The Week a Beatle Knocked 9/11 Off the Front Page

On September 11, 2001 I was living in Los Angeles, on the far side of the continent from where I grew up and previously lived. At around 7 in the morning the phone in my little west LA studio apartment rattled me awake. This was an unexpected and unwelcome surprise, but I answered it. The voice on the other end belonged to Susan, who would become my wife less than three years later.

There was distress in her voice, but she got right to the point and relayed the news: There was a terrorist attack in New York City. Planes had crashed into the World Trade Center — first one tower, and then another.

I muttered out a couple “wha’s?” and “huh’s?” and grabbed my TV remote. I clicked on my tiny little TV and hit the channel for CNN.

I saw the Twin Towers, billowing black smoke into a clear and sunny sky. The camera cut to crowds in Manhattan looking on in horror. Closer to the epicenter, people were still running for their lives. The first plane had hit more than an hour ago, when I was still asleep. The announcers relayed more news:

Another plane had hit the Pentagon near Washington, D.C.

There were reports of another plane crash in rural Pennsylvania, not too far from Washington.

I looked on in stunned silence. I asked Susan if she wanted to drive down from where she was living in the San Fernando Valley, a 45-minute trek on the 405 freeway even at that time of morning. I watched the news for 15 or 20 minutes as the horror escalated. I suddenly thought of my parents in North Carolina, on the East Coast, and gave them a call to see if they were okay. I had no idea how far and wide these plane bombs reached.

I showered and headed to work – early. When I got there plenty of others had also shown up early. Everyone was dazed, but soon enough we cranked into action, reporting and filing stories on the day’s events for the financial newspaper we worked for.

It was all a blur, a nightmare, too horrible to imagine. It couldn’t be happening, but it was.

*****

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attack. The internet, airwaves and newspapers will be filled to bursting with coverage commemorating it. I’ve already seen one new documentary about it here in London, but I imagine the U.S. will get a lot more coverage.

There’s nothing useful I can write about that dreadful day, two decades later. My personal experience took place 3,000 miles from Ground Zero. I was never in danger and didn’t lose any loved ones in the 9/11 attack. I don’t even know anyone who died in it, even though I spent several months the year before living in a coastal New Jersey town that lost quite a few. I was more or less a bystander, like the rest of the world outside of New York and Washington.

One thing I do remember about the weeks and months that followed 9/11 was that the newspapers and magazines devoted almost all of their coverage to the attack, the search for the perpetrators, why it happened, how it happened, the ensuing wars, and the slow, barely visible stirrings of a political divide that today threatens to swallow America whole.

I was a real news junkie at the time. I worked for a newspaper. I ravenously consumed newspapers and magazines. I spent much of my spare time with my face buried in some kind of publication, because this was still an age (just barely) when you read print publications.

The 9/11 attack and its aftermath were on the cover of Time and Newsweek magazines every single week for three months straight. Every week, without fail. I kept track. I had never seen this kind of thing before in my life, one news story staying on the front page for months. I’m not sure it had ever happened before, with the possible exception of World War II. It had certainly never happened in my lifetime, even after the JFK assassination, or during the Watergate hearings (I checked).

I began to wonder what could possibly happen to knock 9/11 off the covers of Time or Newsweek.

In early December 2001, I got my answer.

*****

For people of a certain generation, there was no greater cultural influence than the Beatles. They dominated my childhood during the 1960s like no pop culture icons before or since. Their songs had a stranglehold on Top 40 radio, which is what we listened to in our household. They had a Saturday morning cartoon we used to watch. They were on TV a lot. Their movies were huge hits. Their concerts led to near riots.

My first memory of the world beyond my home was of the Beatles and their 1964 hit, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” I don’t remember the JFK assassination. But I remember “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” A few years later I remember “Hey Jude” playing every hour on the hour for months at a time.

I was a big Beatles fan as a kid, and remained a fan through the decades, even as my musical tastes and pop culture sensibilities evolved. Part of that has to do with the cultural influence they had on my life as a child. Part is that they were very good at what they did – writing and playing well-crafted songs that had more musical and lyrical sophistication than you might expect from four working-class lads from Liverpool.

They were global icons, and remain such to this day.

They were still icons in 2001, more than 20 years after John Lennon was murdered in New York City, and more than 30 years after the band broke up.

We got a reminder of that in December of that year. On November 29, 2001, guitarist George Harrison died at the age of 58 after a battle with cancer. He died in Los Angeles, not too terribly far from where I lived at the time. He was the second Beatle to die. The Fab Four was now the Fab Two.

George was always known as the Quiet Beatle, the Mystical Beatle. He was probably the least famous of the Fab Four. He played in the shadow of John and Paul, and didn’t have the guy-next-door charm of Ringo. But he was an excellent musician and songwriter in his own right, and later had a successful career as a solo artist and member of the Traveling Wilburys with Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne.

George’s death was worldwide news, a front page story.

On December 10, 2001, he landed on the cover of Time magazine. It was a simple cover, just a black-and-white photo of George in front of a flower, with his name, and the years he was born and died.

It was the first time since the 9/11 attack that something not related to 9/11 landed on the cover of Time magazine. (The Sept. 17 issue had a preacher on the cover, but that’s only because it went to press a week earlier, on Sept. 10. The dates don’t necessarily reflect the latest news).

It took the death of a Beatle to end the streak. There was something powerful about that, at least to me. That even in a world of chaos and fear and dread, we could take time out to honor a fallen Beatle. Maybe it was just a matter of too many Baby Boomers controlling the media. But it had a strangely potent effect on me.

We could take a deep breath, just for a moment. Reset. Remember that there was a world beyond war and terrorism. We could celebrate a life in a way we hadn’t since September 10, 2001.

I have no idea what was on the next cover of Time, because I stopped keeping track after that.

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