The Fab Four Live!
NEW YORK— The first sign was hair.
Not the Broadway musical, with its trademark nudity on stage, psychedelic light show, and celebration of the Age of Aquarius, but one’s own hair. You might say our rebellion had its roots, forgive the pun, in the simple act of allowing one’s locks to grow to lengths frowned upon at school and polite society. Nothing of course compared to our more radical confreres at the University of the Philippines, for whom demonstrations were part and parcel of student life. In contrast, in the staid precincts of Ateneo’s Loyola Heights campus, we had a Prefect of Discipline patrolling the halls on the lookout for infractions of the dress code: neckties and regulation haircuts. The fact that he was a balding ex-Marine added a frisson of irony to his search-and-destroy missions.
The administration was afraid that even a slight loosening of the code would lead to us students letting our hair down, literally and figuratively, so best not to have too much of it. As editor of Heights, the literary magazine, I remember wanting to publish an editorial railing against this curtailment of our right, but the moderator (a professor who had oversight) nixed it, saying the university was acting in loco parentis. To us, it was simply loco.
The agents provocateur were the English lads, the Fab Four: John, George, Paul and Ringo. My introduction to the Beatles was when my oldest brother, Henry, who had been living in New York, returned for a visit—this was probably in late 1963 or early ‘64—and brought with him 45 rpm records of “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” The beat and lyrics were simple enough—in time, their songs would evolve in complexity and depth—but I loved their sound. Add their fresh-faced appearance—those full heads of hair!—and cheekiness, and the four metamorphosed into a cultural force that opened the door to wider horizons, including a heightened awareness of what was going on in the world.
By no means were the 1960s the age of innocence, though there was a certain innocence to the age. At least, the age that I as a rather lackadaisical teenager was accustomed to, circumscribed by college, books, campus goings-on, and the collective hormonal gaze of males at an exclusive all-male university, directed at nubile colegialas. The complications and complexities, the chaos and mess of politics and the social inequalities that were abundantly in evidence all around, impinged from time to time on this type of life but did nothing to alter it. Just across the West Philippine Sea the Vietnamese were under assault from the United States, a country they had no quarrel with.
It was an age brought back to mind on the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles’ initial visit to the US in 1964, and their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. I asked some good friends, Ateneo co-graduates, about their own recollections, particularly the Fab Four’s visit to Manila in 1966. Bobby Cuizon writes that the cousin he attended the concert with became “a shrieking wreck within seconds after the Fab Four finally got on stage … Amidst the pandemonium, the audience drank in the electric atmosphere, ecstatic just to be there.” Another friend, Rob Esquivel, had by then emigrated to North America but he remembers hanging out with RJ and the Riots, and listening to a Beatles’ 45 rpm disc and remarking that it was “interesting, with a nice beat.” He didn’t think they were “any better than Cliff Richard and the Shadows.” He came to appreciate the band much more later on, with George Harrison his favorite mop top. San Francisco-based Bertie de la Cruz singled out Paul McCartney as the most appealing, as the band’s altar boy who didn’t conform to the image of the reckless rock star, given to childish tantrums.
I gravitated towards John, though I did like George’s vibe, to use the lingo of the time. John brought a hard edge to the lyricism of Paul; he was a smart aleck, the sort who wasn’t afraid to question the establishment—which he did, particularly once he and Yoko Ono teamed up not simply as an amorous pair, but as conceptual artists and political activists, with their quirky yet inspired 1969 Bed-Ins in Amsterdam and Montreal, protesting against the Vietnam War. His Imagine remains a hauntingly beautiful plea for the “world to be as one.”
As for that Manila visit, it turned out disastrously for the quartet, not in the sense of how their fans greeted them—wildly, deliriously, raucously, as to be expected—but in the manner of their departure. Airport escalators were turned off, and the group had to carry their own bags, with kicks and punches thrown at them. The reason? Their perceived snub of Imelda Marcos, then still a statuesque beauty (her inner Lady Macbeth not yet in evidence) who had invited the group and its manager Brian Epstein to lunch at Malacañang. From various accounts, Epstein declined the invitation in a high-handed manner, unbeknownst to the quartet.
Pete Lacaba, already writing for The Free Press, was at the concert, with Pilita Corrales as the opening act. Pete remembers “enjoying Pilita’s front act more and you know how Pilita gyrates, so you can imagine how much of her front was in that act.” In contrast, the poet Marra Lanot, also in attendance and who was to marry Pete later on, felt Pilita “was out of place because her songs didn’t match the tone and kind of music eagerly awaited. The Beatles appeared in grey striped suits, and I listened to every word and note. John Lennon goes, ‘Can you hear me back there?’ Nobody could, of course, but I enjoyed all the songs, mostly from Rubber Soul’—her father had given her the record as a gift—“which I had memorized and studied the vocal and instrumental harmony.” Marra has kept her ticket stub, for which she has been offered quite a lot of money. She refuses to part with it.
In a column Pete wrote in 1996 on the Beatles, he had this eloquent commentary: “When we got caught in the rat race, we felt like the real nowhere man, singing all our nowhere songs for nobody. We were Eleanor Rigby, wearing faces that we kept in a jar by the door. A day in our lives was a hard day’s night because we had to work eight days a week. But life was also a magical mystery tour, and when we found ourselves in times of trouble the Beatles were there, speaking words of wisdom: ‘Let it be.’”
The Beatles as the Beatles no longer exist, having disbanded in 1970. John and George are gone—one slain by an assassin’s bullet, the other felled by cancer. But their words and music live on, are part of our generation’s DNA and a major reason why many of us continue to believe in yesterday.
Copyright L.H. Francia 2014
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