by Mike Finley
Every night in the spring of 1964 I lay awake in bed, listening through my pillow to the “Beatles Hour” on CKLW in Detroit, whose signal braved the choppy currents of Lake Erie to get to my family home.
That's how I first heard "Don't Bother Me". It became my favorite, for reasons I have only recently begun to understand. It was a George Harrison song, his first composition, and what stood out was its sullenness. Harrison, doubletracking to cover a shaky voice, sang to a ringing tremolo guitar line: "So go away, leave me alone, don't bother me."
That was the entire message of the song: Beat it, babe.
I know it was not a great song, like some other early Beatle songs—"I Saw Her Standing There" or "There's a Place”. But it made a psychic splash with me. The Beatles were generally an upbeat band—they had a great deal to be upbeat about, being young and rich and famous and brilliant—but this song was peevish. Harrison did not want the girl in question. He just wanted to be left the hell alone. He preferred being left behind to stew than to enter into some false teen pleasantness. His response to the biological imperative was to curl into a ball.
The song touched people like me in places they had never been touched before. A kind of sullenness industry blossomed around it. Rock bands with displeased faces began showing up in the racks—Animals, Yardbirds, Stones singing "I Can't Get No Satisfaction". The world awoke to the joy of behaving joylessly.
It wasn't entirely new. Garbo hinted at it. It was apparent in Elvis's sneer, minus the mama's boy act, in J. D. Salinger's unlikable heroes. James Dean was probably the first to nail the message: "There's no way you could possibly possibly comprehend the depth of my inarticulable suffering."
It was a generational reverseroo. The icon of World War II was the good guy, the mensch, Kilroy, the guy willing to put up with cold chow and stacked bodies and still come up smiling, even if a little PTSD. That was the square archetype of that era, the positive fellow, the Sinatra who extended a hearty handshake even when his heart had reason to break. He was a fine person—but not an especially self-aware one.
"Don't Bother Me" marked a pivotal development in postmodern culture. For tens of thousands of years, men wooed women by displaying a cheerful willingness to put up with endless pain in order to procreate. But that ancient deal was now off. No more mensches, the rock stars and movie stars and literary stars were saying. The message from now on is, I'm aggrieved, I'm entitled to a bad attitude, so get the hell outta my way.
To the Kilroys of the world, locked into an outmoded mode, the mask of the salesman, the new way looked like a generation of spoiled brats. What have they got to kick about? They didn't have to wait out the Depression, or slog through Guadalcanal. I'll never forget Dean Martin dissing the Rolling Stones, drink in hand, on his variety show. One roll of those handsome bloodshot eyes said it all—"These guys are going to replace me?" He envisioned the future and it was punk.
What's it mean? It means that the first world was on the brink of trading one defense mechanism (the stiff upper lip, the Cagney) for another (the curled lip, the slacker). The former seems a whole lot more adult, but—former things usually do.
A decade ago George Harrison died. Over the course of his not-very-long life, he matured a good deal. His music certainly took a sharp turn, away from dourness and low expectations and toward a vision of bliss and positivity. But people generally were not fooled. He remained a dour and dyspeptic character—just a better sport about it.
The Greek poet Hesiod, well before Homer, was among the first to observe that human history, far from evolving into something brighter and finer, was a history of slippage, of devolution. Things were not only getting worse, but we were, too.
For Hesiod and Homer it was the descent from a world populated by gods to one led by heroes to one inhabited by ordinary men. Which brings us to our dull bar-coded age, and its grim race of subheroes, the dullards and Dilberts of the consumer world.
"Don't Bother Me" was no help at all. It was just a moan that something was wrong, something was missing. That gesture was the successor to action, that an age of noninvolvement and despair was underway, and GI Joe could pack it in.
But still I lay there, in the dark, in my little town, an ear to my transistor radio, and drew hope from the bitterness of its truth.