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Virtual Ticket Stub Gallery is a series of extended reminiscences of my in-concert memories. This is the first (and probably only) fictional entry in this series. The events detailed herein take place in the same make-believe universe as a previous story I wrote about The Flashcubes, A Brighter Light In My Mind.
It was John Lennon‘s idea.
Of the four former members of The Beatles, Lennon often seemed the most publicly opposed to the idea of getting the old band back together. Although The Beatles broke up in 1970, it seemed that hardly a day could go by without someone–a fan, a pundit, a reporter, a fellow rock star, even a freaking head of state–asking when this fabbest of fours would regroup. Would you want to go back to high school?, Lennon would reply, apparently dismissive of the very idea of ever wanting to get back to where he once belonged. Paul McCartney would insist that one couldn’t reheat a souffle; George Harrison‘s disdain for the notion rivaled Lennon’s; one suspected that Ringo Starr would have been fine with a reunion if it were to occur, but he warned all and sundry that it would only happen if and when it happened, if it happened at all. So the chances of a Beatles reunion appeared to be somewhere far south of slim, barely north of none.
So everyone–including Paul, George, and Ringo–was flabbergasted in 1976 to hear John effectively saying, Hey, lads! Let’s put on a SHOW!
But that’s pretty much what Lennon did.
John Lennon was 35 years old, and he’d packed a lot into those years. His father had been absent, his parents ultimately estranged, leaving John to be raised by his Aunt Mimi; Lennon remained devoted to his mother, and was devastated by her death in 1958, when Lennon was not yet 18 years old. Lennon was creative, artistic, musical, mercurial, temperamental, a joker, a troublemaker. He was in a rock ‘n’ roll group. The group was a failure that became a greater success than any other group in history. He got a girl named Cynthia pregnant. He married her, and they had a son named Julian. John was as absent a father as his own father had been before him. John fell, hard, for an exotic, artistic woman named Yoko. One marriage ended, another began, standing in the dock at Southampton. His band broke up. He became more politically aware, more engaged on behalf of social justice. His antiwar activities drew the ire of the established, entrenched power structure. He wasn’t paranoid; they really were out to get him. The U.S. Government tried to deport him, and was nearly successful in that effort. He fought back, waging war on the battlefield of public opinion. He and Yoko separated. He had a famed, debauched Lost Weekend, spanning eighteen months from 1973 to early ’75. He reunited with Yoko; the separation didn’t work out. Their son Sean was born on John’s 35th birthday, October 9th of 1975. This time, John would not be an absent father. This time, he would do things right.
Yeah. So how much did you do in your life before you turned 36?
John settled into a delighted domesticity. He took care of Sean, he baked bread, and he was just Daddy. The infant Sean was perhaps too young to be fully aware of his father’s devotion, but awareness and appreciation would come in time. Life, after all, is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.
In 1976, Paul McCartney occasionally dropped by Lennon’s apartment at The Dakota in Manhattan. John kind of wished Paul would call before showing up, but their friendship was old and resilient. Over the years, they had bickered and competed, as friends sometimes do; success and recognition magnify the cracks and faults that would appear anyway, so an argument can often become a lawsuit. Sue me, sue you their younger partner George had quipped. Tempers flared, cooler heads prevailed over time. They were friends. The complicated legal knot that had once been The Beatles would take a long, long time to untangle. The friendship would endure.
John and Paul had played together at an abortive studio jam session in Burbank in March of 1974, during John’s Lost Weekend, along with Stevie Wonder, Harry Nilsson, saxophonist Bobby Keys, and Paul’s wife, the lovely Linda McCartney. The hazy, drug-fueled session was emblematic of John’s excess at the time. In Paul’s visits to The Dakota, the musical collaborations were no more serious, but far more sedate.
On April 24th, 1976, Paul was with John at The Dakota. They’d had some drinks, played some songs, and were settled in front of the TV to watch a new episode of NBC’s Saturday Night, a late-night ensemble comedy sketch show enjoying great success in its first season. The show was hipper than hip. This should be a hoot.
But the former Beatles were wholly unprepared when the producer of Saturday Night began speaking directly to them, as they watched him on the TV screen.
