The 2013 rush of books pegged to the John Kennedy assassination included at least one alternate history, Jeff Greenfield’s If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy. Obviously, Vietnam is the big question, but civil rights, future elections and much else might have come out very differently had Oswald missed. Still, the Tolstoyan part of me thinks things would have worked out much the same over time. Technology, economics and culture have been more important in most younger Americans’ lives since 1963 than war and politics.
Perhaps something similar is true about the second of the two big 1963/1964 half-century nostalgia events, but I’m not sure. Were the Beatles just on the cutting edge of a sweeping change in Western culture that was coming on strong with or without them, or would today’s culture be a lot more like 1950s culture if John Lennon had never met Paul McCartney? Has it been too easy to magnify their importance so everyone can use them as shorthand for all the musical, artistic, sartorial, sexual, psychedelic, environmentalist, individualist, internationalist, humanist eruptions of the late 1960s — and more or less of all the decades since?
I don’t think the Feb. 9, 1964 Ed Sullivan show changed the world — although it certainly rocked mine — but I have always thought that we Baby Boomers did radically remake Western culture, for better and for worse — abetted by an older, very creative generation that included the Beatles. We grew up with numbers and affluence like nothing before us, and we threw effective tantrums individually and communally if denied what we wanted. Many Boomers were actually conservative, but I’d bet that if asked, those of us who mainly liked the changes in cultural direction saw the Beatles as our pathfinders more than anyone else. For six dazzled years, we waited to see what the next Beatles album would say, and we were moved by the answers. More recent years have seen greater technological change, but they haven’t felt as different as the change between 1963 and 1969, especially the freedom.
Look, I know I’m being absurdly simplistic, but how much nuance can you fit in a short blog post? Perhaps you can just see the movie Across the Universe? It’s got some cheesy parts, but its blend of Beatles songs and Sixties history themes works lovingly well.
We also have, of course, lots of books about the Beatles and the era, including a new one by Larry Kane titled When They Were Boys: The True Story of the Beatles’ Rise to the Top. Also of interest would be:
How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin: The Untold Story of a Noisy Revolution by Leslie Woodhead
Sounds of Rebellion: Music in the 1960s by Jeffrey H. Wallenfeldt
If you are a young person, hang on. We Boomers won’t be around forever, even if our legacy will. Just remember that your children may wish at times that your generation had responded differently to the shock of 9/11 and the freedom of the Internet. And to whatever other revolutions are around the corner.