropriate grave amidst the roots of pines.
We ate catfish; just not him.
Mom and Dad went to parties. One night after dinner at George Abbott’s, Mom, lubricated if not pixilated, tripped in the dark heading back to the car, cut her ankle on the rough bark of a tree, and woke up with blood poisoning. Took a couple of days to manifest, but it didn’t get better, and it made her ill, and eventually it necessitated a trip to the emergency room in Monticello, the nearest town, antibiotics and a bandage. The irony was not lost: blood poisoning, hematologist, Dark Shadows. The wound healed over into a quiet scar that she had for the rest of her life.
George Abbott never cast her in anything; he never entertained the notion of doing one of my father’s plays. But Dark Shadows turned out to be a revolution in our family, the beginning of solidity, and George Abbott did not, as it happened, matter.
Mom got the job by bravura, but she kept it by technique. She decided early on that every scene she would be in would be inhabited by a subtext only she knew: she was in love with the vampire. She never said it, she never explained it to anyone, she just kept that thought in her heart and let it guide every choice she made whenever she was on camera. That was the work she did that summer, and beyond, to help our family survive.
For Matt and me the days were hot, and still, and sometimes the wind would sheen through the trees, and sometimes it rained. There were crickets in the dry fields and fireflies at dusk and owls in the woods and rubber-band-powered balsa wood airplanes that flew too far to ever be found, and stray cats, and skinny orange salamanders three inches long hugging the skirts of trees on the mornings after rain.
Merriewold in 1967 was the only place I’ve ever seen salamanders like that; I’ve never been back and I’ve never seen lizards emerge after every rain to cling to tree bark anywhere else.
Lake swimming in summer: a wooden raft docked ten yards off the beach, a rope swing dangling from a fat healthy tree, swimming out through the goose-pimple cool water to the oddly permanent spot in which warm water welled up from unknown depths, and then treading water and hanging out, talking and talking, never wanting to leave the charmed warm circle, knowing that eventually you’d have to make your way back, the cool water now insultingly cold.
And then: lunch. The Snack Bar across the road from the short sandy beach, the waddle of flip flops on hot asphalt. The snack bar was tiny, a counter and some stools and a diner menu on the wall, black letters slotted into white plastic. I had, as a rule, .50 cents for the day. I remember Matt having more. A hot dog was .30 cents, cheapest thing on the menu; with cheese .35; my one luxury. With a soda, .15, that was my .50 cents, and after that I was broke. There were hamburgers on the menu, but I couldn’t afford them. A cheese dog: every day, unchanging, that was what my money could buy.
And now we get to the heart of this memory: the guy behind the grill who made my cheese dog had a record player perched on a shelf. And it was always on. And it was the summer of 1967.
Some days it was Sgt Pepper. Some days it was The Doors first album (which I actually knew—my parents had bought it off of reviews because of the Brecht/Weill song Whiskey Bar and the luridly Freudian The End, which had momentarily intrigued my father. After a while they had grown bored of it—it wasn’t show tunes—and had given it to me). Some days Surrealistic Pillow.
Sgt Pepper. The sheer liberational sweep of that album, the gently pointed modernity, the way it moved from height to height.
Every moment of music was of paramount importance, at once palpably present and infuriatingly ephemeral, transmissions from a half-glimpsed distant world. Lunch over, no money left, no reason to stay, the music swirling through the little room, I’d wait for the song to end—Matt Gaynes impatient to be up, doing something, on to the next adventure—and then I’d force myself up before the next one started, push myself step by step back out into the summer day. I was mildly aware that I looked like a fat kid, nowhere to go, loitering around a lunch counter.
But it wasn’t the food. It was the music. It made me never want to leave.