OCTOBER 8, 2012
“To Hell With the Beatles” postcard
THE BEATLES TRIED to force me into a regular adolescence, but I did not want one. In some part of my soul I had decided to skip the transitional stage to adulthood. At the age of 11, I was one of those characters that grown-ups refer to with great satisfaction as “young man.” I wore glasses with dense, dark frames and I sported a brush-cut (if it is in fact possible to “sport” a brush-cut). I wore white shirts, rolled down at the cuffs and well secured: I often buttoned them to the neck. My belt was always buckled to the tightest possible notch, then sometimes, heroically, on to the next. I lobbied for and eventually got a ring with a black onyx stone to wear on my left hand. I looked like a junior version of a mid-leveler at IBM or NASA. I loved my middle name, Wright: which suggested that I was always correct, always accurate, forever on the money and possessing the exact change. I carried a brief case.
I was enrolled in something called — with a hubris almost too grand to be believed — the Major Work Class. We Major Workers had been recruited from all over the city to fill a 25 person classroom where we, aged 11, with a few precocious tenners thrown in — were to engage in (what else?) Major Work. Some of us no doubt did. By the end of the year the capriciously dressed, not always scrupulously washed tenner named Vickie was onto the early stages of calculus, slamming along in her private workbooks.
We gave performances called Morning Talks, which were modeled on the briefings that State Department types delivered, but were based on topics of our own choosing. I did mine on the battle of Guadalcanal. I referred to multiple maps. If memory serves I flourished a pointer borrowed from the teacher. I also constructed a model of a Japanese military camp, based on nothing but what I imagined a Japanese military camp ought to look like. The talks were supposed to be 20 minutes: mine broke the one-hour barrier and had plenty of momentum left. It’s possible that when it all ended (lunch?) I tried to take the pointer home with me.
The school we attended was two or three miles from my house and I took the bus there in the morning, but often chose to walk all the way home to burn off steam. My briefcase was always so full that as I walked the handle straps whimpered in soft despair. On the way home one afternoon I ran into a buddy who had himself been invited to go Major Work, but had declined. His name was Andy, and he had an insubordinate streak. The year before, we had been assigned to make safety posters to illustrate this worldly danger or that. Some kids made signs advising others not to step into the ditch the gas company was digging, or to refrain from tanking down a bottle of mom’s bleach all at once. Andy drew a picture of a jet liner landing on the runway at Boston’s airport, Logan. Beneath the wheels of the incoming plane a small personage was being reduced to blood and guts and general glop. It was a remarkably graphic piece of work.“Here’s a Safety Slogan: Stay Away from Logan!” its legend read. The teacher went orange: she looked like a burning bush. Then she did one of those around-the-room teacher whooping dances that adults never get to see. Andy had sucked the high seriousness out of the safety poster game. He’d made a mockery of civics and duty. Yet he had been tapped for Major Work.
He asked how I liked MWC, which is what we initiates called it, naturally, this being early sixties America, the era of the acronym. I told him fine, fine, fine. Then I went into a song about all the work I had to do for MWC that weekend. There was a book report and another book report and some math problems (two weeks’ worth) and some geography and maybe a bit of free reading that, being assigned, was no longer free reading. There was a science project coming due. I told Andy all these things and he shook his head in compassionate disbelief. We parted ways, Andy skipping, me feeling the weight of all my homework, which sounded much like the sins that I listed at confession. I did have all those assignments to fulfill, yes, but they weren’t really the weekend’s assignments. They were obligations that had been building up for many moons. I was badly behind.
I may have looked like a scrupulous little scholar, but really matters were not proceeding so well. Inside the briefcase, it was a mess: books and folders and scrunched work sheets and mangled notes and doodles. There were no doubt at least two pens hemorrrhaging slowly and pencils broken like so much kindling for a tiny bonfire.
Some time after Guadalcanal and my encounter with semi-liberated Andy there came the Beatles. They landed on the Ed Sullivan Show deep in ice-locked winter: February, 1964. The band played not one Sunday night, but three times in a row, singing at the beginning of the show and at the end. On all three installments, they sang their number one hit, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The girls in the audience were catapulted into a sort of frenzy I’d never seen. It appeared to me that all bedlam had been set loose and sent to the studio to hear the Beatles. The girls cried and thrashed and they tore their own hair. It really was not clear if they were joyful or running over with grief. If all you’d seen was the girls in their high pandemonia, you might genuinely have imagined that the young king was dead and they were mourning his passing in the high pagan mode.
