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- Happy Birthday John Lennon, Whoever You Are - October 9, 2020
MIKE GERBER • Devin’s excellent post on James Marcus’ graceful, slightly Slate-only-smarter Letting Go of The Beatles spurred some thoughts, which were too long to put in a comment. I wrote this in haste and I can feel the dullness of my tools (doing a lot more business-stuff than writing-stuff these days), but I paste them below.
It was fifty years ago today…
Beginning in May 1964 and ending that November, the BBC broadcast a 26-part documentary called The Great War. Produced with the cooperation of the Imperial War Museum and its analogues around the world, it is a fascinating examination of that conflict, exhaustive and exhausting. Even viewed on YouTube today from my sunny office here in California—remote from the time and topic in every way—The Great War is epically powerful, drenched in sadness and grandeur. If one pauses while watching to remember that these capering patterns of light and dark were once real people…well, the sense of loss is almost too much to bear.
Yet I encourage you to watch it. I’d encourage everyone to watch it, because World War I expresses fundamental aspects of the human experience, many of which we seem determined to forget; it is history distant enough to be appraised yet modern enough to be understood. Even if the horizons of your interest don’t extend past the Fabs themselves, it remains essential: you can’t really understand what the Beatles were, where they came from, or what they meant, without at least a passing knowledge of the European self-mutilation that began with World War I. All the Fab biographies start with the Blitz, for obvious reasons, but the Great War cast as big, if not bigger a shadow on Beatle-Britain. The nearest antecedent to Beatlemania? The crowds of August 1914.
The simplified version of the Sixties (more about that later) is one of youth ignoring history, but in reality that decade was obsessed with what had come before; one can only reject what one knows. The same summer that A Hard Day’s Night packed cinemas, The Great War kept Britons glued to the telly—it’s estimated that 17% of the populace watched each episode. The show lasted for half-a-year; this was horror-cum-nostalgia on a massive scale. Without question, it and the grim anniversaries that followed helped usher in the vogue for Edwardiana that blossomed on Carnaby Street, and it’s my contention that Sgt. Pepper should be listened to as an unconscious attempt to heal the psychic wound inflicted by World War I. John, Paul, George and Ringo (like every Briton after 1914) absorbed that trauma along with their mothers’ milk; they lived in a world of ghosts. Suddenly the maligned tracks (“When I’m ‘64” “Within You, Without You”)—and the justly celebrated ones (“A Day in the Life”)—snap into a kind of focus. So it is a concept album, after all, only one that works in the realm of dreams. More importantly, the electricity of Pepper, its sense of cultural release—the Goodbye to All That-ness of it—makes sense. And not for nothing does the uncommonly sunny “Summer of Love” recall that earlier epochal English summer of 1914. The last good time.
To digress: this historical template colors my vision of the next four years of the Beatles. What is the White Album if not the Beatles’ Somme, a great, doomed offensive, a months-in-the-making attempt to win the War, destined to leave a broken, bickering Army in its wake? How are Paul’s pleas to “go back on the road” not increasingly desperate, increasingly doomed attempts to break through, to break the stalemate? For sure they were greeted with the rolled eyes and derision of the seasoned campaigner, John and George as two Tommys who’ve heard it all before, and have lost too much to believe in a dream. OK, I’ve been blogging next to Devin too long, but allow me a final filigree: one could argue that the state of Beatledom in 1971-72 was not unlike that of Europe in 1918-19. Exhausted, cynical, saddled with a brokered peace which brought nothing but bitterness, each party feeling aggrieved, fighting a creeping dread of what had just been lost, balanced by a giddy attempt to convince oneself that the future would somehow be better. How is glam rock not Weimar? Even Lennon’s Lost Weekend is something F. Scott Fitzgerald would understand—in both England and America, the early 70s looked at the 20s, and saw itself.
But all that’s another post. To the surprise of everyone involved, the Beatles of 1964 turned out to be an historical turning-point, just like August 1914. However, for a million reasons our current media culture can’t do serious, and so in the commemorations there’s this sneaky little feeling that the Beatles were just a rock band…after all, didn’t Lennon himself say it? And if we were only talking about a rock band, James Marcus might be onto something. Not only would it be appropriate and healthy to let that clotted ephemera become distant from our experience, the holding onto it would be evidence of something strange and curdling going on in our culture. Remembering World War I in 1964 by watching The Great War, that’s nostalgia, a period of intense, media-driven remembrance spurred by five sets of ten; unimaginable horror respectfully diminished into a consumable, but diminished nonetheless.
