“Once stung by a Beatle, you are stung forever” – Sid Bernstein
One of the most beautiful, terrifying, and rewarding aspects of being young and underemployed is the willingness to say yes to offers that come your way which you might not otherwise pursue. There’s a hunger and openness in youth; a “you get by with a little help from my friends” attitude, which is how I ended up at The Fest for Beatles Fans 2015.
It was my first time at Fest (formerly known as Beatles Fest before Apple Corp. demanded the name be changed, despite the blessing from John Lennon in 1974 and the other band members soon afterwards), and I am here to tell you what I saw.
Friday, March 20, 2015
10 a.m. The Fest for Beatles Fans 2015 celebrates the 51st Anniversary of the Beatles arriving in America on February 7, 1964. Mark Lapidos founded Fest in 1974 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Beatles invasion, making this year its 41st. The Fest has been held all over the country, in San Francisco, Chicago, Orlando, Manhattan, and is an opportunity for Beatles fans of all ages to come together and appreciate the music and the messages of peace, love, and freedom associated with the band. After an emergency venue change due to a collapsed parking garage in Seacaucus, this year’s Fest is at the Westchester Hilton in Rye Brook, NY (outside of the city, near Connecticut). This gives way to wordplay such as “Ticket to Rye!” or the more unfortunate “Festchester.”
Over the course of the weekend there is yoga in a conference room known, ad interim, as the Ashram, discussions and immersion art in The FABoratory, special guest signings in the balloon-riddled main hallway, karaoke, puppet shows and activities for kids, audio-visual presentations, charity auctions, and photo galleries. There are scheduled walks outside for children of nature and pools parties both planned and impromptu. The Ballroom hosts special discussions from guests such as Jack Oliver (former president of Apple Records), radio personality Bob Eubanks, musicians Laurence Juber and Gary Wright, and musicologist Mark Hudson. Every evening the renowned cover band Liverpool will play a concert in the Ballroom.
11 a.m. I help set up the Official Fest Store where merchandise is sold. The merch room has typical memorabilia such as t-shirts, books, patches and stickers, lunchboxes, pajamas, all emblazoned with some sort of Beatles iconography. One room down is the Love Marketplace where independent vendors sell more unique (the term “mega-rare” is used quite frequently) objects such as replica suits custom-made to match those worn by the Beatles. There are unused concert tickets, some signed, which range in price from $4,000 to $45,000, including a “mega-rare” ticket from the Washington Coliseum performance on Feb. 11, 1964. There are foreign baubles, including a set of “mega-rare” Italian Christmas ornaments, as well as early albums such as Yesterday and Today with the infamous “Butcher cover,” on sale for $20,000. This cover features the Beatles draped in raw meat and dismembered baby doll parts, and is a reminder of how unorthodox, and ‘out there’ the Beatles were. The most expensive of the “mega-rare” items I find is a misnomer that claims a “The Quarry Men” plaque from 1958 to be the “earliest known Beatles autograph in the world.” The appraised value is $100,000.
2:30 p.m. Most members of staff have worked at Fest for years and commonly have familial ties to one another; they tell me what to expect as we fold shirts and prepare for the official opening at 5 p.m. The general attitude is stressed but happy, and there is a certain fervor that reminds me of a political campaign before Election Day; stakes are high and gossip flows freely. I am informed that an older crowd, the first people to grow up loving the Beatles in the 1970’s, will be the loudest contingent. I am constantly asked about how I came to love the Beatles. The truth is, though familiar with their work, the Beatles have been background music for me; I enjoy their music as a casual fan. Today I am here as an outsider, an observer of a micro-culture, an extremist sect of a mainstream cult. Staff members make jokes about keeping their mouths shut in front of me, the writer, though I know we can work it out. They are afraid of infiltration, having their secrets exposed, this bubble of a world they work so hard for popped.
5 p.m. Fest is now open to the ticketholders. Activities are arranged helter skelter, with events taking place in rooms all over the hotel. The Hilton, situated on a hill, is difficult to navigate and it is nearly impossible to properly offer directions to guests. With the Escher-like layout of the hotel, and activities being held simultaneously in different rooms, I quickly realize it will be impossible to experience everything the weekend has to offer. I meet the transcendental meditation teacher Peter Muldavin, who trained with the Maharishi in 1969 after one of his talks and hope to find time to attend one later in the weekend. A lovely woman with cabernet-colored hair, Cheryl Jezewski-Breo, tells me she will be leading a discussion about how the Beatles have influenced women’s lives.
8 p.m. Though I do not share the general level of devotion here, the excitement is contagious. I catch myself singing along to the music, which is of course, ubiquitous. I sing along to songs I didn’t know I know, to songs I never realized were the Beatles. One woman tells me how she took her level of fandom up a notch; she started playing the guitar. She tells me that is when she realized that the true musical intelligence and skills of the band are not overrated. From a musical perspective, they accomplished the genius works they did by comprehending the rules enough to break them. “That’s why the Beatles are the Beatles.”
