George Harrison is dead, and at 58, he was the youngest Beatle. Somehow that resonates more profoundly than John’s death at the hands of John David Chapman years ago. Rock stars, stars of all types seem destined to die before their time; lives lived in the brightness of media scrutiny and subject to the whimsy of fate’s fickle finger. Each premature death affects us; some momentarily, others become dislocated for some time by the loss of their icons. Yet tragic as is the accidental or unexpected end to a career; when an icon dies by ’natural causes’, as a result of life itself, this seems more personal, more affecting. It reminds, (in a way that terms like ‘middle aged’, or ‘senior citizen’ do not), that our time here is finite and for some of us, drawing nigh.
There’s always been a curious synchronicity with me and the music of the Beatles. In the early ‘60’s I was in college in Munich, Germany, drawn to Dylan, Baez, the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary. I soon learned that singing and playing a guitar was a great way to meet girls…and in those days, shy and one of very few Black students, I needed all the help I could get. The Beatles really broke onto the musical landscape after successes in Berlin, so we students in Munich were aware of them months before they released “She Loves Me” in America. My first Beatle album, “Meet The Beatles” was purchased in Europe and the liner text is in German. Each subsequent album seemed to mark a meaningful period of my maturation, and hearing certain songs now can instantly transport me back to those times. I think that’s one of the magical qualities of music, how it can connect to something inside us and bring back faces, feelings, events long past. The release of “Rubber Soul” found me living with 4 women in a college apartment at the University of Maryland (that probably sounds far more erotic than the reality…yet perhaps not, after all, it was the 60’s). “Revolver” came out just as I was surrendering my ‘control freak’ tendencies to the possibilities of pot. The day I returned home with my purchase of “Sgt. Pepper”, I discovered my draft notice in the mail box and the absence of Rona, my cat who had mysteriously vanished.
Of course, music of all types played a huge role in my life then. I collected and listened to The Rolling Stones, The Jefferson Airplane, Cream, The Who, jazz, blues and folk rock, with equal enthusiasm, but always eagerly anticipated the next Beatle release. Because we were so close in age, because they continually evolved and expanded their musical styles (as my personal tastes evolved and expanded), because America’s social, political, artistic landscape was being redefined and challenged, their music seemed a perfect litmus for that fast changing evolution/revolution that was the 60’s. And even today, with far fewer brain cells, with all my ‘senior moments’, should one of their songs suddenly begin on radio, I can instantly and flawlessly sing along with them, lyrics and harmonies intact.
“Magical Mystery Tour” coincided with my entering Infantry OCS, about to embark upon my very own magical mystery tour that would eventually bring me to Vietnam. I was home on leave for Christmas, following jump school when I found time to enjoy “The White Album” and played all four sides from dawn til dusk. More than anything else, their music reconnected me to my civilian persona, if only for a few days. Almost a year later, I found myself once again in Germany, now back from Vietnam, on convalescent leave – and trying to kick a growing addiction to painkillers. My wounds had been severe, I had extensive surgery ahead of me, and spend a difficult few weeks enjoying my parents gratitude for my survival. While there, I purchased the British release of “Abbey Road.” Every song seemed somehow personally relevant to my injuries, my death and re-birth; the recent memories of combat, which seemed so near and yet so far removed from the festivities of Oktoberfest and the bustling vitality of Europe. Yet all was somehow illusory to me. I knew what was happening thousands of miles to the east…and a part of me was unable to let go of that reality – then as well as now.
29 Nov, 2001