I Married a Beatlemaniac, Part 2

November 2014

In Part 1 I claimed that the Fab Four rose to success from “quite ordinary circumstances.” Now that Kay and I have traveled to Liverpool and been privileged to see for ourselves, we can tell you just how ordinary those circumstances were.

Menlove Road, a boulevard in south Liverpool not far from the John Lennon Airport, is a pleasant thoroughfare. On either side of a wide median are rows of two-storey, semi-detached homes that must not look very different today than they did when young John lived at Mendips (Number 251) in the 1940s and 50s. Mendips belonged to John’s Aunt Mimi, who raised him with the help of her husband George Smith. Why John didn’t live with Julia, his mother who lived not far away, is an interesting point that I’ll address further on.

John's House 4
Mendips, John’s Childhood Home

Liverpool and Mendips were very important to John, so after his death, Yoko purchased the house and deeded it to the National Trust, not as a museum, but to be restored as close as possible to the condition it was when John lived there. So it was, when on a recent morning, Kay, a few others and I entered the house led by Colin, the expert docent who guided our tour. In our number were three young locals. I asked them how long they had been Beatles fans. “From birth,” they replied.

We entered through the back door, the tradesman’s entrance, directly into the kitchen, the same way Paul did the first time he visited John. Mimi ran a very strict household. The front room or lounge was kept for “best,” and the front door was used only on very special occasions.

Stepping into Mendips’ primitive kitchen was a shock. I grew up in a lower middle-class home in Chicago during roughly the same years as John, but my mother’s kitchen would have seemed luxurious next to Mimi’s. For starters, the room, like all those in her three-bedroom house, is tiny. One wall contains a sink and drain board while in an opposite corner there is a three-burner cooker or stove, just large enough to hold a couple of sauce pans. I can’t remember whether there was an oven; there was certainly no fridge. Many homes in those post-war years were without refrigerators. Each day local purveyors would deliver perishables from door to door. (One of George’s early jobs was delivering meat for a butcher by bicycle. Later, he became a vegetarian.)

Although Mimi was a qualified nurse, she felt she had to stay home for John. She was proud of the fact that he never came home to an empty house. To make ends meet after her husband’s death in 1955, she took in student boarders, giving up her own bedroom to make room for them.

Adjacent to the kitchen is a very small sitting-cum-dining room. The student boarders would eat first, plates on laps, followed by the family.

John’s bedroom upstairs is equally tiny. One wall contained the movie poster of Brigitte Bardot as the young sexpot in Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman. It’s amusing to picture John and Paul as teenagers sitting for hours on the bed with their guitars, picking out tunes and writing their first songs.

Much of Liverpool’s older housing had been destroyed during the air raids of the war, so in the immediate post-war years the City Council quickly built a lot of inexpensive homes to house its surviving population. Paul’s family rented one of these “council” houses at 20 Forthlin Road only a mile from where John lived. Yet, in Mimi’s mind the distance between them was far greater. As a homeowner, she felt superior to the denizens of Forthlin Road. Before Paul’s first visit to Mendips, Mimi worried that her John would be associating with an unrefined boy who spoke with that dreadful scouse accent. She needn’t have worried. Paul disarmed her immediately by his charm and good manners.

Paul’s house belongs to the National Trust, also. During our short visit Kay and I sat in armchairs in the front room, no larger than Mendips’, and listened to our guide tell tales of Paul’s family life. Jim McCartney, Paul’s father, was a musician who played piano, trumpet and banjo. His taste was for popular songs from the ‘30s and ‘40s, swing, and jazz. The one music he would not countenance was rock and roll. When John sang the line, “She loves you, yeh, yeh, yeh.” Jim thought it should go “yes, yes, yes.”

Nevertheless, Jim’s musical talent ran in the family. At fifteen, Paul already knew more guitar chords than John or any of the Quarrymen that made up John’s first band. John must have realized this during their legendary first encounter on July 6, 1957 at the St Peter’s Garden Fete where the Quarrymen were playing a gig. A week later, through an intermediary, he asked Paul to join the band, and Paul said yes.

As songwriting partners, the synergism between John and Paul has been described and analyzed many times over. No one knows for sure the number of songs the duo wrote between 1957 and 1962, only that there were many. Some of these early efforts later became pop hits for The Beatles. Love Me Do and Please Please Me are examples. We were told that Paul wrote the melody to When I’m Sixty-Four when he was fifteen.

