Friday, February 4, 2011

The Beatles, Bad Parenting and Tectonic Shifts

Some men torment their kids with stories from their youth (repeated ad nauseam). Others by cluelessly projecting their own tastes on them.

I've managed to do both in an oddly particular way.

I torment my kids with a DVD.

Some years back I bought a DVD of the first American TV appearance of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan show in February 1964. It's actually a two DVD package that has all four appearances the Beatles made on the Ed Sullivan Show over an 18 month period. Next week marks the 47th anniversary of that first appearance. With nearly half of America I watched it live as an almost six-year old boy. 

You may see where I'm heading with all this.

Explaining The Ed Sullivan Show to those who did not live through that era (an alarmingly increasing percentage of the planet) is almost incommunicable. John Leonard does it as well as anyone in his book Smoke and Mirrors. In the opening essay "Ed Sullivan Died for Our Sins" he writes:
Never before and never again in the history of our republic would so many gather so loyally, for so long, in the thrall of one man's taste...Ed Sullivan was a one-man cable television system with wrestling, BRAVO and comedy channels, Broadway, Hollywood and C-SPAN, sports and music video. We turned to him once a week in our living rooms for everything we now expect from an entire industry every minute of our semi-conscious lives.
The show ran on Sunday nights from 1948 to 1971 and watching them now the bizarre mélange of acts is almost surreal. How was this crap so popular? But as Slate columnist Fred Kaplan correctly remembers, "Everybody liked this stuff back then. I remember liking it, too. That's all there was. There was no concept of an alternative."

Ed had no idea, but February 9, 1964 really was a cultural tectonic shift. With my parents and five siblings (at the time, more to come) we gathered in front of our Zenith back and white TV (the kind that took a full 30 seconds to "warm up") and we howled at the Beatles' haircuts and the apoplectic reaction of the teenage girls in the audience. They played six songs. We could only do so much howling and we eventually listened to the music. Afterward my Mom said, "They really aren't bad." Not bad at all Mom. The next day my Dad bought a copy of "Introducing The Beatles" at John Wanamaker's department store. I think I eventually traded it for an Iron Butterfly album when I was 12. I'm not proud of that.

Making my kids watch these performances likely springs from a lot of things. What C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory identifies as sehnsucht. An "inconsolable longing" that is the third rail for most nostalgia: 
These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. 
Watching the Beatles that night is a clear and sweet moment. My parents in their mid 30's (and looking very Mad Men) sharing the event with their gaggle of kids. My sister Laura's glorious cackle of laughter. Sitting on the cracked marble floor in the "TV room" of our house on Berkeley Road in suburban Philadelphia. Being near my big brother Joe who would die too young in the most heartbreaking circumstances imaginable. Lewis is no doubt right. There's something I'm imputing to that moment that is elusive and maybe even a little illusory. I stand up every Sunday and I (feebly as it is) remind people of a Kingdom that is now and not yet. And that night connects me in ways I can't explain with so much of the not yet. A place where things are new, made right and, as in Aslan's Country, "which goes on forever, and in which every chapter is better than the one before."

To be fair, my kids love the Beatles. Everybody loves the Beatles. (Except for this idiot. Oasis improving on the Beatles? Seriously?) They just get a little creeped out by my need to share that moment with them a little too often. 

Can't say I blame them. Can't say I'll stop.


  1. My parents in their mid 30's (and looking very Mad Men)

    You look very Mad Men, Thomas.

  2. Tom: Loving your blog- especially the title :). Will commence following post haste ! You are not kidding about Joe and BL- they were very Mad Men indeed! Paul says your dad wore a hat to work everyday. Look forward to reading!

  3. I also remember watching the Beatles live on the Ed Sullivan show, although I was only 4 years old at the time. I'm sure it had something to do with the fact that my high school-age cousin was living with us at the time. Still, it must be one of my earliest memories. Don't remember too much else about the Ed Sullivan Show except for Topo Gigio, of course. Great blog post!

  4. tom, i was not yet on the scene, and certainly not even a thought in my parent's minds, but i am taken back to so many moments in my childhood when i read your description of your 'beatles' experience. it really is elusive. only jack can give such a fine description of things like this. glad to read tom cannon. (and you should be sorry for that trade!)

  5. First: Nice piece of writing. Usually nostalgia is bathetic or maudlin. Not so this post. Nothing escapist here. Except...

    Second: Shirley is an idiot. He is untethered from reality. For him to even suggest that U2's "Achtung Baby" is better than "Abbey Road" is asinine. U2 is wonderful - but no Beatles.

  6. Iron Butterfly...yeah, baby.

    Seriously though, great post.

  7. Thanks for this post of last year and this year. It validates my life, too. I remember the winter Sunday night well. It was a highlight of my kindergarten year. Similarly to your family, my family was gathered to watch the show. My brother was keenly interested as he was 13 and learning to play bass guitar. My parents, we'll just say did not buy a Beatles 78 or 45 for their children. For me it was pure enjoyment of new music on an evening TV show without the tug of unfinished homework on a Sunday night. And 6 songs! I think that is more that what McCartney did on the Superbowl half-time show some years back. Brings back the innocence of childhood, enjoying the Beatles before Yoko and the breakup. Keep up the good work.