Tuesday, February 10, 2004

(The proprietor of this feature is not feeling especially political this morning. He will return to his customary menu of hacked-off rants at some point. But now, music.)

Forty years ago this week, the Beatles landed in New York. Last night was the anniversary of their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, which was followed by their first American tour. One thing is very clear as you watch the tapes from those first frantic February days and their various U.S. appearances that spring--nothing in history, not just pop culture history but capital-H history, ever signaled more vividly that a new world was on its way. The screamers in the seats knew it, even if they couldn't have articulated it. The average cultural commentator didn't. They claimed to see little reason to believe that the Beatles were anything more than a pop flavor du jour, and that they wouldn't be replaced in the hearts of American kids by someone else before summer. NBC anchorman Chet Huntley famously dismissed the Beatles' New York landing as not newsworthy ("We see no reason to show it to you"), but the fact that he felt the need to call attention to his dismissal was a signal itself.

Just as many observers in 1964 couldn't see what the Beatles would become, we have an equally difficult time truly grasping how the Beatles were perceived in their time. We read contemporary accounts of the "battles" between the Beatles and the Stones or the Beatles and the Beach Boys with amusement, mostly because nobody today thinks that the Stones or the Beach Boys, although great, occupy the same level of the pantheon as the Beatles. In their time, those "battles" were most often disagreements between groups of fans over the merits of their respective favorites, but there was also some competition between the groups themselves. After the Beatles rewrote the pop rulebook in 1967 with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Stones released Their Satanic Majesties Request, a hit-and-miss trip into psychedelia that they never repeated. But the Beach Boys nearly got there first. Their 1966 album Pet Sounds and single "Good Vibrations" raised the bar for pop creativity, and their 1967 album Smile might have set it too high even for the Beatles to reach had it not crumbled, thanks to inter-band bickering and Brian Wilson's growing emotional and drug problems.

Smile was a legend in its own time, but after Brian cracked up, the Beach Boys returned to their sun-n-surf style and only bits of it have ever been released. Now Wilson is reportedly set to finish it, and will perform some songs from it during a concert in Britain next week.

It's doubtful how good an idea this is--never mind that Wilson's voice is shot, or that his life since 1967 has been deeply troubled; none of us is the same person we were 37 years ago. We don't come from the same place and we can't speak of the same time. A new-millennium version of Smile wouldn't be Smile any more than Paul and Ringo getting off a plane in New York tomorrow would be another British Invasion. Jeff Turrentine of Slate notes that the fragmentary, unfinished Smile as it currently exists is the one that really matters--as much a mystery as it is an album. It's a journey more important than the destination, and far from being a frozen artifact tragically incomplete.

The old texts aren't done speaking to us yet. That's what makes the Beatles' work so powerful, and why it's inscribed in the DNA of people who weren't born when it was being made. We look back 40 years at the film of the screaming girls and the smiling, bewildered moptops and we marvel at how long ago it seems to be--and then we walk over to the CD player and understand again that it isn't very far at all.

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