Sunday, February 9th marks the fiftieth anniversary of The Beatles first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, in effect the beginning of Beatlemania as well as the British Invasion. For the first time in the short history of Rock & Roll, a band stayed relevant beyond the few years which were expected at the time, put out an incredible and prolific stream of music, and completely transformed popular music, if not the world.
By the time I came around, it was over. But some of my earliest memories relate to The Beatles, at a very early age they managed to make quite an impression on me. With much of their music it’s impossible for me to remember the first time I heard it, it seems to have always been there, certain songs go as far back into my memory as I do.
I have been thinking about this as I hear the media gearing up for a celebration, tried to remember what their music meant to me even at such a young age.
Even at eight years old, in 1980 when we heard that John Lennon had been shot, it impacted me greatly, I can still recall the day clearly. I was in the backseat of the car, looking out at the yellow winter day, feeling the bit of heat the sun managed to push against the glass. I was too young to know that the Beatles had broke up before I was born, and in my simple mind I didn’t realize they all wrote songs and sang, I thought John sang all the lead parts in the band. “I guess the sun will never come again,” I remember saying, apparently already poetic and melodramatic, and also referencing a song George Harrison wrote and sang.
Although I can’t quite make out when, there is an otherwise clear memory of us, my family, getting a little stereo system from Sears or Kmart or a similar place. Cheap but effective, it had radio, a cassette deck, and a record player.
This is when music first affected me in a magical way. I remember going through the stacks of old records I found around the house, my moms and my dads. Even at the time much of it didn’t impress me or hold my attention, until I got to The Beatles albums.
This was something different. A lot of the music I heard before sounded mechanical and boring, but this was magic. Each song was a tiny spell cast; engaging, hypnotic and impossibly fascinating.
The first time I can remember having a favorite song, it was I Am The Walrus. It was on an album called Reel Music, which I don’t believe has ever been considered for reissue on CD. It was a collection pressed by the record company, a sampler of songs from the movies The Beatles made. I am the Walrus stood out because of the nonsensical lyrics and the fact that I couldn’t recognize how any of the sounds were being made. I was sophisticated enough to know a guitar or a piano or a violin, but this song was so thick and random and – let’s face it – weird. As often as I listened to it I had no idea what it was about or how it was done. I am sure this has influenced and instructed my own art more than I need say or probably can recognize myself.
I can’t quite recall how old I was when I decided I wanted to grow up to be John Lennon, but I did. There was a project in elementary school where we were supposed to research the career we would like to pursue when we grew up. Many kids gave the expected responses; fireman, police officer, president, garbage man, plumber, so on. It came to my turn and I said, “Rock Star.”
This was the first big laugh I ever got, the entire class erupted around me. I wish I could say this was my intent, but it wasn’t. I was far too serious for my age. The laughter burned my ears. The teacher only made me feel worse, telling me being a rock star wasn’t a profession.
The assignment was to research your chosen career and give a report on a handful of aspects such as how to go about learning and training for your field, what you will need to know and what will be expected of you once you arrive. I spent some time in the school library as well as the public library, trying to find some information on how one goes about becoming a professional musician. I came up with next to nothing, there was an encyclopedia entry on Musicians, but nothing about how they went about getting there. It is entirely possible I didn’t know what to look for, but there seemed to me to be no information available on how to get a job playing guitar and getting rich and famous at the same time.
I’m not sure if I ever finished that report, but that was nothing out of the ordinary if I didn’t. I do know my mind had already been firmly set on what I wanted to do when I grew up.
Even back in kindergarten, a dim distant memory that is only coming to me now as I write this, I was trying to write songs and start bands. I had a little plastic electric guitar, a toy, it took a nine volt battery and had one thick metal string that blurted out of a cheap plastic built-in speaker. I made my brother and our neighbor join my band, and I remember walking back to school one afternoon, dragging our instruments along, to play a few songs I had written for the music teacher.
I have no idea what the songs were, but I am certain they were terrible and probably not music, technically. I can’t recall how the teacher reacted, but I don’t think it was what I expected. It was probably a polite dismissal, a ‘that was lovely, thank you. See you in class tomorrow, goodbye.’