For Baby Boomers, the music of our lives was the Liverpool sound. Who among our generation can forget that Sunday night in 1964 when 73 million people tuned in to see Ed Sullivan introduce four guys from Liverpool? My father guffawed, “They’ll go home with the money from this and spend the rest of their lives down the pub.” My mother kept shaking her head, “Look at that hair! Oh, I can’t believe that!”
I remember my first class in school that Monday morning was Algebra. We were too pumped to discuss whether a – b = c or the value of x and y. Our world had changed and everything seemed more exciting.
So, decades later, on a wet and windy day, I finally approached Liverpool. Like all good pilgrimages, mine started with a ritual, taking the Ferry Across the Mersey. And yes, they play Gerry and the Pacemakers on every crossing.
It’s funny that so many of my and my friends’ golden memories are linked to what I have for years dismissed as England’s rust belt. However, Liverpool is nothing like I imagined. The waterfront has grand buildings constructed by uninhibited Victorians who let loose their egos when commissioning buildings.
Through the sheets of rain and bobbing over a river of white caps I stood with an international group of travellers – some Canadians, a New Zealander, an Australian, someone from South Africa – listening to a guide point out the three grandest buildings: the Liver Building, the headquarters of Cunard Steamships, and the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board Building. Each building had a story. The clocks on the Liver Building are the biggest in Britain, and the two Liver Birds, emblems of the city which crown the clock domes, are the size of a double-decker bus. Local lore says one bird looks to the sea for sailors, while the other looks landward for open bars.
The solid, square Cunard Building is a monument to a Nova Scotian lad who did good. Sir Samuel Cunard was born in Halifax and made his fortune moving mail between Liverpool, Boston and Halifax. The next member in this dockside architectural triumvirate, the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board Building, looks like Christopher Wren stuck the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in the centre of an Indian palace.
A short walk from the ferry terminal is a cluster of old warehouses converted into trendy apartments, shops, art galleries, and museums that include the Merseyside Maritime Museum and Tate North. On their far side, in the Britannia Vaults, is The Beatles Story. Initially, I feared this was going to be some schlocky, touristy rip-off and a crass bastardization of my youth, the way certain companies use old hits to promote their products. While I confess to staying longer in the produce department of my local grocery store because they were playing the Best of the Doors, it offends me to hear music that has important memories used to flog merchandise.
As soon as I walked into the Beatles Story four tall, young blonde Swedish girls thrust a disposable camera in my hand and said, “Please, you make photo?” No sooner had I handed back their camera when an expensive Nikon was shoved in my hand by a bowed young Japanese woman who wanted a picture taken of her and her friend below The Beatles Story sign. I was struck at how many young people were crammed into this place – it wasn’t just the bugling waistlines and receding hairlines of my contemporaries.
It’s only when you reach Liverpool that you understand how important the Beatles were to the city. There’s the John Lennon Airport (“above us only sky”), a Beatles Festival every August, and a whole series of Beatles-related lore and tours. My guide to the Beatles’ Liverpool told us about the Australian man who legally changed his name to John Lennon and moved into a house on Penny Lane. He also told us that when the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan the crime rate in North America went down!
Our tour took us to Penny Lane where the regular metal street sign has been replaced by a painted sign, the city just couldn’t keep up with all the sign thefts. We photographed the gates of Strawberry Fields which is a Salvation Army charity, then we stopped outside 251 Menlove Ave., where John Lennon lived with his Aunt Meme and Uncle George. (Yoko Ono bought the house in the spring of 2002 and gave it to the National Trust to open as a museum, like Paul McCartney’s home at 20 Forthlin Road.)
The tour also took us past the art school where John studied and the registry office where he broke many of my friend’s hearts by marrying Cynthia. Later, we stopped in Liverpool Cathedral. The largest Anglican Cathedral in the world (it costs £2400 a day to operate), this is where Paul McCarthy’s opera was first staged. While it was all exciting to see, The Beatles Story was the best part for me. Wandering the galleries of the Beatles Story I found myself half dancing to the music: Twist & Shout, Lady Jane, She Loves You, Love Me Do, Please Please Me, and I Wanna Hold Your Hand. I was awash in high school flashbacks to sock hops, the Christmas formal, and dancing with Pat, Judy, Jean and Jane.
Inside the replicated Cavern Club a large screen over the tiny stage played clips of the Beatles. Chairs here are set up in rows, like a small chapel, which seemed a suitable homage. One woman in white sat silently at the back, watching the clips before suddenly rushing past me in tears. Fifteen minutes later, I found her back here sitting closer to the front, still sobbing.
It was funny to be reminded of the hysteria and excitement of Beatlemania. Banks of television sets showed fans screaming at airports or being carried away on stretchers after fainting. Leading up to the Ed Sullivan appearance I listened to the excited audio updates from New York disc jockeys: “It is now 6:30 am Beatle time. THEY left London 30 minutes ago. They’re out over the Atlantic Ocean headed for New York. The temperature is 32 Beatles degrees.” Were we ever THAT young and impressionable? There is a refreshing naivete and hopefulness to it all.
While The Beatles Story was a fun visit, it ends in a white room dedicated to John’s murder, Dec. 8, 1980. The room is white, the lone item, his piano, is white. The only other item is an account of his murder. In an odd way the room is inspirational and contemplative. While it is set up to remember John’s life, ideals and death, for many it reminds us of people we once knew once and who are no longer in our lives. I see it not as bemoaning our lost youth, but a testament to individual growth. It was profound and moving. I’ve very glad I did this. My visit to Liverpool wasn’t the awful kitschy, touristy experience I feared.
He still has it. Forty-five years after that appearance on Ed Sullivan, Sir Paul came to Halifax and I finally got to see him perform in person. The Halifax Commons were filled and he put on a hell of a show.
On the way to the show, I was following a group of woman of a certain age (mine) as they passed The Willow Tree (an intersection in Halifax). A convoy of black SUVs drove by. Then the back window of one slowly disappeared into the door and Sir Paul leaned forward and gave a small wave to those of us walking to the gates. The women in front of me, grabbed their hearts, held each other up and screamed, “Paul waved to me!”
Beyond the concert we were about to hear, it made their trip from Montreal well worth it. They were teenagers again.