But that’s not what goes on every November 11th in the UK—still—and it’s not what is going on with the Beatles today. Give them a rest? We could no more give the Beatles a rest than forget our parents. Because of its size, and its legacy, World War I belongs to us all—and so do the Beatles.
“Of course we watched them on Ed Sullivan.”
As part of the generation that witnessed the Beatles firsthand, Marcus could be forgiven for seeing the Beatles as so much smaller than they really are. Having said that, it’s a bit ironic that his fine essay decrying Boomer self-regard should display this characteristic in spades. The Beatles—and I would argue, the whole Utopian strain of the Sixties—are no longer property of the Boomers. They haven’t been for years. The positive legacy of the Sixties, everything from Yoga and meditation to organic food, has become common property. It’s the positive legacy of the Sixties that gave us a black President—and it’s the surprising universality of those values across our society, that made it happen many years before anyone predicted it would. Not even Martin Luther King was so optimistic; and in the years after his death, most were much less optimistic than King had been.
The Beatles are the spokesmen for the positive legacy of the Sixties, especially to kids. It’s only the violence and silly self-regard of the Sixties that’s been left to the Boomers…which is why, in Marcus’ essay, he fastens onto the song “Revolution.” That’s a Boomer totem, 1968 in aspic, suitable for playing under footage of Paris and the Chicago convention. It’s not relevant to anyone but Boomers, who are obsessed with its authenticity (especially vis a vis the Stones’ “Street Fightin’ Man.”) “Revolution” is pop culture self-consciously attempting to become history, and failing. What has endured—and what is clearly more ur-Beatles because of its enduring—is Paul’s apolitical song of hope and healing, “Hey Jude.”
The Band You’ve Known for All These Years
The people behind this blog aren’t Baby Boomers; Devin was born in ’66, I’m a product of 1969, Ed’s from 1971, and Nancy, well, she’s probably much younger, I’m too polite to ask. Unlike Marcus, looking at books about the Beatles doesn’t make me feel like I’ve stopped time, any more than watching The Great War does. Unlike Marcus, I have no nostalgia for the time when I was deepest in Beatle-thrall, teenage years which I found incredibly painful and still cost me $125 a week. The Beatles exist apart from me and my life—they aren’t mine, they just are.
I think this is the fundamental difference between first-generation fans, and everybody else. For me, CBS’ recent show on the fiftieth anniversary of the Fabs’ on Ed Sullivan didn’t stir memories of watching that in person, but that’s what all the media coverage was about: Elsie Kranepool, 61, was living with her parents in Canarsie when she turned on that fateful Sunday night… Where were we living then? What did we have for dinner that night? Were Mom and Dad fighting? It must be cozy to have those kinds of associations with such great music; but it’s also incredibly limiting. It shrinks the Beatles—and the history they were part of—to the size of one’s own life.
“Why Would You Listen to That?”
I remember the first time I played Sessions for my beloved Beatle aunt (born 1952). To a 16-year-old Beatle fan of the mid-80s, that LP was everything—not only did it include several of the holy grails, actual finished Beatle songs, it was also a test-run for official product—in essence a recognition by Apple and the surviving Beatles that we younger fans existed. So I dropped the needle, expecting to share a moment with Mary. I guess I was hoping, in some small way, to return the favor she’d done me, by introducing me to the Beatles ten years earlier. So we sat, in silence. At the end of the first side she said, “Why would you ever listen to this instead of the real albums?” (I didn’t play her Side Two.)
What Mary, God bless her, didn’t understand—what she couldn’t understand—was even then the Beatles belonged to everybody. Particularly in the wake of Lennon’s murder, new Beatles music became cause for celebration. Whether it’s scratchy and partial, a castoff with obvious flaws, or an after-the-fact concoction held together with scotch tape and Jeff Lynne, it’s always the excuse for a party.
The Beatles ≠ Jim Croce
For all of us who weren’t crouched in front of our televisions in 1964, this anniversary is no more (and certainly no less) than that: a convenient excuse to celebrate something great, to have fun. It’s not an exercise in our own childhoods or forced kowtowing to a bigger demographic. Compare, for example, the doo-wop shows PBS hauls out during pledge drives; can you imagine anybody under 18 watching those ? Likewise, can you imagine many 15-year-olds buying Jim Croce’s greatest hits? Not all pop culture from the past is created equal. Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather movies (at least Part One and Two) are universal classics enjoyed by all; his first movie, a goofy, overheated 1966 coming-of-age comedy called You’re a Big Boy Now, is unwatchable except as nostalgia. (I saw it on TCM last week.) Sure, it was popular in its day—but it ain’t history.
