The arrival of the Beatles in America was an unforgettable cultural touchstone. Through the voices of those who witnessed it or were swept up in it indirectly, The Beatles Are Here! explores the emotional impact—some might call it hysteria—of the Fab Four’s February 1964 dramatic landing on our shores. Contributors, including Lisa See, Gay Talese, Renée Fleming, Roy Blount, Jr., Greil Marcus, and many others, describe in essays and interviews how they were inspired by the Beatles.
This intimate and entertaining collection arose from writer Penelope Rowlands’s own Beatlemaniac phase: she was one of the screaming girls captured in an iconic photograph that has since been published around the world—and is displayed on the cover of this book. The stories of these girls, who found each other again almost fifty years later, are part of this volume as well. The Beatles Are Here! gets to the heart of why, half a century later, the Beatles still matter to us so deeply.
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About the Author
Blount is a panelist on NPR’s Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!, an ex-president of the Authors Guild, a usage consultant for the American Heritage Dictionary, a New York Public Library Literary Lion, and a member of both the Fellowship of Southern Writers and the band the Rock Bottom Remainders.
In 2009, Blount received the University of North Carolina’s Thomas Wolfe Prize. The university cited “his voracious appetite for the way words sound and for what they really mean.” Time places Blount “in the tradition of the great curmudgeons like H. L. Mencken and W. C. Fields.” Norman Mailer has said, “Page for page, Roy Blount is as funny as anyone I’ve read in a long time.” Garrison Keillor told the Paris Review, “Blount is the best. He can be literate, uncouth, and soulful all in one sentence.”
Blount’s essays, articles, stories, and verses have appeared in over one hundred and fifty publications, including the New Yorker, the New York Times, Esquire, theAtlantic, Sports Illustrated, the Oxford American, and Garden & Gun. He comes from Decatur, Georgia, and lives in western Massachusetts.
Read an Excerpt
Tools of Satan, Liverpool Division
by Joe Queenan
MY FATHER WOULD not let me and my three sisters watch the Beatles when they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964. His official reason for imposing this interdiction was because the Catholic Church had identified the Beatles as tools of Satan. This was strange because even at that very early juncture, the Beatles, with the possible exception of John, seemed quite harmless and even cuddly. I cannot recall in what capacity, or through what specific channel, the Church had singled out the Beatles as minions of Lucifer; their proscription may very well have obtained only at the Tri-State level, with reports of their villainy appearing in a popular Philadelphia publication, the Catholic Standard & Times, which kept tabs on satanic activity in the Delaware Valley.
Whatever his reasoning, my father, a devout though not especially satisfactory Catholic, told us in advance that he would be commandeering our tiny black-and-white television on each of the three consecutive Sunday nights in question, preventing us from participating in one of the most famous events in the history of the medium, if not the planet. He was devout, he was doctrinaire, and he was breathtakingly mean.
My older sister says that I circumvented this edict by sneaking over to our uncle Jerry's house and watching the Beatles on his television set on that first Sunday evening. I seem to recall that my three sisters, fourteen, nine, and six at the time, got left out in the cold, an injustice that may have scarred them for life. They have no clear memory of seeing that first show. But I have never actually raised the question with them. My uncle was no more a fan of pop music than my father — he was the only Republican in our family and positively worshipped the duplicitous, vindictive Richard Nixon — but he was not an out-and-out jerk. He recognized that these broadcasts were important to us, and he treated them with commensurate gravity. He understood that things are serious to those who take them seriously, even if they seem frivolous or ridiculous to you personally.
Moreover, as a hotshot salesman for Philadelphia Gas & Electric, he knew a hot product when he saw one. He could see what was coming — a tidal wave — and he understood that it was time to get out of the way. The Fifties were over, the age of the silver-throated crooner had passed, and the Big Bands were not coming back. I seem to recall my uncle snickering at the Beatles' silly hair and cutie-pie laminated suits during their legendary Ed Sullivan appearances. But in no other way did he interfere with our viewing pleasure.
Today I remember no specifics about the other two broadcasts, other than that I enjoyed every second of them. My mother may have arranged it so that my father was not at home those second two Sunday evenings. But I do recall that the thought of not seeing those programs was inconceivable at the time. I was thirteen years old when the Beatles came to the United States and to this day I believe that my life as a sentient human being, and not merely as my parents' chattel, began at that moment. This would not have happened had Herman's Hermits or the Dave Clark Five been the first to arrive on these shores. Whatever the Beatles had, no one else in my lifetime had it, with the single notable exception of Michael Jackson, who possessed a similar ability to mesmerize an entire planet. (Born in 1950, I was too young to remember Elvis's first big splash.)
