Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Shine on 'til tomorrow

The number one song the week I was born was the Beatles' "She Loves You." Over the course of 1964, the Beatles held the number one spot for a total of 18 weeks, a little more than one-third of the year. Wikipedia points out that on April 4, 1964, the Beatles had the top five songs in the U.S.

The band's music was first aired in the U.S. at the end of 1963 when many stores didn't stock their music--when purchasing a record meant a trip to a store that sold them. A record, not a CD. The black vinyl that, in the years to come, you could try to spin backwards to hear the secret messages in "I am the Walrus."

The more I think about it, 1964 seems distant rather than yesterday. Even during my high school teaching stint in the late 1990s, my students didn't understand the phrase, "like a broken record."

I find it tempting to say 1964 was the year that "everything" changed, but I suppose one could make an equal case for 1963 or 1966 or 1968 or even any year outside the 1960s. On the Billboard charts, the Beatles share that year with the Supremes and the Animals, but also with Bobby Vinton and Dean Martin. Bobby and Dean were the music my parents listened to--they also owned many Herb Albert & the Tijuana Brass albums, including the one with the woman dressed only in whipped cream. My Uncle Glen--more than a decade younger than my father, listened to the Beatles. The age difference between Glen and myself isn't much more than a decade either. Even today, Glen gets a rhapsodic look in his eye if you mention the Beatles.

A video of "She Loves You," shows the Beatles playing a large venue somewhere in England in 1963: the stage comically bare--mics and a curtain divided into various beige and green tones. Ringo and his drums sit atop a stack of what appear to be amplifier cases, but maybe it's an elevated platform.

Frankly, on that bare stage in 1963, singing "yeah yeah yeah" (if you can sing that, you can sing the chorus to any early Beatles song)--on that bare stage, they look a little dopey. But young and dopey. And still kind of cool in a very minimalist kind of way. No fireworks, no big lights, no back-up singers and no significant dance moves of any kind. Girls scream and cry. The song still lights up some primitive center of my brain, its emotional core, reminding me what "young" feels like, even though Paul turns 70 this year. Even though I'm 7 years older than John when he died.

What catches my eye in the video are the looks on their faces, as if all this being on stage and girls screaming has been sudden in a way they can't yet fathom--when it's all fun, before the tedious parts of fame. Mostly, they're four happy guys on a stage projecting a confidence they could definitely get laid tonight.

Girls are screaming because "seeing" the Beatles live differs from "seeing" a live performance today. The internet would not have been explicable to persons living in 1964--even color televisions were rare (color broadcasting was not yet universal), and television itself close, but not yet ubiquitous. And the reception--remember rotating the rabbit ears while the black and white picture fuzzed crackled and blurred? Wait, wait, don't move your hand--I can see them!

My own family didn't possess a color television until maybe 1970, and my kids are entertained when I tell them about watching the test pattern on Saturday mornings, waiting for the broadcast day and cartoons to start.

1964: the year of the Civil Rights Act and the Higher Education Act. The beginning of troop escalation in Vietnam. For good or for ill, 1964 marks some bright line in U.S. history, one of those years people felt on the brink of something, something big.

Of course, I don't actually remember any of this. I'm an infant, right? While the Beatles had broken up by 1970, many of my friends and I were still fans of their music during high school in the late 70s and early 80s. I owned the White Album, and their red and blue greatest hits albums. Admittedly, some of us postured as bohemian throw-backs, "Let It Be," vying as an object of our teen melancholic angst with James Taylor and Simon & Garfunkle. Pink Floyd, the Police, and Dire Straits may have been IT for some of my classmates, but not for us.

Which is the singular point of Woody Allen's recent "Midnight in Paris": we're all nostalgic for a time not our own. And we remember things like the Beatles and not monks setting themselves on fire in the streets of Saigon.

The number one song in 1997, when Robert was born, was Hanson's "MMMBop," a song I don't even remember. One of the Hanson brothers was 12 when the song hit the charts, which puts a different spin on "young."

Roger and I didn't feel on the brink of something in 1997. Video and photos of us show tired new parents, Roger with outrageously big glasses, looking even then as though he'd just stepped out of 1968.

I've been writing about the early days of Robert's sudden onset illness (1998), remembering details such as our landline phone on an outrageously long cord, typically a tangled mess, but one that allowed us, theoretically, to drag it almost anywhere in our 1100 square foot bungalow. I think I had an email account with AOL, but hardly anyone to email with. Computerized medical billing was relatively new and every department had its own stovepipe system, complications of which would be driving me mad by 1999. Electronic medical records were a gleam in someone's eye, and the xeroxes of Robert's medical chart from that time show two black circles where the paper was punched to fit over the twin metal prongs of the physical card stock chart.

And, as I've noted before, mitochondrial disease was thought to be a collection of illnesses related to a handful of genes--and Robert tested negative for all of them, even though his presentation fit those illnesses to a T. Now there are 27 known defects for Leigh's syndrome alone and Robert still tests negative for all of those, even though, 13 years later, a description of his ataxic breakdown matched countless other descriptions of Leigh's onset, as a top mito specialist told us in 2010.

