A friend of mine lives in a town house on Greene Street in London. The Beatles live on the top floor.
Well, not all The Beatles. Paul and Ringo. Some girls find out about it and camp across the street every day after school. They put albums in the vestibule. We pick them up and lay them on a table in the hallway for the guys to sign.
I never meet either Paul or Ringo, except seeing them dash by, but one day we come home from school and John sits on the stairs signing album covers.
It’s the sixties. It’s London. Music is exploding in the pubs and clubs. It’s hard to imagine a world like that today. Music isn’t just a playlist on the Internet. Music is life.
The songs are going to change the world, and the players are gods.That’s the way it feels.
There’s a pub in Putney, right on the Thames. We go there and drink hard apple cider and see the house band, the Rolling Stones. At the Marquee, on Saturday nights, we watch a young Pete Townsend destroy his guitar.
We plan none of this. We just move around the city and check out different places and that’s what we find. We don’t know what any of these bands will become. They’re the local gigs.
The melody and the pulse drives us through the city. We’re reshaping the future. London’s crawling out of the wreckage of war. Sorrow’s stitched into the streets. It’s time to dance.
The Beatles are different. They’ve paid their club dues. They lock themselves in the studio and lead the way. The rumors float through the streets. There’s always a small crowd outside Abbey Road Studios. Between albums, they drop an amazing series of singles. Every one shifts the flow of song. Every band in London changes every time
The Beatles give us a new song.
There’s something else The Beatles navigate. Something new. Something raw. Fame.
It’s been a hard day’s night, and I’ve been working like a dog
We come in after school and John sits on the carpeted stairs. He’s bent over the albums and signs each one, then puts them in a stack by his side.
I’m a kid. I accept John there alone. Paul and Ringo live upstairs. It makes sense. The story is they’re shooting a movie. What band shoots a movie?
John’s the clever cynic. Don’t take it seriously. Bigger than Jesus, he’ll say. Yet here in the hallway, he’s less than that. He’s a guy alone. Sometimes Paul might scrawl his signature on an album or two. John works his way through each one.
John looks up when we come in. ‘Hey boys. What’s up?’
We drop our school bags and sit down on the stairs. I’m a Tottenham Hotspurs fan and wear a badge. John spots it.
‘A Spurs fan, eh? Liverpool’s a better club. We’ll beat you every time.’
The world’s exploding. I’m an American kid living in London. I pay for the sins of my nation. When you live overseas in those days, it’s not like today. It’s a foreign land. People dress differently. There’re no global restaurant chains.
You leave America far behind. What rises in the air from across the Atlantic is a blurry image — race riots and war, arrogant and loud. I’m only just beginning to understand I stand for all those things. It isn’t my choice. It’s projected on me.
But all of these things are coming together slowly. John himself is still a guy caught up in the bizarre things exploding around him. The history pages say all the Beatles lived at 57 Greene, but that’s not what I remember.
I never saw George there, and the only time I saw John was that day in the hallway. John’s married. Paul and Ringo are bachelors in newly minted Swingin’ London. They own the city.
What must that have been like? All those girls and boys throwing themselves at you every day? Money in a poor boy’s hand?
Life rushes in sometimes and rearranges your head. It can happen unexpectedly. No one has the formula to deal with it. It’s a test. Not pass or fail. More like a stripping away of expectation. You start off on one road and end up on another. Then one day you look in a mirror and see a whole other person standing there.
The Beatles are hustling gigs in strip clubs one week and living in flats in a posh borough the next. The one thing about the band that comes through — they’re mates.
There’s a knock on the front door. John stands.
’That’s for me. Got to go.’
He hands me a signed copy of ‘With The Beatles.’ There’s a little face next to his name.
“I can’t take that. It belongs to some girl,” I say.
“Then give it to her, “ he says. “All the better.”
And he’s gone.
Free as a bird, it’s the next best thing to me
I’m a student at a USAF high school. It’s in a suburb called Bushey Heath , an hour bus ride every morning. I think my parents thought to help us keep our American roots. I’m not sure. But every weekend we become this pack of American kids wandering London.
The music gathers purpose. It defines us. It defines how we dress. It defines what we believe. The lyrics are nuggets of truth to understand.
The scene splits and pushes back on itself. Mods and rockers. Vespas and Triumphs. Velvet and leather. It all has some sort of tribal meaning, so important in the day, and so meaningless in time. The differences all smudged together into one endless night of song.