To my best knowledge, only Jackson, Presley, and the boyish Frank Sinatra ever exerted this kind of hypnotic sway over an entire society. Madonna, though ubiquitous, was never beloved. And no one ever lined up to see her movies. My daughter went through her childhood desperately waiting for her generation's equivalent of the Beatles to show up. They never showed up. The Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync showed up instead. The closest she ever got to the Beatles was Jimmy Eat World. And the Vines. And Matchbox Twenty. And so on.
The arrival of the Beatles was the first time I felt that the world might belong to me. Until I heard "She Loves You" on my sister's transistor radio in December 1963, I had no interest in music, period. Until that moment I viewed music as an annoyance at best, and at worst as a punitive child-rearing device. I had grown up in a house dominated by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Patti Page, Perry Como, and Mel Tormé, along with more explicitly sinister figures such as Doris Day, Jerry Vale, and Vic Damone. On Saturday nights, as part of his sadistic pop cultural brainwashing program, my father would force us to gather in the living room and watch The Lawrence Welk Show. Welk, an uberschmaltzy accordionist and bandleader from Strasburg, North Dakota, with a pronounced German accent, was as corny as the day was long, performing treacly versions of wunnerful, wunnerful, wunnerful standards with his Champagne Music Makers, milking them to the very depths of their ghastly insipidity. To this day, rebroadcasts of the shows are among the most popular programs on public television, suggesting that the dream of public television has not yet been fulfilled.
My sisters and I grew up despising Welk and all those of his ilk, so when the Beatles showed up, we felt the way the French must have felt when the GIs swarmed into Paris in August 1944. The Beatles liberated young people from Victor Borge, Robert Goulet, Steve and Eydie, and the demented sing-along-with-the-bouncing-dots schlock immortalized by Mitch Miller. The Beatles liberated young people from bland show tunes, ethnic hooey like "Volare" and "Danke Schoen," and stultifying novelty tunes like "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh" and "Mr. Custer."
The Beatles held out hope that life might actually be worth living, that popular culture need not be gray, predictable, sappy, lethal. To this day, what I feel toward the Beatles is not so much affection or reverence. It is gratitude.
People like my father hated the Beatles because they had long hair and silly suits and came from a foreign country and were young. But mostly they hated them for the same reason the hair bands of the 1980s hated Nirvana: Because they could see the handwriting on the wall. They could see that the Beatles were a cultural writ of execution for a society that idolized songs like "How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?" and "Blame It on the Bossa Nova."
The Beatles swept away Pat Boone, the Kingston Trio, doo-wop, and all that other twaddle in about thirty-six hours. Or, let's say, they marginalized it. To this day, my English wife, who saw the Beatles in concert at age thirteen, cannot listen to Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and Andy Williams, or to songs like "The Girl from Ipanema," without wincing, because in her view, the whole point of the Beatles was to bury that stuff forever.
Some adults understood this. My mother once told me that she knew that the world no longer belonged to her when Elvis first appeared on the scene. People of my age have the same feeling about hip-hop; the world stopped belonging to us when our kids started listening to N.W.A. But for my father Elvis was merely the first shot across the bow. Elvis and Chuck Berry and Motown and Bob Dylan, all predating the Beatles, were no more than flesh wounds; the Beatles were an arrow right through the heart. At some level he must have understood that the world would never be the same after the Beatles, that while Sammy Davis Jr. and Lawrence Welk might live on in some vestigial capacity, they would no longer rule the roost.
He dreaded the Fab Four; they were emissaries of doom. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, he did not mind us watching the Rolling Stones when they appeared on shows like Shindig! and The Hollywood Palace and Ed Sullivan. This may have been because by the time the Stones and the Animals and the Kinks showed up, the Beatles had already taken Normandy. The Stones and the Animals and the Kinks were like the Greeks who came streaming through the streets of Troy after the warriors concealed inside the Trojan Horse had thrown open the city gates. The bands that followed the Beatles were darker and raunchier and scarier than John, Paul, George and Ringo, who were really quite wholesome. Be that as it may, it was the Beatles who lay concealed inside the Trojan Horse, not the Stones, the Kinks or the Animals. It was the Beatles who burnt the topless towers of Ilium.
With the Beatles, the group's second album, but the first truly great one, was released in the UK on November 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was murdered. My father, the son of Irish-Catholic immigrants who arrived in a nation that despised them, never recovered from JFK's assassination. He took Kennedy's murder personally, sensing perhaps that Kennedy would be the last Irish-Catholic president he would see in his lifetime. When I was older, I was struck by the irony in this, because I have always believed that the Beatles' stupendous success in America was directly related to JFK's death. I remember reading this theory years and years after the fact and thinking, "Yes. Here is one theory about pop culture that is not stupid or obvious."
