Aboard the “Magical Mystery Tour” bus filled with Beatles fanatics, en route from London to Liverpool.
A grazing sheep lifts its head as two buses roar through the English countryside, blaring loud music. If this sheep understood language, it might recognize the lyrics: “Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you, Tomorrow I’ll miss you!” These are the Magical Mystery Tour buses, en route to a week-long Beatles festival in Liverpool.
The tour’s Pied Piper is Charles F. Rosenay, a Connecticut DJ with dyed blonde hair who has hosted these excursions for 18 years. I sit with Rosenay and he excitedly describes a worldwide circuit of festivals and tribute bands named Fab Faux and Banned on The Run. I don’t know exactly what to think. I mean, they were a great band. But they broke up 30 years ago. One of them is dead, another got knighted, and who knows what happened to Ringo.
The fans chatter and swap trivia. This $2,500 trip is their biggest of the year. Most are friendly and middle-aged, wearing 60s style granny sunglasses. Some are collectors, others are here to meet “dignitaries.”
Rosenay also produces a Rolling Stones-themed tour. So what’s the difference between Beatles and Stones fans? “Stones fans party a little more. They’re hung over every day.” He thinks a moment. “Stones fans also don’t want to hear anything about the Beatles.”
Beatles fans hate comparisons to Star Trek fans, but both groups share a similar insane enthusiasm. One woman is on her ninth trip. Some married couples first met each other on the tour. A grey-haired man wearing a John Lennon T-shirt approaches Rosenay, and asks to play his audio cassettes.
“Wait awhile,” says Rosenay.
“But these are a set,” says the fan, revealing his meticulously packaged homemade tapes. “With Gerry and the Pacemakers.”
“In awhile. The videos are playing right now. It’s better if they can both watch and listen at the same time.”
The guy nods, and takes his seat. Soon, he will get to play his music.
Rosenay turns to me: “You gotta be diplomatic.”
We stop at a roadside restaurant for a remarkably bland English lunch. I feel oddly left out. I wonder, will there ever be music nostalgia for my generation? Will I ever tour the sights and smells of the hometown of Aerosmith?
After a ferry ride across the Mersey River to Liverpool, a woman runs off the boat, falls to her knees, kisses the ground, and exclaims: “I made it! I can’t believe I’m here! We’re in the Holy Land!” Locals waiting for the ferry watch this scene without expression. Happens every year.
The festival officially begins tonight at the Paul McCartney Auditorium. There are certain rules if you want to be a Beatles tribute band. Rule 1: Sound exactly like the Beatles. This is God’s music. Don’t ruin it. Rule 2: Look exactly like the Beatles. Mop-tops, pointy boots, vintage guitars. The amplifiers, strangely, can be modern. Rule 3: Guitar cords shouldn’t pop out of the amps, as in the unfortunate case of the first band, The Remnants.
Headlining the evening is Neil Innes, songwriter for the Monty Python group and genius behind the Rutles, a Beatles parody act from the late 1970s. Between songs, Innes describes how strange it is that the Rutles have become part of the Beatles culture. After all, he was making fun of the Beatles at the time. He asked George Harrison for advice, he says, and Harrison told him why not, “It’s all part of the same sloop.” The crowd sings along with each Rutles tune. Who cares if it’s parody, it’s still the Beatles!
Most of the Atlantic Ocean’s shipping comes through the shipyards of Liverpool, a raucous working-class city with a regional accent similar to Scottish. But tourism has now surpassed the shipping industry. Half a million people come here each year because of the Beatles. Down in the narrow streets of the Cavern Quarter, nightlife is booming. The reconstructed Cavern Club, alleged birthplace of the Beatles, features a tribute band from Brazil.
But after hearing nothing but Beatles for 14 hours straight, I need a break. They were just a band. They didn’t walk on the moon. I wander the grey streets without purpose. Tourists are discouraged from going out after dark, but the most threatening presence tonight is packs of teenagers—sturdy girls in poofy hair and too-tight dresses, and pimply hooligan boys in untucked shirts. One drunken girl stumbles up to some guys and slurs, “You’re gorgeous! And you’re gorgeous!” She points at me. “And you are, too!”
I come upon a roofless church, with majestic pillars and ivy crawling out the windows. A plaque on the wall reads:
“This church, completed in 1831, suffered serious bomb damage during the blitz of May, 1941, was purchased by the city from the Church of England in 1968 and together with the gardens which surround it is maintained as a place of rest and tranquility.”
It hits me. This is the essence of post-WWII Liverpool—the church, the Beatles, the Cavern Club, all of it. Nothing ever dies in Liverpool, it just crumbles into history. Someone will always want to look at the corpse.
(A version of this first appeared in Travelocity magazine)