07 October 2010

The Beatles and Me

By Kirk Woodward

[Kirk, who’s published many interesting articles on ROT over the past year-and-a-half, is a huge fan of the Beatles. We share that sentiment, but Kirk’s more knowledgeable than I am, both of the history and backgrounds of the Fab Four and of the musicology of their work. Kirk’s a composer and musician, among his other talents, and while I have the albums and try to sing along with the songs on the radio, he knows a thing or two about the musicianship of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. When Kirk sent me this recollection, he told me he was surprised to find that he’d recorded his impressions so soon after the events. “It felt like finding a buried treasure,” he wrote me. I’m mighty glad he did—and that he’s sharing the memories with us. ~Rick]

For those of us who first encountered the Beatles in 1963, when they made their initial impression – to put it mildly – on the United States, the idea that I or anyone I knew would ever have a personal encounter with any them, much less see them perform live, was practically inconceivable. Yet I’ve done both, and the most recent event happened only a short time ago as I write this. I’ll begin at the beginning . . .

The first I remember of the Beatles was a song on the radio – I think it was probably “From Me To You,” and I liked the harmonies, but I only heard it once at that point. (Initially the “single” didn’t sell in the US at all.) The next I recall, following a lot of stories in the newspaper, was watching their first Ed Sullivan appearance in 1964 with the rest of our church youth group. One of the members of the group was in a band, and I remember his saying, “I’ve heard that they aren’t any better than we are.” In a funny sense, that was true – the Beatles weren’t really virtuosos on their instruments (except maybe Paul). On the other hand, the local band wasn’t on Ed Sullivan, either.

I enjoyed the TV appearance, liked it a lot, actually. Such at least is my memory; my diary’s mention of the event, in its entirety, reads, “Also watched the Beatles.” I also wrote about watching them on May 24, with no more detail. Eventually I caught almost all of their US TV appearances, including the thrilling one on Shindig, which can be seen, among other places, on YouTube. Of course I started buying and listening to their albums, and in no time I was a real fan. I find increasingly frequent references to them in my diary for 1964 and thereafter.

Information on bands today is practically real-time, thanks to the Internet. Not so in the sixties, when there could be a lag of months between what the Beatles did in England and what we heard, or heard about, here. Still, information filtered through. At a record store I saw a book about playing rock like the Beatles, which I wish I’d bought – what a treasure that would be to own today. I recall its detailing John’s rhythm guitar style (beat STRUM beat STRUM, STRUM STRUM STRUM STRUM), whether accurately or not I have no idea. I also remember a picture of Paul singing with an earnest expression, and the caption “Paul puts his heart into everything he sings.” That’s fan journalism for you.

Our friends the Paradises saw the Beatles on their first major American tour, and enjoyed them. I remember they recounted how George spat on a countoff (One, two, three, SPIT), which one either finds funny or not. I listened to their reports with deep envy.

My diary contains various inconsequential Beatle references for the following couple of years, but a significant milestone occurred in my freshman year at college, when Rubber Soul came out. It’s difficult to convey today the sensation that each new album, from Rubber Soul on, caused. Each was an artistic earthquake, an event to be discussed, analyzed, and absorbed. We would ordinarily hear the songs on the radio before the album was available. After a night of initial listening to Rubber Soul (the American version, of course – we had no idea that the British album included some different songs), the next morning at breakfast I said to John Burgard, a friend from Louisville who was a fine guitarist, “That’s different, isn’t it?” He confirmed it – yes, he said, it’s not like anything else. I wrote home:

Please latch onto ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face’ and ‘It’s Only Love’ in any form as soon as possible, and I’ll repay you; guess they’re not out as singles or albums yet. A boy here who’s a lead guitar player when in Louisville says the Beatles aren’t technically tops in speed or agility at playing but their songs and arrangements are superior and they have great style, and have fun while they’re performing all the time, among the few, he said, that do. Professional opinion.

