June 6, 1964
Geoffrey Nielson was a true-blue Beatlemaniac, a Beatles Fan Club member and a careful listener, memorizing the words to every single, every EP, and every song on every album. He had spent countless afternoons and evenings playing the Parlophone UK releases Please Please Me and With The Beatles again and again on his Emerson Hi-Fi. He even rattled the house in the mornings with a few numbers as he got dressed for school. He especially liked Ringo Starr. On "Boys" Ringo went wild, his voice strong and drumbeat so ready, so steady. As an aficionado, Geoffrey tried to read all of the fanzines on the Beatles. He recorded important data on Ringo in a special notebook, Ringo written on the front in curvy, red letters, with yellow stars all around: Born: Richard Starkey on July 7, 1940. Every night Geoffrey tuned to Radio Luxembourg, or one of the pirate stations like Radio London, and listened for the rare Ringo song, especially his favorite "I Wanna Be Your Man." Geoffrey's body twitched to the music, hips shaking, arms swinging, and head bent back and bobbing. In the wake of the song's success, another British pop group, The Rolling Stones, had recorded a version of Ringo's song. But Geoffrey always turned off the radio, finding the singer's voice too gritty, the band just too rattly.
At The Hanover School, in Rotterdam, where Geoffrey lived since his father joined the American diplomatic corps, he showed off his drawings of Ringo, ate his lunch from an Official! Beatles lunch box, and talked to anyone who might listen to him discuss The Beatles. But other Beatles fans laughed at his preoccupation—Ringo . . . really! Boys thought John was so clever, girls agreed Paul was such a dream, and everyone believed George forever the cute, quiet one. The other fans, the fanzines and magazines too, didn't see that Ringo was holding everything together. Where would the Beatles be without drums? But it was Ringo's face that told Geoffrey the drummer was singular: the eyes, the smirk, the nose, it was all there. He adored Ringo behind his drums, distant from the others, moodily, broodily, terribly so, his head bouncing from side to side, an occasional furtive grin and a knowing wink to fans like Geoffrey that he, Ringo, not John, was the real leader of the world famous Beatles from Liverpool, England. With his preference for Ringo, Geoffrey felt he was forging his own path. Anyone could like John or Paul or even George, but Ringo was special. And at the Hanover School, Geoffrey alone liked Ringo Starr. Geoffrey's devotion to The Beatles, and Ringo, was a cut above the others, he knew that.
There was one, however, at the Hanover School who seemed to appreciate his dedication: a yellow-haired Dutch girl named Hestia. Geoffrey thought she appreciated his singularity. But she was two years his senior, and he had never actually spoken with her, though she had told him how much she liked his Official! Beatle boots. She singled him out in the hallway—Nice boots—and just before the headmaster had scolded him for breaking uniform protocol. His after-school suspension had been worth the looks he received from other students. Sure they giggled, but he knew that underneath the laughs, lay envy.
Their housekeeper Martha, a Welsh woman barely six-years older than Geoffrey, also teased him about his obsession with The Beatles. When she found him one day in front of the mirror in his room playing along to "Love Me Do" with two pencils and a notebook on his lap, the boom-boom-tap of Ringo's drum driving Geoffrey to shake his head wildly with the beat, she called from the hallway, "Geoffrey, the pop star?" and waved a feather duster at him.
Startled, Geoffrey threw the pencils into the air and folded his arms around his chest, quickly crossing his left leg over the notebook.
"Don't you knock?" Geoffrey stood and walked around to his desk, where a poster of the Beatles—all leaping into the air, legs apart and arms high—hung above, and opened several drawers as if he were looking for something. "Can't you see I am studying?"
"Studying?" Martha leaned into the door, winked and blew a kiss. "You know, Geoffrey, I'm your biggest, most loyal fan. Honest. Just look at your hair. Really . . . gear!" Geoffrey winced. "My God, I just might scream. I think I'm gonna faint."
"Get out! This is my room, my personal, private space," Geoffrey yelled.
Martha slid her feet backwards, waved her duster at him, and turned towards the hall, singing in mock croon, "Please please me, oh yeah, like I please you . . . "
The teasing didn't matter, because now The Beatles were coming to The Netherlands. For Geoffrey's sixteenth birthday his father had given him a ticket for the Dutch première of The Beatles. His father produced the ticket at dinner one night after obtaining it through colleagues at the U.S. Embassy—Happy Birthday, son. Geoffrey's worship of The Beatles had been discussed in their house on several occasions: first by his mother, as a concern over his affinity for amplification; and then by his father, that The Beatles type of guitar-oriented music was certainly temporary and would soon pass, a fad among fads; and finally from them both, as reluctant but sympathetic approval. With the concert ticket in his hand, Geoffrey told his mother in his rehearsed British accent, "You see, mum, The Beatles are absolutely gear, they're fab," blinking at the hair in his eyes—the result of three months of avoiding haircuts.
