A modernist odyssey

In February 1964, while a freshman at Manhattan Prep in the Bronx, three things were on my mind. Cassius Clay, soon to be known to the world as Muhammad Ali, was about to defeat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight boxing championship of the world, the Beatles were going to be on the Ed Sullivan Show, and I was flunking algebra.

Two of those events would change popular culture overnight and for decades to come. One would ruin my upcoming summer.

Baby Boomers — the demographic bulge born between 1946 and 1964 — had been more insufferable than usual that February. Cassius Clay was a wise-cracking, self-promoting, grandiose young guy who wouldn’t shut up. He was us, and when he shocked the world by beating Sonny Liston, we won.

But it was the Beatles that defined us. There’s not a first-half Boomer around that didn’t watch them that night on Ed Sullivan or would admit to it. I know I did.

We never thought of them as Catholic, but both Paul McCartney and George Harrison were baptized Catholic. McCartney, Catholic from his mother’s side, had a priest for a relative. But his father was a self-proclaimed agnostic and McCartney was never raised in the Faith. Harrison was raised Catholic.

Rumor has it that Ringo must have been baptized Catholic, because he was born and raised in the “Dingle,” a rough, poor section of Liverpool with a heavy Irish Catholic population. But the official bio has always listed him as baptized in the Evangelical church. John Lennon was baptized old-school Anglican and was a singer in the church choir.

By the time Ed Sullivan rolled around, the Beatles had generally abandoned their Christian roots. Starr had become virtually an atheist. When Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano acknowledged the band as a “precious jewel” on the 40th anniversary of the breakup of the Beatles in 2010, Starr recalled when the newspaper had claimed “satanic messages” in their music. (Old rockers have long memories.) But he recently stated that he had returned to “monotheism.”

McCartney seems to have developed a kind of secular spirituality, while Harrison famously took on Eastern mysticism that he espoused until his death in 2001.

Lennon, of course, was most famous for saying in 1966 that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. He later wrote and performed on his own one of the few atheistic hymns, “Imagine.”

At my daughter’s wedding, I wanted to do the father-daughter dance to the Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers”: “Once there was a way to get back home\Sleep pretty darling do not cry\And I will sing a lullaby\Golden slumbers fill your eyes\Smile awake you when you rise\Sleep pretty darling do not cry\And I will sing a lullaby.”

It’s a father’s whisper to his daughter. Especially when she is leaving home. It was far too short for that wedding dance. But it’s still our song.

I read later that McCartney had picked up the lyrics to “Golden Slumbers” from a 17th-century playwright, Thomas Dekker (1572-1632). I hoped Dekker would turn out to be a secret Catholic during the repression of King James I. Nope. He actually wrote anti-Catholic diatribes. But at least he spent seven years in debtor’s prison.

It’s an old lesson: you don’t have to love the artist to love the art. In some ways, the Beatles’ collective spiritual journey reflects the modernist odyssey. And it can be a sad pilgrimage.

But so much of their music — that precious jewel — keeps saying that there is “a way to get back home.”

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.