October 2012 Archives

The Night We Saved the Beatles

    August, 1966, was a time of precipitous change in my life.  A recent high school graduate, I was enrolled in the University of Wisconsin - River Falls, for which I would depart the town of my first eighteen years in less than a month.  The ordinary melancholy of such transitions was heightened for me by a fresh breakup with the till-then love of my life, with whom I'd envisioned a future that now lay in the dumpster of defunct dreams.
    About to leave everything that, for better or worse, had composed the familiar textures of my world -- town, family, and friends -- and faced with an at times frighteningly wide-open prospect (more frightening than promising in my bereft, nostalgic mood), I clung inwardly to certain straws of consistency, among them the music of the Beatles.
    It's almost impossible in the 21st century to grasp the fresh impact and importance the Beatles' music and personal charisma exerted on my generation.  A short time before their coming we had experienced, through the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the death of that Camelot of hope and optimism the late 50s and early 60s had built on the prosperous foundation of US victory in World War II.  One grey day in November watching the televised funeral laid all of that to rest in the soil of Arlington.  Coming after such national anguish and generational despair, the Beatles were nothing less than a resurrection and rebirth.  JFK was killed on November 22nd, and "I Want to Hold Your Hand" released in the US on December 26th, a massive infusion of joy after bludgeoning grief.  No wonder we Boomers bonded with the Beatles!
    I was sitting in my sophomore-year typing class when fragmentary reports of the shooting began to crackle over the PA.  By the next year, the apparently inexhaustible supply of new Beatles hits had encouraged a small, fanatically inspired cohort of friends to acquire and learn the instruments necessary to start our own Beatlesque combo, an idea that, though we were all rock and roll fans, had never seriously occurred to us before.  We understood that none of us could be an Elvis Presley or Roy Orbison.  But because of the evident if slightly deceptive composite identity of the Beatles as a band, we were able to imagine that we too could pool our talents in similarly democratized fashion.  
    Thus were born the Gremlins, in look-alike striped T-shirts, Beatle boots and hair as long as we could individually get away with in our homes, the local outcrop of "British Invasion" rock.
    I won't recount here the adventures and misadventures of this illustrious troupe in our approximately two-year existence as a performing unit in Chippewa County, Wisconsin.  I'm sure imagination magnified them by several powers over what they were in objective reality.  We were more than a little quixotic in our spirited tilting at the windmills of adult boredom and complacency.  Our quest was really an effort to live romantically in a milieu that ridiculed such pretensions as impractical and frivolous.  And who is to say we didn't successfully keep something of value alive in our souls amidst all our preening, flailing, and grandiose fantasizing?
    In August, 1966, though, our band also was coming to an end, with its two senior members, bass player Ben Shackleton and I, rhythm guitarist, both college-bound.  I remember walking around town until all hours, aimlessly and yet semi-consciously soaking up the place's sensory impressions and memory associations in a kind of haze of mixed anticipation and regret, complex flavor of that moment poised on the edge of the unknown.
    We all carry stories that over time come to stand as emblematic of certain periods in our lives.  These are our "core" stories, the ones we keep returning to in memory, as though a refreshing spring that not only satisfies our thirst but reminds us again, on some fundamental level, who we really are.  It is from the springs of such stories that we may, as Frost wrote in his poem "Directive," "drink and be whole again beyond confusion."
    I can summon numerous scenes of emotion and discovery tagged in recollection to specific Beatles songs, no doubt partly because their brief recording career (essentially from 1963 through 1969) approximately coincided with my adolescent sexual awakening and entry into young manhood.  One of my favorite, in fact, took place on August 8, 1966, during the last month I lived in my hometown of Cornell, Wisconsin.  
    It was a swelteringly hot evening on our main street overlooking from its slight rise the sun westering low on the Chippewa River.  All was not well at my family's house.  Tensions with my father, now recovered from a brain operation the previous year, ran high; anticipation of my impending absence probably prompted me to flaunt my growing autonomy while, on my father's part, contributing to a tightening of control while he could still exert it.
    That day happened to be my younger brother Terry's 13th birthday.  Sharing an enthusiasm for the Beatles, we'd fixated on the single "Eleanor Rigby" / "Yellow Submarine," released on that very day as if a birthday gift personally intended for my Beatlemaniac brother.  Adding to the excitement was a rumored experimentalism distinguishing the new album, Revolver, from its predecessors in the Beatles' catalog.  Of drinking age for the past half-year, much to my brother's envy, I could go down that very evening to hear the new single at my preferred Main Street watering hole, Stasel's, conveniently located only a block from our upstairs apartment.
    However, this pleasure and freedom were clouded by an extenuating event.  Weeks earlier, John Lennon had candidly remarked to a British interviewer:
    "Christianity will go.  It will vanish and shrink.  I needn't argue with that; I'm right and I will be proved right.  We're more popular than Jesus now."
    This evidently failed to ruffle the Brits, but in late July the American magazine Datebook reprinted the interview on our shores, sparking a national anti-Beatle hysteria.  Church groups denounced Lennon's remarks, and public burnings of Beatle records and memorabilia were sensationally stoked by the media.  After Lennon made semi-apologetic noises at a national press conference kicking off the Beatles' new American tour, the storm subsided, but not at the Smith household.
    For reasons of which I'm unsure -- maybe largely the general antagonistic friction now heating up between Dad and me -- we got into a bruising argument over the controversy.  In Dad's eyes, I was no doubt unfavorably influencing my impressionable younger brother with my musical obsessions.  As I slammed out of the apartment that evening, Dad's parting shot struck a blow to my heart:  "You'd better enjoy your Beatles while you can, because this is the end of them.  They're finished!"
    Of course under the bravado of my rebellion, I feared that he was right.  Given the Beatles' importance as emotional and spiritual healers of the Kennedy assassination and cultural guides to the road ahead, the threat of their impending demise became a source of profound existential dread.  It seemed possible that a piece of our generational identity and energy might just be ripped away from us, blocking our path forward into the future.
    So it was in a gloom of anger and foreboding I plodded the block from our apartment to Stassel's, a cherry tint of sunset over the river below Main Street.  I knew it was sunset for more than just Cornell, though, I desperately hoped, not sunset for what Dad had disdainfully called "your Beatles."
    Strangely, I intuited the change of atmosphere before I actually sensed it.  Approaching on the summer-baked sidewalk, I could tell without looking that the place would be full.  Full of light, full of smoke, full of activity, full of voices.
    Full of music.
    As I pushed in the front door, the immediately recognizable chorus of "Yellow Submarine" greeted me.  So old Chuck Gass, the local record distributor, had come through and installed the new single on Stassel's jukebox that very day!
    In small towns like Cornell, from the time one turns 18 the tavern functions as one of the main centers for social life.  As I glanced around the crowded bar room, I noticed many friends already present.  The younger drinking crowd liberally mingled with the older drinking crowd, the latter including a few confirmed barflies who seemed to live at Stassel's.
    Someone in a transport of bonhomie placed a cold ten-cent glass of tap Leinenkugel's in my hand.  In the 60s, one could still drink beer all evening on a dollar in those northern Wisconsin taverns.  Almost below the level of consciousness, some communal force manifested in that scene of merriment slid under my dark mood like the blades of an emotional forklift and began, very quickly, to raise me up.
    I quickly realized it was the power of "Yellow Submarine" doing the lifting.  Finishing that first glass of beer, I also realized that in the ten minutes I'd been at the bar I'd heard nothing come from the jukebox but yellow submarine, yellow submarine, yellow submarine.  A steady stream of quarters poured into the cheerful, squatly Buddha-like machine to keep the whimsical, buoyant song flowing in air.  Again and again the small black platter with its yellow and orange label was laid down on the glass-encased turntable, again and again began its spin, again and again the needle lowered into the infectious groove.
    A few had already begun to sing along, and soon others chimed in.  Before long the entire tavern clientele were roaring along with Ringo:

