February, 1964. I was seven. My cousins were visiting us in Indiana, I recall, though I have no idea why. Sunday night, the Ed Sullivan show (which my family watched occasionally; not always, but often), had announced that their guests would be a band from Liverpool, England; the Beatles. John, Paul, George, Ringo. My parents weren’t sure we should watch it. I was seven; my brother was five. Were the Beatles ‘wholesome entertainment?’ But–I may be misremembering this, but I don’t think so–my older cousin Cathy talked them into it.
I remember a few things from that night. Most remarkable was the behavior of my cousin, who, when the Beatles came on, let out a shriek. And I remember really liking the music. It was fun; it was exciting. Mostly what we listened to at home was opera or orchestral music, plus show tunes, and my parents were big fans of all that Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole sort of pop. The Beatles were something new, and I remember liking it, while also wondering what on earth was wrong with my cousin.
A few years later, I was in school, I was eleven, and we heard about this amazing new album by the Beatles, a weird thing, incomprehensible and strange, and sort of . . . against the rules. I didn’t ask, but I assumed my parents wouldn’t care for it. Which meant it was enticing beyond belief. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it was called. And my friend’s older brother had bought it. And my friend, Jimmy Higgins, bugged him and bugged him, and finally his brother told us we could listen to it, but only once, with him in the room, and we had to sit on the floor, and we couldn’t say anything, not a thing. And we went in to his room, and he lay on the bed and put on the album, and we listened, quiet as church mice. And the first song came on, crowd noises, tuning violins (‘like opera!’ I thought), then that guitar jangle, chugga chugga bass and drums, and those words, “It was twenty years’ ago today, Sgt. Pepper’s taught the band to play, and we’re going in and out of style, but we’re guaranteed to raise a smile. . . ” and I thought, what? What on earth? Who? I thought this was the Beatles? Who’s this Sergeant Peppers? Who’s Billy Shears? What is going on?”
But it was so . . . propulsive. So energizing. The mystery of it so compelling. And I couldn’t move, couldn’t budge, because if I did Jimmy’s brother might turn the record off and we’d never get to hear it. And my whole understanding of music, of what it was and what it could do and how it could make you feel, changed forever.
50 years. Fifty, since John, Paul, George and Ringo appeared on Ed Sullivan. Those black and white images, the set with arrows pointing to the band. John, furthest left, stage left that is, on the right side of the screen. John unsmiling, his legs in a wide stance, hardly moving, all masculine challenge and bravado. George in the middle, because he had to sing backup, with John for Paul’s solos and with Paul for John’s, and they only had two mics. Playing all the toughest guitar bits, his right leg shooting out occasionally, just a small half-kick. Paul stage right, TV left, smiling as he sang, bobbing his head a bit, playing that left handed bass, smallish, shaped like a violin, lefty so his guitar shot off in what felt like the wrong direction. And Ringo, above and behind them, the big nose, drumming like a metronome. Icononic images, four fresh-faced lads from Liverpool, longish hair, with long straight bangs. A Beatles’ ‘do.
So CBS created a TV special, an ‘event’ to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Sullivan broadcast, and it aired a few days ago. David Letterman’s show is now broadcast live from the Ed Sullivan Theater, and Paul and Ringo did some recorded conversations with Letterman as he walked them through the old building. Those were interspersed with short biographical sketches, following, mostly, the familiar template. It’s John, Paul, George and Ringo for a reason. John began the group, and was always its leader, and he brought in Paul. Paul, in turn, brought in his guitarist friend, George. And George grew close to Ringo in Hamburg, when the Beatles shared a stage with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, and the bands would mix after shows.
And we heard the familiar stories; the deaths of Julia Lennon and Mary McCartney, and of Richy Starkey’s tough childhood, the sickly child who nearly died of peritonitis when he was six, and of tuberculosis when he was thirteen. No mention of Pete Best or Stuart Sutcliffe, no mention of Brian Epstein and only a passing nod to George Martin. And Ringo’s now 73, and he looks terrific, and performed with energy and charisma. And Paul’s 71, and looks (and sounds) pretty great himself, though he cracked on the big high note on “Hey, Jude.” And Yoko Ono was there, with Sean, as was Olivia Harrison, and Dhani Harrison performed too. Julian Lennon gave his regrets.
The bulk of the CBS show, however, involved various artists covering great Beatles’ songs, sometimes well, and sometimes less well. And the evening generally revealed a crisis in contemporary rock and roll, as did the Grammys broadcast a month ago. I don’t want to pretend that rock and roll hasn’t always been commodified and over-produced and over-hyped and in danger of losing its soul. There is still great rock music being written and performed, and brilliant young bands still make a splash: the Kings of Leon and Arcade Fire and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals and Buckcherry. And you could probably name twenty others, and so could I given time. But it does sometime feel like Dave Grohl is out there, fighting a rear guard action against pop, keeping rock relevant pretty much all by himself.
Case in point: the special began with performances of “Ticket to Ride” and “I Saw Her Standing There.” By Maroon Five. Beatles covers, by Maroon Five. Blarg.
But it wasn’t all bad, and some of it was terrific. Best of all, and the highlight of the night for me, was Dave Grohl and Jeff Lynne covering “Hey Bulldog”. I’ve been trying to link to it for you, but I can’t; CBS keeps deleting links, and you’ll have to buy it on I-tunes or something. But the fact that Grohl would even cover “Hey Bulldog” is significant. It was never a hit, but it’s a gem of a song, from Yellow Submarine, a great song for Beatles’ cognoscenti.
I am able to link to Alicia Keys and John Legend’s cover of “Let it be“, which I thought was very good. And I quite liked Ed Sheeran’s sensitive and powerful “In my Life.” I did not appreciate watching Imagine Dragons acoustify and emasculate “Revolution,” and was mostly just saddened when Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart reconstituted the Eurythmics for one night, just so they could botch “Fool on a Hill.” And even though Paul can’t hit the high note on “Hey Jude” anymore, he’s gotten good at treating audiences to a ‘na na na na na na na’ sing-along.
But the star of the night, for me, was Dave Grohl’s daughter. She looks to be maybe six, or eight, and she was there with her Daddy, and she clearly knew every song, was singing along with every song. And I thought of my youngest daughter, and how her older siblings turned her on to the Beatles, with a different album every birthday. And Grohl said, “the Beatles were my Mom’s favorite band, they’re my favorite band, and now they’re my daughter’s favorite band.” And the little Grohl girl stood up on her seat and made a heart sign with her fingers. She hearts the Beatles.
And amidst all the old clips of their Ed Sullivan appearance, and the historical videos, we saw women, women now in their seventies and eighties, who were in the audience, at the Ed Sullivan Theater, in 1962. And they’re still alive, and still vibrant at the memory, and still sure that Paul will some day notice them, and propose marriage. And they talked about it, how much these four musicians meant to them and how much they meant to us all. And, yes, the CBS special was a star-studded affair, because no event in America today can truly be significant unless blessed by the benevolent hand of celebrity. But Tom Hanks didn’t seem to be there for window dressing, not considering how enthusiastically he was singing along. He remembers it too.
As do I. Staring at my shrieking cousin, wondering what kind of special power these four guys had over girls. And sitting on the floor of my friend’s brother’s room, listening to something rare and beautiful and weird and quite possibly forbidden. At least it felt forbidden. Because surely all those feelings, all at once, music of a surpassing strangeness overwhelming you with emotion, surely that couldn’t be . . . allowed?