Well, the 50th Anniversary of The Beatles exploding on our TV screens on February 9th, 1964, has come and gone. Those of us old enough to have been sitting in front of our TVs that night are sitting at our desks or standing at our bathroom sinks wondering where the hell the time has gone... That Sunday night on CBS had little impact on me, personally, other than the fact that I celebrated the 50th anniversary of my first guitar lesson this week. Ahem.
And yes, I am among the lucky lucky lucky ones...
I saw The Beatles live and in person. I was 11 years old.
You ready to read all about it?
Here we go...
Thank You Thank You Thank You, Dad!
During dinner, one night in June of 1964, out of the blue, my father announced that he'd bought tickets for The Beatles show in New York at the end of the summer.
For an 11-year-old, whose life had been totally turned inside out earlier that year when The Beatles were on the Ed Sullivan Show, and on the radio ever since, this news was instantaneously Christmas times 20!
My heroes were playing Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in Queens and the WMCA Good Guys (my favorite radio station with my favorite jocks) were hosting! Which is kinda interesting with what I know now. On New York City radio in 1964, Murray The K at WINS had immediately and successfully dubbed himself The 5th Beatle. WABC had been calling itself WABeatleC for months. WMCA, while playing the living crap outta them Liverpool Lads, in fact, probably more than either other station, had never been as brazenly Beatle-exploitive. How did they wind up with the Presents?
Anyway, even with my first ever (and wonderful) sleep-away camp experience, that was just about the only summer of my childhood that crept by slowly.
Oh, for some reason, my mother didn't want to go (?!). So, Dad had bought three tickets, one for me, my 9-year -old sister, and him.
When August 29th did finally arrive, I was almost nauseous with excitement. But, all that day, the sky was slate gray and ominously threatening. Oh, please please please don't rain. Just in case, when we left for the show, my Dad brought along a large black umbrella. As we made our way to the subway for the hour-long trek from Brooklyn Heights to Forest Hills, a few older semi-hoodlum boys in my neighborhood who I was in awe/afraid of, were being rowdy at the end of our block. Just as we approached the corner, they tipped over an almost overflowing municipal garbage can and spilled the mess all over the street. Without a moment's hesitation, my Dad lifted the furled umbrella over his head like a saber and started yelling and chasing the bad boys down the street to the utter mortification of his children. I vividly recall being painfully embarrassed by my Dad's display of righteous adult anger all the way to the show. Now, of course, I love him dearly for it.
But, once we arrived, the whole scene obliterated any thought other than...
Oh My God... THE BEATLES!
I'd never been to any event remotely as big or as charged with electric anticipation. While, in retrospect, the old Forest Hills Tennis Stadium was a cozy and intimate outdoor venue, it seemed huge to me. And our seats, about 2/3s back from Paul's side of the stage and about 2/3s up, seemed impossibly far away. Actually, everyone was far away from the stage. Due to the fragile surface of the tennis courts, the entire audience was sitting in the 3/4s surrounding bleachers with only police barricades on the playing field, set up in staggered intervals like an obstacle course. Much like the later Shea Stadium shows, The Beatles essentially played to an empty field.
I barely recall any opening act. There were several. I only remember a band playing some R&B-tinged instrumentals, a black guy in a silver-white silk suit that glowed, some simple choreography thrown in now and then.
Then, the WMCA Good Guys came out and went into that endless annoying warm-up crap that seemed de riguer in those days... I recall my father's exasperation mounting.
"They're almost here! Any minute now. You ready for the Beatles? Oh, you can get louder than that! Give me a B, give me an E..."
It seemed to go on forever... but, was almost surely less than 10 minutes.
And then, lo and behold, a helicopter came out of the murky sky and landed somewhere behind the stage (or was I dreaming that?). Who else could be in that helicopter?! The crowd's anticipation was now at fever pitch. Oh my God! They're HERE! And very soon after, on walked four skinny guys wearing identical black suits, black boots, white shirts and black ties, their famous guitars strapped on, wildly waving and dancing around the stage in that same silly way you'd just seen that summer in Hard Day's Night.
The sound of this screaming audience was beyond anything I'd ever experienced. It was a high-pitched white noise that shut out the entire world. The stadium became an alien place. My astounded father yelled to my sister and me that he thought we'd have to leave.
"We're going to lose our hearing!", he shouted.
The Beatles hadn't played a note yet and he was threatening us with missing them. Before we could even begin to throw a tantrum, The Beatles launched into their first song and the screaming got even louder! It was now a physical force. My Dad was helpless against it.
I could somehow discern drums and a bit of cymbals and the thump of Paul's bass. But I have no recollection of hearing much, if any, guitar. Their frequency was just too close to that of teenage girls in full-throated shriek. And yet, the vocals, for the most part, cut through, and when you heard them, they sounded just like their records. Looking back, and this was years before monitors on stage, it's amazing that they were in key, let alone not even "pitchy" as they used to say on a show called American Idol.
A few vivid moments I remember...
John, introducing the song, "Hard Day's Night" as "from our new movie..." and goofing around in a private-joke way with Paul who pretended to be stern with him...
Bandy-legged George singing "Roll Over Beethoven" and, in general, being much more animated than I'd expected from "The Quiet One"...
The three guys up front making a comically big deal introducing... "RINGO!", to a deadly outburst of screams; Ringo then singing "Boys" with his cymbals now really audible as they were picked up by his vocal mic... and the whole band cracking up at something that happened during that song.
We were sitting just close enough to see their most pronounced facial expressions, like laughing or "Ooooo!"-ing. Actually, now that I think about it, I was closer to The Beatles than at least a dozen acts at Madison Square Garden and stadium shows over the years. Oh, and yes, every time they belted out an "Ooooo!" and shook their famous hair, the screaming was up-a-notch frenzied.
