I went to see The Beatles play every time they came to New York, from Carnegie Hall in February 1964 (three days after their historic first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show) through the Shea Stadium concerts of 1965 and 1966. They were all amazing events: a great, electric-sounding, funny, creative band barely heard amid screaming, fainting, infectiously hysterical crowds. But my favorite of all The Beatles’ shows that I attended was on August 29, 1964 at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium. Their first movie, “A Hard Day’s Night,” had just opened in theaters a couple of weeks earlier, and this was the group’s first actual American tour.
I was thirteen, my brother almost fifteen. Our father dropped us off and patiently waited for us in the car, parked on some Forest Hills side street. We joined the excited throng heading into the stadium and I pointed out to my brother that the guy going through the turnstile next to us looked just like Paul McCartney. A promising start to the evening’s revels.
After we’d taken our seats, I noticed that the McCartney lookalike was sitting not too far from us, so we were able to scrutinize him. The resemblance was remarkable. So remarkable, in fact, we started to wonder if perhaps Paul had decided to see what it was like being among the crowd at one of his group’s insanity-fests. Soon, other people were clearly noticing this character in their midst, because a few kids started asking “Paul” for autographs. And he was obliging them.
Now at this early stage of the Beatlemania curve, where many people were still learning to differentiate the four fab personalities, among rabid fans the bass player being left-handed was top-of-mind knowledge. That’s what gave the imposter away — we realized he was signing all these autographs with his right hand. Aha!
This pretender’s hubris soon brought about complications, just as hubris is so often reported to do. More and more audience members in the vicinity caught wind of this celebrity sighting, and they wanted in, too. Faux McCartney was soon besieged with pubescent girls desperate for autographs or, failing that, a piece of the person or his clothes or hair, just like with any other Beatle. He was quickly overwhelmed — virtually buried — by his admirers and looked like he was in serious physical danger.
Actually, it looked like he was about to get ripped limb from limb.
Finally, some policemen made it over and saved him by carrying him out of the place, stretched out prone, over their heads, while jazzed-up 14-year-old girls continued to jump up on both sides, desperately trying to reach him.
So he wound up missing the concert, after all. At least he was alive to tell about missing it.
Any doubt as to his lack of authenticity as a Beatle was dissolved when a helicopter landed directly behind the stage, the actual Beatles stepped out of it, plugged in, and began their set.
We’d all just seen The Beatles escaping a show in a chopper at the end of the newly-released “A Hard Day’s Night” (that exit was a basically improvised scene, filmed only because there happened to be a helicopter at that day’s location — it was not their usual mode of departure), which added an extra layer of hallucination-worthy reality to this can-you-believe-your-eyes arrival. Considering that in future times a pretend helicopter pretending to land onstage in a theater would keep “Miss Saigon” running on Broadway for years gives some small idea what a seriously entertaining entrance this was, particularly for kids digging on their very own phenomenon which had very suddenly become a major cultural and economic influence — as well as a supreme source of bafflement — in the adult world at large.
Meanwhile, on the other side of perception, the level of novelty was also getting higher. That is to say, it wasn’t only the audience enjoying an unusual new brand of activity and hilarity.
Mere hours earlier, beginning late the night before, an historic event in late-twentieth-century culture — the reverberations of which helped trigger and define much of what many people think of as “the sixties” — had secretly taken place at the Beatles’ hotel suite in Manhattan: Bob Dylan had turned up and turned on the whole group to marijuana. So the Beatles were arriving for their first post-stoned performance.
Perhaps this helped account for their amused response to the bedlam that ensued, apart from their usual jocularity and the fact that public chaos was a regular element in their day-to-day lives.
The stage had a line of police standing just below it, and several rows of sawhorse barricades in front of them, to make it as difficult as possible to consummate any coming together with their idols that overwrought fans might attempt. Nevertheless, in the middle of the Beatles’ set, a horde of young teenage girls suddenly managed to hurdle the barricades, get by the cops and start climbing onto the stage in full delirium, like the Dionysian women in “The Bacchae”. Burly stagehands ran out, joined by more policemen, and were basically tossing these girls off into the air as they ran toward the band. All hell was breaking loose. Throughout this, The Beatles laughed, joked, cheered as if watching a football match (yes, we know that’s soccer for them) — and they were clearly rooting for their amok “attackers” over their “protectors.” They knew who was buttering their bread. At one point, a girl even managed to jump up onto Geoge Harrison’s shoulders mid-song. He continued playing, without missing a beat, as the girl was peeled off him and thrown back into the sea of madness.
The Beatles played wonderfully. They sang “Twist & Shout,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “You Can’t Do That,” “She Loves You,” “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” “Boys,” “All My Loving,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Things We Said Today,” “If I Fell,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” and, finally, a wild version of Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” that culminated in a frenzied final chorus featuring Ringo spectacularly flailing away at his entire drum kit as Paul screamed out the ending.
The Beatles bowed, unplugged their guitars, turned and ran back into the helicopter still sitting there, then took off into the night sky.
Now that’s entertainment.