©1996, 1997 A.D. Sullivan
All Together Now
In late 1969, the band name "Johnny and the Moondogs" appeared on the Fillmore East marquee as a front band for one of the name groups scheduled to appear. A delirious buzz went through the East Village. For those who knew the name, it was a secret message that just couldn't be ignored.
Whether it was someone's idea of a joke or an actual event that was later canceled, the name was taken down a few days later, leaving a deep disappointment among many of those who knew "Johnny and the Moondogs" was one of the names used by the Beatles before they skyrocketed to fame. Many people then believed that the Beatles had sought to play the Fillmore before breaking up. Others claim the Beatles wanted to play live once again, but didn't want to draw attention to themselves by performing under their real name.
Then and now, "The Beatles" conjures up not just a rock-and-roll band, but an era freedom and awe that will not likely return in our lifetime, something so special that people now gather yearly at the Beatlefest to try and recapture a little of what was lost. The magical mystery tour of music, film and memorabilia will stop at the Meadowlands Hilton March 17-19.
For some of us, the Beatles touched our lives even when we didn't want them to. A friend of mine once told me the Beatles ruined his life. Their success as musicians and ongwriters allowed him to believe he could build a profitable career as an artist.
"If wasn't for the Beatles, I would probably be in an office somewhere, married with children, and living in the suburbs," he said. "Instead, I'm struggling to follow a dream."
There has always been something special about the Beatles which other rock-and-roll bands lacked, a cultural aspect that changed the nature of our lives. All my friends grew their hair to look like the Beatles, some even managing to disguise their "Beatles cuts" with fancy hairstyling tricks. They could go to school with an apparently normal haircut -- just a shade too long -- then with a few flicks of the comb, they looked like John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison or -- if you had the nose for it -- Ringo Starr.
During my youth, the worse punishment my family could inflict was to threaten to cut my hair. I was offended when the Beatles broke up. It felt like a divorce in my own family, and for years afterwards, I clung to the hope that they would reunite, the way children often hope their parents will. While I gave up the issue in the mid-'70s when other things preoccupied my life, like work and survival, I was touched again -- by John Lennon's re-emergence at the end of the decade, and utterly devastated at hearing about his murder. Any diehard Beatles fan can remember the moment they first heard of the death, the way many babyboomers remember where they were when they heard of the death of John Kennedy in 1963. John Lennon's death ended an era that no reunion could bring back. Without John Lennon there was no Beatles.
In 1974, while I was in the middle of earning my bread and butter, there were people who wanted to preserve the Beatles Era in a far more significant manner, trying to create a Woodstock-type gathering for people who needed to keep a bit of Beatlemania in their lives. These people were offended by Broadway's version of Beatlemania.
The world then seemed to be trying to fill the gap that was left by the Beatles breakup in 1970. Record companies began to market other groups under the dubious label "The New Beatles." This label was attached to Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, Peter Frampton and a dozen or more other groups including -- if you can believe it -- the Bay City Rollers.
Mark Lapidos, organizer of the first Beatlefest -- and every one since -- had the unique perspective of managing the hottest and most comprehensive music store in the state. The Sam Goody Store in Garden State Plaza was no top 40 record sales place, but a mecca for fans of rare jazz, rock and other records. On its shelves were some of the finest records ever made.
As manager, Lapidos met thousands of fans and musicians, and knew the impact from the loss of the Beatles, not only in the music industry, but in the hearts and minds of fans now struggling to find alternatives. But in 1974, music had become largely directionless, with many of the surviving '60s bands now following threads of music into country, glitter, pop and punk rock.
"It was the 10th anniversary of the Beatles arrival in America, and I thought we should be doing something besides sitting around," he said. So in a move that echoed Beatles manager Brian Epstein's a decade earlier, Lapidos went to John Lennon and asked for the man's blessing.
"He told me, `Why not. It's a good idea. I'm a Beatles fan, too,' " Lapidos said. "So I dug into my savings. I never had a second thought about it. I never looked back. It never occurred to me that I might lose money. I knew that there were plenty of people out there who felt just like I did about the Beatles. My aim was to bring out people who respect the music, and maybe bring back a little sense of wonder."
It was, according to Lapidos, a huge success, so large that after the first Beatlefest, it became a yearly event, not just here in the New York metropolitan area, but in Chicago and L.A. Since then, Lapidos has managed to meet almost all the essential people who helped the Beatles in their rise to the top, as well as all four of the Beatles.
The event has been amazingly popular, a bonanza of Beatles stories, trivia, memorabilia, records, collectibles and, of course, fans. The gathering, Lapidos said, is one in which people come together for a weekend to remember and to be glad.
"Yet I think the whole thing was summed up by John Lennon's 1979 message to the fans," he said. "It went straight to the heart of everything. John said: `The music is the thing.' It's the music that brings people to the Beatlefest. It is the music that has made fans out of people who weren't even around when the Beatles were together."
It is a sound that still sells.
