When I stepped off the bus in Liverpool I zipped my thin jacket all the way up against the damp May weather and dragged my much-too-heavy suitcase thumping along the cobblestones of Mathew Street. I was here to get a feel for the four boys behind the music, but I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
Passing the Cavern Club, the famous venue where the Beatles got their start, I was practically assaulted by memorabilia. This was Fab-Four central all right. Souvenir shops lined the road, their windows crammed with pictures, posters and Beatles bobbleheads. Similarly the lobby of my lodging, The Hard Days Night Hotel, featured more Beatles photos, a bar stocked with specialty beverages (Strawberry Fields with Pepper, anyone?) and a bright yellow Beatles jukebox.
The trip was part of a course I was taking called The Beatles at 50. How much of a Beatles nerd am I? Well, I have to admit a good part of my motivation for enrolling in the class was that it included a trip to England. My best friend was studying there. It would be an easy course and a good excuse to travel and visit her. As for the Beatles, I’d always liked them. Their music had been a constant in my life since I was a kid, but I confess I didn’t quite get the magic, didn’t understand why my Mom loved them so much. Maybe the course would spark a deeper understanding of the band.
Over the semester, I’d listened to every Beatles song on every Beatles album, studied Beatles history, and tried to comprehend how a band could leave such a lasting impact on our world. By the time I arrived in Liverpool, I was already in pretty deep. It was no longer just an excuse to visit England.
That night in Liverpool, a day full of flights and bus rides left me sleepy. Dropping onto my hotel bed, I stared at the huge framed portrait of Paul McCartney hanging over me. I confess the commercialism was getting to me. Could the Beatles magic still exist here? Or was it all a Vegas-style charade trumped up for visitors?
I knew the stories behind the Beatles albums and the backgrounds of the band members, yet I was still waiting to feel the impact of this pop band. Even the Liverpudlians I ran into that first day questioned, “Why would you spend an entire semester studying the Beatles?”
A few days later, I was beginning to find an answer. My class of nine toured the Casbah Coffee Club, a basement club opened in 1959 in the home of Pete Best, the Beatles’ original drummer, who, as everyone knows, was unceremoniously ditched in favor of Ringo. Today the Casbah is still owned by the Best family. Pete’s brother, Rory, gave us a tour and recalled memories of thousands of teenagers lining up in his yard, hoping to squeeze into the tiny underground rooms. I sat at the same piano Paul and John once played. I touched the walls that the four boys painted with stars and dragons and rainbows, ran my finger across the place where bad-boy John carved his name into the wall — before being yelled at by Mrs. Best. Touchingly Rory’s wife described the quiet depression Pete sank into after the Beatles went on without him. Behind the main room, pinched between two larger rooms was a small nook, with ceiling panels painted in bright colors and black wooden walls, barely big enough to contain a drum set. This tiny area was where the Beatles (then called the Quarrymen) first took the stage.
My classmates moved on to snap photos of the other rooms. But I stayed a few minutes, alone in this small space. The air was damp and scented with mildew. If I stretched my arms out, I could almost reach the width of the room, touch the walls with my fingertips. This was real. This tiny, dank basement was where they first performed, at a time when no one knew their names.
After touring the Casbah Club, I continued to look for ways to make a connection. I looked through the gates of Strawberry Fields. (Yes, it’s a real place, as is Penny Lane.) I toured the insides of the childhood homes of Paul and John. I saw the bathroom that John used to sneak into at Paul’s house, where they would practice while Paul was skipping school. I stood outside the homes where young Ringo (known in his youth as Ritchie) and George grew up.
As a former percussionist, I know the importance of music. As a teenager, I performed in one of the best high school symphonic bands in the country. At one point we even performed at Carnegie Hall —where the Beatles played on in 1964. I know how timeless music is, and I know that by being a musician, you learn a whole lot more than scales and rhythms.
On my last night in Liverpool, I walked down the black, winding stairs of the famous Cavern Club, the Beatles’ venue after they outgrew the Casbah. My classmates and I snaked our way through the crowd to the front row, where we stood inches from what some consider the most famous stage in the world. A Beatles cover band called the MonaLisa Twins came out blasting “Please Please Me,” and the urge to sing along was irresistible. Young and old—all singing the same songs in the same place where thousands of sweaty kids once stood to hear the Fab Four.
Something clicked that night and I was momentarily transported to an earlier time. Despite the tacky souvenir shops, and the touristy atmosphere, I had glimpsed what it must have been like, years ago, to stand in this same spot among all of those screaming teenagers and hear music in a way that it had never been heard before.
As the live music pounded in my ears, I closed my eyes and I could see them, black leather jackets, shaggy hair, grinning to each other with the knowledge that they’d created something original. I knew, of course, what they didn’t know then: That they’d go on to sell over 600 million albums worldwide and have 20 hit singles in the U.S; that they’d become legends and their music timeless. Still, what impressed me was how they began — in that musty cellar room, where the walls are still covered with their handwriting and the stage barely fit four people. It began where I stood, and it never ended. I clapped my hands and sang along, and I was taken beyond Beatles biographies and the souvenir bobbleheads. I was in 1963, my hand reaching out to Paul McCartney; then I was back in the present, wondering if any other music would ever sound quite so magical.