The Beatles Land in Little Canada
by Charlie Gargiulo
An excerpt from Legends of Little Canada: Aunt Rose, Harvey’s Bookland, and My Captain Jack (forthcoming from Loom Press, 2022)
Not long after New Year’s Day, we started to hear about a musical group from England called The Beatles. It was annoying because out of nowhere we heard Beatles this, Beatles that, and how they were supposed to be so friggin’ great. Man, the hype was ridiculous. It always irritated me whenever some new fad was forced on us. For instance, about a year before, there was this stupid “Twist” song and dance, and then everybody had to do the Twist, which led to about a million other made up dance songs like the “Locomotion,” the “Mashed Potato” and even a special Halloween song called the “Monster Mash,” which I did like. But nothing was as ridiculous as the craziness surrounding the Beatles. People were saying wait until you hear these guys, they are the greatest of all time and nothing would ever be the same once we heard them. Seriously, I hated those guys without even hearing them. My guys trashed them and couldn’t wait to hear these idiots so we could mock them like we did Elvis.
Then we heard them!
We were on the famous Austin Street stoop with a transistor radio when it happened, when we got stunned by the Beatles’ laser gun. I will never be able to describe the magic charge that ran through us when we heard “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” and other Beatles songs one after another with no ads in between. We looked at each other with mouths hanging open and eyes bulging out a little bit more after each song. We had never heard a sound like that before. Their voices blended together made a combined sound unlike the Beach Boys or Everly Brothers or the girl groups like the Ronettes. Each song made us feel better than any song ever made us feel before. When we heard The Beatles, it was more than just hearing great music. There was something so powerful about it that we all KNEW this was another moment that would change our world. Remember when I said that President Kennedy made us believe that anything good was possible, and that when he died it made us believe that anything bad was possible? The Beatles restored our belief that anything good was STILL possible. I know this sounds stupid, but mark my words, when you look to the future, say the year 2000, I bet you’ll see I’m right. Everybody will still be talking about The Beatles.
We started shouting like joyful nuts. It was more fun to be happy about liking somebody than to trash somebody you couldn’t stand! We totally forgot how much we were going to hate these guys and now couldn’t figure out how we were going to survive until we heard them again. We kept spinning the dial on the radio hoping like crazy for a Beatles song. Like a contagious disease, everybody caught Beatles fever, which had a name, “Beatlemania.” At school it was all anybody could talk about. The nuns made radios forbidden because everybody would be whipping them out in the schoolyard before school started, whip them out again at recess, whip them out yet again at lunch, and whip them out as soon as classes ended. Kids started bringing Beatles stuff to school—buttons, lunch boxes, trading cards, magazines, pictures. I think it started to scare the nuns.
Just when things couldn’t get crazier, we heard that the actual Beatles were coming to America to sing live on the Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday night. Seeing the Beatles on TV was an extra amazing thrill for me because I was going over my Uncle Leo and Arthur’s house in Dracut to visit for the weekend to see it live with them. Me and my mom and dad lived with them for a few years and I missed them a lot. I was extremely close to my Uncle Arthur and I went from seeing him every day of my life to hardly ever seeing him because he had to work all day and then rush home to take care of my Uncle Leo, who was almost paralyzed from his multiple sclerosis and needed twenty-four hour care. A guy named John, some kind of nurse, was a live-in helper, but my Uncle Arthur had to get home and relieve him after work. Since we didn’t have a car, there was no way for us to get there. But this Friday Uncle Arthur was going to pick me up on his way back home from work so I could spend the weekend with them, and he would drive me back on his way to work Monday morning in time for me to get to school.
It was a blast riding over with my Uncle Arthur because he drove a Cushman scooter, a weird golf cart thing with an actual motorcycle engine that allowed it to go fast enough to be on the streets like a regular car. It looked like a tiny three-wheeled pickup truck with one wheel in the front and two in the back. He sat on his own seat up front, with no enclosure around him and just a big plastic windshield in front of him. He steered it with handlebars, like a motorcycle, but unlike a motorcycle, he had a floor for his feet where they had gas, brake, and clutch pedals like a regular car. Behind him was the small truck bed. That’s where I would hop in when I wanted to catch a ride with him. He was the only guy I knew who drove one of these things on the street, so it stood out and people would always point and smile at us when we drove by in it. I’d sit back there acting unfazed, secretly thrilled, knowing every friggin’ kid my age looking at me was dying to be in my place at the moment.
At my uncle’s house it was sad to see how badly my poor Leo was doing. He was so skinny that he looked like a concentration camp survivor. I also felt so bad for my Uncle Arthur, because he was dedicated to his older brother, and did everything in his power to help him, but he had no cure for this horrible illness, and now that Uncle Leo’s body was just about finished, his amazingly powerful spirit was fading. Still, Uncle Arthur was there, feeding him, changing him, staying by his side and keeping his composure during Uncle Leo’s worst moments of despair, like when I heard Uncle Leo crying in his room late at night after having another accident in his bed and murmuring that he wished God would take him, while Uncle Arthur patiently cleaned him and sat with him so he wouldn’t feel so hopelessly alone, until he fell asleep. I have met two saints in my life, my Uncle Arthur and my Aunt Rose, and I will always love both of them with all my heart and soul.
I tried to be helpful, and it was nice to feel like there were moments that Uncle Leo felt glad to see me. He was a big baseball fan, and I think he was surprised and happy when he saw I knew the old time players, his baseball heroes that he talked about. He had even seen Babe Ruth play and swore that he never heard a bat make the sound it did when the Babe connected with a ball. When he had a memory like that, it felt like he got lifted out of his wheelchair and was back in Fenway Park sitting in awe of the Babe.