"What's that, sweetheart?"
Geoffrey answered irritably, his accent slipping, "FAB, mom, F-A-B FAB, as in FABULOUS." His father only laughed and slipped twenty guilders into the envelope with the ticket.
And the moment had finally arrived as Geoffrey prepared to leave home to catch the train for Amsterdam and then on to Blokker where The Beatles were scheduled to perform in Veilinghal. His mother and Martha sat at the kitchen table going over the house accounts. His father was away again on consulate business, Brussels, he guessed, or Budapest, he hardly remembered. With his father gone, Geoffrey hoped that at least Martha and his mother would notice his Official! Beatle suit from the Crawdaddy Music Club. He had even combed his hair down over his eyes as shaggy as he could manage. Thirty minutes in front of the mirror combing and shaking had guaranteed Geoffrey an utterly Beatle look. He even wore two of his mother's largest rings—a pale blue and a dark green—the one detail he would conceal on the way out. Geoffrey gave his head one more shake before sticking a cigarette in his mouth and running through a list of British slang.
He tried bloody: "Bloody bloody bloody hell," he said, rolling over his bs and ls as he came down hard on his ds. "The Beatles are absolutely gear."
Turning his head sideways, he tried to look aloof. And he was, except his tiny nose was ruining his face. He had the lips—pouty but not Paulishly so, and not too cute, but open and wondering, inquisitive, he decided, and giving him a look of utter detachment from the world. But Geoffrey's elfin nose ruined everything. It was shaped like a girl's, which made his face look too pretty, lacking the big bumpy bones of Ringo's inflated beauty. Geoffrey had even applied a touch of his mother's foundation to enhance the size of his nose. He tried shadowing effects with his mother's make-up to enlarge and reshape it to a lumpier, better version of his own. He thought of running himself into the bathroom door, thereby causing his nose to twist and swell, to plump up a bit. But he worried about the pain, and he might get bloodstains on his new suit.
Once in Blokker, 40 km north of Amsterdam, Geoffrey splurged on a taxi in order to be early for the show. He sat in the back seat of the cab, black Polaroids over his eyes, a cigarette lit but untouched, his hands deep in the pockets of his blazer. He imagined the crowds were for him and the cars in front and back were his escorts. Girls threw themselves at the taxi, climbing over its top and sliding down the back, slapping at the door with their hands as they pressed their lips against the windows. Martha was among them, as she rubbed her hands through her hair, over her face, her neck, down the front of her blouse, and tenderly over her breasts. Between his legs, his pants grew tight, and Geoffrey placed his hand over his crotch, pressing gently. Looking up, he met the eyes of the taxi driver in the rear-view mirror.
Geoffrey leaned forward, blushed and muttered, "Here, this is good," trying to sound confident. He paid the driver from the twenty guilders his father had given him and jumped into the street, nearly forgetting his change. On the sidewalk, he stood in front of a hotel window admiring his reflection. He straightened his blazer, checked his Windsor knot, ruffled his hair, and wet his lips. Satisfied, he turned and walked towards Veilinghal. Once at the theater, the crowds thickened with boys and girls. Policemen were on foot and horseback to keep fans behind the blockades of sawhorses and police tape. Geoffrey approached the crowd with authority, his moody, broody smirk in place, his sunglasses lowered slightly underneath bangs that flopped over his brow. His cap was cocked high on his head. The True Story of The Beatles was rolled up inside his blazer.
Beatles! Beatles! Beatles! the crowd chanted as they waited outside the stage door for the band to arrive. Geoffrey was ready to be embraced by them all—each one a Beatles fan like him—to be prodded, poked, and pinched between the hundreds of teenage boys and girls. And Geoffrey was going to see Ringo. Yeah! He stepped deeper into the swaying mass of boys and girls, each of them laughing with glee and anticipation. When a young girl raised her hand to wave, he had his glasses knocked from his face. Geoffrey looked to the ground in search of his Polaroids amid a mighty shuffle and muddle of feet, further losing his balance with every step and sway. He imagined that the Beatles must be near but he hadn't expected such chaos, such violence. As Geoffrey was pushed around by hands and knees, the crowd began to shift towards a common point and he heard the occasional cry of Paul! and John! Abandoning the search for his glasses, Geoffrey caught sight of a girl with golden hair in a bright yellow dress in front of him who seemed, above all the others, determined to make her way to the barricades where she would be closest to The Beatles as they headed for the stage door. Her hair was shiny and straight with a wide curl at the shoulders that fell over a white, round collar. She was in front of him, profiled against the crowd as she craned her neck for a glimpse. A true-blue fan, like him.
