Meeting the Beatles in the Age of Manson

Today, it’s our pleasure to once again welcome back our very special guest blogger John Walker Ross! John, as many of you know is the Curator and Creator of our favorite music blog: “The Round place in the middle” Here you’ll find John’s unique and always fascinating views on music and the world ://theroundplaceinthemiddle.com/

Meanwhile, please join us in welcoming John back to SMS and enjoy his take on “Meeting The Beatles” in the late 1970’s. Here’s Johnny!

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I met the Beatles the same way everybody else did, at the onset of Beatlemania, rocking on The Ed Sullivan Show.

The only difference between me and millions of others was that I was in a movie theater in Dothan, Alabama in the spring of 1978, sitting next to my mother, whose company I had chosen over the thrill and expense of the senior prom. The movie was I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978), the music was wall-to-wall early Beatles, and it was one of the last times my mother was able to laugh the way people only laugh before the shadow of death begins to creep over them, nine years later in her case. All in all, it was a good choice – I wouldn’t trade the memory for anything. That it was my real introduction to the Beatles’ music was almost an afterthought, albeit one that left the kind of feelings that can chase shadows away.

Until then, I had resisted them, partly through teenage cantankerousness—if everybody liked them, how good could they be?—mostly through ignorance. Of course I knew at least a little of their music, but they had never truly conquered the blue collar, evangelical world of the American South, which was also the site of their most infamous backlash. I can remember riding in a car with my parents some time around ’75-76 and asking who the fourth Beatle was besides Paul, John and Ringo. As I recall, my parents did eventually come up with George Harrison, but it took them a while and they were far from certain, to give you an idea of their remoteness.

The Beatles weren’t really musicians, then, or even rock stars, more like a spectral presence. The one salient fact that stuck out above everything else was that they had inspired a guy named Charles Manson and his creepy followers to kill some famous people. That might have been considered a little off-putting to some, but by the time I properly met them in 1978, I was already a Beach Boys’ fanatic and I knew they (or anyway Dennis Wilson) had actually hung out with Manson and stole one of his songs! I wasn’t one of those who thought this was cool, then or now. But I had gotten past it with the Beach Boys, so there was no reason I shouldn’t get past it with the Beatles.

But until I saw and heard I Wanna Hold Your Hand, experiencing Beatlemania second hand, I didn’t truly appreciate them. The mere fact that they had been more popular than the Four Seasons and the Beach Boys (probably put together) made me suspicious and resentful. The fact that they were way-y-y-y-y cooler, circa 1978, only made me more so. I had enough devotion to my idea of “the Sixties” that I didn’t trust anybody who was still cool ten years later, which was to say I didn’t trust the Stones or the Doors either. Little did I know when I entered that duplex theater on Ross Clark Circle in Dothan, Alabama that all that was about to change.

Look, I give the film and its cast and makers some credit. The movie still makes me laugh to this day. Not to mention, it set the gold standard for using a sound track of popular hits to help tell a story. Robert Zemeckis is at least as effective in that department as anything Quentin Tarantino has ever done, who didn’t even give us some Beatles in his Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019) alternate history of the Manson murders, or for that matter, the other recent fanciful reimagining of Yesterday (2019), which posits a world where only one person remembers that the Beatles ever existed.

In the end, though, it was the music that took hold. I’d already cottoned to a lot of the sixties, not just the Beach Boys and the Seasons, but the Lovin’ Spoonful and the Mamas & the Papas and a fair bit more. Enough so I would risk talking to girls about them, which is of course, the biggest risk a teenage boy can take. I didn’t get anywhere, mind you, nothing more than polite smiles, but no amount of discouragement could dim my enthusiasm. Sixties music was the one subject I was ready to risk being a fool over.

