Merch, Mind Games, and the Serious Proximity Buzz

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Michael Gerber

Publisher at The American Bystander
is Blogmom of Hey Dullblog. His novels and parodies have sold 1.25 million copies in 25 languages. He lives in Santa Monica, CA, and runs The American Bystander all-star print humor magazine.
Michael Gerber
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JAMIE BRYAN • “It’s the center of the earth,” Lennon said famously. And so inevitably Beatlemania returned to New York, bringing 60s-era good vibes not only to the cavernous convention spaces of Manhattan’s Grand Hyatt, but even to its sterile, airport-style lobby bar. Where the locals were gleefully engaging in a quaint little custom they picked up from Peter Minuit, the fleecing of the rubes.

The “OB-LA-DI OB-LA-OLIVES” were $6. The chef’s selection of artisan charcuterie and local cheeses (“MAXWELLS SILVER PLATTER”) was $16. A buck less got you either the “MAGICAL MYSTERY HUMMUS” or the “FREE AS A BIRD WINGS”. All branding and mark-up, in the finest Seltaeb tradition.

Colorful fans genuflect in front of cutouts at Beatlefest NYC, February 7, 2014. @ Andy Kropa.

Colorful fans genuflect in front of cutouts at Beatlefest NYC, February 7, 2014. @ Andy Kropa.

Here, there, and everywhere, “The Fest for Beatles Fans” had taken over. I could have used a “LOVELY MARGA-RITA” or two, watching the steady stream of guests snapping selfies with the life-sized Hard Day’s Night-era cardboard cutout across the way. Instead, I fueled up on free peanuts (starving freelancers must get their protein where they can) as a matronly cocktail waitress commented on the improvement of her working conditions. The boorish, drunken, money-spewing Super Bowl fans that had commandeered the Hyatt the weekend prior were now a distant, bad memory. Good riddance; a blissed-out, well-behaved, big-spending Beatle crowd is a bit more in-tune with De Blasio’s New York.

And history required—nay, demanded—that this happen, right here, right now. “The 120th National Convention Honouring the Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band of All Time”,  on the same day of the week and everything. Friday, February 7, 1964, the Fabs landed here at JFK and, as it says right there on the Fest program, “changed everything.” Me included, and obviously you too, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading.

Now somehow I’d managed to miss all 119 previous Fests, but this being the 50th anniversary, and within subway striking distance, who could resist? So I pitched Mike, he accepted, and here I was, preparing to rehabilitate my claim to super or at least serious fandom. In defense thereof, I saw Give My Regards to Broadstreet in the theater. Opening night. My idolization of John Lennon is so fervid I didn’t consider the Goldman bio negative. Granted, I’m a retro fan, born after the long and winding road was paved over, and in this company I won’t be winning any trivia contests. But the Beatles matter to me deeply and if Greater New York is going to celebrate them, I need to be there. The city that never sleeps awoke America to the Beatles and has been there for each of them ever since. (Look, Chapman was from Hawaii, okay?)

Blissed-out ladee groovin' on Existence: Beatlefest NYC, February 7, 2014. @ Andy Kropa.

Blissed-out ladee groovin’ on Existence: Beatlefest NYC, February 7, 2014. @ Andy Kropa.

Forgive me. The Fest is a wholesome family affair so let me steer clear of unpleasant memories — except to note briefly that the Fest crowd weighed in with a supportive round of applause when “Dear” Prudence Farrow—aunt of Dylan—coyly name-checked ashram-mate and sister Mia. “I’ll tell her that when I see her in a day,” Prudence beamed over the swell of clapping. “She’ll dig that.”

Pru, of course, was on hand to share recollections from the Beatles’ transcendent(al) trip to India. Woody, best I could tell, was represented only by an original yellow and green promotional poster for the “1964 Forest Hills Music Festival” that could adorn your man- or lady-cave for a mere $27,500. That triumphant year the Beatles played two shows at the tennis stadium (way more intimate and presumably better acoustics than Shea): Friday, August 28th and Saturday, August 29th. Joan Baez played Saturday, August 8th, Streisand July 12th, and Woody was the “Extra Added Attraction” opening for Trini Lopez and Count Basie on Saturday, July 25th.

Can you imagine if Woody had been the “Extra Added Attraction” opening for the Beatles? I have visions of him returning to the stage with his clarinet to wail on “Twist and Shout”. Thusly ensconced in the Beatles’ inner circle, he would have surely been drawn to India for a faster escape from anxiety than Freudian therapy and met Mia in ’68, leaving Diane Keaton penniless and unknown today.