Skiffle is an African-American type of music from the early 20th century that British musicians, especially Lonnie Donegan, revived in the early post-war years. Influenced by jazz, blues, and folk, it was customarily played on washboards, tea-box basses, and other homemade instruments. It was acoustic music. Electric instruments were virtually unknown in Britain after the war. They would have had to be imported from the U.S. or Germany at a cost few musicians of the day could afford. The Quarrymen were a Skiffle band.

Kay and I immersed ourselves in the lore and history of the Beatles during two-and-a-half of our five-day visit. On day two after the National Trust Tour described above, we had a private, six-hour tour given by a charming woman with an extraordinary knowledge of all phases of The Beatles’ career and beyond.

Under the guidance of Jackie Spencer we visited the schools the boys attended, the maternity hospital where John was born, the registry office where he married Cynthia, and John Moore’s University where in large letters on the façade, the art and design building is dedicated to John, ironically so, since John was not a brilliant student and never returned an amplifier the school bought and loaned for his use.

We drove past the house at 36 Faulkner Road that Brian Epstein kept as a secret pad for trysts with his male friends. At the time, homosexuality was still a criminal offense in Britain.

We peered through a chain-link fence at the Liverpool Conservative Club where John and Paul first played together.

George’s birthplace on Ardmore Grove is still privately owned. However, from the outside it seems a match, in size at least, for the childhood homes of John and Paul. By today’s standards, it must have been impossibly crowded since besides his two parents, George had three siblings; this, plus the fact that, at the time, the house had no indoor toilet.

Before The Beatles went to Hamburg in 1960, they already had a following in Liverpool. Just before they left, Pete Best joined the band as its drummer. Stuart Sutcliffe accompanied them as bass player. In Hamburg’s tough red-light district the group played at different clubs. At one point George was deported for being too young to work officially, and Paul and Pete were deported after they set fire to a condom as a prank and were arrested as arsonists. In spite of these setbacks, it was in Hamburg that The Beatles became a really tight rock-and-roll band. They played eight hours a night, seven days a week. It was in Hamburg, too, that they made the acquaintance of Astrid Kirchherr, a fan and a talented photographer, who was the first to photograph them professionally.

Stuart Sutcliffe was a handsome young man. In addition to his musical talent, he was a painter. We looked at one of his abstract canvasses in Liverpool’s Walker Gallery. Stuart and Astrid fell in love, and Stuart decided to stay in Hamburg when the band returned to Liverpool. A few months later he died of a cerebral hemorrhage. John, who was especially close to Stuart, took his death hard.

Stuart Sutcliffe's Gravestone
Sutcliffe Grave marker

John was no stranger to loss in his life. He barely knew his father, a seaman who left his wife and son for long periods. His mother Julia took up with another man and had children by him without having divorced her husband. By her sister Mimi’s lights, this was unacceptable behavior and caused a rift between them that lasted for years. Anyway, it was deemed best that Mimi raise John in her house. Thus, in a sense, John lost his mother at an early age. Compared to Mimi, Julia was a free spirit. She was fun and had musical talent. In his late teenage years, John began to see his mother again regularly. Then, she was struck and killed by a car on Menlove Road one day as she left Mimi’s house. In this way John lost her for a second time.

One of the highlights of our tour with Jackie was the hour we spent at the Casbah Coffee Club. There are several Liverpool sites that claim to the birthplace of The Beatles, and the Casbah likely has the greatest claim to be it. The club was the creation of Mona Best, Pete’s mother, and the first rock-and-roll club in Liverpool. At the time Mona opened it, Liverpool didn’t even have a radio station that played rock and roll. For that, listeners had to tune to Radio Luxembourg.

Casbah Coffee Club 3
On the wall at the Casbah Coffee Club

Mid-way through our tour Jackie left us at the Casbah in the hands of Roag Best, Mona’s youngest son. For forty minutes he walked us through the low-ceiling cellar rooms that constituted the Casbah, delivering an impassioned talk in which he described the outlandish personality of his mother and the early days of the club where The Beatles performed nightly for several weeks on end. There were too many details to even grasp let alone to recount here. What we came away with was that Mona was a formidable woman, and that John, always the rebel, was often in trouble with her, as he was in many areas of his early life. For instance, John, Paul, and George each had to paint sections of the ceiling in order to be allowed to perform. John had to paint his section three times before Mona was satisfied with it. At one point he carved his name into a ceiling corner; when Mona discovered it, she made him turn out his pockets and confiscated his penknife.

