Being a professional musician sometimes means you have to wear a lot of hats. A lot of us teach, do session work, or play in cover bands while also writing, recording, and performing our own original music. Each of these hats is a very rewarding and fulfilling way to make money, and for me, one of the hats I wear is really more of a mop top… That’s because when I’m not playing my own music, I’m traveling and performing all over the country in a Beatles tribute band.
“But, I may have broken a Beatle’s heart. An actual Beatle’s heart.”
The Beatles were more than a band. They were even more than just the sum of their parts. Their impact isn’t even confined to the realm of music. Anyway, blah blah blah, we all know this. But, I may have broken a Beatle’s heart. An actual Beatle’s heart.
I was ten years old when a documentary called The Beatles Anthology came out. Bowl cut, cargo shorts, Airwalks, basically the quintessential image of a 90’s kid. I was really into baseball at that time. Growing up in a farm town in Washington State meant that my baseball heroes were just a short three-hour drive away: The Seattle Mariners. Griffey, Buhner, Martinez. The 1995 Mariners beat the Yankees in the American League Division Series after being down by two games, but they lost against the Indians in the pennant. The more significant event that year, however, was when I was introduced to four hilarious English gentleman that played guitars and laughed and joked and made movies and basically, from what I had observed from the documentary, were the center of the known universe in the 1960’s. You couldn’t listen to or watch the Beatles without smiling and feeling an easy sense of happiness deep in your heart.
After watching that documentary eight-hundred-thousand times, I did the next logical thing any Beatle convert would do….I got a paper route so I could make money and buy a guitar. A giant bundle of seventy newspapers would be waiting for me after school at the bottom of the steep driveway that led up to my house. Wrapping my fingers around the twine that held the massive stack together, I’d lug them up and through my side door, plop them down on the family room floor, roll them up, twist blue, pink or grey rubber bands around them, chuck them in my over-the-shoulder canvas bag, and get to work. Seventy papers, two hours, every weekday for five years. Snow, rain, dust storms, etc. With the money from that route, I bought three guitars, two amplifiers, an effects pedalboard, and countless effects pedals that I still use to this day, twenty-three years later.
After a high school garage band, a degree in music, and a few years in New York City playing folk music, I found myself in Seattle, Washington. The pesto of cities. In a moment that’s significance would only be realized many years later, my dear and tallest of friends, Kyle, forwarded me a Craigslist ad for a Beatles tribute band in search of a new member. My Beatles frenzy had simmered out quite a few years before, but I still leapt gleefully at the opportunity. In my youth, I had memorized every lyric, rehearsed every accent, practiced every head bobble, every smile, every walk, every detail from those marvelous seven years from Please Please Me all the way through Abbey Road. I auditioned and…..I GOT IN.
“I was living the life of a Beatle.”
Chicago. New York. Detroit. Dallas. Miami. City after city. Shows upon shows. Fairs, festivals, casinos, cruise ships, theaters. The boots, the guitars, the suits. Lights. Sounds, “Yeah, yeah, yeahs!”, I was living the life of a Beatle.
Sitting in a hotel room in Romulus, Michigan, I got a phone call from my band leader. The Detroit area is my absolute favorite place to play. Not because of the people or the venues or the weather. Nope. It’s because of the amazing Middle Eastern food that is so ubiquitous to that region. The dense and hearty falafel, the warm fluffy pita, the tangy tahini, the hummus… Anyway, my bandleader called to deliver a message. I know he spoke the words. I know that my ear drums received the vibrations through the air and converted them into sound in my cerebrum. I know that I was standing next to an open window, the breeze gently tossing the white linen curtain back and forth. I know that I still had some falafel in my teeth. But if you were to ask me the real details of that moment. What it felt like. What it truly, honestly, in my heart felt like when I heard him say what he said, I would say that it felt like that ten year old kid that I used to be, the one that sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the television for hours watching the Beatles Anthology, the one that grew his hair out to look like the cover of Beatles for Sale, the one that signed his own name in the exact same way that John Lennon did, the one that sang in a Liverpool accent even though he was sitting on a bed in a bedroom that was on the complete opposite side of the planet from England, it felt like that kid reached through the wall of time, grabbed my hand, and we both rose slowly into the air and in a flash became the things that we had only once dreamt of. The message my bandleader had was that my band had just been booked to play a show with Pete Best. A real Beatle.
“…my band had just been booked to play a show with Pete Best. A real Beatle.”
