By Tamim Ansary
Something interesting happened in a memoir writing workshop of mine, which I run through the Osher Institute of Lifelong Learning at U.C. Berkeley. You have to be at least fifty years old to join this program, but you can be any amount older. One guy, for example, was ninety-something and writing about his experiences during World War II. Fifty to ninety, that’s a forty year span.
Anyway. A while back I started doing a where-were-you-when activity at this workshop. The idea goes as follows: memory works by association, so one way to remember a time in your life, especially a long-ago time, is to zero in on some striking public event, recall where you were when this thing happened, and then let the magic of free-association take you were it will. Everything is forgotten until you think about it again, right? So you never know where your train of thought will take you, once you get it rolling.
I launch this activity by passing around a list of events I’ve compiled, from the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the election of Donald Trump. Students can use any of these as a point of departure, or pick any other that occurs to them. Either way, we’re talking about 40-plus historical events over the course of 70 years; and yet, the first time I did the activity, out of 18 people in the workshop, four zeroed in on the same event. The next time I did it, four people went right to that same event. And this last time—three.
I’ll pause a moment to let you contemplate what the event might have been.
Okay, here’s the answer. It was “The Beatles appear on Ed Sullivan.”
Really? For some twenty percent of people born in the several decades after World War II, out of forty events spanning seventy years, the one that most vividly triggers memories of a time in their life is the Beatles first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show? I think that’s remarkable. And kind of weird.
I was 16 when it happened and still living in Afghanistan, so I didn’t see the event live, but I knew about it, I heard about it, and I soon heard the iconic song, I Want to Hold Your Hand. You might suppose that all the people who fastened on that event were “teenyboppers” at the time, in the 13 to 16 age range. But no. One person who picked it was eight when it happened. Eight! She had gone into the hospital for a tonsillectomy, and she was in the recovery room with a bunch of other children, when the hospital announced that, as a special favor, the kids would be wheeled into a room with a TV set to catch the Ed Sullivan show. Fifty-plus years later, this woman still remembered the thrill that swamped her and the whole roomful of kids when the Beatles sang “I want to hold your hand.” She was eight, and another person who picked that same event as a memory-trigger was 28. On that February night, in 1964, despite an age-difference of 20 years, these two were sharing the same historical moment.
A few weeks ago, I saw the film Eight Days a Week, a documentary about the Beatles, and it made the impact of their first appearance on Ed Sullivan even more intriguing to me. What pops from the movie first of all is that the Beatles were just boys when all this excitement erupted around them. Just boys. And another thing that pops—listen: they were perfectly good musicians, a perfectly good band, but anyone watching the documentary can see that they were not a thousand times better and more exciting than the Dave Clark Five or the Kingston Trio or the guy who sang Tell Laura I Love Her or any of a hundred other bands. I mean they were certainly better than Buck Naked and the Bare-Bottomed Boys, but a thousand times better? I think not.
Of course, they did in the end turn out to be exceptional artists but their first few albums gave no evidence of this. Their unusual artistic prowess didn’t start coming into view until Rubber Soul and Revolver. By the time Sergeant Pepper was released, yes, anyone could tell these young men were major, but in 1963?
No. Towering artistic prowess did not figure into the effect they had that night in 1963. In fact, all the early applause might have helped drive them to the greatness they eventually achieved: maybe they were driven by a need to deserve the accolades they were already getting. All of which begs the question: why did they burst upon the scene like such fireworks in the first place?
Here’s what I’m thinking. The Beatles were merely a match. Somehow, the package they comprised—the whole package—their music, their moptop haircuts, their matching suits, their innocent joie de vivre, their four-distinct-personalities-adding-up-to-one—serendipitously embodied something in the zeitgeist. The Beatles were a match nested in an enormous pile of dry leaves soaked in gasoline. When they started singing, what millions felt was not just their fire but the heat of the whole flammable mass.
I can see that in the years following Beatles-on-Ed-Sullivan, what happened all had a singleness. The Beatles were not one among many disparate phenomena. Things were popping out everywhere but somehow, they felt like diverse manifestations of the same nameless something.
The country was going to put a man on the moon. The students at Berkeley were going to swear if they wanted to. People were not going to be turned away from a restaurant if they’d done nothing to deserve being ousted. Young white people were going to put their bodies at risk standing with disenfranchised black people demanding something so fundamentally American as the right to vote. The United States was sending more and more troops to fight a purposeless war in Vietnam, but a swelling tsunami of people weren’t going to take this lying down. A global split between nuclear powers threatened to end human life on Earth, but by God we were going to danced and keep on dancing.