The Beatles helped heal America. Or at least young America. Or at least most of young America, because there were still plenty of people in Dixie who were more than happy to see JFK go. Healing is what music does best. It stops the bleeding. The Beatles did not stop the bleeding all by themselves; the Supremes, the Miracles, the Temptations and the Four Tops pitched in too. But the Beatles got the process started. Some musicians heal ethnic groups. Some musicians heal nations. The Beatles healed an entire planet.
People love to romanticize the 1960s, but the only part of it you could actually enjoy was the music. Everything else was hell. Lynchings. Assassinations. Vietnam. George Wallace. Nixon. Jersey Boys. At least that is my take on it.
The first song I ever paid the slightest bit of attention to was "She Loves You." I heard it right around Christmastime in 1963. I was thirteen years old. It was the first time in my life I heard a song that seemed to speak directly to me and not to adults. To this day, as much as I love "Honky-Tonk Woman" and "Purple Haze" and "White Rabbit," I still think that "She Loves You" is the greatest song ever written. For me, it is and always will be the song that changed the world. I love that song. I absolutely love it. And with a love like that, you know you should be glad.CHAPTER 2
Greil Marcus, rock critic
ONE THING I will never forget about being a student [at the University of California, Berkeley] was reading in the San Francisco Chronicle that this British rock 'n' roll group was going to be on TheEd Sullivan Show. And I thought that sounded funny: I didn't know they had rock 'n' roll in England. So I went down to the commons room of my dorm to watch it and I figured there'd be an argument over what to watch. But instead there were 200 people there, and everybody had turned up to see TheEd Sullivan Show. "Where did all these people come from?" I didn't know people cared about rock 'n' roll. I thought it was quite odd. ...
... I go back to my dorm room and all you're hearing is the Beatles, either on record or coming out of the radio. I sit down with this guy who's older than me — he's a senior, I'm a sophomore — and he was this very pompous kind of guy, but I'll never forget his words. It was late at night and he said, "Could be that just as our generation was brought together by Elvis Presley, it may be that we will be brought together again by the Beatles." What a bizarre thing to say! But of course he was right. Later that week I went down to Palo Alto — I had grown up there and in Menlo Park, on the Peninsula — and there was this one outpost of bohemianism, a coffeehouse called Saint Michael's Alley, where they only played folk music. But that night they were only playing Meet the Beatles. And it just sounded like the spookiest stuff I'd ever heard. Particularly "Don't Bother Me," the George Harrison song. So the spring of '64 was all Beatles. But the fall [when the Free Speech Movement erupted on the Berkeley campus] was something else.CHAPTER 3
We Saw Them Standing There
by Amanda Vaill
IN FEBRUARY OF 1964 I was a boarding student at Madeira, a girls' school on the Potomac River, west of Washington, D.C. A bookish, rather nerdy adolescent from New York City, I'd grown up the only child of two increasingly estranged parents. As a minority of one I necessarily absorbed my parents' tastes because, at home at least, there was little to set against them. I knew virtually nothing about popular music, or the culture that spawned it. I would rather listen to Ravel than the Ronettes; and while I wished like anything that I could have been on a barge in the Thames to hear the original performance of Handel's "Water Music" back in the eighteenth century, I had absolutely no experience of (and professed to have less interest in) the dating rituals described in Lesley Gore's hit single "Judy's Turn to Cry." When my classmates listened in rapture to Frankie Valli and Bobby Vinton, I gritted my teeth; I hated these teen heartthrobs' amped-up accompaniments and melismatic vocalizing.
Back in November, though, thumbing through a copy of Time magazine during study hall instead of doing my Latin declensions, I'd read about a group of young rockers from Liverpool who were convulsing Great Britain, and had just played for the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret at the Royal Variety Performance, where their lead singer, John Lennon, had had the audacity to crack a joke: "For our last number," he'd said, with a Liverpudlian burr, "I'd like to ask your help. The people in the cheaper seats clap your hands. And the rest of you, if you'd just rattle your jewelry." I thought that was pretty cheeky and pretty classy at the same time. And in their photographs, this group, who called themselves the Beatles, looked both those things, with their modishly mod close-fitting jackets, their dark skinny ties and sharp white shirts, their mops of long but well-groomed, squeaky-clean hair (no Vitalis-slicked pompadours for them). It didn't hurt that they were English, too — I was the worst sort of snotty Anglophile, able to name all the English kings from William the Conqueror on, but wobbly on the American presidents.