Before Ringo, there was Pete. He was there in the beginning. Their first drummer. Through all the time in Hamburg. Those long shows in the Cavern Club where the Beatles learned how to be the band they would eventually become. He was there. As a kid, I adored Pete Best. His drumming filled the entire first disk of the Beatles Anthology soundtrack. “My Bonnie”, “Cry for a Shadow”, “Three Cool Cats”, that was all Pete. I absolutely loved those early songs. That black and white smokey imagery that came along with those primitive early recordings. I’d close my eyes and instantly be sitting at the back of the Jacaranda club in Liverpool. But as we all know, Pete’s time in the band was short. He was sacked in 1962 and replaced with Ringo. It goes without saying that the Beatles wouldn’t have been the same without Ringo, but it’s still a tragic story for the kind and gentle soul that was Pete Best.
Pete really didn’t get any recognition for his time in the band until the 90’s. The Anthology came out and he finally started receiving the credit he deserved. He even started drumming again. He would make appearances now and then with Beatles tribute bands from all over the world and I was lucky enough to be in one of them.
The date was set. June 22nd, 2013. The place: The Freedom Hill Amphitheater in Sterling Heights, Michigan.
We heard from Pete’s manager that Pete liked to play a certain handful of songs from those holiest of days in the Beatles. “Love Me Do”, “Twist and Shout”, “Please Mr. Postman”, and “I Saw Her Standing There.” I knew the songs already, but this was different. This just wasn’t any old show at some county fair with a funnel cake truck parked next to the sound board. We would be sharing the stage with one of only five people on the planet that can say that they were in the Beatles. I practiced the songs continuously. Over and over. I wanted to make sure everything was perfect for Pete. I mean, he could literally compare my performance to that of John Lennon’s. “Well, John’s version of ‘Twist and Shout’ will live on forever and ever in the hearts of the human race, but your version is…..nice…..too….I guess,” Pete might say. And so I practiced.
The day had arrived. With my suits all pressed and my guitar slung over my back, I stepped out of my hotel room and into the hallway. Everything felt more significant. The carpet under my feet, though the same dingy brown color that it was yesterday, a tight berber that existed more for its ease of cleaning than for its aesthetic intentions, had somehow become more momentous in the light of this most historic of days. The trip down in the elevator was hardly noticed as my mind was far more concerned with the events that lied ahead. What would he look like after all these years? The photos of that young man, the way he looked when his image was captured all those years ago, sitting behind his drum kit, dressed head to toe in leather, like they did for a short period. That was the picture in my head. A twenty-one year old kid having a night out with his mates. What would he sound like? Would he have the same coiffed hair and mild expression?
The other three members of my band were already in the lobby when the elevator doors opened. “How’d ya sleep?” “Did your room have hot water?” The typical dialogue that was reserved and appropriate for any other morning before a show was distinctly out of place on this morning. Everybody stood up, grabbed their things, and we exited through the revolving door.
A giant navy blue Econovan was waiting for us in the loading zone. We threw our suitcases, bags, gear, and guitars in the back and climbed in. The heavy metal door slammed shut and with a roar, the van’s engine came to life. Each of us with our own bench seat, I swung my legs up and stretched out for the twenty minute journey to the amphitheater.
“…4,200 seats and a grassy hillside that holds up to 3,000 people. This was no open mic night.”
After a bouncy combination of blown shocks and neglected potholes, our short trip came to an end at The Freedom Hill Amphitheater; a massive outdoor concert venue comprised of a covered pavilion with approximately 4,200 seats and a grassy hillside that holds up to 3,000 people. This was no open mic night. Our van lumbered slowly down the service road, through the stage gate, and parked next to the trailer that would become our dressing room. The parking brake was set, the doors flew open, and we hopped out, eager to get to work. With my guitar in one hand and my gear bag in the other, I turned around to face the trailer. Up the rickety aluminum stairway, through the door marked “Beatlemania Live”, and into the air-conditioned sanctuary we’d call home for the next six hours until showtime. I ditched my bags, took a deep breath, and headed for the stage.
