Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Oracles

Feb. 7, 2014

As we mark fifty years today since the Beatles arrived in America, I'm struck by an observation I read: If we had been celebrating the music of fifty years earlier back in 1964, we would have been reminiscing about the songs of 1914. Not likely! 
Not all half-centuries are created equal.

The name Beatles and the old black-and-white footage of the scene at JFK (then just renamed from Idlewild) and even watching them on "Ed Solomon," as my grandmother called him, are scrapbook memories, but for some reason the songs and the esprit or whatever it was about those four time-travelers from Liverpool, are still relevant, still exciting, still necessary.

I'm not sure if that speaks to the steep acceleration of change between 1914 and 1964 (two world wars, the Depression, the atom bomb, the cold war, space, radio, TV, cars, jazz, art, civil rights, Samuel Beckett, Alan Ginsberg, Gertrude Stein, etc., etc.) compared to the less dizzying (but still impressive) seismic events of the last half-century (lunar landing, Vietnam, computers, 9/11, Iraq, climate change, Obama, and the Beatles).

It's possible that 1914–1964 did most of the heavy lifting to get us to the Beatles, and it's also possible that the Beatles don't seem to have ever been out of date because of who they became, together and individually, so we retrofit their relevance back to "Love Me Do." And it's very possible that they had the secret (of life, happiness, time, love, art) and we believed it. 

I remember hearing about Beatlemania on the news. I was fifteen, living in El Paso, Texas with my mother, sister, and grandmother. The news report on CBS showed these four European bandmates in Sweden, hurrying past a huge throng of screaming fans. I think it was December. I remember snow. 

It was mildly interesting, this phenomenon. But it was in Europe, which was a faraway land of Laughing Cow cheeses and peasant dances and cuckoo clocks. Still, there was a feeling that Beatlemania was something to know, or else why would Walter Cronkite be reporting about it.

Some weeks later, I was at my friend Richard Trejo's house. We were working on a science project, which involved lowering a negative and positive carbon battery rod into different water solutions to make a light bulb light up or not. It was a modest trick. Most of our energy was going into sanding the wooden mount. And at some point, we put it aside and Richard produced the record. He had it. "Meet the Beatles!" 

There they were on the cover: faces half in shadow, wearing solemn, inscrutable expressions like four moons or four oracles. They knew something I didn't know. Deeper than celebrity. Having been somewhere, and not just Europe. Richard took the LP out, set the Capitol rainbow rim whirling on the turntable, the needle obediently dropped in the groove, and the secret jumped into the room in a cluster of rollicking chords: "Oh, yeah, I'll...tell you something...I think you'll understand! And I'll say that something... I want to hold your HAND..."  

 It was a very simple secret if you took it that way. Or it could stand for—or lead to—or imply—something more complicated if you took it that way. Not that I was apt to hear sexual innuendo at the time. Mainly I could hear it was about energy, pumping and powerful, like the electricity that made the light bulb turn on.  Secret enough to not keep in: "I can't hide... I can't HIDE!!! 

Those four oracles were on to something.

And then a few weeks later we saw them in person. Beatlemania was in our country now. Ed Sullivan, the usually grim impresario, flung his arm wide and conjured "The BEA—" with the rest of it drowned out by a scream wall of excitement powerful enough to light up New York City. And they weren't solemn oracles then. They were enjoying themselves.  How could they not be?  

So—do we still need them, do we still heed them, like in '64? Maybe not like in '64. But like in '14. The new one.


  1. I remember your calling me at some crazy hour of the morning: you'd been up all night and just heard Here Comes the Sun on the Abbey Road album. It was one of those perfect moments, five years beyond 1964. Beatlemania has lasted a long time.

  2. Although I liked the Beatles, my obsession was with Dylan, whom I saw introduced by Joan Baez in 1962 and then was at Newport when he went "electric" (boo, then, me ever the purist). Anyway, this is a 50 years ago moment and I'm glad as always to hear you opine. (Hi Dorrie!!!)