Nostalgia for the Pepsi Generation
Strawberry Fields Forever, a fan club devoted to "the care and preservation of The Beatles," has spent most of July pushing its first Annual Beatle Convention. And now, all the hype bears its fruit. Devotees of Paul, John, George and Ringo have made the pilgrimage to Boston's Bradford Hotel. From California, from New York, from France, they have come for five hours of live Beatle music, ten hours of Beatle films, and an orgy of buying, trading and auctioning.
A rock group, specializing in Beatle sounds, provides the music. They sing with an English accent--the same saucy intonation as the four gods they mimic. Their lead singer even talks like Paul. Funny thing--the accent; after three days of the Beatle convention, half the people have developed a pidgin Cockney.
The dance floor fills with couples reliving junior high sock-hops. Every few minutes a fellow who works nights for Penn Central and is calling in sick to be here, jumps up to imitate Lennon. "Back in the USSR. Yeah! Back in the USSR," he sings, waving an invisible guitar over his head. "Yabadabadaba!" shouts someone as a Magical Mystery Tour Guide throws a box of blurry photos over the balcony. Suddenly, there's a minor re-enactment of mobbing the Beatles; this time it's only pictures. Hands clutch at the paper, as though they were home runs hit into Fenway bleachers. Another memento for the scrapbooks.
It's been a decade since The Beatles, looking like moddish Eton schoolboys in tailored suits, made their American debut. "It was February 9, 1964, that fateful night," says Mike DeJoseph. "The Beatles were gonna be on Ed Sullivan. It went on at 8 o'clock, past my bedtime. But I had to see the Beatles. I begged my parents to let me stay up--I said I'd go to bed at five for the rest of the week."
The Beatles became heroes to a nation of screaming little girls--little girls who pledged their hearts, proffered their bodies, and fainted in droves. "God, when you're 12, there's nothing else," remembers Melinda Rosenweig. "They were the first cute guys I was aware of--it was sort of an introduction to sex. They were cute men in suits, and they didn't look like your father." At hundreds of airports police erected barricades to protect the idols from those throbbing hearts; the Beatles staged daring escapes from their hotel rooms in refrigerated meat wagons. "I was in shock for five minutes," says a blonde girl wearing an over-sized "I Love Ringo" tee-shirt. Her eyes blur as she recalls her first sight of The Beatles: "Then it comes to you like total disbelief: These are them! You're seeing The Beatles, and they walk and breathe--the gods are really real! It's all the happiest emotions combined into one. Like ecstasy. I stuck my hand through the fence and touched Paul's arm. I really did. Like I feel I know them."
As time went on, The Beatles became much more than fantasies of pre-pubescent girls. Esquire Magazine dubbed The Beatles "Purveyors of the New Sentimentality"; newspapers hailed them as "the Voice of the '60 s"; and critics compared them to Beethoven and Chopin, Sinatra and Presley, Eliot and O'Neill. In high schools, English teachers used "relevant" Beatle songs to communicate with their alienated students. In academia, scholars minutely analyzed the irony and symbolism of "Sergeant Pepper." People were married to the music of The Beatles, and at least one man had his funeral conducted to the tunes of the Liverpool boys.
At first, parents reviled The Beatles for their monstrously long hair and their raucous music. "The British Invasion," costumed in Carnaby Street rags, was undermining the taste and morals of their children. But The Beatles weren't a passing fancy that would go away. As new groups tried to sell acid rock and noise, The Beatles became, well, acceptable. "They weren't greasy like the motorcycle bunch of the '50 s," says one fan, "and they weren't slick like Bowie or Alice Cooper are now. The Beatles were nice--you could've brought one home to your parents." Today, orchestrations of "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby" are pumped into supermarkets. One girl even caught her "mother bopping around to Beatle songs."
Of course, there is also the lunatic fringe. Hard-core addicts are not content merely to enjoy the music; they devote their time and salaries to Beatle trivia. Jeff Symes is a pious Beatle person. He claims everything reminds him of The Beatles: He can't look at breakfast without remembering that the original title of "Yesterday" was "Scrambled Eggs." "My room is four walls of inch to inch Beatles. My Mom won't let me put things on the ceiling yet. Someday, I'll put it all in a museum."
"I went to London and got some bricks from the Abbey Road wall," says Joel Glazier, a bearded, dogmatic fan from Delaware. He grins wildly as he describes his precious finds. "Besides the bricks, I went to each of The Beatles' homes and picked up gravel and sticks. Of course at Abbey Road, I had to take my shoes off and walk across like Paul. It was January, and God, it was cold." The gathered fans nod solemnly--spellbound and envious. "I went through the garbage cans at Apple. I found the bill from when John ordered cartons of Dr. Pepper shipped from California. Just as I was leaving Apple, Paul goes by on a bike. He gives me a V-sign; I took a picture. I thought, 'Wow, Paul gave me the peace sign.' Later, I found out the way he did it means the finger in England. I don't care; I have a photo of Paul giving me the finger."
