America has become a nation of somber anniversaries. Assassinations, massacres and dastardly attacks crowd our collective calendar.
And so it was nice on Friday, just for once, to celebrate a milestone that makes a lot of people happy.
Here in hyperlocal land that aren’t many road trips. But we could not pass up this chance to travel all the way to JFK International Airport… a journey spanning 50 miles and as many years.
On Feb. 7, 1964, just weeks after President Kennedy’s assassination, thousands of screaming kids thronged the newly renamed airport to welcome the Beatles to America.
Although time would prove John, Paul, George and Ringo to be mortals like the rest of us, on that day they were extraordinary visitors from another world: A young, exuberant, supremely talented and disarmingly irreverent “four-headed monster,” as Mick Jagger once called them.
At their core was the music, which endures. The Beatles’ basic message is positive. And the tunes are irrepressible. Even parents and barbers–two groups that were pretty wary back in ’64–eventually came ’round. Many of them, anyway.
PLAQUES, PLUMBING AND PAUL
The media gaggle did not utter “Bridgegate” once, though it was tempting to ask Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye who is in charge of potholes. (“Now we know how many holes it takes to fill the GWB…”)
Liverpool, the band, was fronted by North Brunswick rocker Glen Burtnik, who kept toes tapping.
Liverpool, the place, was fronted by Lord Mayor Gary Millar, who invited everyone back to the Beatles’ hometown. Decades of documentaries have painted Liverpool as a gritty, not-so-Fab port city that the lads were glad to escape. But the Lord Mayor insisted it’s Shangri-la-by-the-Sea. The rebuilt Cavern Club even has modern plumbing!
It also has Tony Coburn, a right-handed Liverpudlian who taught himself to play a lefty Hofner bass so he can portray Paul in the Cavern Club Beatles. Do Beatles cover bands in simulated historical venues have groupies? You’ll have to watch the video.
Photos by Berit Ollestad. Please click icon below for captions.
The original articles were so hot in 1964 that they gave away surplus hits. One recipient of this largesse was Billy J. Kramer, a card-carrying member of the British Invasion who reminisced Friday about John Lennon handing him a winner–while hanging onto an even bigger smash.
Gillian L’Eplattenier made her very first flight as a stewardess (as flight attendants were called in the Swinging Sixties) with the Beatles on Pan Am 101 from London to New York. She was focused on doing her job that day, and mostly remembers the Beatles as excited young tourists on their first trip to the States. Paul stood out, she said.
‘I WANTED TO BE THEM’
Of course, the Beatles made the trip to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. That golden anniversary is tonight–Feb. 9, 2014–and a CBS special featuring Sir Paul and Ringo will note the fact. Seventy million viewers tuned into the 1964 program, a record at the time.
Glen Burtnik, formerly with Styx and Broadway’s Beatlemania (as Paul’s doppelgänger), and Mark Rivera, who has performed with Billy Joel and Elton John and now serves as Ringo’s music director, both said the Beatles’ Ed Sullivan debut changed their lives.
“I wanted to be them,” said Mark, whose All-Starr Band connection made him Friday’s second-closest thing to an actual Beatle.
Top honors went to Julia Baird, John’s half-sister. These days, she’s a director of Cavern Club Tours.
The Cavern Club, as we said, is a replica of the dank basement where the Beatles honed their skills. But then, few things aside from Beatles music last forever. Friday’s event was held in JFK’s old TWA terminal because the original terminal that welcomed the Beatles–and hosted their cheeky press conference–has fallen victim to progress.
But Julia said her favorite memory is not shrieking girls rushing tarmacs. It’s her teenaged brother at the kitchen table, strumming Lonnie Donegan and Elvis numbers with their late mother, Julia, who played banjo.
KISS AND TELL
One proud veteran of the screaming mob is Sue Weisenhaus, a substance abuse counselor who traveled from California for this weekend’s celebrations.
At the Beatles’ Hollywood Bowl concert in 1965, she passed out from excitement in Section N, then kicked free of security people to catch the rest of the show. Beatle vocals were drowned out by the din, but “you knew the words to the songs, so you sang along,” she said.
Why is the band still popular after all these years?
“Their message is truth and love and light. And it sets people free,” said Sue, who is approaching 64.
She realized a lifelong dream last year when she kissed Paul, during a concert in Vienna.
Meeting an idol, especially after decades of pursuit, can inspire trepidation. Will he have feet of clay, or breath of cheese? What will you say? But Sue knew how to respond when Sir Paul asked if she would like to dance with him.
“I said, ‘Paul, I’ve been dancing with you all my life.”
And if the Cute Beatle is reading this, Sue wants you to know: “I’m going to keep dancing till the wheels fall off!”
ONE MORE TIME:
Just for the record…how did Sir Paul smell?
“Like an angel,” Sue testified.