The Beatles changed everything, and they did it by being only slightly different from everything else. Along with covering a lot of earlier rock & roll tunes, like the Isley Brothers’ Twist and Shout and Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven, they created their own style of fifties music with songs like I Saw Her Standing There. They sang a show tune on their first American LP--Till There Was You from The Music Man—and then wrote songs like If I Fell and And I Love Her, which could have been in any Broadway musical of the sixties.
Beatles’ vocals could be raw, as heard in their cover of Carl Perkins’ Honey Don’t, but it was their sweet harmonies that, I believe, aided their acceptance by the parents who bought their kids Beatles records. The Fab Four’s early U.S. hits, I Wanna Hold Your Hand and She Loves You, exhibited some of the tight two-part harmonies for which the Everly Brothers were known. In an era where harmony was the stuff of clean cut quartets like the Four Freshmen and the Ames Brothers, and of course duos like the Everlys, it didn’t hurt that Paul and John complemented each other’s vocals so well.
The Beatles didn’t just revolutionize music by subtly altering the norm. They changed cultural perceptions. Their worldview was somewhat reminiscent of the “Beat” culture of the 1950s, but they behaved more like the clean cut kids next door than like the beatnik caricature incarnate in TV’s Maynard G. Krebs. Sure their hair was longish and floppier than most young men’s, but it wasn’t wild or dirty. As a result, John, Paul, George, and Ringo seemed safe.
I didn’t join the Beatles bandwagon in the winter of 1964, like so many of my peers. I was still playing Little Deuce Coupe regularly on Pop’s hi-fi. As “Beatlemania” entered the American vernacular, with the Liverpudlians’ first U.S. tour in January, I was not even a fan, which brings me back to my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Wilson.
Mrs. Wilson was an institution at P.S.114. Judy’s mom studied under her, as did many other moms and dads in the neighborhood. The stories passed down from one generation to the next served either to terrify the new classes, which was generally the case, or make certain students determined to make her life hell. I was one of the latter.
For some reason, maybe my being a “top dog” sixth grader, I would not kowtow to Mrs. Wilson’s demands. I learned from my older friends in the 93rd Street Gang that her first name was Jenny and that she hated the slanderous nickname she’d had for years: Jungle Jenny. From then on I chose to let that slur slip from my lips as often as possible and as close to her earshot as I could safely get without being identified. Word got out that I hated her, even though I felt toward her like I did about most people: since they didn’t care about me, I didn’t care about them.
Shortly after the New Year began, Mrs. Wilson assigned my class to write a satirical essay, something to poke fun at current events. Being in the middle of a Cold War with Russia that threatened to end civilization as we knew it, only a year following the assassination of President Kennedy, and at a time when people were starting to hear about a tiny land somewhere in Southeast Asia called Vietnam, poking fun at current events took a lot of chutzpah for a teacher, even one as venerable as Jungle Jenny. I decided to take her up on it and write a seriously funny essay.
What would I write about? I asked the second funniest man I knew, after Uncle Freddy: Pop. He said we should see what was in the newspapers. We checked the Daily News. There on the front page was a photo of four nicely-suited and tied, albeit mop-haired, young Englishmen getting off a Pan Am jet right down the road at the newly-renamed John F. Kennedy International Airport.
“Who are they?” Pop asked.
“It’s that English band, the Beatles.”
Pop stared at the newspaper for a minute, quickly scanned the article, and said, “You should write about them. They look funny.”
And I did. With a little help from… Pop, I composed a two-page essay giving my take on the craziness that was Beatlemania. I exaggerated a bit, which good satire does even in sixth grade.
I was proud of my essay, and I hoped Mrs. Wilson would be too. I waited anxiously for the papers to be graded and returned.
The day she returned our satires, Jungle Jenny called me to her desk.
“I want you to read your paper aloud today. It made me laugh.”
And then she handed me an A+.
Something changed in me that day. I began trying a little harder in class, and I stopped giving Jungle Jenny so much trouble.
A few weeks later, Mrs. Wilson wasn’t in class. Mr. Shore, the assistant principal, came into our class to introduce a sub; and he told us that Mrs. Wilson’s husband had died, and she would be taking some time off. She was gone a week, maybe two. When she returned she called each of the thirty some-odd students in my class up to her desk. When it was my turn, she reached into her bag and brought out an emerald tie tack.
“This belonged to Mr. Wilson. He wore it often. Philip, I know he would want you to wear it too.”
And that made my conversion complete. I thanked Mrs. Wilson two ways. First, by saying the traditional ‘aw shucks’ kind of “Thank you,” and then by never calling her Jungle Jenny again, no matter how near or far away she was.
When I entered seventh grade I became a permanent part of the 93rd Street Gang. I started using profanity for the first time in my life. The desire to keep my old friends from P.S.114 while fitting in with the gang created the conflict within me that I’ve described previously. And my collection of 45s grew, along with a newfound love for the Beatles.
Don’t get me wrong. I liked their music in and of itself, but Aunt Barb’s neighbor, Faith, liked them too; and during my junior high years there was nothing that made a Beatles song more enjoyable than listening to it with Faith in her parents’ living room. We sang a lot of songs together those years. I even became one of the millions of members of the “official” Beatles Fan Club.
My first favorite Beatles song was She Loves You. I was disappointed to find it did not appear on my first Beatles LP, the Capitol Records U.S. release called Meet the Beatles. That album did have I Wanna Hold Your Hand, everyone else’s favorite, but not mine.
Meet the Beatles created the first of a few ripples in the otherwise tight relationship between Pop and me. I’m not sure if his disdain for the Lads had something to do with his being part of a less popular American quartet or whether he just didn’t “dig” the new music of the British Invasion. And I’m even less sure about his motive for a purchase that embarrassed me even more than him.
After days of begging, I finally got Pop to agree to bring a copy of Meet the Beatles home from Manhattan. (I bought 45s at my local music store with money earned delivering the Canarsie Courier. Large purchases like LPs required parental financing.) When he arrived home from work on the long-awaited day, Pop had an odd look on his face. To this day I don’t know if it was mischief or desperation; but he said he couldn’t find the album I wanted, so he got me something “just as good.”
I opened the plain brown wrapper, all the purchase really deserved. I practically gagged. There in all its counterfeit glory was an album called The Beetle Beat by a band called The Buggs. The album featured covers of I Wanna Hold Your Hand and She Loves You, along with other England-inspired songs representative of the “Original Liverpool Sound.” To make the ruse complete, the record claimed to have been “Recorded in England.” I wanted to crawl into a hole and never come out. I hated my father for that moment. And I was embarrassed to be his son.
Summoning up more grace than the evening warranted, I thanked Pop; but I told him I still wanted Meet the Beatles. A few days later, when no one was around, I played the Buggs’ record. Well, they didn’t sing badly, they just weren’t real. Turns out their sound wasn’t Liverpool either. The album was recorded in the band’s homeland of New Jersey.
Eventually, thanks to Pop’s clearer thinking, and my ability to buy the occasional album with my own money, I obtained a respectable collection of the Fab Four’s American releases. Some of them were even Christmas presents. December 25th 1965 found—wonder of wonders--Rubber Soul under our tree. And I spent my first Christmas as a high schooler back in Aunt Midge’s guest room, with Uncle Paul’s new stereo record player, listening to my copy of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
That was 1967. My musical world exploded again less than a year later when my friend from up the street, Scott Robins, introduced me to FM radio.
FM, or “underground,” radio changed my life forever. You’ll read more about it in Episode Thirty-three of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.