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SUNDAY READING

Four Who Dared : Backstage With the Beatles on Their Last Tour

August 03, 1986|JUDITH SIMS | Judith Sims is a Times copy editor.

Twenty years ago this month, the Beatles, on their third American tour, staged 18 concerts in 14 cities and played to more than 450,000 screaming fans.

"Send John out. He's the one they want," George Harrison said, trying to joke.

"Maybe we should just wear targets on our chests," Paul McCartney added.

Nobody laughed.

The 1966 Beatles tour had just landed in Memphis, where the ludicrous campaign against John Lennon for his "the Beatles are bigger than Jesus" remark was at a fever pitch. For reasons that escaped me even then, many people--most of them in the South--interpreted his comment as proof that the Beatles considered themselves better than Jesus; Lennon, as he was to explain endlessly, was merely contrasting numbers. The reaction was intense: The Beatles were denounced from pulpits, their records and Lennon's books burned in huge public bonfires. Memphis, where the bonfires burned brightest, was a shadow that reached across the entire tour--their last tour, as it turned out.

August, 1966, was a long time ago . McCartney was still "engaged" to Jane Asher and Lennon had not met Yoko Ono. I was the editor of TeenSet magazine then, which helped get me on that tour. There were no "serious" journalists accompanying the monthlong caravan--just teen-magazine writers and disc jockeys. In 1966, Time and Newsweek weren't interested in following the Mop Tops around, and Rolling Stone wouldn't exist for another 15 months.

It was quite an entourage, even without big-time media. There were the four Beatles; manager Brian Epstein and his elegant blond secretary, Wendy Hanson; Neil Aspinall, road manager; two equipment managers, the late Mal Evans (the swimmer seeking the white cliffs of Dover in "Help!") and lesser-known Alfie Picknell; two security men, plus two big-time New York agents and a parade of police, and the supporting acts: the Ronettes, the Cyrkle (they were managed by Brian Epstein, too), Bobby Hebb (whose "Sunny" was No. 1 that month) and Barry and the Remains (a Boston group that also accompanied the Ronettes and Hebb).

The Beatles' performances never varied: the same 11 songs every time. John always started by belting out Chuck Berry's "Rock 'n' Roll Music," and Paul closed by screaming Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally." They were terrible on stage, completely out of tune because they couldn't hear each other over the screaming audiences. We loved them anyway.

There were only two American writers along for the entire tour, two British disc jockeys (one of them Kenny Everett, since a TV star) and Bess Coleman, a Scottish woman who edited Teen Life. Some writers and disc jockeys joined the tour in their respective cities. Everyone-- everyone-- had a chance at the Fab Four, but those of us with the red tour passes had more chances. We rode the same buses (yes, buses--the Beatles hated to fly, especially George, so we bused from Chicago to Detroit and from New York to Philadelphia) and airplanes, hung around backstage and stood smack up against every stage for every performance. After each concert, the press people dutifully climbed into a limo and acted as decoys, luring rabid fans to pound on our windows while the Beatles escaped via another route. Sometimes this was fun; occasionally it was terrifying.

We didn't get to eat with the Beatles (nor, alas, sleep with them), but we were with them a good 12 hours of every day. When we flew, it was usually in small chartered airplanes; every landing was applauded with relief. Paul, George and Ringo wandered about the planes like good hosts, chatting with everyone. John didn't socialize much.

And what were they really like?

Wonderful. Funny, friendly, irreverent, polite. They could spot hypocrisy in a second and twist it around for a laugh, and they laughed at almost everything--except Memphis and the American South. I was disappointed that these otherwise irreverent young men could be so easily cowed, that they would take American fundamentalist hysteria so much to heart. They were afraid to get off the plane in dreaded Memphis (and more than one heart stopped when some jerk set off a cherry bomb during their first concert in that city), but they answered questions on the Jesus quote, raised at every press conference, quietly and seriously. During that tour, Lennon was a spirit apart from the others, often glum and sullen.

McCartney insisted, as we flew into Los Angeles for the final three-city schedule, that this would be their last tour. They hated it, he said, not being heard, kept under tight security, with terrible stadium sound systems. I didn't believe him. But then, I would never have believed that Lennon would be shot to death on a New York street.

The Beatles were a part of our lives as no other group was before or has been since. We looked to them for music, laughter, culture, clothes, personal habits (they drank Scotch and Coke, remember?), even religion. Thanks to them--or no thanks to them, depending on your point of view--we met the Maharishi, saw a psychedelic Rolls-Royce, dressed up in bizarre satin-and-lace costumes and believed that all we needed was love.

My life was not quite the same after them. Elvis may have introduced us to rock 'n' roll's outlaw sex appeal, but the Beatles refined the rawness, adding humor, sweetness, power and class.

The world was a fine place in 1966; Vietnam was still a low cloud on the horizon, and anything was possible. I don't regret the innocence just because it was later lost. I'm happy that I was there, off to one side, when millions of people shared a common passion--even if it was just for four cute guys with funny accents.

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