When the former Richard Starkey began his rendition of "Yellow Submarine," we all started to scramble, looking for some shelter from the storm on this sweltering summer night at Alpine Village in East Troy, Wisconsin. As he would sing later, "It Don't Come Easy."
It was 1989, the summer that Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band was created, and the 37,000-seat venue nestled between Chicago and Milwaukee was under attack from the gods of water and lightning. There was no place to hide as our TV team scattered backstage under canopies, under anything we could find, seeking shelter.
Three hours before, the sun was shining during the afternoon sound check when the drummer and I sat on stools on the stage, sharing, during a videotaped interview, some memories of the Beatles' historic North American tours of 1964 and 1965. In the first of those unforgettable summers, I was a twenty-one-year-old newsman with a ticket to ride to cover young Ringo and his three extraordinary bandmates. It was an unlikely assignment for a man who can't hold a tune or even dance to one, but it began an odyssey, a true life adventure, that would bring me onboard not just for two summers of touring, plus parts of the 1966 tour, but for a lifetime of adventure and memories.
My life experience would include fifty-six years of covering news, often having to cover my behind in some really bad and violence-filled places. My love of politics would lead me to presidents, senators, governors, mayors, and politicians of all stripes. I also went to jail, as a visitor, chronicling the life-after-political-death of many a corrupt politician. I anchored the TV news for a long time, and reported on all sorts of stories. But I would always be tethered to the one story I originally didn't want to cover. For—and this is the truth—I never wanted to travel with "the boys," as insiders called them early on. After all, in early 1964 I had predicted to my puzzled bosses that the "mop tops," as the Beatles were unceremoniously described by the grown-ups of the time, had no real future. My talent for forecasting the future was bogus. Tell me in 1964 that I would wind up writing three books on the "Fabs," as Starkey would later call them, and I would suggest that you were smoking dope, which many of you may have done at one time or another.
The interview with Ringo went well, but the skies were clouding up. By showtime it was a driving rain, like a tropical storm, and the promoters invited us to the green room, the warm and fuzzy green room, which I will forever remember as the magic room. It was there that I found out what Ringo Starr was really doing.
My wife, Donna, who rarely accompanied me to news events, was checking out the green room. Donna, who loves photography, had taken pictures of my reunion with Ringo earlier. The green room was subdued. There was an unkempt skinny guy sitting in the corner, looking lonely, sipping a Coke, and sporting a thousand-mile stare into nothingness. I introduced myself. With a sheepish handshake, he said, "I'm Joe Walsh." Joe Walsh of the Eagles? Yes, it was. On the other side of the room, E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons had that always-cheerful look.
Not far away, munching on some food, was Dr. John, the king of the piano, the pride of New Orleans. And the hits just kept on coming in the magic room: Nils Lofgren; musician supreme, the one and only Billy Preston; drummer Levon Helm; bassist Rick Danko; and drummer Jim Keltner. "Amazing," I thought. Ringo had made magic, assembling an all-star lineup of musical greats to supplement his limited repertoire. Could Ringo alone sustain a McCartney-like concert for two hours or more? Probably not. But in the process of putting together this extraordinary collection of artists, he had created a knockout concert; it was more than just a casting call to help rejuvenate stifled careers of fellow artists. For the ex–Beatles drummer, this was, in fact, the beginning of redemption. And it was an experience he was delighted to share.
I walked outside, under a large canopy. It was still raining. I sat down at a picnic table and started reflecting on this strange and sensational reunion between the two of us.
"It don't come easy." It didn't for Starkey, aka Ringo, whom I watched slowly walk down a narrow, metal staircase, dressed in a bathrobe with a towel draped around his neck. He waved, tenderly, and smiled as he prepped for act one of the show. After all, the drummer had been given up for lost before he finally found a way to surface from oblivion. And that's why the magic room was so magic, and the evening so special. It was especially so for the men assembled in that room, the flesh and bones of stars whose spot- lights had faded, legends scattered to the winds by a changing business. Some of them, like Ringo, were felled by substance abuse; others by fate. No surprise was it at all that some of the band members in this most unusual green room were in the process of resurrection. Lazarus would have been proud.
