Business Casual: Shaggy Hair, Big Changes

It wasn’t the most significant event of 1964 – there’s a lot of competition for that title – but the arrival of The Beatles in the U.S. and their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show rank pretty high on my personal highlight list because the impact was solid, pervasive and immediate.

If you had a pulse and access to a TV, you saw it happen – “it” being the change in music, in culture, in fashion, in thinking, in generational identity. And you knew right away that things were going to be different.

It didn’t really matter whether you gathered around the 17-inch black-and-white “television set” in your parents’ living room or the one in the TV/sun porch of your college campus lodging, as I did. This was big, and it was different. It might have looked like four skinny guys with funny suits and shaggy hair – quite a contrast to the brush cuts favored by my male UGA classmates at the time – but it was unmistakably a milestone.

Truly, it was one thing to drive around in your mom’s Nash Rambler, punching buttons on the AM radio to find All My Loving. It was quite another to watch a live performance.

The whole thing hinted of exciting and interesting things to come – things, perhaps, that parents might not entirely approve of. And it was fun, a bright spot in a year better known for more serious and solemn happenings.

2014 marks the 50th anniversary of a lot of signature events: the Civil Rights Act that passed by an overwhelming majority in Congress; the surgeon general’s report that officially linked smoking to health problems; President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty that ushered in sweeping new social programs; the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that escalated the war in Vietnam; the verdict in South Africa that sent Nelson Mandela to prison; the establishment of the Palestinian Liberation Organization with the “elimination of Zionism in Palestine” as its stated goal; the Vatican’s condemnation of birth control pills; and the murders of three Civil Rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss.

Any or all of those are more consequential than the arrival of four musicians with funny accents.

But I would argue that most of the really serious events and happenings of 1964 did not always have such an immediate impact. They required some personal and historical distance to understand and appreciate. Even the Civil Rights milestones were part of a long struggle, and it wasn’t always easy to know which ones would have a lasting effect.

For those of us of a certain age, the experience of bearing even televised witness to something momentous, rather than reading about it in history class, made it more real – personal, even.

That “I was there” sense provides a connection that more distant events lack. I know, for example, that 2014 also marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, which took place in a city I love and have lived in – but it lacks immediacy and fails to stir deep feelings.

More recent – and more significant – events of my lifetime were simply too overwhelming and too horrific to process at the time: The assassinations of President Kennedy, Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy come to mind. So does 9/11. Shock, grief, horror and disbelief crowded out any real historical perspective.

People in my generation can tell you exactly where they were in 1963 when they heard that JFK had been shot. (I was walking out of a biology class on UGA’s South Campus, having a hard time wrapping my head around the news. It had simply never occurred to me that such a thing could happen.)

Similarly, people my daughter’s age can tell you where they were when they got the news of planes crashing into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September 2001. (She was also on a college campus, in Washington, D.C., having the same difficulty processing what had happened; but her reaction was overlaid with worry about friends she could not initially locate.)

So I hope I can be forgiven for focusing, however briefly, on something upbeat and wonderful that I witnessed on a chilly Sunday night in 1964 when the music changed – along with a whole lot of other things.

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