You can't hype the Beatles, though God knows it's been tried often enough.
In this latest incarnation of (enforced) Beatles hysteria, they've gone over the top, introducing a gimmicky "new" Beatles song (I won't listen; I can't listen; OK, I'll listen, but I won't like it), made, literally, over John's dead body.
And it doesn't end there. Throw in six hours of network TV and three new double albums from the Abbey Road archives, and you're suddenly mustache-to-mustache with Beatlemania redux, only with far less screaming.
Sounds like hype. Feels like hype. But, try as you might, you can't hype the Beatles.
Because it's like hyping the Marx brothers or the Normandy invasion. Some things are too big, too grand -- if that isn't too grand a word for rock and roll. The Beatles were always too big, bigger than Jesus, if you recall Lennon's famous words.
You have to go back to 1964 to understand. That was the year the '60s began. Sure, that's a parlor game -- best played after many beers, at 3 a.m., in your freshman dorm -- but here's the premise. The '50s, meaning that post-war era of peace and prosperity and sitcom contentment, ended when John Kennedy was killed.
It wasn't the end of the innocence. We're always going on about the end of the innocence, as if a Don Henley song title passes for philosophy. What it ended was the '50s mythology that was summed up by a commercial (what else?): progress is our most important product.
After a suitable period of mourning for what was and what wasn't, the '60s began, in search of a new, improved innocence. The '60s began on Feb. 9, 1964, when John, Paul, George and Ringo appeared on Ed Sullivan and the world changed overnight. Nothing (for white America, anyway) was ever the same again.
I recently watched a tape of the mad scene on the Sullivan show. Young girls screaming in a frenzy that was, well, orgasmic. Old Ed bemused. The lads playing their deceptively simple and yet, clearly, seductive songs. How does wanting to hold your hand come out sounding like sex?
Everything changed. And here's where it gets tricky. The more I think about it, the more I'm certain that not only were the Beatles the muses of the '60s, they were the '60s. There would have been no '60s without them, or at least not the decade as it lives on in our memory.
Ask yourself what the '60s were about. Not just a war. Not just a civil rights movement.
Beatles as pied pipers
It was a full-blown youth rebellion. The Beatles, the lovable moptops, who seemed so unthreatening at first blush (except to parents of prepubescent girls), who started out singing "Yeah, Yeah, Yeah," were the pied pipers, or pie-in-the-face guitarists. They didn't have an agenda, other than the music. Yet, without even meaning to, they stole the kids from their parents. They took them down the long (yes, and winding) road and never came back. They wrote it themselves: She's leaving home, bye bye.
They led these willing, wide-eyed, raised-on-Beaver-Cleaver kids into drugs, into psychedelia, into a clear disrespect for authority (parents, professors, draft boards).
If the Beatles didn't invent the counterculture, their music gave it validation. They were the Beatles; they had given their blessing, koo koo ka-choo. They opposed the war. They took drugs. They wore their hair long. They ob-la-di-ed, ob-la-da-ed. Their music said, more subversively even than Dylan's, that all the rules had changed.
Look, poetry lost out to Cole Porter and Ira Gershwin. The truth of the modern culture is written in song lyrics. There is nothing truer than Paul Simon's lyric that every generation throws a hero at the pop charts. The Beatles followed Sinatra and Elvis as surely as Louis XVI followed all the Louises before him.
When Elvis was king, before he learned the words jump and suit could be twinned, middle class white kids looked at him with awe and envy. The Beatles were different. They weren't dirty or ** greasy or dangerous and they didn't wear black leather. They were cute. And they had this wonderful gift for knowing just how much they could get away with, just where the limits were. Kids looked at them and said, "I can do that."
And they did. And they did it in a way that would, in a few years, nearly tear the country apart. You wanna have a revolution?
History doesn't lie (historians do, but not history): The Beatles were the '60s. The '60s were the Beatles. It's no coincidence -- or if it was, it was a distressingly unhappy coincidence -- that the Beatles broke up just as the '60s ended. It's as if they weren't needed anymore, as if somebody knew disco was on the horizon.
(Some would have it that the tragedy of Altamont sounded the end of the '60s. A better argument can be made that the '70s were a decade of exhaustion and nothing was really over till John Lennon lay dead outside his New York apartment building.)
I know what you're saying now, and you're right. With or without the Beatles, there's still a war. There are still demonstrations. But would there have been the counterculture that still divides America, that Newt Gingrich and others still rail against? And would there have been that Rubicon we crossed when the '50s ended and that we've never been able to get back over again?
