Fifty years ago, when The Beatles released, “Strawberry Fields,” in February of 1967, it was the start of a musical and cultural revolution that began with Paul McCartney playing some hypnotic notes on a mellotron before John Lennon sang the cryptic words, “Let me take you down.” The song was a precursor to the “Summer of Love” that gave birth to the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock. It looked to me back then that the world was going to change for the better. I felt lucky to be alive and able to witness such mind-blowing things like rock ‘n’ roll festivals, communes, braless hippie girls, free love, LSD, pot, long hair, moustaches and naked hippies frolicking in mud and ponds. It only lasted for two years.
In 1969 the Manson murders had happened and the Rolling Stones free Altamont concert were two big needles pricking holes in the colorful balloons that had been floating in the sky and in the younger generation’s LSD-soaked, psychedelic brain trust.
But for a couple of years, things really did seem magical, at least to an optimistic and wide-eyed, nine-year-old Beatles fanatic like myself. I really felt certain our culture and the world would transform into a beautiful, peaceful place where you’d be free to pursue anything that interested you. There would be no judgements, just peace and love. And that seemed like a beautiful thing to look forward to. That feeling started to take root the first time I heard “Strawberry Fields” on the radio.
Let me take you down...
It was a gloomy, weary-dreary day in the second week of February, 1967. Our family lived in Louisville, Kentucky at the time and I was riding shotgun in our family station wagon with my mom at the wheel. It was about 1:30 in the afternoon and we were headed to the A&P grocery store to get some supplies that my mom needed to make our Sunday dinner with. I was bored at home and went along for the ride. The radio was tuned to one of the two rock ‘n’ roll stations that Louisville had on the AM airwaves back then, WAKY. The other station was WKLO, but why would you listen to WKLO, when you could listen to WAKY? Plus, my favorite DJ “Weird Beard,” was the nightly voice of that station, so my allegiance in Louisville rock ‘n’ roll radio always laid solidly in WAKY.
“I’m A Believer,” by the Monkees had just ended as my mom slid our family wagon into the A&P parking lot. She found a space and was maneuvering into it when the Sunday afternoon DJ said the following mind-shattering words: “Okay, as promised earlier, next up, the groovy new song by The Beatles! But first a few words from the cats that pay the bills around here.”
My head felt like someone had pumped a canister of helium into my left ear and it had zoomed straight to my brain.
A new Beatles song! It had been a long dry spell since there was any new Beatles product on the market. The last single they put out was in August of 1966, which was “Eleanor Rigby” with “Yellow Submarine” on the flip side. The album, Revolver had been released at the same time. It had been seven long months and in this time frame, The Monkees had come walking down the street and had stolen The Beatles thunder. I remember talking to my older brother Jim just about a week earlier and wondering when The Beatles would have a new song out. Well, today was that day!
Then my mom parked and turned the car off.
Just as she grabbed her purse, I grabbed her arm and shrieked, “Turn the car back on!”
My mom looked shocked and with me still hanging on to her arm said just one word, but it was said rather sharply, “Why?”
“Didn’t you hear the radio? There’s a new Beatles song coming up after the commercials,” I stated with great and utter urgency.
My mom shook loose from my grip and said, “I’ve got to get this shopping done and get home and get dinner started, you can hear the song later.”
As I mentally digested the tone of finality in my mom’s calm dismissal of listening to the new Beatles song, I felt queasy and sick to my stomach. My world was suddenly collapsing around me. The helium had left my brain and I felt like I had been pushed off a 157 foot cliff while holding a 57 pound boulder. I had to act and I had to act quickly.
“No, no, no, no...I, I, I, have to hear it now. I have to hear it now. Please..please...PLEASE!” I begged like some distraught, stuttering lost soul sitting in the electric chair pleading for one last cigarette before the switch was thrown.
My mom slumped in the drivers seat and my hopes were heightened. Then she started the car and said, “If it’s not on in a couple of minutes, we’re going in.”
I thanked her profusely as a commercial for the Ratterman Funeral Home was being beamed across the WAKY airwaves into our car. I laughed because the son of the owner of Ratterman Funeral Home was in my class at Holy Trinity. His name was George Ratterman and I used to tease him by saying people were dying to get into his dad’s funeral home. Ah, the laughs came fast and furious back in those youthful, carefree days.
After the commercial ended the DJ was back and made this spine-tingling announcement, “And now as promised, the new song from The Beatles! Get ready, because this is a different sounding Beatles than you’re used to, here’s the new song, “Strawberry Fields!”
I leaned in and turned the radio up and for about four minutes nothing existed in this horrible world except for my eardrums and the new Beatles song. I was shocked when I heard it. It didn’t sound like anything The Beatles had done before. There were strange sounds and while I recognized John Lennon’s voice singing, he sounded different. The whole tune kind of echoed the dreary day outside, it sort of plodded along and didn’t really have a catchy chorus, guitar solos or anything that resembled a Beatles song up to this point. I couldn’t wrap my 9-year-old mind around it. Towards the end of the song it stopped and then started up again and some really weird music ended the song.
As soon as it ended my mom turned the car off and said, “Okay, let’s go.”
I looked at her and said, “That didn’t sound like The Beatles.” “If I were you I’d stick with The Monkees,” my mom said and we went in to the store. I couldn’t wait to get home and tell my brother Jim that I had heard the new Beatles song.
After what seemed like an eternity, we finally left the A&P and were headed back home. Two seconds after my mom pulled into our garage, I threw the car door open, ran inside our house and I sprinted up the stairs and burst into the bedroom I shared with my brother Jim. He was laying on his bed reading the latest issue of Mad magazine.
I was out of breath, but I managed to blurt out, “I heard the new Beatles song!”
Jim bolted up on his bed and shot back, “What?”
