The Old Man liked the Beatles when they first came to America in 1964 to appear on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” And I appreciated that.
Like most 14-year-olds at the time, I worshipped the Beatles. I got tossed out of a bowling alley for playing their first American hit, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” 10 times straight on the jukebox.
The bowling-alley manager, whose name actually was Frank Sinatra, tended toward opera. He had no patience for Beatlemania. He told me if I played that British garbage one more time that I would be out on my ear. I did. I was out on my ear.
The Old Man was more discerning. He liked the Beatles because he liked the idea of that first hit song. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” seemed a plaintive wish so sweetly traditional — and innocent — to him.
There have always been disputes about rock music lyrics. In May 1963, before the Beatles hit full bore, the Kingsmen released the song “Louie Louie.” The adult world was convinced the lyrics were filthy and, honestly, so did most kids.
It went so far with “Louie Louie” that the FBI investigated. Playing the song over and over again, the Feds determined that the lyrics were “unintelligible at any speed.” They remain so today.
To the Old Man, the Beatles were a healthy diversion. “Better than the make-out artists that seem to slobber over every other rock ’n’ roll record,” he said in allowing me to purchase their first album, which actually included a love song from “The Music Man” — “Till There Was You.”
Times have changed.
There was a story in The New York Times last month noting that during the first week of March, three of the top songs on the charts had an unprintable word in their title or chorus. Really unprintable. The granddaddy of unprintable words.
The songs are performed by the legendary artists Cee Lo Green, Pink and, of all people, Enrique Iglesias.
The very fact that the Times felt duty-bound to report this strange convergence at least tells us that obscenity can still raise eyebrows.
I have been trying to wrap myself around the news. My first response was to see this as a reminder — as if we needed one — that the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s warning that our culture was in a tailspin of “defining deviancy down” had taken another slip. We are quickly running out of anything that can be defined as deviant, except, perhaps, smoking.
On the other hand, I decided that one could take some grim solace in noting that the previously unprintable has become so ordinary that the shock value will disappear. And when that happens, it will also disappear from the common lexicon because shock is its only purpose.
But on the other other hand, I can’t help letting despair creep in. I’ve always believed there was a certain sense of poetry to elements of rock music. Not all of it, surely, but there are lines that stick over time.
Paul Simon’s “Flowers Never Bend with the Rainfall,” Bob Dylan’s bold cultural assertion that “the vandals took the handles,” or even Billy Joel’s looking back to “when I wore a younger man’s clothes” brought a touch of majesty to the proceedings.
At some point we decided as a culture to give obscenities the right to a public life. So now we just dance to the unprintable.
I should come to some great conclusion about all this, but what can I say? Shame exists no longer? Big news.
The actual lyrics to “Louie Louie” went: “Fine little girl waits for me \ Catch a ship across the sea \ Sail that ship about all alone \ Never know if I make it home.”
Meaningless. But it can be printed.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.