Here’s my confession: I did not grow up listening to The Beatles. I know John Lennon was murdered; George Harrison studied meditation in India and learned to play the sitar; Paul McCartney is the one whose daughter Stella is a fashion designer; and of Ringo Starr, well, I know his name.
I grew up in Mumbai, listening to Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar. Can’t Buy Me Love is the only Beatles song I have ever listened to. So when I heard that an exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ first visit to the U.S. visit was on—at the New York Public Library of Performing Arts—I thought it would be a great way to learn about this band that everyone seems to know.
The library even released a press release in which they quoted exhibition curator Bob Santelli, executive director of The GRAMMY Museum (which is the co-host for the exhibition and associated events, along with Fab Four Exhibits) as saying, “As social history, Beatlemania turned America upside down, inspiring new ideas in music, fashion, art, literature, film, even politics. Little in America was untouched by The Beatles in the 1960s.” Sounds impressive.
Here’s a tip: If you decide to visit the exhibition, make sure you enter from the main doors. I made the mistake of entering from Amsterdam Avenue. The guard at the desk directed me to the exhibition’s exit and I ended up walking through the array of exhibits from the finish to the start, backwards in time. Doing so totally skewed my introduction to The Beatles’ influence on American popular culture.
Anyway, the free exhibition—titled Ladies and Gentlemen…The Beatles!—is timed to commemorate February 7, 1964, when The Beatles arrived at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to the cheers of screaming fans and proceeded to take the city—and the country—by storm. The exhibition focuses only on the years between 1964 and ’66. On display are George Harrison’s guitar; Lennon’s old prescription glasses; and McCartney’s jacket from their 1965 Shea Stadium concert, among other memorabilia such as guitars owned by Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly.
Right by the main doors is a television screen playing a black-and-white news clip of four young British men with floppy hair disembarking from an airplane. Visitors, to the exhibit, old and young alike, hear an anchor’s voice in the background say something like this, “Rumors have already begun that this is Britain’s revenge for the Boston Tea Party…” The video also includes footage from The Beatles’ first performance on The Ed Sullivan show. As I moved through the room, I see on display posters, letters, photographs, board games, even a drum set or two. There is an audio booth for people to record their Beatles-related memories for posterity, though hardly any one was using it on a cold weekday afternoon.
While the exhibition has a lot of interesting material for diehard fans to swoon over, it also has banners introducing the four band members and explaining each one’s role in the team. What the exhibition tries hard to do but doesn’t quite manage to—at least for me—was to explain why The Beatles’ arrival was such a milestone. What is so special about this band that we are celebrating their mere arrival after half a century? Countless books and essays have been written and documentaries made on the subject, but I couldn’t very well read all of them at this point.
And since the exhibit could not supply an answer for me, I turned to the fans. “It was new music for a new generation. It just clicked,” recalled Christos Peterson, adding that he was 11 or 12 years old when The Beatles first arrived in the U.S. “They came at a time when the country needed hope, three months after John F. Kennedy was assassinated,” added his wife, Robin Peterson. The Manhattan couple said they watched the band perform on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. “I got all their records. They are terrific, the songs have great words,” said Robin.
“The Beatles were part of my growing up years,” said Tony Ryan, 55, a tourist from Sydney. “When the Beatles came to the U.S., it made big news in Australia. I was five years old that time. We used to have plastic wigs that looked like the Beatles’ hair.” The first song he heard was I Want To Hold Your Hand on The Ed Sullivan Show and it remains his favorite Beatles tune. “The songs are clever, they have an infectious beat. Even now you can whistle them, hum them,” he said. “Their later songs were even richer with meaning.” The exhibition, he said, is “fantastic,” adding excitedly, “They have Lennon’s glasses!”
For Virginia Ivec, the vintage board games, each one dedicated to one of the band members, brought back fond memories. “When I was in grade school, my girlfriends and I would talk about who we think was the cutest,” said Ivec, 55, a resident of Stamford, Connecticut. “I always chose Paul.” She counts Yesterday and Michelle among her favorite Beatles songs. She believes the band was successful because, “they started with simple love songs everyone can identify with. And they have beautiful voices. Their songs changed as they grew older but the fans stayed with them. Their music is timeless.”
The exhibition draws not just the older, nostalgic fans but youngsters too. Itai Hyman is a 22-year-old tourist from Israel, who is in the city only for a week and is flying back on Sunday. Yet, he took the time to see the exhibition. “I have been a fan since I was eight years old,” he said. His favorite song is Norwegian Wood. “I like the hook, the opening riff and the lyrics,” he said. “I listen to the songs whenever I am travelling by bus.”
“The lyrics are simple, easy to understand,” said Jesus Valdelamar, 27, a Colombian student studying marketing at New York University, of all of The Beatles’ songs. He came to the exhibition with his friend, Carlos Penaherrera. Two years ago, the two visited Liverpool in England, the Beatles’ hometown. “We took the Beatles taxi tour, saw where they used to live, hang out, even their barber shop!” Valdelamar recalled with a grin. While he is too young to have actually lived through the Beatles era, Valdelamar said that he inherited his love for the band from his father. “When our family went on road trips through Colombia, dad used to play music cassettes of The Beatles,” he said.
Talking to these fans made me curious about their favorite songs. I listened to them online and I think I have begun to understand Beatlemania. Soulful lyrics, beautiful music and melodious voices: How can I resist falling in love with such a perfect combination? And one last thing: Lennon fans, run. I vote for McCartney as my favorite Beatle.
What: Ladies and Gentlemen… the Beatles!
When: February 6 to May 10; Mondays and Thursday from 12pm-8pm; Tuesday, Wednesday, Fridays and Saturdays from 12pm-6pm; Sundays Closed
Where: New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, 40 Lincoln Center Plaza, Manhattan
Why: It’s a trip through Beatlemania