Saturday, May 19, 2018

Were The Beatles Ever More Popular Than Jesus?

This spring I took a renewed interest in The Beatles, in part due to some of the writings of David Pichaske, author of From Beowolf to Beatles and Beyond, among other things. As a result I've been picking up a number of other Beatles' related books including Geoffrey & Brenda Giuliano's The Lost Lennon Interviews, which I was perusing Thursday evening as a bedtime read.

Early on there are a pair of brief newspaper articles dealing with John Lennon's infamous declaration that The Beatles were more famous than Jesus. The incident took place during the Beatles' last American tour in 1966. One result of this statement was this incident: bonfires were lit where young people could burn their Beatles records.

What's ironic here, if not bizarre, is that some of the bonfires were built by the Ku Klux Klan, as if they held the moral high ground. In South Carolina, for example, the Klan Grand Dragon Bob Scoggins nailed a Beatles record to a large cross and set it on fire. (Source: AllThatsInteresting)

As with many things, the media can be partially blamed for attributing the most heinous motives for John Lennon making this statement. Lennon afterwards stated in another interview, "I wasn't saying whatever they're saying I was saying... I was sort of deploring the current attitude toward Christianity."

His observation was that Christianity seemed to be shrinking at a time when pop culture was rising. "I'm not anti-God, anti-Christ or anti-religion. I was not saying we are greater or better."

But if fanning the flames would sell more newspapers, then let the Beatle memorabilia burn. (OK, that harsh indictment of newspapers crosses the fairness line, so we should be careful not to tar them all with this brush.)

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The second half of John Lennon's statement as regards being "bigger than Jesus" was that Rock 'n Roll would outlive Christianity. It's worth noting that Thomas Paine made a similar statement about the Bible, that as a result of Enlightenment thinking the Bible would be dead in 50 years. Paine died in 1809.

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Two years ago Slate published an interesting article on the 50th anniversary of John Lennon's "bigger than Jesus" quote. It's eye-opening because Lennon, by today's standards, violated a whole array of PC language regulations.

All this is on my mind in part because today is the beginning of our weeklong Duluth Dylan Fest and tonight David Pichaske will be giving a talk in the first John Bushey Memorial Lecture Series at Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum. Pichaske is more than familiar with the challenges of having a career in the academic world. Author of numerous books--Beatles to Beowulf, A Generation In Motion and Song of the North Country most relevant to our Dylan celebration--Pichaske's most recent book, Crying in the Wilderness, is a collection of essays, many of them dealing with the shifting sands of post-modern academia and free speech.

Pichaske's dedication should tell you a lot: "This book is a written memorial to the Southwest State University English Department, 1976-2016. blessings upon those who built it, a pox upon those who dismantled it."

His 2015 essay "Speech Cops on Patrol: How P.C. Language Regulations Undermine Communication" details some of the changes he has lived through and had concerns about. How far the pendulum has swung. In the Sixties the fight was for Free Speech, a right established in the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Over time, the lit professor was asked to no longer teach "Howl" by the beat poet Allen Ginsberg "because some students were uncomfortable with its homosexuality." In other words, let's only teach things that are "safe." Hence, the Duluth school district this year banned Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird from being taught in its curriculum. Despite the dignity of its message, it contains a bad word, which makes some people uncomfortable.

When Lenny Bruce fought the "status quo Goliaths" of his era, he was made to suffer for it. Today there are new Goliaths.

All this to say that I look forward to welcoming David Pichaske to our city tonight. He begins his book with a quote from David Masciota: "One of the most important challenges for any American in the twenty-first century is to remove the mask and shed the persona that regulates life, to actually work to achieve a fulfilling and freeing identity."

Inasmuch as Herman Hesse begins his book Demian with a similar sentiment, I half wonder whether this is a contemporary issue or a universal one. "I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings that came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?"

The answer here might come from Nietzsche, who observed that most of us are kept in line by our fear of being shunned. As a result, we are weaker people rather than stronger because we're afraid to raise the questions that are rattling around inside our heads.

This is likely what attracted me to Dylan in the first place. When I heard "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" I realized I wasn't alone. There was at least one other person who understood what I was feeling and thinking.

Related Links
The Letters of John Lennon
Lenny Bruce: Challenging the Status Quo
For the Benefit of Mr. Kite: How Creativity Works
Duluth Dylan Fest Schedule 

Will we see you tonight at Karpeles?
Meantime life goes on all around you. Engage it.


Eric said...

If John Lennon made such statements about religion today I think the backlash would be even more severe. I've notice a trend among students and adults who view any teaching that offends their religious beliefs as a violation of their religious freedom, which is a veil to legitimize whatever intolerance they carry with them. Now that the Beatles are over 50 years old they are less dangerous, but they still get on the nerves of people of certain political persuasions. To cite Ian MacDonald's book Revolution in the Head, their message did break through for a brief period, but it was fleeting. In a way, I view the course of Western history since 1970 as a reaction against the Beatles and what they stood for. Of course there's a counter narrative to that, but the former seems to be on the ascendant at this particular moment in history.

Ed Newman said...

Thanks for the comment.
I think that what is "on the ascendant" has been a fear of offending any group or belief systems... so we're thin skinned and beige....