Alone Together: The Beatles in 1966
There are some things which there can never be enough of: chocolate, Seinfeld episodes, puppy kisses, love, Hong Kong fried noodles with shrimp, and The Beatles. In my unabashedly biased opinion perhaps The Beatles and love would be tied for first place. So when Ron Howard’s frenetic new documentary Eight Days a Week was released this weekend, the question wasn’t if I was going to watch the film, but how. The cheapskate in me was tempted to stay home on Saturday and cuddle up with my dear loved ones and share the intimacy of Hulu together while eating Hong Kong fried noodles with shrimp. But something about this convenience seemed sacrilege. A film about the touring years of The Beatles begged to be seen with a crowd on a large screen. Luckily in NYC the IFC Center at West 4th Street was showing the film! My chance to share in some of the frenzy and fury of the non-stop machine which The Beatles inhabited during their early years was finally here!
It was a lovely evening at the cinema with my wife and the show was sold-out, the crowd boisterous. Even 50 years later the Fab Four can pack a house. To me this is incredible. This group hasn’t come out with an an original album since the Nixon administration and their #1 hits compilation is the second best selling album of the new millennium, just a hair behind Eminem. You could feel the anticipation as the lights went down.
Ron Howard said he wanted the millennials to get an idea of the frenzy that was Beatlemania because he felt the phenomena to be incomparable. But with his sound engineer, they were also able to reduce some of the crowd noise so we could see how rocking this band really was. What is presented to us is an odyssey through the eye of a hurricane. We see four young men, whose fame defied all forms of logic, existing during a time in which social change was beginning to sweep through music. As the early exuberance of their newfound status in 1964 gave way to a weary isolation, we witness The Beatles change before our eyes. Their awareness and world-view was expanding, and with influences from the progressive Bob Dylan, their music was becoming more ambitious and experimental. Of course the influence of marijuana and LSD colored their aural lenses with spellbinding textures and innovative techniques. These were the times in which they lived and didn’t shy away. What came out of all the tumult of Beatlemania was a bond in which they retreated deeper into the music and deeper into themselves. Thus by August 29th 1966, The Fab Four played their final concert at Candlestick Park. Just over three weeks earlier on August 5th, they released Revolver, acclaimed by many to be their masterpiece. This was no coincidence. The Beatles had grown tired of being the lovable mop-tops. Life, both personally and professionally, was becoming more complex and their music reflected these changes. But The Beatles didn’t exist in a vacuum. Everything around them was changing and they were part of the vanguard.
Over the last month much has been written about Revolver, since we have just celebrated the 50th anniversary of its release. Thanks to Professor Mark Spicer, I took a class on The Beatles at Hunter College in the spring, and we studied in depth the making of the album. While I am no music theorist or critic, the album haunts me on many levels and it has proven to grow richer with age. This is why when the anniversary came about I was struck with the compulsion to celebrate this watershed achievement.
Revolver as a rock album is without peer, even in the Beatles canon. Its Postmodernism is pure and unpretentious, not to mention unprecedented. It can live in a vacuum or outside of it. It can take it or leave it. It churned up a trail for others to blaze through, then walked back from whence it came and went another way. The messianic abundance of shameless musicianship coming from these lads created a tempest. Yet their indulgences laid elsewhere, somewhere deep within the music. Their greatest insular urges were tapped into with Revolver and their exhausting final touring days pushed them even further into themselves. The seamless transition of form and style reflects the growth of human beings as artists. Of course I was expecting grand gestures of influence throughout NYC. But I was also forced to find a new meaning for what actually occurred 50 years ago.
I arrived home, deep in Brooklyn, from work at just after 6pm and turned on the album at 8, after dinner and with little fanfare. I had a few beers (or maybe it was wine) then my wife and daughter eventually fell asleep before “Yellow Submarine” had begun. I scratched my head and looked online to see if any events were being held somewhere around the city. Much ado about nothing. Suddenly, I had an urge to find the New York which embraced these lads. At the very least I was looking for a listening party.
