By Jude Southerland Kessler / January 30, 2014 http://johnlennonseries.com/
This week, in every magazine and newspaper, all over TV and the Internet, the patter is the same: “The Beatles are coming! The Beatles are coming!”
Next weekend (February 7th to 9th) marks 50 years since the Beatles landed at John F. Kennedy Airport, motored into New York City on a wave of screams, wheeled cautiously to The Plaza hotel, appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show (three times!), took Washington, D.C., by storm, danced at the Peppermint Lounge, thrilled crowds at Carnegie Hall, and swept Miami off its feet. Fifty years! And right now, every single news site or pop-culture publication is busy reliving those colorful moments with photos, quotes from fans, snapshots of the day, and a sound rehashing of that momentous time in our history.
Great fun! But although the past is never unimportant, isn’t learning from the past even better still? Isn’t what we transport from the past into today the way to keep memory alive and relevant?
So…what have we brought with us into 2014? What have we learned from the Fab Four over the last 50 years? What did they show us, teach us, or inspire us to grasp? Since we “saw them standin’ there” in February 1964, how have we grown and changed? Well, here are the Top Ten lessons I hope we’ve taken to heart, thanks to John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr.
Postwar Liverpool was a tangled rubble heap, and socioeconomically, the city was the most unlikely place for a star to be born, let alone a group of them. But Liverpool made the Beatles unique and singular. From the intriguing, back-of-the-throat Scouse accent to the wry, sardonic Liverpool wit, the hometown of the Lads “loomed large in their legend.” Far from being a detriment, Liverpool helped put the Beatles on the map…and vice versa!
Though many thought the Beatles appeared from “out of nowhere” to play The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, John Lennon had been working to get his band to the “toppermost of the poppermost” since its inception in 1957 (under the monikers of The Quarrymen, Johnny and the Moondogs, the Silver Beatles and more). John had weeded out members and invited new ones; he had endured gigs in dingy strip clubs and engagements in posh golf clubs (one just as repulsive as the other to Lennon). John and the early Beatles had been housed in filthy concrete storage rooms. They had played second fiddle to everyone and his brother for ages. When John stood center stage before the Ed Sullivan audience, he had been working nonstop for seven years to become an “overnight success.”
The argument over who rightfully deserves the title of “Fifth Beatle” still rages today. Is it Sir George Martin, Stu Sutcliffe, Brian Epstein, Cynthia Lennon, Pete Best, Liverpool itself, Neil Aspinall…or someone else entirely? That crucial Fifth Beatle slot belongs to so many people. And Paul and Ringo would readily agree that they could not have been successful without their first manager, Allan Williams, or Cavern Club DJ Bob Wooler, or Casbah Club owner Mona Best, or promoter Sam Leach. And that’s not even scratching the surface of the faithful devotees who worked tirelessly to assist the Beatles in a thousand ways: Neil Aspinall (again), Mal Evans, Norman Smith, and on and on and on. Tennyson wrote, “I am a part of all I have met.” The Beatles were touched by so many, and thousands left their imprints on the group.
7. Age is only a number.
At first, John Lennon was quite reticent to have “a kid” like George Harrison in the Quarrymen. After all, he was only 14 years old. But when John heard the scrawny kid artfully dole out “Raunchy” (some say it was “Guitar Boogie Shuffle”), he had to admit the lead guitarist was far too talented to shun simply because of his age. George was asked to join the group. Meanwhile, this past Sunday night on the Grammy stage, 71-year-old Paul McCartney and 73-year-old Ringo Starr rocked the house! They were nothing short of amazing. Age, the Beatles have taught us, is a chronological reference, but not a determinate of talent or ability. There is no such thing as too young or too old.