And then Geoffrey saw them: the wool caps and black suits, the curling, long hair and thick sideburns. A path had been formed between barricades. Yet, they were barely fifteen feet from him. Boys and girls screamed with their arms straight in the air as if they might actually touch one of the cherished stars. And some did, managing to reach over the sawhorses for a touch of blazer or a handful of hair. Geoffrey's heart beat faster, his hands, trapped at his sides, went numb, and he stood on tiptoe. He could hardly breathe. The Beatles tried to get into the stage door, policemen and sawhorses barely restraining the swelling, screaming teenagers, by then a passionate mixture of arms and heads. Geoffrey saw John duck his head under the wave of a girl's hand. Paul was immediately behind him laughing and holding on to John's coattail as he dodged hands from both sides of the barricades. Geoffrey stretched his neck higher, straining to see more, the Beatles a mere ten feet from him now. He turned to look for the other two Beatles when George bounded into view, pushing his way forward to the stage door. A boy accidentally slapped the quiet Beatle in the face, running his hand over the top of George's head. But the youngest Beatle pushed on valiantly and vanished through the door just as quickly as he had appeared. Geoffrey nearly sang out with pleasure and anticipation but his voice stuck dry in his throat. He searched left and right for Ringo. The crowd surged forward again, and Geoffrey moved with it, his arms trapped at his sides as strangers' hands pressed into his back.
Beatles! Beatles! Beatles! Geoffrey picked up the cry. Within seconds Geoffrey found who he was looking for: the wave of hair at the top of his neck, a wide curl as it descended to the collar, the hint of sideburns underneath the shiny, ear-length cut, a black turtleneck, and the twist of a smile. It had to be Ringo. Geoffrey was ready to greet him with a practiced smirk and a look of unquestionable affection. He roughly pried two girls from each other's arms, their heads bent in screams of surrender, their eyes closed. He squeezed between them until he had moved another two feet towards Ringo. Geoffrey went forward with an anxious but grateful smile, so certain of reaching his goal. His mind was empty except for a spot of light he sensed before him. When the yellow-haired girl, at least five feet in front of him, was close enough to Ringo, she placed her hands on his shoulders and squeezed before she was held back by a wave of a policeman's baton. Ringo jumped as if pinched and turned with surprise, an O forming around his teeth.
But something was wrong; something was not quite Ringo. His eyes didn't have the glare, the indifference that Geoffrey had claimed for and ultimately identified with his hero. The mouth sure, but not the eyes and, as he pushed another foot closer definitely not the nose. His were eyes were opened wide and he look stunned, not a hint of the perplexity or poignancy usually seen in Ringo's eyes. This phony was nothing but a pair of bright-eyes over a thin, narrow nose. Geoffrey was looking at an impostor. And there was more as he realized the mock Ringo's hair was actually much lighter, the fraud was taller, towering at least five inches above where Ringo would have, should have stood.
Geoffrey tried to move closer still, excited by the chance to see the real Ringo. He needed to assure himself that the drummer was somewhere nearby. He pushed with both arms in front of him, leveled high over the other fans' shoulders, reaching his hands out for, not the mock Ringo, but the yellow-haired girl—she had managed to reach the sawhorses, to get as close to The Beatles as the police allowed. As the stage door closed and three policemen planted themselves before it, Geoffrey put his hands on her shoulders much as she had embraced the mock Ringo. The yellow-haired girl turned, a smile on her smooth, white face. Her mouth formed into the very same O that Geoffrey had seen on the phony Beatle—it was Hestia from school. She ran her eyes down his face, along his shoulders and arms to his hands and the rings on his fingers, back to his face and down to his legs and shoes. She blinked and turned her mouth into a frown.
Geoffrey wanted to ask the girl about the strange man in the Beatle suit, so obviously not a Beatle, but then again clearly in the role of one.
Why had she embraced him so eagerly?
And where was Ringo?
Why was he not with the other three Beatles?
And there was Hestia. Why had she frowned at him so? Hadn't she recognized him? Didn't she know it was him, the boy with the Beatle boots, the boy from school?
