THIS IS HOW WE FIRST SAW THEM: as four British lads bounding from a Boeing 707 at Kennedy International Airport, just past lunchtime on a blustery February day in 1964. The fresh-faced visitors were impossibly neat and charming, all toothy grins. They clutched their blue Pan Am bags as if they were the bloodiest best gifts ever. Press photographers snapped away amid the din of 3,000 teenage fans shouting their brains out.
And this is how we remember them today: as a masterful, ever-morphing rock band that dazzled us for eight years; a band that composed and recorded some 200 songs unlike any we’d heard before; a band whose arrival on these shores less than three months after President Kennedy’s assassination afforded Americans an excuse to hold hands, to love, and to imagine happier times during a profoundly turbulent era in our political evolution.
Day Tripper. In My Life. Eleanor Rigby. The Long and Winding Road. Ah, and Sgt. Pepper—of course. It was a ticket to ride, all right. These fellas were nothing if not revolutionaries.
Then … they were no more. Except, that is, for the poetry and the melodies and the iconic marketing images they bequeathed to us—millions of psychedelic/quixotic/ambiguous/shocking images. Like Bob Dylan, whom the Beatles greatly admired, they created a template for the ways musicians could entertain an audience while simultaneously, if gently, rejecting its wars.
Five decades after the Beatles touched down in New York—aboard a jet aptly nicknamed Clipper Defiance—there are those who regard them still as quasi-spiritual figures who came to heal us Yanks at the exact moment we most needed a liniment for our broken spirit. Are they, then, somehow sacred? To some, the answer is an unequivocal yes. (Others do not share in this exalted view, but more on that later.)
America was simultaneously confused and frolicsome during the early ’60s–a “hot mess,” to use the current vernacular. The Vietnam conflict, delivered to us in crude TV video, split the country apart. Everyone owned a small transistor radio–for listening not to news, but music; among the top-charting songs the day the Beatles arrived was the raucous Louie Louie by the Kingsmen. The Ford Mustang, which would go on to become the most iconically cool American ride, rolled into dealerships just nine weeks after the Beatles performed on The Ed Sullivan Show. NASA was getting its Saturn rocket engines ready to propel men to the moon. Air pollution? There was none. Climate change? What’s that? In some ways, all our troubles–even the war–seemed so far away.
But in the aftermath of the November 1963 killing of the president, ours was suddenly a less innocent nation. Perhaps a more emotionally vulnerable one. As history would record, we were more than ready for a quartet of young rule-breakers who could provide a bright new beat for the times.
And so on February 7 came the Beatles, aboard Pan American Flight 101 from London, to begin their odyssey in the colonies.
From the start, the band sang to us–occasionally at us–in unforgettable and often discordant harmonies. It Won’t Be Long. Here Comes the Sun. Get Back. Remember? Help! All My Loving. Eight Days a Week. A remarkable canon by any account. With these extraordinary songs–ballads, tales of love, protests against normality–they gave us, among other things, permission to finally move past the idle brainlessness of surfer-think.
There had been other big pop acts before them, but these guys reset the cultural clock in an instant. Where once we could draw a squiggly line between Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra and Buddy Holly and Elvis, now we had…well, a near obliteration of everything pre-1964. It’s no surprise that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, one of very few others of the past half-century to make the planet wobble, often cited the Beatles’ singular influence on his life.
As 2014 dawns — ironically, with a man in the White House who does a pretty good impression of soul singer Al Green–the musical landscape is once again confused and splintered, with no dominant voice. The glory of Beatlemania has long since faded. Yet in scores of ways, the band plays on.
A small army of scholars, American and British, continues to research the meaning of the lads’ midcentury moment. Read all of it if you wish. Or you can take heed of Cher, who recently turned to David Letterman while a guest on his show, and perfectly summarized the fabulousness of John, Paul, George, and Ringo: “The Beatles,” she said nasally, “changed everything.”
JOHN LENNON AND YOKO ONO’S APARTMENT atop the Dakota looks exactly as it did the day John was murdered outside the building’s main entrance.
A longtime friend of Yoko’s, who visited with her not long ago, tells me that “in the living room there is a white piano. On the top of the piano are photographs of Yoko and John. There are no pictures of the Beatles. There are no awards, no trophy case. There never was. John didn’t need to be reminded.”
From the windows of the apartment, across Central Park West, one can just about see Strawberry Fields, the parklet dedicated by the City of New York to the life of John Lennon. Over time, the little triangle of land has transformed into the physical place one visits to pay homage not only to John, but to the memory of the rock band he created back in Liverpool. Each day, thousands of tourists stroll through.
On the afternoon I stop by, a guitarist named Baron Sydney is sitting on a bench, singing a medley of Beatles’ numbers as acolytes mill about and genuflect on the famous “Imagine” mosaic. Sydney performs here almost daily, he says, observing the never-ending parade. Sometimes he mixes in a little Bob Marley or the Police, just to keep things unpredictable. “People bring mementoes here–teddy bears and stuff. I see people cry,” he tells me.
I approach a stylishly dressed 30-something couple from Rome and ask why they have come to Strawberry Fields. “Because the Beatles represented the feeling of the masses against political power,” they say, struggling for the right words in their heavily broken English.
A 25-year-old French tourist is about to climb aboard a bike and exit the park. Why had she made the pilgrimage? “Back home,” she says, “in the evenings, at every party, we listen to Come Together. To us, the music is not old.”
Finally, a boomer from Cincinnati, on vacation. “Well, the Beatles are just part of America,” he replies tartly, as if to suggest, “Why would anyone even ask such a stupid question?”
After a while, I leave the park, walk uptown, and make a couple of calls to help me appreciate the Beatles from the perspective of those whose livelihood is dependent on their continuing popularity. First, I ring up Joe Johnson, host of an all-Beatles radio show. There are dozens of such programs around the country. His, called Beatle Brunch, has aired for 22 years and is currently heard on about 100 stations. He quickly recites several Beatles “firsts”: the first band to print lyrics on their album sleeves; George Harrison was the first rock star to front a fundraising concert (for Bangladesh, in 1971); they were the first rock band to feature four completely distinct and likable personalities.
But mainly they are still so warmly embraced, Johnson tells me, because “more than half their songs were about love. When they strayed from that, they always tried to get back to it.”
Afterward, while still just blocks from the tiny memorial park, I dial up Joe Stefanelli, who for 20 years has “been” John Lennon in a touring tribute band called the MopTops. (Stefanelli, who views himself more as an actor than a singer, also played the part of Lennon in the movie Forrest Gump.) “There’s an optimism in those songs,” he says. “When you go onstage and bring those characters to life, you should see the look on the people’s faces. They want to buy into all of it.”