Since the release of "Live from BBC" in late 1994, Beatles music has become the hottest property in the record industry, sparking one of those remarkable comebacks for a band that never left the charts. "Live from the BBC" sold six million copies within three months. Then, on the strength of a new single and a six-hour ABC Beatles special in November 1995, the first part of the Beatles Anthology skyrocketed as well. The single "Real Love" hit number one on the charts, helping to widen the gap between the Beatles and every other group in recorded history for number one records, their total in excess of 60. This recording and the second single released in March of 1996 created a whole new Beatles industry, and a new audience for the apparently undiscovered classic albums of the past. Kids who weren't even born when the Beatles broke up in 1970, suddenly surged into the record stores to purchase records like "Abbey Road," singing these songs on school buses or along the street to blasting boom boxes.
But in truthy these older Beatles albums have never stopped selling. "All of them are steady sellers," said a representative from Capitol's New York office.
Exact sales figures are largely an industry secret, though the L.A. office was willing to give out a list of albums that went platinum, the ones that sold over a million copies. It was an easy task. They all did. Most of them sold many times the platinum standard. Most of the Beatles singles did, too.
In fact, Beatles music sales in total so eclipse the market that no other musical performer can accumulate half the numbers. Not Led Zeppelin. Not Michael Jackson. Not even the legendary Elvis. "Abbey Road," the best-selling Beatles album, has gone nine times platinum and is still the strongest seller.
Got To Get You Into My Life
Before the 1995 Beatlefest in Secaucus, I met a woman named Kathy Gerdsen, a Bloomfield resident, who said she was going to Beatlefest to renew old ties, not with other Beatles fans, but with the family of George Harrison -- with whom she says she maintained correspondence up until a few years ago since 1964.
"As long as there are Beatles fans there's always going to be Beatlemania," she said.
Gerdsen said she met the Beatles after one of their concerts in the Atlantic City Convention hall. She had been in the hall with the rest of the screaming girls, then when leaving the hall, noted that there were two ambulances parked by one of the backstage exits.
"Most people thought the Beatles had already left," she said. "But I saw the ambulances and went towards them. It was a chance thing. I climbed on the back of the ambulance, turned around, and bumped straight into Paul. He was leaning against the gurney. The police pulled me off."
Yet, she got to talk to them as the rest of the Beatles climbed into the ambulances. George and Ringo climbed into one. John joined Paul in the second.
"Before they left," she said, "I asked George how I could keep in contact with them. He told me to write his parents at Macketts Lane, Liverpool and that's what I did."
Over the years, Gerdsen wrote faithfully and said she grew close with George's parents, Harry and Louise.
"Then in 1974, George came to Madison Square Garden to do a concert with Ravi Shankar. I got a post card from his father to meet them at the Plaza Hotel."
She said she spent the day with George's father and his brother, Pete, took photos, and later continued correspondence and telephone conversations.
"George's father passed away several years ago. George's brother, Harry, sent me notice," she said. Although she continued communicating for a while, correspondence eventually faded out.
"Over the last two years I've heard almost nothing," Gerdsen said. "I'm hoping to meet up with George's sister, Louise, at the Beatlefest. I have a lot of memories to share, photographs from the time I spent with Harry and Pete in 1974, and letters we've exchanged over the years. Knowing George's family has been one of the highlights of my life. I'm hoping to open that door again."
Although I attended the 1996 Beatlesfest for the world priemer of the second part of the Beatles Anthology, it was the 1995 Beatlefest that I'll remember. Before the deluge of new Beatlemania, attending these events meant different things to different people. To many older Beatles fans, it was an opportunity to relive their youth, a memory lane of melodies that they can never quite get out of their heads. For younger fans, it was an opportunity to catch hold of a madness of the old Beatlemania, dipping their toes into the huge pool of music, posters, history and collectibles that made up such a large part of the early 1960s.
Yet for other fans, Beatlefest was a chance to recall through music and memorabilia vanished heroes like John Lennon, Brian Epstein, and Stu Suttcliffe as well as the still-living members in the Beatles' rise to fame. For Kathy Gerdsen, for instance, this was an opportunity to renew old ties, not with other Beatles fans, but with the family of George Harrison -- with whom until a few years ago she says she maintained correspondence.
I even came with a personal agenda, looking to build a tribute for my best friend, Frank, who died on March 16, one day before this year's Beatlefest got underway. To say he was a Beatles fan is gross understatement, though his fanaticism centered largely around the music. He played it often, and when younger, sang it in the streets of Paterson and New York with the vitality of a minstrel. He even sang it on the bus between Paterson and New York, a bus that oddly enough drove past the sight of the Meadowlands Hilton in Secaucus. Indeed, walking through the exhibits of Beatles memorabilia felt strange without Frank's constant diatribe. Although the Beatlefest has been at the Meadowlands Hilton yearly since 1980, this was my first visit alone. During the 1970s, Frank and I held many of our own festivals, attending double features of Beatles films with the hope that some spirit would rise up and bring the group back together. Although ill for many years, Frank held on until the very week the release of three new Beatles Songs was announced for August.
