Wistfully Remembering Four
“Come see what British girls are flipping over.”
My mother called to me from the living room. I sauntered in, glanced at the television, and felt mildly amused by what was on the screen: four long-haired musicians standing at the top of airplane stairs, glancing below at hordes of screaming girls who were shoving forward and waving to the figures above.
Two days later, I too, waited in breathless anticipation for the Beatles to appear on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” By then they were all the buzz, and my two best friends from church had been fanning my excitement.
The problem? My parents invited our conservative minister for dinner, specifically to see “Bonanza” on our new color television. Although we usually watched Ed Sullivan on Sunday evenings, I wasn’t sure it would be acceptable this time. I was terrified I would miss what everyone at school was talking about, but we all ended up watching the Beatles together, preacher included. The close-up of Paul McCartney singing “All My Loving” on February 9, 1964, was it for me. Although I kept emotions inside, my palms sweat, my heart fluttered, and I fell in love. At fourteen years of age, a freshman in high school, I was hooked, with a fever that stayed lit for the next four years.
“Oh yeah, I was a Beatles fan too,” is a refrain I’ve frequently heard. But no, not like me. My bedroom walls were plastered with photos of them, separately and collectively, with no remaining space for anything else. I had Beatle pen pals from all over the world. Letters were waiting for me every day after school, the back of each envelope covered with their photos, and "yeah,
yeah, yeahs” printed all over the front. We shared pictures, the latest Beatles gossip, surveys, and fantasies. With my bedroom door closed, I played their records non-stop. I listened nightly to local radio stations, voting every evening for my favorite Lennon-McCartney tunes so they would always win “most requested.” I’d dial the rotary phone as many times as I could during the call-in period, until my finger was numb. To hear English accents, my friends and I would contact toll-free international information in England, keeping operators on the telephone by asking about the weather and telling them we were Beatle fans. They were frequently amused, and would talk to us as long as allowed. I joined Beatle fan clubs all over the world, filled scrapbooks with their photos, and thought about nothing else.
I was obsessed.
This passion included their wives and girlfriends. I wanted to be like them. Even today I can tell you more about them than anyone would care to know: Maureen Cox, Pattie Boyd, Jane Asher, and Cynthia Lennon. I let my hair grow long and straight, and began to look at English fashions—mini-skirts, midi-skirts with boots, heavy eye makeup. It was the Swinging Sixties in London, and I followed their trends into college years. I ordered a paper mini-dress through the mail. Another time I cut my hair about an inch short so I could look like Twiggy, a mistake so serious I’ve never again allowed my hair to be shorter than shoulder length.
I became infatuated with British music, otherwise known as the Mersey Beat, after its namesake river in Liverpool. Groups included Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, and Freddie and the Dreamers (famous for the dance “Do the Freddie”). Over time, I added other English artists: Cilla Black, Peter and Gordon, Marianne Faithfull, the Animals, and of course, the Rolling Stones. The British Invasion was taking over American music. One of my friends left Beatlemania for the Dave Clark Five, another for the Beach Boys and the surfing phase, but I held strong.
The highlight of those years was attending their 1964 concert at the Cow Palace in Daly City, the start of their first official U.S. tour. My friend Kathleen managed to buy two tickets, no easy feat since the concert sold out almost instantly. My father agreed to take us, with my sisters and mother tagging along to wait in the car. The excitement could be felt throughout the crowd. No one paid attention to the opening acts. Our seats were relatively far from the stage, with a clear advantage: we could hear their music piped in through loud speakers. Those with seats on the ground floor heard nothing but screams, standing so bunched together that people fainted. The only way to secure their limp bodies was to pass them over the crowd and hand them to onstage security. One girl “came to” as she passed Paul. She grabbed for him and almost pushed him off the stage. At best, landing in that mass of writhing, screaming bodies would have resulted in serious injury.
Most audience members screamed. I cried. Non-stop. The emotions of the moment were too strong to handle.
