The following is an extract from my book Who Could Ask For More: Reclaiming The Beatles. The title is derived from my desire to ‘rescue’ The Beatles from the cultural institutionalism that at times seems to overwhelm the way we see them in a haze of nostalgia for a so-called ‘innocent age’. The book presents a critical overview of The Beatles’ music and lyrics and places their work in the cultural context of their times. It’s quite surprising that, despite the huge number of publications devoted to the ‘Fab Four’, only a handful seem to take them in any way seriously. This is a great shame, giving their huge artistic achievement and the massive cultural weight of their influence on modern popular music. I have placed considerable emphasis on the notion of Beatles as ‘revolutionaries’ and have linked their work to the sexual and cultural revolutions of the 1960s, as well as focusing on the development of their ‘spiritual’ perceptions. The book takes a unique approach to its subject matter by mixing critical writing with fictionalised sections in which I have taken ‘real’ or imagined incidents in The Beatles’ lives and dramatised them. The following extract is from the beginning of Chaper Two, and is a fictionalised account (based on the testimony of The Beatles themselves in the Anthology TV series) of their first meeting with Bob Dylan. Much of the rest of the chapter goes on to analyse the way in which Dylan influenced The Beatles’ songwriting in their ‘transitional’ phase.
August 28th 1964. The Beatles, Brian Epstein and their road managers, Neil and Mal, sit in a darkened, wood-panelled room in the Hotel Delmonico, New York. The blinds are drawn, even though it’s a cracking hot day outside. A creaky old fan whirs half-heartedly in the corner. They’ve been to a few strange places on this tour, met some pretty weird people, been screamed at by what seems like millions of kids, even had groups of paraplegics wheeled in to see them backstage… as if they were supposed to have some kind of healing powers, like they were bloody Jesus and his three disciples or something. But this, George tells himself, has to cap it all. The guy who is ‘entertaining’ them actually looks quite a bit like Bob, with the same curly black hair and reflective shades, which he apparently never takes off. He even says his name is Bob. He doesn’t speak much though, just slouches on a black leather sofa reading a Marvel comic. Every so often he reassures them that Bob himself will see them ‘real soon’.
“It’s a bit like waiting for an audience with the Pope,” John observes, staring up at the ornate if rather decrepit carvings of cherubs on the ceiling.
“Didn’t we meet him already?” says Ringo dryly.
“Wrong country,” George mutters. They’ve been sitting here for nearly an hour now, and they’re getting to feel a little itchy, to say the least. Bob’s not QUITE ready, the other Bob tells them, without looking up from The Incredible Hulk. He keeps offering packs of Marlboro and Camels and suchlike round. From time to time a big, burly guy the other Bob calls Vic comes in, mutters something unintelligible into the other Bob’s ear and wanders out again. Paul stares down absent-mindedly at his fingernails, whistling some knackered old show tune or other, being as annoyingly cheerful as ever. Ringo yawns and absent-mindedly drums his fingers on the arm of his chair. There’s no stopping him. Probably does it in his sleep… John continues to stare up at the ceiling, yawning. He’s unusually quiet and subdued today. Even Eppy, who is squinting at the New York Times, looks a bit nervous, glancing up every so often and then quickly burying his face back in the paper, as if he’s been caught doing something he shouldn’t. George, however, feels quite relaxed. Oddly enough, after all the attention they’ve been getting, he’s actually really quite appreciating being ignored. The truth is, they’re all knackered and rather enjoying a bit of quiet. This tour has been like a mad bloody circus. The previous visit to the States, the first one, had consisted of one or two TV shows and a couple of big gigs in concert halls. This time they’ve been doing the full coast to coast thing, playing ballparks and stadiums, all of which have, by now, started to look pretty much the same. Every night they’ve been cranking out the usual stage act. It’s been impossible, as ever, for them to hear themselves play…
In between all that various millionaires have been putting them up in their mansions. One goofy rich old couple in Florida had lent Ringo this bloody great big yacht and, having absolutely no idea how to pilot the thing, he’d crashed it into the dock, breaking half of it up. The bloody jerk. Of course, he nearly shat himself, thinking they’d try to sue him, and expecting he’d get hauled over the coals by Brian for being such a dick. But the old folks actually seemed quite pleased. After all, even if the boat was smashed up, they could impress their friends by saying “A Beatle did this”. It was like Ringo had done them a favour. If he’d offered to burn their house down they’d probably have passed him the matches. Bloody yanks, they’re are all a bit cracked… Meanwhile, they’d had to shake hands and make small talk with all these majors and mayoresses in god awful civic receptions across this country, who always declared how proud they were to have them in St. Louis, or Houston or New Orleans or wherever. Paul would witter on to them for ages. Ringo would make those weird jokes of his which they’d never understand. John would put on his patented ‘plastic smile’ , showing all his teeth and confusing them by going into this posh accent and pretending to be a friend of Princess Margaret. “Old Magsie,” he’d chortle, “damned fine old stick, you know. Decent chap.” Sometimes John would claim to be George, and George would say he was Ringo and so on, just to relieve the boredom. The thing that stuck in George’s mind about the mayors and mayoresses was that they all had really shiny teeth, like they’d just auditioned for some toothpaste commercial. He figured there must be plenty of work for dentists over here.