My friend would have been very much at home walking through the halls of the Secaucus Meadowlands Hilton during the Beatlefest, basking in the glow of Beatles fervor that illuminated every corner and cast out every shadow. People sat on chairs or stairs or low walls with guitars and harmonicas, singing Beatles songs the way we used to. Everyone, everywhere, wore some form of Beatles clothing, from hats to t-shirts. Many wore buttons and patches that echoed the various phases of Beatles music from the "Yeah, Yeah, Yeah" era to the "Long and Winding Road."
This mood invaded the two bottom floors of the hotel, irritating grim-faced hotel security men, who constantly whispered into their two-way radios as they kept fans in the public areas -- where almost every square inch had been converted for the festival's use. The temporary walls that divided the hotel ballrooms into three had been pushed aside to create one huge ballroom in which hundreds of metal folding chairs had been set up, facing a stage full of drums and amplifiers in expectation of an all-out rock & roll show. The stage, however, did serve as a forum for many of the special guests, like George Harrison's sister, Louise, who Kathy Gerdsen had come to see. But other guests also spoke, such as Paul McCartney's stepmother Ruth McCartney, and her daughter, Angie.
Geoffrey Ellis from the Beatles original managing company, NEMS, also spoke, as did Pauline Suttcliffe, the sister of the fifth and most controversial Beatle, Stu, who was recently propelled into the forefront of Beatles trivia by the release of the movie "Back Beat."
She Came In Through the Bathroom Window
Kathy Gerdsen came to Beatlefest on Saturday with a mission to meet up with Louise Harrison after losing communication with the Harrison family a few years ago. During the glory days of Beatlemania, Gerdsen accidently bumped into the Beatles when they rushed out of the Atlantic City Convention Hall after a concert. >From this brief encounter, she established a tie.
"Before they left, I asked George how I could keep in contact with them. He told me to write his parents at Macketts Lane, Liverpool and that's what I did."
Over the years, Gerdsen wrote faithfully and said she grew close with George's parents, Harry and Louise. She met with the family finally in 1974 during George Harrison's tour with Ravi Shankar. She took pictures and later continued her correspondence, which eventually faded out.
"I met with Louise at the Beatlefest," Gerdsen said. "She invited me up to her suite where I showed her the photographs I had and the letters. She cried over them. Her father, Harry, died a few years ago, I guess it was nice to see him smiling."
Other fans got their chance to talk to these dignitaries, though in the more public setting of the grand ballroom, where they asked questions about the intimate and private lives of the Fab Four. In one question and answer session with the McCartneys, Beatle fans pressed the guest speakers for memories, and were told about the time Paul and John sneaked out of the house in disguise to attend a local yard sale, wearing thick glasses taken from the junk drawer. Ruth McCartney said a truck pulled up before the boys got back, delivering all sorts of strange things. John, with his unusual sense of humor, had purchased a six foot tall cross. Angie McCartney said during her childhood John Lennon was her friend and uncle as well as hero Beatle. Lennon, in fact, helped her learn to ride a bicycle. But he was also the naughty brother who Ruth said she sometimes had to scold.
Beatles For Sale
This year's Beatlefest was also alive with the usual Beatle gossip, from talk about the new Live from BBC album to the upcoming three new Beatle songs scheduled for inclusion in the Beatles Compilation album (due for release in August). This talk was particularly intense at the Giant International Beatles Market Place where crowds surged through narrow aisles to view the more than 100 tables of memorabilia, clothing, CDs and other collectibles. Beatles music played constantly over hidden speakers, though it struggled to compete with the chatter of visitors and dealers who quoted prices or talked about values, citing rumors of rare items or records. Many of the rarer pieces of Beatle merchandise brought me back in time to grammar school and junior high. While I never had a Beatles lunch box, many of my friends did. Some had Beatles pencil cases or Beatles umbrellas.
Now with the event of Stu Suttcliffe's emergence from the shadows with the film "Back Beat," his paintings and image appeared at some tables. One dealer, however, complained about all the attention Stu Suttcliffe was getting, saying the man had quit the band before the Beatles had actually taken off. This dealer was among the purists who believed only John, Paul, George and Ringo deserved the high distinction of being called The Beatles. Those who came before their first hit record didn't count. One table selling videos promoted the 1979 TV Dick Clark film "The Birth of the Beatles" as the true Beatles story; the vendors said too much attention was spent to Stu in "Back Beat."
"Why didn't they call it the Stu Suttcliffe story?" the vendor asked.
Stepping Into Their Shoes
Meanwhile, in the upstairs galleries, the temporary Beatles museum traced thirty years of Beatles history with news clippings, photographs and posters with newer images of the Beatles done as part of this year's art contest. The images had the strangely unsettling quality of adoration, that I always found uncomfortable. Mark Lapidos, one of the festival's organizers, often quotes John Lennon who said "the music is the thing." Upstairs, away from the market place and huge hall, the Beatles video rooms broadcast interviews and news clips from the past. In one video, George Harrison and Eric Clapton explained how Clapton had come to play on the Beatles' White Album. Nearby, lines of fans waited their turn to get into the Beatles recording studio where they could sing along for a fee. The Laser Karaoke video sing-along tested the mettle of numerous fans, who braved the embarrassment of having their voices and images broadcast out into the hotel halls. Men and women, ranging in age from teenagers to the middle-aged, each made brave attempts to step into the shoes of a favorite Beatle.