John Burgard, incidentally, was later to try desperately to learn to play the thirds on the guitar lead in “And Your Bird Can Sing.” He was never able to do it, which makes sense since either Paul or John – accounts differ – played one of the lines along with George – it wasn’t one guitarist. Rubber Soul, in its American format, is heavily folk-oriented, but more than that, it’s musically wonderful, and more than that, you get the feeling, or I did, that the Beatles as people are people you want to know more about.

That’s the key to the Beatles for me, really – not just the music, but the sense it conveys of what George Bernard Shaw calls the greatest achievement in art: belief in the artists’ real selves. That hasn’t changed for me in the years since. I don’t mean that I followed the Beatles’ positions on religion or politics necessarily – I try not to take my guidance from popular songs – but they and I were friends for life.

June 13, 1966 – I checked on the new Beatles album, not in yet. “Want to see why?” the man at One Stop said. He showed me a photo of the cover, with the Beatles amid dismembered toy dolls and thin pieces of raw meat. Bad taste, protest is growing. My faith is a little shaken . . .

August 4, 1966 – John Lennon said that the Beatles were more popular than Christianity, and that Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. The entertainment world, which is made almost entirely out of pretenses aimed at money-making, was horrified and played the situation to the hilt. WAKY had periods of silence (except for violins playing), ended by “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” One interesting thing was how little ministers who were quoted understand things. One said he was glad these people had brought out in the open the immoral content of their songs – about the Beatles! Another, God bless ‘im, said he felt this was the beginning of the end, not just of the Beatles, but of all popular music . . .

August 10, 1966 – new Beatles album, Revolver, staggeringly good. The atonal/electronic things are fascinating. It’s not rock ‘n roll – largely undanceable. The lyric to “Here, There, and Everywhere” is lovely. I hope they don’t split up. How will they be in person, now that they’ve taken this enormous step?

Well, I found out, because when the Beatles came to the US on what turned out to be their last tour, I wrote for tickets to perhaps a dozen cities, got positive replies from several, and chose two. My friend Wally Wobbe and I went to the first concert. I had no idea that the day I first saw the Beatles in concert was also the day John apologized, sort of, at a press conference for his remarks about (or not about) Jesus. Here’s my report of the concert as recorded in my diary:

August 12, 1966 – Wally and I got to the L&N train station at 6:00 and took our seats on the day-coach for Chicago. [NOTE: I have told countless people that the concert was in Detroit. Apparently not.] The trip lasted 8 hours or so. The train was late, so we got off at Englewood station to take a cab to the stadium at which the Beatles were playing.

At the Amphitheatre, the Beatle magic started. Thousands of people moving toward the doors. When a new door would open, a hundred people would immediately line up, followed by more. Mostly girls – mostly cute – many in slacks; maybe 20% boys; few adults. Vendors outside selling “We Still Love the Beatles” pennants, postcards (we bought some), buttons.

Inside we had to check Wally’s camera and tape recorder. The auditorium is a big old barn holding 13,500. It was filled all but about 500 seats. Stage at one end. Before the show some thought they spotted Paul in the press box, and screamed. The show started. The Remains, on that huge amp system, blasted us terribly. [NOTE: By today’s standards there was hardly any sound system at all, but truthfully, at the Chicago concert we could hear everything, including the Beatles, just fine. It was different in Cincinnati, which was outdoors.] The Cyrcle were clean-cut and bland. The “Sonny” man (name escapes me) needed experience. The Ronettes were good though they were better at W&L.

Then an announcer came out and said, “For three years now I’ve been traveling with the Beatles and I’ve never gotten to introduce them. Now, at last, I have the honor. John, George, Paul, and Ringo – THE BEATLES!!!” and everybody screamed and stood. Then a workman told the announcer that they had to clear some equipment off the stage, so the fellow announced a two minute break. Then the lights dimmed again, the announcer introduced again, and the Beatles came on.

