#53: The Beatles, "Meet the Beatles" (1964)

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Meet John! John is smart, but John lacks focus in school, lacks discipline. He draws dirty pictures and passes them around the class, but pleads innocence when they’re discovered. John’s mother buys him a secondhand guitar, but John’s aunt Mimi won’t let him bring it into the house, so he learns to play standing outside the back door. When it’s cold, his fingers stumble on the strings.

Meet Paul! Paul’s mother is sick. Paul’s mother has an operation. Paul’s mother doesn’t survive. Paul, when they tell him, makes a joke. He laughs and laughs, and his father is horrified. At night, Paul prays for his mother to be returned to them. He’ll be good, he promises. He’ll do all his school work, he’ll pay attention in class, he’ll help his father at home, he’ll look after his brother, if only she’ll come back. She doesn’t. Paul starts playing guitar instead.

Meet George! George likes to sleep in the back of class. George’s mother buys him his first guitar. She says she believes in him, will always believe in him. If he puts his mind to it, she says, he can be anything, be anyone. George dreams of emigrating, of moving to New Zealand, Canada, anywhere but England, anywhere but Liverpool.

Meet Ringo! Ringo’s appendix bursts when he’s six and he spends twelve months in the hospital. Parents aren’t allowed to visit their children (too distracting!), but the nurses let Ringo’s mother in late at night after she finishes work. She watches his hand rest on his blanket as he sleeps, watches the steady rise and fall of his chest, and makes her own promises in exchange for his survival.

John forms a band, the Quarrymen. Along comes Paul. Along comes George. Paul writes songs, so John does too. They egg each other on. How many songs did you write today, mate? I’ll do you one better. Their songs improve. On each one, they write: Another original by John Lennon and Paul McCartney! John’s aunt Mimi still disapproves of the guitar. She doesn’t let Paul and George into the house. This is a phase, she tells herself. He’ll grow out of it. He’ll lose interest. It’s just a phase.

John sits in his stepfather’s living room, waiting for his mother. The phone rings. His stepfather answers. His stepfather looks at John, and John knows, but he doesn’t want to know. He hears, as if it’s right outside, the squealing of brakes, the crunching of metal, the thud of a body flung through the air. The ambulance goes to the hospital. John’s aunt Mimi goes to the hospital. John and his stepfather go to the hospital. Too late. His mother is gone. But music, music is still there. Another original by John Lennon and Paul McCartney!

There are five of them in the group now: John, Paul, George, Stu, and Pete. They call themselves the Silver Beatles. John likes to make up stories about the name, but the truth is he just thought of it one day. There is no story there. The Silver Beatles play in Hamburg. They play in Liverpool. Stu leaves the group. Stu wants to focus on his art. Stu and John write long letters back and forth. Stu is not well. Stu collapses. Stu dies. John places his letters in a drawer and doesn’t look at them.

Finally, finally, an offer from Parlophone. A record, a real record will happen. Don’t tell Pete. Or maybe it’s less explicit—more of a forgetting to tell Pete. I thought you were going to tell Pete. Well, I thought you told him. It’s enough that no one tells Pete. Goodbye, Pete. Hello, Ringo. You were too good for them, Pete’s mother tells him. They were jealous. You know John, he’s always been the jealous type. Later, they all say: we fucked up. We should have done that better.

Is this Beatlemania? It’s fun at first. The fans scream, the crowds scream, the girls scream. There are girls everywhere. The girls love us, they say. Eh, did you see that bird? Did you hear her scream your name? Then it’s not fun. Hiding in cars, ducking out of back doors, wearing disguises. John is reluctant to stop in Liverpool, finds the attention embarrassing. Our boys, they’re called, by mothers, by grocers, by mechanics, by anyone who happens to see them. John ducks his head, shrugs, waits for it to pass. It must pass, he tells himself. No one can care about them this much.

They prepare to go on tour, but take an island holiday first. Paul goes swimming. Paul doesn’t think about ocean currents. Paul swims too far. The shore is so far away. He worries, for a moment, that he might not make it back. His legs are so tired, his arms so heavy. Maybe he sees George on the beach, sees George calling to him, waving his arms. Come on, Paul. We need you. Paul takes a breath. Paul kicks harder. Paul swims to shore.

And so begins three years of touring. Ringo is worried. He’s new. Some of Pete’s fans threaten him, blame him for Pete’s dismissal. Ringo’s not sure who he’ll room with on tour. He fiddles with his drumsticks to hide his nerves. George slings an arm around his shoulder. You’re with me, he says. You’re one of us now.

Meet Cynthia! Meet Jane! Meet Maureen! Meet Pattie! Girlfriends, partners, wives—they too must hide from fans, must lie about their relationships. No, Cynthia says, no, I don’t know John, no, this isn’t his son, no, no, no. Sometimes John is angry. Sometimes John is jealous. Sometimes I think something is broken in you, Cynthia tells him. He thinks of the hospital, a battered body on white sheets, and wonders if she may be right.

Goodbye, Britain. Hello, America. People tell them they won’t do well in America. It’s all well and good to have a following in Britain, but this is a small island, they say. America’s big. America is its own market. We Brits just can’t seem to break in. The plane lands in America, and oh, how funny it is that everyone was so wrong.

From plane to car, from car to hotel, from hotel to car, from car to theater/concert hall/arena. They grow pale from lack of sunlight. They are hidden away from the world, experiencing others only from the stage. The girls are a monotonous blur of screams, of open mouths, of falling tears. Paul stands at his microphone, strums his guitar, and thinks of the ocean, of a current tugging at him, carrying him out to sea, and this time he yearns to give in to its pull.

Who am I? he asks the others after the show, once they’re safely in the hotel room, away from the hordes. No one answers. Who are we? he says. Piss off, John says and drapes a towel over his face. No one else answers.

Did they know it would be like this? Did they dare, even for a moment, to dream of their names everywhere, of fans everywhere, of playing concerts where they can’t hear their music, of never carrying money, because who needs money when you can’t enter a grocery store or movie theater or restaurant without immediately being chased out of it? They can buy homes for their families, they can order a private plane to take them to Spain in the middle of the night, they can have twelve dozen bottles of champagne delivered to their room, and isn’t this the dream? Isn’t this what they’ve always wanted? To write songs, to play music, to be universally loved? John and Paul huddle together in hotel rooms, in the backs of buses, playing with chords and lyrics. Another original by John Lennon and Paul McCartney!

I’m lonely, Ringo writes to his mother, but he tears the letter up and doesn’t send it, because how can he be lonely with the others at his side? He’s never alone now. None of them are.

They leave the hotel out the back door, ducking through the kitchen, which smells of grease and fried fish and leaves a damp sheen on their skin. The car is waiting, but so are the photographers, so are the reporters, so are the fans. There are microphones aimed at them, cameras, pens and paper shoved into their hands. Yes, yes, they say. Nice to meet you. Sorry, our car is waiting. Please, just let us through. Please. They haven’t left the hotel since they stumbled into their rooms after last night’s concert, and the smell of the crowd’s sweat is somehow a relief. It’s gray and cloudy, and when the shutters click, the flash blinds them, and for a moment, the people vanish, the shouts fade, and they lift their faces as if to the sun and close their eyes and breathe in the darkness.

—Emma Riehle Bohmann