The Beatles played for thirty-three minutes. As Kathleen and I exited, passing the stage, we saw the back bars of metal folding chairs bent into zig-zag patterns, from the crush of the crowd.
The next event we looked forward to was the release of their first feature film: “A Hard Day’s Night.” Opening to critical acclaim, it was loosely based on the group’s train trip to their next performance, including comedic antics and off-the-wall humor. Directed by Richard Lester, Ringo emerged as the hit of the movie. This time I, too, screamed during the Walnut Creek screening, and then I saw it four more times.
By 1966, my best friend Cheryl scored two seats to their Candlestick Park concert. She offered me one of the much-prized tickets, but my parents made me join the family road trip to my older sister’s Illinois college. As it turned out, the August 29th concert was the last stop on the Beatles’ final tour, and I never forgave my parents.
The next year brought other adventures. Cheryl and I attended the San Francisco International Film Festival to see John Lennon’s performance as Musketeer Gripweed in Richard Lester’s “How I Won the War.” Then Jane Asher, Paul McCartney’s long-term girlfriend, came to San Francisco to play Juliet in Bristol Old Vic’s “Romeo and Juliet.” After much wrangling (wiring flowers to her dressing room, sleuthing-out her hotel, and convincing the stage door manager she really had invited us), Cheryl and I interviewed Ms. Asher after the show, ostensibly for her fan club newsletter. We never submitted the article, but we were allowed back stage where we talked to her about anything but the Beatles. We understood she wanted to be her own person and not his appendage. Paul was never mentioned. She was a sweet, down-to-earth person, removing her stage makeup as we talked, dressed in her open green and white bathrobe with a white slip underneath.
The next morning Cheryl called with news: the San Francisco Chronicle had written a story about Paul slipping into town to celebrate Jane’s 21st birthday.
“Maybe,” she took a breath. “Maybe Jane mentioned to Paul the two nice young girls who interviewed her.”
That was our closest brush with Beatles fame.
Our next adventure was the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, the first outdoor pop music concert, with an estimated three-day attendance of over 200,000 people. We’d heard the Beatles might show up, and we wanted to be there in case the rumor was true. This time, we talked Cheryl’s dad into driving us down for the afternoon show. It was the heyday of flower power and San Francisco’s Summer of Love, and I carried a stolen a press pass from my internship at our local newspaper. It wasn’t a real festival press pass, but it looked official enough for us to make it backstage several times before being discovered and escorted out. We yelled “have you seen the Beatles?” to Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees, dressed in full Indian headgear and costume.
“No, no” he responded.
Elsewhere, Cheryl accidentally stepped backward into the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones. We also saw three of the four Mamas and the Papas: Cass Elliot, and John and Michelle Phillips, who tried to help us procure official passes. A highlight, however, was a brief stint inside a dark tent behind the stage, watching a nude toddler with long, curly golden locks, running freely. Cheryl and I laughed together, joined by a husky-voiced hippie-looking chick, exchanging a few monosyllabic words as we enjoyed the child’s nonchalance.
Then it was time to watch the performances we’d paid to see. It was an afternoon of San Francisco groups, well-known by many because of concerts at the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore. After a few songs, onto the stage walked our backstage friend, belting out incredible blues riffs that totally blew us away. I’d never heard a voice like hers. It was Janis Joplin herself, along with her cohorts in Big Brother and the Holding Company. The crowd went crazy. This became the beginning of national success for Janis, giving her the recognition she so totally deserved.
