I was online at precisely 10:00am this past Monday morning, when tickets to Paul McCartney’s July concert at the TU Center went on sale. I even got a seat reserved for me, but Ticketmaster hassled me about my password, so I lost out. I don’t feel too badly, though, because I saw Paul twice, along with the other Beatles, at their historic Shea Stadium concerts.
I recall the exact moment the Sixties blazed into my life, powered by an electric guitar. It was November of 1964, and I was in a studio at Columbia University, working on an oil painting about the Kennedy assassination, when a piercing guitar note blasted from my studio mate’s tinny AM radio, followed by an infectiously rhythmic riff. I put down my brush.
“What is THAT?” I asked.
“It’s the Beatles,” Susan said, shooting me an incredulous stare that suggested I’d just arrived from outer space. The song was “I Feel Fine,” the group’s sixth number one single that year, yet I’d barely heard of them, never heard their music. How could I have been so oblivious? The major culprit was probably jazz. I met the man who would become my first husband** at the Harvard radio station, where he was head of programming and I was a jazz disc jockey, and we bonded over our love of music. When he quit Harvard, I followed him to New York City. He got a job at WBAI-FM, the iconic independent radio station. We considered ourselves far too hip to own a television set, much less listen to AM radio.
When the Cuban missile crisis hit in October of 1962, I was still a child of the Fifties. I’d grown up convinced that the world would end in a nuclear Armageddon, and that I’d never live past my twenties. Throughout the thirteen days we followed the conflict between the U.S.A. and Russia via public radio and the New York Times, I was terrified we were going to die. Therefore, I reasoned, it was absolutely imperative that we get married as soon as possible. We were already practically living together, so it wasn’t as if we had to recite our vows before consummating our love, but back then marriage was a major goal of every Ivy League coed.
I was still a conventional Fifties girl on November 22nd of 1963. I remember leaving a medieval art history class, emerging into the central rotunda of Barnard Hall, and hearing the din of women and girls abuzz with the news of Kennedy’s assassination. In February of 1964, I earned my Barnard degree and Phi Beta Kappa key. That same month, the Beatles made their American debut on the Ed Sullivan show. But I was oblivious, caught up in planning a summer wedding in Milwaukee and studying five days a week at the Art Students League, getting together a portfolio of paintings to submit for admission to the MFA program at Columbia. Figurative paintings featuring my jazz idols Miles, Mingus and Coltrane, and dark canvases depicting JFK’s motorcade in Dallas.
The big summer wedding never happened. Vietnam was increasingly in the news, and my Harvard man received a letter from Selective Service, so we pulled together a quickie April wedding in Manhattan to help keep him from the draft. Now I’d fulfilled two major dreams: an Ivy League degree and a Harvard husband. What lay ahead, I had no idea, beyond vague notions of becoming a successful artist, with my husband as the primary breadwinner. Motherhood wasn’t an option – we believed it would be wrong to bring children into a world that was bound to self-destruct before we were thirty.
Amazingly, I’m still here fifty years later, a mother and grandmother, in a sunny studio in upstate New York, typing away with the aid of technology no one could have envisioned all those decades ago. But getting back to Columbia: why did those twangy notes from John Lennon’s guitar*** mark the start of the Sixties for me? True, I’d already lived through a couple of major milestones of that decade, but before the Beatles, I was living out life scripts that had been written for me long before.
In a way, the Beatles destroyed my marriage, and not just because I came close to getting into their bedroom suite at the Warwick Hotel when they played Shea Stadium in 1965. No, it was the hedonistic intensity of their music and the way it inspired me to paint them, in ever larger and more idolatrous likenesses, that brought home the realization that in some ways I’d bypassed my adolescence. I’d been a good girl, focused on straight A’s and Ivy League schools, propelled into a premature marriage by outdated standards. I’d never had the chance to bust loose and explore my wild side.
By 1966, that marriage was over and I began making up for lost time. Thanks to the Beatles, I lived the Sixties to the fullest.
*At least I’ve got a ticket to see Ringo Starr at the Palace in June!
**Frank Haber (Franklin Richard Haber) died in 2012, a fact I learned only after the Harvard-Radcliffe 50th reunion book came out, and the editors had added “deceased 2012” after his name in my entry. He was known as FRH at the Harvard station and WBAI. He was a great guy, and I’d love to hear from anyone who knew him.
**Until I did some fact-checking for this post, I had always assumed George Harrison played the guitar riff at the beginning of “I Feel Fine,” but it was really John. Below is part of the Wickipedia entry. It was probably the feedback that grabbed me. “I Feel Fine” starts with a single, percussive (yet pure-sounding) feedback note produced by plucking the A string on Lennon’s guitar. This was the very first use of feedback preceding a song on a rock record. According to McCartney, “John had a semi-acoustic Gibson guitar. It had a pickup on it so it could be amplified . . . We were just about to walk away to listen to a take when John leaned his guitar against the amp. I can still see him doing it . . . it went, ‘Nnnnnnwahhhhh!” And we went, ‘What’s that? Voodoo!’ ‘No, it’s feedback.’ Wow, it’s a great sound!’ George Martin was there so we said, ‘Can we have that on the record?’ ‘Well, I suppose we could, we could edit it on the front.’ It was a found object, an accident caused by leaning the guitar against the amp.” Although it sounded very much like an electric guitar, Lennon actually played the riff on an acoustic-electric guitar (a Gibson model J-160E), employing the guitar’s onboard pickup.