Monday, August 31, 2009

A little over a month ago now I was in Liverpool for the first time, and of course when in Liverpool, any self-respecting rock scholar like myself would have to do some Beatles tourism. I should admit up front that I'm not the world's biggest Beatles fan, far from it. I like the Beatles fine, but saying you like the Beatles is kind of like saying you like chocolate - it's an obvious thing to like, which doesn't mean it's less good, but the tastes I hold most dear are the tastes that are a bit less obvious (although I will admit, I hold chocolate to be very dear indeed, but that's another matter).

Lately, though, I've been reevaluating my relative indifference to the Beatles. Given my (over)intellectualized approach to music, my impulse to reconsider their value was stimulated by reading - specifically, reading a provocative recent book on the Beatles called Magic Circles by a writer named Devin McKinney, about whom I know very little except that he does a very good job in his book of drawing attention to the darker, weirder, more unsettling aspects of the Beatles' music and their place in the cultural history of the 1960s. One of the longest chapters in the book is about the band's career during the single year of 1966 and it's a pretty great piece of writing, taking in the infamous Beatles butcher cover and various of their recordings, but also addressing their decision to stop performing in public in a way that recognizes the real boundary-breaking nature of Beatles' popularity as they performed concerts to stadiums full of people when stadium rock as such was a distant reality.

I'm going to be teaching McKinney's book in one of my classes this coming semester for the first time, and so it was an opportune time to travel to Liverpool and get to see some of the places that have become so hallowed through their association with the Beatles.

There are a lot of ways to be a Beatles tourist in Liverpool, but one of the longest established is the Magical Mystery bus tour that takes you around the city to various Beatles-related locations. The tourist material I'd read name-checked this tour so I figured I'd give it a go. In the end, it was fun but I appreciated it almost as much for the opportunity it gave me to see some of the less well-traveled parts of Liverpool than for what I learned about the Beatles. Nonetheless, like any such tour it presented many a photo op, and so here are a few of the highlights.

The row house pictured at an angle in the distance of this shot is the house where Ringo Starr grew up. I took this from a moving bus so it's an awkward shot. The neighborhood was all boarded up and on the verge of being razed; Ringo grew up in the roughest, most low-income area of all the Beatles.

This image probably speaks for itself. The fabled street after which the Beatles named one of their most buoyant songs. Moving down this street, one was moving through a much more comfortable, middle class district of Liverpool from where Ringo had lived.

This was George Harrison's childhood home, another row house but quite a bit nicer than Ringo's and not currently boarded up. Located close to Penny Lane. The street is an ordinary residential street and the house is currently inhabited by some regular folks unrelated to Harrison. A little girl who lived across the street was fascinated with our tour group (one of probably at least a dozen that passes through every day) and did all she could to draw our attention away from the fabled house. Quite an extrovert, she was.

Two photos of Strawberry Field, the location that gave its name to one of the trippiest and to my mind greatest of Beatles songs. This was probably the highlight of the tour for me, the one place that truly had the aura of something cool and slightly surreal surrounding it, whereas most of the rest was remarkably ordinary save for the fact that it was all about the Beatles.

Speaking of which, this was the house where John Lennon spent much of his childhood, living with his aunt I believe (?). Unlike the homes of Starr and Harrison, this one has been turned into a historical landmark held by the British National Trust. Unfortunately for plebeian tourists like myself, that meant you had to take a separate tour to see the house up close; this photo was taken from on the bus since they wouldn't let us out for this particular attraction.

Last but not least, Paul McCartney's childhood home - by now you're probably sensing a trend. Like Lennon's this is also held by the National Trust, although we were actually allowed to get out of the bus for this one, but we had to stand outside of the front yard.

Actually the last stop of the tour was in the neighborhood in downtown Liverpool near the Cavern club, where the Beatles played many a show in the earliest years of their career. The alleyways surrounding the Cavern club are like a Beatles museum unto themselves but in a weird, not entirely pleasant way - lots of drunk locals mingling with lots of awkward tourists. Still, 'twas interesting in its own right, and worth a post of its own.

To be continued...

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