With a little help from his friends—and they, with a lot of his own help— Ringo was unselfishly prepared to chart the course for the rest of his career. It was an act of grace, a display of kindness; it was part of the fiber of the boys who, back in the Liverpool days and nights, made the joy and dreamed of the music they could make and the stories they could tell. In an era of celebrity misfits and coarse role models, the four dreamers from so long ago still stand out, for their character as much as their intrigue. And there is plenty of that, as you will soon learn.
The road to glowing stardom and success is paved with more than gold. It is hard and scathing, and sometimes treacherous. We all know what happened at the end, which to this day has been an endless ending to an unlikely story. But the story of how Richie and his three mates came to that point really starts at the beginning, and I'm talking here about the exit from the womb, and the arrival in a dark, dank, and battered city, where all hell was breaking loose in a daily struggle for survival. It was there, amid the crushing bombs and abject poverty, that the story of the Beatles really began.
On the 1989 stage in Wisconsin, Ringo feigned a loss of memory as I quizzed him about the touring days. After a few minutes, his mind seemed to stir. His eyes lit up. We recalled together the crazy nights and the crazier crowds and the tumult.
At the end, he just smiled.
"We were just boys then, just boys.
"Just boys," he added for emphasis.
The "boys" became men and the men endured in a way that few world icons endure and evolve, making an imprint larger, in some cases, than the tenure of some world leaders.
The spotlight moves 1,200 miles east to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House. The date is May 30, 2010.
The sun shines brightly on the East Wing of the president's house. An anteroom is set up for cocktails and finger food, the invitation-only crowd beaming with the excitement generally reserved for a superstar. But this was not Barack Obama's night. The superstar is somewhere inside the intense security wall of the White House. On event days, his own security bubble resembles the president's, its layers so deep. But on this day, his private security detail waits outside. After all, the star is inside the president's bubble.
The East Wing is known as the first lady's wing, including her offices and the headquarters of the White House Social Office, which has carefully planned this special evening.
I arrived, along with other invited guests, holding what was described to me as the hottest ticket to any White House event in decades—the annual concert (taped for later broadcast) and presentation of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. The recipient was Paul McCartney, who was, at the early hour of my arrival, not to be seen. As I walked down the corridor of the ground floor of the East Wing, I saw other entertainers gathering, along with members of the McCartney family led by Paul's affable brother, Mike McCartney. But with the excitement building, I had little understanding of the grandeur and scope of the extravagant event I was about to witness, until I scanned the embossed program booklet and the profiles inside, listing a collection of creative genius:
British singing sensation Corrine Bailey Rae Rock legend Elvis Costello
Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters
Piano jazz legend Herbie Hancock
Grammy winners Emmylou Harris and Faith Hill The Jonas Brothers
Chinese pianist Lang Lang
Jack White, rocker and actor
Jerry Seinfeld, strictly for laughs
Stevie Wonder; would he sing "Ebony and Ivory" in duet?
It was a breathtaking lineup. And at 7:25 p.m., a voice somewhere in the East Room announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States, the first lady of the United States, and Sir Paul McCartney."
Paul, dressed in a black show suit, with a collarless shirt, took to the stage and immediately started into "Got to Get You into My Life." I watched him carefully. I thought, "It's like, well, it's just like 1964 or 1965 all over again." Frankly, since I was the only one in that room who had been there in person, stage-side, during those heady times in the sixties, it was a clock stopper—but there was also a shocker. The years had put some age lines on the famous boyish face! But the body moved quickly to the rhythm of the music, and the classic composer and cowriter of the most delicious anthology of music in the modern era wasn't missing a beat. Was I the only one who could appreciate all the years that passed, and the continuity of vibrancy that remained in the never-ending story of Paul and the "lads," as the older American reporters liked to call them in those blood-flushing, enrapturing early days? I think so. I know that I was probably alone in my thoughts, but I was beaming quite naturally at the irony of fate, time, and the coincidence of my presence.
The next ninety minutes were bathed in greatness, the kind you rarely see on one platform on any given night. As the other artists sang, Paul sat in the front row, mouthing the words and enjoying each unique version of some of his greatest hits. "How amazing," I thought. "All the way from Merseyside to these heights. All that way in a journey of fame and glory, but never conceding excellence." And yes, Paul and Stevie sang "Ebony and Ivory." And yes, it was unbelievable.