(BONUS: Here’s a never before seen clip of our friend, John Ross, trying to talk to girls in the 70s – SMS)

 

That’s pretty much still the case. If there had been any turning back before I met the Beatles, there was certainly none after. Somewhere, somehow, I finagled enough money to get the Red Album, which soon validated everything I had heard—and imagined—in that tiny theater while Mom and I were busting a gut. In this age of mono/stereo releases and box sets dividing up the UK vs. US albums and pulling up anything you want on YouTube, and living long enough to hear everything on everybody’s this is the greatest list sound like an outtake from the White Album, the Red Album is still my go-to Beatles.

I bought the rest in fairly short order, though, and more or less in the order it was released back when. I came as close to experiencing the Beatles in their own time as anyone who started in 1978 could. There was never a moment after that first experience when I wasn’t with them even if they were never my favorite band. The week of my high school graduation and plucking The Byrds’ Greatest Hits from a Woolworth’s bargain bin came around too soon for the Fab Four to displace the Beach Boys and the Seasons and after the Byrds there was no more chance for anybody else to be my favorite band.

But, after 1978, I always knew what everybody knew: that the Beatles, more than anyone else from the 60’s, had to be reckoned with. In a way it didn’t matter what I thought, or even what their fiercest acolytes thought. It was evident, even from that distance, that the Beatles mattered in ways that went beyond anything their fans might feel for their music and beyond anything any of us might feel about their competition. If I wanted to ride the arc of the 60’s madness, I could listen to the Mamas & the Papas, the whole run from “Go Where You Wanna Go” to “Safe In My Garden.” If I wanted to experience the sense of freedom and chaos that I had just missed, perhaps remind myself why I was interested in the arc to begin with, I put on “I Am the Walrus” or “Helter Skelter” or “Come Together.” And I kept putting them on long after I realized the secrets of the universe I had half suspected must be hiding in those mystifying lyrics weren’t really hiding even in those scary, deathless sounds. That the 60s would never be explained. Not even by John, Paul, Ringo….and George.

It’s hard to convey the sense of loss I experienced when the reality the Beatles alone had allowed me (or was it us?) to deny came seeping, then crashing, in. I don’t even remember quite when it happened. The nineties maybe. That seems like a good, frozen decade in which to have learned how to stop dreaming. On my blog I like to occasionally remind my readers that we never really walked away from 1968 and we never will. It’s one of those comments you either get or you don’t. I never try to explain it and I won’t try to explain it now.

But I might amend it and admit the obvious. Never walking away from 1968 just means we never walked away from the Beatles. That their not going on and the country’s most idealistic and chaotic decade not going on were really the same thing. I think on some level I probably knew that even in 1978, that, even in the midst of the joys of discovering I Wanna Hold Your Hand and “I Want to Hold You Hand,” on my prom night, I was already channeling the Faulkner I had yet to read and understanding that memory believes before knowing remembers.

Either way, I’ve learned to live with it. Just don’t ask me to be happy about it. Now, I think I need to go take another shot at figuring out the second side of Abbey Road. Who knows, maybe in the end, the love you take really is equal to the love you make.

6 Comments

  1. Another KILLER article.

    Enjoyed this very much, John. Big Smile on my face reading about “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” as I had the opportunity to audition for the role of “Tony Smerko” which ultimately went to my friend, Bobby Di Cicco.
    (He was GREAT btw) Never forget the night he found out that he got the part. He was working as a doorman at an apartment building down the street from the liquor store that I worked at, in Hollywood. We’d been friends for a few years, so it was very COOL that if I wasn’t gonna play “Tony” I was happy as hell for Bobby. The guy also beat me out for a role in Sam Fuller’s classic film “The Big Red One”. (GREAT in that, too!) No matter we remained friends and hung out until work kinda dried up for him and he moved back to Chicago. Hadn’t thought about Bobby for awhile until I read your piece tonight. Sweet memories of days gone by.

    Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!

    • Hey Kim,
      Great to see you back again! That piece was the great work of our monthly guest blogger Jon Ross or “Nondisposable Johnny” He runs a great site that I think you’ll like The Round place in the middle Check him out when you have a moment!
      Hope you’re well and happy
      Shoe

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