Fifty years ago at this time in mid-fall I had finally (finally!) gotten my driver’s license. I had failed the test at least three separate times and had been in a deep funk over this issue. Earlier that summer I’d used the money I’d earned washing dishes at a Chinese Restaurant called The Tea Garden to buy a modest 125cc Zündapp motorcycle. The motorcycle was crucial to my existence. It was both a vital means of transport and my bid at being the next James Dean. I wore a red jacket like the one Dean wore in Rebel Without a Cause.
I had other passions at the time. These were getting drunk, getting drunk, and getting drunk.
Ok, that’s a bit of a misrepresentation. Procuring alcohol was not that easy, nor did I get drunk that much. But when I did get drunk, I really liked being drunk. And I did like Shakespeare. Getting drunk and Shakespeare. Getting drunk on Shakespeare is probably a more accurate representation of my addled and adolescent brain. Marijuana was not in use, at least by anybody I happened to know, and was still considered the equivalent of heroin. I do, however, remember being enthralled with Aldous Huxley’s articles on taking peyote and other hallucinogens.
My hero, in so far as a role model is concerned, was James Dean. His intensity, his disdain, his toughness, his openness to feeling, his acute and utterly cool sense of alienation. As for girls, they were stupendous, they were beyond belief, and they were utterly unobtainable. I was scared to death of them. They were a Mount Everest I had not yet mustered the courage or stamina to approach. My best shot was to lean against a steam radiator in the high school hallway with my red jacket’s collar turned up and do my best to appear utterly and sneeringly indifferent to all the proceedings of the world. I remember the great benefit of my geometry textbook because it was large and I could use it to put in front of me when the class was over and I had to stand up because the hard-on I was sporting was threatening to tear through the crotch of my jeans.
Getting my driver’s license had been a stunning, life-altering achievement for me. My father had taught me to drive in a Hillman Minx, a British made convertible with the weirdest gear shift patterning in the known physical universe. My father, who had been a B-24 instructor during WWII, had not been a particularly patient teacher. His frustrations with my inability to follow through with his instructions increased the volume of his voice, which went from a moderately calm legato to an anguished and hammering martellato. I had a tough time driving it at all much less using it to take a driver’s license test. It is no small significance that the driver’s licensing bureau was located near Green Lake and the most confusing intersection I have ever encountered, then or now. And I’ve visited many of the world’s cities. It is not just a four-way stop, which I find maddening in the extreme because no one ever knows who got to the stop sign first or whose turn it is to go, but about five possibly six arterials meet at this point. Altogether it is a tangle of streets and signs more confusing than a constraint equation for a stress-energy-momentum tensor.
My favorite TV show at the time was The Fugitive, a show based on Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables in which David Janssen, a Jack Kerouac look alike, goes underground and hits the road as a drifter in pursuit of the one-armed man that killed his wife while being doggedly pursued by Police Lieutenant Philip Gerard. What I loved about that show as the way Janssen could never quite conceal his high education, refinement and compassion, his real nobility in other words, despite all the menial jobs he took. That would provide a useful model for my future employment; I could do any menial job to make money while supporting the noble and refined pursuit of writing, à la Jack Kerouac, until I became famous, hung out with Beat poets and led a life of desperate intensity and intellect while simultaneously pursuing exotic drugs and voluptuous pleasures. I would soon discover that being a “fugitive” was not nearly as romantic as it appeared in the TV show. I would leave school early, naively satisfied that a Bachelor’s Degree in English would be enough to secure a good, well-paying job. It didn’t. Nor would I ever be fated to step forward and come out of hiding to save someone from a life-threatening accident or disease, totally amazing the very people that minutes before had ignored, condescended, or mocked me. To this day, I do not know as much as CPR. If someone dropped to the floor with a stroke or heart attack I would not know the first thing to do.
This is all background chatter for what would prove to be the most remarkable event of that time. This was the emergence of the Beatles. This would prove to be bigger, even, than the tragedy about to occur some weeks later in November.
People often ask if they remember where they were when that tragedy occurred, because people often do. My memory is quite vivid: I was in an English class which was housed in one of several barracks-like outbuildings on the Roosevelt High School grounds, about to recite a speech from Macbeth I’d diligently and lovingly memorized, in which Macbeth contemplates the murder of Duncan (“If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well / It were done quickly…”), when our teacher, a thirty-something woman whose name I have long forgotten, was asked to come outside. It was a bright, crisp, sunny day, unusual for November. When the door opened, golden light flooded in. When our teacher returned, she was crying. Everyone’s immediate assumption was that a member of her family had died. Then we were given the news: President Kennedy was dead. He’d been shot while touring Dallas, Texas, in a 1961 Lincoln Continental stretch limousine with the top down.
There had also been the civil rights movement and increasing mention of an Asian country named Viet Nam. These were events that flavored that era, though at the time they were somewhat distant to my imagination, apart from the shocking photographs that appeared in Life magazine of black and white people being truncheoned and hosed by an extremely hostile police force. There had also been the appearance of thousands of people at the Washington D.C. monument to hear Doctor Martin Luther King’s passionate and forceful eloquence.
