Tuesday, May 23, 2006

All Their Lovin', They Will Give To You...

Sometimes I wish I was a time traveler, able to go back and revisit important moments in my life. That's the way I feel about The Beatles coming to America in early 1964. I'd like to go back to those moments, relive those exciting days.

I was 16 and a junior in high school. I was the perfect age to get caught up in Beatlemania. The first Beatles song I heard was "I Want To Hold Your Hand," and I heard it on New Year's Day while driving my 1957 Ford Custom, the radio cranked up, feeling young and way cool. That song just made my day. What energy. The next day I went to the record store and bought the single, backed with "I Saw Her Standing There." I listened to those songs over and over and looked at the picture of The Beatles on the jacket sleeve, thinking, "This is different, this is great!"

I wouldn't have guessed on that day in January, 42 years ago, that I'd still be listening to Beatles songs as we all got older.

Well, hell. At 16 who thinks of getting old?

For my birthday a couple of years ago my wife bought me the 2-DVD set, The Four Complete Ed Sullivan shows Featuring The Beatles. There were several surprises in watching these DVDs.

First of all, in the excitement of seeing The Beatles for the first time I'd forgotten that there was still a show...that it was Ed Sullivan's Sunday night variety hour, full of what made Ed Sullivan's show popular in those days, magicians, comedians, acrobats, segments from Broadway shows, introductions of guests in the audience. A true variety show.

The Beatles did their legendary first three songs to open the show on February 9, and the poor sap picked to follow them was a guy named Fred Kaps, described in the DVD listings as doing a "card and salt shaker trick." Say whut? Can you imagine the flop sweat going on in this poor guy's head, knowing he did not have the audience with him, that they had been completely stolen by the preceding act? No wonder I never saw or heard of Fred Kaps again. Fred, if you're still out there, when you came on live in 1964 I was out of the room, my brother and I talking excitedly about what we'd just seen, wishing away the rest of the show so we could see more of those Beatles. I'm sorry, Fred. You got screwed, but blame Ed or his producer, not me.

Something interesting about the show that caught me by surprise was the cast of Oliver! doing a couple of songs. One of the main kids in the play was Davy Jones, who later went on to do his own Beatles imitation with The Monkees.

Sullivan's genius was in booking The Beatles for three shows in a row, even building the second in the series around The Beatles' appearance in Miami by moving his whole show there for that week. Joe Louis made a bow from the audience, Mitzi Gaynor did a horrible medley of "hits," and Myron Cohen--an ethnic comedian mostly forgotten today--doing his Borscht Belt Yiddish schtick to mixed results. Frankly, I just couldn't understand what he was saying. My hearing is bad nowadays (probably from listening to Beatles records too loud), but I wonder if I heard him any better on our old 1962 RCA TV on the night of February 16.

I watched the third in the series, the February 23 show, when I first got the DVD set, but haven't watched it since, and looking at the list of acts I'm most puzzled by an act called Pinky & Perky doing a "Caterpillar & Crow routine," and right after that a "Dog & Cow Routine." I guess I'll have to watch that again to see what the hell that's all about.

Also on February 23, besides the up-and-coming Beatles we saw the down-and-going Cab Calloway doing "St. James Infirmary" and "Old Man River." Poor Cab. Just 30 years prior he had been a huge musical star in his own right. Now he was just meat in a Beatles sandwich, stuffed in with the other acts between Beatles sets.

After that show The Beatles went back to England, made A Hard Day's Night, did some touring, made Help! and then reappeared on Ed Sullivan's show September 12, 1965. By this time it was plain that they were no flash in the pan. They were entertainment royalty, the likes of which no one had seen. I had remembered something about that show, but I remembered it wrong. When Paul introduces "I'm Down" he refers to it as "...the B-side of our latest record." To which Lennon, off-camera, yells, "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!" I had remembered it as someone hitting the wrong note to start the song, and Lennon correcting it by yelling "A!" Wow. How could I have gotten it so wrong? I was "remembering" something that never happened. John was just being his usual smartass self, saying it was the "A" side of the record, "I Feel Fine," which of course it wasn't. I was pretty stunned and realized once again how imperfect memory can be.

What I haven't forgotten in all of those years in between the original shows and seeing them again, commercials, unfunny comedians, bad singers (was there any payola involved in some of these people getting on national television?) and all, was how influential and how important The Beatles were in their time. Some in our parents' generation thought they had come down from Mars. My mother thought they were sent by Satan to seduce all of us young people, and she wasn't alone in that belief.

This DVD set is very important historically, because it doesn't present The Beatles by themselves, but in the midst of what else passed for entertainment in those days...and based on what I saw, I can see why they stood out. If I traveled back in time I wouldn't waste any of it watching the kind of schmaltzy drek I saw on these four shows. Yeah, yeah...yeah.

Ciao for now, El Postino

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