In My Life

Tom C. Erb

© Copyright 2018 by Tom C. Erb

Photo of the Beatles.

I was ten years old the day the Beatles were on The Ed Sullivan Show, Sunday, February 9, 1964. This was the first televised live performance of the Beatles in United States. The weeks leading up to The Beatles coming to the Ed Sullivan Show were filled with heightened anxiety and an incurable curiosity. Every person, young and old, in America was drawn into the hype and anticipation of what would become the most famous date in U.S. music history.

My family was living in Norfolk, Virginia at that time. I was slowly but surely becoming a fan in the months prior to the Beatles arriving in America. They released the single “She Loves You” and on the B-Side was “I’ll Get You.” I was able to get my hands on this 45 at a local record store, and I played it in my room over and over again, too many times to recount.

Oddly enough, one of the things that attracted me to the Beatles was that there were four of them. Of course their music was captivating and they were so interesting, especially to a ten-year-old kid. But, I had three friends I grew up with in my neighborhood—Steve, Eddie, and Gary. We were like The Four Musketeers of Norfolk. Four close friends who did everything together. When we first heard about the Beatles and that there were four band members, it gave us something to be excited about. Steve, Eddie, Gary, and I started seeking out as much info about John, Paul, George, and Ringo, and we decided to be first Beatles cover band in all of Norfolk, Virginia.

My family lived on Ashby Street, in a middle-class neighborhood in Norfolk. To a ten-year-old, all of the houses in the neighborhood looked exactly the same. Gary lived across the street. Brothers Steve and Eddie were two doors down. Every house on Ashby had a garage. So, the fellas and I decided we were going to become the “Garage Beatles” of the our neighborhood. Now granted, this was before they were even on The Ed Sullivan Show. It was late 1963, and we were listening to the Beatles on a little 45 record player in Gary’s garage. Gary and I had crew-cuts because we were Navy brats, but we still decided we were going to make the best attempt at it. We didn’t have access to any musical instruments, but that never stopped us or our imaginations. Gary decided that he was going to be John Lennon, so he grabbed a tennis racket and pretended it was a guitar. Steve decided he was going to be Paul McCartney, so he grabbed a rake and used it as his bass. Eddie was the youngest of our band, and he got to be George Harrison, and, like Gary, used a tennis racket for a guitar. I wanted to be Ringo Starr, and I used one of those trampolines that was made out of a tire inner tube. We painted “The Beatles” on it so it looked like I was sitting behind a real drum set. Then, we took rake handles and stood them up to look like microphones. The Garage Beatles were ready for their debut.

The Garage Beatles started rehearsing. We played the Beatles’ 45 and practiced the guitar parts, the drum parts. Then, once we had it down cold, we put a sign out in front of Gary’s garage and told all of our friends at school and in the neighborhood to come by. We set up chairs in the driveway for our audience. That first show probably had twenty kids and a couple of parents. We performed “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” since they were the only 45s we had. I remember looking at Gary and Steve and Eddie and thinking, We’re doing it. We’re playing like the Beatles. With The Ed Sullivan Show just days away, the Garage Beatles performed the B-sides “This Boy” and “I’ll Get You” on that Sunday afternoon of February 9th in Gary’s garage to a full driveway complete with screaming girls.

In 1964, our family had this little black and white TV that my father used to watch westerns on. My dad didn’t consider The Ed Sullivan Show an appropriate show for me to watch it. So, my mother arranged for me to go over to Gary’s house to spend the night, even on a school night. When I got to Gary’s, he was already in front of his black and white TV, giddily awaiting this momentous occasion. Then, the moment came. Ed Sullivan announced to the world, “The Beatles!!!” Gary and I became completely mesmerized and lost in the moment. I could almost feel my life changing right there in my Batman pajamas. I watched every move the Beatles made and heard every note they sang. Looking back on it, I can honestly say that those few minutes helped define my life and how I was going to approach the world. I realized that music was so important to me. It was an epiphany for me, if you can have an epiphany at such a young age.

