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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Beatles, Bell-bottoms and Bombs


In honor of the 50th anniversary year of the Beatles' first live performances in the USA, here is an essay I first published in 1989....

My initiation into the era known as “the Sixties” began on September 4, 1964, when I attended the Beatles' concert in Milwaukee.

I was thirteen years old, a fervent Beatlemaniac. When I heard the Beatles were coming to town, I rushed to buy the most expensive ticket. It cost $5.50, which equaled eleven hours of my work babysitting.

That ticket bought me a seat so far from stage that the Beatles looked like four little wiggling stick men in black. I had to stand on my chair to see, because no one in the audience was sitting.

I knew that fans always screamed for the Beatles, but I was shocked and dismayed that the shrieking never let up during the entire show. I finally found that the best way to hear was to press my hands over my ears and feel the music via vibrations coming through the floor and my chair. (I knew all the songs by heart anyway.)

John, Paul, George and Ringo pranced and sang for about twenty minutes, then exited while the crowd continued screaming and sweating, hand-wringing, weeping and gnashing teeth. Outside the arena, it was mob action, mindless and frightening. Everyone wanted a glimpse of the Liverpool lads, and I was so crushed in the throng that the breath was almost squeezed out of me.

We're crushed now by nostalgic books and movies about that era. However, those years will always be a mystery to be pondered for those of us who, through no choice of our own, came of age during that turbulent time.

My awakening to the Sixties began with an innocent infatuation, shared with millions, for four young musicians who dressed in matching suits and ties and dared to wear "long" bowl haircuts.
Why the Beatles caught on then with such frenzy, no one has ever adequately explained.

And we can only make guesses about why history's alarm clock was set for the mass experiment, protest and disillusionment of the years following.

The innocence of early Beatlemania was quickly followed by an explosion of real-life fervor, mania, shrieking, mob action, hand-wringing, weeping and gnashing of teeth as we proceeded through years of war, rebellion and revolution.

As the Beatles' music became "psychedelic," flower children often dwelled on rhetoric and slavishly followed campus leaders who had fascist-strength appeal. Drugs and sex were often confused with mind-expansion and love.

Sometimes the only way to hear the truth was to clamp your hands over your ears.

For those of us who lived and argued with our parents, it was a period of a painful, virtual civil war of opinions on war and "relevance," as we termed it. Many of us remember those days with a faint, sickly stirring in the stomach. Because of what we saw, we've developed lifelong convictions about justice and nonviolence. Those beliefs continue to prick our consciences, ensuring that life will never be simple.

We who were young then helped create what the Sixties came to represent. When we focus backwards on that time, it isn't just because we're a bulging generation enamored of ourselves.
Rather, we're still scratching our heads and trying to figure out what happened.

It's become a sort of baby boomer parlor game to surmise just exactly when the era known as the Sixties happened, and just what it was all about.

My hunch is that the term "the Sixties" doesn't describe the decade from 1960 to 1970, but rather the years 1963 - 1974, beginning with Kennedy's assassination and ending with Nixon's resignation and the winding down of our involvement in Vietnam.

Something unique happened during those years, and no one has deciphered just why.

This essay is excerpted from Calling All Horses, now re-issued in a second edition.

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