I was just 11 years old when the Summer of Love dawned in June 1967, but I wasn’t running off to San Francisco with flowers in my hair. I’d only finished elementary school and was excitedly, if a little apprehensively, looking forward to moving on to what our school district called intermediate school, that seventh-to-eighth-grade interregnum before the advent of high school.
Girls were quickly becoming a priority. I’d already gotten up the nerve to ask a blonde sixth-grade classmate for her number and phoned to ask if she wanted to go steady—without the slightest idea what that really meant other than that I was acting impetuously on a mad crush. More than fifty years later, I can still hear her answer, not unkind but brutally direct: “I’m sorry, I don’t believe in going steady at this age.” Click!
That was that: my first rejection.
The second most momentous event, by far, was the release on June 1 of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. Like every other kid in my generation, I’d been a Beatle fan since “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” first broke on these shores in January 1964. Beatlemania had instantly exploded everywhere—on every Top 40 station, in my parents’ Life magazines, on The Ed Sullivan Show. I still clearly remember hearing the Beatles for the first time on a tinny transistor radio wafting from the bedroom window of my best friend’s older sister while we kids played in the front yard. To call it an epiphany would be an understatement. Quite literally, I have never gotten over it.
So, by that June, the Beatles had been a constant in my young life for more than three years, churning out more than two dozen singles and nearly a dozen increasingly bold and adventurous albums. Nothing could have prepared any of us for Sgt. Pepper’s, and its conceit—which completely flew over my head at the time—of the band adopting an alternative persona as a kind of psychedelicized Victorian-era brass band, but with electric guitars and wildly eclectic song stylings, marinated in the trippiest production anyone had ever before heard (overseen by Sir George Martin of blessed memory.)
The album kicked off with a rousing overture in which the imaginary band musically introduced itself to a cheering (fake) audience before launching into the evening “performance.” In addition to mind-benders like “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds,” “Good Morning,” “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” and “A Day in the Life”—and the exoticism of “Within You Without You”—were more conventional tunes like “With a Little Help From My Friends,” “Getting Better,” “Fixing a Hole,” “Lovely Rita,” and “She’s Leaving Home.”
I found the album intriguing, entrancing, confusing, but also a bit worrying. Beneath the bright facade, some of the lyrics cast darker shadows, hinting at domestic violence (“I used to be cruel to my woman/I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved”), family estrangement (“Standing alone at the top of the stairs/She breaks down and cries to her husband/ ‘Daddy, our baby’s gone’”), and possible drug overdose or nervous breakdown (“He blew his mind out in a car/He didn’t notice that the light had changed/A crowd of people stood and stared/They’d seen his face before/Nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords”).
Safer territory, for an 11-year-old, was Paul’s campy music-hall ditty, “When I’m Sixty-Four.” But even that song’s deceptively jaunty arrangement belies a certain irony, even melancholy, at its heart: a young man playfully wonders how his life might look when he and his lover have grown old together. “When I get older, losing my hair/many years from now,” he ventures, “Will you still be sending me a valentine/birthday greetings, bottle of wine?” He imagines the family who will succeed him: “Grandchildren on your knee/Vera, Chuck and Dave.”
Paul had actually composed the song a decade or so earlier while still in his teens, and according to biographer Mark Lewisohn, the Beatles would occasionally trot it out in their early Cavern Club gigs when the power failed and Paul would tinkle it out on a piano. He suggests that Paul may have revived it for the Pepper recording session in December 1966 in tribute to his dad, James, a semi-pro jazz musician who had just turned 64 earlier that year.
If Paul’s vocal sounds impossibly youthful to us now, it’s not just the mists of time: at his insistence, producer George Martin sped up the finished recording to raise the pitch by a semitone and make Paul sound even younger—like the teenager he was when he first conceived it.
Back in 1967, it seemed inconceivable to cast my line of thought ahead more than 50 years and hook a vision of myself so far into the future, but as John Lennon later sang on the solo album that was to be his last, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
So here I am, getting older, losing my hair, two grown sons, and staring down that fateful birthday at the end of this month. Life happened.
I’ve never outgrown my love for the Beatles and the rest of my soundtrack of the ‘60s. But while it may keep me young at heart, I can’t escape the fact that I’m no longer young.
“Happy birthday, Joel Bellman!” blared a recent mailing. “It’s your 64th birthday!” And then, like an anvil dropping on me: “It’s time to start thinking about Medicare.”
Not exactly the birthday greetings I had in mind.
Where’s that bottle of wine when you really need it?