It was almost disappointing in a way to see them come on stage. There was so much tension, holding of breaths – I felt it tremendously, waiting for them to appear, especially after the first introduction. Whatever the Beatles did, they couldn’t be as great as the image we had of them at the second before they came on. But almost. Ringo sat, unsmiling, and just drummed. George was facing the back of the stage a lot, apparently working on equipment. McCartney carried the real performing load [NOTE: In Cincinnati it would be different]. Lennon, the coolest man in the world, stood looking like a crocodile staring at its tail waving in front of itself and being fascinated by it. All four were perfectly relaxed and under control. They did:

Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, She’s A Woman, If I Needed Someone, I Wanna Be Your Man, Baby’s In Black, Yesterday, Nowhere Man, I Feel Fine, Day Tripper, Paperback Writer, Long Tall Sally.

On “She’s A Woman,” Paul’s mike went off. “Yesterday” was tremendously received. On “Baby’s in Black,” a wonderful number, they swung their guitars back and forth. On “Nowhere Man,” in which they pulled off the harmony successfully, Paul’s bass went out; they started the next song but it wouldn’t work. Repairmen were behind them; John filled in the time by doing a dance like the one he does in
A Hard Day’s Night for about a minute. John plays the guitar introduction on “I Feel Fine.”

Finally, “We’re sorry but this will be our last number,” and Paul sang “Long Tall Sally” in a great performance which really showed why people started to scream in the first place. Tremendous excitement. Then they bowed, waved, and left. In the box next to ours as the lights went up, six girls were weeping unashamedly. It was a great spiritual experience.

I saw the Beatles perform twice on this tour. At the first concert, as I said, you could hear them, and they were in a good mood. The second concert was in Cincinnati, you really couldn’t hear them much at all, and their mood wasn’t all that great either – someone has written that on the way from that concert to the next, they decided not to tour any more, ever. Jay Paradis and I saw them in Cincinnati, and the concert was rained out on Saturday night – the Beatles faced danger of electrocution if they performed – and rescheduled for Sunday afternoon, so we tried to find a motel room (impossible) and ended up sleeping overnight in the car. When we finally saw the concert, Jay was disappointed because Ringo didn’t play a neat drum figure that he plays on the record of “Day Tripper.” I don’t remember a whole lot more than that.

So I saw the Beatles, live in concert. I also saw Elvis once, in Richmond, Virginia. I wonder how many people have seen them both.

As I said, each new Beatles album was a revelation – such an event that occasionally I still dream a new one is out, and I run to the store and listen to it. (It’s always good, but unfortunately I never remember the songs.) Sergeant Pepper couldn’t have been better, and I adopted the White Album as mine – it’s still my favorite. I wrote an article for the college newspaper about it, trying to describe why I thought it was so special; I’m still working on that question, but I think basically it’s because the album is about music, about what it can be and do. I even liked “Revolution No. 9,” which reminded me of the times I would drive late at night and move the radio dial around, trying to find something to listen to.

Abbey Road, including its second side medley, which I consider a great work of art, came out without announcement, and I went over to the school radio station and sat in the hallway to listen to it being broadcast, since I had no idea how to find the station on the radio dial. It was so wonderful to hear how, completely unexpectedly, the Beatles had done something so great. I wrote home, “New Beatles album coming out. I’ve only heard a few tracks – ‘Octopus Garden’ written and sung by Ringo, a maniac vision of happiness, like ‘Yellow Submarine’ only madder, is my favorite so far. . . . Also some astonishingly good singing – chorus work and some gorgeous Harrison guitar.” And after I bought it, “I have now bought the new Beatles album and it’s simply splendid. You know that this is the one they put together this summer when they decided not to release the one they’d spent a year on, and I figured it would be good but not remarkable. Shows how much I know. On the second side is a long medley – really a long song . . . funny and subtle.”