As Beatlemania had become an entrenched phenomenon and a signifier of hipness, some of my more enterprising schoolmates had managed to acquire copies of the first Beatles single to appear in the United States; and when we came back from Christmas vacation the dormitory hallways throbbed with the sound of Ringo Starr's drums and John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison protesting that they wanted to hold our hand. The sound was nothing like any of the American rock 'n' roll I had heard, despite the electric guitars and the 4/4 beat. The harmonies were bright and fresh, the drum track as filigreed as a Bach fugue, and the sound was direct, unfussy, unengineered. I, who had had no use for Elvis or the Kingsmen or the Crystals, became infatuated.
Maybe it had something to do with the fact that most of their songs seemed so forthrightly joyful, and we all — certainly my schoolmates and I — needed a little joy just then. It had been only a little more than two months since we'd been stunned by the news, on a bright autumn Friday, of John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas. The whole nation was in shock, but the blow hit particularly hard at Madeira, where so many girls were the daughters of congressmen, senators, and diplomats. We'd heard about it in midafternoon, and in the early evening a few of us gathered in the Wing Library, a gracious paneled room whose windows overlooked the twilit river, to talk and comfort one another. At one point we became aware of the quiet snarl of an airplane in the distance, the sound growing louder as it passed overhead, then diminishing as it flew over the river to Maryland. All air traffic around the capital had been shut down in the uncertainty following the assassination, so there was only one plane it could be: Air Force One, carrying two presidents, one alive and one dead, back to Washington. Suddenly no one wanted to talk any more.
Just over two months later, on Sunday, February 9th, clad in the pastel shirtwaist dresses and Pappagallo flats we wore for dinner and for Sunday vespers, we crowded into that same room, where a small television set was tuned to The Ed Sullivan Show. Sullivan, a former gossip columnist with brilliantined hair and the mournful eyes of a funeral director, had become a household word — had even inspired a song in the Broadway musical Bye-Bye Birdie — by retooling the vaudeville variety-show format into a conduit that delivered the performing arts into more than fifty million living rooms across America. Every Sunday night at 8 p.m., from coast to coast, in a bonding ritual that helped to define popular culture in mid-century, Americans shared the experience of watching the opera divas, circus acrobats, Shakespearian actors, magicians, ballet dancers, pop singers, and standup comics that Sullivan deemed worthy of headlining his show. And tonight, in addition to a number by the zaftig British comedienne Tessie O'Shea and an excerpt from Lionel Bart's musical Oliver!, Sullivan was introducing the Beatles, who had flown across the Atlantic for the purpose, to America.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Beatles Are Here!"
Copyright © 2014 Penelope Rowlands.
Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL.
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Table of Contents
Tools of Satan, Liverpool Division by Joe Queenan,
Greil Marcus, rock critic,
We Saw Them Standing There by Amanda Vaill,
A Newspaper Article by Gay Talese,
In Love with Gorgeous George by Penelope Rowlands,
A Letter from Vickie Brenna-Costa,
Henry Grossman, photographer,
Good Bye, Mitzi Gaynor by Verlyn Klinkenborg,
Jamie Nicol Bowles, fan,
Billy Joel, musician,
Swimming to John by Noelle Oxenhandler,
Gay Talese, reporter,
My Four Friends by Cyndi Lauper,
A Facebook Encounter,
Vickie Brenna-Costa, fan,
America's Beatlemania Hangover by Debbie Geller,
"Cousin Brucie" Morrow, disc jockey,
Sister Mary Paul McCartney by Mary Norris,
Peter Duchin, bandleader,
Anne Brown, fan,
A Diary Entry by Anne Brown, age 15,
Springsteen's Hair Stands on End by Peter Ames Carlin,
FUN by Véronique Vienne,
Vicky Tiel, fashion designer,
Tom Long, fan,
Janis Ian, musician,
A Way to Live in the World by Carolyn See,
Up, Up, Up by Lisa See,
Joann Marie Pugliese Flood, fan,
Into the Future by Pico Iyer,
Fran Lebowitz, nonfan,
Michael Laven, fan,
An E-mail from Phillip Lopate,
White Out by Judy Juanita,
Renée Fleming, soprano,
Where Music Had to Go by Anthony Scadutto,
Tom Rush, musician,
Thawing Out by Barbara Ehrenreich,
Laura Tarrish, fan,
Screening the Beatles by David Thomson,
Gabriel Kahane, composer and songwriter,
Vera, Chuck and Dave by Roy Blount, Jr.,
Linda Belfi Bartel, fan,
David Dye, radio show host,
The Back of the Album by David Michaelis,
Will Lee, musician,
Why Couldn't They Leave Us Alone? by Sigrid Nunez,
Leah Silidjian, fan,
Independence Day, 1976 by Will Hermes,
SOURCES AND PERMISSIONS,