When the Beatles Saved America

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On the afternoon of Friday, November 22, 1963, I hopped on my cherry-colored Schwinn bicycle on a narrow, backcountry passageway called Benvenue Street in my hometown of Wellesley, Massachusetts. An energetic third grader at the time, I was determined to get home quickly from my elementary school to join my neighborhood friends for a much-anticipated game of touch football on the Sullivan twin’s front lawn.

On this scrubbed up, late-autumn day, I began the mile-long trek to my house at 48 Radcliffe Road After struggling up the elongated hill that peaked a quarter of a mile past Cartwright Road, I hurriedly churned my bike pedals in order to make it up the incline. Overhead, the tall oak trees that framed the old street seemed to be stretching their finger-limbs overhead. Stacks of leaves remained in the street’s front yards, little mountains waiting to be picked up before the first winter snow.

The halfway landmark of my journey was an elongated, bone-colored mailbox with the name, Thompson, in black letters centered on it. I breezed through it and began the rapid descent to my house. Suddenly, I heard a car’s horn blasting at me from behind. I hurriedly pulled over to the side of the road as the vehicle slowed down to an unexpected stop. The window on the car’s left side was then hastily pulled down.

I instantly recognized the driver, my mother’s closest friend at the time, Mrs. Sally Fulton. As I glanced into her blue, ‘63 Plymouth Valiant Station Wagon, I noticed that her normally amicable face was covered in shock. With trembling lips, Mrs. Fulton blurted out, “Oh, Shaunie, Jack Kennedy’s been shot!”

I raced home the rest of the way, my heart beating wildly. I flew off my bike and left it in the middle of our lawn. I then sprinted for our back door and flung the door open. When I got into our kitchen, I observed Mom sitting in her chair at the kitchen table, tears forming in her gray-blue eyes. She threw me a glance as I entered. “Jack’s gone,” she whispered. From our den, I heard “Taps” being played on our black-and-white TV in homage to our nation’s fallen leader.

For the next ten weeks, 180 million Americans walked around with unyielding stares, unable to look anyone else in the eye. Most Americans, including me, resided in a sustained gulag of grief. Martin Scorsese later called the murder of our young president, a national car crash. 

Thus, when a veritable tsunami of euphoria suddenly hit us between the eyes six weeks into 1964, it was if summer had suddenly descended upon us all. For the first time since President and Mrs. Kennedy had landed in Dallas, there was a pronounced bounce in our steps. 

The Beatles were here – and life for us all would never be the same.

Like everyone else who was of a certain age that winter, I distinctly remember when I first heard the band’s first American hit, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” On an ice-box-cold February afternoon, my oldest brother brought home a 45 he had bought that day from the Music Box in Wellesley. Chris’s bounding footsteps rattled the walls of our house as he raced up to my bedroom. As my door flung open like a trap door, he screeched, “You gotta listen to this!”

He then put the little disc on my rickety turntable.

At the instant when the Fab Four broke into the abrupt and distinctive syncopations; the intuitive vocal fills; the falsetto screaming; the novel chord progression, and the overdubbed handclaps, I literally jumped. When Bob Dylan, who was driving across the Mojave Desert that February heard the distinctive opening of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” for the first time on the radio, he famously bellowed, “What the fuck is that?”

Of course, one of the reasons that the Beatles’ sound was so distinctive to first-time listeners in ‘64 was that they sang in two-part melody. As John Lennon admitted years later to writer David Sheff, “Do you think I’m going to tell Paul McCartney that he’s going to sing harmony with me?” Ultimately, no other group before or since ever attempted to sing that way. The resulting testosterone that brazenly surged out of “I Want to Hold Your Hand!” note-by-kickass-note turned out to be the quintessential musical foreplay. The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson began referring to their distinctive vocal arrangement as that big voice.