I took the D train and jumped off West 4th Street. Left and right were revelers of the night parading to their own mix of what the city has to offer. It was a controlled chaos which one could disappear into but that was not the purpose of this night’s jaunt. I was on the move to find like minded appraisers of a special moment.
Heading uptown on Avenue of Americas, sticking my head into any place with a pulse, I travelled through Manhattan. Karaoke bars, dive bars, Irish pubs, trendy lounges, lonely and deplete or urgent and vital; places with lines at the mercy of gatekeepers indifferent to the striving of the faithful; but nothing giving. Aimlessly, I arrived, strangely at Columbus Circle and headed east. I made it to the Plaza Hotel, a site which made the Beatles reign complete in ‘64. In the hotel bar, the lounge player, gifted on the keys, did a rendition of “In My Life” watered down with cheap vodka colored through kaleidoscope eyes. The crowd was transient or sedated, wishing they could grasp the keys on the piano, wishing they could name that song, but it was elusive and they were moving through the music. I headed into Central Park. It was dark and warm. Shadows passed me on the path, and voices whispered from beyond the light . I eventually made my way to Strawberry Fields just as a clamor of voices died down and a guitar strummed its final tune. I couldn’t tell what song it was they were singing. Perhaps “All you Need is Love”, or maybe “Imagine”. A man shouted from his post on a bench about Lennon and peace. The crowd dispersed and it seemed like some people were passing around a hat asking for money. Regardless, the music was over before it even begun.
I walked back to Columbus Circle. The night was becoming more dense and the expectations were more than the delivery. But isn’t that why The Beatles stopped touring? Unreliable expectations killed the concerts. The tours of ‘65 and finally ‘66 were enough to bring them to the point in which their musical revolution would change the world from their pulpit in the studio. With these thoughts I took the D train back home.
I noticed my phone was dead when I reached my stop at Bay Parkway, one of the furthest reaches before Brooklyn dissolves into the ocean. It was late and the platform was littered with people abandoned to their own misery or unfulfilled expectations. On a night like this I had never wished for a dive bar in a neighborhood so bad in a place so close to my home. What I wanted ceased to be. My building was quiet when I entered and I climbed the stairs, nearly tiptoeing. Suddenly, faintly I could have swore I heard “Hear, There, and Everywhere” playing through the walls of a neighbor I probably had yet to meet.
I came into my apartment. The living room light was on but the room was empty. I glanced in my bedroom. My wife and daughter were still sleeping but my wife opened her heavy eyelids.
“Babe…” I told her my story but she was already sleeping before I finished. I went back to the living room and turned on the record player and began Revolver from the beginning. It was a long day. Before I went to sleep I remember checking Google and seeing a trickle of ready made articles giving praise. But perhaps the graciousness which is owed to The Beatles is the fact they existed and excelled, pushing further and farther. The innovation became so imbedded in the next generation that it became commonplace, the norm. People were changed but rushed ahead, eager to forget. This is forgivable only because this is who we are. We don’t always keep alive the achievements we stand on the shoulders for. I suppose this isn’t a bad thing. But the 50th anniversary of Guernica was met with international fanfare in 1987 throughout Europe. It must not be forgotten that The Beatles were born out of the ashes of the blitzkrieg and that all art is connected.
The Beatles’ Revolver is looked at as one of the greatest works of art and in the same year, the fabulous four went silent for the crowds who awaited them in mega-stadiums. Their anniversary of this legendary month of August 1966 was met with an equally pronounced silence. But somehow the music still plays as it did at the IFC Center. We cheered with the crowds and for once we were together. But with Revolver it now seems appropriate that the celebrations took place behind closed quarters, so that the listener can live within the music just as The Beatles did 50 years ago when they walked away from the crowds and finally confronted themselves.