Friday, March 22, marks the 50th anniversary of the release of the Beatles’ first album, Please Please Me, on March 22, 1963. On February 7, 1964, the Beatles left England for New York, and two days later they wowed an estimated television audience of 73 million people on the Ed Sullivan show. The rest is history.
Far away from Liverpool, Beatles fanatic James Zinsmeister — by day a substitute teacher at South Brunswick High School — compiled a “periodic table” of Beatles albums (see pages 24 and 25 of this issue). He and other artists and business professionals in the U.S. 1 community reflect on what the Beatles have meant to them — and how the band that broke up 43 years ago continues to influence them today.
I was born in Jamaica, Queens in 1959, in what would eventually be the shadow of Shea Stadium, a place the Beatles would famously play in 1965.
My mother was a homemaker from Elyria, OH, one of eight children. My father was the son of a German Lutheran engineer from Kollweiler near Kaiserslautern, and a Hungarian Jewish homemaker from Budapest, both of whom emigrated to New York City in 1911.
My father had little interest in music; however, my mother sang semi-professionally and was musically inclined and she had a substantial — but not enormous — record collection comprising classical music, opera, and soundtracks from popular Broadway shows. I grew up in one bedroom with my three siblings — a bedroom that was furnished with an excellent stereo system. So, lots of great music was played and, therefore, heard within inches of my shared bed, at least for most of the first decade of my life.
When I was 7 my mother suffered a series of mental breakdowns that necessitated the temporary dissolution of my family. So the four children who had shared a bedroom suddenly found themselves living in four different states under vastly different circumstances. After some bouncing around I found myself living with my dear Uncle Dave and Aunt Nancy — the Hemmingers — in the village of Milford in Southwestern Ohio.
My uncle and aunt were a young corporate lawyer and a young special education teacher, respectively, and gave me unconditional love and discipline and a very interesting and different kind of life from the one I’d lived in Jersey. I spent some of the happiest days of my childhood — and, indeed, my life — riding around rural Ohio in a VW Bug near the confluence of the Little Miami and Ohio rivers, listening to the Beatles and the other great pop, rock, psychedelic, country, and soul bands of the mid-1960s.
My own music career started off inauspiciously. I spent two years studying the trombone, an instrument I disliked a lot, before devoting the rest of my childhood and high school years to soccer, wrestling, and baseball.
I took up drums — instruments I always wanted to play — in college, while I was attending Rutgers University in the late 1970s. The music scene in Greater New Brunswick for both rock and jazz was extraordinary then, and every day seemed more inspiring than the next. After seeing many great local, national, and international bands in either New Brunswick or Princeton or New York City I decided to get as deeply involved in the scene as I could.
Though I did eventually play in and with some small rock bands, writing and traveling and working at demanding manual labor jobs from New Jersey to Alaska and back prevented me from being a part of any stable and, therefore, truly successful group.
I still do practice drums in the hope that I’ll eventually return to playing and recording music as soon as possible, the numerous demands of my crazy life notwithstanding. I continue to write freelance pieces on art, architecture, literature, and music for the Wall Street Journal as well as pieces about my early life and losses and, especially, my former life as an adventurer and climber and longshoreman in Southeast Alaska.
My full-time, “real world” position is “professional substitute teacher,” and I can’t and won’t deny that people and activities and events at South Brunswick High School in Monmouth Junction are the real focus of my life.
As for the inspiration for The Beatles: Essential Elements: Well, I’m certainly not the first person to note that the Beatles, the greatest band in the history of popular music, had extraordinary chemistry and a synergy nonpareil. While all of the members were excellent musicians, they were certainly not virtuosi — well, at least not in the conventional sense.
One day while I was trying to explain a basic chemistry point to my older sister, I heard a Beatles’ song for the third or fourth time that day. I remarked that the band personified great chemistry, and I immediately had this idea that I’d create a chart to “organize” the components of their collective creative genius.
Not all Beatles’ albums are considered “official” — at least by the good people at Apple Corps who preside over www.thebeatles.com and “all things Beatle.” Many of the band’s albums that people of my generation knew and loved in our youth — for example Introducing…The Beatles, Meet the Beatles!, The Beatles’ Second Album, Yesterday…and Today, etc. — were actually compilations of songs previously released overseas and primarily created for American and Canadian fans of the band.
There is also confusion regarding the Beatles’ “last” album.
Shortly, the band started working on an album tentatively titled Get Back — as in “let’s forgo the heavy production and, as it were, ‘get back’ to our less-produced roots” — an album that would eventually be released as Let It Be. Due to both the acrimonious feelings among the band members and disagreement about both the members’ own production of the album and, subsequently, Glyn Johns’ salvage work on it, Get Back was left unfinished.
While lawyers and executives were scrambling, with the assistance of Phil Spector, to cobble together a justifiably releasable album, the band members decided to reconcile, rehire long-time producer George Martin, and create another album, one that would be a fitting capstone to their remarkable shared career. They did just that and, since no legal issues prevented them from doing so, promptly released it.
Later, after certain legal issues were resolved, the band members returned to the studio individually or in pairs or, as on January 4, 1970, as a trio to finish the incomplete tracks from the Get Back sessions. The record company eventually released that album as Let It Be.
The Beatles’ music, like all great art, rises to meet you wherever you are in life. I still derive a lot of satisfaction from the songs I enjoyed as both a child and as a much younger person than I am now. At a time when so much popular music is vacuous and devoid of artistic depth and derring-do, much of the Beatles’ work still seems as original and relevant as ever.
Though I’ve heard some of the songs hundreds of times, I still occasionally hear a note or a chord or a quirk or even a track in a song that I’ve never heard before. This thrills and amazes me. Of course, life sometimes takes me in a new or unusual direction and suddenly one of the songs that I was quite familiar with but which hadn’t ever really affected me much strikes me as better and more substantive than I’d remembered it.
Since I have only vague memories of the band’s early television performances, my passion for the band was based solely on its music and not on either the hype or hysteria surrounding its appearance on the scene. By 1967, although I was only 8, I was, thanks to the Beatles, a far more careful listener in all areas of my life. As a proud devotee of the band’s music, I knew several dozen of its songs by heart — a fact that stood me in good stead socially and creatively and, well, musically.
Because of its sonic and lyrical richness — or often enough its inscrutability and (brilliant) absurdity — the music compelled more than casual attention. To this day, whether I’m in my apartment or I’m driving or out and about or wherever, I find most of the band’s music not only impossible to turn off but impossible to ignore. May it always be so!