Cheryl and I graduated from high school around the time of Monterey Pop, and I knew it was time to wean myself from my obsession. Being a Beatles fan hadn’t been cool for a long time. My passion was mostly a secret. In my senior yearbook I wrote that I loved Aston Martins, an oblique homage to Paul because he had one. The truth was, I didn’t know an Aston Martin from any other car. Before Cheryl, I’d hung out with the folk group at our high school. They were the intellectual ones with long hair and peace buttons, the ones who were outraged with Bob Dylan when he went electric. I didn’t even know who Robert Zimmerman was, and I didn’t feel like I was up to the folk group’s intellectual sensitivities. They tolerated me, but I didn’t really belong. My home life wasn’t good; the Beatles were my escape. My safety net. I was young for my age, and I knew it. I realize they were also a safe place for Beatlemaniacs’ raging hormones. We could fantasize, but we knew they weren’t our reality. I dated a couple of times in high school, but while others were having sex and drinking, I’d been closeted in my room with the Beatles. College was starting; it was time to move on. I took down the pictures from my bedroom walls, and threw out my scrapbooks. I kept their LPs and one photo—supposedly signed by all four of them, with a special note on the back: “Lots of Luck, George.” My Liverpool pen pal said her mother obtained it because she was one of their roadies. Even now, the photograph sits on the top of my piano, much to the amusement of friends who’ve heard me labor through sheet music—wondering if it’s supposed to be inspiration. I also have the program Jane Asher signed, and Beatles books that friends and family have given me.
Sometimes I wish I’d kept a few more items…for historical purposes, of course. Maybe my Cow Palace ticket. Or the swatch of bedsheet from the hotel bed one of them supposedly slept in, which my mother bought for me through her church’s fundraiser.
Am I still hooked, or obsessed? No, but sometimes their memories hold a soft spot in my heart. They changed my outlook on life, exposing me to 60s culture, Britain, an awareness of the outside world, theatre, art, and the world of sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
After Monterey Pop, I attended other concerts and festivals, some with locally famous groups and others with some of the greats—Country Joe and the Fish, Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and Big Brother (using the same press pass to again exchange a few words with Janis), the Grateful Dead, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Patti Smith, Donovan, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Rolling Stones. I watched one of Jim Morrison’s masturbation episodes on stage as he sang “Light My Fire” to thousands of concert-goers, danced to the Chambers Brothers “Time Has Come Today” as the sun set in front of us, and heard Baez’ angelic voice at Glide Memorial during the first stop after David Harris was released from prison for refusing the draft. I woke up to the strains of Donovan singing during day three of England’s Bath Festival, in a sea of garbage and mud, after sharing tarps with strangers to keep us dry from the previous night’s rain. I left Altamont in the middle of the Stones’ set, because one of my friends was nervous about where the crowd was heading. Our exit happened after watching two unclothed, more than 300 pound individuals run through thousands of people to join each other in a hug. The crowd cheered with approval.
I wouldn’t change those experiences for anything.
At barely twenty-one I took the obligatory three and a half-month backpacking trip to Europe, starting with my long-held desire to visit England. My traveling companion and I hitchhiked, sharing rides with truckers and families, and rode subways and buses. I made my way to Liverpool, but no longer had an interest in seeing anything Beatles-related. We planned on spending the night in the train station, but it closed at midnight. I slept in an outside stairwell with a man I’d just met; Linda slept with his friend on the top of a statue.
Years later, I returned to Liverpool with my young daughter. This time we visited the Cavern, considered by many the birthplace of the Beatles, and took a tour of everything-Beatles with a small group of other tourists—seeing where they grew up, and hearing personal stories of the driver’s memories of that time period. By then, I was ready to enjoy them again.
As time passed, did I totally abandon my interest in the Fab Four? Not entirely, but I was no longer infatuated. Over the years my interest has been more down than up. On December 8, 1980, when John Lennon was murdered, I heard the news on the radio in the middle of a date with someone I barely knew. My reaction was subdued. John hadn’t been important in my life for a long time. I found rumors of his behavior strange: the Amsterdam Bed-In after his marriage to Yoko, the Kotex attached to his forehead after exiting a bathroom at the Troubador in Los Angeles, rumors of heroin addiction. In general, the newer music wasn’t all that interesting to me, except for “Imagine,” one of the best songs ever written. I didn’t wish him ill, but I felt unattached. And yet, alone that evening, the tears started to come. I cried all the next day, commiserated with a close friend and Beatles fan over the telephone, and stayed home from my full-time faculty position at a local community college. I talked to my mother over the telephone. She told me my father said: “She’ll be sick over this.” I was. It was all too much to absorb.