Then of course they’d had to sign their autographs on hundreds of bloody photos of themselves. Eppy would bring a big box of them in every day. “Just a few things for you to sign, boys,” he would announce cheerfully. “Oh, jolly dee,” John would say, taking the piss out of Eppy’s posh accent. Eppy’s so easy to wind up. Especially when John goes off on one. Soon their wrists would be aching and they’d persuade Neil and Mal to take over. Mal would do George and Paul, Neil John and Ringo. They never seemed to mind too much. George yawns. When he thinks about the whole shebang, it all kind of merges into a blur. American cities all looked alike anyway, with their skyscraper skylines and all that. And one hotel room looked much like any other. Most of the time they just played cards, wrote the odd song, arsed about with guitars and took the piss out of each other. Every so often a party of girls got sent up. That was alright. You could have two, three, even four each if you wanted. You felt like you were doing them a favour somehow. But after a bit you even got bored with that…
This hotel room feels different to most of the places they’ve been, though. It’s kind of magnificent but somehow decrepit at the same time. A bit like Liverpool, really… Over by the door stands, a skinny young guy with long frizzy hair and quick, darting eyes who looks like a Beatnik version of the twitchy murderer in that Hitchcock film, the one with the old lady’s skeleton in the chair. He never says a word, and keeps taking nervous-looking glances into the corridor outside. Could be he’s the lookout, like in one of those old Westerns where some gang of outlaws is about to rob a bank. But maybe George has just watched too many bloody movies…
Finally the skinny guy makes a thumbs-up sign to the other Bob, who mutters something to Vic, who goes out of the room and then comes back
“OK, guys…” the other Bob slurs, “Bob can see you now.”
Vic opens the side door and they file through dutifully, like a line of schoolboys going for the cane. George tries to suppress the giggles. In the other room the windows are open and there is Bob himself, rocking backwards on a stool by an open window, shrouded in cigarette smoke, staring down at the typewriter on the desk in front of him. At first he doesn’t even raise his head. He’s wearing big thick black glasses, a pair of scruffy jeans and a tee shirt with a faded picture of some Indian chief printed in black and white on the front. George is surprised at how small he is. The bizarre thought enters his head that he should stride across the room, shake him by the hand and say “You’re Bob Dylan. You’re really quite small.”
There are a couple of sofas in the room so they all squeeze onto them. Vic remains standing by the door. Finally Bob moves his finger away from the typewriter, shakes his head and looks over, as if he’s only just noticed them.
“Hey…” he drawls, “You guys…ah… sit down…”
“He sounds just like his records,” George thinks, but doesn’t say. One morning earlier this year, when they’d been playing in Paris, George had put on his favourite disguise – a false beard and glasses which he fancied made him look like Inspector Poirot – and nipped out to a street market, where he’d picked up a few souvenirs – plastic Eiffel Towers for the folks back home and stuff – and this album, ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’. When he played it, all the guys were completely gobsmacked. For about a month afterwards, they’d listened to nothing else. There were all these amazing songs about World War Three and A Woman Who Was A Child, I’m Told and Ten Thousand Drummers Whose Hands Were A-Bleedin’. They’d never heard anything like it. John had said it was like hearing Elvis again for the first time. Only cooler, Paul had put in. Ringo had said he liked the songs but that voice was a bit hard to take. But that’s what’s so great about it, John had told him. Forget the words, I just love that sound.