I’m connected to John now. I put the signed album up on the wall and listen. Songs flow from one to the other.
My independence seems to vanish in haze. Sitting in his nowhere land. They might as well be dead.
I have a friend, Bob. Bob is black. His dad is a sergeant in the Air Force. You know kids and you don’t know them in high school.
Bob and I live in different worlds, but we don’t think about it much. It’s Friday night and we’re heading out to hear music. The Air Force kids live on base in Ruislip, but I’m an Embassy kid, so I live in the city. I’m guiding Bob into a world he doesn’t know.
In those days, London is a mono-culture. We go to a club on Oxford Street called Tiles. Manfred Mann is playing. Pure Mod. Do wah diddy.
Tiles is packed and the only black kid is Bob. The music might be one kind of happy, buzzy message, but the crowd is mashed together and drunk, high on pills, in a dance frenzy.
I’m trying to get close to the stage. I grab Bob’s arm and pull him along. He seems reluctant. Looking back, well, I know so much more now, but that night in Tiles I’m being pulled toward the ringing guitars. The crowd yields to me, but not to Bob.
A guy ahead of us turns around. He doesn’t want to be shoved. He gets in Bob’s face.
‘What the fuck are you?’
I step between them.
Saying something like that is gasoline on a fire. As Manfred Mann sings Hubble Bubble, I get punched in the face.
The crowd rings around us and pounds us, a rain of fists on our heads. Like I said, we pay for the sins of America. Bob and I crawl back up the stairs and find a small park, hide in the dark.
“This is worse than home,” Bob says.
Home is Alabama.
I’m seeing a chasm between the vinyl on my record player and the pavement of the city. There’s a new chemistry in our blood and it packs a bite. We’re connected to the music, but maybe the music is not connected to us. It’s just a little chip in my naiveté. Something to learn and carry with me.
“What the fuck are you?”
It’s fifty years ago and I can still hear the voice, the thick East London accent.
“What the fuck are you?”
I wonder if Bob still carries those words in his head. Of course he does.
Look out helter skelter, helter skelter
There are things crashing down on us in the sixties. We’re feeling our power. We’re against war, against bombs, against cocktails and suits. We push back on our fathers, but it’s all moving fast. It’s four heartbeats from Love Me Do to Tomorrow Never Knows.
It feels like magic. Every night on the radio there’re unfamiliar sounds. There’s no formula. Musicians are inventing things, making up an art. It’s a moment. It won’t last.
Greed is already targeting the players. You can drive a Rolls-Royce. You can live in a mansion. Paul and Ringo are sharing a flat. They’ll move out soon. They’ll move on. They’ll part ways. You look at the history and it strikes you — there are maybe four golden years, and it starts to rot.
One Friday night we have a choice. The Yardbirds are playing at the Bag O’Nails. There’s this band my brother is friends with, The Pretty Things. He wants us to check them out. But I’m headed to the Speakeasy. There’s an American guy playing. I need my roots. I need to get close to this place I’m tagged with.
I’ve been living in London since I was ten. They call me an American, but I haven’t much of a clue what that means. I don’t think of myself as an American. I’m dislocating from America, from New York, from the Bronx. I see myself as a wanderer, a citizen nomad. I don’t want to stand by the tides surging from across the ocean. My pledge is to the worlds inside the songs I hear every night on Radio Caroline.
But there’s still one vital connection to America.
One day my father brought some albums home. A collection of music from the Smithsonian. American roots music. The blues. And a small ten-inch Josh White album. Strange Fruit. These voices rooted to the earth. The crackle of field recordings, stripped down, raw. What it means to be an American is right there in the grooves.
I listen them. I take them in. What the fuck are you. The answer is in these songs. There’s ten discs in the Smithsonian Collection. I work through them. It’s an education. A connection. It lights a little spark.
I see an ad in the paper for a guy I’d never heard of. ‘Tonight. American Blues Musician,’ the ad read. ‘Jimi Hendrix.’ I’m chasing a connection to America through the rainy streets.
Come together, right now, over you
The Speakeasy is a new club, not in the middle of Soho where so many of the clubs are, but north of Oxford Circus. The location serves its name. I wouldn’t call it a secret, but it stands apart. It’s in the basement of a row of Victorian shops. More of a posh vibe than down by the strip clubs.
