Those of you who saw Paul McCartney when he played at RFK this summer might recall a moment, fairly early in the evening, after he'd gotten through a few drippy Wings tunes, when for the first time in 20 years he began to sing the songs that changed the world, songs he recorded with the Beatles. First he sang "Got to Get You Into My Life," then "The Long and Winding Road," ghosts that made you wonder if he was coming to grips with his past or trying to finesse it. Then he stopped singing, and hesitantly, almost like a shy schoolboy, he dedicated the next one, "Fool on the Hill," to "my best friends -- John, George and Ringo." It was then, at the very instant Paul spoke John's name, that you knew how dearly we missed him.
Ten years ago John Lennon was shot dead outside his New York City apartment for reasons no one yet understands by a pudgy, lunatic fan, described by police as a "local screwball." It was Monday night. Howard Cosell somberly interrupted the football game to inform the country. The smart Beatle was murdered. Totally crazy. Who assassinates a musician?
Some years ago someone asked me who had the greatest influence on my life, and I answered without hesitation or embarrassment: the Beatles. Who else should I have said, John Kennedy? Jonas Salk? de Tocqueville? I was a disaffected baby-boom rock-and-roller. Get real. Of course it was the Beatles. In my life I loved them all. They showed me how to dress. They made me want to dance. They were smart, they were flip, they were young and talented, and they were having fun. What else was there? They were together only seven years. Luckily for me, it was my best seven.
Kids now, they get the Rolling Stones, they get the Who. But they don't get the Beatles. Not like we did. These kids are just down for the beat. They don't appreciate that the Beatles led, and everyone else obediently followed. The Beatles changed everything. They were the first rock band to play and sing, to be more than just hired hands. Lennon and McCartney wrote their own songs. Leonard Bernstein once called them the greatest composers since the Gershwins. And they never stopped growing and changing. From "Meet the Beatles!" through "Rubber Soul," "Sgt. Pepper," "Abbey Road," they were constantly evolving, taking chances, creating new directions in popular music.
I remember rushing out to buy the latest Beatles album. I remember the thrill of carefully unwrapping it and playing it in breathless anticipation to see where they were taking us, what they were telling us, where we were going now. I remember sitting with my pals for hours, listening to it, dissecting it, being engulfed and overwhelmed by it. Newspaper taxis appear on the shore, waiting to take you away. Drugs, spiritualism, globalism, always the Beatles were there first. The Stones were derivative. They were a great rock-and-roll band, but let's not make them into Picasso. The Beatles did "Eleanor Rigby," so the Stones did "Ruby Tuesday." The Beatles made "Sgt. Pepper," so the Stones made "Their Satanic Majesties Request." By the time the Who made "Tommy," the Beatles were already disintegrating. So somebody else made a rock opera, so what? Congratulations.
The Beatles' appeal to American kids in the post-JFK melancholy was their irrepressible charm. They were British, which made them sophisticated, and they paid us homage by playing our rock-and-roll, which made them accessible. They had no pretenses. They played a command performance and John looked up to the royal box and teased, "You folks in front can clap, and you rich people up there can rattle your jewelry." They called the queen "Mum" and crooned, "Her majesty's a pretty nice girl, some day I'm gonna make her mine." In a time when everyone under 30 was rebelling against authority, the Beatles skewered it with wit.
It's been 21 years since the Beatles broke up, yet I can still sing along with every song they made. Sometimes I find myself in the car, listening by chance to one of their songs, and as it fades I automatically begin singing the next song on the album. I know that right after "Norwegian Wood" comes "You Won't See Me," and that right after "This Boy" comes "It Won't Be Long." I can't remember what happened last Tuesday, but I know that you say you will love me if I have to go, you'll be thinking of me, somehow I will know. I find myself often weaving their lyrics into my columns, but I'm disturbed that with each passing year the audience that identifies with them is shrinking. (My friend Mike, the sports columnist in Baltimore, wants to begin each of his columns with the words "I've got nothing to say, but it's okay, good morning, good morning, good morning.") There hasn't been anyone to replace them for me, and I fear there never will.
Some of the other bands were smart, and some were daring, but none were as savvy and good-humored and as of-the-moment as the Beatles. Certainly none had the gift of melody like the Beatles. McCartney was sweeter, Lennon rougher. They were each other's editors. Their finished work was invariably brilliant. Other bands were about sex. The Beatles were about sex, sure, but they were mainly about mind -- which was mainly Lennon, their art-student leader, their suffering intellect, their prophet.
I'm not one who believes that Lennon's best work came after the Beatles. I think without McCartney there to edit, Lennon became gratingly ideological -- just as McCartney became hopelessly cute. But I feel cheated at not being able to see how Lennon might have changed in middle and old age, what style he might have brought to his music, and what his music might have brought to the world. A dancer, an athlete is done at 35 because his body fails. An artist, a musician can go on evolving, mutating, creating. Monet, Olivier, Sinatra did some of their best work when the heat gave way to character and phrasing.
I am older now than John Lennon was when he died.
Ten years already.