British Invasion of Memory

The Beatles in America - British Invasion of Memory
Photo by United Press International.

Whether you remember or anticipate, you do it now. The past is no more. The future is not yet. –Fritz Perls

Watching the remaining living Beatles reunite a few weeks ago to celebrate and remember the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964—the moment that marked the beginning of the British Invasion—I realized how much of who I am in the here-and-now has been permeated by that moment.

Although it would be a whole 21 months more before I would actually see the light of day, I grew up in a world shaped by that British Invasion, with my own collection of Beatles milestones and memory markers. Perhaps they weren’t the traditional ones—I was too young to protest the arrival of Yoko on the scene and mourn for the band’s break-up. And my house itself was not a Beatles house. How I longed for my parents to be Beatles fans and have first edition Beatles records that they would pass down to me as a legacy. Alas, my father still loved his big band and swing music, and my mother missed the whole Elvis craze by moving to Israel just before he hit it big and returning just after Elvis joined the Army. So, to them, the Beatles were just long-haireds.

But I loved to march around the house to Sgt. Pepper and Yellow Submarine on the radio. Or sit glued to the color television when the movie of Yellow Submarine played. I may not have gotten all the psychedelic references, but I loved being transported into the magical realms. I adored it then and adore it still.

“Yesterday” was the first rock song I ever learned to play on the piano. My best friend in high school idolized John Lennon, down to the hair and glasses, and played “Imagine” on the keyboards at every talent show he could get to. Going to Beatlefests were de rigeur—I still have a Beatlefest T-shirt nestled away in a drawer somewhere.

And I will never forget the morning of December 8, 1980. My radio alarm went off around 5am, as it always did on school mornings. Still barely awake, but mostly asleep, I kept hearing a succession of John Lennon songs with the DJs telling stories about him. I thought I was having a dream about John Lennon. When I awoke fully a few minutes later, it turned out to be a nightmare. John Lennon was dead—shot—assassinated—in front of his building, the Dakota, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, just across Central Park from my school. I went to school in a daze, only to meet my other classmates, also in a daze. Some were in tears, some were in more black than usual. John Lennon was dead, the Beatles would never be whole again, and our worlds would never be the same.

Watching the early film clips from Ed Sullivan, I thought about how much memory shapes our present—our here-and-now—and also how those memories tend to get colored over time. Ask my parents now about the Beatles and they praise their inspired musicality. Gone are the criticisms about the noise and long hair. Recently, I participated in a project where I had to write multiple-choice questions for a review book covering European History. I wrote one question asking, “The British Invasion was (blank)” with five possible choices. The number of current high school students who could not answer that question astounded me. The fact that the British Invasion has been relegated to a moment in history also astounds me—that I have reached an age that so many of my here-and-now experiences are now pages in history books and fodder for more of my multiple-choice questions.

When we focus on the present moment in existential therapy, we need to remember that our present contains everything that brought us to this moment right here, right now. This is something that Fritz and Laura Perls understood in Gestalt therapy. The entirety of who we are, the entirety of our experience, exists in us at each moment. That does not mean we dwell in the past and focus on our toilet training. But we do need to recognize that we did not just magically appear here, in a moment devoid of historical context. And every once in a while, it is important to remember that context—to honor its wisdom.

And nobody seems to like him
They can tell what he wants to do
And he never shows his feelings
But the fool on the hill
Sees the sun going down
And the eyes in his head
See the world spinning around
–John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “The Fool on the Hill”

Perls, F. S. (1988). Gestalt therapy verbatim. Highland, NY: The Center for Gestalt Development. (Originally published 1969).

— Sarah Kass

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