|Four lads from Liverpool--and the man who believed in them.|
As writers, we’re all familiar with the struggle to find that one person who believes in us enough to take us on as agent, the wider search to find the editor who loves the book as much as we do, to find the right people to present that book in just the right way to give it wings. That constant quest for support, for faith, can be at times exhilarating, at times heartbreaking. It can yield fabulous results—book deals, sales, great reviews, even fame and fortune. Or it can yield nothing for months, even years, leading to frustration, discouragement and self-doubt.
Anyone who aims to perform an art at a high level—musician or painter, chef or dancer—plods along this uphill road marked by pleasant detours and washed out bridges, smooth pavement and potholes, dizzying peaks and dismal valleys. The longer she perseveres, the fewer companions she’ll have. Not everyone has the guts to stick it out, to see what’s around the next bend. Talent is not enough to propel someone along this road. You need determination and stubborn will and a kind of blindness to the steep drop-off on either side of you.
I’m waxing lyrical today not only because I’m feeling lucky, having reached a little resting place along the way, with the prospect of publication of my first book Unchained Memory a reality now (by Ink’d Press, in February, 2015). I also just finished reading over 800 densely packed pages of Mark Lewisohn’s The Beatles: All These Years, Vol.1, Tune In. (Yes, that’s 800 pages, and it only covers the Beatles from birth to early 1963, just as they are about to make it big.) The message I came away with was how close we came to never hearing that life-altering sound, how close the world was to losing something phenomenal, because “the powers that be” in music in London just could not perceive what was in front of them.
All of the young men who would become the Beatles knew, practically from the time they first picked up their guitars (or drumsticks), they would become something special. They felt it, though the circumstances of their birth and education certainly gave them no reason to believe it. Liverpool was desperately poor after the war, with few jobs to be had and few municipal resources to provide housing or clean up the bombed-out areas. Only John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi, who raised him, could be said to approach the middle class; for the others, remaining in the working class was a struggle.
Richard Starkey (Ringo to the rest of us) was so sick as a child and young teenager, he eventually gave up on schooling. The others barely made it through what we would consider high school. But the music? Yeah, that they knew everything about. Rhythm and blues, rock and roll, country/western, blues, Elvis, Little Richard, the Shirelles, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Coasters, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, Phil and Don Everly—they knew them all, every chord, every note, every nuance of voice. And when they began to play together as a group—first John, Paul and George with a lesser drummer named Pete Best, then the three of them with the “metronome” that was Ringo, they had a playlist that could last them through the brutal marathon six-hour sets at the sleazy Hamburg nightclubs where they honed their art.
Fans back in Liverpool noticed the difference in them when they returned from Germany the first time. When they returned the second time, and the third, they were so far above the local competition, it was as if they were playing in another league. They had changed their hairstyle, giving up the greased-up Fifities look for something more . . . well, the only way Liverpudlians could describe it was “Continental”. They wore black leather. Chicks dug it. They had a regular gig lunchtimes and nights at the Cavern, a converted underground warehouse that dripped sweat off the walls when packed with fans of the group, which was anytime they played now.
That’s where Brian Epstein saw them. Brian was owner of NEMS Enterprises, a business consisting of two large record stores that had grown out of his family’s traditional furniture business. He was the restless type, always looking for some new challenge for his energy and his intellect, and the record stores, although hugely successful, had just about run their course for him. They did serve a singular, wonderful purpose, however.
Brian had a policy that if anyone requested a particular record, he would order not just a copy for the requester, but several more as well, thinking that anyone who requested a record was a kind of harbinger of sales. Someone had come in requesting a copy of “My Bonnie” by Tony Sheridan and the Beat Boys. He duly ordered it—and sold out. He ordered more. And sold those, too. When informed that the “Beat Boys” were in fact the Beatles, a group really pulling them in down at the Cavern, he went to see for himself what the fuss was all about.
It was love at first sight. Here was what he’d been looking for, the outlet for all his creative energy. He was going to make these boys bigger than Elvis. That suited the Beatles just fine, since they had always believed they’d one day be as big as Elvis (even John Lennon wouldn’t presume to be bigger). Within weeks they’d signed a contract for Brian to manage the Beatles, and he went to work.
This is where the story began to resonate with me. Things were going great for the boys and for Brian until Brian hit a wall trying to get anyone in the music industry to listen to him. I have this terrific band—they even write their own songs!—have a listen! Everywhere he went, the doors slammed in his face, not because the Beatles weren’t good—in most cases, the A&R men wouldn’t even give them a chance to audition—but because they were from Liverpool, or because they played electric guitars (“guitar groups aren’t popular!”), or simply because their name was odd (“Beatles? What kind of name is that???”) The prevailing paradigm was for solo singers (this was the day of “teen heartthrobs” like Paul Anka or Neil Sedaka, remember), not groups (only Motown and Tamla in the U.S. were selling that kind of music). The answer was no, no, NO!
So, even though Brian’s Beatles were getting plenty of gigs in the North of England for more money than ever before, even though they had a huge fanbase in their own hometown, he couldn’t get the establishment to get behind them. (Does any of this sound familiar?)
It would be nice to say at this point that George Martin at Parlephone Records heard the demo tape and instantly got on board, signing the Beatles to a recording contract, producing their first hit, “Love Me Do”, and becoming another huge fan of “the boys”. It is true that George did eventually do all of that, but it wasn’t his first thought, or his idea. He wasn’t impressed with them at first hearing, and initially said no. Only some behind-the-scenes maneuvering within the recording giant EMI, having to do with internal politics, forced George to make the move that would forever tie him to the Beatles’ fortunes. It may have been a marriage of convenience, but the two parties (and Brian, too) quickly grew to love each other. Fate? Or just plain stubborn will?
The lesson to be learned here is that everyone, no matter how talented, no matter how far they will eventually go, no matter what huge impact they will eventually have on the world, will meet obstacles on the way, potholes, bridges washed out, detours. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Brian Epstein refused to give up and drop off the road, no matter how many times they heard “No!”. Likewise, J.K Rowling, Stephen King, Diana Gabaldon, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Jayne Ann Krentz didn’t give up when people told them no, even though it must have seemed no one would ever say yes.
Maybe they’re just stubborn. And, no doubt about it, that’s a good thing.
*A special word of thanks to my own personal “Brian”, my agent, Michelle Johnson, founder of Inklings Literary Agency, who has stubbornly endured her share of slammed doors on my behalf! Thank you for believing in me, Michelle!