By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
First of all, I am not talking about “not loving” the Beatles’ music as music. The music is irrelevant to the discussion that follows. I have found that the music isn’t what people refer to when they say they “love the Beatles.” I listened to the outpouring of emotion that greeted the 50th anniversary of the group’s appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in mid-February and heard very little mention of melody, harmony, and chord changes.
What all the aging Beatlemaniacs were talking about was something very different: the cultural impact of the Beatles on their generation. That is what I am not a fan of. I think it changed the baby boomers and country dramatically for the worse.
We cannot blame the drugs, promiscuity, and a disdain for traditional values associated with the counterculture entirely on the Beatles. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, the beatniks, and Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley were already transforming the country when the Beatles sang on the Ed Sullivan Show. What the Romans called our pietas was under assault.
That said, it cannot be denied that the Beatles were the battering ram that kicked down the door. In the weeks following their appearance on the Sullivan show, their floppy hairstyles and derisive, smart-alecky personas were being mimicked everywhere you looked. It wasn’t long before even the cops and the priests started to wear their hair like John Lennon. Getting stoned, mocking-middle class morality, and sleeping around became — in some circles — as American as apple pie. The Beatles’ phenomenon was at the heart of all that.
MSNBC host Chris Matthews, on Sunday, February 9 in Parade magazine, underscores my point when he explains why he “loved the Beatles.” (His article is titled “Lennon Was My Hero.”) He says nothing about intonation and codas, a cappella riffs and polyphony. It is all about the message, the counterculture’s denunciation of a place the 1960s radicals called Amerika. Matthews writes of how his “outfit in the Peace Corps” made the Beatles’ song Hey, Jude its own. He describes Lennon’s composition Imagine as a “haunting rebuke to all the reasons people invent for killing each other, for war.”
Except that Imagine contains no rebuke for those who engage in left-wing wars of national liberation, in urban upheaval against “the Man,” or in civil strife against “the establishment.” Imagine’s list of “invented reasons” for strife are of a different sort. Consider the key lyrics: “Imagine there’s no heaven. . . . No hell below us, above us only sky.” “Imagine there’s no countries. . . . Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion, too.” “Imagine no possessions. . . . No need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man.”
There are fans of Lennon who insist he was not a Marxist, but merely an idealist dreaming of peace. It could be. Perhaps he was what George Orwell called a “parlour Bolshie,” a posturing naif spouting phrases he had heard while sitting cross-legged in some academic leftist’s apartment, someone who would have run from the sight of the violence and repression carried out in every instance when Marxists seized power, whether we are talking about Russia, China, Vietnam, or Cuba.
All that is possible. But it doesn’t change the fact that Imagine is the Communist Manifesto put to song. You can’t get around it. A world with “no heaven” and “no religion, too” is a call for the atheism Marx advocated as a way to extirpate organized religion, which he called the “opiate of the people,” the tool used by those in power to deaden the revolutionary ardor of the lower classes.
A world where “there’s no countries,” with “nothing to kill or die for,” is the world Marx envisioned once his “revolution of the proletariat” overthrew the nation-state system and replaced it with a transnational, one-world system devoted to the interests of the working class. This one-world government would end the inequalities that were in place because some nation-states were blessed with greater natural resources within their sovereign borders. It would be impossible to establish a social order based on Marx’s maxim about a just society — “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” — if vast mineral deposits and rich farmlands were seen as the private property of one nation-state or another.
These stanzas from Imagine taught teenagers, who had never pondered the implications of sovereignty and the nation-state system in their lives, to express a disdain for “flag-wavers,” the military and the patriotic sentiments of ordinary Americans. It was responsible for the 1960s hippies’ fondness for wearing old military uniforms and insignias in a deliberately unkempt fashion, as a way of expressing their disdain for what they represented. Lennon often dressed that way himself.
At the end of the revolution of the proletariat, and the dictatorship of the proletariat it would establish, Marx envisioned a world where all of mankind would live as brothers, as comrades with no individual possessions, sharing equally in their communal efforts. In John Lennon’s words it would be a world “with no possessions,” with “no greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man.” Lennon called upon his fans to “join us, and the world will be as one.”
One need not be a political philosopher to see what Lennon was up to. Or are we to believe that this similarity is a curious coincidence? It doesn’t compute. It was Bob Dylan, not the Beatles, who sang, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” — but you get the point.
Then there’s the drug thing. There was a time when the Beatles and their fans played a “wink-wink” game about what Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds was all about, as if the letters LSD in the title were another curious coincidence. With the passage of time, that charade has been dropped. Even Chris Matthews would admit these days that the song was a paean to the drug culture, to the anti-establishment enlightenment that came with getting high.
They also no longer play the wink-wink game with the lyrics about “getting high with a little help from my friends,” and the passage from Hey, Jude, the song that Chris Matthew tells us his outfit in Peace Corps made its own: “The minute you let her under your skin, then you begin to make it better.” Everyone admits now these are references to intravenous drug use, not some lovely woman. There are many other Beatles’ lyrics that do the same.
Chris Matthews and the other Beatles’ enthusiasts who raced to the microphones to make sure they were one of the 1960s’ cool kids who understood what the Beatles were all about, may think these changes in American life were for the better. As the Beatles sang in another song, “You can count me out.”