It was 40 years ago today that Sergeant Pepper came to Boston to play. Aug. 18, 1966, to be exact – a warm summer evening that crackled with excitement as my best friend's dad, a prominent Boston lawyer wanting to experience his son's Beatle mania firsthand, drove the three of us to Suffolk Downs racetrack.
The crowd of 25,000 sat facing a small wood-frame stage set up on the dirt raceway. We had paid $4.75 per ticket. Warm-up acts – the Remains, Bobby Hebb, the Cyrkle, and the Ronettes – drew appreciative applause, but the evening began when the crowd caught sight of a line of black limousines making its way down the track toward the stage. John, Paul, George, and Ringo were in the house.
If you've never heard 15,000 teenage girls (give or take a few thousand) shriek, you've missed one of life's phenomena. Jon, his dad, and I stood surrounded in the center section, perhaps 225 feet from the stage, like the silent nucleus of an atomic mob. John Lennon belted out the first lyrics – "Just let me hear some of that rock and roll music..." – sending the place into controlled pandemonium. Those proved to be the operative words of the evening – if only we could hear.
The girl next to me held out a camera and asked, screaming, if I would stand on my chair and take a picture of the stage. She never took her eyes off the Beatles as she dictated instructions. My first thought: I am going to master the guitar. By the fourth song, the girls had exhausted themselves and the squeals subsided. We had been given a window to hear.
The vocal harmony of Lennon's baritone and McCartney's tenor has never ceased to amaze me. But to hear it live is another matter. Harrison's guitar work on his sunburst Epiphone Casino offered beautiful embroidery to "Day Tripper" and "Nowhere Man." Ringo nailed each song with his rock-steady beat.
Alas, our show lasted a mere 35 minutes. After finishing the last of 11 songs – "Long Tall Sally" – the Fab Four waved, jumped in their limos, and drove into the night. It turns out we caught the caboose of Beatle mania. Eleven days later, they played their last public concert, in San Francisco, and retired from touring to focus on recording.
The Beatles have never quite left me since that night. Even though we were only in our mid-teens, Jon and I had decided to form a band that year at the private school we attended in the Midwest. We wanted to be the Beatles. He told me that he had been in a group back home and how at one of their shows a girl had jumped up and touched his guitar. He had me at "girl."
Jon played lead on his new Fender Jazzmaster. I played rhythm on my Hagstrom. Borrowing amplifiers from classmates, we played for a few class functions and once for the entire school in the gymnasium. Our repertoire included some pop tunes and, of course, several Beatles songs. We had the requisite Beatle hair cut, with bangs.
Since then, I've often wondered why the Beatles were so much a part of the DNA of our generation – the next several generations, in fact. For me, the Beatles' career bookended my teen years. I was 13 when they first appeared on Ed Sullivan Feb. 9, 1964, and I was 19 when they broke up in 1970. Potent symmetry. Music is the soundtrack to a teen's life, and I associate Beatles songs with all those formulative events – the first parties, dances, cars, and dates. To this day, a Beatle song on the radio acts as a time machine.
The Beatles were master musicians, blessed with two of the era's great voices. Their music was varied and evolved organically over time. Each album's song composition seemed better and more interesting – from their first, "Please Please Me," recorded in a single day, to "Revolver," the album they released just before the Boston concert and worked on 18 hours per song. The White Album, Sgt. Pepper, and Abbey Road were yet to come, and fans would buy them all – an estimated 1 billion discs and tapes to date, more than any group in history.
Of course, the Beatles' artistry didn't just spring from the Liverpool air. They had put in years of apprenticeship in German and English clubs, studied all of America's classic music – R&B, country, the blues, and rock 'n' roll. Their passion for these genres was critical to their sound and ultimate success.
Yet, to me, the Beatles represented more than just music. They epitomized the rebelliousness of the time. In my own version of it, I remember coming home after my first year of college. My dad opened the front door to discover my white peasant shirt and foot-long hair. "Oh Lord," he said, good-naturedly.
Today my infatuation continues, but on a different level. Jon and I still try to play Beatles' songs. We're just doing it long distance and, in middle age, sans hair. We record our parts on 12-track digital recorders and exchange them on CDs. The other adds his own voice-overs and guitar licks. It's like a traveling recording studio.
Our grown-up obsession has led to a dangerous offshoot – guitar collecting. I own Martin and Gibson acoustic guitars, in addition to three electrics. (It reminds me of the old joke about the kid who tells his mother that when he grows up he wants to be a musician. The mother replies: Son, you can't do both.)
My friend Jon has amassed a museum-size collection of Beatles-era electric guitars (24 at last count), most now worth more than Google stock, including a 1955 Gretsch Duo Jet, a 1966 Rickenbacker 12-string, and a 1964 Gibson SG – all like George Harrison's. When I ask Jon why he does it, he says simply: These early guitars represent the authentic voice of the rock 'n' roll era. To him, they are the Stradivariuses of their time.
The Beatles have secured their place as one of the most important forces in 20th-century pop culture. As such, more books come out each year trying to explain their musical genus and genius – including Walter Everett's recent two-volume set, "The Beatles as Musicians." But examine anything too closely, especially art, and it can slip through your hands. McCartney himself once said: "I'd like a lot more things to happen like they did when you were kids, when you didn't know how the conjuror did it and were happy just to see it there and say, 'Well, it's magic.' "
Forty years ago Friday night, John, Paul, George, and Ringo played Suffolk Downs. It was magic.