2018 Theme Issue: Keepsakes
Sometimes, as a way of getting to know who I was dealing with, I used to ask my students to bring a significant personal object to talk or write about. I would bring my own, and I liked to pass it around and ask the students to make a guess: the end of a torn orange ticket, maybe two inches square. At the top, “Section 8, Row G, Seat 1.” Below, the price: $3.73 plus 25 cents tax for a total of $4.00. (“Four dollars? You went to a concert for four dollars?!?”) Below that, “Sunday Mat. 2:00 p.m. Sept. 6.” I watched the students try to figure out how old I must be in order to guess at the music I would have liked. But sooner or later, someone would discern, below the 6, in tiny font, a row of numbers: 1964.
And then the game was up. “You saw the Beatles?” I did. “For four dollars?” Which my mother paid. “How old were you?” Fourteen at the concert. Thirteen on the March day when the Free Press blared the news that their summer concert would bring them to Detroit. With some effort I can call up that feeling, the sheer desperate need, its absoluteness.
In subsequent decades I often told my mother that it was the best thing she ever did for me, driving downtown on the rainy day that ticket sales opened, parking at Olympia Stadium, Home of the Red Wings, and standing in line in the drizzle to buy six tickets, one for me, one for my girl cousin, four more for school friends. I remember seeing the fan of tickets, holding them, trying to realize that they represented a promise, a surety: I really would see them. I would be in the same space. I would hear them play those songs. I had to keep reminding myself.
I needed surety, among other things, in the winter of 1964. Two years earlier, my widowed mother had remarried. I gained a new stepbrother and stepsister, both older, and we moved to another suburb, another school district, just as I entered junior high. Bloomfield Hills was a trip even then: the ritziest of the outposts of metro Detroit: the home of auto company executives like George Romney, our former governor, father of Mitt. I had a friend whose chauffeur (black, of course) drove us around after school just for fun (ours). The class environment made for a strange, surreal new world, especially in its intersection with the culture of junior high, where childish things were swiftly abandoned and the more sophisticated concerns of adolescence embraced: who liked whom, what brand of flats one wore, how books should be carried, whether ear piercing was slutty or fabulous, who ate lunch at whose table. It took a full year for me to get my sea legs in this place. The rituals and culture of home were very different now too. In December, my only brother married, which felt like a loss. And then, early in January of 1964, my still-new stepfather died suddenly. Our house went quiet, the air heavy. I worried about my mother, about what would happen to her, to us, to me. I was bobbing on the waves, seizing anything that looked reliable. Later that very month, my stepbrother, five years older, came in one day and handed me Meet the Beatles, with its unforgettable, moody cover, four shaggy heads in blue-black and white.
I was not a rock-and-roll girl. I was a folkish girl with a classical and church-music background and a lot of “serious music” in her life. I felt the subtle but distinct expectation that I would be superior to my own generation and that I was above “silliness.” But soon I was coming home from school, going upstairs to my room, closing the door, and putting the album on the turntable of my little portable stereo. Within a couple weeks, it was as if the record were spinning in my head, etching its grooves into my brain. I came to know that album as I’d known no other music, in some intimate, personal, interior way such that it filled me. Before a track began, I could hear the opening, on pitch, in my head. Their voices became distinct and deeply colored. I knew every guitar lick, every word, every vocal nuance, every British oddity (Paul on ‘Til There Was You”: “But I never sorrrrrrre them winging . . . .”). The piano bridge in the sultry “Not a Second Time.” The open fifths in “It Won’t Be Long” (with its call-and-response “Yeah. YEAH! Yeah. YEAH! Yeah. YEAH!”) Above all, the mysterious “There’s a Place,” with opening harmonica wail, its weird harmonics and strange lyric. The place, it said, the magical refuge from suffering and isolation, was the mind, where one was never alone.
The album was fully internalized by early February, when they came to the United States. Watching the three Ed Sullivan appearances I fell in love for the first time: with shiny, collarless Chanel suits, their decorous little bows after each song, the way they shook their fluffy hair when they did the Little Richard “WOOOOOOOO!” But most of all, with Paul McCartney—that glossy, near-black hair; the hip swivel and tight knees; above all the wide, luminous, downward-sloping, heavy-lashed eyes. He was simply the most beautiful human being I’d ever seen, and he sang his own wonderful songs like a creature from another world.
After Sullivan it all broke open. Out poured the torrent that nearly drowned the four of them, but in which I happily swam for the next five years. I started a scrapbook, which grew eventually to six volumes, in which I pasted every scrap of information printed about them and every photo. I told myself stories about them. I played the album every day. It was my comfort, my refuge. And in my mind there was no time when I was alone.
I’d made friends at the new school. Four of them, all social outcasts like me, all happy to embrace Beatle fandom as it brought us together. My cousin, who’d quickly fallen for Ringo, went to another school but was part of the gang. So when the tickets went on sale, I told my mother she had to buy six.
I give her kudos today, fourteen years beyond her death, not so much for the drive into Detroit or the standing in line or the endurance of dampness, but for doing it all despite herself and her better judgment. She thought this was all insane. She was largely disappointed to discover that her daughter—“A” student, classical pianist, choral singer—was susceptible to the madness that Elvis begat. And yet she got the tickets. Something in her, I guess, had to face the fact that I needed to be one of my own tribe. Maybe she even understood that while I was an assiduous student, a good kid, a great reader, an avid horseback rider and swimmer, I was also a kid who had lost two fathers and a home in a very short period of years and was doing some heavy-duty adjusting. My life needed a center, and for all intents and purposes, the Beatles provided it. My life turned around the spindle of the turntable.