The Singing Fans
There were numerous other more organized if not more serious musical events over the three-day weekend celebration. Some of these involved filmed segments from Beatles at the Cavern club, videos from George, Paul, John and Ringo, as well as films, concert footage, and the all important Battle of the Beatle Bands on Sunday, with interludes of Beatles music by the cover band "Liverpool." The big musical event for me, however, was the ongoing Beatles sound alike contest on Saturday afternoon, which drew hundreds of guitar-wielding Beatles fans from up and down the East Coast. Washington, D.C. was well represented. So was New York City. But there were a significant number from New Jersey. At this event, fans bravely stepped up to the microphone to take their shots at recreating Beatles music. My friend, Frank, would have been among them. He had often been a guest singer of a local band -- a fan invited up to sing the Beatles' version of "Till There Was You."
The audience, packed with fans waiting their turn, strummed their guitars, added the more complicated musical interludes and harmonies, sang or clapped in imitation of the original recording. Many of these people hadn't been born yet when the Beatles broke up in 1970, yet mouthed every word from memory as if they had heard the original release. Some of the acts performed to the piano, others to a variety of acoustic and electric guitars. There were even acts that sang their favorite Beatle songs a cappella. "That boy" sung by two girls from Waldwich and Westwood, New Jersey drew overwhelming applause. While some performers played it safe and kept their performance simple, others, like the duo with acoustic and electric guitar, dared to attempt the last leg of Abbey Road, a complicated recording studio masterpiece that these fans didn't quite manage to pull off live.
And yet for every performance, heads nodded, people swayed, men, women and children sang along, adding the parts the performers missed or could not do themselves, the"oohs" and "aahs," the complicated harmony. Everyone in that room knew every nuance of every song, yet strangely, didn't scold performers who failed to live up to the original, cheering them on, as if all lived in the same Beatles fantasy, and for this weekend lived again the era when Beatles music was something new. Fathers hugged their daughters as the music played. Lovers hugged each other. During one rendition of "Here Comes the Sun," sunlight beamed through the glass ceiling as the sun began its slow descent into the meadowlands outside, light streaking through the reed heads, adding texture to the mood of the room.
Then, a sixteen-year-old boy sat down at the piano and began to play "Hey Jude." He did not sing it well. He goofed more than once and played wrong chords. Yet the mood in the room grew somber and the faces respectful, as most of the fans began to clap or add their voices to the "La, La, La." For these Beatles fans, it was a holy song, as it had been for my friend Frank -- who used to sing it frequently. It was the first song I ever heard him sing, made strong by four years of high school musicals. Even now, nearly thirty years after it first hit the airwaves, it evoked awe in these people, recalling not the drugs and violence of the sixties, but a world of wonder and a community of people to whom Beatles have become a central, positive issue in their lives. In that chanting of "La, La, La," you could almost hear those members of the Beatles family for whom many of these fans have come to mourn: John Lennon, Stu Suttcliffe, Brian Epstein. Their song spread through the room like a meadow fire, its smoke rising up against the ceiling glass. In it, among clatter of memorabilia dealers, among the clank and clang of imitation Beatles music, among the sing-along videos, recording studio fakers, tapes of Beatles interviews, questions and answers, I thought I heard the small, but utterly significant voice of my friend chiming in.
It wasn't my room or my flute.
I had borrowed Meatball's room on the third floor because it interested me, it's angled ceiling and twining gables offering far more intrigue than the box-like room I occupied on the floor below.
In my room, I always felt like a piece of packaged fruit, waiting for some curious customer to poke me for ripeness. Although now one of a dozen rental rooms, my room had been a den or closet in the days when the rooming house had been a three-floor Victorian cottage, hugging the hill on the west side of town. Screwholes showed in the ceiling around my utilitarian light, suggesting some more delicate and fanciful fixture removed -- and most likely sold for salvage -- during the building's renovation. The new square light illuminated the room with the same harsh white of a display case, changing the whole Victorian texture into something much more stark.
Renovation had stolen the building's texture, sticking up walls where no walls had been before, dividing the larger space into profitable little niches for which the landlord could charge exorbitant rents. Eight square rooms dotted both sides of the second-floor stairs with tiny peep holes on their numbered doors staring out into the hall. Each room had one narrow window looking out onto the street or yard and one closet.
In my two years as resident of the house, I had managed to personalize my box-like room, filling it with what I thought were collectibles. Other people -- especially my landlord -- probably called it junk. Anything I saw on the street that I thought had even remote value, I eventually hauled to my room: trunk or chair, table or lamp, tape recorder or stereo, (none of which ever worked,) bookbag or milkcrate, typewriter or toaster. Although these things changed the landscape of the room, they never relieved its boredom, unable to stretch the walls into new shapes or create a feeling of contentment within their perpendicular boundaries.