Poet Robert Frost wrote, “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: It goes on.” That lesson certainly came home to roost for the Beatles. When 14-year-old Paul lost his mother, Mary, to an embolism, life went on, and Paul had to find a way to go on, as well. When a pale kid from the Dingle emerged from hospital where he had spent years living with other chronically sick children, Ritchie Starkey (a.k.a. Ringo) had to find a way to pick up the shattered pieces of his childhood and plod ahead. And when John lost his beloved Uncle Ge’rge (who had reared him), and then his mother, Julia (his best friend), and then his soul mate, Stu Sutcliffe, in rapid succession, he had to make some sense of what was left. And he did. Like all of us, the Beatles were asked to pick up the pieces of broken lives and move forward. And they showed us, quite clearly, that it could be done. Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, it goes on.
Yes, this is a quote from Carl Sandburg from his poem “Primer Lesson.” But no one teaches it more vividly and effectively than the Beatles. When John Lennon confided to his journalist friend Maureen Cleave that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus” (not better or more important, mind you, just more popular at that time), those proud and poorly phrased words stirred up a controversy that is still coloring the way some people view the band. Sandburg tells us that proud words “wear long, hard boots” and “walk off proud.” John would attest to that. No tearful apology, no angered resentment and no life well lived after the fact could erase those words for some people. You can be at the top of your game, you can be the most revered person in the world. But like Stevie Nicks’ landslide, words will bring you down. Ask John.
4. Everything changes.
Heraclitus wrote, “You cannot step twice into the same river.” The Beatles lived this adage for us. Hamburg, which was so fun and fascinating to the lads the first time they performed there, became a virtual prison by the time the Beatles had completed their string of contractual gigs in the German city. And the thrill of going on tour quickly lost its charm, as well. But strangely enough, the “dull job” of recording in a studio morphed into one of the Beatles’ greatest delights. And the band who couldn’t imagine not being best friends became, at one point, mortal enemies. “Time wounds all heels,” they say, but eventually it healed all wounds, and the Beatles came full circle. Nothing stays the same.
In his song “Julia,” John Lennon spelled out his mission statement in writing songs: “Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it just to reach you, Julia.” He told us that when he could no longer speak his mind to his deceased and beloved mother, he would “sing his heart” to her. And he did just that. Love. George Harrison sang of global love and love of his god. “My Sweet Lord” and “Within You Without You” focused on that greater love, beyond. Paul spoke with liquid words to the enchanting Jane Asher, to the mythical Michelle, to lovely Rita, to his own Linda. Love was the theme. And Ringo wooed us from the first note of “Boys” to the last note of “You’re Sixteen.” Yes, they were peace champions. Yes, they changed fashion and politics and musical composition. But when it gets right down to it, the last words on the lips of George Harrison were: “Love one another.” It all boils down to that.
2. Time is a gift.
No one, not even a Beatle, is immortal. And we are all here for a short season. The loss of John at age 40 jarred us all into a sad reality. The loss of George at age 58 confirmed it. We’re “living on borrowed time,” as John once sang. Doing what you dream of doing isn’t something you can afford to put off until tomorrow, because the truth is this may be the last of the tomorrows. Record your songs. Live your passion. Leave a Beatle legacy. Now!
1. The love you take is equal to the love you make.
That very last message gives me goose bumps still. Other people have said it. Jesus said, “Cast your bread on the waters, and after many days, it will return to you.” Same thing. What you give, you get. Give of your talents to the world. (They did.) Give of yourself to your partner and your children. (The Beatle who didn’t deeply regretted it.) Give of your passion to causes you believe in. The more you give, the more you’ll get. The love you take is indeed equal to the love you make.
Fifty years ago, in a bluster of wind and a shrill of screams, the Beatles stepped off the Defianceat JFK to face a waiting American public. Immediately we became their fans, their friends, their adoring students. And in the years that followed, we sat at their feet and learned. How lovely, in retrospect, are these lessons. And how easy they are to follow.
“You know, I will. I wiiiiill.”
Jude Southerland Kessler is the author of The John Lennon Series, a nine-volume biography of the musician. She can be reached at www.johnlennonseries.com.