So, it really was 50 years ago that the Beatles performed on Ed Sullivan? Yes, indeed, two weeks before their appearance on that stage I was obsessively listening to an Elvis soundtrack for a lousy film called Fun in Acapulco, then HE, The King, just went away, vanished, and became a cynical commodity, the bloated carcass we witnessed in his descent into the ninth circle of Las Vegas.
Admittedly, Elvis did have a momentary “comeback” that was better than an Eagles’ reunion. But the King was now, in my strange new world, which was twisting faster on its axis, just a serf, a musical Bell Boy carrying his own baggage and on call for the biggest tip, a nowhere man.
Of course, not everyone, perhaps even a minority, thought Elvis was a goner, heft replacing the heat of the early Blue period (as in Suede Shoes) and Heartbreak Hotel. And Elvis could still deliver a gospel song like nobody’s business. But the hankies drenched with his sweat that he handed out to his women fans during concerts, as if they just might be pieces of the Turin Shroud, must have smelled of that sinister concoction prescribed by friendly MDs to keep him simultaneously awake enough to sing and drowsy enough not to care how it used to be done—frenetically, with joy and purpose, as if, really, a brave new and freer world could be constructed from two chords and gyrating hips. But by the mid-’60s, the man was no longer hungry, and there was nothing at stake for either him or his audience.
The Beatles, somewhat wizened by a long stretch in Hamburg, Germany, living and looking like Alley Cats, wanted the full banquet, “the toppermost of the poppermost,” as John once quipped.
The Beatles arrived with perfect timing, when television was becoming democratic, and the country was trying to replicate the experiment in the body politic. Somehow this motley group became King and Court and the People in one four-cornered rock ’n’ roll band that startled me down to the level of the cellular, and then moved on to brain synapses I didn’t even know I had. The Stones were fine, all right, and Mick appealed to all (all) of us, alright, but who was copying whom after Sgt. Pepper hit the streets?
Right, I fell hard for the Beatles, and John, for certain, was a lodestar in a new life being born. And, at the time, February of 1964, the five most important words in the world were: “Ladies and gentlemen: the Beatles!” And that’s the moment that my father and I broke up, the hard way.
Because Ed Sullivan really didn’t mean what he said in that gleeful but portentous announcement. Had he spoken the truth, the phrase would have been pared down to its essence: “Kids, your Beatles!” He meant “your future,” too. Ladies and gentlemen were not invited to this decades-long party and kulturkampf, when rock songs acquired the status of unquestionable authority (our Holy Writ), and vestment choice became a bloody battleground between young and old, hip and square. So at the crossroads of Beatles music and clothes, and a few other things, the familial crackup began.
My father, a New Deal Democrat, was not a conservative in any political sense. But when he sat in front of our television set and saw that hair, and heard that noise, that’s precisely when the acronym “WTF?” was born. I could see the words come out of his mouth. I could hear him shouting, even though his lips were frozen and his eyes didn’t blink. My dad and I were now headed in opposite directions, our trains on different tracks, and yet the collisions came, over the long haul and over the short.
The details of these conflagrations are of no importance. The battles varied little in form and content from household to household. I had cast my lot with rock ’n’ roll in its new key, in its new look, in its embattled future. Whatever had been before, was now dead and gone, like Elvis, turned to wax and encased inside a museum that I had no interest in visiting. And there was the minor tragedy of youth, full-blown.
To discover what one missed in music or in life, the journey has to be taken against the winds of age and habit. To find the beauty and power of Beethoven or Ray Charles or Lionel Hampton—some of Dad’s favorites—later in life requires a bit of fortitude and discipline and time, a capacity to get uncomfortable even when the heart and head say no. So after 50 years, my thanks again to John Lennon and the boys, and to Dad, even though I believe that I came around to his music much more than he came around to mine. But I’ll keep both legacies moving forward for the next 50.
What’s your Beatles memory? Tell us in the comments below.
Kerry Candaele is the writer-director of Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony.