For some time now, I’ve had it in mind to write a book called Everything You Know Is Wrong. Among other areas, it would visit various modern celebrities whose fame, it could be said, is more a function of lurid self-projection, and the unrelenting embrace of the media, than of any innate creative ability on their part. There would be ample room for the politically voluble but essentially ungifted movie star, the bestselling author of more than ordinary mediocrity, and the humorless comedian so prolific on television these days. (Of this last trend, I’m often reminded of the late Peter Cook’s remark to the effect that, “If someone gets a big enough name for being a wit, he can reduce a dinner table to hysterics by asking for the salt.” Friends and admirers still speak of the extraordinary rococo palaces of absurdity that Cook himself could construct from a single word, such as gerbil, or kumquat.) Premature death is often seen as a sort of martyrdom, and there would be a chapter of the book given to those whose reputations gained by their early departure from the stage. The reader may have his or her own preferred candidate, but I admit I always think of John Lennon as one whose acolytes have proved to be particularly adept at advancing the solemn personal myth occasioned by his tragic murder in 1980. Lennon was a great many things, including a vivid copyist and an accomplished mimic, a self-advertiser, and a bit of a bully, but not, ideally, the sort of latter-day saint to merit the installation of stained-glass windows and the christening of British metropolitan airports.
It is now 50 years since the Beatles came among us. On May 9, 1962, the group’s manager, Brian Epstein, shook hands on a contract with George Martin, the guiding light of EMI’s then-little-known Parlophone label, hitherto the preserve of easy-listening and comic-dialogue LPs. The EMI brass fell about laughing when Martin told them the name of his new signing, assuming that the man behind such fare as Peter Sellers’ Songs for Swinging Sellers was having another one of his Goon Show jokes. A month later the Beatles cut their first single, “Love Me Do,” a modest British hit that did nothing in the United States. A small Chicago label named Vee-Jay eventually released their next single, “Please Please Me,” which did nothing. Philadelphia’s Swan label tried next, releasing “She Loves You” in August 1963. It also did nothing. On October 31 of that year, however, a small, jowly man named Ed Sullivan found himself caught in the midst of several thousand stampeding Beatles fans while passing through London’s Heathrow airport on his way home from a European vacation. In the affinity for enthusiasm of teenaged music lovers, these scenes established a new record. Sullivan himself had never heard of the Beatles. He did, however, recognize mass hysteria when he saw it, and swiftly sought out Epstein to talk about having the boys on his Sunday-night variety show. Their appearance followed on February 9, 1964; the rest is history.
Pop culture works in not only mysterious but pervasive ways. The Beatles changed us; we, in our remembrance, continue to change them. We can agree that those early records gave innocent pleasure to much of the postwar generation coming to assert itself in the 1960’s. The group merits attention for the cyclotron of hormonal abandon excited by that first Ed Sullivan performance, all flying pageboy haircuts and jubilant harmonies, as well as for the more private moment when Paul McCartney rolled out of bed in his girlfriend’s home in Wimpole Street, London, sat at the piano, and drowsily picked out the notes of “Yesterday,” a ballad that in the following 47 years would be recorded by more singers than any other tune in the history of popular music. Perhaps the group didn’t always conquer new frontiers, and to today’s ear some of their lyrics sound almost satirically earnest. “All you need is love,” they famously insisted in a single released in June 1967. Those were the first and second lines of the song’s chorus. The third line was, “All you need is love, love.” The fourth was, “Love is all you need.” But still, one takes the opportunity of the Beatles’ golden anniversary to doff a hat to the four white Liverpudlians whose essential medium was black American folk art, and who reached across the Atlantic to amplify blues and soul music so thrillingly. Only with Epstein’s untimely death in August 1967 did the band perhaps come to take themselves too seriously—one listens to their occasional interactions with a symphony orchestra with all the horror of witnessing a paintbrush-wielding chimpanzee run amok in the National Gallery—but thanks to the sobering influence of George Martin and his team, even their wilder departures generally conformed to a viable artistic style.