Such historical tidbits and mind games alone made The Fest a win for me — so much of it felt like a warmer, folksier museum exhibit. But $27, 500?!!! Jesus @$#* Christ Superstar! And the Beatles aren’t even pictured! That’s some genuwine museum prices, Beatle peedles. I subsequently visited the splashy, museum-style Beatles exhibit currently running at Lincoln Center’s New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and would say the Fest had a superior, larger selection of original items in most categories.

But back to spiritually attuned Prudence, regaling the Fest’s early Friday arrivals with her impressions of the Beatles’ Sullivan debut: “There was such a joy and happiness that they gave off. It was after Kennedy had died and we’d been through, you know, so many things, collectively, those of us coming of age.”

"What do you mean, 'That Prudence is a "goer"?'" Beatlefest NYC, February 7, 2014. @ Andy Kropa.

“What do you mean, ‘That Prudence is a “goer”?'” Beatlefest NYC, February 7, 2014. @ Andy Kropa.

Prudence, of course, came of age with the Beatles a bit more directly than most and consequently has the ultimate collectible: John Lennon sings tenderly to her, about her, everyday and forever, with a masterpiece that features some of Paul’s most inspired bass work — and drumming. Did you know Paul played drums on “Dear Prudence”? You probably did. I just found out. “She’d been locked in for three weeks and was trying to reach God quicker than anyone else,” John later quipped. Well good on Prudence, as the Aussies day, for coming out to play with the Fest folks. (And she’s still into the TM, in case you’re wondering. So is the Fest. There were booths, introduction seminars, the whole nine.)

Also on hand with tales from all those years ago: Julia Baird, Donovan [who gave a fascinating, Fest-plugging interview to Howard Stern  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9KJO841glyo ], Peter Asher, Billy J. Kramer, Denny Laine, Pattie Boyd, DJ Bruce “Cousin Brucie” Morrow, Neil Innes, and Beatles’ secretary and recent documentary subject Freda Kelly, among many others. (What? You were expecting George Martin, Peter Brown, Klaus Voormann and Astrid Kirchherr? Cyn and Julian? Yoko and Sean?) There was also a deep bench of authors, photographers, cover bands, DJs, illustrators, animators, and even a puppeteer. Kate Hudson’s uncle Mark, if you weren’t aware, produced a bunch of Ringo Starr albums. You could have asked him all about it and had him sign things. Or you could have just marveled from a respectful distance at his snow cone-colored beard.

•     •     •

Displaying Sixties fashion at Beatlefest NYC, February 7, 2014. @ Andy Kropa.

Displaying Sixties fashion at Beatlefest. @ Andy Kropa.

Nothing against people, but I was drawn to the stuff. The original, rare, now really expensive stuff. It was everywhere at The Fest: on tables, in racks, hanging from displays, each piece jostling, hollering, elbowing other stuff out of the way like a crying, kvelling fan anxious for a better view of the beatified bugs. Concert ticket stubs were priced for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. And the big-ticket tickets weren’t necessarily what you’d expect: An unused ticket from the Beatles’ final concert, at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, seemed like a bargain at $4000, given that one from a ‘64 show in Vancouver was $10,000. There’s surely a sensible pricing scale familiar to hardcore collectors, but I know which one I’d prefer to own.

For a cool $25,000 you could take home a set of the original CBS art department TV name cards from the Sullivan debut. (“SORRY GIRLS, HE’S MARRIED” famously read the extra line under John’s name… which I doubt much deterred the girls or John.) Also unsigned and for sale: an original itinerary from that February 9, 1964 show — basically just a producer’s printed set list for the entire program, including commercial breaks and spots for other performers, like Frank Gorshin and magician Fred Kaps — priced to move at just $35,000. Scrimp and save, kids, scrimp and save.

An ocean of merch. Beatlefest NYC, February 7, 2014. @ Andy Kropa.

And there we found/an ocean of merch. @ Andy Kropa.