I admit that by the time Ed Sullivan came on Sunday night, I wanted to rein in my excitement because I was afraid acting all happy might have seemed disrespectful, given how badly Uncle Leo was doing. My Uncle Leo and Arthur, the live-in nurse John, and I gathered in the living room at the start of Ed Sullivan, and when Ed introduced them and they broke into “All My Loving” it was like a miracle coming through the TV. Instead of worrying about looking too happy, I was thrilled to see that my Uncle Leo was smiling. Not only smiling, he had the biggest grin I think I ever saw from him. He even laughed when they sang “She Loves You” and shook their long hair and hit that high pitched “wooooo” after singing, “She loves you and you know you should be glad.” He wasn’t making fun of them, he just thought they were fun and crazy and he clearly felt my joy and energy. When they came back on again at the end of the show to sing, “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” he already declared that he liked Ringo the best and his face literally lit up when they did close ups of Ringo smiling and shaking his shaggy hair while playing the drums. The friggin’ Beatles made my Uncle Leo happy to be alive again, if it was only for the briefest time. Here I was thinking I should be glum out of respect, when what he really needed more than anything was to see me happy. Because he loved me. It was a moment I will treasure forever..
When I got to school the next morning you can imagine the buzz in the school yard before class. If Beatles fever was hot before, it broke the thermometer after Ed Sullivan. It was funny though, listening to most grown-ups talk about The Beatles. At first, they just kind of laughed and made fun of their long hair and accents, and said it was a silly fad that wouldn’t last. Then when a month or so passed and they just kept getting bigger and bigger, the laughs started to turn into something different. Now there was almost a mean spirit developing among a lot of adults as they mocked the music and attacked them as people. A lot of my friends almost had to sneak around their parents who acted like it was dangerous for their kids to listen to The Beatles. It didn’t help that our stupid parish pastor started coming down on the Beatles and acting like they were part of some secret plot by the Devil to make us evil. I was lucky because nobody in my family fell for that crap. They liked The Beatles and thought they were “fine young lads.”
As if the music wasn’t enough, once we started reading about them and listening to them in interviews, we were stunned to find out they grew up in Liverpool, which sounded almost exactly like the same kind of dumpy city in England that Lowell was here, except bigger. Harvey used to save any magazines or reading material somebody brought to his store for us. He also seemed fascinated by them and it didn’t take long before Harvey became an expert on everything about the Beatles and he said that the kids were on to something.
Even though we liked them all, we all started to identify with a particular Beatle. Sometime in April or so, me, Paul and Richie decided that we wanted to imitate The Beatles. I was going to be John. Richie was going to be George, and Paul, I bet you guessed it, was going to be Paul. Not because his name was the same, but because he was the cute and cuddly one, since he was a couple of years younger than us, and he was left-handed like Paul. So we looked at pictures of the Beatles and cut out cardboard guitars and colored them in the exact shapes and colors of the guitars they played, and we planned to practice singing along with Beatles records and stage our own concert in the neighborhood. There was only one problem, we didn’t have anybody who played fake drums. That is, until Henry introduced us to a kid who lived upstairs from him called Popeye.
His real name was Al Landrieux, and nobody knew, or cared why, he went by the name Popeye. It certainly didn’t make much sense, because there was nothing about him that reminded you of Popeye at all. In fact, he was big kid, not fat, just large, or as my Mom would say, “big-boned.” He was very smart but quiet. I never heard him say a bad thing about anybody. He wore a baseball cap because he had something wrong with his hair. He wasn’t bald, but it was thin and I think it bothered him. He often looked like he was daydreaming and he might appear he was zoned out but he never was, he actually picked up everything that was said. I think Popeye was one of the best listeners I ever knew. He also probably had the most normal parents of any of my friends. I mean that in a good way. They almost seemed like one of those TV couples like Ozzie and Harriet, polite, friendly, and great to Popeye. I liked his mother, because she ended up becoming a waitress at the Holiday diner, where I would go with the guys after school to listen to The Beatles on the loud jukebox.
Popeye was a gigantic Ringo fan and thrilled to join our “Junior Beatles” group. For drums, he set up a card table and put all kinds of things on it that made different sounds when he hit them with a pair of drumsticks that he bought downtown. So now we had Ringo! We became friends with an older kid named Dennis on Austin Street whose parents owned the three-story apartment building he lived in, so we were able to practice singing and fake playing in his basement and he had a back porch where we let us hold our concert.
We made up flyers announcing our concert and a bunch of our friends and kids in the neighborhood showed up and we got up on Dennis’ back porch. He turned up the volume as far as it would go on his record player and we stood in front of our fake microphones, me standing alone like John, and Paul and Richie joining together at the other fake mike like Paul and George and Popeye hitting his card table fake drum set and shaking his head side to side and smiling like Ringo. The kids went nuts like we were the real Beatles, probably because the real Beatles were being blasted wicked loud. And the record never skipped! When we finished, we all bowed, like we saw the Beatles do, and left the stage, I mean the porch, by its side door. It was probably the happiest moment of my life at that point. Man, we were floating after that and the four of us felt like we were part of something special. We were like a real team, and we decided to be semi-blood brothers. That meant we’d be blood brothers, but without cutting ourselves open and sharing the blood part. But we all decided that we would do whatever it took to save up and earn enough money to buy our own instruments and learn to play so that we could become a real band. It was like we had our whole future planned out in front of us. We were going to be rock stars like The Beatles!