Fool on the Hill

My cutting-edge taste in music made me a real Nowhere Man

Raving fans at the first American Beatles concert, Washington, D.C., 1964

Thanks to the Beatles, I lost my girlfriend.

Her name was Kathy. She was a quiet, unassuming beauty with tender eyes and a sexy smile, the kind of girl that Paul McCartney would write a song about. Best of all, she was a great kisser. I met her at a friend's make-out party (remember those?) and we danced and kissed all night to the soppy sounds of Jan and Dean, Paul and Paula, and other combos.

It was the summer of 1963, and pop music had hit a dreadful low. The raw excitement of '50s rock 'n' roll first had given way to the sugar-coated crooning of teen idols like Bobby Vinton and Lesley Gore. Bob Dylan was big in folk circles, but nobody in my sleepy Boston suburb had heard of him yet. The number one hit on the Billboard charts that year was "Sugar Shack," a treacly tune about teen infatuation by Jimmy Gilmore and the Fireballs. Need I say more?

America's youth was yearning for something new and later that summer, while I was on a trip to England with a group of Explorer scouts, I got an early look at what was coming our way. We spent a good part of the trip doing traditional stuff: touring Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London, having tea with Lady Baden Powell at Windsor Castle, playing pickup cricket games with other scouts. But whenever we had a free moment, we snuck away to Harrod's department store to listen to the latest Top 40 hits in their private listening booths.

It was an exhilarating time for British music. A handful of rock groups from Liverpool had begun to fill the airwaves with a fresh new sound that combined elements of Leadbelly-style skiffle music and the plangent rhythms of Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers. They called it the Mersey Sound, after the river that runs through the 'Pool.

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A lot of people were talking about one Liverpool group in particular — the Beatles — who had scored their first hit, "Please Please Me," earlier that year. But I wasn't impressed. I thought their music sounded catchy, but overly simplistic, and their slim-fit mod suits and Three Stooges haircuts made them look ridiculous. Instead I was drawn to a group nobody's heard of since — the Searchers — mostly because they specialized in doing Merseyside covers of American R&B hits. I loved their #1 hit, "Sweets for My Sweet," a tune originally recorded by The Drifters, that reminded me of Kathy:

Sweets for my sweet, sugar for my honey

Your first sweet kiss thrilled me so

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Sweets for my sweet, sugar for my honey

I'll never let you go.

So I bought her the record as a gift, thinking she would be impressed by my cutting-edge taste.

You know the rest of the story.

Kathy was polite when I gave her the gift, but not as excited as I thought she might be. Then, a few weeks later, the Beatles released "She Loves You," the best-selling record in British history, and the craze was officially underway. Soon Beatlemania spread to the United States, and Kathy, along with every other teenage girl I knew, became a raving Beatles fan.

I can't say that my lack of music savvy was the only reason we drifted apart. But we started seeing less of each other that fall and by the time the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in February, our relationship was over. I remember watching all those thousands and thousands of girls screaming uncontrollably on TV that night and thinking, "How could I have been such a fool?"

A few months later, I had a chance to redeem myself, music-wise at least, on a high school tour of TV and radio stations in Boston. Our last stop was with the legendary Arnie "Woo Woo" Ginsburg, the leading disc jockey in town. While we were meeting with him, his assistant popped her head in the door and said, "There's another one of those British groups here to see you, Arnie. Should I tell them to go away?"

"No, let 'em wait," he said, then continued to regale us with stories about the broadcasting business. When we emerged from his office about a half an hour later, the group was still in the lobby, clearly irritated about being upstaged by a bunch of 10th graders.

They didn't look like the Beatles or any other of the cookie-cutter British groups, for that matter. Their hair was long and unruly; they were dressed all in black; and they gave us a surly look as we passed by.

"I know those guys," one of my classmates said. "I saw them on TV. They said they hadn't taken a bath in months."

"What's their name?" I asked.

"I think they call themselves the Rolling Stones."

"Nice name," I replied. "Just looking at them, though, I doubt they're ever going to make it."