The public mania for a Beatles reunion had reached peak silliness by ’76. There had been million-dollar offers–multi-million!–just to somehow get John, Paul, George, and Ringo on stage together again before a live audience. The preposterous truckloads of money could be paid to The Beatles themselves, to their favorite charities, to agencies fighting world hunger, even to failed Apple Corps projects The Fool and Magic Alex, for all any of the would-be promoters cared. Just GET BACK, Beatles! LET IT BE! ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE!!
Money was not what The Beatles wanted. They wanted people to stop asking them to reBeatle. You want a new Beatles record? Take a few tracks each off Walls And Bridges, Venus And Mars, Extra Texture, and Goodnight Vienna, put ’em on a cassette, and PRESTO! Instant Beatles album! You wanna see The Beatles in concert? Take a time machine back to The Star-Club or The Cavern, before all the screaming drowned us out. That time is gone. The Beatles are no more.
Lorne Michaels, the producer of NBC’s Saturday Night, saw the humor in these desperate, clawing, failed attempts to reunite The Beatles. And, where there’s already inherent humor present, well, a comedy sketch just writes itself.
John and Paul stared at the TV screen, their jaws dropping like acid in 1967. Hi. I’m Lorne Michaels, the producer of Saturday Night. Right now, we’re being seen by approximately 22 million viewers, but please allow me, if I may, to address myself to just four very special people: John, Paul, George, and Ringo, The Beatles.
Sitting there in The Dakota, their smiles growing wider, Lennon and McCartney watched with glee as Michaels detailed his mock offer to entice The Beatles to appear on Saturday Night. Michaels said he’d heard that maybe the group simply hadn’t yet been offered enough money to give any serious consideration to a reunion. Well, Michaels assured everyone, money wouldn’t be a problem for NBC. And to prove it, Michaels displayed a check from NBC, made out to The Beatles, in the princely amount of three thousand dollars.
McCartney spit out his beer, laughing. Lennon guffawed loudly, amused and engaged. But then he stopped laughing. And he turned to his old partner Paul and said:
We should do it!
At first, Paul thought John was daft. But he also saw the appeal of this crazy idea. Alas, it was a crazy, impractical idea. John said they should head right to the NBC studio, just the two of them, and accept half of the $3000 offer as a joke. But it was late. They were tired. And the moment passed.
A few days later, John was still capering to himself a bit, thinking of that moment. And he started to wonder: had the moment really passed?
Lennon considered. He was determined to be an ever-present part of his new son’s life. He’d put music on hold, and would keep it on hold until he felt Sean was old enough to understand. But Sean was still just a baby, six months old–perhaps this was the right time for John to play one more show before devoting himself exclusively to full-time daddyhood.
John thought back to his last live performance: Madison Square Garden, November 28th, 1974. He’d lost a bet with Elton John, and had to join Elton and his boys in concert. He only did three songs: his own “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night,” The Beatles’ “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” (itself a recent hit for Elton), and “I Saw Her Standing There,” a song John introduced on stage as “a number by an old estranged fiance of mine called Paul.” So Lennon’s last concert performance to date had been singing a Paul McCartney song. Heh, Lennon chuckled aloud, That will never do!
He’d been terrified to appear on stage with Elton that night; he’d been away from the spotlight too long, he thought. But it was fun. Exhilarating. Maybe he should consider doing one whole show.
Oh, the hell with it–maybe he should consider doing the one show everyone had been after him to do.
John went to the phone. One by one, he dialed each of his three mates. Paul? George? Ringo? I have an idea….
All three of the others were immediately skeptical, though both Paul and Ringo accepted the idea in short order. George was more resistant. Even when The Beatles were still together, he’d felt like a junior member rather than an equal. And he’d chafed under that feeling of confinement, restriction. He had not missed being a Beatle. He saw no compelling reason to become a Beatle again.
One thinks that should have been the end of this absurd idea of a Beatles reunion. John Lennon certainly wasn’t going to beg George, and nor were the others any more apt to persuade or coax him back into the fold. Nice idea. Let’s forget about it now.
On the other hand, Bob Dylan was perfectly willing to intercede.
