Did you hear? John Lennon said the Beatles were better than Jesus.
That was the buzz after he made his infamous statement during an interview with a London journalist.
That wasn’t what he said.* He said the Beatles were more popular than Christianity among English youth. But, after an American teen magazine quoted him out of context and the media ate it up and regurgitated it, John Lennon said the Beatles were better than Jesus.
Good thing Fox “News” wasn’t around then. God knows where Rupert Murdoch’s fairly imbalanced spin doctors would have gone with it.
Lennon’s statement originally was published on March 4, 1966. At the time, Beatlemania was still in full gear, even in my little world on the West Side of Cleveland. “Ghetto lite” as I called it in my previous post.
I was 14 and going to Thomas Jefferson Junior High, the same school I was at in 1964 when the Beatles made their American television debut on the Ed Sullivan Show. Later in 1966, my family moved to a better neighborhood further out on the West Side, near Halloran Park. If that name sounds familiar, that’s the playground where — two months before I was born — 10-year-old Beverly Potts disappeared. She was never found.
But, all in all, it was a safer neighborhood than the near West Side, where we lived on a backstreet between two sets of railroad tracks. Not only was I the grandson of a poor white sharecropper (seriously), but I lived on the wrong side of both tracks.
After the American news media regurgitated Lennon’s statement, there was a predictable knee-jerk reaction. Some of the more straight-laced kids I knew denounced the Beatles. Most kept buying their records anyway. Or shoplifted them if they didn’t have $3 for an album. Singles sold for around 98¢, so even the poorer kids among us could afford them. The great thing about the Beatles singles was they were two-sided hits. Most single records had a crappy song on the “B side,” which we would listen to maybe once. Guess that’s why they called them singles.
The Beatles became increasingly outspoken —and their music even more so. The “silly love songs,” as Paul McCartney put it, gave way to more innovative, introspective and suggestive material. “Rubber Soul,” released at the end of 1965, was clearly a departure from their earlier albums. They ventured even further from their mainstream fans’ comfort zone in 1966 with “Yesterday And Today” followed by “Revolver.”
I sensed that my older sister and a lot of other young people had become uncomfortable with their music. They increasingly distanced themselves from the Beatles. Yet, to me, there was something more intriguing and alluring about their new material. I stuck with them and wasn’t afraid to admit that I liked their songs even more than before. So, as it had been in 1964 when the Beatles first appeared on American television, I still didn’t fit in with the in crowd. (See previous post.)
Here I am, in more innocent times, listening to my Sears Silvertone record player. It was nothing fancy, but it served me well from “Tootles the Tugboat” to “I Am the Walrus”
Things came to a head in February 1967 with the release of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” After hearing the song on the radio, I ran down to the S.S. Kresge store on Lorain Avenue and West 110th Street and bought the single. (For you younger folk, S.S. Kresge was an earlier incarnation of Kmart.)
I took “Strawberry Fields Forever” home and played it over and over on my monophonic Sears Silvertone record player.
Mom poked her head in my bedroom door and asked, “What’s wrong with your record player?”
I told her there was nothing wrong with it, that was the way the song was supposed to sound.
Then she asked, “What’s wrong with you?”
A question that remains unanswered to this day.
*What Lennon really said: “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that. I’m right and I’ll be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first, rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”