When the music ended, the forty-fourth president of the United States, Barack Obama, took the stage. His brief but thoughtful comments illuminated the meaning of the honoree.
By its very definition, popular music is fleeting. Rarely is it composed with an eye towards standing the test of time. Rarer still does it actually achieve that distinction. And that's what makes Paul's career so legendary. It's hard to believe that it's been nearly half a century since four lads from Liverpool first land- ed on our shores and changed everything overnight. . . .
Over the four decades since, Paul McCartney has not let up, touring the world with the band Wings or on his own; rocking everything from small halls to Super Bowls. He's composed hundreds of songs over the years, with John Lennon, with others, or on his own. Nearly two hundred of those songs made the charts—think about that—and stayed on the charts for a cumulative total of thirty-two years. [Laughter and applause.] And his gifts have touched billions of lives.
I enjoyed the remarks, although I believe the president did not adequately cover the enormous and creative influence of John Lennon on Sir Paul's life and times, which were and remain our times as well. But even that miscue couldn't diminish a very special moment in time.
Soon the show was over. The people, about two hundred of them, were exiting to a brief postevent reception. I walked across the room and said, "Paul, it's Larry."
He looked back. And then he shouted, "Oh my God, it's Larry! It's Larry Kane! Look at you."
"Look at you," I answered.
He grabbed me in a big bear hug. He whispered, "It's so great to see you." We chatted the private chat of people who have shared the same experience, and both thoroughly enjoyed our brief reunion.
The truth is that I have never been a "fan" of anything. I've always enjoyed great performances, but that special night, in of all places, the White House, I felt like, acted like, and was totally enveloped in fandom. And as I left the East Wing a little later and hailed a cab, I started thinking back over the years and realized just how truly lucky I was to have been part of the beginning. But of course, my beginning with the Beatles was not the real beginning, which occurred long before 1964 and has always been a subject of fascination and mystery.
After all, Paul was just a boy when it all began—a little younger but just as wise as his writing companion and fellow genius John Lennon and the leader of the All-Starr Band, and a bit older than George and his guitar-mastering magic fingers.
I first met the Beatles in February 1964 during their brief visit to the States, and first joined the Beatles on tour on August 18, 1964. But two decades before that, their journey began. This is that story.
Was the Beatles' success story improbable? Yes, more so than you know. But it is a story where all things were possible. In many ways, the prequel to the Beatles' arrival in America was more exciting than the main event.
Filled with characters dimmed or forgotten by the lapses of history, marked at times by despair and defeat, punctuated by moments of drama and fate, this story was mostly created by the energy and talent that overcame the most overwhelming odds.
My search for the characters was daunting. There are no doubt lies reported in this book, because there are so many contradictory reports. But everyone gets their moment of truth.
This is also a story about a city and its people. Alfred Lennon and his wife, Julia Stanley, would burn their own bridges of love and companionship in the parks and bedrooms of Liverpool, but flickers of art and banjos and guitars would burn inside a son. Harold Harrison, a friendly bus driver and stalwart union leader, taught his wiry son to respect the music, and to listen to its wonderment. James McCartney of the north side brought a middle-class work ethic and a charismatic personality to his son. And the less financially endowed Starkeys of the South Side of Liverpool saw their shy and sickly son, obsessed by the music, emerge into a man, and a talented one at that. The Sutcliffes encouraged their only son, Stuart, to paint and to play guitar. The legendary Mona Best played den mother to her drummer son, Pete, and to the early makeshift band. A tense, consistent, and frequent writer, Bill Harry, wielded a pen as mighty as a guitar, and he had plenty of company— the likes of Beatles pressmen Tony Barrow and Derek Taylor, and others. The promoters, some of them still promoting, are vibrant in life and in recollection. The catalyst, Beatles manager Brian Epstein, is the most fascinating of entrepreneurs, provocative and endearing.