Our current media, made omnipresent by a surfeit of bandwidth and an increasingly post-employment population, looks at the past as just another source of content. The more film exists of an era, the more that past is shown; that’s why World War Two is so much more common on TV than World War One. And what can be shown takes on outsized importance; you see the same clips from Woodstock, or topless grooving in the Haight, or of a plane cruising through sooty clouds as napalm explodes in the jungles of Vietnam. Reduction. For lots of reasons, nostalgia is always the most commercial stance to take, and so when the Beatles appear in the media, it’s usually as a chunk of beef in that canned stew labeled “the Sixties.”
Marcus is right to be tired of this predigested version of the Beatles and their era. I’m tired of it, too. And he’s right to define this as a Baby Boomer-driven phenomenon, and turn up the Oscar music, hoping his cohort will get the hint and finally, reluctantly, leave the stage. Boomer dominance of media is real, and it’s a net-negative for the culture. Whether it’s Lorne Michaels’ outsized footprint on TV comedy, or Martin Scorsese’s endless parade of Men Behaving Badly pictures—we know what these guys have to say. They’ve said the same thing over and over for decades. Giving them more money and more access and more distribution to say it isn’t art, or even audience preference, it’s demographically driven lazy commerce.
A Chicken in Every Pot, Every Rapper a Genius
And this idea that popular culture improves linearly, like processing speed? That’s lazy commerce, too; advertisers want young people, so they support what they think young people like. And the big culture-combines want to sell you what’s new, because that’s the easiest thing to create. But that’s not what’s going on with the Beatles; haters aside, liking a group that split up 44 years ago runs counter to everything corporate media wants in a product. It’s inefficient, unmanageable, demographically spread, finite, et cetera—in this regard, the all-important one of making money, the Beatles are the opposite of Justin Bieber or One Direction. Yet how many times during these celebrations did you hear them called “the first boy band”? If that’s what you see when you look at the Beatles, you’re not really looking.
Very little popular culture—no matter how great—becomes history. Many things outside the work itself have to conspire for that to happen, and while it’s now become common for every generation to claim its favorite entertainers as an historical turning point, most of the time that claim has been proven to be inaccurate. Your liking Kurt Cobain, and even Kurt Cobain changing the face of rock and roll, doesn’t make Kurt Cobain history. Very talented, very popular, and very rich, Kanye West and Lady Gaga are, if anything, more prominent in our culture than is strictly merited by their work. They are popular artists practicing their craft at the highest level…who only spike into larger consciousness only when they make a gaffe, or have something to sell. That is, when the apparatus of publicity pushes them into the heads of people not already obsessed with them, in an attempt to make more money. There’s nothing wrong with this; it’s what people in 1964 thought the Beatles were, and would stay. But that’s not what’s going on with the Beatles today.
The Aero and The Tivoli
Once a year, the rep movie house fifteen blocks away plays a Beatles double-feature, usually A Hard Day’s Night, and Help! I always go, and I always enjoy myself. Yes, there is nostalgia in it—after all, a rep theater in St. Louis called the Tivoli was where I first saw both movies, over 30 years ago. But most of my pleasure comes from the films themselves. (“What are your hobbies?” “TITS.”) And there’s another pleasure, too: more of the crowd is under ten than over seventy. There is a certain type of kid who seems to be drawn to the Beatles over every other kind of music. Sometimes encouraged by parents, often not (mine thought it was weird: “Why don’t you like your own music?”) Beatles-love has become a rite of passage, a stage of development which some people move on from, and others don’t. Who could’ve predicted this? No one, certainly not the Beatles themselves.
So as the years roll on and the interest does not seem to be disappearing, it’s clear that the Beatles—their music, yes, but also their dress, their attitude, those four people—are not merely an artifact of pop culture, not the property of one era, sealed from future generations by evanescent outlook and context. Though the media has and will and will always try to diminish them into much less than they were—the better to sell them—the Beatles have become a permanent part of our culture…which will only be replaced when someone or something performs their function better than they can. Not just for one demographic, but for everybody.
“You can be replaced, chicky-baby.” “I don’t care.”
That’s why there’s never been a “next Beatles.” The Beatles aren’t like Lady Gaga, or Kanye West. They’re like air conditioning, a refrigerator in the home—they’re how we live, now. They aren’t musicians playing music, they are a development of modernity deeply emblematic of how we live here in the West; and as other countries have acquired our style of living, they’ve acquired Beatle-love, too. For better or worse, we are stuck with John, Paul, George and Ringo. They will not—cannot—be replaced until something does better, what they do for us so well.
That day will come, for sure, and it won’t look or sound or feel like what we expect…but I wouldn’t hold my breath. And I certainly won’t let them go until something better, truly better, comes along.