Even when I supplemented these found treasures with flourishes of my own, the boredom did not end -- clusters of dirty and clean laundry or bits of crumpled paper did not revive the Victorian texture here. Unwinding eight-track tapes, month- and year-old newspapers, sleeveless records and coverless books only gave the room the semblance of a modern day junk yard -- just as dirty and disorganized as the old style, but fenced in and hidden by agreements with local municipalities -- with only the bi-yearly inspection of the landlord and local health officials causing a general clean-up. I might as well have been in a jail cell, tearing days off the calendar until my sentence expired.
But the pages of that calendar would have only joined the other junk, like so many seasons of fallen leaves. This was the life I was sentenced to, and I could no more escape it than a slug crawling over the endless leaves of an autumn forest could escape the winter. The days and weeks and years seemed to go on and on and I barely made progress over one leaf when another fell. Oh, I escaped for portions of each day -- but it was only an eight-hour respite at work. I woke here, and returned here to eat and sleep and stare at my small square world with its unlovely features. When I closed my eyes to sleep, the room's dimensions even invaded my dreams, crowding in on me as if I was inside a coffin and banging on the lid to be let out.
Since weekends lacked the excuse of work, they grew unbearably lonely. Sometimes I walked alone in the park, three miles up the road. But on rainy or cold winter weekends, I sat in the room, staring out the solitary window as the tramp of feet in and out of the bar across the street sounded on the pavement. Many of the faces I recognized. Some even recognized me and lifted a hand to wave or call me down for a drink. I never went.
Meatball, who spent as much time in that bar as he did in his third floor room, felt sorry for me. One glance at my room and he offered his as refuge.
"Can't have you living all your life in that grave," he said, when handing me the key.
Meatball's room -- like the other three rooms on the third floor -- had a whole different texture. It has resisted the landlord's heavy hand. The slanted ceilings could not be made straight without raising the roof at the edges, flattening it and turning the whole building from basement to gable into one large box -- an expense even the landlord refused to take on for the pittance of additional rent it would bring him monthly.
The slant made it impossible to divide these top-floor rooms into anything remotely square. Any such effort would have made them unlivable, drawing fines from the town inspector during his twice- a-year visits. No one could live in space so small as the landlord envisioned. So he left the rooms as they were, sprawling out like an awakening sleeper -- with one arm stretched to the north side of the building, the other to east.
The ceilings, naturally, lacked the height that the one in my room afforded me. Walking from one side of Meatball's room to the other was a precarious business, especially stoned -- the slant always threatening to suddenly run into my head.
Even then, of the four rooms, Meatball's was the largest, a benefit accidentally caused by the landlord. To bring the building up to code, he had installed a set of conventional stairs into the attic, slicing corners from three of the four rooms. Only Meatball's remained untouched, laid out at the southwest corner of the building in the vague shape of an L. It's one arm pointed west with a window view of the bar sign across the street. It's other arm pointed south with an equally small window looking down on a side street always caked in snow in winter. At the base of the slanting ceiling between the two gabled windows, Meatball had put a convertible couch -- for sitting, sleeping and often, dining when he was home. All the other necessities of life: small refrigerator, tiny dresser, black and white 10-inch TV, and -- in my mind the most necessary necessity of all -- stereo, stood around the straight arms of the L-shaped room, facing in at the couch.
Meatball's generosity was tempered by his sense of the practical. Since he toured the local bar scene with the regularity of a hound marking its territory, he rarely used the room on weekends, preferring other accommodationstfrom cheap motels on Route 3 to penthouse suites in Manhattan (if he got lucky). For some reason, he disliked leaving his room and his possessions untended, and his offer was made with the provision that I clean the room when I left, assuring him a week of choreless living. But I think he half expected me to use the space to entertain, to "shake me from the doldrums" as he often put it, hoping I would take the short walk to the bar across the street and return here with someone to keep me company.
It was an unrealistic expectation.
Once installed in Meatball's room, I stayed there -- except for an occasional trip to the second-floor bathroom or down to my room to trudge up another stack of worn LPs. Meatball accused me of hiding, but I had plenty of company, if not quite the kind he meant. For each album I played on Meatball's stereo, there was a human face attached, and memories which I could recall over the timespan of 12 to 14 tunes. While I could not extract a whole human life from these records, I was able to bring back all that was happening when I first heard each -- faces and laughter, gestures and tears. Each, over the years, had come to be a friend to me in a way time and circumstance had kept the original people from becoming.
Many of these people had moved on after our initial contact, many had not. Some sent letters from time to time, detailing life in California or Canada, while others sat in the bar across the street and sent not one word of how they were doing. I knew them all. I kept their essence sealed in protective sleeves, drawing them out when I missed them most.
"St. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band", for instance, brought back Zephyr, a leather-hided punk from high school, who used to giggle and curse in the back of the school bus while smoking dope. For years he'd mocked me and my middle-bus, middle-class schoolmates whose pocket pen protectors seemed to cause him such disdain. It wasn't until he heard me reciting St. Pepper lyrics that all this changed, his thick black brows folding down in utter confusion.
