Don’t You Know That It’s So? by Joe Bonomo

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Sometime before dawn on February 11, 1963, Sylvia Plath opened the door of the oven in her flat at 23 Fitzroy Road in London, and laid her head on a folded towel inside. She had already sealed the door to the bedroom where her two young children Nicholas and Frieda slept, after placing bread-and-butter sandwiches and glasses of milk by their beds. Plath’s body was discovered by her nurse and the building’s handyman at around 9 a.m. Roughly an hour later, she was pronounced dead by her physician, Dr. John Horder. Less than two miles away at 3 Abbey Road, the Beatles were thirty minutes into the day-long recording sessions that would result in their debut album, Please Please Me, released in the U.K. on March 22. At the moment when Dr. Horder declared Plath deceased, the Beatles were working on their first song of the day, “There’s A Place.”

…where I can go

When I feel low, when I feel blue

And it’s my mind

and there’s no time when I’m alone

 

I think about the confluence of death and birth on a gray February morning in London. Something—fandom? an essaying quest? residue of a dream?—requires that I lay a kind of transparency of consequence over the two-mile grid of London streets and green Primrose Hill. Fantasy on my part, but look: Plath’s home at two o’clock on the map, to Abbey Road’s seven o’clock, sprawling Regents Park just south. What’s revealed? Imagined links. Invisible correspondences. Plath’s suicide and the Beatles’ recording sessions overlapped, and in that alchemy I need to believe that something was forged, that a thick boundary was established, that the Fifties ended and the Sixties began—or if that’s facile, that a rejection of the world gave way to a future erupting with possibilities. Or it’s simply, indulgently, my own obsession for finding meaning where meaning doesn’t exist, mania scored by a song.

It’s impossible to know for sure how many young beat groups were toiling away in England on February 11, 1963. Among the soon-to-be-famous, the very young Rolling Stones (Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts had recently joined) were between gigs at Ealing Jazz Club on that date; the Who, not yet with the combustible Keith Moon, had played a grand total of six shows; Ray Davies was in art school; the Hollies were three months away from releasing their debut single; the Yardbirds weren’t the Yardbirds, they were the Metropolitan Blues Quartet (and then, briefly, the Blue-Sounds); pop idol Cliff Richard had just released the movie Summer Holiday, another “Cliff Richard Musical” on its way to out-grossing James Bond. On the day when Plath’s body was removed from her apartment, the day that began her second life as a famous Twentieth century poet and tragic Wife of Hughes, no one knew that the Beatles’ Please Please Me would become the presaging album that it would become, a brash step in a career that vitally affected popular music and our belief in its limits, possibilities, and promises. Plath’s ending and the Beatles’ beginning narrate a story that doesn’t exist, and yet does.

In my mind there’s no sorrow

Don’t you know that it’s so?

There’ll be no sad tomorrow

Don’t you know that it’s so?

 

Realism requires that characters move about in a world that looks like the world outside our windows, that they respond to conflicts that feel familiar, collide with other characters plausibly. One of the difficulties for the writers and actors on Mad Men is locating the correct pitch in communal event and individual response. The show (sometimes clumsily) dramatizes characters reacting to cultural events or trends in media res, such as the widening Generation Gap (the Rolling Stones), the perceived escalation of random violence or machination unto peaceful idyll (Richard Speck, Charles Whitman, the IBM computer), the Vietnam War, recreational drug use, hippie communes, and integration in the workplace. [1]

What do we talk about as we talk about the present? Tethering dramatic exposition, historical context, and character development within period narrative art requires a careful hand. Mad Men writers were smart not to mention Speck by name in the “Mystery Date” episode in season five, as that might’ve imported the characters into an informed future when everyone knows Speck’s name, infamy, and lurid place in pop culture. In the summer of ’66, we weren’t there yet. The writers acknowledge this again in that season’s episode “Signal 30,” when Don Draper corrects another character’s misstating of Charles Whitman’s last name; we weren’t yet that familiar with his surname. That was a nice touch, as there’s always more unfolding to come in life, more clarity and earned perspective on the horizon. I’m thinking also of “The Grown-Ups” episode in season three in which two characters squabble over something as Walter Cronkite’s epochal coverage of President Kennedy’s assassination plays out on a flickering television set in the background: the historic first unnoticed, then impossible to ignore. “A story really isn’t any good,” says Flannery O’Connor, “unless it successfully resists paraphrase, unless it hangs on and expands in the mind.” This is how memory works, too: a thing happens, and then a thing expands over time as it’s sifted through memory. We’re too close to events as they evolve to gauge their impact on us personally, let alone on culture at large.

