Beatles 50th Anniversary Special
The Lefsetz Letter
They didn’t shoot high enough.
What separates the good from the truly great is that barely visible edge, you know, the one upon which you skate exquisitely and triumph, or fall down from and are decimated.
It’s absent from music.
It’s evident on cable television. From “House Of Cards” to “Breaking Bad” the rulebook has been burned and creative people are flying on instinct and titillating viewers to the point where staying home all day for a Netflix marathon is de rigueur.
But album sales keep dropping and the only meaning in music is evident on the records of the wannabes who can neither sing nor play but are convinced if we would just give them a listen they’d triumph.
But the Beatles were different.
Because they were disadvantaged. Their mothers were gone. Paul suddenly started skipping school. When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose. You’d think that today’s underclass would dig deep and whip out gut-wrenching quality, but they’re too busy watching the flat screen and typing on their mobile phones, believing if they just promote themselves, they’ll become famous.
They don’t even know what rich is.
Fame is their goal.
But the Beatles were bitten by the bug. Of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. They wanted to be just like them, the way we wanted to be just like the Beatles.
Yes, fifty years ago, our nation was changed literally overnight. Guitar sales burgeoned and barber shops closed. Because we’d all seen the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.
By the time we were exposed to them they’d been writing songs for nearly a decade, and had spent thousands of hours performing in Hamburg, never mind the Cavern Club. And with something to prove, they made our jaws drop.
Today’s kids can’t even play their instruments. But the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan sans hard drives or tapes, and they killed.
They had crooked, chipped, tobacco-stained teeth. Image was important, but songs even more. They were making it up as they went along.
Today we’re just repeating the formula. Established by the four lads from Liverpool fifty years ago. No one’s got skin in the game. And the rogue’s gallery of personalities who invented this business are long since retired, and haven’t been replaced.
The Beatles blew the sixties wide open. They built upon the folk culture (RIP Pete Seeger) and the civil rights movement to empower an entire generation to live free and question authority in a way we would not see again until the dawn of the technological age. What do John Lennon and Steve Jobs have in common? They were both mercurial assholes. And we loved them for it. Because when John emoted and Steve unfurled his latest creation, our souls were touched and we were overcome with the possibilities.
But this was back when we were innocent.
I don’t want to be twenty five again, never mind a teenager, those were horrible years with so many frustrations, but watching last night’s footage on the big screen I was reminded that once upon a time I did not know how the world worked. I saw the glass as half full. I did not question people’s motives. I did not know that PR wagged the tail of the media dog. I thought that we could change the world.
And we did.
But nobody in music is changing the world today.
Katy Perry was so awful, it was the only thing anybody could talk about. I’m sure they’ll fix her vocal before airtime, they have to.
Imagine Dragons did a flawless version of “Revolution” absent all the original’s soul. If you can’t lock on to the groove, you’ve missed the target. It’s not about perfection, but feel.
Ed Sheeran eviscerated all the pathos and soul-searching and world-weary wisdom from “In My Life.” Everybody was painting by numbers. And that way you can replicate a Picasso, but art is about inspiration, not repetition.
But the two guys from the Sullivan show… Testifying as to their exploits back then. Telling stories about rehearsal and Ed coming in on Saturday to meet the reporters, being a giant press hound. This was what we were eating up, this is what we were salivating for.
And was absent too much in this made for TV production.
LL Cool J was the host! What has he got to do with the Beatles other than this show is on CBS?
Anna Kendrick was great in that George Clooney movie, but she wasn’t even born when the band broke big.
But it’s all about ratings baby, and if we don’t entice the young ‘uns, we don’t make money.
And there you have America in a nutshell. Money comes first.
So the techies are on top, the bankers come next, and I’m stuck in the middle with you…nowhere.
We used to have our records, we used to have our art, now we’ve just got our gossip wherein we follow the travails of the Kardashian Klub as they dash for dollars, egged on by their producer, the empty vessel known as Ryan Seacrest.
