December 6, 2001

Yesterday

By BOB HERBERT

Like most Americans, the first time I heard of the Beatles was in January or February 1964. A buddy of mine named Leon Leach came by my house and started chattering about these four guys from England who had long hair and were driving women wild.

At 18 I was interested in anything that drove women wild. But frankly, the more Leon talked, the more preposterous the whole thing sounded. I had big plans to become a disc jockey and was thoroughly grounded in Elvis Presley, rhythm 'n' blues, doo-wop and Motown. The idea of rock 'n' roll with a British accent was beyond peculiar. And in an era when names like Ruby and the Romantics and Little Anthony and the Imperials were the norm, I wondered why any group would name itself after an insect.

Leon suggested we check them out, which we did. We had no choice. Within days the U.S. was overwhelmed with Beatles music. And I learned that the group hadn't been named after an insect.

"I Want to Hold Your Hand" was the first hit, but what hardly anyone realized was that the Beatles had released three records in America before that, and they had gone nowhere. As Paul McCartney recalled in "The Beatles Anthology": " `From Me to You' was released a flop in America. `She Loves You' a big hit in England, big Number One in England a flop in the USA. `Please Please Me' released over there flop. Nothing until `I Want to Hold Your Hand.' "

Said Ringo: "George was the only one of us who'd been [to the U.S.] before and he'd been into record shops there and asked, `Have you got The Beatles records?' We had three out, on Vee-Jay and Swan, but nobody had them, or had even heard of us."

The songs were all quickly re-released and all, of course, were smash hits. My buddies and I became big fans and we would zoom around in my bullet-shaped 1961 Thunderbird with the windows rolled up against the cold (it actually used to snow in the winter in those days), smoking Marlboros, Viceroys, Kents and Kools, and singing along with one Beatles song after another. She loves you yeah, yeah, yeah . . .

To tell the truth, it was flat-out dangerous. No seat belts. No shoulder straps. No respect for the speed limits. And you could barely see through the cigarette smoke.

I don't remember feeling threatened by anything in 1964. Crime was not considered a big problem. No one had ever heard of AIDS. And the reality of Vietnam for most Americans was still a year away.

Terror? Sure, we'd heard of that. Alfred Hitchcock, right?

The biggest problems my buddies and I faced were the legions of girls who could always be counted on to just say no.

John F. Kennedy had been assassinated a few months earlier and that had stunned the nation. But generally it was a time of great optimism, not fear. It was widely believed that even the most difficult problems could be overcome. All you had to do was follow the Yellow Brick Road of endless progress.

When Bobby Kennedy won a Senate seat from New York in 1964, he quoted Tennyson:

Come my friends,

'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.'

Oh, sure, the surgeon general issued the first of his dire warnings about the perils of smoking in January 1964, but it wasn't taken too seriously by most smokers. It was common for people to say, "By the time I get cancer, they'll have a cure for it."

Harlem erupted in rioting that summer, but no one saw it as a forecast of conflagrations to come in places like Watts and Newark and Detroit.

Reality can take a long time to sink in. Kennedy's assassination was viewed as an aberration. Meanwhile, the Beatles had arrived and the 60's were a fun time and we were happy to sing along with them.

Said Ringo: "It was so exciting, on the plane, flying into the airport. I felt as though there was a big octopus with tentacles that were grabbing the plane and dragging us down into New York. America was the best."

We are ever-changing and always the same. Like the Kennedy brothers, John Lennon was assassinated, and George Harrison succumbed to the very cigarettes the surgeon general warned us about in 1964.

George was only 58 when he died, still a young man, which tells me that 1964 was both a long time ago and only yesterday.


Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company