Ash Wednesday: Remembering the Beatles

After my valentine and I had finished lunch out on Sunday, we went over to the Manitoba Museum to see an exhibit of 84 never-published photos of the Beatles’ first visit to North America in February 1964.  

Bill Eppridge, who was assigned to the story and has 38 images in the exhibit (the rest are from CBS archives), recalled to a Winnipeg Free Press reporter how surprised he and the other photographers were when the mop-tops emerged from their plane that day in 1964 — “four young gentleman in dark suits and ties, so neatly dressed you couldn’t believe it.” Although Beatlemania was rising, it was in its early stages and, according to Eppridge, then a 25-year-old reporter, the  four seemed “generally unaware of their importance.” The photographs show them looking truly polite and tidy, as they confer with Ed Sullivan for their debut on his show, as they practice and play. The camera also captures them having fun — “genuine” fun, it’s called — clowning on the train ride from New York to Washington, and in the ocean in Florida. It brings back, says Eppridge,  “an innocent, joyful moment in U.S. history.”  

That’s what struck me in the exhibit too. How impossibly young the Beatles look, how wholesome the entire scene! Even their songs playing in the background of the exhibit seem strangely insubstantial, almost tepid by today’s explicit standards.  I Want to Hold Your Hand!  I remember my parents disapproving of it. I suppose that what’s fresh and obvious to the young seems to their elders too blunt, too needy, especially if you already know what hand-holding is about.

It’s all taken me back to my teens. (I realize this dates me.) And being Ash Wednesday, maybe a look back is appropriate. Ash Wednesday calls us to reflect on, among other things, life’s brevity. On an anti-innocence that attends us from the day we are born — Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return (Genesis 3:19).  That’s what the shock is about, seeing how young and naive and innocent we were, just yesterday. Especially youth like me in our relatively sheltered communities, our good homes.  

 I don’t recall whether I saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. Believe it or not, our family didn’t have a television until the fall of 1964  and their appearances on Sullivan were in February. Our Mennonite denomination had waged an ultimately losing battle against television through the 1950s and 60s (see here) and my parents must have been sensitive to that, though realizing where this issue was heading didn’t seem to object when my brother bought a set with money he’d earned that summer. Even before we had a television, however, there was always the opportunity to watch at my friend’s house. (After we had a set, I still went to her house to watch “Peyton Place,” disallowed at our place, though “Bonanza” with its steady gun-slinging was okay, as was the news — always — and shows like “This Hour Has Seven Days.” And, of course, hockey.)

Talk about innocence. My first movie in a real-live movie theater was “The Sound of Music.” 

But times weren’t that innocent, come to think of it. In November 1963, the same month that “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was a smash hit, President Kennedy was killed in Dallas. The whole decade was a mix of things, of mini-skirts and merriment and madness, of freedoms won for Blacks, of Vietnam and riots and brain damage from drugs. The world did not implode in our house because of a television set in the basement, but by Grade 11, I’d grasped that death comes to the young. We were only 32 students in our high school that year and on the night after spring graduation festivities, one of the grads drowned in a boating accident, his body swept away in the high spring run-off of the creek and never recovered. 

Two of the Beatles are also dead by now. By the 1990s, their songs had found their way as “classics” to our children’s generation, and via a six-CD anthology one of them got for Christmas, into our house. A chance to hear, as often as we wished,

There’s a shadow hanging over me,
Oh, yesterday came suddenly….

On Ash Wednesday, it’s a good reminder.

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