For years, no one knew for sure how Dylan even found out about this potential reunion. Decades later, we learned that Yoko Ono had contacted Linda McCartney with the idea, and Linda got in touch with Bashful Bobby Dylan. Yoko was concerned that canceling this reunion would have been a disappointment to John. Her motives were perhaps not 100% altruistic–John had promised to be a stay-at-home father to Sean, and a disappointed John could lead to a wandering John, yet again–but nor were they purely mercenary, either. She wanted John to be able to do this; she wanted John to be happy. On top of all that, Yoko felt that she owed a debt of gratitude to the McCartneys; Paul and Linda had played an understated but undeniable role in getting John and Yoko back together after John’s long Lost Weekend. Furthermore, Yoko knew that Paul also wanted to be a Beatle again, even if just for one night, at least as much as John did. John and Paul were brothers–sometimes bickering, sometime infuriating, but brothers. They needed this…closure.
The idea of enlisting Dylan was simply brilliant. Dylan loved the idea of a Beatles show, so he certainly didn’t mind calling his friend George. George respected Dylan’s opinion, shrugged, and went along with the idea of temporarily–temporarily!–becoming a Beatle again. A reluctant Beatle, sure, but a Beatle nonetheless!
Beatles have people. Lots of people. None of us has ever, or will ever, had any freaking idea of what it’s like to be a member of that exclusive club of four. And part of being a Beatle meant that if you wanted something done, then snap! It was done. Emissaries handled logistics. Snap! Madison Square Garden was booked–quietly–and I still have no idea how they pulled that one off. Snap! Backing musicians were secured; Al Kooper would play keyboards, and the live sound would be further fattened by the addition of The Memphis Horns. Snap! And John, Paul, George, and Ringo found themselves at a secure location on Long Island–far from the madding crowd, far from prying eyes and ears–preparing to make music together for the first time in nearly seven years.
For their first day in the ol’ woodshed, The Beatles wanted to start without sidemen, just the four of them, getting reacquainted, learning again how to play with and to each other. There was no agenda that day; just icebreakers, joking, and jamming. Old friends. Guitars. Bass. Piano. Drums. That first day was more party than woodshed, as the once-and-future mates played random favorites as the thought occurred to them, riffing through Arthur Alexander, Carl Perkins, The Everly Brothers, Chan Romero, Richie Barrett, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Buddy Holly, James Ray, Wanda Jackson, Elvis, The Miracles, The Impressions, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” “Without You,” even “(Theme From) The Monkees.” They tried their hands at Beatle numbers, too, from “Love Me Do” to “For You Blue.” Paul earned loud snorts of laughter by singing a bit of John’s “How Do You Sleep?,” while John countered with Paul’s “Let Me Roll It.” (John’s attempt at The Chiffons‘ “He’s So Fine” prompted George to roll his eyes, but John made up for it by duetting with George on a heavenly rendition of “My Sweet Lord.”) The proceedings were chaotic, disorganized, start-and-stop…and wonderful. Old friends.
Business resumed in earnest on the second day, as Kooper arrived; The Memphis Horns arrived on the following day. There would be just over a week of rehearsals before The Beatles’ still-secret gig at Madison Square Garden. They needed to figure some things out in a hurry.
Amazingly, there was actually quite a bit of agreement among The Beatles about what they didn’t want. They didn’t want to be a nostalgia act; they didn’t want to do any kind of chronological representation of The Beatles’ story–they were The Beatles, for cryinoutloud, not bloody Beatlemania. They didn’t want to do a smooth, slick Greatest Hits show. They didn’t want to take anyone back to some imaginary glory days of yesteryear. They wanted to play, in the here and now.
At the same time, they also knew they needed to play Beatle songs. It was a delicate balancing act. If you just give the audience what it wants, you’re a whore; if you don’t give ’em anything they want, you’re a prima donna. The four of them agreed they wouldn’t want to go see, say, Roy Orbison, and not hear “Only The Lonely.” Nor would they care to see (or perform) a show played by the numbers. Balance. They came up with a list of about fifty songs, and started going through them. “Yesterday” didn’t work. Early bubblegum material felt wrong. “Hey Bulldog” was awesome, but fell victim to inevitable cuts in the set list, elimination choices which also claimed “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” “Yer Blues,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Savoy Truffle,” and an ace cover of Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue.” Rehearsals went on. The set list gelled. The band got tighter. All that time spent apart melted away.