Not all the phone calls and telegrams that flooded into Ed Sullivan’s office following the Beatles’ first appearance on his show were enthusiastic, however. As well as the more vocal reservations about the group’s clothes and haircuts, there were those who aired concerns on what could be called the sociological level. As several of Sullivan’s correspondents instinctively grasped, the last vestige of adult control of the culture effectively vanished at the moment the Beatles walked on stage that Sunday evening. The “basic placebo” of the music was one thing, a mother of three named Nancy Daugherty wrote from Tacoma, Washington. But extrapolating from that, “When society degenerates into an uncouth strain of teen-agers, or adults pretending to be teen-agers, with no idea of self-restraint and who yell abuse at anyone who frustrates them for five seconds—what then?” Mrs. Daugherty presciently asked. Her letter not only anticipated the Beatles’ core audience of rapidly radicalizing youth, with all that ensued, but also struck Sullivan sufficiently for him to preserve it in a file found on his death in October 1974, by which time America had torn herself apart in a series of social convulsions that had left even the then bitterly squabbling ex-Beatles, as John Lennon put it in his muffled way, “perturbed.”
In fact, the “consistent ideological lead” a notable Beatles biographer claims on the group’s behalf was never part of their equipment. Precision of thought is not a notable rock ’n’ roll virtue. Insofar as a theme emerges in the Beatles’ lyrics, it’s generally one of English whimsy, while the later records steadily give way to a mélange of utopian-anarchic mumblings. “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream,” John Lennon advises us on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” a relatively short distance from his celebrated adage “Imagine there’s no heaven.” Or take Paul McCartney’s moderately successful ballad, today an anthem, entitled “Let It Be.” Might the attraction of hearing him interminably sing these three words possibly be anecdotal, as well as to do with the appeal of moving to a rhythm at the same time as everyone else? As tens of thousands of North Korean citizens stage parades, lifting posters of the Dear Leader and lowering them simultaneously, so people clap along and wave lighters during this particular number. Even Lennon’s cri de coeur, “Revolution,” includes the equivocal plea for the singer to be counted “out” and “in,” only one of a series of lyrics of almost masterly vacuity. The same artist’s “Julia” offers a précis of his overriding artistic credo—“Half of what I say is meaningless / But I say it just to reach you.”
After 50 years, it seems fair to say that the Beatles were harbingers of our enduring celebrity cult, which worships personalities rather more than it does the quality or depth of their achievements. They actively encouraged their own commercialization, to which the occasional yard-sale Beatle doll still stands in mute reproach, while anyone thinking the group’s success was a kind of beautiful fluke might have been struck by Paul McCartney’s remarks on appearing for a creative session at John Lennon’s mock-Tudor home in the English countryside one morning in October 1964. “Let’s write ourselves a swimming pool,” he said. It would perhaps be unfair to dwell on the group’s subsequent and protracted estrangement, fueled as it was by the corrosive demands of their business managers, but it remains a poignant truth that a band once synonymous with love and peace ended their professional association in a London law court. I’m always struck by the fact that when moved to communicate with one another, the Beatles invariably did so by postcard, the preferred medium for many self-advertisers, combining economy of effort with the potential of a vivid slogan or two. In 2004, Ringo Starr went so far as to publish a collection of such hitherto safely private correspondence. It was by no means the first in a series of profoundly disillusioning blows for the group’s fans.
Again, one salutes the joyful derangement, and sheer escapism, of the Beatles’ best work, whose occasional performance today operates on the level both of nostalgia and of musically assisted therapy. It’s still some distance from there to the various anniversary tributes giving the impression, not always shared by the families of the individual Beatles, that the group members themselves were invariably about unrelenting goodwill to all mankind. “I had a great deal of anger towards Dad because of his negligence and his attitude to peace and love,” Julian Lennon observed, reflecting on the 20th anniversary of John’s death. “That peace and love never came home to me.”
Some discrepancy exists, then, between the more benign legend of the Beatles’ key message and the reality, with its series of High Court injunctions, multiple divorces, embittered children, and, of course, those “artistic differences” habitually trotted out to mask the true air of mutual loathing surrounding many a pop group. Much the same toxic brew continues to be conjured by that other consensus act of the 1960’s, the Rolling Stones. They, too, first appeared on the horizon 50 years ago. Readers will perhaps not need to be reminded that this particular combo were long thought intent on the wholesale subversion of Western civilization, with an attendant set of personal morals that would have raised eyebrows in a Levantine opium den. In one two-year period from the spring of 1967 to the spring of 1969, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and the late Brian Jones were called as defendants in no fewer than six drugs trials, some of which ended in acquittal but all of which fueled a public perception that the Stones in general, and Mick Jagger in particular, had formed a withering contempt for the “useless old men” who governed Britain, as Jagger put it in an appearance in the dock in June 1967.