“Listen…ah…” Bob removes his glasses. He looks rather bleary-eyed, to say the least. “You guys wanna get high?”
Ringo looks at George with a puzzled expression. Mind you, Ringo could look bamboozled by almost anything…
There’s a few moments of rather awkward silence. Paul breaks the ice. “Well, we are on the tenth floor…”
“That’s bloody hilarious, Paul,” says John. “You’re so fucking quick on the uptake…”
Bob doesn’t flinch. It’s as if he hasn’t heard any of this. He fumbles in his pocket and produces a packet of cigarette papers. He pulls one out and slowly starts to fold it, working with one hand only while the other hangs limply by his side.
John speaks up. “I tried smoking pot a couple of times back in England, Bob. Never did a thing for me.”
“Don’t suppose you’ve got any rum and coke, Bob?” Ringo enquires hopefully.
Again, Bob appears not to have heard. He raises his head slowly, still shaping the cigarette paper carefully with his other hand.
“But guys, what about that record you made? The one where you sing ‘I get high… I get high’ ?”
Silence again. They all look puzzled. Then John appears to cotton on. “D’you mean ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand?’ ”
“Sure, man” Bob drawls. “That would be the VERY one.” As he speaks he lengthens his vowel sounds lugubriously.
“Actually Bob, that goes ‘I can’t hide… I can’t hide…’”
“You’re kidding, man…” Bob shakes his head, “I thought…”
“Sorry to disappoint you, Bob. We’re strictly rum and coke men.”
Bob shrugs. “Fucking great record, man. I dug it, man, really. Fucking outrageous chord changes. You gotta let me know how you pulled them off.”
John looks surprised. “You liked it? I didn’t think it would be your cup of tea.”
At this Bob’s face creases into a smile. He begins to giggle, in a surprisingly high-pitched voice. “Hey, not my cup of tea, man… that’s great… really funny…”
John raises an eyebrow. “And I wasn’t even trying…”
Bob waves his finger lazily at Vic. “Hey Vic, man, we got any of that Columbian bush left?”
Vic nods silently. He reaches into one of his trouser pockets and tosses a small plastic bag across the room. Bob catches it lazily in one hand.
“Listen guys… I don’t know what kinda shit they’re smoking over in England. But you just GOTTA try this stuff…”
As he rolls the joint one handedly he’s still giggling to himself, tapping his feet, muttering ‘I can’t hide… I can’t hide…’
…So half an hour later Paul is nagging Mal for a piece of paper and a pencil, insisting he’s got the answer to the Riddle of The Universe and just HAS to write it down. Ringo has his head in his hands. Tears are streaming down his face. “I’ve got to stop laughing,” he’s telling them all. “It hurts too much…” Bob is rattling on to George and John about how he adores Little Richard and how he was in this high school band called The Golden Chords playing Little Richard numbers when he was fifteen and how he loves rock and roll and not only Leadbelly and Woody and stuff like that and how they really HAVE to read Bound For Glory and On The Road and how Dostoyevsky is really fucking cool man and no he didn’t name himself after that Welsh poet and how he’ll have to shut this window cos this fucking joint is blowing in the wind, man, ha ha ha, and George and John are just cracking up, shaking their heads in disbelief and then the other Bob comes in and tells them they have to keep the window open anyway cos there are cops in the hotel corridors and possession is heavy shit in this city at which Eppy, who hasn’t said a word since they came in the room, looks distinctly worried. But before they know it Paul is rolling on the floor declaring ‘There are seven levels!’ to anyone who might want to hear but nobody can because everyone is talking at once and John is doing his cripple impersonations and drawing his weird cartoons on the hotel walls and George and Bob have their arms round each other supporting each other to stop each other from falling over because John is so goddamned fucking funny and Bob says he really should have his own TV show or do cabaret like Lenny Bruce and Neil is still trying to help Mal find that bloody pencil and even Eppy is cracking up now and of course Ringo is just laughing and laughing and laughing…
A version of this text appears in WHO COULD ASK FOR MORE: RECLAIMING THE BEATLES