On the novelty front, a “mega-rare” Beatles bongos prototype from 1964, complete with original packaging, would set you back $27,500. Also from that seminal year: a pristine set of Italian Christmas ornaments with each Beatle (even Ringo) holding a guitar, for $3,750. “THE BOBB’N HEAD” Beatles dolls for $3000 were labeled as near mint/very good++, though I thought the box was showing its age. Looking much fresher was a 1963 Beatles “pencil by numbers colouring set” from the UK for $5000. The prices were, for those of us not in the 1%, positively bludgeoning: One of those flimsy put-the-magnetic-hair-shards-on-the-illustrated-faces cardboard amusement things and a plastic toy guitar, both from the UK circa ’64, were $900 and $4000 respectively.  Sure, people talk about how the Boomers have a disproportionate amount of America’s wealth, but you gotta go to The Fest to really see it.

The Fab Four’s forebear, Elvis and his famous pelvis, was a major sensation, no doubt. But I’m prepared to summarily rule that the avalanche of merchandising triggered by Our Guys was unprecedented. This excellent blog post provides some background on the subject:

In late 1963, overwhelmed by constant requests from companies that wanted to manufacture and sell Beatles swag such as sweaters, shirts, buttons, belts and drums, Epstein signed a contract allowing a spinoff company called Seltaeb to handle all of The Beatles merchandising agreements. (Read that name in reverse.)

At the time, few people had any sense of just how significant merch sales would become for pop musicians. Accordingly, Epstein agreed to take only 10% of Seltaeb’s merch licensing fees to share between the band and himself. Meanwhile, the operators of Seltaeb, in an effort to encourage as much volume as possible, demanded only a 10% licensing fee for manufacturing and selling Beatles merch to begin with.

This means that despite the millions of dollars in Beatles merchandise flying off the shelves, the band and their manager only retained a paltry 1% of those revenues.

Within a year, Epstein renegotiated the contract with Seltaeb so that he and the band split nearly 50% of Seltaeb’s revenues. But by then the damage was done: The Beatles and Epstein lost up to $100,000,000 in estimated potential revenue.

Or, looking at it another way, the stuff-makers were financially incentivized to churn out Beatles products to an extent that undoubtedly amplified and accelerated the initial Beatlemania phenomenon. Tasteful or tacky, all that merch was an avalanche of free advertising, on a scale that money can’t buy. At least here in the States, I would wager that Beatlemania sold those early records more than those early records sold Beatlemania.

So even if accidentally, Brian Epstein was playing the long game brilliantly, I say. Even unto the end: one could argue that by dying when he did, he nudged his beloved Beatles to the ideal close, preserving the most flawless legacy in popular music. Brian remains such a fascinating factor, and relatively elusive figure, that I was sorry to miss Vivek Tiwary, author of the graphic novel on Epstein, The Fifth Beatle.  

Thoroughly branded Beatle fan at Beatlefest NYC, February 7, 2014. @ Andy Kropa.

Thoroughly branded Beatle fan. @ Andy Kropa.

The Beatles’ ascent from apparent fad to immortal artistic achievement —each album more innovative, distinctive, and self-possessed than the last — was surely fueled significantly by the creative freedom and intoxicating self-confidence that Beatlemania’s global charm offensive had secured. Hell, by ‘66 J/P/G/R even thought they could get away with wearing bloody dead babies on an album cover. That they couldn’t, at the last moment, endowed collectors with an item well represented at The Fest. “Ah, a newbie,” the Patti Smith-looking lady smiled, after I asked why certain dead baby albums cost so much more than others. I received an extensive treatise on the subject.

But there’s one thing that adds magic to any memorabilia, and that’s the right scrawl(s). Why the signatures matter (and cost) so much is purest juju—but it’s not exactly bullshit. An item that all four Beatles scribbled on for a few moments during one of those prime years does assume the heft of a religious relic to a true believer like yours truly. That said, I am still floored that a photo signed by them hits the $45,000 and up range. If only my mother hadn’t been such a high school folkie snob and accepted the invitation from her classmate, daughter of the Plaza Hotel’s in-house photographer, to go get her picture taken with the Beatles! She would have been able to get autographs and prove their prime provenance—I curse a fortune lost!

…Then again, she could have been swept away by Beatle charms and I might not have been born, so complaint withdrawn.

…Or I could be a Beatle kid, then I would surely have a spare $350,000 for that copy of the Meet The Beatles! album purportedly signed for a lighting tech at the Sullivan show. That’s no typo; a signed copy of the Sgt. Pepper’s album sold for $290,500 last March. Why a signed copy of Please Please Me’s first UK pressing went for only $62,500 last December, someone savvier would have to explain, but it’s heartening for those of us on a budget.