There are many heroes and heroines, risk takers, doubters, and hundreds of others who claim a piece of the history. To the people of Liverpool, their names stand beside the rich and the famous as architects of a revolution in culture. Sit beside early Beatles promoter Sam Leach, or longtime Beatles insider Tony Bramwell, or the original Quarrymen, and you feel what it was like to be there when the beginning began. You sense the uncertainty, the determination, the doubts, and the perilous flights of fancy and dreaming that live in young people. Ironic, isn't it? Youth is fleeting, but in the case of the Beatles, the music freezes them in time.
Time is the greatest enemy of history. Real events and people are distorted, exaggerated, and often forgotten. We are dependent on individual and collective memories. And there are so many people who try to shape their stories to suit their own biographies. That is expected. After all, what is memory but a hazy, subjective reconstruction of the vivid reality from so long ago?
Such is the history of the Beatles—conflicting stories, betrayal, love (lots of that), intrigue, and real or imagined adventure, some of which I shared while touring with them.
But about one fact there is absolute certainty. Before the world noticed, before the glare overwhelmed them, it all came together in the period from 1957 through 1963, when they were boys.
And it was all preceded by a bloody nightmare that would define the city and the boys.
Madness Above the Mersey
Jim McCartney would stand on the rooftop and watch. The glare of fires burning on the waterfront of the river Mersey would make his eyes squint and his stomach turn. He would glance out over the neighborhoods of his city, and wonder how close the bombs would come. He was a volunteer—his job was to observe and report fires, and then, after the strange whistle of bombs hit the air on their way down and then exploded on the ground, Jim would fight the fires, and silently hope beyond hope that the killers in the sky would miss him. Jim, considered too old at thirty-eight to join the fighting forces, and hampered with a childhood injury, was determined to do his part.
A mile away, his wife, Mary, was delivering babies by darkness, another player in the drama that was Liverpool. For Mary and Jim, their only solace was that their first son, Paul, was born after the blitz had stopped. During the bombardment, German bombs strangled their city, but the heroism in the middle of the hell was a tribute to the stalwart fabric of the British and their undying hope to always see another daybreak. But daybreak also brought with it the shocking sights and smells of the tragedy.
That odious gas escaping from its destroyed pipelines, the smell of lathe and burned metal, and the stink of sewage streaming through the streets— it was unforgettable. As the horrified citizens emerged from the shelters, they discovered piles of soot several inches deep, and ultimately, the feared sight—lifeless beings extricated from the rubble.
As in all historic bombing campaigns, a few minutes late or early could decide the fate of an individual. On July 7, 1940, Elsie Starkey was late, but also early. As her son Richard entered the dark world of poverty she lived in at 9 Madryn Street, the first air-raid warnings were sounded. Fortunately, the height of the blitz started a few months later. Richard Starkey was born one month later than he was due, but early enough to survive the bombs.
Some people—wounded, dazed, and disoriented—wandered the remains searching for relatives and friends. Animals, left behind in the hurry to find safety, were clueless victims. Anticontamination units moved through the narrow streets to contain the filth and protect the living. The citizens of the city knew, quite privately because the enemy didn't know the extent of the damage, that thousands were dead and dying.
Bus conductor Harold (Harry) Harrison managed to maneuver his vehicle in and around shattered streets. He was a thin man, with intense dark eyes and a great love for his wife, Louise, and three children, including the youngest, Peter, born during the horrific blitz. A fourth child, George, the spitting image of his father, would arrive in 1943.
Harry, like his fellow wartime mates, experienced the suffering firsthand.
Day by day, the toll was mounting.
In the end, the count was 4,000 dead in Liverpool—second only to London's loss of 30,000 in the extended aerial carnage. More than 6,000 Liverpool homes were gone, and nearly 200,000 damaged. The city was a shooting gallery. The blitz by the German Luftwaffe continued from Christmas 1940 until early in 1942.
But fate would have its moment, defying the destruction. On the evening of October 9, 1940, a woman could be seen running in the dark, fearless in the face of fear, heading for the Oxford Street Maternity Home, as it was called then. It is said she missed the explosion of a land mine by a few minutes. One thing is certain: a few hours earlier the Germans had launched another attack on populated areas. This attack did not stop Mary Stanley, known as Mimi, sister of Julia Stanley Lennon, from getting to the materni- ty home. Julia, a beautiful and caring young woman, married to merchant seaman Alfred Lennon, had just given birth to their first child, John Winston. Mimi, a strong-willed woman—some would say extremely stubborn almost to the point of defiantly immovable—was quoted as saying, "This was the one I was waiting for," as if it were her own child. The sisters were close, but Mimi viewed herself as a guardian to Julia. Inevitably, years after the bombs and war ended, Mimi's "wait" would take a historical turn, and the controversy over her role would live into the next century.