Of course, people did talk in their rec rooms and bedrooms about Elvis’s swiveling hips and the Dave Clark Fives’ long hair, about Woodstock, streaking, and Disco, about Gen X, tramp stamps, and texting. How do we sound when we’re reacting to what’s right in front of us? Here’s Vincent Kartheiser, who plays Mad Men’s Pete Campbell, on public and personal histories as they played out in the series’s fifth season: “The times are a-changing and in the first few episodes we’ve seen it make its way into Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Times have been changing for the last few years. There’s been riots and integration and things have been changing but it hasn’t affected the lives of these people as profoundly as we maybe the history books would want you to believe.” Kartheiser continues:

Let’s take something huge, like the war in Iraq. It’s huge and in 30 years we’ll look back and think that everybody’s life was inundated with this war but for most of the people I know, including myself, it had very little effect on us. It has an effect, but we can’t quite see it yet. It’s the same with the 1960s, and we look back and say: “Oh, there were these great changes, everyone must’ve felt it.” It takes a while for these things to take effect in the exclusive, upper- and middle-class office buildings. We’re just starting to see it now. It’s ’66 and it’s starting to hit home.

Around the same time, Mad Men’s creator Matthew Weiner discussed the show and the idea of history unfolding, also using the Iraq War as a touchstone:

The show is not a history lesson, he insists. I don’t want to ignore what’s going on, but I always like to think about how we experience history. Very few times in your life do you wake up and find out that a plane has flown into the World Trade Center. The rest of it is very gradual and small. The war ended this year in Iraq. That will be marked in a history book, and someone, in the future, who is writing about this period, will write, “In early 2012 the war was finally over and Obama went on to the election trail and blah-blah-blah,” but we didn’t experience it that way. It was a blip, which was incredible because it was one of the longer wars that we’ve been involved in.

He added, “You live your life. You want to eat, drink, be merry, maybe you will focus on your kid, maybe you will focus on your career, but the history part of it just becomes a mood.”

Smaller dramas often take precedence as we move about; in hindsight we recognize the momentous cultural events that our daily grind overshadowed, the moods that crystalize as events. If we do realize that we may be inside an historic moment, we often react tentatively, as if gazing at puzzle pieces on the floor. I wonder what I did or said when I learned about that guy who blew up that building in Oklahoma before I knew Timothy McVeigh’s now-unforgettable name. How did I react to the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in real time? To Kurt Cobain’s suicide? I watched television, I stared at newspaper articles, I talked to people, I probably veered off-topic before too long, sidetracked by my own pressing life. If I were to write about those reactions, I’d resist having to characterize them as more dramatic and knowing than they actually were.

Over morning coffee a while back, my wife Amy and I talked idly about Facebook. If two actors play us thirty years from now, I wonder how their writers would dramatize our conversation, whether the characters would utter the name “Mark Zuckerburg,” the way Amy and I didn’t, whether they’d make Large Pronouncements About Culture the way Amy and I didn’t. We yawned and bungled our way through nascent reflection and the give-and-take of talking toward a decent, semi-thoughtful, hardly momentous conversation. Would our fictive stand-ins avoid our Whatever’s and our Well, you know what I mean’s? How will we talk about 2014 in 2044?

 

We were fighting. I don’t remember many particulars. We weren’t holding hands, I know that for sure. My then-girlfriend Janet was working at a trade bookstore in suburban Washington, D.C., and I drove in to see her, and on her fifteen-minute breaks we argued furtively but passionately outside on the front sidewalk. I remember a glass door slamming, wet eyes. We yelled at each other over the phone. One of those awful day-long arguments. What I know for certain is the date. May 25, 1986.