But Hestia already turned away from him and towards the entrance to Velinghal now that The Beatles had made it inside. Geoffrey pushed forward with a panicked zeal. He needed to be inside the theater, in Seat 6H, Beatle buzz occupying every inch of the room, to understand why he had yet to see Ringo and instead witnessed a puzzling albeit Beatle-like impostor slip in behind the others. Geoffrey ducked his head and put his arms forward, acting as a human drill, worming his way through the tight press of shoulders and arms, hips and bellies, knees knocking against his own. The crush of the crowd tightened, and he was pushed towards the ground as he bent to squeeze through the rocking mass. When he looked up to get his bearings, his vision shattered into bursts of white light and his world went black.
Geoffrey woke from his short stupor on the pavement outside Veilinghal and blinked a policeman into view. He stood with some trouble and felt in his coat pocket for his sixth-row ticket. How long had he been there on the pavement?
"Oh god, The Beatles. I gotta go."
"Ah, you are American." The policeman smiled as if he had just then solved a troubling mystery. "Are you all right?"
Geoffrey tried to balance as he surveyed the now empty sidewalk. "Yes. I mean, no. What happened? I gotta see The Beatles—here's my ticket." He held it to the policeman's face. "See." He beamed. "Sixth row. 6H."
"It seems you were caught in the scuffle. Perhaps you have some concussion. We have called the ambulance for you. To check your head in case of the permanent damage."
"What? No, I'm fine. I'm fine. I gotta get inside. For the show. See, my ticket. 6H. My dad got it for me, for my birthday. And look," Geoffrey pulled his Official Beatles Fan Club membership card from his wallet, "I'm a member of the fan club. See—Official."
"Yes, that is good. But I'm sorry, we have been alerted to close the doors. No more entry. And soon, we will close the streets so the Beatles can make away quickly when the show is over." The policeman placed a hand on Geoffrey's elbow without looking at the ticket or his membership card.
"What? What does that mean? Listen, you can't, you gotta let me in. I have to see The Beatles now."
"I am sorry. Doors is closed. The ambulance will be here soon to see about your head. Please, we must move away from the building. Now. For all intents and purposes this show is over."
After further pleading with the policeman and a quick check-up from a paramedic who only laughed at his blackening eye, Geoffrey returned to Amsterdam's Central Station, too anxious to return home and hopeful that the Beatles might pass through on their way to Schiphol Airport where they were to fly on to Hong Kong for their next show. Since he had missed the show, Geoffrey convinced himself that he might catch sight of The Beatles before they boarded the train. And what of the mock Ringo? But the Beatles hadn't shown at the airport, and Geoffrey dozed in a broken plastic chair.
Geoffrey jerked to attention, a dismal ache in his head and a foul, coppery taste in his mouth, reflexively pulled his coat over the can of beer in his hand, and dropped his cigarette to the ground. Hestia smiled down at him.
"Hi, uh goedenavond," Geoffrey answered, unsure of what else to say to her, yet bursting with questions.
In a heavy accent, she spoke again, "You are from Hanover, yes?"
"I thought this. And I saw you at the Beatles tonight." She sat down in the seat next to his. "It was a fantastic show, yes."
Geoffrey's mood brightened. She recognized him from school, the boy with the Beatle boots. He wanted to ask Hestia about the mock Ringo she had embraced, and the concert he had missed. She would know; she would understand how he felt about missing the show.
"I didn't get in. I got knocked down and then they wouldn't let me in. It's horrible, just horrible. You've got to tell me what it was like. Did they play 'I Wanna Be Your Man'? How about 'You Can't Do That'? Did they play that?"
"You didn't go to the show?"
"They called the paramedics and said I might have a concussion or some nonsense, and they wouldn't let me in. Said the doors were closed and they wouldn't' let me in. Can you believe that? I'm their biggest fan. I even showed them my Official! Fan Club membership card." Geoffrey pulled it from his wallet again, to confirm for someone who actually cared that he was genuine. Already Geoffrey felt better. At least he had someone he could share his misery with. And she would tell him every detail of what he had missed, from what they wore to the songs they played. And there was Hestia, a senior and certainly the prettiest Beatles fan at Hanover.
"You missed the show. It's—unbelievable."
"I know. I can't believe it, either. I mean this policeman he was so—"
Hestia stepped back, moving her eyes from his eyes to his feet and back to his eyes. "What are you wearing? This is a Beatles suit, no? Which one? You are dressed as Paul, no?"
Geoffrey returned his gaze to his feet. People rushed past them on both sides, racing for trains.
"No. John then, ne?"
He shook his head and looked again in to the eyes of the pretty yellow-haired girl. She was teasing him. Surely she recognized that he looked like Ringo, just as she had so easily spotted him among the dozens of other Beatles fans at Hanover.
"Ah ha, it is George."
He shook his head once more as he prepared for her inevitable conclusion.
