Tooling Around Liverpool
I've been to Dealey Plaze and sized up the angles of the grassy knoll and the schoolbook depository for myself. I've been to the A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, where the world's first nuclear weapon devastated the city. I've seen the Great Pyramids of Egypt and the Parthenon of Athens. But I had never been to Liverpool, the epicenter of a cultural phenomenon that is still a powerful cultural force after nearly 40 years.
I finally got my chance to go to Liverpool, and a woman named Sylvia took me on a Beatle tour. I only had about half a day till I had to catch a train, so it was dazzlingly fast, but it filled my head with fascinating impressions from the view of ground zero of the Beatle explosion.
Sylvia is uniquely qualified to be a guide for a Beatle tour. She is a native Liverpudlian who grew up with the Beatle phenomenon first hand. Her older brother was John Lennon's age and her family lived in the next suburb over from Woolton, where John grew up. Like John, Sylvia's brother also had a guitar. "All the guys had guitars then," she said. "It was kind of like skateboards."
Sylvia's brother also played in a band, but it never became famous. Syvia followed the scene from the very beginning. She said she probably saw the Beatles every time they performed in Liverpool. "It was my life," she said.
It didn't go over so well with her father though, who wasn't crazy about his young daughter spending night after night in the club district. Syvia was the seventh of 10 children, doted upon by her older siblings. It was the beginning of the teenage phenomenon in the '50s. "My older brothers and sisters went on and got jobs when they finished high school," she said. "But I was going on to higher education. It was this teenage thing. There had never been anything like it."
She was bright, pretty and she had the world at her feet. She was one of the new postwar generation of self-assured youths. And her whole world revolved around the bands down in the old part of the city where the streets are small, a former warehouse district that became a nightclub district.
"There were so many bands in Liverpool then, you know," she says with her Liverpool Scouse accent. "The Beatles weren't the best you know. The best was Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. Everyone knew it. Ringo was the drummer of that band before he joined the Beatles. But when the Beatles came back from Hamburg, they were different. They had changed. They had been forced to create a sound in an environment we didn't know of, where there were strip clubs and prostitutes. They went away as boys and came back as men. And they had those haircuts and a new look. They were very different. It was exciting."
The City In the legend that grew up around the Beatles, Liverpool was often portrayed as a dirty, slummy industrial city, and when Sylvia first heard that description she was appalled. "That's not the Liverpool I knew," she said. "And the stuff about Lennon as a 'Working Class Hero,' what was that? He was posh. He lived in Woolton out near where we lived. It was a lovely village. His family had a business."
The city that gave birth to the Beatles was not just a dingy northern industrial city. It's the second largest city in the U.K. It was a teeming metropolis, an exciting international port city, and a multicultural center.
It started as a fishing village. Then it developed into a port. Land was reclaimed along the shore. King John gave a charter to the city in 1207. The city was first laid out in 1515 with seven streets.
It has 140 ethnic minorities. It has more Welsh than Cardiff, more Scots than Aberdeen and more Irish than Dublin. It was the processing point for immigrants going from Europe to the New World. It was also the receiving point for imports from America. It attracted people from many countries who were looking for work on its busy ports. Sailors would bring in records from the U.S.
"The city was a contact point for sailors," said Sylvia. "We called them Cunard Yanks."
"All our young men went to sea," said Sylvia. "They brought back records from America, hillbilly, blues, jazz. When our people got hold of them, they gave it a twist and that made the Mersey Sound."
Lennon's Turf Liverpool was the second most bombed city in Britain after London, Sylvia said. After the war, a lot of people who were bombed out in the inner city were moved to new developments in suburbs. "Lennon resented the intrusion of the townees who came in after the war," said Sylvia. "There was a lot of rivalry and fighting. Lennon was a big fish in a small pond. He was always very defensive and used to fight a lot."
Sylvia first became aware of Lennon in 1957. "He was in the era with my brother," she said. The quarry in Woolton was one of the many quarries in the area where the sandstone came from for the buildings in Liverpool. Liverpool had been named for a liver-colored pool near the waterfront that was so colored because of the sandstone that the city sits upon.
One of those sandstone buildings was St. Peter's Parish Hall, where John Lennon and Paul McCartney first met. At the invitation of Ivan Vaughn, a mutual friend, Paul went to the Woolton Village fete where John's band the Quarrymen was performing. "After the performance John asked Paul, 'What did you think of the group?'" said Sylvia. "Paul said, 'Your guitar was out of tune and you forgot the lyrics.' John wasn't very good at taking criticism so it was a pretty frosty meeting."