Apparently ready for a comeback at the time of his death, John and Yoko’s new “Double Fantasy” album was wonderful. I began to appreciate him again. At times I’ve even regretted that Paul had been my focus; why not John, the more intellectually challenging one?
The next time I was in New York, I visited the Dakota, the building where John and Yoko lived. It’s become a pilgrimage for many, since it’s also the site of John’s death. Strawberry Fields, a two and-a-half-acre section of Central Park directly across from the Dakota, was dedicated to John’s memory a year after he died. A black and white mosaic with the word “Imagine” is the focal point of this peaceful area. Beatles fans come and go, leaving flowers, notes, and drawings. A small group of dedicated fans visits daily. They sweep, clean up dead flowers and faded gifts, and quietly sing Beatles songs.
By 1986, I was teaching in London. One afternoon, one of my students knocked on my door. “Look,” she said, thrusting a photo into my hand. And there was Paul. She’d hung out at Abbey Road Studios, hoping to catch a glimpse of him coming to or from a recording session.
“Up walked a grey-haired man...” she said.
In 2001, I lived in New York. On a guided walking tour of Central Park, the last stop was Strawberry Fields. After everyone said their good-byes, one of the self-appointed caretakers of the area mentioned that Yoko Ono had walked through not long before, and would undoubtedly return within the next hour, if we cared to wait. My first response? “I’m beyond this. I don’t need to do that kind of thing anymore.” Then I remembered the postcards I carried with me and needed to write. I convinced myself there was no harm in staying. I could be productive and still see what happened. Twenty minutes later, there she was. Two young men rushed over to talk to Yoko. A diminutive woman, she spoke quietly with them as her companion borrowed their camera for a photo. I felt no need to join them, I just wanted to be in her presence. I guess I still wanted to be close to John in some tiny way. I grabbed my camera and took a picture from where I sat. Then other passersby noticed her, and she quickly disappeared.
When George Harrison died later that year, I headed for the same area. Throngs of fans showed up, bringing candles, flowers, and guitars. I stayed and sang with them, until they switched from George’s songs to general Beatles songs. I was annoyed. He worked so hard to develop his own songwriting identity among his cohorts, and he wrote some beautiful lyrics: “Something” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” were my favorites. I left, reminiscing in my own way.
The same year, “A Hard Day’s Night” was shown at the theater in New York City’s Lincoln Center. Seeing it again on the big screen brought back fond memories, but without tears or screams.
On July 10, 2010 Cheryl and I attended Paul McCartney’s concert in San Francisco. At first, we agreed not to go. Good seats were $200 and neither of us had paid attention to his music for a long time. Radio stations and television ads kept promoting his show. We changed our minds and bought tickets.
Cheryl and I had kept in contact over the years, although our paths differed. She dropped out of college and panhandled in the Haight for a while. I earned advanced degrees while dabbling in men, drugs and political action. Later, she married, had children, and lived a middle-class life, eventually returning to school and working as a psychologist. Meanwhile, I single-parented my adopted child, and stayed busy in academia. Now, we were both in new relationships and part of the retired baby boomer generation.
We stopped for dinner and then walked to AT&T Park. She offered me a loaded brownie; I declined. Those days were over for me.
The concert started about two hours late. The crowd became restless, but the moment Paul walked onstage, all was forgiven. He had us in the palm of his hand. At 68, he looked good and his voice hadn’t changed. I’m not into pop music anymore, and I was afraid that’s what he’d sing, but he rocked the night away. We stood, we danced, we listened, we watched the night-time stars, and we sang along.
The magic remained.