First published two decades ago, this essay has lost none of its power. It stands as an eloquent tribute to one of the 20th century's most gifted artists.
It was that troubled autumn of 1968 that John and Yoko came to Chicago, to show their new movie in the film festival. The shouts of the Democratic Convention had scarcely died down, and Woodstock had not yet been held, and “Hair” was onstage at the Shubert, and here was this goofy home movie by John and Yoko about a butterfly that took 26 minutes to fly in slow motion from one side of the screen to the other side of the screen.
What was the movie about? We didn’t have questions like that then. There were still hippie children getting married in Lincoln Park, still little VW Bugs with McCarthy flower stickers on their bumpers, and you didn’t ask what it was about, a butterfly in slow motion. Such images explained themselves, in 1968. John Lennon and the other Beatles did more, perhaps, than any other four people to bring about that state of our cultural mind from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s.
As long as the people who were young at that time still live, the songs of the Beatles will evoke that period as poignantly and heartstabbingly as the music of other eras still draws tears to other eyes. And as long as the Beatles themselves were all still alive, as long as people could kid themselves that there might be a reunion, a final concert, one more album, that time in history was itself still a little bit alive.
Monday night it died with John Lennon in a brief, violent moment that didn’t make any sense. And a lot of flower children who maybe still had their tie-dyed jeans hanging in a closet somewhere, who maybe grinned the last time they found love beads in the bottom of a drawer, could contemplate the fact that they were damned near 40.
God, it was so long ago, that first moment when we first became aware of the Beatles, and then quickly began to realize that they were changing rock music forever — and then, that they had changed all of our pop music, had a lasting influence on the way we sang and wrote and listened to songs.
It is easy for me to remember the first time I heard about the Beatles, because the moment is locked in tandem with another I can never forget, the time when John F. Kennedy was shot. A few days before Nov. 22, 1963, there was a cartoon in the Daily Illini, the student paper down at Illinois. It showed some beetles in an audience, listening to some humans onstage. No caption. You had to understand it, and even then it wasn’t funny. But who had ever heard of the Beatles? And then, in what seemed like only a week or two, we had all heard of the Beatles, Prince Charles was no longer the only kid who wore his hair long, and the Daily Illini was interviewing campus barbers who said business was lousy.
That summer of 1964, I went to see the movie “A Hard Day’s Night.” Perhaps because it came at the right moment in my life, or perhaps just because it was such a liberating film, so free and filled with joy and music, it moved me as few films ever have. Yes, it truly did — that formless, anarchic black-and-white movie with the Beatles running around in an empty lot, and Ringo going off to walk by himself, and John and George and Paul racing through a train and singing in the wire-mesh baggage compartment while hundreds of little girls screamed and squealed.
The concert footage from “A Hard Day’s Night” caught better than anything else I’ve ever seen the mesmerizing mass effect of the Beatles. And there is one young girl in that film I will never forget. She is blond, she is perhaps 13, she has tears running down her cheeks, she is screaming the name of a Beatle over and over again, hopelessly crying out her passion. To see the scene is to smile: It is the instant crush of an adolescent fan. But the innocence of it, its clean lines of emotion, stand for me as an image of that time.
There had never been anything before quite like the Beatles. Elvis had been as popular but nobody had ever been as popular and as musically important, both at once, and had also had such a fundamental influence on the way we dressed and on our attitudes. There is a sense in which the hippies, the summer of 1968 and the whole Vietnam protest movement blossomed out of the climate that was sung to by the Beatles.
The news that John Lennon was dead came as an immense shock, infinitely sad, because one was grieving not only for his death but for the death of an era, and for the Beatles songs that played all through that time, over and over, giving it texture and a bittersweet flavor. The silly, innocent songs, like “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” and the songs so deep they were poems, like “Eleanor Rigby,” and the albums that a generation scrutinized for secret messages.
What is most touching, when you remember how we used to study the album covers and try to listen between the words of the songs for the messages the Beatles had allegedly hidden there, was that we really believed the Beatles had a message worth listening for. At their height they commanded more ideological currency than all of the candidates in the last presidential campaign — not because they had more to say, but because they were in a world still eager to listen.
Now Lennon has been shot dead and the Beatles are no more. Ringo, Paul and George still live and the albums are still on the shelves, and Monday night all the radio stations were playing them over and over, but there is no kidding ourselves. The era they sang to, which hung on here and there long beyond its time, is over now. When I first saw “A Hard Day’s Night,” the Beatles looked so very young. Now when I see it they look younger, and younger, and younger.