Truthfully? In 5th Grade I was not paying attention to pop music. Oh, sure, the radio was a wonderful source of favorite childhood songs in the early 60s: “Puff the Magic Dragon” by Peter, Paul & Mary; “Tie Me Kangaroo Down” by Rolf Harris; “The Clapping Song” by Shirley Ellis (“3-6-9, the goose drank wine…”). I did not really know who Elvis Presley was because he had been absent from the charts since his Army days, but I did love “Rag Doll” by the Four Seasons.
In 4th Grade, we all sang along enthusiastically with the Beach Boys on their monster hit, “Surfin’ USA,” even as we dodged neighborhood fights when bullies asked the infamous question, “Are you a surfer or a hodad?” But in January 1964 I was concentrating on getting good grades and still grieving with the rest of America over the assassination of President John F. Kennedy just two months earlier.
So I was surprised by the breathless excitement of my classmates on the first week of February. “What do you think of the Beatles?” “Have you heard ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ yet?” “Are you gonna watch the Beatles on Ed Sullivan this Sunday night?”
Huh? What are the Beatles? What the heck are you talking about?
On that Monday the Beatles were the only thing my friends were talking about. That night my next-door neighbors, Melissa and Melinda, were blasting “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Can’t Buy Me Love” from their family radio. My younger sister Desi was equally enthralled. At first, I dismissed the group and their music as just a trendy teen girl thing, but the music caught my ear as the Los Angeles stations played Beatles songs over and over. I could not deny there was something exciting and new about their sound.
On Tuesday, I began to pay closer attention to conversations about the Beatles. On Wednesday, having had two days of listening to their music, I began to weigh in, not wishing to be seen as a straggler. On Thursday, I admitted, perhaps reluctantly, that I would be watching Sullivan on Sunday. On Friday, my friends and I were all looking forward to the show.
Please understand that I had still not yet seen a photo of the Beatles. There was no Internet and, as the eldest in my family, I had no older teens in my circle from which to wean information. So, although I had an earful of the group’s music during the past week, I was unprepared for their visual impact.
My family already watched Ed Sullivan every Sunday night, so there was no change of plans or fighting over what show to pick. At the time, Sullivan was appointment television in America, THE showcase for new and established talent in all entertainment fields. Dour old Ed wasted no time in introducing the act that everyone in the country had been talking about.
“Ladies and gentlemen . . . the Beatles!”
What was that unearthly noise? Hundreds of teenage girls screaming at the top of their lungs! Having had no previous experience of this teen idol thing with Sinatra and Presley, I was taken aback by the sound and images of teen girls throwing themselves in wild abandon at the feet of these four young men.
They were certainly dressed presentably: four guys in dark suits, white shirts and thin ties, three in front on guitar, and one guy on drums behind them. But their hair! What was wrong with their hair? It wasn’t crew cuts or flat tops, like my classmates and I were wearing. And it wasn’t the greased pompadours that I had seen on some early-60s rock’n’roll groups. The band's hair was not short but also not girlishly long. The word “androgynous” had not yet entered the popular lexicon but, looking back, it would seem to fit the Beatles’ hairdo to a T. And they combed their hair forward in bangs. Guys don’t do that, do they?
But forget their looks! I was finally seeing a live performance of the songs I had heard on the radio all week. The guitarists did not perform in the unison choreography that I had seen by groups on American Bandstand. From left to right, Paul, George and John were all bobbing and swaying independently of each other, shaking their mop tops, and occasionally coming together at the microphones for harmonies. And behind them, Ringo was a wild man on the drums, shaking his head and banging away on his toms and cymbals with rowdy abandon, yet somehow maintaining the steady beat that defined the group’s name.
“All My Loving.” “Till There Was You.” “She Loves You.” “I Saw her Standing There.” “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” These songs were unlike anything I had ever heard before from any other pop group. Coupled with the loud adulation of their teen-girl audience, the overarching effect was one of unbridled joy and enthusiasm.
Yeah, yeah yeah!
I was particularly drawn to that left-handed singer with the violin-shaped guitar. At the time, I didn’t know a bass from a six-string guitar but Paul McCartney’s energy and melodic voice had a profound impact on me. I was only playing harmonica and flute in school band but after seeing the Beatles, especially Paul, I made a fateful decision: I want to learn guitar! I want to do THAT for a living!
But another powerful force was also pulling at me in 1964. This was the year that the Roman Catholic Church promulgated the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. I was already a “church kid,” actively engaged in the Latin Mass at my parish, but now there was incredible excitement over the prospect of the new English Mass that would be celebrated on the upcoming First Sunday of Advent. The Church was wooing me in one direction even as the Beatles were yanking me in another. Dichotomy? Contradiction? I didn’t even know what those words meant when I was 10 years old. But somehow, I would eventually bring those opposite forces together – secular and sacred -- in my life’s work.
And you know that can’t be bad.
Walter Cronkite Remembers . . .
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