Two Beatles reunite, and a fan remembers

My grad-school roommates and I sit cross-legged around a wobbly turntable, our granny glasses slipping down our noses as we furiously scribble "Sergeant Pepper" lyrics and analyze them long into the night instead of preparing for class.

It's 1967, and the Beatles have reached their musical peak.

Within a couple of years, they'll disband and head, or so it seems at the time, toward history's closet to hang with the Nehru jackets that will become too snug to fit and the peace medallions that have begun to tarnish.

Friday, on the first-year anniversary of George Harrison's death, that closet will open as Olivia Harrison (his widow) and Eric Clapton present a musical tribute to George in London's Royal Albert Hall. The lineup includes Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Tom Petty, Ravi Shankar, members of Monty Python's Flying Circus, and Clapton himself.

For those fortunate enough to get tickets (the concert sold out in an hour and a half), this tribute will be the closest thing to an actual Beatles reunion.

It will also be a bittersweet reminder of what the band once represented. A little rock 'n' roll history helps recall what that was.

In the late '50s, rock was in its giddiest, most danceable phase, a time of twangy guitars and drumbeats that sounded like someone hitting a wet cardboard box with an ax handle.

Then things started to go bad - fast. In 1957, Little Richard became religious and vowed never to play rock 'n' roll again. Elvis was drafted in 1958, and Jerry Lee Lewis was hounded off the air after he married his 13-year-old third cousin.

The year 1959 was the worst: the payola scandal broke wide open; Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper all died when their plane went down in a snowy field outside Clear Lake, Iowa.

But the saddest day was Nov. 22, 1963. John F. Kennedy was no musician, but he appeared to be everything the kids wanted to be - happy, cool, suave - and if he were mortal, that meant we were, too.

The term ended on a bad note that year, and when school started again, I wasn't the only one who was just going through the motions.

But as I walked through a college dorm in January 1964 I heard a song coming from someone's room, the chords hitting me in the chest like hammer blows.

"What is that?" I asked. The guy with the radio said, " 'I Want to Hold Your Hand.' It's by the Beatles." And then he added, though he didn't need to, "They're gonna be big."

One quality of genius is that you can't see it coming; nobody predicted Shakespeare or Mark Twain, either. Also, genius can't be copied; just as the two writers had their imitators, other bands based themselves on the boys from Liverpool (remember the Knack?). But the "next Beatles" never appeared. Acts can be cloned - Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync - but not genius.

As a group, the Beatles covered the entire artistic gamut. There was John the mordant wit, Paul the ebullient showman, Ringo the madcap, and George the moral force. No single group since has reproduced this complex chemistry.

Punk didn't, and neither did grunge. Rap comes the closest, but rap has managed to thrive by keeping the formula basic: Its bite is neatly balanced by glitzy showmanship. But while there are zany rap acts and even ethical ones, no single group offers the whole package.

In talking to younger people to find out what, if anything, the Beatles mean to them, I uncovered every possible response, from those who didn't quite know who they were (one 20-year-old mentioned "Paul McCarthy") to others who owned every album the group recorded.

One latter-day fan said the Beatles "created most of the sounds I listen to now"; another said "the greatest band of all time - basically invented what we know of pop music today."

My most startling discovery was that young people know a lot more about the Beatles than about the Rolling Stones, even though the former disbanded in 1969, and the Stones are currently embarked on yet another world tour.

One way or another, the Beatles' music lives on. It's their greatest legacy, but it isn't their only one. Because even though they're gone, the Beatles also represent what's to come.

It might be 100 years from now. It might be tomorrow. But sooner or later, like a fast-moving weather system or a lone rider against the sky, the music that changes the world will arrive as though out of nowhere.

Friday in the Royal Albert Hall, fans will be reminded not only of what was but also of what's coming.

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