They were The Beatles once again.
Word finally leaked out a week before the show, and an official announcement was made: The Beatles would reunite for one single concert. It would be a slight exaggeration to say that the show sold out instantly. It took nearly twenty minutes to sell out. Arrangements were made to also carry a live feed of the concert in movie theaters throughout the country, around the world. A splendid time was guaranteed for all!
On the day of the concert, John was nervous, apprehensive, nauseous. George alternated between wondering if he’d made a mistake agreeing to take part in this circus and…well, looking forward to it. He found his dichotomy of emotion unexpected, but oddly calming. Paul and Ringo took it all in stride. John pulled himself together. Toppermost of the poppermost. It was time.
The massive crowd at Madison Square Garden was giddy, boisterous, and frankly, high as a kite. The lights went out. Gasps. Cheers. Anticipation. Palpable, tangible thrill.
Ladies and gentlemen…THE BEATLES!!
Still in darkness, John counted off, “1-2-3!” The lights came on, brilliant and blinding, dazzling, dizzying, louder and more popular than Jesus. The grinding guitar consumed the arena, as Paul let out a scream and John began to sing:
You say you want a revolution, well you know
We all want to change the world
The Beatles charged through the opening verse and chorus of “Revolution,” Paul and George adding back-up shoo-be-do-wops to the subsequent verses. “Revolution” led into a furious, manic “Helter Skelter,” and The Beatles’ guarantee of a splendid time for all was already achieved.
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” “You Won’t See Me.” “No Reply.” The Beatles played an eclectic, electric selection of songs from their catalog of wonder. A new George Harrison song called “Crackerbox Palace” followed, and then flowed into the distinctive riff of “Ticket To Ride.” “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Ringo’s “It Don’t Come Easy.” “Come Together.””Here Comes The Sun.” “Penny Lane.”
There was little between-song patter; there was just an easy-going, amiable on-stage ambiance, incongruously tethered to a lit fuse and an ongoing explosion of buzzing musical delight. John told the fans that they all needed to pay tribute to the rock ‘n’ roll that got them there in the first place, and launched into an impassioned cover of Chuck Berry‘s “Johnny B. Goode.” Those guitars like ringin’ a bell segued into John’s “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night,” then Paul’s “Maybe I’m Amazed,” then “I Am The Walrus.” “Magical Mystery Tour.” “With A Little Help From My Friends.” “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.” George introduced “Something” as Frank Sinatra’s favorite Lennon and McCartney song. Thank you, Frank! John whooped out a Thanks, Frankie! in response. “Back In The USSR.” Ringo’s “Photograph.” “We Can Work It Out.” Day Tripper.” George’s “What Is Life.” “Let It Be.” “Don’t Pass Me By.”
It was a long show. These aging rock stars, all in their late thirties by now, should have been dragging, but still seemed energized, ignited, as if they were still that impossibly young bunch of punks tearin’ up the Reeperbahn in Hamburg those many years ago. The guitars gathered more volume, the air became thicker, as every inch of space at MSG gave way to the force and fury of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” Paul moved to the piano for a climactic “Hey Jude.” The show concluded with John and Paul singing “I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party,” The Nerk Twins, the British Everly Brothers. And The Beatles said good night.
During all their years of insane, unprecedented, hysterical popularity, The Beatles never performed an encore. No. They did their show, and they got out. So tonight would be history on top of history. The arena thundered with the eager noise of delirious fans wanting more!
Back on stage, soaking in the applause, beaming with pride and satisfaction (wait–wrong band!), The Beatles were ready to oblige.
Thank you, Beatle people. It says here we passed the audition! “Get Back.” “A Day In The Life.” “Eleanor Rigby.” And finally, Larry Williams‘ “Dizzy Miss Lizzy.” The clock struck eternity. The enchantment ended. This amazing, amazing night was over.
Record labels fell over each other trying to secure the rights to release a live album of The Beatles’ MSG show. Paul, George, and Ringo were each already under contract with competing labels, though John was a free agent. But it didn’t matter; the show was not officially recorded, and would forevermore be only the stuff of memories and bootlegs. Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on.