Pete Beat’s dismissal from the band in favor of Ringo left a bad taste in the mouths of many Liverpudlians. Pete was popular among the locals. The reason or reasons why he was dismissed may never be totally clear. One story is that George Martin wanted him gone, but Mart in claims he only wanted Pete to be replaced by a session drummer on a single studio recording and not from the band. What is clear is that Pete was a bit of a loner and didn’t hang out with the others during their Hamburg days. For this reason, he was never quite one of The Beatles. Some who know drumming and drummers say that Pete’s chops were not a match for those of John, Paul and George. Whatever, Brian Epstein was delegated to fire Pete and hire Ringo, who had been drumming for Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.

The Beatles’ return to Liverpool from Hamburg caused little excitement initially. People remembered how the band sounded in their pre-Hamburg days. Opinions changed, however, as soon as the four began to play. The intensity of their work in Hamburg had polished them, and they returned with a four-hour repertoire that none of the other bands of the day could match. This was the period of the Cavern Club where the Beatles played more than 290 times. They played many other gigs as well. Kay and I came away from Liverpool with a sense of how hard the group worked to achieve their success.

The later part of our tour took us to cemeteries to view the graves of Julia, Stuart Sutcliffe, and Brian Epstein. Then, we visited the red-painted gate marked Strawberry Field and the square on Penny Lane where the “barbershop” and the “shelter in the middle of the roundabout” still exist. At these two locations, obligatory stops on any tour of Beatle sites, Jackie insisted on taking our picture with my camera.

Kay & Me on Penny Lane
Together on Penny Lane

On our final evening in Liverpool, Jackie invited us for drinks at the Hard Day’s Night Hotel in the Cavern Quarter. We didn’t know quite what to expect of the place. The Beatles’ name has been used to promote so many Liverpool enterprises, not all of them in good taste.  So, we were delighted to find that the hotel is very chic indeed. We would be happy to stay there on a future trip. We found Jackie sipping wine alone in the hotel lounge tastefully decorated with paintings of the four Beatles while their songs played softly in the background. She was there to meet her day’s clients, a group of twenty Norwegians whom she had led on tour during the day. Soon they would appear and all go to dinner together.  But first, they would be introduced to a surprise guest who arrived shortly after us.

Freeda Kelly, known by some as Good Ole’ Freeda, had been an early Beatles fan when, at the age of seventeen, Brian Epstein offered her a job as his secretary. She kept that role after Brian’s suicide and until The Beatles separated, a total of eleven years, managing their fan club and answering fan mail, which at times required her to supervise several assistants. Hers was not an easy job. Brian was a tough boss with a mercurial personality, but Freeda rolled with the punches, so to speak, and stayed loyal to the group. Kay and I had a chance to chat with Freeda before the arrival of the Norwegians. What struck us most about her is her integrity. Despite lucrative offers, she’s never written a tell-all book. She probably knows intimate facts about John, Paul, George, and Ringo that no one else does, and she keeps them to herself. She was particularly close to Ringo’s family and refers to him as Richie, as his given name is Richard. Freeda presented Kay and me with an unpublished photo of John, George, and Paul taken in their early days, perhaps at the Casbah or the Cavern Club. She also sold us a DVD of a documentary about herself. Its title: Good Ole’ Freeda — what else? (By the way, we highly recommend it.)

No place is as important as Liverpool for an understanding of the four young men that became The Beatles. We are all formed largely by our childhoods and adolescence. To understand the bond between John and Paul it is useful to know that both boys lost their mothers while they were teenagers. To deeply appreciate many of the songs it is important to visit the real locales they sing of. When I hear Paul sing that “Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes”, I hear how certain favorite sights and sounds of our youth live in our memories all our lives. To watch the Number 86 bus trundling along, as it has for sixty years, and to know that it was the bus that Paul and George rode to get to classes at the Liverpool Institute on Mount Street gives a deeper meaning to Paul’s lines in A Day in the Life.

Kay loved learning about The Beatles in Liverpool. Her Beatlemania, dormant at times, has been reawakened. As for me, while I’ve not become a Beatlemaniac, the songs mean more to me than ever, and I listen to them more closely. Love for The Beatles begins and ends with the music.