The blitz ended when the twentieth century's most prolific mass murderer, Adolf Hitler, turned his attention east toward the Russian threat against his expanding domain of death and fear. But the damage had been done.
The city of Liverpool and its environs had been a likely target. The port on the river Mersey, a waterway that would be romanticized by the young bands of musicians that roamed the streets fifteen years later, was the entry port for over 90 percent of raw war materials that arrived from other countries. Liverpool, whose great wealth was secured as a port of call several hundred years prior, was the port of call for the lifelines of World War II, and the gateway to the West. The Germans, diabolical in their bombing campaign, tried to stop the flow and kill the morale. But the mounting deaths, and the additional pain and suffering, only emboldened the populace to resist and fight daily for survival. Rationing of all resources was standard, but there was one critical commodity that the people of northwestern England had in abundance, and that was, quite simply, hope.
There was, and remains today, a sense of pride in the northwest of England. Is its sense of superiority unbound? No. But the mothers and fathers and children who grew up amid the ruins, many of them limited by economic duress caused by war, learned that, while London was the capital, the people of Liverpool would never afford themselves anything but first-class status in British society. Much of that moxie emerged from survival in the war, and it was on display when the greatest band in the world emerged from the port city, at first denied by the London music scene, and later embraced by Her Majesty's empire, and the rest of the human universe.
Liverpool is also a city of remembrance, whether it is the simple grave of the young retailer-cum-band manager, Brian Epstein—a member of Liverpool's small Jewish community who catapulted Britain's greatest entertainment exports to fame and glory—or the small, crumbling stone marking the resting place of the mother who produced a musical genius, both of whom died much too early. There are the houses of the famous and the hospitals where they emerged. But superseding the famous and those who were left behind is the spirit of the city's working-class people, nurtured over decades of seeking a better life for their successors and etched in the courage burned into their souls by the great aerial bombardment.
Perhaps the most famous nod to the past is the church that remains stand- ing, remarkably, in the heart of the city. On May 5, 1941, a German bomber dropped a firebomb on St. Luke's Church. Today, when you walk aside the church, you dwell on the beauty of the structure, until you look closer and notice, chillingly, that its insides are gone, destroyed in the attack. While "Merseyside," as the people call Liverpool, has been reconstructed with con- temporary multilevel shopping malls and a large waterfront development, the shell of St. Luke's remains erect to this day, a memorial to the thousands who died in the second great war, and to the hundreds of thousands who survived.
The aerial attacks brought the city to self-imposed darkness amid the lights-out warnings that were strictly observed, lest the Germans spotted a flicker and attacked it with added intensity—for history shows us that the Luftwaffe rarely made the humane distinction between strategic targets and those with no strategic value at all. And so darkness itself became a terrifying ordeal.
June Furlong tried to live with the darkness of war. She would later make history posing for a young art student who would achieve undying fame long after his heart stopped beating. She was ten years old when the bombs started dropping.
"We would sit around the table during the blackouts. The only illumination [was from] the paint on the railings of the narrow staircase. I practiced piano in the dark, studied in the dark, sat in the dark, and heard the news that my cousin, a pilot, was shot down and killed. It was truly terrifying."
Furlong still shudders to think what else could have happened. Recalling the fright, she talks of one fateful night. "An incendiary device came crash- ing through the roof," she tells me.
She remembers the moment, her eyebrows arching, her face still showing the pain of the memory, sixty years later. "We sat under the table in the dining room. As the house shook, so did my body. It was so bloody frightening."
When the bombers stopped, even before the war ended, Furlong and her generation remembered the way it hardened the souls, and brought people together.
Furlong, who would play a role in the education of John Winston Lennon, is a woman of great enthusiasm, and has an undying love for her city. Her lips widen, her eyes glow, her voice becomes high-pitched and cheerful as she talks about the suddenly unchained people of her city and their ultimately positive reaction to the war.