The Freedom Hill Amphitheater is huge and the trip from the trailer to the stage was longer than most. With every step I took, I’d look left, then right, then behind me, looking for him. Up the ramp, behind the monitor board, around the backline cases, near the drum riser, looking left, right, and all around. Maybe he wasn’t going to arrive until much later. I guess that would make sense. After all, he was only playing a small portion of our larger two-hour show. He didn’t really need to set up and sound check or anything like that. After a disappointed shrug, I turned back around to retire to the trailer until the sound crew was ready for a line check. I spun around and there he was. I was looking at his back, but I knew it was him. His hair, once jet black, was now silver. He was already surrounded by a few people, some of the crew and a couple of my band members. He was wearing a grey t-shirt, jeans, and some sneakers. His arms crossed and his head nodding in conversation. I approached from behind. I’ve been a shy person my whole life. Never really the one to start a conversation. Never the first one to reach his hand out in greeting. I’m perfectly friendly, but it takes me a while to warm up. This time….this time……was exactly the same. I sidled up. Close enough now to make out the words being exchanged. Mostly simple pleasantries. If the first words I’d heard him spoke had been, “…and then John jumped off Paul’s amp and landed right on top of George’s guitar!!!” or something like that, I probably would have disintegrated right there and then. Nope. Nothing like that.
The conversation quickly moved to the set list. He told us what he wanted to play. “Love Me Do”, “Please Mr. Postman”, “I Saw Her Standing There”, “My Bonnie”, and “Twist and Shout.” No problem. I got this. Just a real life Beatle uttering the words “Twist and Shout” to me. This is fine. Nothing I can’t handle. Pete would be joining us halfway through our set and then come back at the end for a finale. Our show goes through the entire career of the Beatles. It starts in the early days of black suits and mop tops, progresses through the psychedelia of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and concludes in the long-haired studio days of Abbey Road and Let It Be. Pete was only around for the early days, so it was planned that he’d mostly be featured during the early years set. Everything was ironed out and we made our way back to the trailer for lunch.
“I wanted to ask him something that only a Beatle would know.”
It became apparent very quickly that Pete was a quiet guy. Not weird, or awkward, just quiet. He spoke softly. Wasn’t arrogant. He listened to whatever you had to say. He had sincere eyes. He didn’t seem to mind at all whenever we asked about the old days. The Cavern. John, Paul, and George. He confirmed the stories that we’d all read, retold the legends that we’d all heard, and gave us insight into a time and place and into a group of people that are special to most, revered by many, and divine to some. I wanted to ask him something that only a Beatle would know. Not something that a simple Google search could answer. He had come with boxes of merchandise to sell at the show. Stickers, buttons, and photos of him during his time in the band, all black and white of course. I held up one of those photos. It was of him, John, Paul, and George on stage. The other three were being silly and leaning into the camera, but Pete was seated back behind his drum kit. “What color was that drum set?” I asked. “Sky Blue,” he said. Only somebody in that photo would have known the answer. “Cool,” I said, like it was no big deal.
We finished lunch and then it was time to make some noise. “Making noise” in a venue like that is not an insignificant occasion. The kick drum rattles the ground beneath your feet. The guitars split the air and bounce off the mountains. Your voice, through the magnificent tower of line array P.A. speakers, cracks the firmament and resonates infinitely through space. It’s the best possible way to play music. I can think of no better environment to jam with a Beatle. Pete sauntered up onto the drum riser and sat down behind the kit. It was no sky blue Ludwig, but it would have to do for this gig. I made sure to pause and take a good look at Pete as he was perched up there behind his instrument. He reached down and grabbed a pair of drum sticks with the same hands that had pounded out those insistent rhythms so many years ago. We started with “My Bonnie.” This was a very unique song in the catalog of The Beatles. Unique because it was not sung by John, Paul, or George. The lead vocals on this track were sung by Tony Sheridan, another English performer that they had met while the group was in Hamburg, Germany. Tony would play with the Beatles now and then and the group was offered a recording deal by Polydor Records. Out of the handful of songs that were recorded over two day-long recording sessions, “My Bonnie” stood out and made it to #5 in the German chart. We didn’t have a Tony Sheridan tribute artist there with us that day, so I sang the lead vocal. The song has a mellow introduction but quickly explodes into a swift and agile early rock ‘n’ roll masterpiece. It was great. He was great. We were great. I could have died. Forget doing the show. That one song alone would have been enough for me. A meteor could have burned through through the sky, crashed into the stage, and leveled the entire town of Sterling Heights, Michigan, and I still would have considered the day and my life a complete success.
Then came the part when I may have broken a Beatle’s heart…
We wrapped up soundcheck and I’m pretty sure my feet didn’t touch the ground all the way down the ramp, across the asphalt, up the aluminum stairs and through the trailer door. Going through the door, you entered into the living room of what was essentially a three-bedroom manufactured home. Kitchen straight through to the back, two dressing rooms down the hall to the left and one more down the hall to the right. Each member of the band has his own pre-show ritual. We have The Procrastinator: putting off getting into his costume until ten minutes before show time. The Fastidious One: furiously combing his wigs and applying the perfect brand of makeup in order to give his complexion the exact same tone, hue, and saturation as that of a twenty-one year old Liverpudlian. The Pro: gets dressed, combed, tuned, and made up in under fifteen minutes. His costumes seem to come out of his suitcase perfectly ironed. And Me: I can’t find my left boot. May have forgotten my harmonica back at the hotel. Always needing to borrow eyebrow pencil from The Fastidious One. We always pull it together though. We’ve never been late to a curtain call and we never will.
“I couldn’t see them yet, but I knew that this crowd was huge and that this night was going to be unforgettable.”
It was almost show time. I leaned my head out the door and tried to catch a glimpse of the crowd but my view was obstructed by a massive black curtain that was hanging in the wings of the stage from the truss all the way down to the ground. I couldn’t see the crowd…but, I could hear them. I could sense them amassing on the other side of that velvety black wall. A steady, low frequency rumble paired with a top coating of laughs and footsteps. Of fans finding their seats and girlfriends calling out to their boyfriends to bring them a soda on their way back from the bathroom. In my mind, I could envision the sea of Beatles shirts, Beatle hats, Beatle buttons. An audience young and old. Men and women, girls and boys, from all parts of the world. The Beatles appeal to everyone. I’ve played enough shows to know that’s a fact. It doesn’t matter how old you are, what you look like, or where you’re from, when the “na na na” section in “Hey Jude” comes around, you will be singing right along with the rest of the crowd. I couldn’t see them yet, but I knew that this crowd was huge and that this night was going to be unforgettable.
It’s quite a sight when the lads and I are finally in our costumes. Our boots are exact replicas of the boots the Fab Four wore. Our suits are stitch-for-stitch reproductions of the suits the boys had on The Ed Sullivan show when they played for a television audience of 73 million people on February 9th, 1964. Our hair is perfect. Our accents, rehearsed since childhood, are uncanny. The guitars, the neckties. You can’t see the Beatles live in concert anymore, but we are the next best thing. When the last hair was in place and the last jacket buttoned, we threw the door open and made our way to the stage. The heals of our boots clanging on the metal ramp as we ascended toward the roar of the audience. We rounded a corner and found Pete leaning against the rail. Still in his jeans and sneakers, he smiled as we walked by. Each of us gave him an excited glance and then kept on our path to the stage. A few steps after passing him, I stopped and looked back. There he was, watching the four of us run out to that cheering crowd. The four of us in our stitch-for-stitch reproductions of the suits his friends wore on stage. Wearing the same boots as his friends. With the same hair. The same guitars. There we were, leaving him behind, leaning against a rail. He was watching us take the stage just like his friends did so long ago. Without him.
“When we took the stage that night, I couldn’t help but think that we were somehow forcing Pete to relive those painful events from the past.”
Pete played his last gig with the Beatles on August 15th, 1962 at the Cavern Club. Less than two months after that final show, the band released “Love Me Do.” While that song only peaked at #17 in the UK Singles Chart, it kicked off the domination that The Beatles would have over popular music for the next eight years. The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, felt awful about Pete getting sacked and secretly arranged for him to join Lee Curtis and the All Stars which turned into Pete Best and the All Stars. They signed to Decca records but weren’t successful. When we took the stage that night, I couldn’t help but think that we were somehow forcing Pete to relive those painful events from the past. Those few seconds when we walked by and left him alone backstage while we ran out to our adoring fans seemed to symbolize everything that had happened. Walking by him like that, in my boots and suit, did I break his heart?
The show was everything that I’d hoped it would be. The crowd was amazing, the sound was bombastic. The audience welcomed Pete onto the stage like a king returning to his rightful place on the throne. Many of the true Beatles fans present that night would have noticed a difference in the way Pete played the songs compared to the way Ringo played them on the records. Pete’s style was actually a bit more aggressive. Almost more tribal and primitive. He would often drive the song with the kick drum playing on every beat of the measure. He would push the tempo a bit. It was different than what we’d all grown up listening to, but being the fans that we were, we knew we were witnessing these songs in their earliest forms. This was like uncovering the Dead Sea scrolls or hearing ancient echos of the Big Bang reverberating through the eternal chambers of time. After the finale, Pete hopped down from the drum riser and walked to the front edge of the stage. All the members of my band stepped back and Pete soaked up every drop of love that the audience was sending. Chants of, “Pete! Pete! Pete!” thundered from the crowd. He bent down toward his fans, receiving high-fives, handshakes, smiles, and all the other forms of adoration befitting of a true legend. The image of Pete Best, silhouetted by stage lights with the crowd screaming his name, was pure magic.
“I was standing where Lennon stood and I was seeing what Lennon saw.”
It’s going to be hard to top that night. In my band, I play the role of John Lennon. John stood on stage left. With his iconic black and white Rickenbacker 325 slung over his shoulder, he’d lean back at the microphone and rip through every song with his irreverent and biting snarl. I attempt to do the same thing night to night. I stand in the same spot and play the same kind of guitar. During that show with Pete, as I looked back at him before he counted in the first song, I realized that I was seeing Pete from the exact same angle that John had decades before. I was standing where Lennon stood and I was seeing what Lennon saw. And not only that, I was jamming with his drummer. Like I said, it’s going to be hard to top that night.
After the final bow, we scampered back to the trailer to celebrate. The refrigerator in the kitchen was loaded with beer and each room was filled with voices and faces all buzzing with the spirit of the night. We made quick work of the beer in the trailer and one of the members of Pete’s crew suggested we go back to their hotel and hit up the lobby bar. With a unanimous “Yeah!!” we squeezed into the van and raced through the darkened streets of Sterling Heights. The van was cacophonous with half-drunken discussion and became hotter and sweatier by the second. I was seated in the middle of one of the bench seats and Pete was right beside me. He silently looked out the window for most of the ride. We got to the hotel and shamelessly overtook the bar. I asked Pete what he drinks back in Liverpool and he said, “Guinness.” I ordered two Guinnesses and with the clink of our glasses, thanked him for an amazing night.
We were pretty rowdy that evening at the hotel bar. I guarantee that I wasn’t the only member of my band who thought that our party maybe somewhat resembled one of The Beatles after-parties back in the old days. Each of us secretly wish that we could travel back in time and be a fly on the wall in the dressing room at Shea Stadium or backstage at the Royal Variety Show. That night, as we laughed and drank together, we each got one step closer to that dream. Pete was pretty reserved the whole night. Like I said before, he wasn’t shy or weird, he was just there. Allegedly, Pete’s slightly withdrawn personality was one of the reasons John, Paul, and George wanted him out of the band. While those three would spend their offstage time together in Hamburg and Liverpool, Pete would frequently go off on his own. He wouldn’t socialize as much after the shows and was, in the words of John, “too conventional to be a Beatle.” Maybe this is why I developed a soft spot for Pete. I’m a bit introverted myself. When I was a kid, I wanted nothing more than to be a Beatle and it made me sad to think that I probably would have been a bit too conventional as well.
I don’t want to paint a picture of Pete as a sad loner who is forever haunted by his past. He’s kicking ass these days. Traveling the world. Playing music to fans that love him and constantly let him know how important he is in their lives and to the history of popular music. He left The Beatles in 1962. That’s 55 years ago. 55 years of life has happened since then. He’s married and has two daughters and four grandchildren and from what I can tell, loves being alive and playing drums. And knowing the fate of so many people that were successful in the music business, his early departure might even have been a blessing. So many music icons were lost to drugs, alcohol, or just the pressures of a life under such scrutiny. You could even say that Pete is reaping the rewards of that life while avoiding the dangers that it so often poses.
Amazingly, Ringo’s first show with The Beatles was caught on film. It was at the Cavern Club on Wednesday, August 22nd, 1962. They opened with a Leiber and Stoller song called “Some Other Guy.” After the song finished, a cry rang out from the crowd that can be heard clear as a bell on the film, “We want Pete!” Apparently, chants of “Ringo never! Pete forever!” were heard throughout the show and a fight even broke out in which a young George Harrison received a black eye. Pete was considered the favorite by many of those young Liverpudlian fans and I’m sure his long awaited success means something extra special to them.
Every now and then, my bandleader says that our agent is working on booking another show with Pete, but there’s nothing on the calendar yet. That summer night in Michigan might turn out to be the only time I got the opportunity to share the stage with a Beatle and I’m glad that Beatle was Pete Best.
P.S. The Beatles’ influence on my songwriting is undeniable. My melodies, arrangements, and song structures are inescapably Beatle-esque and I love it when fans notice it. Sometimes I don’t realize it even when it’s pointed out to me. I’ve been told that “Distance Runner” on the new album, Closer to a Ghost,” is pretty Beatle-y. “Closer to a Ghost” is available world wide on November 3rd.