Our local spat backgrounded a day of national benevolence. Hands Across America was a benefit and publicity event organized by Ken Kragen, the man responsible for We Are The World. Inspired by an offhand comment from a fellow charity organizer, Kragen conjured hand-holding Americans creating a human chain stretching from the east to the west coast. Implemented by USA For Africa’s founding Executive Director Marty Rogol, Hands Across America was certainly of its celebrity-charity era, but ultimately raised 34 million dollars to help raise awareness and fight hunger and homelessness. What many scoffed at at the time, myself included, was the glaring divide between the event’s ambition and its execution; hundreds of miles of the more inhospitable swaths of the country weren’t covered by the chain, with many large cities trickily looping linked humans among multiple streets in order to account for enough miles. (Approximately 6.5 million people participated in the “chain” that ultimately covered 4,125 miles across 17 states.) I remember David Letterman making withering jokes about managerial ineptitude and the miles-wide gaps. I remember snickering along.

Of course, there was also a commemorative song. “Hands Across America,” written by Marc Blatte and John Carney, sung by session singers Joe Cerisano and Sandy Farina backed by Toto, was played concurrently on hundreds of radio stations at 3:00 p.m. EST that day, likely at the moment Janet and I were arguing during her snack break. I have no memory of hearing the song as it played, but I was aware of its existence, and was dismissive, as were many of my friends. (Our distance from sentiment was still lengthy following what we felt was the grandstanding during the “We Are The World” video the previous year. I hadn’t cared to see Bruce Springsteen, Dionne Warwick, Billy Joel, et al howling earnestly, however noble the cause.). The director of the official “Hands Across America” video was Bob Giraldi, who edited close-ups of large-eyed, weary-looking children and generic Americana imagery (farmlands, cityscapes, public parks) as ordinary folk and various celebrities (Kenny Rogers, Michael Douglas, Yoko Ono, Miami Vice’s Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, among them) sang along to the song, clasped hands and raised them to blue skies through which eagles soared. Charged with scoring such loaded iconography, the track’s synthesizers were set on Sincere.

The lyrics to “Hands Across America” are characteristic of charity-caroling, broad and sentimental, and provide irresistible subtext to my trivial, long-forgotten argument with my girlfriend. “I cannot stop thinking again and again,” emotes Cerisano, Michael Bolton’s back-up singer, “How the heart of a stranger / beats the same as a friend.” Learn to love each other, the song commands. “See the man over there? He’s my brother. / When he laughs I laugh. When he cries I cry. / When he needs me I’ll be right there by his side.” If “Hands Across America” played in the bookstore where Janet worked, we weren’t listening, caught up as we were in our own melodrama of distance and pettiness.

The image of a squabbling couple against the background of Hands Across America seems terrifically ironic now, yet it occurred, a song playing somewhere as two people played out its opposite. Dave Alvin captures this dynamic beautifully in his song “4th of July”—recorded by X on their 1987 album See How We Are—in which a wearily arguing couple, jolted out of their solipsism by the noise of kids shooting fireworks, recognize that they’re fighting on the nation’s birthday, so blinded were they by spite and insularity that they failed to take note of communal celebrating happening literally outside their window. “Whatever happened, I apologize,” the singer says to his girl. “So dry your tears and baby, walk outside. It’s the fourth of July.” We forgot! he exclaims in disbelief as the song fades.

 

One of the many pleasures in writing about music is reading old issues of Billboard magazine. I’ve spent countless hours squinting at microfilm archives, nailing down a song’s or an album’s release date, industry buzz, chart appearance, chart disappearance. What I’m struck by each time I read is the way the past is recreated by Top 40, as if all along our adolescences was scored by pop songs.

