Yesterday, and Today: A Stars and Stripes editor looks back
February 7, 2014
“Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you …”
The words, full of excitement and promise and carried aloft by electric guitars and drums, soared above the screaming din of the packed New York theater, out through television sets across the land and into history. The Beatles had arrived in America.
It was February 9, 1964, and I was among a nationwide community of TV viewers who tuned in to watch Ed Sullivan formally introduce a new musical sensation from England, as the gregarious host and emcee would put it. I was 10, and that introduction was the beginning of a relationship that would last a lifetime.
I didn’t see it coming, of course. No one did, not least The Beatles themselves. But there was a sense that something new was happening, and it was a big deal.
A big enough deal that it drew 73 million TV viewers, a record at the time. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was at the top of U.S. music charts, and partly through the appeal of their music and partly through shrewd marketing, The Beatles had aroused a nation’s curiosity.
While they were at it, they improved its mood.
It was just two and a half months earlier that we had gathered before our TVs in stunned mourning for the slain President Kennedy, transfixed by the images that unfolded. The tearful news anchor announcing the president’s death. The shooting of the presumed assassin. The riderless horse and the somber procession of the caisson past a fatherless son’s salute.
To this day, those images haunt the collective memory of those who witnessed them.
And, to this day, we remember the joyous spectacle of four young musicians making an unstated promise that you can change the world with a song.
Indeed, a case could be made that on that February night, The Beatles established themselves at ground zero of an explosion of creative exuberance, idealism and free thinking that marked the transitional era from the killing of John Kennedy to the landing on the moon. Certainly the band’s cultural impact transcends the purview of mere music makers.
But music makers they were, first and foremost, and at the very least they provided the soundtrack for an era, and that became a body of work for the ages.
The Beatles played five songs on that first Sullivan appearance, opening with “All My Loving,” a cover of “Till There Was You” from Broadway’s “The Music Man” and “She Loves You.” Then, after what must have seemed to a 10-year-old an interminable wait through acts of magic, comedy, acrobatics, celebrity impressions and a show tune or two, they returned to play “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”
I remember the screams of the teenagers in the audience, and my father remarking that the band, with their long hair, looked like girls. And that bit when John, Paul, George and Ringo were identified by captions, with a note under John’s reading “Sorry, girls, he’s married.” That stuck with me.
So, of course, did the music. Though not at first.
The popularity of The Beatles soon unleashed the so-called British Invasion as a succession of pop music acts followed their path to America. During a brief period of peer rebellion I became stubbornly convinced that The Dave Clark Five would be around much longer and threw my lot with them. It wasn’t long before The Beatles brought me back into the fold, where I remain.
Among my younger acquaintances, I know very few who aren’t passionate about The Beatles, or at least about certain records if not their entire catalogue. They know them through their parents, or older brothers or sisters, or college roommates, or classic rock radio, and they know that something about them strikes a universal chord.
Sometimes, they remark that they are envious … “because you were there.” They wonder what it must have been like to hear those songs, fresh and new, in the context of those times, bearing witness to history before we realized what we were witnessing. I suppose I’ve wondered the same about Sinatra and the bobby-soxers.
It’s nice to say I was “there” when The Beatles made their big debut, but faded memory negates some of that advantage. Fortunately, all any of us needs to do to experience the excitement of that night is to put The Beatles on the stereo. It’s all right there, in the grooves, eternal.