Then there's the Stones
But did it have to be the Beatles? Did it have to be a rock band? How about the Stones? You can't talk about the Beatles without discussing the Rolling Stones, the Christ and anti-Christ.
Before they were the world's greatest band, the Stones were known as the world's ugliest band. It's what they played on. They were nasty, they were raw. When the Beatles were into Chuck Berry, the Stones were into Mississippi Delta blues. The Beatles sang about love, love. love. The Stones were street-fighting men who had sympathy for the devil.
You'd have to be damn brave to follow the Stones anywhere, except to the record store.
It always comes back to the music. If you're of an age, you remember the first time you heard the Beatles, in much the way you remember your first kiss. My mom was driving our Ford Fairlane when "She Loves You" came on WGH. I knew right away, and I was only 14. This ain't Bobby Vee. It ain't Joey Dee. It ain't Bobby Vinton. This was an era when rock was nearly dead, when it had been co-opted by the grown-ups. It was a time of Fabian, who looked like James Dean but sounded like Jerry Vale. Bobby Darin was singing about beyond the sea. It wasn't rock. It was Bye-Bye Birdie.
The Beatles were new and fresh and outrageous. The accents meant a lot. Any British group (see: Herman's Hermits) could make it in America. Bobby Rydell tried to cover "World Without Love" with a British accent.
Hair meant even more. When ex-Beatle Stu Sutcliffe got the first Beatle cut, he was trying to make a fashion statement. He couldn't know long hair would become emblematic of rebellious youth. Fathers would fight sons over the length of hair. You could get killed (remember "Easy Rider"?) for the length of your hair.
What began as innocent fun turned into out-of-control rage, which we haven't yet resolved. As George Harrison said, "They used us as an excuse to go mad, the world did, and then they blamed it on us." They blamed rock and roll. They blamed the Beatles.
Of course, the focus of the '60s was the war, and the anti-war demonstrators. But it was a revolution with a soundtrack.
Think of this: In 1962, Bob Dylan wrote these lyrics: "Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command."
Except they weren't. In 1962, rebellion meant not wearing socks to school (you could be sent home; now you can bring a semi-automatic to school and not be sent home). Dylan was a visionary. He was anti-war before there was a Vietnam ("Blowing in the Wind," "Masters of War"). He also taught Lennon that the words meant as much as the music.
The Beatles turned into artists, extraordinary artists, the kind who could release "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" on one single. It would be like Beethoven using his Ninth as a "B" side.
But they were just as important before they learned about the words. It was about an attitude. It wasn't just that they were clever, though that was part of it. Or that they were irreverent, though that was part of it, too. It was the music, the sound, the look, everything. They had the hand of God on them.
I have a friend who was a teen-ager in Connecticut when the Beatles were playing at Shea Stadium. She remembers saying, "We're breathing the same air the Beatles are breathing."
It began, as great affairs sometimes do, with puppy love. She loves you. Please, please me. Onto Norwegian Wood, and, not much later, to yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog's eye.
Seeking a higher reality
That's when drugs kicked in. Nothing was the same after that. Nothing divided the generations more. Maybe Bill Clinton didn't inhale, but everyone else his age did. America was so real (the war was so real). Drugs were so unreal, such a denial of reality, or maybe a search for a higher reality. Today, it's the nightmare of drugs that's too real.
But, in those days, it was sex, drugs, rock and roll. And hair. In 1967, the BBC banned the Beatles' masterpiece, "A Day in the Life," for its drug message. Soon afterward, Paul admitted dropping acid. John had written about Lucy in the Sky. He'd love to turn you onnnnnnnn.
It isn't as if they had a plan. They visited the maharishi and they said war was bad. Later John would have his bed-ins with Yoko. But they never had an agenda, say, like the freewheelin' Dylan or the shackled Bobby Seales.
The Beatles didn't invent the times. They were the times. The world was spinning madly out of control, and everything seemed to turn on them.
If you lived in those days and you don't think the Beatles were just about the most important thing that happened in your life, then maybe you missed the '60s, or at least their essence.
Paul said he hoped the Beatles would be remembered in much the way that Mozart is remembered. He may yet get his wish.
The Beatles broke up early, and it was a great career move. John would be killed, so they couldn't re-unite. They would always be different from all the other bands, all the mere mortals, all the young dudes. They were the band that could go out on this note: "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make."
Yeah, yeah, yeah.