I will here embark on a largely emotional and broad-brushed painting of a generation – my generation. I will use the Beatles, perhaps the largest cultural influence of the Baby Boomer class, as a metaphor. I know the argument can be made that the early rock’n'rollers were the first real explosion of the post-war American culture fueled by U.S. worldwide supremacy. Remember, though, that when the rock’n'roll hurricane blew on to the scene (translation, when white America co-opted black music to sell to the restless white middle-class kids) in the aftermath of World War II, many of whom have now been termed the Boomers were small children with neither the hormones nor cash to pursue the latest cultural trend. If you doubt this, look at the difference in mindset between the Elvis crowd and the Beatles disciples. With that in mind, let’s look at what the Beatles brought to the mainstream.
When the British Invasion hit the New World shores in roughly 1963, those born in the early 1950s were ripe for the resultant commercial exploitation. We were entering or in the midst of puberty, our sexual awareness blossoming as the Fab Four urged us to hold somebody’s hand. The mop-tops were cute, catchy, hip, and innocent enough on the surface to be allowed into Middle America’s living rooms via The Ed Sullivan Show, the standard bearer of our parents’ post-vaudeville entertainment format. Each of the singing group was marketed as a personality; the cute one, the dumb one, the rebel, the quiet one, with the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Perfect. Something for everyone. There were lunchboxes, posters, decals, wigs, and hundreds of other products to accompany the 45s and LPs which were the mainstays of the sales pitch. The resultant commercial bonanza brought smiles to the faces of both the kids and also the cigar chompers who ran the show and counted the coin.
As time passed, the individual Beatles grew up and began to pursue their passions without consideration as to how it affected the overall marketing plan. Their egos bolstered by their own success, they began to thumb their collective noses at the machine that had carried them to the fore. There was no more touring, they dabbled in experimental recording techniques, and they assumed their own studio production, minus George Martin, the genius guru who had guided their recording career. John Lennon, perhaps prodded by his miserably lonely childhood, pushed into angry politics and assumed the mantle of the Beatles’ social conscience. He railed against the pompous excesses of the First and Second Worlds’ shameless exploitation of the Third World’s resources and impotence, pointing an accusing finger at the sustained and costly effort to maintain the consumer mania which made nouveau rich out of shrewd marketeers (ironic, I suppose, as it was the workings of this machine which afforded him his podium). Eventually martyred, first by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, and later by a lovelorn nut case with a handgun, he was lost at a time when he was most needed. George Harrison, perhaps the most spiritually enlightened of the group, grew into his introverted role as the seeker, quietly pursuing more personal answers to the madness which characterized the growth of the Western military/economic beast. Ringo, the true mystery man of the group, lived in his octopus’ garden with a genuine smile that beckoned us to just have a good time and quaff an ale with him (too bad he couldn’t have run against George W in 2000, he’s more fun, more accessible, and undoubtedly smarter). And then there was Paul. I save him for last because his persona embodies the failure of our enlightened generation to seize the opportunity to perhaps save the world.
Paul, the Cute One, was the “musical” Beatle. An indisputably glib fountain of melody and cleverness, he wrote the songs that were added to the pop music lexicon. Yesterday, I Will, My Love and countless others have graced both weddings and elevators ever since. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed Paul’s music for years and have great respect for his talent and output. But at a time when the Beatles had begun to open the eyes of the generation which had embraced them as tour guides of the new consciousness, Paul’s life echoed the Boomers’ complacency which later allowed us to drop our indignation in favor of the pursuit of portfolios and summer homes.
When the Vietnam War and the draft ended, the outraged youth of America began to hit the streets not in righteous indignation but in search of a parking place for their newly acquired BMWs. As the Boomers left their anger and political commitment behind, Paul retreated to Scotland to live a rustic life with his love and family, his right, to be sure. As the once enlightened and determined hordes of now forty-and-fifty-somethings feathered their nests and traded up into 5000-square-foot manors, Paul married a model (got his clock cleaned as a result), surgically tightened his jowls, and dyed his hair the jet black of his Hamburg youth. In other words, When I’m Sixty-Four going on twenty-nine. If you didn’t see his performance at the recent Grammys, where he pulled out I Saw her Standing There (“She was just seventeen….”, Paul, puh-lease!), then you missed the enduring snapshot of the narcissistic fantasy to which our disappointing generation remains deeply devoted. The performance was something, yeah, yeah, yeah, he can still hit the high “wooohs”, and the chance to reminisce was tempting, but I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of embarrassment as the moment captured the self-obsession of a failed generation.
Never has a group, namely the Baby Boomers, been given such a canvas on which to paint: post-war supremacy, leisure time, disposable cash, educational opportunity, access to literature and information, the chance for spiritual awareness. What have we done with this? We have produced a painting worthy of a shopping mall art sale, replete with the kids with the big eyes. We had momentum and challenge, we had a chance to avoid the world we now face, and instead we have welcomed and tolerated the Bushes, the Bible Thumpers, anti-intellectualism, and war without end. But we do own some cool stuff. Thanks, Paul and all of the rest of us. We suck and we’re sleeping in the bed we’ve made of our own self-satisfied sloth. F#%k the Baby Boomers. Long live rock’n'roll.
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