An asphalt playground at a suburban Catholic grade school. September. As the Ramones sang, it’s the end of the Seventies. The songs charting on Billboard’s Top 100 this week embody character types: the kid who loves Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” (#6), who excitedly talks about Skoal and fiddle playing and The South Will Rise Again to anyone who’ll listen, secretly loves the Knack’s “My Sharona” (#1) and can’t admit it to his tobacco-chewing buddies; he thinks it’s New Wave and cooler than he is and he plays the insistent drums and the dirty lyrics over and over in his head. That girl’s parents like Barbra Streisand’s new song “The Main Event/Fight” (#3) and took in the movie last Friday on a “date night”; she’d rather forget about that, and that Ryan O’Neal looks a little like her dad, and so she plays E.L.O.’s “Don’t Bring Me Down” (#5) downstairs in the basement over and over, dancing around with no one there. Pull wide, and the rest of the grade school playground comes into view, asphalt and grass fields dotted by darting kids, happy or forlorn, all moving to a soundtrack. The weird kids over by the tree, the ones who wear non-regulation skinny ties and put band buttons on their book bags, they’re talking about Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” (#48), Snif ‘N’ The Tears’ “Driver’s Seat” (#22), and Bram Tchaikovsky’s “Girl Of My Dreams” (#37), songs no one’s heard of. Those two over there are sneaking cigarettes and laughing about KISS’ “I Was Made For Loving You” (#49), crowing to everyone within earshot that they knew the band was lame and a bunch of pussies in makeup. Within a couple of weeks, some of these kids will be dancing at parties to the Commodores’ “Sail On” (#14) or Little River Band’s “Lonesome Loser” (#12) or the Knack’s “Good Girls Don’t” (bubbling under at #82) fumbling among knees and bra straps, half-decoding lyrics, half-decoding each other’s gestures; others will stay home in their bedrooms and listen dolefully as the radio plays Earth, Wind, And Fire’s “After The Love Has Gone” (#4) while the Friday Night Movie’s on downstairs and mom says, Why don’t you come down and watch? Way out on the far edge of the school grounds, in the shadows, Dave Edmunds’s “Girls Talk” (#86) or Nick Lowe’s “Cruel To Be Kind” (#27) might be playing, but the words are complicated; some kids think they know what they mean, but they’re probably getting them all wrong. M’s “Pop Muzik” (#31) plays in the background somewhere else, illuminating a place where even the cool kids won’t go yet, someplace angular and futuristic that sounds like what high school might feel like.

Maybe a third of these songs will linger in memory, the rest will vanish. Yet lift the transparency of the Top 100 from this ordinary tableau of teenagers at recess, and something sticks to them that they absently rub at the rest of their lives: a hook in a chorus, a phrase that in a few words seemed to say everything that they then couldn’t, a chord change that when they’re surprised by it decades later on the car radio or in the iCloud will move them beyond words, beyond reason. They’ll be unable still to articulate what those songs are able to say, the stories they tell just out of reach.

 

Around noon on January 28, 1986 I was happily culling records and 45s for my three-hour show on WMUC, the University of Maryland campus radio station, when news broke over the wire that the Space Shuttle Challenger had broken up off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida, a little over a minute into its flight. Noisily, a student dashed into the news room, which was adjacent to the dj studio, and ran the story as it unfolded. Like everyone there, I was listening intently. I’d forgotten that I’d already cued up my opening song. After the brief headline and promises of updates, the student threw the mike to me. I looked down in alarm at the turntable and poised needle: raring to be unleashed was “Wreck-a-Party Rock” by King Kurt, an English psychobilly band prone to brawling and onstage food fights. The song is wonderful nonsense, the sound of drunken primates letting loose, all jungle rhythms and guttural yelping, just the kind of pounding, beery weekend anthem I prized. (I prize.) As the announcement of the Shuttle tragedy lingered in the charged air, with the news staff clamoring for more information, I was faced with two options: play a wildly inappropriate party song, or inflict dead air over the waves as I scrambled to find and cue up a less trashy, somehow more-appropriate-for-the-moment song. I panicked, in my youth and amateurishness, and started the turntable.

I know: it’s likely that I was the only person sensitive to my song choice, that the handful of listeners, half of whom were WMUC staff, weren’t paying any attention. And yet this is how memory, song, and story conspire: I will eternally shame myself with this small incident, and two unrelated cultural moments—a graphic catastrophe, a silly song—will be forever entwined in my mind. “Wreck-a-Party Rock” gained a new, irreverent video that day, and the awful, spiraling parts of the Shuttle against a blue sky gained a soundtrack.

 

I was trusting that some numerical data might refine—or more likely refute—my Sylvia Plath/Beatles equivalence theory. I got in touch with Yvonne Paul, First Point of Contact in Her Majesty’s Passport Office at the General Register Office in the U.K., who helpfully provided me with some census information: in 1963, 260,458 women died in England and Wales, of whom 82,090 were married, this according to “Table 15: Constructed analysis of 1963 deaths by age and marital condition” in The Registrar General’s Statistical Review of England and Wales 1963 Part I. “Deaths at different ages by months of occurrence, January to December, 1963”—Table 16—narrows the data, documenting that 123 women between the ages of 30 and 35 died in the U.K. and Wales in February, out of 31,145 total female deaths in the month. 31,741 men died in the U.K and Wales in February. Numbers and columns.