"Nooo? You are Ringo, then? Ringo?"
Geoffrey blinked his eyes at her acknowledgment. She knew, she saw that he looked like Ringo, that he was a real fan. Here was someone who would understand his devotion.
Geoffrey stood, tapping out a backbeat with his feet, his smile growing uncontrollably. She could see. But when he looked up to acknowledge the girl, his bubble of questions ready for air, her smile had faded.
"But why? What is so special about the drummer? As tonight has clearly shown, he can easily be replaced." She poked a finger into his arm. "Paul is the one. He is to dream."
Geoffrey tried to interrupt, "What do you mean—replaced?"
"Eh? Don't you know there is new Ringo? Old Ringo is sick with the painful throat. Two days ago they have a new drummer. You didn't know this? Everyone knows this. It's in the newspapers. Probably, he is not Beatle again. But it doesn't matter—he is only drummer anyway. He has already been replaced."
Geoffrey was certain the noise of the train station distorted what he heard. Another drummer? He hadn't heard that Ringo was sick nor had he read of a replacement. Hestia was having fun, he decided, and at his expense, pulling the American's leg.
"And you. You're no fan—everybody knows about Ringo, about his painful throat."
"What painful throat? What do you mean? I didn't hear anything about a replacement."
Geoffrey didn't want to believe her, but he recalled the mock Ringo, the imposter who had followed behind the other Beatles. Even he had noticed that the imposter was dressed as a Beatle. And he had never seen Ringo actually enter the building. Could it be true? Geoffrey read everything about The Beatles. But he didn't read the Dutch papers. Had he missed such an important piece of information because he didn't read Dutch? Could he have? The Beatles Number-One Fan? He stepped on his cigarette and stood again. He would convince her it was only rumor, that the imposter was no imposter at all but a manager or an assistant. Perhaps he was simply a fan, like himself, dressed for the show in his own Official! Beatles suit. Then they could sit down with a cup of coffee as she told him all about the show. And on Monday, when the performance was aired on TV, he would see for certain that The Beatles just weren't the same without Ringo, that no substitute would do. Ringo was unique. Ringo was special. But the formidable Dutch girl had already walked away toward the platforms, her pretty yellow-hair bouncing on the white collar of her pretty yellow dress.
"Goedenacht—Ringo," she called out without turning.
Geoffrey left the huffing, puffing noise of Central Station for the foggy city, the cool air from the Amstel River pulling him towards the black water and excursion boats. He pulled his hat tightly around his ears, the brim of the black, wool sailor cap shadowing his eyes. The left sleeve of his black blazer was torn at the hem, and mud spotted his boots. A cigarette dangled from his mouth as he braced himself against gusts of wind from the river and wondered at what he should have said to Hestia. She had told him Ringo was replaceable, that Ringo was only a drummer, and that he, Geoffrey Nielson, was no fan. If he was not the number one Beatles fan, then who was he?
Geoffrey moved along the Damrak, which led to the Dam and past the Royal Palace, the Virgin of Peace looking down at him from her rooftop perch. He stopped in Dam Square, circling the National Monument twice as he persuaded himself to move on until he reached the banks of the Amstel. At the river, he sat down with his feet over the wall, wrinkling his nose at the stench of fish, silt, and diesel. Perhaps he was a fraud, he thought; perhaps he wasn't Geoffrey Nielson, biggest Beatles fan ever. How could he have not known? Was Ringo finished? Was he no longer a Beatle? Geoffrey dragged his scuffed black boots over concrete and brick, a ghost-walk past street cleaners and drunks, his wet, curling copy of The True Story of The Beatles tight in his hand.
The drizzle grew heavier as Geoffrey approached Leidse Plein and moved on towards Vondel Straat. He needed to rest; he could do it in Vondel Park. He lit another cigarette and crossed a canal. A bicycle hung from a rail by its chain, its rear wheel submerged in the water and clanking against the brick wall. He found an empty bench, sat down, and pulled The True Story of The Beatles from inside his coat. The light of a lamppost behind illuminated the lads from Liverpool. The Beatles smiled back at him, all except Ringo, who stared, heavy-lidded, his mouth a thin, straight line.
Direct from England! The True (Fab! Official!) Story of The Beatles!
Geoffrey felt ill, Hestia's words echoing in his ears—You're no fan, and stood, the evening air wet with a chill, the sounds of the city gaining volume. He tossed the cigarette he had lit but was unable to smoke into the Amstel and headed towards the Leidse Plein, a sooty taste on his tongue. His mother would be unnecessarily anxious by now, but he couldn't go home yet, not feeling like he did. He didn't want to answer her questions. