I sure have. It was 1964 and I was on assignment for The Nation magazine to write a review of the Beatles at Carnegie Hall, their first live appearance in the United States.
No Soul in Beatlesville
There I was, standing on a shaky balcony seat trying to see the stage over a mob of hysterical, screaming and sobbing 13-year-old girls. I was 25 years old and a rhythm and blues purist, a wannabee soul brother. I didn’t get the Beatles.
My review? It was vicious. I called it No Soul in Beatlesville and eviscerated the band as “derivative, a deliberate imitation…manna for dull minds”.
I’ve been apologizing ever since.
“Ok,” I later told my musical family and friends, “I was an idiot. I admit it!”
I should have counted to ten, reconsidered what I’d written more carefully, sought an outside opinion. (My mantra as a developmental editor.) But I didn’t, and The Nation published it as written. It’s been coming back to haunt me ever since. Fifty years of mortifying shame. Oy vey!
It’s back to bite me yet again
Will it ever stop? Now, to throw some salt on it, The Nation is marking the 50th anniversary of the Beatles arrival on these shores in their upcoming issue by reprinting my embarrassing review as a “Blast from the Past” with commentary by Editor and Publisher Katherine vanden Heuvel.
Here’s what she writes about my original essay:
“If we are told to remember the Beatles’ arrival in the United States fifty years ago last month as an “invasion,” it is as one that was unopposed. The 73 million people who watched [on the Ed Sullivan show] Paul McCartney count the band into “All My Loving” on February 9, 1964 shattered all records, representing nearly two-fifths of the US population at the time, despite the fact that only 17 percent of American homes even had televisions in them. We surrendered without resistance, it often seems—a view evident in one Amazon review of a collection of the late Bill Eppridge’s photographs from the Beatles’ first week in the US. “Those six days did change the world,” the commenter writes, “by simply unifying us all with faces of sheer happiness.”
At least one person wasn’t smiling. In an essay published in our March 3, 1964 issue, a young Simon & Schuster editor named Alan Rinzler objected to the furor over the Liverpool lads’ music and—correctly, if somewhat myopically—attributed Beatlemania to a massive, premeditated PR campaign. The quivering throngs of teen-aged girls, he believed, said much more about the susceptibility of Americans to fashionable trends than it did about the talent or novelty of the group itself.”
An excerpt from the review:
“By the time the Beatles actually appeared on the stage at Carnegie Hall, there wasn’t a person in the house who didn’t know exactly what to do: flip, wig-out, flake, swan, fall, get zonked—or at least try.
The Beatles themselves were impressive in their detachment. They came to America “for the money.” They attribute their success “to our press agent.” They looked down at their screaming, undulating audience with what appeared to be considerable amusement, and no small understanding of what their slightest twitch or toss of head could produce.
John Lennon, the leader of the group, seemed particularly contemptuous, mocking the audience several times during the evening, and openly ridiculing a young girl in the first row who tried to claw her way convulsively to the stage. Paul McCartney bobbed his head sweetly, his composure broken only when—horror of horrors—his guitar came unplugged. (There was a terrible moment of silence. One expected him to run down altogether, and dissolve into a pool of quivering static.) George Harrison tuned his guitar continually, and seemed preoccupied with someone or something at stage right. Ringo Starr, the drummer, seemed the only authentic wild man of the group, totally engrossed in his own private cacophony. For the rest, it was just another one-night stand.
This is probably why the reaction at Carnegie Hall wasn’t a real response to a real stimulus. There weren’t too many soul people there that night either on the stage or in the audience. The full house was made up largely of upper-middle-class young ladies, stylishly dressed, carefully made up, brought into town by private cars or suburban buses for their night to howl, to let go, scream, bump, twist and clutch themselves ecstatically out there in the floodlights for everyone to see; and with the full blessings of indulgent parents, profiteering businessmen, gleeful national media, even the police. This was their chance to attempt a very safe and private kind of rapture.
Most did what was expected of them and went home disappointed. Disappointed because nothing really passed from the stage to the audience that night, nor from one member of the audience to another. There was mayhem and clapping of hands, but none of the exultation, no sense of a shared experience.”
There’s practically nothing in this snooty piece that I agree with now. The songs they performed that night at Carnegie Hall – “Please please me”, “I saw her standing there”, “Love me do”, “I want to hold your hand” — were all quite excellent, but I couldn’t actually hear them over the of the audience bedlam. I didn’t become a big fan until the following year with the 1965 release of the superb album Rubber Soul, followed shortly by the equally terrific Revolver in 1966.
Meanwhile, my day job was at Simon & Schuster, where I was involved with the publication of Yoko Ono’s avant-garde book Grapefruit and John Lennon’s A Spaniard in the Works, though neither of them actually knew the other at that time.
Then, in 1968, my musical and publishing interests led me to become one of the pioneering staff members of Rolling Stone Magazine. I opened the first New York office then moved to the original home office in San Francisco, where I was the Associate Publisher and Vice-President, as well as editor-in-chief of the books division Straight Arrow.
In that capacity I published several books on the Beatles and was a huge fan, a major promulgator of editorial work on their personal and professional lives. Later, when Lennon was assassinated, I was at Bantam Books, responsible for publishing the memorial book Strawberry Fields Forever.
Nevertheless that old Nation review comes back to skewer me every once in a while. Even my own adult children can’t believe I wrote it, but I think they’ve forgiven me. Hope you will, too.
Meanwhile, don’t be afraid to reconsider or change your mind about something you wrote before sending it out into the cold, cruel world. You may have to live with its unintended consequences for the rest of your life.
How to avoid embarrassment
These days, I always urge authors to follow these guidelines:
• Never settle for your first draft no matter how good you think it is
• Get a second opinion from a professional, objective editor
• Be willing to rewrite, check again, rewrite, for as many times as it takes.
What about you?
Have you ever written or published something you wish you could take back? Come on, you can tell us.