When the Beatles actually did break up, I wasn’t depressed or even particularly surprised; there had been plenty of indications that all wasn’t well. Since then I’ve seen Paul McCartney several times in concert (always excellent), although at least at one point I wasn’t that excited about the music he was producing:

I saw Paul McCartney and Co. on Flip Wilson. He seems determined to be the best composer of wallpaper-music in the world.

I know some people who’ve had encounters with various Beatles. In 1969, I was in a store in London when someone ran in and reported breathlessly, “I just saw Paul McCartney on the street!” I also have a friend who told Paul he couldn’t go to the bathroom. Honest. It was at a production of Brecht’s Arturo Ui by Tony Randall’s National Actors Theatre, with an all-star cast including Al Pacino and John Goodman. Paul went out to the lobby just before the second act started, and my friend had to tell him that if he took too long, he wouldn’t be able to get back in.

And as I hinted at the start of this piece, I’ve had a personal interaction or two with them myself, on a small scale. I saw John Lennon on the street. This took place in Manhattan in the late 1970s, on a cold winter night while I was on my way to Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church to advise a group (not with much result, I guess) on a theatrical venture they were considering. There was a crowd at a window on Fifth Avenue, but I didn’t think much about it. I realize now that the crowd must have gathered around John and Yoko. Then, when I got to the corner, I looked to my right and there was John standing next to me, with Yoko, in a huge fur coat, on the other side of him. I started to say something, and John winked at me! – a wink that said, “You know who I am, and I know who I am, so what do you say we keep it like that.” This thought was perfectly fine with me – I’d had my John Lennon moment – and I walked on down the street, forty feet above the pavement.

I saw Yoko once more on the street, actually, walking just ahead of me after Bob Dylan’s wonderful concert at Madison Square Garden in late 2001.

I spent moments with friends and family of the Beatles at a Beatlefest in the New Jersey Meadowlands. I met the Beatles’ long-time friend Astrid Kirchherr; Louise Harrison (George’s estranged sister); the bass guitarist Klaus Voorman, who played and recorded with three of the group’s members and designed the cover for Revolver; and Bob Gruen, who autographed a copy of his famous photo of John Lennon in the New York City T-shirt for me. The place was filled with Beatle cover bands, none of them outstanding. Years later, though, my wife, Pat, and I saw the best known Beatle cover band, the Fab Faux, and they really are outstanding.

And Ringo sent me an autograph. For my fiftieth birthday Rick Van Horn, then the editor of Modern Drummer magazine, asked his friend Jim Keltner, who’d worked with the Beatles individually and was friends with Ringo, if he’d get me an autograph. Some time later Rick’s secretary came in to say, “Ringo Starr’s on the phone!” This news was naturally an event at Modern Drummer. Rick and Ringo chatted a bit, and then Ringo said, “This friend of yours, that you want an autograph for – is he dying?” Rick said he thought not, and Ringo said, “Good. They’re always asking me to do that. It’s so depressing.”

So I have a copy of Modern Drummer with Ringo on the cover, autographed, “To Kirk – Happy Birthday, Ringo” and a drawing of a star. Astounding.

I’ve seen Ringo and his All Starr Band five times. If you aren’t familiar with Ringo’s routine, he fills the various editions of his All Starr Band with musicians who’ve had a hit or two. Maybe you wouldn’t go to a whole concert by any of them, but put five or six together and it makes for a fine evening. People used to make fun of Ringo for being the least interesting Beatle, for not having much to say, and so on. Not a word of all that is true. When Ringo’s onstage you can see that he’s extremely quick-witted, and he’s the most relaxed performer I’ve ever seen – astonishingly comfortable onstage. Some of my favorite moments with the All Star Band were his work with the sensational drummer Sheila E. How egoless of Ringo to have a drummer in his own band who’s so much showier than he!

Ringo, bless his heart, still tours every year or so. Several years ago, out of a desire to share my heritage with my children, I took the family to see him at Radio City Music Hall. “He’s good,” said my son Craig, maybe twelve years old at the time, “but I’d like to see all the Beatles.” So would I, Craig, so would I.

