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The Rise of Beatlemania as Chronicled in a Teenager's Diary from 1964
Would you publish your high school diary?
Journalist Bob Greene did just that. And though many know him for his 24 years at the Chicago Tribune, or his bestselling book on Michael Jordan, I will always remember Greene as the champion of teen angst from 1964—the year he turned 17.
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Greene had almost forgotten the diary when he rediscovered it in a drawer many years later. He had felt vaguely self-conscious about writing it at the time, noting that teen girls were allowed to jot down daily incidents and intimate feelings in a journal, but if a boy did it, he could never even mention it to his buddies. It would be too vulnerable, too suspect, too (in the parlance of the time) queer. But decades after the fact, Greene realized that he had captured “something money could not buy: time preserved.”
Back in 1964, Greene kept the diary for an entire year because a teacher at a high school journalism conference said it would train him for a career as a writer. And it did just that.
The story might have ended there—except that Greene not only found the diary, but decided to publish it. That was an extraordinary decision, but well justified. Be True to Your School (as it was called when published in 1987) provides as accurate an account of everyday teen male life as you will ever find, and it also stands out as an important document of Middle America—or Bexley, Ohio in this instance—at a key juncture in history.
I’ve written elsewhere how the entire fabric of American life was transformed in the months following the Kennedy assassination. In my worldview, this event was the turning point for the second half of the 20th century. In the aftermath, all the confident certainties and prevailing norms were shaken, and soon everything started changing—music, movies, military madness, mores, and more. And not just a little bit. By the end of the decade, America looked entirely different, and no cultural shift since that time comes close to matching that mind-blowing transformation.
As an unlikely teenage chronicler of this shift, Bob Greene was there on the ground level from the outset, jotting down dispatches in his dime store journal. He had to clean up the manuscript a bit, clarify some details, and change a few names, but he put it out there for the world to see.
I could share many choice passages here. You can feel the world changing in tiny but meaningful increments. The whole book is worth reading, and perhaps even emulating, but as a music lover, I want to focus on entries that trace the rise of Beatlemania as it impacted a 16-year-old boy in Bexley, Ohio. Here you can feel, in real time, the way musical shifts lead to culture shifts.
January 6, 1964: “After school, I went to Bexley Records and got nylon strings for my guitar. . . . I went to my room and played straight from five o’clock until ten o’clock tonight. The chords are pretty easy; right now I can play fairly decent versions of ‘Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,’ ‘Blow the Man Down,’ and ‘Molly Malone.’”
January 10, 1964: “When my clock radio woke me up this morning, WCOL was playing a new song called ‘I Saw Her Standing There.’ It was by the Beatles, that group from England that got written up in Time magazine last year. This was the first I’d ever heard them sing. The song sounds like it’s going to be a hit.”
January 11, 1964: “It turns out that ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ isn’t even the good side of the Beatles record. The good side is called ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’ and WCOL has started to play it about once every hour. . . . This is really unusual—WCOL playing both sides of the same record.”
January 15, 1964: “Usually I buy singles, and the album was pretty expensive—it was $2.47—but it seemed important to have it. . . .It’s called Meet the Beatles! The cover is a black-and-white photograph of them—portraits of their faces. It’s really strange to see a formal portrait and then all that hair. . . . Every time we played the album I would turn the volume on the record player up a little, and finally my father started pounding on the door for me to turn it back down.”
January 19, 1964: “There’s a new Beatles record on WCOL—‘She Loves You.’ Tonight I hooked up our family’s Wollensak tape recorder and sat by the radio for two hours waiting for it to come on. It finally did, and I got it on tape. I’ve been playing it over and over all evening.”
January 27, 1964: “At dinner tonight Dad said that I had to get a haircut. Chuck’s dad has been telling him the same thing. They both say we’re trying to look like the Beatles, which I guess is true.”
February 9, 1964: “The Beatles were on Ed Sullivan. They are simply the greatest thing ever to hit America. . . . Before they came on the girls were going nuts. . . . Even Dad seemed to think they were all right. I remember when Elvis Presley was first on Ed Sullivan; I was only nine at the time, but I still remember how angry it made him.”
February 21, 1964: “After school today Chuck and I went downtown to Lazarus; they got a Beatle guitar chord book in stock, so I bought one. It’ll be great playing Beatles songs instead of that folk stuff. I bought the single of ‘Fun, Fun, Fun’ too.”
May 21, 1964: I washed my hair this morning and combed it down over my forehead; I wore my white Levi’s, which are starting to turn green. I looked like a damn Beatle, but I didn’t care.”
August 12, 1964: “At work today, I called the Esquire Theater to find out what times A Hard Day’s Night was showing. . . . It was unbelievable. The Esquire was packed, and every time the Beatles came onto the screen, the audience would scream. It was the same as if the Beatles were live on stage. . . . I held Susie’s hand the whole time.”
August 14, 1964: “At night Dan and I went over to the Esquire to look at the crowds waiting to get in to see A Hard Day’s Night. We thought we saw two girls who were giving us the eye.”
September 1, 1964: “Washed my hair when I got up. I’m rapidly becoming a Beatle again. I hope Dad doesn’t make me get it cut for a while. Dad’s Playboy came in the mail today. I took it in my room to read it. There were love scenes with Elke Sommer.”
October 25, 1964: “The Rolling Stones were on Ed Sullivan. They’re pretty disgusting.”
And there it is—in just a couple hundred days we move from “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” to Mick Jagger. My only disappointment is that Greene didn’t keep on writing these entries in 1965, 1966, 1967, and 1968. By then those radical 1964 hairstyles (and much else besides) would start looking pretty tame.