(U-WIRE) IOWA CITY, Iowa The days of The Beatles as a working band may have vanished down the long and winding road, but Beatle fans still abound, and their annual get-togethers still mean here comes the fun.
Fans of The Beatles are not hard to come by. In fact, it’s hard to walk around Iowa City, Iowa, without seeing someone in a Beatle or John Lennon T-shirt. The group ranks as the fourth-most listed on Facebook both at the University of Iowa and nationwide. But nowhere is it easier to find Beatle fans than at the annual convention called (for legal reasons) The Fest for Beatles Fans, which took place this past weekend in Chicago. Another convention is held each spring in New Jersey. It is known to regulars as “Beatlefest” and known to me as the highlight of my year.
As I entered the Hyatt Regency Hotel, the home of the Chicago Fest, I was greeted by the sound of George Harrison’s captivating “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on the hotel’s PA. The Beatles’ music continued to echo through the hotel day and night, feeding the energy coursing through the attendees. Beatle signs decorated the walls, and the halls were filled with fans dressed in Lennon sunglasses and carrying rhinestoned Fab Four purses.
The Hyatt Regency is essentially a giant cube. Rooms line the edges and look out into the open atrium reaching from the ground floor to the 11th. From just outside my room, I could look down and see the fans below, many of whom congregated in small groups, singing Beatle songs. Their voices rose up into the atrium and could be heard into the early morning hours.
The convention took over all the meeting rooms in the hotel. One room was completely taken up by original vinyl sleeves including the infamous butcher cover, which pictured the band dressed as meatpackers, adorned in plastic babies and raw meat. The ballroom hosted presentations from speakers during the day and live music each night by paint-by-numbers tribute band Liverpool when one was lucky enough to find standing room. Cover art for each of The Beatles’ albums blown up to the size of a large window covered the walls, with the exception of Magical Mystery Tour, which “never made it back from a Jersey Fest,” said the event coordinator Mark Lapidos with a laugh. It was here that Paul Saltzman shared his Beatle story.
Saltzman a quiet and peaceful man eager to discuss the “inner self” with anyone willing traveled to India in 1968. While there, he was thrilled to receive a letter from his girlfriend.
“I can only remember the first line,” Saltzman continued. “It said ‘Dear Paul, I’ve moved in with Henry.'”
A friend suggested that Saltzman use meditation to ease his pain. He went to the ashram in Rishikesh, willing to try anything. Unfortunately, his project was hindered by one simple fact: The members of The Beatles were just then occupying the ashram with the maharishi. Saltzman camped outside, not because he wanted to meet the band members, but because he was determined to learn meditation. After eight days, an ashram attendant appeared, and opened the door. Upon learning to meditate, Saltzman saw the Beatles’ members clustered in a corner of the grounds and asked if he could join them. Saltzman remembers his exact reaction when they said yes.
“Two voices went off in my head,” he said. “The first voice said, ‘Eek! It’s The Beatles!’ Then the second voice said, ‘Hey Paul, they’re just normal guys like you. Everyone farts and is afraid in the night.’ And from that point on, I never thought of them as ‘The Beatles.’ ” Saltzman said he later realized the second voice was his “inner voice,” which he had happily just discovered through meditation.
Saltzman documented his week with The Beatles in his book The Beatles in Rishikesh, in which he includes a particularly inspiring moment in his discussions with Harrison.
“He said something that changed my life,” Saltzman said. “George said, ‘Like we’re The Beatles after all, aren’t we? We have all the money you could ever dream of. We have all the fame you could ever wish for. But it isn’t love. It isn’t health. It isn’t peace inside, is it?’ “
UI senior Jackie Alcantar also attended this year’s Chicago convention, her third. She became a fan in high school after the rerelease of the film A Hard Day’s Night.
“The fest was a great time for everyone, even if you’re not a die-hard fan,” said Alcantar, who dragged along her non-fan boyfriend, to his eventual delight. The live music, Alcantar reported, was by far her favorite part of the festivities.
Another eagerly anticipated speaker who returns each year is Mark Hudson, Ringo Starr’s longtime producer. His teal moustache and orange goatee gave away his playful and charming nature instantly. His floppy hat and colorful suits endeared him to the audience, which cheered enthusiastically when he was announced. Hudson told stories about the recording of Starr’s various albums and talked about the differences between Starr, who’s indifferent to the attention of starstruck fans, and Paul McCartney, who eats up the celebrity.
“He was really charismatic and entertaining,” Alcantar said. Some of the other speakers, though not uninteresting, were a little drier, but Hudson had an energy that particularly spoke to her.
Though the stories and music are integral to the success of The Fest for Beatles Fans, the essence of the convention is the camaraderie among the attendees. The sense of shared purpose made for an instant rapport.
“There were kids there as young as 7 all the way up to grandmothers, who were all there for the same reason,” Alcantar said.
Saltzman vocalized this best. “We’re all just sitting here talking about The Beatles,” he said. “It’s because [the band has] done something for each of us. It’s given us something.”
While in an elevator packed to capacity, I was crammed among several people, all of whom were dressed in Beatles gear. One wore a replica of the baby blue uniform worn by McCartney on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. When we began apologizing to each other for the close quarters, I smiled and said, “It’s OK. We’re all friends here.”
When I awoke Monday morning, all trace of the convention that had occurred was gone. The Beatle signs had been taken down from the walls. The displays of Beatle memorabilia and artwork had disappeared. The singers whose renditions of Beatle songs became so familiar to me had gone home. The intercom system, which had played The Beatles from the moment I entered the hotel on Friday afternoon, now spewed the ’80s pop song “Let’s Hear It for the Boy.” The few thousand others who had been there just the day before now seemed to have vanished.
For a moment, I felt as though the convention had never really happened. As I left, I saw a small notice board sitting near the hotel’s exit. Someone had spelled out the word “Imagine” in thumbtacks.