By now I was sitting on my bed and had somewhat gained my composure and caught my breath.
“I heard the new Beatles song and it’s called, “Strawberry Peels,” I excitedly told him.
My brother’s eyes widened and his mouth flew open as he asked, “What did it sound like?”
“I don’t know, it was kind of weird,” was my honest answer.
Immediately Jim started quizzing me about the song, asking who sang it, was it fast, how long was it and what did it sound like. As I strained to think of something to compare it to, I finally thought of something
“It’s kind of like that last song on Revolver,” I told him.
“Tomorrow Never Knows,” Jim answered back and nodded his head.
Then we both sat there thinking about it and then all of a sudden, Jim got up and lunged for his transistor radio which was sitting on his desk. He turned it on and we both sat there waiting for WAKY to play the new Beatles song again.
We sat on my bed and listened. We heard The Four Tops, Dusty Springfield, The Mindbenders, The Rolling Stones and Nancy Sinatra, but no new Beatles song.
“Are you sure you heard a new Beatles song today?” My brother asked as a commercial came on.
“Yeah, I’m sure,” I shot back defensively, “it’s called “Strawberry Peels.”
“If you’re making this up, I swear I’ll kill you,” Jim said shaking his fist at me.
”Why would I make it up?” I asked incredulously in light of this highly questionable accusation.
Jim thought about it for a minute and answered back, “I don’t know. Why do you take off your shirt and dance around like a retard at the end of “Leave It To Beaver” every day?"
Reruns of “Leave It To Beaver” were shown every weekday at four in the afternoon. It was a family favorite and usually Jim and I, along with my older brother, Tom and my older sister Terry would watch as June would confide in Ward that she was worried about the Beaver. One day when the closing credits would came on, I took off my shirt and start dancing like a maniac to the bouncy music that played as the credits rolled. I loved that music. Nobody liked me doing this and I think it was kind of disturbing to my brothers and sister. But the more I was told to stop it, the more I wanted to do it. My brother Tom beat me up a couple of times for not stopping when he told me to, but nothing could stop me from doing it. After a few weeks, everyone either left the room or just ignored me when I started the shirtless “Leave It To Beaver” dance. I didn’t really have an answer for my brother as to why I did this, but it didn’t matter, the DJ was back on the air and it was good news.
“By now you’ve probably heard that The Beatles have a new single out. And now as a treat to you Sunday listeners, I’m going to play both sides, back to back, babies! So here we go with “Strawberry Fields” and then you’ll hear “Penny Lane!”
“It’s ‘Strawberry Fields’ you retard!” My brother laughingly spat out at me.
I just rolled my eyes and shrugged my shoulders as we listened to both of the songs.
Afterwards we both agreed that “Strawberry Fields” was a weird sounding song. “Penny Lane” sounded more like the Beatles and it was a little catchier. We both wanted to hear them again and the next day after school we talked our mom into driving us to the mall so we could buy the 45.
We walked in to the mall with our mom and agreed to meet back by the big green and grey ceramic turtles that were near the front entrance in a half an hour. Then we hightailed it to the center of the mall where the record store was located and ran to the back where the 45’s were placed in wooden racks. We raced to the Beatles section and found it. Not only was there a new Beatles record in the rack, it came housed in a picture sleeve! The front was a picture of the Beatles with spotlights going off. But it didn’t look like The Beatles at all. They had shorter hair and moustaches and George had a goatee. John Lennon had round, wirerimmed glasses that were like the ones John Sebastian wore in the Lovin’ Spoonful.
None of them were smiling and they had on long coats and John had a scarf on. We stared at that for a few minutes and then Jim said, “They look kind of cool like this.”
I nodded my head in agreement. Then we flipped it over and it had the names of the songs and what we assumed were baby pictures of The Beatles. After checking out the sleeve, we bought the record and then went and waited for our mom while sitting on the ceramic turtles and staring at the picture sleeve.
We went home and instead of watching TV, we listened to that 45 over and over on our family’s fake wooden console stereo in the living room, until our mom told us to stop playing it. So we took it and went up to our room and continued looking at the picture sleeve. We both agreed after repeated listenings that we liked both songs, but “Strawberry Fields” was the best. We were both big fans of The Monkees, but “Strawberry Fields” made The Monkees sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks.
“I can’t wait for their next album to come out,” Jim remarked while holding the record.
“I bet it’ll be like nothing we’ve ever heard before,” I said staring straight ahead. I remember feeling like things were going to start changing. And they did. But just for a little while.
Five months later, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out and kicked off the “Summer of Love” and everything seemed possible and wonderful. But then time sadly marched on, like it always does.
None of the things that I had hoped would happen as I grew older came to fruition. Sometime in the early ‘70s, I realized that all the ideals, revolutions and revelations I had read about, believed in and listened to in song, weren’t going to come true. It kind of depressed me, but in 1975 I discovered The Ramones and took salvation in punk rock, booze and drugs. It wasn’t the same drug experience that the kids had in the 60’s though, I just wanted to get fucked up and forget about all the things that didn’t come true. For a while in my life I didn't look back and preferred to just keep going in a forward motion, like someone who had witnessed a car wreck and was told by a cop to quit gawking and to just move on down the road.
On December 8th, 1980, Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon four times in the back and killed him.
The next day I was driving to work and thought about the first time I heard “Strawberry Fields” in an A&P parking lot with my mom in Louisville, Kentucky. At that moment in time, I stopped trying to forget about things and realized I was lucky to have such memories to replay over and over, like little movies in my mind.
Time moves on, but some things you never forget. And sometimes memories are all you have, so I’ve learned to enjoy the happy ones that are stuck in my head like freeze-frame icicles that hang from the roof of my brain but thankfully they never melt.