After the historic events of The Ed Sullivan Show, the Garage Beatles were inspired. Every Saturday, we would put on another show. We got our hands on the 33LP “Meet The Beatles” and we spiritedly learned every song on the album. We performed it to sold-out crowds. We upped our game after each performance. Steve, Gary, Eddie, and I learned to imitate the mannerisms of the band and our shows got better and better. I got very good at the Ringo head bob.

We went on tour of the neighborhood, or shall I say we played in other people’s garages. In fact, we even turned our performance into a variety-type show. I would take a break pretending to be Ringo and would act as the host. Any neighborhood kid who showed up with a 45 could perform their song. Our neighborhood variety show included kids performing The Supremes, Roy Orbison, Leslie Gore, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Bobby Vinton, and, of course, Elvis Presley. I made up programs and marketing flyers and would deliver them to neighborhood mailboxes and hand them out at school to promote the show each week. Our variety show even made it into the local newspaper with our picture and we performed a couple of the acts at our Lansdale Elementary Talent Show. This was my first taste of producing and promoting, and I felt alive.

This experience—our garage performances, getting the neighborhood involved, the talent show—pushed me and my love of music to another level. I wanted to make it real and actually get an instrument and learn how to play it. At roughly ten, almost eleven, I decided I didn’t want to be a drummer anymore. I simply wanted to be up front where everyone could see me and not in the back behind some inner tube posing as a drum kit. In retrospect, I wish I’d stuck with the drums. I was so young and immature musically. I didn’t realize that drums are the backbone of every song—providing the pulse, the beat, the tempo. As I matured musically, I gained a huge amount of respect for drummers. My favorites were and are Ringo Starr, Jon Bonham, Keith Moon, Don Henley, Ginger Baker, Phil Collins, and Mick Fleetwood. They are some of the greatest rock and roll musicians of all time. They were indeed “up front,” leading their respective bands from behind their drum kits.

Looking back on the months leading up to Christmas, 1964, I wanted a guitar in the worst way. I perused through the best resource of that era, the Sears Catalog. It was a great way to shop for whatever you wanted. Plus it took “S&H green stamps,” which my mother collected religiously. Every Sunday night, she, my four sisters, and I would sit at the kitchen table licking stamps and filling up the books. I can still taste that awful adhesive to this day. But, it was a real labor of love, because I knew that task could get me my guitar. I begged my mother and I hoped that somehow she could afford it. Well, on that Christmas day in 1964, she surprised me with my first folk guitar. She also got me guitar lessons. It was truly one of my favorite Christmas memories. Thank you S & H Green Stamps, and, of course, to my mother.

At my first guitar lesson, I was surprised to see photos of my guitar teacher and Paul McCartney up on the wall of his studio. I asked him about the photos and he said, “I knew Paul McCartney. I played with him a couple of times when I lived over in England.” I thought how could my mother know that? Did she plan this—to pair me with a guitar teacher who knows and has played with one of my idols in music? Well, I was ten, so I believed a lot of things at first. But soon after I realized it was just a coincidence. My guitar instructor was really good and the sessions were one-on-one. Before long, I was playing the “Star Spangled Banner” on my guitar and boy was I proud.

From late 1963, starring in those neighborhood performances as the “Garage Beatles, to this day, the Beatles have maintained a consistent pulse inside me. In many ways, they were my mentors. Their ever-changing personalities and music helped me find my way as well as direct me in defining moments in my life. As I grew older and bared witness to their lyrics, music, comments, and actions, I learned how to express my feelings. I learned about love, laughter, having fun, making mistakes, standing up you for myself. Even that it was okay to experiment with drugs and to embrace peace in the world.

To this day, I weep on the day John Lennon was killed. I feel sad that I will never see him and Paul on stage again. I take a moment of silence when I hear George Harrison sing “Sweet Lord” and feel warmth when I see Paul and Ringo perform together as well as separately. The one song that sums up my true feelings for the Beatles and my personal journey with them is “In My Life.” It really says it all. For most of my life, I believed that John Lennon wrote this to and for someone, and his references in the song to “you” was indeed that person. But for me, the lyrics have a new meaning at this point in my life. The reference in the song to “you” is quite simply “me.”

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