It was therefore not without amusement that the press discovered, as his tastes matured, that when Jagger married and had children, some of the same laissez-faire mores he had embodied so superbly came back to haunt him. Rolling Stone seemed to grasp this phenomenon as long ago as 1985, when it asked Jagger if he thought it harmful for his offspring, and young people generally, to read about the “seamier side” of his activities. He replied,
Hey, you’re throwing the question at me kinda as a bit of a curve. Hmm, I really haven’t thought about it. I guess they know most of it, and I think it’s not particularly—I don’t think it’s very good for them. Umm, I mean that’s one of the things I have to put up with. I mean, they have to put up with. Good luck to them.
It is a pleasure to record that several of Sir Mick’s progeny have duly gone on to successful and artistically rewarding careers. In June 2011, 27-year-old Elizabeth Jagger graced the cover of Playboy, an act of “creative self-fulfillment,” apparently. Elizabeth’s younger sister Georgia has posed topless to advertise a well-known brand of jeans.
It could be argued, perhaps, that if the now elderly members of the Rolling Stones have a few family issues, in common with countless lesser mortals around the world, and that if the primary goal of each generation continues to be to offend the sensibilities of the one preceding it, then what the heck? Well, here’s the heck.
The Rolling Stones may not have been the first public figures to flout conventional morality, but they were certainly among the most persistent and voluble. In 1968, Mick Jagger was to express publicly his disdain for “some bloody stupid piece of paper,” as he termed a marriage license. In 1973, Jagger’s former girlfriend Marsha Hunt went to court in London, claiming that he was the “biological parent” of her two-year-old daughter, and requesting a magistrate’s order for maintenance. After several months of shrill headlines, Sir Mick conceded that perhaps he was the child’s father after all, and paid up. This was behavior of almost Arthurian chivalry compared with Jagger’s reaction when, in January 1999, his long-time partner and latterly wife Jerry Hall, whom he had married in a Balinese-seaside ceremony, filed for divorce and reportedly demanded a £30 million settlement. Her husband contested the action on the grounds that the Bali event was a “purely symbolic [and] social” affair—a sort of beach party with Hindu chanting—thus, to some, calling into question the strict legitimacy of the couple’s four children. The matter was eventually settled to all parties’ satisfaction. But could it just be that Jagger’s undoubted if unwanted influence as a role model to millions of those growing up in the late 1960’s and 70’s wasn’t an entirely benign one, and that at least some of the more relaxed notions of parental and marital responsibility that have ensued broadly follow in his pioneering footsteps?
Similarly, drugs. Space prohibits a full inventory of Jagger’s and his colleagues’ various chemical adventures during the 60’s and beyond. With the notable exception of the Stones’ founder Brian Jones, who drowned, aged 27, while under the influence, the group’s members have all entered their twilight years relatively intact, in no small part thanks to the proximity of the very best legal and medical support whenever needed. Not all of the Stones’ immediate circle were as lucky. Several of their closest friends, like the young singer Gram Parsons, for example, succumbed to overdoses, or, like the iconic 60’s photographer Michael Cooper, took their own lives. Keith Richards has remarked,
People were dropping like flies around us . . . It was nothing to wake up once a week and see in the New York Times so-and-so’s gone—“What, the usual?” “Yeah, the usual.” Nobody seemed to die of anything but ODs in those days.
It would be going too far but not, perhaps, going entirely in the wrong direction to suggest that some of those who first came to “experiment” with narcotics in the 60’s did so in response to the perceived artistic or personal lead of the Beatles and the Stones, and that many or most of those who subsequently died of their addiction in the most abject squalor and misery would not be afforded even the dignity of Keith Richards’ muted eulogy, let alone an obituary in the New York Times.
Perhaps the final word on the disastrous attempt to move the guardrails defining the limits of normal behavior came, appropriately enough, in the last month of the 60’s, at the notorious Altamont festival outside San Francisco. In their wisdom, the Rolling Stones elected to “self-police” the event, which quickly degenerated into an Hieronymus Bosch-like scene of writhing chemical horrors and ugly confrontations, punctuated by various leather-clad members of the Hell’s Angels exercising their form of crowd control by stabbing patrons with sharpened pool cues. An 18-year-old African-American high-school student named Meredith Hunter was murdered a few yards from the stage where the Stones were performing. Three other concertgoers died, and there were 700 reported injuries. When the Stones’ set ended, they and their entourage ran for their helicopter like fugitives from an invasion. As it tilted over the concert site, which was bathed in sulfurous red and still the scene of rampant violence, Keith Richards muttered, “They’re sick, man, sick. Some people just aren’t ready.”
Then came Mick Jagger’s summation.
“I’d rather have had cops,” he said.