Paul, during another intro near the end of the show, told the audience that he wanted us to stomp our feet, and he demonstrated how he wanted it done, while other Beatles kibitzed his bit. The entire rickety old wooden stadium shuddered as we all followed his directive. I can still clearly see my father's look of real grown-up worry as we attempted to cause the stadium's collapse. Later, on the way home, Dad was genuinely angry with Paul for being "really irresponsible." My sister and I rolled our eyes at each other. "There he goes again!" But, he had just taken us to see The Beatles...
The whole 30 minute show seemed like it was over in five minutes. I suspect that they played no more than nine songs.
Most vividly, like a video in my head, I remember, during the last song (pretty sure it was "Long Tall Sally"; they did a bunch of covers although I know I heard "She Loves You" and "I Want To Hold Your Hand," too), out of the furthest-from-the-stage seats, a woman (actually, probably all of 16-years-old) in a shiny bright emerald green dress suddenly sprinted onto the tennis courts and started charging toward the stage, leaping over some of the police barricades like an Olympic hurdler and scooting around others while several cops chased after her.
She got close enough to the stage for The Beatles to notice her (I think it was George who pointed her out to John and Paul) and I can recall feeling like the whole audience, me included, was cheering her on and collectively groaned (you felt it under the screaming) when she was finally grabbed having not quite made it all the way to the stage. The Beatles feigned disappointment, too, which made them just that much cooler. I think John might've even cheered her on into his mic. It was as if her making it all the way would've put us all onstage with our idols.
Except for just a few moments, usually when either Paul or John was introducing the next song, the screaming simply never ever abated or really even ebbed and flowed. It was a constant steady roar. In fact, after awhile, you could almost ignore it. I know that my acclimated ears heard more of the last three songs than the first three, for sure. Even some of Gretsch George's sharp twangy lead guitar solo in the "Long Tall Sally" closer. I'm betting cranked his amp's volume... hey, last song, y'know.
The PA was maybe the size that you'd see in a 1500-seater nowadays. It's amazing we heard anything.
The post-exhilaration was so strong, and the ringing in my ears so loud, that I had trouble walking to the subway afterwards. My entire body seemed to be humming, my legs were shaky. My sister was clearly dazed. almost to tears. It was one of the few true sensory overloads I've ever experienced.
I never bothered to try to see The Beatles again. It was one of those Once Was Enough events.
Thank You Thank You Thank You, Dad!
Coda: To give my Mom her righteous Beatle props, it was she who took 11 year old me to stand outside the Plaza Hotel, behind a NYPD barricade, in February of 1964. She let me stay for almost two hours, long enough to catch a dusk-glimpse of Paul and John getting out of a long black Cadillac limo and running up the steps and into the revolving doors of the hotel. Both in identical black overcoats, no hats, the famous hair in full view. In fact, it was the shape of their haircuts that helped me ID them. They were out of the limo, up the stairs, and gone, before the screaming from all of us barricaded across the little street by the fountain even took hold. We never saw their faces.
As I recall, I was the youngest kid there and one of very few boys. I had my little bangs brushed down over my forehead and a couple of classy and gracious 15-year-old girls told me that they almost mistook me for a Beatle. That was almost as good as the five-second sighting of two of my gods on a blisteringly cold February afternoon a long long time ago.
Coda Two: Way back in 1968, August 7th, The Who played two shows in Central Park at the Schaefer Festival at the Wollman Rink. Being the Who freak you know I am, I had a rip-roaring time. In about the 6th row, of course. The full story is up here on Huffington Post, actually.
While we were waiting for the second show to begin, there was a sudden burst of commotion a few rows ahead of me. Some girl about my age (15), maybe a year or two older, had just reunited with about six pals she obviously hadn't seen in awhile. Shrieks of delight, cheers, shouted "Oh My God!ss, etc. Everyone laughing and yelling at once.
I happily eavesdropped.
This girl had just gotten back from London that very day, had even come straight to this Who concert from the airport. Hardcore points right there! She started breathlessly (gasping!) telling this incredible story about how she'd been part of a promo film that The Beatles had just made for this amazing new song that they were gonna release that autumn. Her friends were 'Oooo!' and 'Ahhhh!' dazzled.
"Oh my God, it was so great. I was standing between Ringo's drum kit and George. And get this! The song is seven minutes long!!!"
My friend, Anthony, who by now was listening too, rolled his eyes... dismissing the whole deal with, "Awwww... She's tripping!"
All her friends were now just flipping out, giddily congratulating her. Naturally, I was utterly intrigued while also being kinda "Yeah, sure!" skeptical about the whole thing . Although, I had to admit, even as I sat there waiting for The Who, this girl and her friends all seemed totally sane and really kinda cool looking, actually. Hell, they were at a Who concert, right!
About a week later, I found out that my dear friend, David, knew this girl and all her friends. He'd heard the story too and assured me this female friend of his was not a fantasy-spinner.
Well, this was crazy! A seven minute song! Really?!
A month later, on September 8th, 1968, the famous film clip of "Hey Jude" debuted on David Frost's show. I was sitting on my bed watching it with a few friends. About three minutes in, as The Beatles hit the beginning of the big "Na Na Na Nananana" coda, dozens of "civilians" ran up and surrounded The Beatles.
And... There she was!
The girl at The Who concert was exactly where she said she was... between Ringo and George.
She's the sorta tall girl with short dark Christopher Robin hair, wearing a dark green jacket and an eggplant purple t-shirt. Kinda Pre-Raphaelite looking. She shows up several times, but, at one point for a few seconds, it was just her and Ringo Starr on our TV's screen, swaying in 'Naa Naa Naa Nananana' unison!
Oh, Girl At The Who Concert In Central Park In August, 1968...
You are truly immortal!