And the list goes on. Anyone who wanted to was picking up musical instruments and forming a band. People were taking drugs that made them see—as Howard Carter told Lord Carnarvon upon first peeping through a hole into King Tut’s tomb—“wonderful things”. All across the world, small countries long colonized by The Empire were rising up and shaking off the weight of big countries with lots of guns. Suddenly, freaks were glamorous. Suddenly the-same–old-thing had to justify itself or leave the room because only change had unquestioned prestige.
Everywhere, a new world was glimmering and there was movement toward it from every quarter. All the movement started at once and it wasn’t differentiated into many separate rivulets. People actively resisting the war, people experimenting with psychedelics, people in tie-dyed clothing giving away free food to the homeless poor, people homesteading in some wilderness, people writing and starring in their own structure-less real-life-as-it-is movies—these weren’t different enterprises, they were all the same enterprise. For at least six or seven or maybe eight years, it was all one movement. That’s why no one has yet come up with a name for the river itself, the wide current of which all those particular identifiable rivulets were nameable parts.
From the perspective of today, looking back, I can see how the current crested and divided into a multitude of streams. It happened within a few years of Richard Nixon taking office. By the mid-seventies, if your version of this thing was political, you kinda’ looked down on the druggies. If you were building the replacement for civilization as we know it, you kinda’ look down on the woo-woo crowd steeped in self-involved “therapies”. If you had enshrined self-discovery as the mainstream of the current. you recoiled from radicals who had degenerated into hard-core Marxists. And the urge to join with others in shared experiences of spiritual euphoria? This had somehow turned into many a case of lost souls clinging together as cults. By the time anyone thought to put a name it all, there was no one thing to name. I wrote in Road Trips, a memoir about my life in those times, “Back then, we knew who we were. Later, we discovered that some of us weren’t one of us. Later we discovered that there was no Us.”
I didn’t see the change when it was happening. Hundreds of millions of us had exultantly embarked upon a Great Quest, and I thought the quest was still going strong. Yes, a few people had lost their way, a few had wandered into tangents leading to dead ends. Yes, some people had shrunk The Vision into a deformed parody of the quest with dogmas of political correctness. And yes, some fools claimed they were going to “change the system from within” by putting on suits and becoming corporate lawyers. A few of us had veered off the path, it’s true, but most of us were like the energizer bunny—still going.
When I put on a suit to work at the Asia Foundation, I didn’t think of it as an attempt to change the system from within. I thought I was putting on a disguise so I could work among the natives of an alien planet without arousing suspicion. Later, when the disguise turned out to be the real me, I thought of it as having grown up. I characterized all that sixties stuff as having-been-young. The whole society tilted toward that interpretation of what had happened. It’s only now, years later, looking back, that it strikes me: maybe something happened out there, something that wasn’t just a dot on the life-trajectory of any of us. Maybe it wasn’t just that we all grew up. Maybe something died.
Where Were You When…?
Pearl Harbor bombing
Elvis on Ed Sullivan
Beatles on Ed Sullivan
Cuban Missile crisis
Robert Kennedy assassination
Mets won the World Series
Kent State shootings
Bombing of Cambodia
Fall of Saigon
Munich Olympics: Palestinians kill Israeli athletes
Fall of Saigon
Patty Hearst Kidnapped
Star Wars movie comes out
First sign of AIDS
Jonestown & Moscone-Milk murders
Iranians take Americans hostage
Three-Mile Island blows
Forty-Niners win Superbowl
The first Macintosh commercial airs
Stock Market Crash of 1987
Berlin Wall Falls
1989 Earthquake of San Francisco
Rodney King Riots
Oklahoma City bombing
The Waco Siege (Dravidian compound)
OJ Simpson car chase
Monica Lewinsky scandal breaks
Y2K New Years Eve
Gore/Bush “hanging chads” election
Indian Ocean tsunami (2004)
Katrina hits New Orleans
Market crash of 2008
Japanese earthquake (2011)
First Arab Spring demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt
Election of Trump
Tamim Ansary arrived in the United States in 1964. He was almost at Woodstock, almost at Altamount, and almost moved to the country to get back in touch with the land. It’s all there in his memoir Road Trips, available now from Kajakai