Monday, August 1, 2011

Gaggin at the Beatles

Posted By on 08.01.11 at 08:30 AM

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"When you dive into the Tribune's coverage of the Beatles in 1964, you find fear.

"Fear about the hair, the strange music and the screaming."

That lead caught my eye! It was Stephan Benzkofer's look backward in the Sunday Tribune, as Paul McCartney harmlessly occupied Wrigley Field. I think Benzkofer, weekend editor of the Tribune, is playing a sly game. The fear he found in the Tribune tells us more about the Tribune than the era.

"On Aug. 26," Benzkofer writes, "the Tribune ran a story about the firsthand experience of a Washington state child guidance expert who attended a concert in Seattle. It wouldn't have calmed parental fears. He wrote, 'Many of those present became frantic, hostile, uncontrolled, screaming unrecognizable beings.' He blamed adults for 'allowing the children a mad, erotic world of their own.' He described it as 'an unholy bedlam' that should not be allowed. 'It was an orgy for teenagers,' he said."

The expert was Dr. Bernard Saibel, supervisor of the Washington State Division of Community Services. It was actually the Seattle Times that asked Saibel to attend and write up the Seattle concert; the report is his toehold on immortality — you'll find it in the acclaimed 2007 anthology, The Rock History Reader. Editor Theo Cateforis chose it as a showpiece example of Beatlemania perceived "as a mania, and one that thrust into the media spotlight the moral concerns surrounding teenage female sexuality."

If you want to read more, here's Saibel's entire piece.

The Tribune reprinted it from the Times, apparently believing his insights deserved a wider audience. The Tribune had made its position clear the previous January in a disdainful editorial (mentioned by Benzkofer) published just as the Beatles were being discovered in the U.S. Not in possession of degrees and certificates credentialling them to express their abhorrence clinically, the Tribune editorialists made do with snickering.

There were arch references to the "Beatle wig . . . a shaggy, shapeless mop, hiding whatever brains and forehead one has under a disheveled mass." To "provincial culture, if you can call it that." To "the new Liverpool music (if you can call it that)."

The editorial concluded, "If, until now, you had not yet heard of the Beatles, should America be so unfortunate as to allow this combo further fields to conquer, remember that you got your first warning in our austere columns."

If Saibel today can only be read as a caricature of an "expert," that Tribune can only be read as a caricature of a newspaper. But compare the two pieces: how much more impressive it is to actually have something to say and say it, no matter how hysterically.

Benzkofer tells us the Tribune's front page coverage of the Beatles' concert that September in Comiskey Park "took cracks at the music and John Lennon's long hair but mostly focused on the hysteria, and yes, the screaming."

And this was half a century before the journalism that now plagues us all — like speaking only to like, minds never meeting, prideful incomprehension. The Tribune was far ahead of its time.

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