11 p.m. Jam sessions take place in the lobby and the hallways. It is hilarious to imagine interactions between hotel staff and guests not affiliated with the Fest.
Saturday March 21, 2015
10 a.m. After snow yesterday, here comes the sun. Decorations carefully hung up the day before are found strewn about the hallways. An early morning yoga session helps us reset and prepare for the day. A fridge stocked with gratis turmeric drinks remains mostly full; the elixirs contain turmeric, ginger, cayenne, and sea salt and are more hippy hippy shake than a taste of honey. Turmeric is good for blood pressure, though, and in this regard is invaluable during setup.
12 p.m. The Fest opens to the public. There are weekend passes as well as day passes available; Saturday will have the heaviest day-tripper traffic, with an estimated thousand more people or so convening. Many of these guests have seen the Beatles in concert and have been coming to the Fest for years, and their stories are fascinating. A woman tells me about the Boston Gardens show in 1964. Because George had been pelted with jellybeans previously, no candy was allowed, but confetti was permitted. By the end of the show there were piles of confetti three feet high. Another woman tells me that she and her mother used to attend Fest together, and now she brings her own son. Her mother died a few years back, but she says being at Fest brings back visceral memories that make her feel close to her mother again. It is impossible not to love the Fest a bit more in this moment.
4 p.m. I work the register in the merch room and interview guests as they checkout. They talk about previous Fests, about how confusing the hotel’s floor pan is, about the price of the mementos they buy (and they are always sure to tell you who they are buying for). A yellow submarine onesie is purchased for a baby still in the womb: “Well he’s not born yet; we want him to be a Beatles fan.” There are more Beatles tattoos than I could have imagined, many of which are rich in color and detail. The elevated sense of intimacy often negates the need for small talk and simple salutations to complete strangers give way to, as Larry David would say, “medium talk.” Everyone seems to have a medical condition to intimate with unnecessarily vivid detail. The nostalgia is thick enough to cut with a knife. I realize I am out of my element every five minutes or so.
9:30 p.m. While flipping through a little book of John Lennon’s poetry and doodles (which are often genius, always ridiculous) I am informed that Lennon physically and emotionally abused his wives and son over the course of his life. It is appalling to learn that this beacon of hope, this symbol of peace and love, could embody the opposite. The Fest for Beatles Fans keeps the mythologies of the band alive, one of which is that they were bigger than Jesus. But they were men, and they were flawed. I don’t want to spoil the party, but I ask myself what personal history means for creative work. Does personal transgression take away from a work of art? I have asked myself this before, about Woody Allen and Terrence Howard, among others, can an artist be removed from the art? These are, perhaps, questions for another time.
11 p.m. I catch the end of the Liverpool playing to a full Ballroom, with guest performances by Mark Rivera, Garry Wright, Laurence Juber, Gary Van Scyoc, and Mark Hudson. The music is fantastic and crowd roars in a carnival of light.
Sunday March 22, 2015
12:30 a.m. The staff party offers the best food of the weekend thus far. Ringo Starr’s ex-fiancé attends and wears white silk pajamas with an exquisitely embroidered kimono. There is laughter and liquor and I realize this is why the staff is here, why they follow this Fest from New York to Chicago and back again every year. They do not come for the money but for the experience, the company, and the love of the loved. They are like a braid: beautiful, functional, and difficult to join or disentangle.
I get lost on the way back to my room and encounter a hallway where the ceiling is much lower than elsewhere in the hotel; I feel like the Beatles themselves would approve of the strange venue and guitar circles that one finds around every bend. Pizza boxes lay outside doors in every hallway, and not a room service tray in sight. There are solo cups and flower stickers in random corners. There are echoes of people asking for directions. I am having déjà vu. The Fest has taken a turn for me and I feel as though I am living in a David Lynch movie.
12 p.m. Though the festivities end at 10:30 p.m., I’ve got a feeling it won’t be long before I go. There is too much monkey business. I am not a nostalgic person by nature, and this Fest is a celebration of an era I never lived in and don’t fully understand. There is a messianic attitude towards the band I find at times grotesque. There is also the inescapable consumerism of our culture that manifests itself in overpriced trinkets, and subsequent laments about said trinkets. Guests make comments about the hotel, about the food, about the memorabilia: “Why can’t it be free?” Because only love is free I tell them, and mean it.
4 p.m. It is difficult to criticize something that makes so many people happy, and the Fest, I have learned, is a magical place that people look forward to all year round. As one staff member put it, it is an escape from real life, but by the time it’s over, you’re glad to have a life to get back to. The Lynchian apprehension has not left me; it is only my first time and it’s all too much. I’m happy to have a life to return to, glad all over.
I leave the Hilton premises for the first time in three days and I drive my car up I95. Blasting is a playlist of Lana Del Rey, Kanye, and Major Lazer, and though I know it won’t happen, I find myself wishing the Beatles would come on.
For the Fest for Beatles Fans 2015 Photo Gallery, please click HERE.