The Beatles made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show fifty years ago last night. I was six years old in February 1964, and their performance is my second earliest memory of an event of public importance. (The first was the assassination of John Kennedy.) As with all early memories, this one is sketchy, consisting of only a few vivid impressions that can be summarized briefly: I remember the sense of anticipation before the broadcast, which emanated from my older sisters, the ghostly image of four long-haired boys on our black-and-white Zenith TV, and my mother’s reaction, which was, simply, that their faces were dirty and needed to be washed. (Mom had a knack for seizing on insignificant details, usually on the basis of bad information. It didn’t occur to her that the dirt thought she saw was actually shadows. )
In the days that followed, however, the Beatles became a large part of our lives. Their music, names and images were everywhere, especially at the Jersey shore, were we spent a week every summer. (My brother had a John Lennon beach towel.) Beatlemania was a real phenomenon, one that is difficult to convey to younger people. You couldn’t escape it. Not that you wanted to, since everyone agreed that the Beatles were, in fact, fab.
Which they were. I was reminded of just how fab yesterday when I played cuts from the two Past Masters CDs, a collection of singles and covers the boys put out in addition to their albums. One cover, Larry Williams’ headlong rocker “Slow Down,” sung by John, was a favorite when I was small. Back then, it appeared on a quickie LP, rushed into stores in a vain attempt to satisfy the insatiable American market, called “Something New.” I remember listening to it over and over again in our dining room, kneeling backwards on a chair, facing the speakers that stood on what we called the buffet, and shaking my seven-year-old behind.
“Something New” also contained another favorite, Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox,” sung by Ringo. I was the youngest of four children, and Ringo became my favorite Beatle by default. My older sisters grabbed John and George. My brother declared for Paul. Ringo was the only one left, but I embraced him gladly. It was a particular point of pride that his real name was Richard, which is my middle name.
So I was happy last night when he reprised the tune on the overproduced, badly miked “tribute” program commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Sullivan appearance. He was in fine voice. The same cannot be said of Paul McCartney, whom I could barely hear through the cavernous acoustics of the hall and the slick, anonymous instrumentals. To be fair, Paul had a much greater range than Ringo ever did, and if he’s lost more of his voice over the years, it is only because he had more to lose.
As for the rest of the program, the less said the better. It was the kind of smarmy, star-studded extravaganza that the Beatles, with their honesty and their raw energy, rendered obsolete in the Sixties. Back then, for a time at least, it was about the joy of making music. The Beatles belonged to us, to everyone. Last night, it was about the rich and famous basking in reflected glory. The covers were mostly awful. Dave Grohl’s “Hey Bulldog” landed close to the mark, though he lacked John’s growl. Most memorable was John Legend’s honeyed rendition of “Let It Be.” Alicia Keys should have gotten out of his way.
John Lennon once said that if the Beatles ever reunited, they would just be four old men trotting out their greatest hits. After last night I can see what he meant, but I wonder if it would really have been such a bad thing. Yoko gave the enterprise her blessing: She was there in the audience, rocking out. (Was she high?) Paul and Ringo looked great, and they seemed to be having a wonderful time. I like to think John would have put his grudges aside and joined his old friends onstage. George, too. The songs have aged well, and the fact two of the men who created them have died, and other two have grown old, does not diminish them. They’ll survive another hundred years of bad tributes.