The hotel auditorium hosts the sale and auction. Baroque roses on the ceiling and wooden chandeliers seem incongruous with the psychedelic Beatle posters. Joe Pope, founder of Strawberry Fields Forever, serves as auctioneer. Wearing a white Beatle-buttoned tee-shirt and a tuxedo, Joe holds up a "Genuine Beatle Lunchbox." Well kiddies, you remember those little metal cases with the smiling faces of Paul, John, George, and Ringo. "OK, I have 50 cents, $2, $4, $5, $6...$10.50 once, twice, sold!" The crowd snatches up other rarities: a Beatlemobile, made of paper and string, for $10; a Revere plastic model of Ringo, just like your favorite songbird or racing car, for $11. Joe picks up a hand-painted sign reading, "Koo Koo Koo Joop." "Whoever can tell me what book Lennon got this word from gets a free album." Purists should know tangential questions like this. Why, just the other day, when Joe was doing a radio show, someone called to confirm Lennon's license plate number.
"Here's something rare and extremely hard to find," continues Joe, as he shows four Beatle dolls with hair--with hair! "They all resemble The Beatles, except for John who looks like Peter Sellers." The crowd ooh's and ahh's. At five dollars per Beatle, it's quite a bargain.
Now for the big item of the day: the legendary Butcher album. When the "Yesterday and Today" album first came out, it pictured The Beatles dressed as butchers and surrounded by wooden babies and chopped meat. Quite grotesque--too grotesque for the public taste in 1967. Capitol pasted new covers on the unreleased albums; mint-condition models of the original butchers are like two-dollar bills. Fans scurry up, hands reach out to touch the record, Instamatics and Nikons flash at the cover. A fellow in whitened jeans and a workshirt quietly offers $200--the stipulated minimum bid. There are no other takers; it's his. "I had nothing better to spend it on," says Peter Kunkel, who earned the money working in an Indiana bicycle shop. "Ever since my babysitter took me to one of their first concerts, I've been collecting Beatle stuff."
This compulsion to buy surges through the crowd of Beatle people, like the frenzy that excites bargain hunters in Filene's basement. But here, price is no object. Disease, fever, obsession. Yes, it's all that, the fans agree. But don't you understand? If it's connected with The Beatles, it's important. Mike DeJoseph, who has travelled to Europe in search of Beatle records, is adamant: "I have to collect everything connected with them. I won't croak until I have everything. That's why I was sent to this earth."
"Oh, WOW," shrieks a busty girl in an Apple tee-shirt. Beatle pins reading, "I Love Paul," "I Love Ringo," and "Beatles Forever," dangle off her hip-huggers. She fondles the 45 recording of "Love Me Do." "How much?...$6.00? Oh wow. Sure."
The merchants of Beatle paraphernalia are doing good business. A pair of genuine Beatle sneakers goes for $45. After all, the lucky buyers also gets the shoe-box, similarly emblazoned with the mugs of the fabulous four. For $10 you can purchase vintage copies of Faye, Rave and Movie Times: "Does Paul Live with the Ashers?" "The Beatles' REAL Story," and "Beatles Up to Date: Latest Pix Story." What could possibly induce one to part with such treasures? Certainly not money; perhaps the seller has duplicate copies. Such are the thoughts that go through the minds of Beatle buyers.
Phyllis Silverberg and Melinda Rosenweig have come from New York. Phyllis, a plump, round-faced girl, has seen "Hard Days Night" 15 times. She owns a plate that George ate from at New York's Idlewild Hotel and an inch of Paul's bathtowel. "It was everything--you ate, drank, and slept Beatles. We used to have fights over whom to like better. I liked Paul--I thought he was the most wonderful person in the world. He was soooooo cute." Phyllis shows off her ring. It has a blinking face of Paul that says, "I'm Paul." "I really hated Jane Asher, Paul's old girlfriend. I still do."
"We used to judge everyone by The Beatles," says Melinda. "You could describe anyone by saying, 'Oh, he's a George type.' The first question you'd ask someone was 'Do you like The Beatles?' If they said no, you had nothing in common." The background music is very loud. "All My Loving" floats over the audience in waves, and Phyllis and Melinda are euphoric. "God, do you remember," says Melinda, "In sixth grade, you wrote a letter to The Beatles saying how we all loved them, and we all signed it. We became friends over The Beatles."
Beatle trading cards, Beatle coloring books, Beatle comics. Going over to friends' homes to listen to the newest album, going down to the basement to play along with the music and using baseball bats and string as guitars. "I was so happy then--completely lost in them. It was sort of like finding God," says Phyllis. "I haven't been so happy since. You sat around and said, 'Oh, Ohhhhhhhh, The Beatles!' My parents said, 'It's a phase, you'll outgrow it,' but I said, 'Never, never.' It was my whole life till they broke up. That was the end of an era. It was my childhood ending. Since then, there's been nothing. You just go to work and sleep."
To remember, to reminisce: That's why these fans have come to the Beatle convention. "It's hard to accept that it's over," says Rita Angel, a former Apple worker. "I almost want to cry, seeing all this. When I was a kid, they were something to believe in. I know it sounds corny, but now we have got to get together and talk about old times. It's escapism and it's nostalgia, but people need it."
It's been ten years. The Beatles have split up, succumbing to business pressures and individualism. Yet many still cherish a Messianic belief that the four will get back together. "When you are friends over 15 years, when you experience so much together, you are like brothers. They need each other," says Jacques Volcouve. Nor does Mike DeJoseph give up hope: "Every night I pray that they'll come back together. It's my own dream." In any case, the myth of the Beatles lives on. "They were the greatest social force of all time, except for the Gutenberg Bible," says Joe Pope. "Their music was the best. But you can't go back; you can only remember...At this point, I don't really want to meet any of them. I think it might destroy the magic. I'd rather keep the image intact."