JULY 12, 2001

Get Well, George


Nineteen-sixty-four was the year the 60's really began. The earliest years of the decade were for the most part an extension of the conventional, cold-war, black-and-white 50's. Dwight Eisenhower was president through 1960, which was the year the U-2 reconnaissance pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over Soviet territory. When John F. Kennedy was inaugurated in 1961, the men participating in the ceremony wore morning coats and top hats.

For a decade known for its excitement, the 60's got off to a decidedly slow start. Doo-wop music was still around in the early 60's. And dreamy songs of widely varying quality — "Moon River," "Where the Boys Are" — were among the biggest hits. It was a quiet time. The average annual salary was $4,700, and a favorite pastime was bowling.

There was no reason to think radical changes were brewing when 1964 debuted. The nation was still in shock and still in mourning over the murder of Jack Kennedy the previous November. The tranquilizer Valium was catching on. Mary McCarthy had a best seller with "The Group." Herbert Hoover, Douglas MacArthur and Cole Porter were still alive. "Bonanza" and "Candid Camera" were big hits on television.

And then in February, suddenly and without warning, the Beatles were upon us.

The word this week from overseas is that George Harrison, the so-called quiet Beatle, has suffered another setback in his fight against cancer. Mr. Harrison is 58. He is said to be frail and fatigued from the disease and the treatment. He is also, apparently, indomitable. "I am feeling fine," he said in a prepared statement. And he apologized for any grief he may have caused his fans. "I am really sorry," he said, "for the unnecessary worry."

If you spend just a little time reflecting on the Beatles you come away astonished by the changes they wrought (or came to symbolize) in what seemed like a split second of real time. They blew in like a sudden storm and permanently altered the cultural landscape. One night they were singing to an audience of shrieking teeny-boppers on that quintessential 1950's television program "The Ed Sullivan Show," and in the next instant, it seemed, the Sullivan era had been left behind and the 60's had blossomed in brilliant, even blinding color.

It wasn't just the music. The Beatles were a perfectly placed, perfectly timed phenomenon. Their charm and spontaneity, insouciance and offbeat humor, and above all their easy acceptance of life's myriad pleasures, sliced right through the already fraying bonds of the uptight 50's and early 60's. For better or worse, they helped get us to where we are now. They spread the word to a massive generation of largely inhibited young people that it was all right to have fun.

There was no need to take anything too seriously. When a reporter asked John Lennon what he would do when Beatlemania subsided, he replied, "Count the money." Ringo, commenting on a trip to Florida, said, "Now, this was just the most brilliant place I'd ever been to. People were lending us yachts, anything we wanted."

Within a year or two the 60's that most people remember — some with fondness, some with loathing — were well under way, and the most dominant cultural framing was provided by the Beatles. People dressed differently, wore their hair differently, danced differently, and approached that treacherous triumvirate of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll with an openness that surely had been accelerated by John, Paul, George and Ringo.

The fun, as people soon learned, was laced with madness and a fair amount of tragedy. (Among other things, drugs took their toll on the decade and played a significant role in the Beatles' lives.) You get a sense of the breakneck pace of events when you consider that George was only 27 when the Beatles officially broke up in 1970.

More than three decades later it seems a miracle that so much should have happened in so short a time. The music remains remarkable, often beautiful, including George's "Something," "Here Comes the Sun," and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

As for George's fans — well, they are worried. But no one's looking for an apology. They just wish him well.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company