One afternoon in January of 1964 I went to my best friend Bobby’s house after school.
I heard a racket coming from upstairs, a sound unlike anything I’d ever heard. “What’s that?” He shook his head, little sisters. “Abby. She’s been playing that song nonstop since yesterday,”
Over at Bobby’s the next afternoon that song was still playing. I ventured upstairs, put my head in the door. The sound came from a 45, playing on Abby’s little player on auto repeat. It got to the end and started again, and now I listened to the beginning. This chugging sound – that of the world’s greatest rhythm guitar player – made something happen in my belly, like when you’re starved and you wolf down a hamburger. “Yeah you got that something, I think you understand…” This song had that something, I didn’t understand, but I had to have it. I finally tore myself away, worried that Bobby might think I actually liked it. He said, “Terrible, isn’t it?” I nodded, but I was hooked.
A few weeks later my parents and sister and I huddled in front of our black-and-white TV in my parent’s bedroom, waiting for the band to come on. As they grinned and shook their heads, “Ooh!” they sounded even better than on the record. Their hair was obviously longer than on the album. I reached up to my crew cut, and began planning how I might skip my next haircut.
I was excited, but not as excited as those girls, who screamed and tore at their hair.
I’d never seen anyone that excited. Why? My sense that the Beatles didn’t belong there in my parent’s bedroom increased, along with my excitement.
My mother and sister liked them, but my father grumbled something and left the room. Later in the year when the phenomenon of Beatlemania showed no signs of abating, he told me with certitude, “Mark my words. They’re a fad, like goldfish swallowing. No one will remember them in three years.” I didn’t argue, but for the first time I just knew he was wrong. I marked his words.
The subject of the Beatles never came up again between us, except indirectly. He’d look at me, frown, and say, “You need to get a haircut!”
I’d never bothered to read our local paper before. Now I did. Every week they published the top forty. The Beatles held the top 15 slots, and the paper had made every song number one. The rest of the chart with the other bands was squeezed down at the bottom of the page. It confirmed my feeling that something was happening that went beyond being a popular band.
The Beatles arrived right on the heels of JFK’s assassination, like morning after a dark, cold night. They were a great glowing thing out there. Even when out of sight and sound I sensed their presence, somehow making my life better. I’d think of them and get a warm feeling and smile – yeah!
My friend Peter also sensed that glowing thing out there. It wasn’t enough to listen and see from afar. We wanted to touch it, get our hands on it. One day at his house I played his grand piano, a boogie-woogie in F# some kid had shown me. He sat under the piano and played his trumpet, really just one note in that foreign key. I asked him, “Why are you down there? “ It seemed strange behavior for such a normal kid. “The sound’s better down here.” Good enough reason. We played that piece all afternoon.
Guitar was my real instrument. I’d been playing an acoustic for a year and a half and had gotten quite good. Peter and I and the rest of us eighth graders went to dancing class that year. From my first attempts at a foxtrot I discovered I hated dancing. It was one thing to stumble around the ball field to the laughter of other boys. Here the stakes were higher. I was reaching the age where I needed to get close to girls. My clumsy feet were not going to be the way to do it.
My classmate Michael also played guitar. Our dance teacher asked us to play for the class. It was a disaster. We didn’t bother to tune up, so our guitars were a half step apart, grinding against each other like gears in a shot transmission. The mic we’d taped to the ceiling fell down in the middle of a song and we had to jump back. None of it mattered because I’d come to a happy realization: if you were in the band you didn’t have to dance. I would never forget it.
Someone heard of some old guys– 17 years old! – down in New Haven who had a band that played Beatle songs. We said – Hey, we can do the same thing. I don’t remember what the name of that band in New Haven was, but we became the Upstate Beatles. We prepared for a talent show coming up in Deep River. We assembled in Peter’s large basement, Peter with his younger brother’s set of drums, and Michael, who to my disbelief brought not only his electric guitar, but his brother’s for me to play.