But a couple of weeks later Lennon learned from Vaughn that McCartney was thinking of starting his own group, so he considered asking Paul to join the Quarrymen. He rode his bike over to ask Paul to join in August 1957.
Paul lived in Speke, one of the areas built to house people who were bombed out during the war. It wasn't as upscale as Woolton. He moved to Allerton in 1957, closer to Lennon.
Paul and George met on the number 86 bus on the way into the city. They both wore the same uniform of the Liverpool Institute and when Paul saw that George had a guitar, he struck up a conversation with him.
Paul McCartney worked in Lewis' department store for a while. His boss was Tom MacKenzie. He was very paternal and when he gave Paul advice he would call him son. "Paul said, 'If you are going to call me son, I'm going to call you father,'" said Sylvia. So Father MacKenzie who picked up the rice in "Eleanor Rigby" was born.
George Harrison had a job in Blackler's department store. Lennon helped his Uncle George in the dairy business.
Lennon attended Liverpool Art College. Paul and George attended the Liverpool Institute next door. Driving Around
Sylvia drove me by a huge park called Sefton Park. She said it was the model for Central Park in New York. It was traditional for the men to walk in one direction and the women to walk in the other, she said.
"Julia Stanley was a very lively young woman," she said. "She fancied Freddie Lennon. She made fun of him. She said, 'You wear that hat because you think it makes you look good. You look silly.' They walked in the park the same direction for eight years. Then they married in 1939. When the war broke out, Freddie signed on to a merchant marine ship. He jumped ship in New York. He wrote to Julia and said he wasn't coming back until the end of the war.
"Julia went crazy. She had affairs, several abortions. She had two daughters adopted. The family was very concerned about her behavior. She gave John to her older sister Mary (Mimi) at age 5. Mimi lived with her husband George.
"Julia also had two daughters with Twitchy Dykins, though they never married," Sylvia said.
Sylvia stopped talking and stopped the car and pointed out the window. There was a brick wall and on the wall was painted "Penny Lane". We took the turn and drove down the street. She pointed out a traffic circle, "the roundabout," the barber shop, the fire station, the bank, all part of the song.
We drove down Menlove Avenue, the "Long and Winding Road" that led to the door of John Lennon, where he lived longer than anywhere else in his life, from the age of 5 until he was in his 20s.
We stopped at the house. It has a blue plaque on the front saying it is where Lennon grew up. It's a nice little house. It's yellow now.
Menlove Avenue and Mather join and become Allerton (road?). It merges into Penny Lane at the roundabout. The whole neighborhood is known as Penny Lane.
John attended Quarry Bank School. "It was a very posh school for the sons of the wealthy merchants in the area," said Sylvia. "Mimi was always a snob. It was through her influence that he got in."
Sylvia pointed out the Woolworth's store where Cynthia worked. "John would visit Cynthia at Woolworth's," she said. "She dreaded it because he was always stealing things off the shelves. He was an absolute rogue."
We drove by the Brookhouse, "where Cynthia Lennon worked as a barmaid," said Sylvia. "She used to sing and dance and play the piano. That's where John got his music. She played piano and banjo. She taught him his first few chords on the banjo."
"Julia was hit by a car in front of John's house," said Sylvia. "When the police came to tell about it, Twitchie fainted away. So John had to go to the hospital to identify the body."
The club scene
Mathew Street was a narrow street in the old part of the city. It was a warehouse district in the 1950s. The Cavern Club was in the basement of one of the warehouses at 10 Mathew Street. In the '50s it was a jazz club. "The walls were dripping with moisture and sweat, it was smelly, it was the most exciting place on earth," said Sylvia.
"John Lennon hated jazz with a passion," said Sylvia. "He was always trying to introduce his country-skiffle kind of music at the Cavern."
Pete Best's mother owned the Cavern Club. According to Sylvia, Pete was a big attraction, but when the Beatles got their record contract, Pete was booted.
"George Martin said, 'The drummer you've got playing with John doesn't suit him,'" said Sylvia. "He suggested Brian use Ringo for recording and Pete Best for recording because he was drop dead gorgeous."
"Pete was okay as a drummer," said Sylvia. "They only used him because he had equipment. It was such a hassle moving the equipment around. But Pete didn't gell. He was not quite in with them. He didn't do the hairstyle. He was aloof. When you would see them in the clubs, George would always be with the musicians. He was a very serious musician. Paul had a natural talent, but George worked for it. John would be leering at the girls. John had charisma, but he was a heavy drinker and smoker. He was very crude and also very cruel. Paul was always surrounded with girls. And Pete was aloof. But Brian was a business man, he wasn't going to pay two drummers, so Pete was out."