The Beatles did not hit me with any strong degree of liking or disliking. These were the days of AM radio when everyone of a certain age either listened to pop music on KJR, easy listening on KIRO or Schubert and Brahms on KING. The songs getting most of the airplay during that time were “Sugar Shack” by Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs (which I absolutely hated), “It’s My Party” by Leslie Gore, “My Boyfriend’s Back” by the Angels, “Blue Velvet” by Bobby Vinton, “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons, “Walk Like A Man” by the Four Seasons, “Our Day Will Come” by Ruby and the Romantics and “Surf City” by Jan and Dean. By far, my favorite song of that period was “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes, named after Ronnie Spector. This song blew my mind. Another odd song during that period was “Fingertips,” by Little Stevie Wonder. This was a very new sound, not quite Motown, not quite anything I’d heard before. It was jubilant and jazzy and cool in a way I couldn’t quite get a handle on.
I loved Motown, The Shirelles, The Temptations, The Crystals, Mary Wells, Martha and the Vandellas, The Marvelettes. It was edgy, soulful, authentic and cool. Rock and roll, the real stuff, had disappeared by 1958, its leading practitioners either jailed or domesticated or, like Elvis, persuaded to go into the army. Almost as soon as rock got off the ground it freaked the public out and was quickly homogenized into the bland substitutes of the Bobbys: Bobby Vinton, Bobby Sherman, Bobby Vee, Bobby Darin. Anything that kicked ass was rare. I don’t know how it happened that Motown was able to secure such a generous representation during that epoch of commercial blandness, but it was a welcome relief and I loved it. Consequently, I wasn’t quite prepared for the Beatles. They weren’t bland, that was for sure, but their sound didn’t have that essential substratum of pain and spirit and veiled agitation so evident in the Motown sound.
Motown was not rebellious, but it had a quietly subversive drive, a certain “other side of the tracks” quality that gave that music a dangerously appealing, exotic wild side. When Ray Charles sang “Busted,” you sensed that he was singing about a lot more than poverty. The song, which had been written by Johnny Cash, presented a dark reality that was quite unusual for pop music. “Busted” also had connotations of arrest for drugs, which made that “other side of the tracks” reality all the more exciting and palpable. Drugs were not mentioned in the song, but it was there. As soon as you heard the word ‘busted’ images of Lenny Bruce in handcuffs came to mind. Ray Charles wore sunglasses because he was blind. But it gave a look of distancing oneself from public view and a strong suggestion of dilated pupils, dilated mind.
I’m not even sure which Beatles song I heard first. It could have been “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “She Loves You.” It might also have been “Love Me Do” or “Please Please Me” which was first played in Chicago on February 8th, 1963. “Love Me Do” was first recorded in September, 1962, but wasn’t released in the United States until 1964, so that one can be ruled out, unless some friend of a friend recently returned from a trip to England had a copy that played in somebody’s basement. But that I think I would have remembered.
Whichever song it was, it didn’t grab me right away. My only memory of the Beatles that fall was the kind of derision my friends and I gave them. We didn’t as yet know what they looked like, but their sound was so openly jubilant and bubbly that it was easily dismissed as true rock. It was girl stuff. And the refrain “I want to hold your hand” lent it itself to many ridiculous and prurient permutations: I want to hold your tit, I want to hold your breast, I want to hold your cock, I want to hold your balls, I want to hold your car keys. But the more I listened, the more interested I became. The music was joyful and full of gusto as was surf music, but the sentiment was given further reach by its powerful rhythms and compelling melodies. The rhythm had an insistence that was exquisite and strong, like an amusement park ride. It made you want to thrust yourself about and do reckless and silly things. It made you giddy. It made you a little drunk. It made you want to take risks, especially with women, and discover (hopefully) what it was about the Beatles that was making the young women go so crazy. Who were these guys?
When I found out they were English the surprise was even more stunning. English? How did the English even know about rock and roll? When I saw the Beatles for the first time, on one of their first record albums propped up in a store window, I was a little intimidated. First, their hair. I’d never seen men let their hair get anywhere near that long. Secondly, the pointy-toed boots they wore with the high Flamenco heels were the kind of boots that serious hoods wore. Were these guys hoods? How could that be? Their music sounded so innocent.
By the spring of 1964 I would figure out, at least, that the Beatles were not that innocent. Or, more aptly, that their true innocence was not that innocent. They were promoting values that ran contrary to the usual dreary conventions of western capitalism. “Can’t Buy Me Love” joyfully mocked the masked aggression belied by the cornball custom of presenting a woman with an expensive diamond ring. The subtext there was pretty obvious: the intent of the mounted diamond was not so much a declaration of love as evidence of a man’s ability to make money. The subtext was also pretty clear: you were proving what a powerful man you must be in order to get that quantity of money. Suddenly the Beatles were saying nope, that’s stupid, you don’t need that, you don’t need to prove your love with money. Money won’t buy your way into somebody’s affections. You’ve got prove your love in more authentic ways.
But that would be another year. Fifty years ago, in 1963, I was happy just to ride my Zündapp, get drunk occasionally, and spout Shakespeare.