On Sunday night, February 9, 1964, I was 6-years-old, sitting with my parents on their bed in my pajamas, watching The Ed Sullivan Show on their portable TV. Not much of a story, I know. But it’s my story about seeing the Beatles for the first time, so I’m going to tell it.
Ed Sullivan was a Sunday ritual in our house — yes, there was a time when everybody in America sat down to watch exactly the same TV show at exactly the same time. (It wasn’t as if we had a lot of options.) And this Sunday night was even more special: The Beatles had landed in New York the Friday before, and would be making their American TV debut tonight. I knew something was up, the way kids do. The TV news and the radio were filled with Beatle-talk, and I was curious about what it would feel like to come down with “Beatlemania”. Would I scream like the older girls at the airport? Would I faint? Would it hurt?
With a theater full of jumpy teens and an unprecedented home audience of 73 million viewers, Ed Sullivan wasted no time; the Beatles came on first and sang “All My Loving,” ”Till There Was You” and “She Loves You”. On the second song, the camera panned to each Beatle in turn and a subtitle with their first name flashed under their faces. I decided right then and there that I was in love with Paul, because John’s subtitle read, “Sorry girls, he’s married.” OK, cross him off.
I watched the whole show, impatiently waiting through the cast of Oliver! (if only I had known that I was watching my someday-soon second love, Davy Jones, in the role of the Artful Dodger) and (research tells me) Frank “The Riddler” Gorshin and music hall star Tessie O’Shea for the Beatles to come back and sing some more. I don’t clearly remember anything else about that night. But when I woke up the next morning, I was buzzing inside with the memory of the Beatles, the way they held their guitars, the jump and beat of “She Loves You” and “I Saw Her Standing There”, the dreamy way Paul and George put their heads together at the microphone to sing. The Beatles were in my life now, and everything felt weirdly different. Imagine a world before electric lights, and now imagine that moment when the lights flick on. That was my world after the Beatles.
At school Monday morning, the girls were asking each other, “Which one do you love?”; the boys were singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and strumming air guitars. (I can’t prove it, but I believe the air guitar was born in imitation of the Beatles.) One boy told me that I looked like Paul McCartney — it must have been my dark brown pixie haircut and bangs. I think he meant it as a put-down, but I took it as a sign that Paul and I were destined to be together.
I was, simply put, obsessed with the Beatles. My fantasy play changed. Instead of putting the soundtrack to My Fair Lady or Cinderella on the hi-fi and pretending to be Julie Andrews, I would sing “She Loves You” while banging away at the broken strings of my plastic cowboy guitar, opening my eyes wide and raising my eyebrows, the way Paul did. I couldn’t get enough of their pictures in the newspaper and my parents’ Life Magazine. I wanted them to be on TV every night (and they nearly were — Ed Sullivan had them on twice more that February). I wanted their records the way I’d never wanted anything in my life, even more than I’d wanted my Thumbelina doll, even more than I’d wanted to be Dorothy and wake up in the Land of Oz.
Looking back, I realize that I experienced the Beatles — and rock and roll for the first time — not as music (though the music excited me), but as a kind of transporting play experience, as intimate and intense as any fantasy and as comforting to all my senses as cuddling with my favorite stuffed bear. Well, I was 6-years-old. Maybe that’s why I never thought it was strange when the Beatles ended up as stars of an animated Saturday morning cartoon series. Maybe that’s why, in retrospect, Yellow Submarine and Magical Mystery Tour don’t seem to me to be as much about mind expansion through drugs as they are about mind expansion through play.
Would the Beatles have been as universally embraced, as culturally transformative, if they hadn’t been the Beatles? Probably not. Unlike Elvis before them and the Stones after, the Beatles seemed friendlier, less threatening (at least, until John made that crack about Jesus), with smiles instead of sneers and a message that never wavered: Love, love love. Even when they were singing about sex, it sounded like love, and even when they were singing about breaking up their friendship, it still sounded like love. If I had been 16 instead of 6 when the Beatles hit, would my response to them have been different? Well, I might have understood what was going on between the lines of “Please Please Me” and “Norwegian Wood” better, and I would have been able to formulate an opinion about their ever-surprising, complex, incredibly rich music in its time, and not years later.
But I first saw the Beatles through a 6-year-old’s eyes, and nothing can ever change that. John, Paul, George and Ringo have been part of my consciousness for almost the whole of my life. I remember just enough of Before to know the enormity of the changes that came After. In the last week of November, 1963, I had sat with my parents on their bed watching some terrible things on TV; I was scared, confused, sad for Caroline Kennedy, who was my age. For the next three months, it was hard being 6 years-old and wondering if this was “the end of the world,” and if the adults would ever be happy again. But then the Beatles came onto our TV screens and brought happiness back to the world, like a light switching on.
©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014