I asked my sister recently what was on her mind that she’d like to see in print. She immediately answered that she’d love to see someone write about the possibility that Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney might appear on Late Night with David Letterman on the 50th anniversary of the first Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, Feb. 9 1964. (Letterman’s show originates in the old Ed Sullivan theatre.)
I thought that was a pretty silly suggestion when there is so much going on in our world, our country and our state that is eminently more important. Then I thought about those important topics and got very depressed, as they seemed so collectively horrible. All things considered, I’d rather write about the Beatles.
In 1964 when they made their first appearance on the Sullivan show, I was a high school senior preparing to make the leap to college. In my case it wasn’t that much of a leap since my mother made sure I went to a Catholic women’s college about an hour away that she was sure would re-enforce all she and my father had been trying to teach me since birth. From this very distant perspective, it is clear that didn’t happen. Not only was I on the cusp of great change, but so was America. Along with the Beatles came more and more upheaval in our country. The civil rights movement pushed for full equality for all people and many Americans sadly chose violence rather than accepting that. The fight for civil rights was soon followed by the anti-war movement – nothing like conscription reaching into the then vast middle class to cause an uprising of unrest and discontent with an unwinnable war.
1964 was when the downhill ride of the sixties first started to really pick up steam with the Beatles seemingly fueling the engine for that ride, even though their songs in 1964 were hardly revolutionary. They spoke of love and holding hands and all things romantic. The Beatles of Sgt. Pepper and the White Album were years in the future. Yet somehow, the sight of four young men with strange hairdos and tight suits caused teenage girls to go all gaga, teenage boys to try desperately to imitate their hair style and parents to worry that this English group was subverting their children’s morals. If you were young then, it was a heady and glorious time. You soon were chanting “Don’t trust anyone over 30” and losing all your innocence as soon as you possibly could.
Not everyone in my generation participated in the revolution of the sixties. The majority followed the path of their elders. Boys became men and got jobs to support families, assuming they didn’t get killed in Vietnam. Girls went to college and graduated, if lucky, with their MRS assured. But it was the young people who didn’t follow their parent’s path who ultimately were the ones that defined our generation. While there are many bad things that came out of the sixties (the fashion choices of the seventies pre-eminent among them), there were also many good things. It was during that tumultuous period that we first started being concerned about our planet (think Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring). Women started picturing themselves as other than mothers and wives. Gays started teaching us that they were decent, loving human beings who deserved respect, not a closet. And the Beatles went from wanting to hold your hand to revolution. Change happened so quickly even those in the middle of producing it were often bewildered by the paths it took.
My generation has been accused of self-obsession. I think part of that obsession stems from the fact that the sixties were the last time we had heroes in our midst, and the belief that those heroes could help us change the world. This was before the curtain was pulled back to reveal that all those heroes were much too human. They tumbled off their pedestals and we tumbled into chaos. The Summer of Love ended and the era of Charlie Manson began.
Maybe we obsess about those days because they were an amazing time to be alive, a time when we really believed we could make the world a better place. It’s certainly been a long and winding road from then to now.