"You like the Beatles?" he asked.
"Who doesn't?" I asked, eventually finding myself sitting next to him while he smoked dope and I played the album on a portable cassette recorder.
"Play 'With a Little Help From My Friends,' again," he'd mumble out of his cloud of smoke.
The Bee Gees' "First" brought back Hank and Greenwich Village, the look of absolute shock on his face after Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix died. He walked around the streets a guest at a permanent private wake, not just for his fallen idols, but for the generation to which he had attached himself. He told me over and over how betrayed he felt, and when he came to visit me on East Sixth Street, he allowed me to play only the Bee Geest "First".
"It reminds me of the early Beatles," he said, his fingers twined through his long curly hair as he rocked back and forth in front of the speakers.
"Then why not let me play the Beatles?" I asked at the time, since I thought the Bee Gees far inferior.
"Because they're tainted, too," Hank replied. They had broken up the previous summer and, in Hank's mind, were already as good as dead.
Over and over we played the album, memorizing the tunes, the lyrics -- until they took on the face and shape of Hank himself. I've been unable ever since to call up any other image but the rocking, mumbling figure of Hank and the diseased image of a Greenwich Village crumbling around him.
Led Zeppelin's first album brought back Dale. I never liked Zeppelin, and only in the 1990s have come to appreciate their talent even remotely. But Dale loved them with the unquestioning devotion of a faithful religious servant, moaning in a way absolutely opposite Hank's disgusted whimpers. Dale -- with his head full of downers, uppers and everything in-between -- stood firm in front of the stereo, proclaiming his allegiance to the band as the music ripped out of the speakers around him at top volume and the rest of us squirmed on the floor at his feet, making love without regard for passion or gender.
His was a painful memory -- one which always ended in a flurry of scratches and the image of blood on the bathroom floor, where I found him lying cold after the last of many parties, the needle still in his arm. Listening to Zeppelin later, I always felt a little dirty.
When the tap came on Meatball's door, I thought it was one of the neighbors complaining about the volume at which I was playing the stereo. Most weekends, the rooming house emptied out -- college kids heading for the beach in the summer and ski resorts in winter. Sometimes, one or two stayed in after some broken romance left them the odd end of a former couple. They often took offense to the tunes I played, since the lyrics were hardly cheerful in most cases. Rock and roll was, from Bowie to Harry Chapin, a matter of loving and leaving. At the time of the tap, Neil Young lyrics curled out of the speakers with pure melancholy.
"I'm sorry about the..." I said as I opened the door, then stopped.
Standing in the dusty hall was no pimply-faced broken-hearted college kid, but carrot-topped, green-eyed, 35-year-old Charlie. I stared at him, then back into the room at the stereo, disbelieving the coincidence. His face as vivid in my mind the moment before I opened the door as it was after, the real image slightly older than the last time I'd seen him, and nearly 20 years older than the face I recalled listening to Neil Young.
I certainly couldn't have predicted such an occasion, though the "vibes" as we used to call such things when I was young, flew through the air as bright and brittle as static electricity. The hair on my arms stood up from it.
Neil Young always reminded me of Charlie -- especially Neil Young's second album, "After the Gold Rush". It coincided with a now-legendary Halloween party in 1970 when Charlie met me at the door of his West Paterson home, his green eyes and soft mouth so radiant I could have kissed him. Even now, standing in my door, he resembled Neil Young a little with that same sideways cut of hair than hung down over half his face, one eye peering out from under it as if from under a waterfall.
He grinned, as he had at the party, with the same cocker spaniel expression that made men and woman love him the moment they met him, that made me love him then, as I did now -- making me step up and hug him as if I'd never see him again.
I supposed even then, I noticed something dark in those eyes, a cloud covering some of their former brilliance. I wanted to ask what brought him, but the cloud seemed to warn me off, and led me to a sigh instead.
"God, Charlie! It's been a lifetime," I said, and motioned him in with a grand gesture of my hand. I might have been welcoming an exotic sheik to my princely palace. Only he was no sheik, I was no prince, and the room was no palace -- the room wasn't even mine.
Actually, I knew stories of Charlie long before I met him. His name came up routinely among the gang in Little Falls, falling into conversations like the missing piece of a puzzle: Charlie did this or said that, or took Pauly or Hank from this place to that. When I finally met him, we stayed together most of the night, hovering over the stereo in the corner for a close listen to Neil Young. Most of the others complained about our repeated listening, saying we would wear the record out on the same day we bought it, though most came to love it as much as we did -- and eventually didn't even notice the worn quality of the sound.
We repeated the lyrics over and over until we knew them all by heart, the way we often repeated lyrics in those days, the way Zephyr and I had repeated Sergeant Pepper's, and Hank and I had repeated the Bee Gees. Yet with Charlie, it had been different. Perhaps marijuana had made us love this album in a special way. Perhaps the lonesome meaning of the lyrics spoke to our lives in a way Sgt. Pepperts couldn't, painting personal details of pain and loss the Beatles didn't quite capture in the same way.