In retrospect, rock and roll’s comet-like beginnings seemed to be plummeting to earth as 1964 began. Elvis had succumbed to the whim of Colonel Tom Parker, who wanted The King to sing second-rate songs in fourth-rate movies. Four of the brightest stars of the genre, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, and Ritchie Valens were dead at impossibly young ages. Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Chuck Berry were either in trouble with the law or had writer’s block. Only the girl-group-tinged, Phil Spector-produced “Wall of Sound” and the suddenly popular surfing music of the Beach Boys was even remotely interesting. My music teacher at the time compared rock to swing music. “It’s a fad that will go the way of the Edsel.”

Thus, when my brother, Chris, and I continued to listen to the “I Want to Hold Your Hand” unfold before us, we were stunned to hear the song’s distinctive bridge morph from a pulsating rocker to a pensive ballad. It was all held together by a series of intricate chords and adult-like lyrics before reverting to the teen-driven verses that had begun the entire affair.

Of course, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was a premeditated single. Even the Beatles themselves soon admitted even then that they wanted to throw everything they had into one song in order to break into the then-elusive American market. As we played it through for the first time on my little record player, my brother and I both instinctively knew that pop music had just entered an entirely new musical continent. Ultimately, we listened to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” 6 or 7 times before I turned the 45 over to the B Side out of pure curiosity.

Could the band from England perform another musical miracle again?

Within 10 seconds, my sibling and I knew that this band would be no one-hit-wonder. Chris began smiling broadly at me as this single, “I Saw Her Standing There” triumphantly played to its crushing conclusion – 2 minutes and 55 seconds later. Largely a McCartney track, Paul’s soaring voice initiated the number with a “One, two, three, four!” screech before the band launched a series of infectious chords, which would become as famous as any in rock history. (We kids had a myriad of arguments afterward whether Paul had actually shouted, “One, two, three, fuck!” Ah, the wonders of the Fab Four). 

Unlike the majority of the other songs that they recorded early on in their career, “I Saw Her Standing There” seamlessly captured the swinging dance sound the lads had perfected first at Hamburg’s Kaiserkeller and then in the bowels of Liverpool’s Cavern Club. Within the margins of the song’s emphatic pop stance, we heard an underlying bluesy flavor that permeated all the way to the last “whoooo!”

James Taylor later reflected that after he completed hearing both sides of the Beatles’ first American 45 that “I just knew that there was something there, there, and it was something that I hadn’t heard before – ever.” For the rest of the afternoon, Chris and I flipped the 45 over and over, relishing both songs as if they were manna dropped from heaven.

A few days later, when my entire family sat down in our den and watched the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, virtually every American under 25 had left the glare of Dealey Plaza in Dallas behind them and had begun to experience the consequential years of the 1960’s. After the band appeared on national TV live to an unprecedented 78 million American viewers on the evening of February 9, 1964, every male I knew either had shortened hair or a military-style crew cut. By the time the Fab Four recorded Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band three years later, even our local bankers had long hair.

On the day that the school year finally ended on Friday, June 12, 1964, the Beatles had an unfathomable eight songs in the Top 10 of the US Billboard charts that week. We simply couldn’t get enough of them. Over the next five years, the group would record 237 original songs and release a jaw-dropping 13 studio albums. The group’s last song on their final album, 1969’s Abbey Road, provided their own epitaph: “And in the end, the love you take – is equal to the love you make.”

These days, there’s an entire generation of Americans who now keep the Kennedy assassination and the appearance of the Beatles in the US in the same pocketful of memories.

I am one of them.

Recently, when I visited my hometown of Wellesley, I drove the length of Benvenue Street, the same road I had ridden my bike on when I heard that President Kennedy had been shot. As I approached the precipitous slope where the stately Thompson mailbox had once stood, I impulsively hummed, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” aloud. At that moment, I remembered it all, especially what happened after the darkness of Dallas. After “a long, cold lonely winter,” an unlikely band from Liverpool, England had reminded millions of young Americans how great it was to be both young and alive.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeeeeeaahhhh…..

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