And in a way, I did. When I read that Ringo’s All Starr Band would be at Radio City this summer, I bought a ticket for the July 7, 2010, concert, not knowing at the time that that date was Ringo’s seventieth birthday. Of course there was a good deal of publicity about it, since he was the first Beatle to reach that age, and a number of papers featured interviews with him.

From the beginning the omens were good for the concert. For one thing, there was great sound balance, which in my experience is rare for Radio City, where the sound tends to boom. The band was great too – four of the members had been in the previous edition of the All Starr Band, which I didn’t like very much, but this time everything worked wonderfully, and the audience was enthusiastic. It was a feeling of great comfort – you just knew the next song would be good too. Ringo was in excellent voice, singing most of his Beatle numbers and two from his new album, which sounded excellent. He also provided fine drumming (along with another excellent drummer, Greg Bissonette), as always.

Ringo has always ended his shows with “A Little Help From My Friends,” sometimes blending into “Give Peace A Chance.” When he reached that point in the show this year, about twenty people came out to sing along. According to published reports the group included Yoko, Jeff Lynne, Ray Davies, Max Weinberg, Steven Van Zandt, Joe Walsh, Nils Lofgren, Procol Harum's Gary Brooker, Cream's Jack Bruce, Billy Squier, Colin Hay of Men At Work, Ringo's son and drummer for the Who and Oasis Zak Starkey, Jim Keltner, Dr. John, and others – truly an all-star crowd. A couple of Ringo’s grandchildren helped push out a little drum set on which the snare drum was a cake, and we all sang “Happy Birthday.” Ringo walked off stage singing “Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me.”

The stage went dark for several minutes. Then the band came back on in the dark, the lights came up, someone brought on a bass guitar, and everybody started to scream – because walking onstage was Paul McCartney, looking terrific in a nice suit. Paul and Ringo, together! Paul sang “Birthday” while Ringo drummed. I believe I can speak for the entire audience when I say that we were all beside ourselves. I suppose I have never been in a room with a happier group of people. It was an absolutely magic moment. At the end of the song Paul hugged Ringo a long time and kissed him twice. Then everybody left the stage, and I flew home.

[Saturday, 9 October, will be John Lennon’s 70th birthday, so this is an auspicious time to publish Kirk’s memoir of the Beatles. A new film, Nowhere Boy, has just been released as well; it tells the story of Lennon’s teen years (from a memoir by his half-sister) and the founding of his first band with Paul McCartney, The Quarrymen. In addition, a new documentary about Lennon’s time off from music to raise his son Sean, LENONYC, is about to air on PBS.

[When the Beatles were first emerging as a new sound in rock ‘n’ roll, I was a high-schooler in Switzerland. I began hearing this new music as soon as the group began being played on European radio; many of my schoolmates were British, and Beatles music began being heard around the dorm before it was heard over here. (I even still have the 45 of the German-language recordings the Beatles made as a tribute to the German audiences who embraced the band before they became popular in England—and then the rest of the world. My first Beatles album is Mit Die Beatles, the German release of With The Beatles.) Unlike stateside listerners, however, I missed their now-famous TV appearances like the Ed Sullivan début on 9 February 1964. But while I knew I was hearing a new sound—and I loved it immediately—Kirk had an understanding of the music that made his appreciation for it much deeper than mine ever was.]


  1. This is a really good read for me, Must admit that you are one of the best bloggers I ever saw.Thanks for posting this informative article. I really like the fresh perceptive you did on the issue. I will be back soon to check up on new posts! Thank you!
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    1. Mr. Morgan--

      I will tell Kirk of your compliment--which I accept in his behalf for now.

      Are you aware that Kirk's posted several other Beatles-related articles (including a diary his late wife kept when she was a 14-year-old obsessed fan!). Look for them with the search engine above and enjoy some more of his recollections. (Just search for "Beatles.")


    2. Thank you so much, Stewart. I really appreciate it. -- Best, Kirk