Over the summer we saw A Hard Day’s Night several times apiece, my gang and I, and I integrated the soundtrack album too into my nervous system. In July, Capitol Records had tossed out a third album, brainlessly titled Something New, a random bunch of great tracks that hadn’t appeared on American albums, which differed significantly from British versions. Among them was one that had appeared on the British soundtrack of A Hard Day’s Night but not the American, a moody, minor-key ballad with thick, rhythmic guitars, called “Things We Said Today.” It ravished me, quickly moving to the very center of that internal world where I spent a lot of time. That it was obscure—not a hit, not a single, not on the soundtrack—increased its appeal. I felt like I had some sort of private relationship with it—that it belonged to me.
My mother did another heroic thing: she agreed to a slumber party at our house on the night of Saturday, September 5. That night we played all three albums repeatedly, hour after hour, jumping the needle to meet each other’s requests. I played “Things” a lot. We speculated about which songs they would sing, and I announced that I knew they’d never sing that one. It would be big hits and soundtrack items and performance pieces like “Twist and Shout.” We sang along and played air guitar and danced. We fantasized about ways we could make them see us. We volleyed our favorite lines from A Hard Day’s Night: “Hey, Mister, can we have our ball back?” “What a clean old man!” “Turn left at Greenland.” We argued the superiority of our individual Beatle: our sextet included a Ringo and a George in addition to a couple Pauls and Johns. And periodically we ran out inside the dark back yard to watch planes lowering toward the Detroit airport. We wondered, we imagined. Were they up there in the dark, maybe looking down, right above our heads?
To what did I imagine my golden ticket would admit me?
I had studied it for six months. Section 8, Row G. I had no idea what Section 8 was, but G meant the seventh row–unimaginably close. To arrange drop-off and pick-up, my mother called and found out that the concert was expected to be two hours long. All summer I imagined watching the Beatles, from the seventh row, for two entire hours. I suppose it resembled the feeling I had once had about Christmas: a revelation, a consummation beyond limits.
But beyond the event, there was a world, a new dimension of my life. The Beatles—their faces, their voices, their music, their humor, their clothes, the fierce energy field that surrounded them, the mystique of London itself—constituted another reality, very distant from my own but very intimate, a realm I could cross into any time I wanted. Intensely private but completely expansive and liberating, it offered a vision of hip young adulthood that replaced the complicated, discouraging reality of adolescence as I was living it. In that vision, romance and sexuality—which at this point had more to do with feelings than deeds–were thrilling but kind and generous, bearing no resemblance to the sharp social divides revealing themselves in my world. The songs that lived in me now were the vehicles to this alternate life, more intense, fuller, richer. When they gushed into my head, I was there, and every yearning corpuscle in me was fulfilled.
So, then, to what did that magic ticket actually admit me?
First of all, Section 8 turned out to require a longish walk and considerable climbing. It lay to the left of the stage, nearly at the opposite end of Olympia. Second, the two hours included a set by Jackie DeShannon, a lot of amps and wires and mics and drum kits being moved, and a great deal of waiting. I remember, as Jackie sang on and on, a rising panic, as if every moment she was onstage was stolen from Paul McCartney.
When he finally bounced (as he did) onstage with the others, he was tiny and far away. And he was instantly overwhelmed by a tsunami of shrieking that endured unabated, like the scream of a hurricane, for the duration of their set. It wasn’t like I hadn’t known there would be screaming; it’s all the press liked to talk about, middle-aged men mocking girls like me. The point was that it interfered with the music. Screaming was the last very thing I would have wanted to do at a Beatles concert. I wasn’t there to perform my own excitement; I was there to listen, to hear them actually sing the songs inside me. I discovered that if I plugged my ears with my index fingers, I could in fact hear them better. So I sat there, up in the dark, fingers in my ears, leaning forward into the songs, yearning, for half an hour.
Yes. If the ticket got me and my internal Beatle-world an abrasive collision with reality, the ultimate shock was that they sang for thirty minutes, give or take. Twelve songs, mostly as predicted—the big hits (“She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the more recent “Can’t Buy Me Love”); “A Hard Day’s Night” and some other songs from the film; one George song (“Roll Over, Beethoven”); one Ringo song (“Boys”). But there was an outlier: right in the middle of the set, out of nowhere, or out of somewhere in my head, Paul launched into “Things We Said Today.” Under the cyclone shriek I can still hear my gasp, and the thought that streaked through my mind: He likes it as much as I do. Why else put this obscure song in the mix?
“I wrote this on acoustic,” Paul would later say of this song. “It was a slightly nostalgic thing already, a future nostalgia. We’ll remember the things we said today, sometime in the future, so the song projects itself into the future.” Which was what I was doing at the moment he was singing it: projecting myself into the time—minutes away now–when this concert would be in the past and I would be remembering it. Future nostalgia. Maybe this is, above all, what the golden ticket bought me: the sense of loss in advance of losing. Or, as it might be called, adulthood.
I kept the ticket in a cheap frame on my office wall until I retired. Once a couple students surreptitiously took a picture of it and photoshopped it into shot from a road trip. For about fifteen minutes they had me convinced they’d somehow purloined the thing and carted it around Michigan. It’s now on the wall beside my desk at home. When, in the throes of the break-up, John Lennon sang, “I don’t believe in Beatles,” my heart broke a little. But my inner voice said, “Well, I do.” I have the ticket to prove it: I gained entrance to a place I never left. And it’s my mind, and there’s no time when I’m alone.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Its All About Rock