     In the TOWN
     where I was BORN
     lived a MA-A-AN
     who sailed to SEA

In an ambiance so lacking in puritanical vengefulness as to seem a country apart from that mean landscape of my father's prophesying, a vision wonderful and strange emanated from the squat, merrily-glowing ark of the jukebox, the ale-golden radiance of a world more forgiving and free than our own, maybe one yet to come into being, hidden like the sun before dawn.  It was a vision I would later recognize in William Blake's heavenly tavern in "The Little Vagabond" where

     . . . God, like a father rejoicing to see
     His children as pleasant and happy as he,
     Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the Barrel,
     But kiss him, & give him both drink and apparel.

    It seemed that everyone joined in, everyone under the irresistible spell of the Beatles's good-hearted singalong.  Town kids, farm kids, mill workers, everyone, even the barflies, a forty-year-old bachelor who lived with his mother and a pie-eyed, once-pretty woman of about the same vintage, contributed to the boisterous celebration.
    Celebration of what?  Well, certainly the sheer inebriated pleasure of drinking together, alive and in the bubbly light together, as if our mutual life had been at the wave of a magic wand been transformed into an immense effervescent schooner of Leinenkugel's, an image in no way contradicting the metaphor of the yellow submarine.
    But more decisively a celebration of the Beatles!  In the joyful release of that moment I understood that the Beatles -- and their music absolutely -- would weather this storm, and many others yet to come.  The yellow submarine was built to last!  My father and the killjoys would not have the final say.  That belonged to the people who loved the Beatles' music, who were legion, who were right here in this moment of fine drunkenness, "all aboard," raising our glasses, our faces filled with laughter and tolerant humor, raising our voices and, one after another, carrying ritual offerings of silver to the jukebox altar until closing time on our sacred and spontaneous mission to keep the Beatles alive.