As we walk up to the door, we hear a wailing electric guitar. I mean, we’re standing on the street and hearing this guy play. We walk down the stairs and the music gets louder. We enter the room and it punches us in the chest. It feels dangerous. I’ve never heard music this loud. It’s next level crazy.
The club is not big. A square room with low ceilings. My head rattled by the sound. It draws me toward the stage. Hendrix is a veteran showman. He owns the air. He bends it to his will.
The sound is thick. It wraps itself around your bones. I get closer. I’ve seen tons of bands, but I’ve seen no one like Jimi. He’s confident. He’s entertaining us. He’s joyful. That’s the one word that comes to mind.
He’s still young. He must be 23 maybe, but his music is connected effortlessly through the ages. It rises whole-cloth from the past and rockets us to the future.
Jimi’s a nomad. He isn’t visiting London, he’s living here. That’s the grace of travel. It dislocates you. It sets you free.
I hear the voices on the old field recordings in his music. And the dark urban streets, the soul shows, all of it remixed through the stinging rain of a London winter.
Two-minutes in that club and my entire life changes. I’m standing right in front of Jimi now. We’re all leaning toward him, the volume pushing us back; the wizard drawing us in. What we hear is impossible. It’s an entire invention of music. Each ringing note literally rearranges reality.
Jimi plays forever. Time stretches like taffy. The club folds in on itself, inside out. Nobody dances. We’re entranced. Enchanted by his riffs.
Jimi’s bringing out his tricks — behind the head, on his knees, in his teeth — but those aren’t the moments. It’s when he roots and closes his eyes and plays. It’s when we forget to breathe.
Pools of sorrow, waves of joy are drifting through my opened mind, possessing and caressing me
We leave the club and walk through rain-soaked streets. I’m drunk, rolling off walls, but I’ve had nothing to drink. Hendrix’s guitar bounces around my skull for days. I’m in a daze.
High school is over after that night. I begin a new chase through life. Music becomes my religion, becomes my answer to everything. Jimi casts a spell on me that continues to this day.
I want to find John and tell him what happened to me, but I never see him again. I move to Africa and fall in love with township guitars. I move to Australia and join a rock-and-roll show. I follow a song line that leads me back to New York.
I move to an apartment two blocks from where John is shot. Everyday, I pass the vestibule of the old building he lived in. I walk across the stones where he lay bleeding. I think about him.
In the park, there’s a mosaic. Imagine. Thousands of people visit every year. I take a picture every time I pass. All these people posing with the word.
Connections matter in a life. Sometimes these days I think the whole point of life is to seek them out. Find your connections. Answer to them. Let life move you. John walks out of the door of the Greene Street townhouse all those years ago and into a world of fire and song. Any artist walks the same path. And pays the same price.
What is it with a world that punishes truth? That slays the truth sayers among us? And what is it with a world that drives us mad when we seek the truth of ourselves, that drives us into harm’s way?
Both Jimi and John die young. I still hear every single guitar note Jimi played at the Speakeasy. But he’s dead four years later. John takes a bullet to the heart at 40.
I’m here and they’re not. It’s something to look at. I stepped back from the fight. They never did. They stood their ground for truth. They risked everything. Why do we ask for such a sacrifice? Why did they torture themselves? Why is the truth so difficult?
There are no answers, but there is the music. The value of the price is in the songs, rings from the steel strings, lays in the breath that shapes the words.
John’s 80th birthday comes. The crowds gather at Strawberry Fields in Central Park.
They light candles and sing songs.
Picture yourself on a boat in a river. A working class hero is something to be. You may say I’m a dreamer.
Each song connects us, binds us to our common humanity. John and Jimi had the world at their feet, but they didn’t care about it much. To them it’s simply take a guitar in hand and chase down a moment of truth, tie it to a melody. Little gifts to us.
We dance and sing to the songs. They show us a path, but we don’t believe. We build a different world. Nothing can mute the strings of Jimi’s guitar, but his music gets lost in the stars. We take selfies with the word ‘Imagine’ in the background, but we turn from the challenge.
I met John once, long ago, a brief encounter, but it all connects, it all joins to my bones and creates a path to follow. In the middle of the night, I play John’s music. I keep it low. I know every word, every turn. I’m floating through the air, but slowly John’s voice pulls me in, anchors me again. I live in a world of ghosts now, but it’s a joyful chorus. It rises above the darkness and paints in starlight.