Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Turned left at Greenland

The media, last weekend, made much of the fact that it was the 40th anniversary of the Beatles' arrival in America, that first epic and epochal appearance on Ed Sullivan.

I was an infant when the band broke up; to me the Beatles have always been history. A vivid history, granted: both my parents were fans. I played my mother's vinyl albums, and knew by heart her tale of their concert at the then Seattle Coliseum--how the lads had to be smuggled out in an ambulance, how after their stay at the Edgewater hotel, the management tore up the carpets and cut up the drapes, sold off in swatches anything a few stray molecules of Beatle might have touched. (As a teen, my mother had a fuzzy pill of "Beatle lint" tacked to the wall for years. It's a long story.) I pored over the picture on Sgt. Pepper, though the only faces I could pick out were Marilyn and Shirley Temple. The year my father got the Compleat Beatles Songbook for Christmas, we puzzled out the guitar tablature and sang ourselves hoarse.

It was Christmas, too, nearly, when Chapman opened fire in the Dakota. I was nine. My mother was in the garage, wrestling a wet Christmas tree into the three-legged stand, when our neighbor Jane called and said in a voice I'd never heard, "John Lennon's been shot!" I knew John, Paul, George, Ringo--I could've told you that sooner than rattled off the Gospels--but I'd never connected the boys on the record jacket to grownups with last names. "You don't know who John Lennon is?" Jane cried at me, and she was crying, shouting in a way that made me feel uniquely stupid and afraid. "Go get your mother," she said.

It was a year or two before I really began to catch on, to understand that I'd missed something. The music was there, sure, and still is and will be...but I was slouching toward thirteen, and I felt like I'd been gypped somehow. There was nothing comparable in my world, nothing to get that excited about...and John was already dead. There wasn't going to be any more of anything "Beatles."

I got a taste, though. In 1982, a print of "A Hard Day's Night" was rereleased, and my mother took me and my best friend from grade school. She'd already seen it sixteen times, and while she was never much for sleepovers, for having to feed an extra kid breakfast in our tiny apartment, she made a strange and rare exception in this case. So we were already giddy, Alyssa and I, going into the theatre. We were staying up late! going to a 9:30 movie! with actual teenagers in the audience! some of them on dates! Did we put a few seats between us and my mom, for dignity's sake? I don't remember.

But the lights went down, and the movie started: first the teaser appended to that release, "I'll Cry Instead," with stills of the band and the cast and the hordes of girls, darting on and off the screen. And then the film itself, the title track, that first unmistakable chord, blang! like the sound your whole central nervous system might make being strummed, like an axe to the head, like pulling the rip cord on Adolescence. The crazed, cartoony chase through the train station: Beatles in phone booths! Beatles behind magazines! And somewhere in the theater audience, a girl, some unknown invisible girl...screamed.

It was like a match to a fuse. She screamed, and then suddenly we all were--shrieking our heads off, bouncing in the mangy spring-shot seats of the Northgate Cinema. We screamed and clutched the armrests, we howled at the punchlines, we committed pages of snarky Brit wit to memory in a single sitting.

There's a little old man in the cupboard.

I now declare this bridge...oooopen!

I'm a mocker.

She looks more like 'im than I do.

I've never forgotten it. It's still one of my top-ten, movie-ecstasy experiences of all time. The clean, crisp, sterile sound of the compact discs, so sharp you can hear Paul breathing; the perfectly restored black-and-white beauty of my special-edition DVD; they can't even touch the stale-popcorn, poorly-heated funk of that now-defunct movie house, the Beatles crackling to life on the dusty screen.

Thanks, Mom.

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