50 Years Ago Today I Came Into Existence
Below you'll find Chapters 2, 3 & 4 from my "musical autobiography" THE BALLAD OF JIM SHELLEY (which you can buy for just $2.99 from Smashwords.com!):
I don't know when I first heard the Beatles, though I am pretty sure that the first song I heard of theirs was "I Want To Hold Your Hand". I do remember some time in late 1963 riding to my elementary school in a crowded school bus and arguing with a friend about the band's staying power. He insisted the Beatles would be lucky to make it through the coming year before they faded into obscurity.
"No, I think they're gonna stick around a long time," I replied. I was certain about that. The Beatles were different. They had something that I'd never heard in any solo artist or band before them, though I couldn't precisely articulate what that something was. What do little kids actually know? They just feel. Anyway, my friend and I rode the bus forty-five minutes each way to and from school every day, so the two of us had lots of time to discuss this latest pressing issue of the moment
"My dad said the Beatles are just another flash in the pan."
"What's a flash in the pan?"
"I'm not sure, but I think it just means they're not that good."
"I don't know. They're cool. I think they're really good."
They're cool and really good. That was about the extent of my critical abilities at the time. But what the hell more did I have to say about the Beatles to justify my love for them? Their music made me happier than anything I'd ever heard before. "Hound Dog" was thrilling. The great genius Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue" was sublime. But "I Want To Hold Your Hand" was the newest, freshest, most alive thing created by humans that had ever blessed my ears.
"They're definitely gonna stick around," I said.
"Ah shaddup. Your breath stinks. You need to brush your teeth," he countered. That pretty much killed the discussion then and there, although I had brushed my teeth that morning and I was pretty sure my breath didn't stink. But if you can't beat a ten-year-old in an argument, just hurl a couple of personal insults at him. Even if you're a ten-year-old, too. You're guaranteed some sort of evil victory every time.
Still I knew the Beatles weren't a flash in the pan. And I did know why they were so good. They played their guitars loud. They liked to yell. They had cool hair cuts. They even had a drummer named Ringo. And all the girls loved them. They definitely had staying power.
And they were from England, dammit.
I was born on February 9, 1964 a little after 8 P.M.
All right, I know. Not really. But you see, that was the night the Beatles played the Ed Sullivan Show (a popular vaudeville-influenced variety program that ran on CBS for years) for the first time. President John Kennedy had been assassinated little more than two months before and the shock of his death still hung over the nation like a huge black veil. I recall fairly well the day Kennedy was shot, but I can remember the night the Beatles played Ed Sullivan oh so much more vividly. They yanked that dark caul of misery off the country's noggin and replaced it with a big ol' party hat.
My mom and dad and I watched Sullivan pretty religiously just about every Sunday night. Ed's acts ran from comedians to puppets to jugglers to crooners to the occasional pop group...something for everyone, both young and old. I'd known for a couple week that The Beatles were set for an appearance on the show, and as THE Sunday rolled ever closer, 8 o'clock was pretty nearly all I could think about.
Now, of course, I'd heard the Beatles on the radio and noticed one or two grainy pictures of them in the newspaper, but to see them live in our living room on our 19" black and white television? Man, that was a whole 'nother thing. And that's why I say I was really born February 9, 1964. After the Beatles had wrapped up the last of their five numbers that night with a pounding rendition of the revolutionary “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, my head and heart were spinning like gyroscopes. Nothing would ever be the same for me again.
I feel sort of sorry for kids these days. It doesn't seem to me as though there's such a thing anymore as the "shock of the new". Nowadays it feels like everything's been done. Music, movies, TV shows, poetry, and what have you...it all feels sort of second-hand, recycled, even if it's so-called brand new. Art seems to have lost its transformational powers. Can any teenager today understand what it was like to see those four young Englishmen playing "She Loves You" and to suddenly realize that the sounds you were hearing, the things you were seeing, were irrevocably changing the realities of your life in a way you could not hope to comprehend? The Beatles were the warmth of a sunny spring day and I was a butterfly busting out of his cocoon. Laugh or scratch your head in puzzlement...that's the way it was.
I guess my story is pretty similar to those of the millions of other American youngsters who watched the Ed Sullivan Show that evening. My dad was parked in his recliner cursing the noise and mocking the "girly" haircuts the Beatles sported while my mom sat on the couch pretending to read a magazine and tapping her foot to the music ever so lightly. I sat on the floor about five feet in front of the TV screen so I could get the full effect of the band's performance. After the last song was over and while the girls in the studio audience were still going nuclear, I turned to Mom and blurted out, "My birthday's in three weeks, would you take me to People's Drug Store tomorrow after school to get the new Beatles album? Please, please, please!"
Mom cracked open a crooked little smile and said, "We'll see. Maybe."
Meanwhile Dad was still ranting about the god awful din he'd just witnessed. "I don't see how they call that music," he groused. "Worst bunch of garbage I've ever heard in my life!" Then he got up and went to take a dump. That's known in some circles as a symbolic act.
The next day at school I noticed something sort of peculiar. All the kids were talking about the Beatles's appearance on Sullivan from the night before, but most of the boys were putting the the Beatles down as "sissies". More interesting to me was that the girls all turned dreamy eyed any time someone mentioned John's, Paul's, George's or Ringo's name. I thought about that for a little while and then decided I was going to ask for something else besides a new basketball or baseball bat for my next birthday...a guitar.
When I got home that afternoon and trudged off to my room to change into my regular clothes, Meet The Beatles was lying on my bed. God bless the very large hearts of good moms everywhere.
Forty some years on, Meet The Beatles is largely just a batch of misty memories of days long expired to me, though still a memorial to dreams that somehow would leave at least one dreamer dreaming for the remainder of his life. Though I rarely listen to that album anymore, I do make a point of playing every Beatles record in chronological order once a year. Meet The Beatles, once so revolutionary, sounds rather quaint now.
I remember not too long ago patrolling a library computer lab with a class of ninth grade English honors students when one of the girls who was sifting through various web sites to gather information on a research paper about the pop punk band, Green Day, inadvertently came across a video file of the Beatles playing "I Want To Hold Your Hand" on The Ed Sullivan Show. She watched blankly for a moment, then looked at me and burst out laughing. "Is this what you listened to when you were a kid, Mr. Shelley?" she giggled.
"Yes, as a matter of fact. Why? What's so funny?"
"Oh my gosh, this is so hilarious. My mom likes this stuff, too."
"Oh yeah? Well, tell your mom she's got good taste." At this point, the girl was almost choking on her laughter.
"I don't think so! I can't believe you liked the Beatles. They were so...CORNY!"
"Corny! Corny? This is some of the greatest music ever! Look...if it wasn't for the Beatles, all this stuff you listen to now..."
Then I stopped myself. "Uh...I'll be back in a moment," I mumbled.
I hoofed it out of the room and down the hall to the teacher's lounge and took a dump..."
From The Washington Post, February 9, 2014...
"I was almost tragically shy, like clinically. I should've been admitted somewhere. I think my parents knew, but maybe they didn't think much about it. It's hard walking the Earth shy. You miss out on a lot. When you are shy, you live a lot in your own head. You live in fantasy a lot, and I think that helped with the acting and in some ways helped with situations like [auditions]. you just make the most of it." -- Joelle Carter