Comings and goings. Plath was 30 when she died. Her death, one of 123, was statistically inconsequential, though eventually culturally significant. Sobering, wide-angle knowledge of the fatalities of an ordinary month in England should’ve dampened my desire to see in Plath’s death and the Beatles’ birth little more than coincidence; even describing the events as intersecting gives them more relation than they deserve. And yet I cling to narrative, to setting as metaphor. Squabbling with my girlfriend against the backdrop of Hands Across America is insignificant but for the context it provides me, the unintended illumination, decades later, of our self-absorption cast in sharp relief against larger suffering, and of earnest attempts to aid that suffering. Me? I stormed home that day, probably ignored the radio if it wasn’t playing a song I liked, fumed in twenty-something vanity.

That day in ’63, the Beatles played on. They ran through a dozen takes of “There’s A Place” on February 11 before being satisfied, or anyway hurried along to the next song, “Seventeen” (soon to be retitled “I Saw Her Standing There”); they were up against the clock at EMI Studios, and had nine more songs to complete before the sessions ended at precisely 10:45 that night. Focused and energetic, they dashed through a condensed version of their stage set under the watchful tutelage of producer George Martin, unaware that a writer named Sylvia Plath had died nearby, even less tuned to the gravitas I now give that death and its evocative proximity. Would Lennon, McCartney, Harrison or Starr have even known who Plath was? (Lennon, maybe, though it’s highly unlikely, even as well-read a twenty-two-year old as he was. Plath’s novel The Bell Jar was published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas in the U.S. the month before her death; her first book of poems, The Colossus, came out in 1960 and several of the poems had appeared in U.K. literary journals, but her most famous and well-received book of poems, Ariel, wasn’t published until 1965.) I don’t know that Plath was a fan of the Beatles’ music. At the time of her death, the band had released two singles in England, “Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me.” The latter was the band’s first big hit throughout the U.K., reaching the top spot on the New Musical Express and Melody Maker charts, but domination of the British Isles, let alone of North America, was still a year or so away. Who knows if Plath had heard “Please Please Me” on the radio while living in London, or, if she had, didn’t feel at the age of 30 that the Beatles’ strange-sounding music and girlish hair weren’t hers to embrace. [2]

Either way, on the morning when Plath’s lungs were overcome and her heart stopped, Lennon sang achingly on the lines “In my mind there’s no sorrow” and “There’ll be no sad tomorrow” and—against foolishness—I can hear in the words and melody an unintended, impossible threnody for a deeply despondent woman who retreated from the world. I also hear a song that heralds an unimaginable future. In Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties, Ian MacDonald describes “There’s A Place” as a declaration of independence, “an assertion of self-sufficient defiance which, matched by music of pride and poignancy, marks a minor milestone in the emergence of the new youth culture.”

Meanwhile, someone walking down Fitzroy Road or Abbey Road kept on walking, turned left, or right, and, distracted by his own ways of interpreting the causal world, went home to tea and papers.

 

[1] And don’t get me started on Don Draper dropping the needle on the first song of the second side of the Beatles’ Revolver and hearing the portentous stirrings of John Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows,” when he would’ve heard the cheerful optimistic march of Paul McCartney’s “Good Day Sunshine.” Lennon’s apocalyptic stunner is the last song on Revolver.

[2] Ted Hughes: “In the U.K. the shock of the sixties is usually tied to the Beatles. But as far as poetry was concerned their influence was marginal, I think. The poetry shock that hit the U.K. in the sixties started before the Beatles. Sylvia responded to the first ripples of it. In a sense, Ariel is a response to those first signs, and she never heard the Beatles.” (The Paris Review, “The Art of Poetry,” No. 71, Spring 1995) It’s difficult to trust Hughes absolutely here, as he and Plath were estranged at the time of her death. They’d separated in September 1962; the Beatles’ first single was released in October.

 


Joe Bonomo’s most recent books are This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began and Conversations With Greil Marcus. He teaches at Northern Illinois University, and appears online at No Such Thing As Was.