Sunday, December 26

The Beatles Latter-Day Druids

American writer Jean Shephard travelled with the Beatles during their 1964 British tour and described Beatlemania:

“I joined the Beatles in Edinburgh in the midst of a wild, swinging personal appearance tour they were making throughout the British Isles. The first glimpse I had of them was in a tiny, overheated, totally disorganized dressing room backstage between their first and second shows. I had taken the night flight up from London and suddenly found myself face to face with one, or rather four, of the 20th Century’s major living legends. All of them looked up suspiciously as I walked in, then went back to eating, drinking and tuning guitars as though I didn’t exist. Legends have a way of ignoring mere mortals. I looked hard at them through the cigarette smoke, and they began to come into focus, sprawling half-dressed and self-involved amid the continuous uproar that surrounds their lives. They had been playing one-night stands in Glasgow and Dundee, and I went with them from Edinburgh to Plymouth, Bournemouth and half a dozen other towns. They were all the same: wild, ravening multitudes, hundreds of policemen, mad rushes through the night in a black Austin Princess to a carefully guarded inn or chalet for a few fitful hours of sleep. And then the whole cycle started all over again. It became impossible to tell one town from another, since to us they were just a succession of dressing rooms and hotel suites. The screams were the same. It all assumed the ritual quality of a fertility rite. Latter-day druids, the Beatles sat in their dressing room – a plywood Stonehenge-surrounded
by sweaty t-shirts, trays of French fries, steak, pots of tea, and the inevitable TV set; while from somewhere off beyond the walls of the theatre came the faint, eerie wailing of their worshipers, like the sea or the wind. But the Beatles no more heard it than a New York cop hears traffic. Totally oblivious to the mob and to the honks and plunks of other Liverpudlian rock n rollers warming up down the hall, they sat sipping their Scotch from paper cups and watching “Dr. Kildare” on the telly. I, meanwhile, sat and watched “them” and wondered why. In two years they had become a phenomenon that had somehow transcended stardom – or even showbiz. They were mythical beings, inspiring a fanaticism bordering on religious ecstasy among millions all over the world. I began to have the uncomfortable feeling that all this fervor had nothing whatever to do with entertainment, or with talent, or even with the Beatles themselves. I began to believe they were the catalyst of a sudden world madness that would have burst upon us whether they had come on the scene or not. If the Beatles had never existed we would have had to invent them. They are not prodigious talents by any yardstick, but like hoola-hoops and yo-yos, they are at the right place at the right time, and whatever it is that triggers the mass hysteria of fads has made them walking myths. Everywhere we went, people stared in openmouthed astonishment that there were actually flesh-and-blood human beings who looked just like the Beatle dolls they had at home. It was as though Santa Claus had suddenly shown up at a Christmas party. Night after night, phalanxes of journalists would stand grinning, groveling, obsequious, jotting down the Beatles’ every word. In city after city the local mayor, countess, duke, earl and prelate would be led in, bowing and scraping, to bask for a few fleeting moments in their ineffable aura. They don’t give interviews; they grant audiences, which is the way the world wants it legends to behave. All around them, wherever they go, shimmers a strange, filmy, translucent pal of palpable unreality, so thick that you can almost taste it. And at the center of this vast cloud of fantasy are the four young men themselves, by far the most real and least enchanted of them all. They have managed somehow to remain remarkably human, totally unlike the kewpies created by fandom and the press. In real life, the Beatles don’t make Beatle noises. Nor are they precocious teenagers. They are grown-up, Scotch-drinking men who know what the world expects of them – which is to be Beatles and to wear long hair, funny clothes and be cute. But all that stops when the curtain falls and the high-heeled shoes come off and the drums are put away. Their unimaginable success – which has made them world figures important enough for the prime Minister and the Queen’s consort to discuss in news conferences, and has made them without a doubt the most successful money machine in recent times – has left them faintly bemused, but also extremely guarded in their everyday life, almost as though they’re afraid that an extra loud sneeze will burst the bubble and they’ll be back in reality like the rest of us.”

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