It doesn't take much to change history. Any little twists of fate will do it. The flagrant ones are the stuff of schoolbooks: a bullet, a coup, a revolution. But that's politics. And that's what really matters, so we're taught; all else is secondary.
Subtlties creep up on us. Culture bends with their weight so imperceptibly that, before we can detect the new direction, we are irretrievably altered. Kings and presidents are distant; they affect the way we see the world, but not the way we see ourselves. That's the job of the artist.
In a sense, the artist---working with words, color, image, sound--- sets off a little coup in us all. But it's a delicate process. A musical revolt, for instance, doesn't burst forth like a gunshot. It's made up of discrete steps, some false, some sure. If it's the right move at the right moment, it settles into our consciousness. Before we can protest, its melodies are a part of us, and the whole of our vision begins to change. We hear an echo in ourselves from the musician's notes, and it's as though we vibrate with parallel resonance.
This is the anniversary of one of those revolts.
But the U.S. was strangely prepared to be swept away. For more than a month before February 7, 1964, the new order was making itself known. The sound was permeating the airwaves. Imageless, it still had a persuasive effect on music listeners. Before we knew (or were shocked by) these odd-looking young men, we heard haunting harmonies and an irrepressible beat. To pop music fans long fed on the waning melodies of fifties rock giants (the greatest of whom were either dead, in the army, or in jail), this seemed utterly new.
In fact, it wasn't. American listeners didn't know it yet, but the Beatles were serving us mainly our own music, blended and cycled and knit with lyrics of their own. But it didn't sound like American rock and roll anymore. Filtered through their own creative mill, these songs pummeled the ear with promise. It's clear we were ready and waiting to be conquered on that Friday twenty-eight years ago.
But even the conquerors had doubts. America had the greats already; it was the birthplace of rock and roll. Why, the young men wondered, would America want *them*? What could they offer?
Perhaps the Boys were really too innocent. After all, they'd only just swept through the UK during the previous year, and Europe that autumn. Those lucky listeners had almost a full year of watching the Beatles' rise to fame, but the States had been slow to waken. Maybe that contributed to the Beatles' apparent disbelief. The airport craziness in New York *must* have been for someone else, they opined. And even after hearing the screams, seeing the manic press attention, they still couldn't believe their own songs were being played on American stations. They phoned the BBC to tell British fans the astonishing news.
It was mutual astonishment. We by them, they by us. It's hard to understand it now, after so long---yes, the haircuts really seemed strange; the matching grey suits otherworldly; the choruses ("Yeah, yeah, yeah") were lampooned *and* lauded. But it was, of course, their appearance on Ed Sullivan that Sunday night that replaced the exotic tang of their novelty with the vivid infectiousness of their talent. Live and on camera, the Beatles conquered their last frontier. And we're still reeling (and rocking!) from that revolution.
You can relive it better than ever, these days, now that videos of those momentous events are cleanly and legitimately available. This might be a good weekend for settling down with the visuals--- the Maysles Brothers documentary and their first Ed appearances are nicely packaged together on VHS and laserdisc. You don't even have to apologize to anyone for your musical taste. The Beatles are mainstream now; they're the Old Guard, the status quo, "classic rock". But no matter what your age, you can still sense in yourself the electric effects of that moment when their music was new.
How do I know? You wouldn't be here, reading this newsgroup now, if there weren't some trace of that revolt in your soul.
"Please, everybody, if we haven't done what we could have done, we've tried."
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