Thanks, Beatles, for the '60s - And Get Well, George
by Bob Herbert The New York Times
Friday, July 13, 2001
NEW YORK -- Nineteen-sixty-four was the year the '60s really began. The
earliest years of the decade were for the most part an extension of the
conventional, Cold War, black-and-white '50s. Dwight Eisenhower was
president through 1960, which was the year the U-2 reconnaissance pilot
Francis Gary Powers was shot down over Soviet territory. When John F.
Kennedy was inaugurated in 1961, the men participating in the ceremony wore
morning coats and top hats. For a decade known for its excitement, the '60s
got off to a decidedly slow start. Doo-wop music was still around in the
early '60s. And dreamy songs of widely varying quality - "Moon River,"
"Where the Boys Are" - were among the biggest hits. It was a quiet time.
The average annual U.S. salary was $4,700, and a favorite pastime was
bowling. There was no reason to think radical changes were brewing when
1964 debuted. America was still in shock over the murder of President
Kennedy the previous November. The tranquilizer Valium was catching on.
Mary McCarthy had a best-seller with "The Group." Herbert Hoover, Douglas
MacArthur and Cole Porter were still alive. "Bonanza" and "Candid Camera"
were big hits on television.
And then in February, suddenly and without warning, the Beatles came to
America. The word this week from overseas is that George Harrison, the
so-called quiet Beatle, has suffered another setback in his fight against
cancer. Mr. Harrison is 58. He is said to be frail and fatigued from the
disease and the treatment.
He is also, apparently, indomitable. "I am feeling fine," he said in a
prepared statement. And he apologized for any grief he may have caused his
fans. "I am really sorry," he said, "for the unnecessary worry." If you
spend just a little time reflecting on the Beatles you come away astonished
by the changes they wrought, or came to symbolize, in what seemed like a
split second of real time. They blew in like a sudden storm and permanently
altered the cultural landscape. One night they were singing to an audience
of shrieking teeny-boppers on that quintessential 1950s television program
"The Ed Sullivan Show," and in the next instant, it seemed, the Sullivan
era had been left behind and the ^A'60s had blossomed in brilliant, even
blinding color. It wasn't just the music. The Beatles were a perfectly
timed phenomenon. Their charm, spontaneity and offbeat humor, and above all
their easy acceptance of life's myriad pleasures, sliced right through the
fraying bonds of the uptight '50s and early '60s. For better or worse, they
helped get us to where we are now. They spread the word to a generation of
largely inhibited young people that it was all right to have fun.
There was no need to take anything too seriously. When a reporter asked
John Lennon what he would do when Beatlemania subsided, he replied, "Count
the money." Ringo Starr, commenting on a trip to Florida, said: "Now, this
was just the most brilliant place I'd ever been to. People were lending us
yachts, anything we wanted."
Within a year or two the '60s that most people remember - some with
fondness, some with loathing - were well under way, and the most dominant
cultural framing was provided by the Beatles. People dressed differently,
wore their hair differently, danced differently and approached that
treacherous triumvirate of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll with an openness
that surely had been accelerated by John, Paul, George and Ringo.
The fun, as people soon learned, was laced with madness and a fair amount
of tragedy. Among other things, drugs took their toll on the decade and
played a significant role in the Beatles' lives. You get a sense of the
breakneck pace of events when you consider that George was only 27 when the
Beatles officially broke up in 1970.
More than three decades later it seems a miracle that so much happened in
so short a time. The music remains remarkable, often beautiful. As for
George's fans - well, they are worried. But no one is looking for an
apology. They just wish him well.
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