"How did you find me?" I asked, after he and I settled on the couch.
"The boys told me you were here," Charlie said.
The boys -- meaning Ralph, Bob, and Tom -- hung out at the bar across the street, warming the same stools every night of the week, often waving to me when they saw me in the window. We were all friends from the Little Falls days, but had some sort of silent agreement between us that visits to my room were prohibited. I supposed they wanted to respect my hermitage, and knew that I knew where to find them when the time came for me to come out again. Yet, Charlie had deliberately violated that unspoken agreement, and I wondered why.
"I wasn't sure it was really you," Charlie said. "Those three are always pulling my leg about something. But I'm glad it is, I needed to see you before... well, I needed to see you."
Again, there was that cloud, floating in his eyes, full of lightning and thunder only he could see or hear.
"Bob said you lived here, but the mailbox listed you on the second floor," Charlie continued. "I knocked at the door and when you didn't answer, I figured you didn't want to see me. Then," he paused, wiping his moist lips with his sleeve, "I heard the music coming from up here and I knew it had to be you."
His eyes, when he looked at me, seemed to plead for something which neither of us could have put into words. Maybe it was a return to the feeling we had at that Halloween party so many years ago, when we were young enough to believe that the world went on and on and we went on with it, perpetually hopeful, with only minor fits of pain for us to overcome and continue on. We couldn't have understood then, how traps lay ahead to ensnare us, prisons waited to jail us, gallows stand finally to end our lives. His eyes reflected all that and the wish for ignorance again.
I wanted to attribute this stare to something else. The smell of marijuana and alcohol emitted from him with the same intensity I remembered from the Little Falls days, though their former cheerful effects seemed to have dissipated with the years. In the center of his eyes, expanding within the dilated pupils was the startling flat stare of people facing death. More than ever I wanted to hold him. More than ever I wanted to tell him it was all right. But how could I tell him something I did not believe myself? A prisoner sentenced to life behind bars has little to offer one sentenced to death.
"You want a drink?" I asked.
"Sure," he said with his cocker spaniel grin. "What have you got?"
"Only a little brandy," I said and showed him a bottle of cheap alcohol like the ones I often picked up on my way home from work. It helped me get through the lonely hours until sleep saved me. On weekends, whole bottles vanished and cured nothing.
He nodded. I poured. We both drank.
Neil Young played on, reinforcing our misery -- and in doing so, made it ease a little. Charlie threw back his head and laughed.
"God! I don't remember the last time I listened to this stuff," he said, then stared at me. "I'm surprised you still do."
"Why does it surprise you?" I asked.
Charliets eyes clouded again, but this time with discomfort. He searched for space on the cluttered end table to put his now-empty glass. His shrug, when he offered it, came off half-hearted.
"People talk," he said. "They say you've gotten a little strange."
I laughed. "You mean that's all the Tom and Bob and Ralph have to talk about -- me? They must really live pitiful lives."
"You don't seem to mind," Charlie said, looking surprised.
"Why should I mind? It's true. I am strange. Normal people don't hibernate. They go out into the world, meet people, find romance, get married, have kids, die with relatives mourning them. I just happened to prefer being by myself, mourning no one, no one mourning me."
Charlie stiffened, then started to rise.
"Then I made a mistake in coming," he said.
"Hold on," I said, grabbing his arm. "You're an old friend, and you're always welcome here."
In truth, any one of them could have come at any time. I wasn't afraid of them -- just the world through which they came and went. I never lost sight of Ralph or Tom or Bob. Each had become immortal through their associated music, their memories like time capsules I dug up whenever I needed them. I would have preferred them in the flesh, would have preferred watching them age slowly to the shock of suddenly see them as I saw Charlie now -- a man nearing middle age and wearing death in his eyes.
Charlie sat again, smiled, though his expression remained one of pain and doubt.
"Do you mind if I roll a joint?" he asked.
I shook my head, and laughed. Some things about Charlie never changed -- like the small leather pouch he drew from his pocket, one in which he had kept his dope since before I met him, a pipe- smoker's pouch he had converted to his own uses. The brown surface had cracked with age and repeated unfolding, but inside, the pale green buds remained as always, as did the packet of Marvel rolling papers.
"After the Gold Rush" ended; Charlie glanced up.
"You'd better put on another record," he said as his deft fingers worked the paper and powder into a thick and perfect joint.
I rose and put on Peter, Paul & Mary -- not because I liked them, but because they reminded me of Bob. The man had, at 17, attended Newport Pop Festival where the group had been featured. It was the crowning moment in his life, though he didn't know it at the time. He never ceased loving to tell the stories of how he felt there or what the performers looked like when singing from the stage. As years went on we all grew tired of the repetition, yet we found ourselves spreading the tales on to others. The album recalled every nuance, and from the sharp look Charlie gave me, he recalled them, too -- frowning at me as the first few notes sounded from the first song.
"This is hardly the music to get stoned by," Charlie said without vigor.