I hated the Beatles’ music, needless to say. But at least when I saw the first installment of the invasion, I was not worried. My father who loved Beethoven and was partial to Mozart thought them absurd. My mother, a devotee of Perry Como, said that she could not have cared less one way or another. Yet though she protested that she did have other, better things to do with her time, she stayed and waited for the mop tops to return at the end of the first show.
The hairstyles the Beatles wore that night were pageboys, and they all were clad in identical suits. They were wearing greaser-style shoes, which we would soon learn to call Beatles Boots. To the eye of the present, they look innocuous. But at the time, their hair was a scandal to end scandals. All of the prudent and wise said the same: They look like girls! They look like teenage girls!
But I was not worried, not a bit. Lyndon Johnson was president, but in a fundamental sense we were still living in Eisenhower Land. We all Liked Ike, didn’t we? We all adored Mamie. I had named my twin parakeets after the presidential couple — Mamie and Ike, Ike and Mamie — and seem to recall that during the Beatles appearance they were conspicuously silent.
So I came to school that Monday crew cut and bespectacled and lectured anyone who would listen on the absurdity of the Beatles and how they wouldn’t and shouldn’t and couldn’t. I Doctor Johnsoned away in the schoolyard before the bell rang to start the day and while most of the boys agreed that the Beatles weren’t such a much, they were a touch more muted in their judgment than I was.
Around lunch time the girls made their views known. The boys room and the girls were connected by vents, and when the genders went their ways for the pre-lunch hand and face scrub-down, the vents conducted a sound that they had never conducted before. Giggly, ragged, high pitched, high-strung, rather exuberant and (dare one say it) rather randy voices clung together in harmony: “Yeah, I tell you something, I think you’ll understand / When I feel that something [. . .]” I believe there may have been some mock drum and bass work between the lines. Then — pump the volume — from a stray kitten chorus at least a dozen strong, the assertion: “I want; I want.” (“I want”: the most trouble causing two word human articulation in existence.) “I want to hold your hand.”
It was clear — or it should have been — the girls had a new ally. The Beatles were girl-like in themselves, and they made girl-like demands. They demanded handholding. What could be more girlish than that? When they sang “She Loves You,” they took the part of a loving girl to let the thick-skulled boy know what was up. What mattered to the girls was what clearly mattered to them: twisting and shouting, handholding, the local dance, crooning endearments. They wanted handholding — and that was all that they wanted, not kisses in the back seat of the car, not a hand loosening the bra strap, and no sex — no, not under any circumstances. In the ultimate adolescent war — boys against the girls — it was clear whose side the Beatles were on.
How could they have made such a bonehead choice? Girls were nothing. Girls were silly and pretty and bad at sports. They were prim, often to a ridiculous degree. One of them in the class was prone to finish her work ahead of all of us — she especially excelled at penmanship. When done, she sometimes stood, took up a ballet pose — balanced on one toe, arms arched over her head to make a bell shape — and pirouetted a few times there in the aisle. She twirled like a chaste little top. Did the teacher see? If one of the boys had stood in the aisles and gone into a baseball pitcher’s wind-up, cork-screwing his body tight, the teacher would have been on the black phone that connected directly to the principal’s office.
The Beatles had invaded. They had stormed ashore in a melodious fury to reinforce the girls’ team in the endless struggle. And now, augmented by the Beatles, the girls were going aggressive: they were calling the classroom shots. Overnight, the hierarchy had changed. The most consequential boys in the class were no longer the smarter ones, or the more athletic ones, or the kids with a claim on being handsome. Dominion was now to the Cute. Diminutive slightly girlish boys rose on the classroom ladder. They were short, they were maybe a bit weak, they couldn’t climb the rope in gym. But now the girls gathered around them, remarked on their resemblance to this Beatle or that and teasingly persuaded them to comb their hair forward. I had no hair to comb forward — and I was not near to being cute. I could have tossed my glasses in the trash, let my hair grow, left my briefcase on the bus. I might even have un-buttoned my top button. But on some level I knew that it would do no good. Now I was double marooned: not one of the guys really, and not one of the girl-guys either.
