In this day of anti-immigration, anti-science, ‘America First,’ and less-than-subtle racism, I found a welcome arrival recently with Ron Howard’s film The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years. Like many people my age, I grew up with the Beatles, and their music, values and image are deeply ingrained in my view of how the world works. I remember the day in early 1964 when they flew into New York’s Idlewild (now JFK) airport. I was home from school with the flu, but listening to their progress on a transistor radio, and hearing the song, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, so many times that I could play each Beatles’ part. But more than hearing the pieces, I remember the sheer rush of emotion that washed over me whenever I heard the song begin and the deep sense of wellbeing I felt as the song ended. Their music was an emotional experience for a ten-year-old school boy in Brooklyn. As they evolved through the 1960s, we grew up along with them.
Growing up in Brooklyn I knew many people from other countries and I knew we weren’t alone in the world, but I suppose I saw Europe and Asia as places where people were from, not as a place we were going. Europe was where they tattooed numbers on the arms of old people I saw sitting on Brighton Beach in the summer: the survivors of the Holocaust. Or as my father once told me after one of his many business trips to Europe: “Europe is an overrated old place. New York City is the best place in the world, America is the best country, and my parents were right to leave that place.” I remember reminding him that like most Jews in the early 20th century, they were chased out of Europe, but he correctly focused on the wisdom of their leaving. There wasn’t a lot of sympathy for the “old country” when I was a kid. The point I often heard was that America was the future and nothing interesting could come from someplace else.
But the Beatles were proof that something absolutely spectacular could be grown outside of America. It turned out that the music they made was a global mix of sounds from England, Ireland, the Caribbean, Africa, Germany and America. Later on, they added the sitar and other sounds from Asia. In 1964, the Beatles’ chief musical influences were Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley and even Brooklyn’s own Carol King. But when the Beatles covered American rock ‘n roll hits and started to write their own songs, they brought their personal history and collective memory to the sounds they made and created something new and fresh that had never been heard before.