Once, they were The Beatles. They didn’t know it at the time.
One never recognizes the Moment when one is in it. No one knew Motown was Motown or Elvis, Elvis. Not until after.
Then it’s too late. Try to recapture it and the knowing itself thwarts you and infects the act with cynicism.
Remember “Rocky II”? Yeah, me neither.
So now we come to what might be called Beatles II, a sequel to the most successful career in pop music history. In days and weeks to come, we will face more Beatles than an entomologist: a six-hour TV documentary, a 10-hour video documentary, a series of CDs featuring alternate takes of Beatles classics, and two newly recorded songs that electronically reunite Ringo Starr, George Harrison and Paul McCartney with their dead mate, John Lennon.
It’s a multimedia extravaganza called The Beatles Anthology and it promises to be a lot of fun.
Except for the question that looms over it like a tax audit: Can the Beatles be The Beatles again? Can they recapture the Moment? The answer is no.
Not just because 25 years have passed and the three surviving Beatles are older, grayer, richer and fatter. Not even because John Lennon was shot to death 15 years ago.
They cannot be The Beatles because the Moment is irretrievable. The change they came to make was wrought, the girls they came to claim shrieked and fainted, the world they came to conquer surrendered.
Been there, done that.
One suspects that - in addition to the lawsuits and general acrimony of the past 25 years - this is why the band was never enthusiastic about the idea of a reunion. How to do such a thing casually, free from the weight of expectation? How to nonchalantly flirt with history or offhandedly touch the Zeitgeist? Even for men who changed the architecture of pop, these are daunting questions.
And here’s another: “Why?”
As in, why set themselves up for failure when they have absolutely nothing to prove?
That Moment, The Beatles, is self-contained and complete in itself, beyond the ability of anyone to add to or subtract from it. It is its own universe, distant even from the three grizzled 50-somethings who experienced the Moment firsthand.
As Harrison told Newsweek recently, “The Beatles exist apart from my Self. I am not really ‘Beatle George.’ ‘Beatle George’ is like a suit or shirt that I once wore on occasion and until the end of my life people may see that shirt and mistake it for me.”
Shortly after the Anthology project was announced, McCartney made a similar statement that seemed designed to lower expectations. Something about how they can never recapture what was. It struck me as a wise man’s prudence.
Still, to borrow George Harrison’s analogy, I believe it’s good to take an old shirt out of the closet sometimes. Just because. To admire its style and craftsmanship, try it on for size and remember what a great shirt it was in its time.
If it makes you happy, maybe the shirt is its own reward. People are waiting for this new shirt like no other shirt in the history of shirts.
Last year’s “Live at the BBC,” a collection of rare tracks, exploded out of record stores. How do you think this new project, with two wholly new songs, will perform? Let’s just say I wouldn’t want to be standing in front of the store when the stampede comes.
We love them, yeah yeah yeah.
None of which, of course, answers the question, why, why, why do this?
Love seems part of the answer. Posterity, too. And, oh, yeah, I bet the money’s real nice.
But above those things, there looms that Moment. When they were young, when they were The Beatles, when they had lightning in their hands and the devil in their smiles and they served notice that things would never be the same again.
Newsweek speculates maybe that has something to do with it. Maybe they have a need to be out of the shadow of what they were. Maybe, said Newsweek, they’re just “ready for the whole damn thing to be over.”
If so, it’s an understandable wish. But the fact is, over is the one thing it’ll never be. You don’t change history and get away with it. History always gets its revenge. Look at poor Elvis - 18 years dead and working harder than ever.
And the Beatles?
You know the truth, and in their hearts, they do, too. It won’t be over. Ever. We’ll always have them, they’ll always have us, even as the road - long and winding, of course - wends inexhaustibly toward moments yet undreamed. One suspects that even now, that makes them proud.
Once, they were The Beatles. They made one hell of a shirt.