The Beatles would never again perform together before a live audience. The four discussed the comic merit of taking NBC’s Saturday Night up on its offer, but ultimately decided it wasn’t something they wanted to do. George Harrison did appear on Saturday Night with guest host Paul Simon; Harrison participated in an opening skit about trying to claim the $3000 the show offered for The Beatles to come on the show, as producer Lorne Michaels deadpanned that he thought it was clear the offer was for four people, not just one. Simon and Harrison then teamed up for lovely renditions of “Here Comes The Sun” and Simon and Garfunkel‘s “Homeward Bound.” John and Paul appeared together on a subsequent episode, carrying out John’s initial joke to demand $1500 for an appearance by two Beatles. The former Fabs played two acoustic sets on the show, without outside accompaniment: Eddie Cochran‘s “Twenty Flight Rock” (the first song Paul played for John when they met in 1957), “Norwegian Wood,”and “Blackbird,” then “In My Life” and “Yesterday.” The two harmonized on each song; notably, it was the first time Lennon had ever sung “Yesterday” in public. Later in the same show, John and Paul plugged in with the NBC house band for a blistering medley of “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Rain.”
And with that, John Lennon once again withdrew from the spotlight, making good on his vow to be Sean’s Daddy, nothing more, nothing less. Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr returned to their own careers. The three of them performed together at Eric Clapton‘s wedding to George’s ex-wife Patti Boyd on May 19th, 1979.
John came out of retirement in 1980 for Double Fantasy, a new album with Yoko. He did a short small-venue tour in support of the album, and enlisted the members of his son’s favorite group The Flashcubes to play with him. Lennon had struck up a friendship with the ‘Cubes when he arranged for them to play for Sean at a private party on December 8, 1980, the same night police arrested an armed individual loitering outside The Dakota; the unidentified man killed himself while in custody, leaving many to shudder at the thought of what might have happened if the Lennons had returned home earlier. Paul joined Lennon and The Flashcubes on stage at Carnegie Hall for the encore of their final show in March of ’81.
Sadly, a rift developed between Lennon and Harrison. John felt that he’d been deliberately snubbed in George’s autobiography I Me Mine. Relations between the two were strained for quite some time thereafter, though they eventually made amends. Ringo generally remained on good terms with each of the other three, though even our little Richard occasionally grew tired of always being viewed as a Beatle, no matter what.
The Beatles declined an invitation to perform at Live Aid in 1985. The group’s 1988 induction into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame offered the seemingly certain prospect of a Beatles reunion, but Paul did not attend, citing the sticking point of still-lingering business disputes with his former co-workers.
Finally, the morass of The Beatles’ Sargasso Sea of legal complications and intricacies was navigated and left behind by the dawn of the ’90s. John, Paul, George, and Ringo cooperated and fully participated in the making of The Beatles Anthology, a comprehensive video history of the act you knew for all those years. Proposals for a new Beatles album or tour or one-off concert were ruled out immediately, but they performed several songs together on the Anthology video. Although this would be their final full collaboration, all four remained on cordial terms through George’s death in 2001. The others agreed to honor George’s memory by leaving The Beatles in the past. There would be no more public reunions of any kind. In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.
As a young band playing bars in Hamburg and Liverpool, The Beatles fantasized of becoming The Toppermost Of The Poppermost. It was a heady, unlikely dream for four ne’er-do-well punks from a rough-and-tumble seaport town. But the dream came true. Decades later, we dream on still.
The dream isn’t over. We do believe in Beatles. And you know that can’t be bad.
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THE BEATLES: LIVE AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN 1976
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
You Won’t See Me
Ticket To Ride
Strawberry Fields Forever
It Don’t Come Easy
Here Comes The Sun
Johnny B. Goode
Whatever Gets You Thru The Night
Maybe I’m Amazed
I Am The Walrus
Magical Mystery Tour
With A Little Help From My Friends
Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
Back In The USSR
We Can Work It Out
What Is Life
Let It Be
Don’t Pass Me By
I Want You (She’s So Heavy)
I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party
A Day In The Life
Dizzy Miss Lizzy