A very long time ago, a young version of myself watched, in astonishment, a band of four guys with crazy long hair rock the normally staid Ed Sullivan show.
If you were there, you remember the moment. It changed you. It changed everyone, in ways that were impossible to imagine at the time. For young people, it ended the shock that set in after John Kennedy’s assassination, months earlier. We needed something new and exciting, and there it was, from England, of all places.
Those who were most inspired went out and got guitars or drums and learned to play them. My friend and drum master, Peter, formed a band that year, and they a had a local hit in Chicago the next year. Many other musicians followed suit. Some of us were a little slower. I took up the guitar a few years later, clumsily imitating the Beatles and Dylan, as I describe in Some Way Outa Here. I didn’t start playing electric guitar for decades, but I’ve played with a few bands and done a few gigs over the last decade.
But I’ve always dreamed of doing a gig of all-Beatles songs. My latest band, named in a moment of utter honesty, is The WannaBeatles and we’re doing it! My 1960s self would have been ecstatic at the idea of playing songs from Rubber Soul, the White Album, Let It Be and Abbey Road on stage. Oh, plus “A Day in the Life,” complete with a delirious ending.
I’ve been amazed at how younger folks, my kids included, have also been drawn to this music. The songs are deeply linked to a moment in time…but they’re timeless, too. Who could listen to Eleanor Rigby without a twinge of sadness, Here Comes the Sun without feeling a warm glow, or Strawberry Fields Forever without being drawn into John Lennon’s through-the-looking glass boyhood memories?
Perhaps my favorite Beatles memory is from the night that my band played behind a chorus of seventh and eighth grade girls, singing an all-Beatles concert for their parents, on the 50th anniversary of that first US TV broadcast. The programs featured some kid-friendly songs like Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da and Octopus’s Garden. It seemed a little uninspired, the girls singing songs that weren’t connecting.
Before we started the last song, our other guitarist said, “let’s pump this up a little,” and we launched into Here Comes the Sun. It seems like a simple song, but Peter the drummer and Steve the bassist were putting a little extra drive into it. Playing behind the singers, I saw that for the first time, the bottoms were starting to sway, and when we got to the chorus, “sun, sun, sun, here it comes,” the voices seemed to blossom. And from nowhere, the music teacher began the intricate hand-clap that drives the middle of the record, unrehearsed, done perfectly. The voices soared, suddenly a choir of angels. We in the band, too, felt lifted to a new level.
At the last notes faded, there was an instant of stunned silence…like, “what was that?” And as the applause filled the room, I saw that some of the standing parents had tears on their faces.
It took me a long time to bring my own versions of these to the stage, but it’s been a good journey. Want to see the result? Come see The WannaBeatles at the Boom Boom Room (John Lee Hooker’s wonderful club) in San Francisco on Tuesday night. We’re the finale band, after 10pm, with other bands all evening, in a benefit for the terrific Blue Bear music school. Hope you can make it!