I’d never ever left the Indian subcontinent until November 1980, a few weeks after my 23rd birthday. [Technically I’d ventured across the border into Bangladesh, and into Nepal via Naxalbari as well, but these were deliciously illicit and very very brief, all part of being a teenager in Calcutta at that time].
When I did leave, it was a convoluted process. CCU DEL FRA LHR LPL. Walking out of Speke airport (as it was known then) I took my first real steps on land that wasn’t part of the Indian subcontinent. That was late November 1980.
I was like a child, intensely curious, observing everything around me with raking eyes. I’d never seen trees without leaves, nor a sky that stayed grey all day, without the faintest smidgen of sun. I’d never considered the possibility of walking down a street with no one else in sight in what passed for broad daylight; of hearing the postman enter our road, ten houses away; of watching strange bug-eyed objects making even stranger noises as they slowly traversed the street at dawn. [My strange object turned out to be a milk float.]
That was my state of mind as I walked down St Anthony’s Road, Blundellsands, on the 9th of December 1980, to get my morning paper from the newsagent. Within a minute I realised something was different. There were other people around. They weren’t just around, they were almost frozen in time. Standing. Sitting on the pavement. Leaning against the fences they’d been passing. Huddled at the bus stop. More people than I’d ever seen on that stretch before.
And they were silent. Crying, but silent. And I didn’t know why.
[This was before Twitter, before mobile phones, before 24 hour news on TV and cable. This was a time when people went to bed and went to sleep. When the morning radio and the morning paper actually carried stories about things that you’d been completely unaware of earlier.
I walked into the newsagent, picked up my paper. Started reading the headlines. And sat down on the pavement and cried. Now I knew why.
Like millions of others of my generation, he, and the Beatles, were an integral part of my life. The effect of that tragedy was amplified because I was living in Liverpool at the time; although I treated my arrival in the city as the beginning of a pilgrimage, I hadn’t even had time to visit Penny Lane or Strawberry Field as yet; the Cavern Club had already been demolished and was yet to be rebuilt.
Those memories came flooding back these past few days as a series of disconnected events nudged me towards remembering. Today would have been the 64th birthday of one of the finest musicians I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing, my cousin Jay’s husband, Gyan Singh. Sadly he’s no longer with us. But when I saw her post this morning, a part of my brain went “Vera, Chuck and Dave.”
A day earlier, erstwhile colleague and friend Charlie Isaacs retweeted another friend Vala Afshar’s tweet about “the greatest photo bomb ever”, and I was transported to an earlier time, standing at that iconic crossing with friends who lived in the adjacent apartment block, air-drumming to the tune of Come Together. Even today, I get goosebumps when I play that song, on vinyl, nice and loud.
The day before that, I was standing near the entrance to the Albert Hall, waiting to meet someone. And a part of my brain was going “Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire”. That happens every time I pass by there.
The last time I was at the Albert Hall for a concert, it was with a friend who’s also a music nut and a Beatles nut. It was a Clapton concert. And we were reminiscing about Pattie Boyd and how one person could have had three blockbuster songs written about her: Something; Wonderful Tonight; and Layla.
I’m not just an avid concert goer but a music history buff to boot. I’ve done my pilgrimage to Pere-Lachaise cemetery, eaten at Croce’s and at Threadgill’s, downed a pint or three opposite Eel Pie Island, visited the site of Max yasgur’s farm, mooched around Haight-Ashbury, walked down Bleecker St, investigated all I could about the Laurel Canyon phenomenon, posed in the right spot at Heddon St, even stood on Preston Platform. I’ve had the chance to meet and speak one-to-one to many of my heroes, ranging from Neil Young and Elliot Roberts through Donovan all the way to Pete Townshend. They all mean a lot to me. But they haven’t permeated me in the same way as the Beatles have done. A Hard Day’s Night was the first album I can remember hearing. The Beatles’ Oldies But Goldies was the first album I can remember buying “with my own money”.
I’ve been thinking about all this ever since I saw a post by Hilary Saunders on “the 50 best Beatles songs”, published a week or so ago.
I tried, and actually found it hard, to compress my own list down to 50. Ridiculous. But true. I found myself thinking “Who else do I listen to where I’d have a similar problem?”. CSNY? Not that hard, as long as I could pick their solo songs and Buffalo Springfield and Stills-Young Band and Hollies separately. Traffic? Grateful Dead? Croce? The Who? The Band? Pink Floyd? Jethro Tull? Don McLean? The Rolling Stones? Peter, Paul and Mary? Elvis? Neil Diamond? The list went on and on, but there were rare exceptions.
Bob Dylan. Yup, I could find it hard to choose 50. Simon and Garfunkel? A little easier, but close. Leonard Cohen? Possibly, but I could do it. Joni Mitchell? Gordon Lightfoot? Cat Stevens? Joan Baez? Same story, possible, but I know I can do it, I know I can get my favourites down to 50 or less easily.
The hardest one remained The Beatles. It says something about them. Fifty shades of great. In decades to come, in generations to come, I wonder how many more artists or bands will pose a similar problem.
There are places I remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places had their moments
With lovers and friends
I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I’ve loved them all
The Beatles: In My Life