Heritage, “The World’s Largest Collectibles Auctioneer”, was on hand promoting key Beatles items from their forthcoming sale — including, at an opening bid of $800,000, a 48-inch long piece of Sullivan show stage backdrop signed and “adorned with individual drawings from each member of the band and a note from John Lennon reading, “The ‘Beatles’ were here 2/9/64.”

Shit. I want that.

•     •     •

Attempting to extract myself from the Material World, I chatted up Bruce Spizer, a Beatles historian, collector, super-fan, and probably the world’s leading expert on the early Vee-Jay releases (as well as a practicing tax attorney, if you need one of those). Much to my spirituality’s chagrin, Bruce turned out to be as merch-crazed as myself, proudly relaying a find. He’d tracked down Bill Bohnert, the set designer responsible for the mod-minimalist annulus of suspended white arrows that framed the Beatles’ Ed Sullivan debut. Bruce, doubtless with some kind of mad gleam in his eye, asked if he’d held onto any keepsakes. Bill — who would go on to design the Emmys, Grammys and Golden Globes — replied no, he didn’t think so. “But ah, ha!” Bruce said to me, “that meant there was a chance.” Bohnert conceded that if he did have anything, it would be in his Beverly Hills garage and promised to look. Sure enough, tucked away in some old papers, he found his original, impressively polished sketch for the set [link or image here], which Bruce then revealed in his book The Beatles Are Coming! The Birth of Beatlemania In America [ http://www.amazon.com/The-Beatles-Are-Coming-Beatlemania/dp/0966264983 ].

Another Fest author I enjoyed meeting was Dave Bedford. As cheerfully down-to-earth as one would hope from a genuine Liverpudlian, Bedford has mined deep into the Beatles’ roots with Liddypool: Birthplace of The Beatles [ http://www.liddypool.com ] and his latest, The Fab one hundred and Four: The Evolution of The Beatles [ http://www.fab104.com ]. His drive to find and tell these stories clearly stems from the organic curiosity of a pure fan — and being around that dedicated, unjaded spirit is uplifting time well spent for the similarly obsessed (or at least intrigued).

Gruen with his most famous contact sheet, Beatlefest NYC, February 7, 2014. @ Andy Kropa.

Gruen with his most famous contact sheet, Beatlefest NYC, February 7, 2014. @ Andy Kropa.

But by far the coolest — and best-dressed — cat on the premises was rock photographer Bob Gruen. Not only did Bob capture the most iconic images of 70s Lennon we have, he was a genuine Lennon pal. (As with Joe Strummer and Debbie Harry, Gruen subjects tend to become Gruen friends.) From glam to punk and beyond, Bob has probably witnessed more seminal rock history than most people have seen bad television. And the New Yorker is still out night after night with his camera, a genuine fan as well as now a legendary figure in his own right (replete with a recent Showtime profile, Rock ‘N’ Roll Exposed: The Photography of Bob Gruen). Sensing he would be peppered with Lennon questions for the next 72 hours, I found myself making conversation about his defining images of the New York Dolls. Gruen laughed easily as he recalled the ordeal of lugging a prehistoric black-and-white Sony video camera, the approximate size and weight of a garbage dumpster, as he followed the Dolls around in the early seventies. Gruen doesn’t often attend the Fest, he told me. But this year, with it back in the place his friend John loved so much, well, who could resist?

•     •     •

While I was talking to Gruen and, yes, slyly getting a serious proximity buzz, Andy, my photographer and brother-in-Beatles, captured some of the Fest’s costume contest participants and live music on offer. There was a sing-a-long sweetness to most of the proceedings we witnessed — definitely more “Yellow Submarine” than “Helter Skelter”. And while that is not going to be in tune with everyone’s tastes, it is, as a practical matter, the most egalitarian wavelength over which fans can come together. Yes, the Fest truly is a wholesome family affair, with many families in attendance…in addition to being a family enterprise run by the enterprising Lapidos fan family. “It’s like a Beatles Thanksgiving,” patriarch and Fest founder Mark noted later that weekend, “without the bickering.”

Work that Casino, Dude. Beatlefest NYC, February 7, 2014. @ Andy Kropa.

Work that Casino, dude. @ Andy Kropa

“I was just a Beatles fanatic who thought somebody should do something to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Beatles’ arrival in America. So I did.” In April ’74 the young Sam Goody manager had already taken the gamble of booking convention space for the fall when, by chance, he found out John Lennon was staying at The Pierre. Brazenly, he snuck up, knocked on the door—and Harry Nilsson answered. Not only did Lennon sit and listen to Mark’s pitch, he agreed on the spot to donate a signed guitar, and to lobby his fellow Beatles to support the Fest. “I’m a Beatles fan too.”