Did we really need a new Dick Clark? How about a new Wolfman Jack, or Tom Donahue, or Scott Muni…or even a new Cousin Brucie.
But Ryan’s on TV and he’s rich so we’re subjected to his visage.
Didn’t used to be this way.
And then Jeff Lynne and Joe Walsh and Dhani Harrison come out and positively kill “Something.”
Jeff wrings the same wistful emotion from the lyrics as George did.
And Joe pulls off the same notes.
And Dhani plays along and smiles. With a joy not palpable by anybody else his age in attendance.
And then comes Stevie Wonder. Another alta kacher.
I doubt most people under fifty are aware of Stevie’s rendition of “We Can Work It Out.” An exquisite original, Stevie added a funky Hohner intro and a harmonica solo that makes you shimmy and shake and he replicated the number just perfectly last night.
Not the first time through. He missed it. By less than five percent, but…
That five percent means everything. He was the only act who insisted on a do-over. And when he did…
Stevie’s nodding his head, he’s tickling the ivories, and I’m in heaven. Anybody would be, whether you know the original or not.
And then Paul did “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and the band segued into Ringo singing “With A Little Help From My Friends” and everything was right with the world. Sure, they did the obligatory “Hey Jude” sing-along to conclude the evening, but when you sing the na-nas…all your troubles fall away, you feel a spark inside, that’s the power of music.
Which we seem to have abandoned in our desire for commerce.
This show will come and go. It will make money and be forgotten. I’d say it will make young kids interested in the Beatles, but despite pandering to them I doubt they’ll watch it, they’re too busy tapping on their devices to take time out.
But their parents…
We live in a word of mouth culture. You can manipulate the media but you’ll never achieve your goal. Which is to stick around, to last.
The reason the Beatles are as big as ever, and everyone knows their music, is because of the baby boomers who were there when it happened all those years ago. They can’t stop talking about it.
We’ve stopped talking about so much more. Dozens of hit acts have been wiped from our memory banks. World events have been shortened to where you were when Kennedy was shot, where you were when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, there’s no discussion of context, just talk about thinly-sliced events.
But when it comes to the Beatles…
It changed the way you look, the way you thought, you can sing those songs by heart and still do. It was so much more than Ed Sullivan, that was just the beginning.
If we don’t respect our culture, if we don’t grasp for the highest rung, we’re worse off as a society.
This was a decent show, but it could have been so much more.
If it featured Dave Clark, speaking about how it was to compete with the Beatles.
If it detailed the beginnings of the merch business, when everybody had to have an “I Love Paul” button and a Beatle wig.
If it stopped worrying so much about today and hearkened back to yesteryear. If it featured the people who were there the first time around, instead of throwing them on the scrapheap in a desire to placate the younger generation that does not care.
I know the producers don’t like my message. I know I’m raining on their parade.
But the Beatles changed my life. Without them I’m a completely different person. I’m not here writing to you.
And when I hear “Every Little Thing” I think back to every girl I ever touched, whether it be Betsy Kimball back at Camp Laurelwood or Felice Mancini today.
I can tell you about drumming the intro to “Come Together” on the desk of the high school library.
Sitting around the campfire singing “Day Tripper.”
Going to a dance and having not a single conversation but being thrilled when the band played “I Want To Tell You.”
And I am not alone. Our entire lives were permeated by four lads from Liverpool who were bitten by the music bug and could only see the possibilities, who believed “safe” was anathema.
I’ve got thousands of vinyl records, including all the original Beatles LPs, however worn.
Because I couldn’t live without them. They’re as vital to my identity as my DNA.
So when you watch this special, or don’t, know that of all the music from the classic rock era the only slam dunk for survival is that of the Beatles. Not because of the way they looked, or the tally of number ones, but because of the vocals, the changes, the playing. The songs. The records.
You want a goal?
Have that be it. Make it about the music.
If you’re really that good we’ll find out about you.