"It [brought out] the best in people. People who didn't talk for years started talking. Friendship and dependency in war was second to none. We had street parties, jellies [candies], and parades. They were filled with music."
She beams with the wise counsel of a woman who has been there. "Let's face it. It was the music that kept us going."
The music kept Liverpool going, but so did the differences, the dividing lines that infuse the energy of a great city. And those differences are fascinating, starting with the country's most popular sport.
In 1892 the Liverpool Football Club was born. By the year 2000, Liverpool F.C. was declared the most successful English soccer team of the twentieth century. Yet, the team was not the first one established in the city. Over a decade earlier, in 1878, Everton F.C. was founded. And today the two teams' respective stadiums sit right across the way from each other. The Liverpool team is known as the "Reds," and Everton is the "Blues." For many years the teams were divided by religions—the "Reds" were viewed as the Protestant team, the "Blues" as the Catholics. Indeed, Liverpool is one of the few cities in the world with two massive cathedrals, Protestant and Catholic, tall and becoming, facing off each other in a neighborhood not far from where the Beatles went to school.
Many years after soccer arrived, another major arrival would change the fate of a city and the world. This was, of course, the arrival of the guitar boys, who in 1957 replaced the banjo and washboard stars they had worshipped. A teenage band, in raw form, arrived on the scene through a circuitous journey, on streets hardly paved with gold, but rather lined with the trapdoors and quicksand of decision, fate, and competition. The surviving four boys of the band never wavered in their meteoric rise to immortality. It is an irony that in today's Liverpool, many of the younger generation embrace these boys with less intensity than the rest of the world, but ask any one of them which four men made the greatest statement of independence to the elites of the English south, and they know exactly where their modern-day heritage was born.
Yes, it is a city of contrasts and great pride, and like all cities, was founded on illustrious contradictions.
The city's eponymous soccer club earned its success in no small part by the spirit of its fans. Generations of Liverpool fans and players have moved through the sacred grass of Anfield, their home from the beginning. And in the modern era, the team and players have marched to the beat of their theme song, "You'll Never Walk Alone," borrowed from the musical Carousel.
The song was recorded by Gerry Marsden, the leader of Gerry and the Pacemakers. Although Marsden lived in the shadow of the Beatles, he had a successful career in his own right, and is beloved by Liverpool soccer fans for the song, which is, in itself, a major contradiction. Marsden may be the voice of the "Reds," but it is said that he was actually a fan of the "Blues" until he was thirteen. Fans will rarely walk into each other's stadiums, but when it comes to Marsden's soccer preferences, no one really cares.
But to all others: beware. These are sacred grounds, and one should never enter the wrong turf. The Reds and the Blues play in separate stadiums, facing each other, just like the towering cathedrals. Each stadium holds over 40,000 fans. The economies of modern communities suggest a single stadium could better serve both fan bases. But to date, loyalty and sacred heritage are more important than money.
It is true that a soccer fan never walks alone in Liverpool, just as the besieged residents of the war's blitz knew that their backs, if not their houses, were covered. The friendliness of the people even today is catching. I have never met a cabdriver in Liverpool who didn't ask where I was from, nor did any man or woman ever balk when I walked up to ask directions. I have never seen such a city where happiness is not bounded by social or economic standing. People may call you "luv" and, believe me, they really mean it. The accent is thick with a slightly Irish brogue, and sometimes it is hard for the visitor to understand. So, on occasion, you have to ask, "Can you please repeat that?" And they do, willingly.
In Liverpool, no one ever really walks alone.
The people who endured the bombings, the postwar mothers and fathers who looked forward, not back, and the parents of the boys in the band who kept saving money for their sons, worried that the bubble would burst.
And the boys themselves? They were not always saints, but like their fellow citizens, they always had people covering their back. These people were so important, and in many ways, so ignored by history. Surrounded by a cast of characters no writer of fiction could ever invent, blessed with inordinate talents and a determination to succeed, ordained with tons of luck, and destined to narrowly escape the dangers of their path, they wrote their history, and gifted their joy to a surprised world.
And it all began in the coastal city in northern England, where life, some of it soaked in rain, can, in itself, be a daily surprise.
About Larry Kane