That September, an estimated 8,000 fans attended and “Beatlefest” even claimed the cover of Rolling Stone. For the maiden gathering, Lapidos secured the venerable Commodore Hotel, lending yet another piece of full-circle historical significance to the Fest’s return to Manhattan after a thirty year exile. The Commodore was later gutted, rebuilt, and reopened as the gleaming Grand Hyatt in 1980, the year that sadly sealed the Beatles’ status as a memory — albeit one that only grows more valued over time, no sign of depreciation in sight.

•     •     •

Nice hat, faux-George. Beatlefest NYC, February 7, 2014. @ Andy Kropa.

Faux-George is pleased with his big hat, Beatlefest NYC, February 7, 2014. @ Andy Kropa.

Leaving the lobby, nodding farewell to the cardboard Beatles, I felt grateful for a good time. My spirits had been lifted. There’s always been something supernaturally redemptive, reassuring, comforting, and encouraging in the Beatles for me—something within the music, obviously, but also beyond. I could watch the Anthology documentary series on a constant loop. I could watch the Anthology documentary series extras on a constant loop. By facilitating communion with that reverie, and plunking me down in the middle of a crowd of similarly obsessed folks from all walks, the Fest was more than a meet-and-greet, or magical memorabilia tour. It was a celebration, of something truly worth celebrating.

So why did I also feel disappointed?

Hearing my sheepish confession, a friend pointed out there is inevitably an undercurrent of sadness to any commemoration, whether five years after or fifty. Especially for those of us who missed the original party entirely. Poor pitiful us second-generation types, we’re celebrating something we never had to begin with. We can retrace the old steps, track down every Beatle footprint, actual or apocryphal, but we’ll always be one of the hysterical girls held back behind a fence on the far end of the tarmac, never right there, sitting in like Billy Preston, taking a solo, wearing a big smile, and keeping the fractious Fabs on their best, wisecracking behavior.

A 50th Anniversary Fest ain’t Ed Sullivan. It’s more like Opening Night of “Broadstreet.” But you know what? I’ll take it.   ☐

 

JAMIE BRYAN is a freelance writer living in New York. ANDY KROPA is a freelance photographer based in Brooklyn, NY. His work has appeared in the Village Voice and New York Times among other publications, and he frequently covers entertainment events for the Associated Press.

The Fest for Beatles Fans 2014 will be in Chicago August 15-17 and in Los Angeles October 10-12. 

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10 Comments

  1. Avatar dan wrote:

    “The 120th National Convention Honouring the Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band of All Time”

    Is that a typo, or did they really use the British spelling?

  2. Avatar Adam wrote:

    That was a seriously good read. I’m not sure that I would’ve been able to withstand the onslaught of Beatlemanic-ness as well as our intrepid reporter, but thanks to him, I didn’t have to. Well done, sir.

  3. Avatar Rob Geurtsen wrote:

    Christianity sure is still bigger than The Beatles.

    The power games with lawyers, accountants, the capitalist greed on display in the dealings with tax-evasive off-shore accounts, the sex, the ego-power games, the creative destruction of Lennon by Yoko, the Beatles’ own Cleopatra, it all sure looks like what was and is going on in Christian churches, whether it is the Protestant churches in Europe, the Orthodox churches in (South-)Eastern Europe or the Catholic monster in Rome.

    The description of the Beatles-fest by Bryan and Kropa represents early religious dedication the Beatles muster from their fans. I like more of these outings, I luv’ it.

    A promising future lies ahead, with the 09-09-09 records as the main work and many books giving insight…

    What is lacking is a proper discussion of the books describing various aspects of The Beatles.

  4. Avatar J.R. Clark wrote:

    That last pic is fascinating. I’m guessing that was the finals of the Look-A-Like contest. From left: Third-place winner in the Mick Fleetwood category; Second-place Psychedelic Yoko Ono category; Fourth-place winner in the Cynthia Lennon Bassannini Twist category; First-place winner in the Turtles-Beatles Mashup category; Eighth-place winner in the Astrid-Dressed-Stu-in-Drag category; and our Grand Prize winner in the If-Martin-Scorsese-cast-Robert-De Niro-in-a-George Harrison-Biopic! Let’s give our winners a hand, Beatle people!

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