There was much hoopla in the past few weeks about the date, 50 years ago last night, that a rock and roll group from England appeared on an American television show and "changed history." (You can't actually change history; you can make history. Once it's history, well, that's history. If you know what I mean.)
Nonetheless, I was not as ambivalent to the overblown festivities as I would normally be. I'm a lifelong (pretty much) fan of the Beatles, still think their music is fresh and amazing, and enjoy watching them be appreciated by those of all generations. So although the coverage was certainly disproportional to any event ever, it was not as irritating--to me--as almost anything else would have been.
This is not going to be another one of those this-is-how-the-Beatles-changed-my-life stories, I promise. I was all of six years old when Ed Sullivan put them on a bill with Tessie O'Shea, Myron Cohen (no relation) and a very young Davy Jones, in the cast of Broadway's Oliver at the time. Frankly, I wasn't all that impressed that night, and wasn't until I got to hear the studio recordings, on which there was no hysterical screaming by teenage girls. (After all, I was six. Girls? Ugh.)
No, my appreciation of what those four men accomplished goes in another direction, and I think somewhat deeper than most. What the Ed Sullivan performances show me are four guys who were just starting, who were used to the spotlight but not the United States, and who could have easily been exactly what the adults in the suits and ties were saying they were--a passing fad fueled by silly children.
I write books for a living. And in those books, I make up stories. If you want to call that an art form, I'm not going to argue, but it feels like entertainment to me. That is not to denigrate what I and my colleagues do; I have long droned on here about my high opinion of popular enterainment, and will not take back a word of that now.
The admiration I have for what John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr did is based in their ability to start as light entertainers and then grow into really great artists who were also fantastic entertainers. They never disappointed (unless you watched Magical Mystery Tour expecting a coherent film), but they also didn't rest on their laurels. They didn't stagnate.
George Martin, the producer of almost all Beatles recordings, has often said that one thing he loved about the group was that "they never gave me the same thing to do twice." The songwriters in the group were conscious of the danger in repetition; they wanted to progress with each new recording, and what is most amazing is that they actually did.
I have been struggling lately with the feeling that I want to write something really notable, something that would stretch me into new areas, uncomfortable places (as a writer) and hit new heights for me. (Don't worry; this happens periodically. It'll blow over.) I don't want to stop writing the things I write; I love those--but I like to think there's something more as well.
Unfortunately, I suffer from a common malady among such entertainers as myself. I'm not sure what my limits are (I know; you're not supposed to have any, but we are given a finite amount of talent without an inventory of how much we have). And even such a revered writer as George Bernard Shaw, late in his life, was urged by a rather nervy acquaintance--Harpo Marx--to write something new.
Shaw looked over, stared Harpo straight in the eye, and asked, "Got any ideas?"
Yeah, I haven't hit on that yet.
And that is what, for me, is the defining genius of the Beatles. Given the opportunity to milk their success into a year or two of tremendous wealth and fame, they chose instead to push the envelope. The group recorded 13 albums of about 14 songs each. In a seven-year recording career. Writing almost all the material themselves, while touring almost nonstop for the first four years. That's astonishing.
The more they recorded, the more innovative they became. String sections in rock and roll? Why not? Backwards lyrics? Bass lines that were sung instead of played? Songs with false endings, concept albums, extended medleys of new material that didn't have anything to do with each other but managed to come together cohesively. Done, done and done.
A Hard Day's Night. Day Tripper. Yesterday. In My Life. Help! A Day in the Life. Here Comes the Sun. Hey Jude. I'm just getting warmed up.
So those of us who entertain for a living should take a hint from those four "youngsters from Liverpool," as the condescending and avuncular Ed Sullivan said. Don't rest on your laurels. Don't simply write what you've written before. Challenge the conventional. Write to entertain oneself as well as an audience. Try things that aren't supposed to be done and see if they work.
It doesn't hurt if you're a brilliant artist. Or four. But since none of us knows if that term applies to us, we must operate on the assumption that if we try hard enough, we can find out. Maybe we are brilliant artists, and we just don't know it yet.
Turned out John, Paul, George and Ringo fit into that category. But ironically in the end, the love they took was not at all equal to the love they made. Countless millions were touched by the music those four men created. And they were repaid very well monetarily, no doubt. They also lost all chance at anything resembling privacy, their fame eventually drove wedges into their personal friendships, each one went through a divorce, one was shot and another died of cancer after being knifed by a madman.
Oddly, our memories of them are usually happy ones. We celebrate their work and we remember them fondly. And sometimes, when we dare to place ourselves in similar categories, we wonder, since they did it, if we can become great artists just by pushing ourselves to the limit. And maybe a little bit further.
Got any ideas?
P.S. Pitchers and catchers report in 4 days.