"I know," I said and recrossed the room to the couch, where Charlie lit the joint, sucked on it for a moment, then handed it to me, the sweet harmonies falling around us like warm spring water. I took my hit, gentler than Charliets. Dope always made me afraid. The walls melted with it. And the world peeped in through the gaps, waiting to pounce.
How I got to feel this way about everything exterior, I don't yet fully understand. It grew on me slowly. I had a bad time with a romance, my first -- and from all indications -- my last love, after which the world seemed to grow more dangerous and I more inwardly centered, seeking deeper and darker places in which to hide.
It had been years since I smoked, and yet around Charlie it seemed the only natural thing to do, playing out a ritual we'd both learned as kids and, being together again, needed to do again -- and keep on doing each time we met.
When the Peter, Paul and Mary album ended, I put on "Woodstock." Although this was more appropriate to our inebriated state, Charlie's frown did not dissipate. He stared at me as I sat down again on the couch, his eyes full of questions. For clearly he began to understand my little system of cataloging memories. I didn't have to say Ralph's name, I was playing the album which encapsulated his life -- not all of it, just the part Charlie and I knew, having been connected to Ralph through this sequence of music, having heard too often Ralph's bubbling adoration for his three days swimming in mud. To Ralph, it had all the profound meaning that crossing the Red Sea had for Christians. It recalled the time when a younger and much more foolish Ralph had stolen the keys to Kalico Kitchen -- dumping them in the woods for a prank, or the time he and I and Charlie and Bob found ourselves in the middle of the Newark riots when our car broke down -- bullets and bricks whizzing by our ears as if in a war zone.
When the Woodstock album was over we were quite stoned, and it took great effort for me to reach the record rack and locate the next one, placing it precariously on the stack of five beneath, Neil Young, Peter Paul and Mary, and three sides of Woodstock. This time, when the Beatles' voices began, Charlie only nodded, each of Rubber Soul's tunes as overly sweet as the man to whom the album was attached. Tom was the romantic in our crowd, the man who so often fell in and out of love that some said he had a rubber heart. Rubber Soul suited him, fitting around each and every curve of the man as a snake skin would, revealing each and every vein, each and every virtue, each and every flaw.
It was then that Charlie found the flute.
Meatball never fully explained how he had come by the instrument, although he hazily attributed to one of the few weekend romances he had conducted here at home -- some music student from the college must have come over for an overnight dose of drugs, sex and rock & roll, leaving it behind in her confused retreat. Although Meatball brought many girls home during the week, these were always regulars to which he always assigned the names of the week: Tuesday's girl was a blond with big boobs, Wednesday's girl was a redhead with great legs, etc. The strangers he dated on weekends with promises of finding a regular day for them, trying them out like a man might test drive a car. All came willingly, infatuated with Meatball's stories of the 1960s, of how in 1967 he helped try to levitate the Pentagon or in 1968 had tried to liberate Chicago.
Meatball certainly could not play the flute, though it became a regular party game among his guests to see if any of them could. Many managed to elicit sounds: grunting, breathless, unmusical moans and groans, but none ever succeeded in making music. None, that is, until Charlie tried.
At first, he just turned it over in his hands, his green gaze intently studying the finger and mouth holes, his long fingers feeling the spacing.
"Is this yours?" he asked.
"No," I said. "I don't play anything but records."
He smiled. Perhaps I should have sensed something from the way his lips curled and his eyes sparkled, and the way he seemed to know just how to hold the long tube in his hands. But that first melodious note was an utter surprise, penetrating the room, echoing in its gables like some spirit rising up from the mists of Halloween past. The second and third notes sounded just as grand, but more in line with what was playing on the stereo. The notes danced in and around Paul McCartney's voice, then John Lennon's, and George Harrison's. It made a mockery of Ringo's efforts, sounding far too melodious to harmonize with such unimaginative singing.
When the record ended, I didn't move, expecting him to continue on without the artificial aid. But he ceased his playing as the needle lifted.
"Put on another," he said.
"What do you want to hear?" I asked, rising from the floor to comply with his request.
"Play that Neil Young record again," he said. "It's been so long since the last time, I've nearly forgotten the notes."
Then, he played through the album side, and when it was over, he put the flute down and rolled another joint. We smoked this in silence, staring at the empty space between us as if a new nest of years had already begun to grow there.
"Well," he said finally. "I should get back to the bar before it closes."
"I imagine so," I said. "Say hello to the others for me. Tell them they're welcome up here any time."
Charlie grinned and nodded and made his way out the door. I listened to his boots pounding down the stairs towards the front door. I heard the front door close behind him and a more muffled set of boot sounds descending the front porch.
I knew I'd never see him again. The message in his eyes was as clear and detailed as if he had confessed it all, or had sent Bob or Tom or Ralph up with the tale of his eventual passing. The newspaper obituary never mentioned the cause of death. It was not necessary. I had read it all during his communion with the flute, and felt the sting of its unfairness in each pained note -- as if when Neil Young sang of sailing on the Cripple Creek Ferry, he was singing of Charlie's passing from this life to the next.
c/o A.D. Sullivan
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