He handed it to me, glaring, “You break this and he’ll kill me. You too.” I took it gingerly, not just because of Michael’s brother, but because I knew that from the first chord I struck I’d be crossing a Rubicon. I’d be leaving the safe world of folkies, which even my father was comfortable in, and enter the realm of greasers, rock and roll, of the Four Seasons whose “Sherrie Baby” I loved to mock in a grating shriek, my idea of the worst music. The moment I hit the strings and the sound leapt from the amp, LOUD! I forgot all that. I felt the power of this thing in my hands, a power that was now mine. Its knobs and switches reminding me of the consoles in the rockets I’d so admired a few years back. Knobs, switches, and four pickups.
But who would be who? Peter with the drums was obviously Ringo. Michael was tall and gawky, and therefore George. I was the “musician in the band, “ so got to play my namesake John. We were shy a Paul.
A classmate of ours owned a nylon string guitar, sang a bit, and had the additional asset of already having long dark hair. She was a girl. That she didn’t play a note was irrelevant as long as she could hold the guitar lefty like Paul did. Peter’s parents were more liberal than Michael’s or mine, so his hair was long enough that all he had to do was slather it with shoe polish to look like Ringo. Michael and I bought Beatle wigs.
Backstage at the talent show I was ushered into a dressing room with light bulbs surrounding the mirror. I had lipstick, eye shadow and make up applied. My jitters crept up a notch. I asked, “Why?” It was bad enough having a girl in the band, but to look like one…”You’ll look better under the lights.” The lights. Jeez. But as they secured my wig with bobby pins I nodded – I was about to shake my head as I sang “ooh” on “She Loves You” and it would not do for my hair to fly off into the crowd.
The great glowing orb of the Beatles had a magnetic quality that over the coming years would drastically realign whole aspects of society. In the entertainment business their effect was immediate and violent. And so we, by far the youngest and greenest act in the Deep River talent show, headlined, just as our idols did on Ed Sullivan. And as with the Sullivan show our audience had to sit through the acts of jugglers, unicyclists and those guys who twirled plates on the end of sticks. These had been mainstays of entertainment since Vaudeville. But in the light of the Beatles they instantly lost their luster, creaking on a fast trip towards the dustbin of entertainment history.
Peter and I watched the act before ours from a projection booth at the back of the hall, careful not to be seen by the crowd. Some older girls sang close harmony, like the Andrews Sisters, accompanied by a bald guy with an accordion. We grinned at each other – we’d take them, no problem! Then they hit their last number. As my ears disentangled “All My Loving” from its archaic arrangement, I whispered to Peter, outraged, “They’re stealing our encore!” But we had nothing to worry about.
The curtain slid open, I yelled “One, two three, fah!” and we launched into “I Saw Her Standing There.” I hadn’t finished the count off before the girls started screaming. And they screamed throughout our set. I’m sure we were terrible. But no one would ever know, because as with the real Beatles the screaming drowned out the music.
As a shy, slight 13 year old some months short of puberty the effect of that reception was incalculable. It’s a testament to the power of the Beatles that the palest of imitators at a backwater talent show could elicit that response.
On the way home from the gig up old Rt. 9, the parent driving stopped at a country roadhouse so we could celebrate. Still wearing our wigs and makeup, we continued our Beatles act, joking and knocking back sodas like liquor, the way we imagined our heroes would. The elderly patrons still in the place at that late hour looked on stupefied, as though we’d just arrived from some distant galaxy. It sparked an epiphany.
I’d been different my whole life, an outsider, a freak. It had always felt bad. This kind of different felt good. No, great. It was a moment of premonition. A time was coming when the freaks were going to run the circus, the weirder you were the better.
That night changed my life, and Peter’s as well. It set him on his course to a successful career in TV. For better and worse, it sealed my fate as a member of the counterculture. It was the beginning of my life as a professional musician.