My memories of June and July 1997 largely consist of sitting on a futon couch in the back bedroom of our house, its windows facing north and east. The light in the room where Robert first slept was very white and clear and clean and the room was painted white with a blue ceiling border with black and white cows and a green and white rug on the floor.

Roger and I entertained ourselves for most of a morning by lightly moving a sleeping Robert's lower lip to mimic movie lines--"it was Barzini all along" was our favorite, the 'L's drawn out long for comic effect, Robert conked out from nursing and the two of us knocked silly from sleep deprivation.

And she loves you, and you know you should be glad--

I don't remember what music I listened to during those years. It wasn't the Beatles. Suffice to say, my 1997 was like 1964. We were on the edge of something.

Maybe it's been said before, but the Beatles loom larger in a collective musical imagination than do the Rolling Stones because the Stones came to us fallen--from 1964 to 1970, many Americans lived the trip from "I Saw Her Standing There" to "Revolution 9" along with "the lads from Liverpool." From the early, tight, repetitive lyrics with their chromatic chord progressions to the diffuse, coarser sound with the strange lyrics and the harsh tangle of guitars.

From days when everything seemed to be moving forward ("I have one word for you. Plastics.") to the one image I remember from the evening news, people clinging to landing gear of the last helicopters leaving the embassy roof in Saigon. For part of that time, my family lived in Germany, where my father was stationed, and my parents remember living in increasingly empty military family housing while the U.S. papers arrived, days late, with headlines denying any troop draw-downs from U.S. bases to Vietnam--while new families arrived from the States only to be told their belongings were already on the next transport back and dad was on his way to the war zone.

Get back to where you once belonged--

Living in chaos has become familiar. We had no idea what was coming toward us, no more than watching a movie about a disabled kid on TV is anything like seeing him live.

Of course, it goes far beyond Robert and whatever his physical limitations have imposed on him and on us. The last few years as Congress and the political system have imploded into a snarling, incoherent mess, the economy has tanked, and healthcare is hardly accessible or stable--these last few years I've found it difficult to keep my footing. Not only did I never envision life with a disabled kid, I never imagined having to protect him through all of this social and economic chaos. You could say I'm waiting for deployment, but to where, I don't know. In time, my paperwork will come, handed to me, undoubtedly, by some stern figure wearing a uniform of some kind.

The front this week will be neurology: two appointments, one at Children's and one at Hopkins, both of them focused on diagnosis, or, rather, lack thereof. There will be an answer--right? As John's voice says on the album, now we're going to play Hark the Angels. Indeed, we will.

When I look over our medical bills, the EOBs, the various paper detritus of receipts and forms and discharge summaries of the last 13 years, which take up several large boxes in the attic and run close to four or five thousand pages (ok, that's just a wild guess, but probably not too far off), I do wonder--I do--if someone's out there saying why can't she just let it be?

A bad pun, I know, but an honest one. Most of this week I've been re-visiting the Beatles' music, not so much from nostalgia as from a broadening sense that the music is all about transition, a transition I know well, from playful exuberance to weary confusion and complication.

Will I ever be nostalgic for this time, right now, when I'm 64? Yes. Absolutely. I'll remember the times when my gaze connected with Robert's, and the way his earnest smile transformed his face. The Christmas break we spent watching movies all night, Robert's legs across my lap, head pressed against my shoulder and my arm around Edith on my other side. Trying to wrap the outdoor lights around a tree that had grown too tall for us to reach its upper branches.

And yes, I'll also remember our versions of the crowds in the streets, the panic at the gates, the tanks, all of that.

The last album the Beatles released, Let It Be, was actually the second-to-last recorded. Abbey Road was the last album they recorded. Abbey Road officially concludes with a song called, "The End." One of my cousins, or so I remember, took her favorite quotation from that song:

And in the end--
The love you take--
Is equal to the love you make.


Elizabeth said...

Yet another perfect essay.

I feel compelled to write my own but would have to launch from Little Stevie Wonder's "Sticky Fingers, Part 2" -- and I suppose I could talk about blindness and joy, about me, at two months, being fed a bottle while Kennedy was shot and Sophie, being nursed, when she received a shot and then her mouth turned to an O and everything began.

Jeneva, you are an inspiration, always. I wish you clarity on your upcoming visits to the esteemed physicians. May Robert live long and well and look back on that 1998 day with you.

Nat said...

I think that, in my case, my love for music was born in part thanks to technology. As a 5 year old, I wanted to learn how to operate my dad's Grundig integrated, vacuum tube AM/FM/SW1/SW2 radio and turntable because it was so big and interestingly cool. Which mean learning how to put the records on it and place the needle on the platter. Which meant that I ended up listening to the records he had around. The sound Louis Armstrong growling, "Well, hello, Dolly, hello, Dolly. It's so nice to see you back where you belong ..." is buried somewhere deep in my brainstem. Also, I've known since that very early age that I'm straight, because I fell madly in love/lust with whipped cream girl. My feelings for her haven't changed in over 40 years. Zoiks. :)