I tried, at least a little. When it was time to pick a confirmation name, I chose John. It was not, I confess, a tribute to the saint who wrote one of the Gospels. In our class we had a Paul, a George, a Richard who could pass for Ringo. I became John, rounding out the foursome. The lead girls showed passing interest in this and then moved on to other matters.
Mostly I held fast. I listened to my father’s Beethoven records and liked them. When my mother put on something by Perry Como, I was happy to hear it. Me casa, su casa, he sang in his brandy warm voice, my house is your house. My mother and I waltzed across the living room like a couple of semi-pros. I told people that when it came to music I was all about Beethoven and about show tunes — I loved the track to West Side Story. Every now and then I’d even get brave and say a good word for Perry Como.
Not long afterwards a debate started in class — I’m not sure how — about the existence of God. It turned out that the majority was as hyped about the deity as they were about the Beatles. On the other side was the class atheist: a brilliant kid who was tall and wore unmatched socks and whose breath was often compromised from cheesy sandwiches at lunch. Based on a classroom accident years before, he was known as Leaker. Leaker had no use for God and none for the Beatles either. Like me, Leak had been raised on quartets and octets and scherzo and molto con brio. Four chords and some crap about handholding didn’t do it for him either. The second member of the anti-God debate team was a girl who was called Baby Hippo, a nickname that does not need explanation. There was another kid too, a boy, but I can’t remember anything else about him.
What was I doing with the tiny tribe of atheists? Up until then, I was a reasonably fervent believer. But when the teacher proposed a debate and asked who would like to side with Stephen (Leaker’s rarely used given name) my hand popped up.
We sat in the middle of a human ring — Leaker, Baby Hippo, me and the unremembered boy — and we made arguments. I got into high pointer mode: I did the morning talk routine, full out. Baby H. had plenty on her mind, too. We brought up the space shots and their inability to get a snapshot of God; we said that the Bible had been written by humans. We asked how God could have allowed Auschwitz and the atomic bomb.
And the other side? When it was their turn they flung invective. They said that we were losers; they said that we were fools. From time to time they reminded Stephen that he’d pissed on the floor. I cinched my top button tighter and kept fighting. If they’d had a cart at their disposal they’d have loaded us in. After an hour of braying mixed with oratory, our teacher declared us atheists the winners, hands down. Which meant, of course, that we were losers, now and for the future.
Which was not all right by me. I still made an occasional foray in the direction of trying to be liked. Stephen was of sterner stuff. He’d been Leaker for some time, two years at least, and had grown used to being the class outsider. He seemed to take the debate as another installment in the never-ending saga of his classmates’ rank idiocy. He was surprisingly good humored about the whole affair. “What do you expect?” he said to me afterwards. He went on listening to Brahms and building robots and wearing mismatched socks.
As to myself, I wavered. I would try with some measure of energy to be liked. I’d claim to be crazy about the Boston Celtics; pretend to admire the class alpha males; and be quiet when a hot discussion topic came along. But much of the time, I couldn’t handle the conformity biz. I saw, hazily enough, that no matter what I did I wasn’t going to become “one of the kids,” so I set about living with it. I offered complex political commentary in class (borrowed from my Republican father); I made off the wall, Mad Magazine inflected remarks when the teacher spoke, and sometimes when my classmates did; I danced not with the pretty girls in the class, but with my mother, after school, to the melodious Perry Como. I stayed myself in other words, and though it was not a blissful existence, I got to like it well enough.
Looking back, I have no doubt that the tiny piece of cultural insubordination having to do with the four lovable mop tops opened the way for my flirtation with atheism — and then for a whole span of thought crimes that I would commit as the years unfolded. I got to be the person who said what the other guests at the picnic didn’t want to hear — but was true nonetheless. I was absurd with my buttoned up collar and the attendant pink face and the intense little man haircut. But I was also free; I was in a certain weird way myself. Today, whenever I say or think something that pushes the needle into the red zone of impiety or simply independence, I’m inclined to thank the rotund fellow I once was, puffing his way home on Friday, glasses fogged, briefcase sighing
The Beatles grew up fast, and invited us along with them. Soon there was Sergeant Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour and the sitar and the maharishi and the LSD. In time — I confess it — I rather loved The Beatles. And loving them mattered to me, as it did to almost everyone my age at the time. But those couple of years hating the Beatles — well, I have to admit it, that mattered a lot more.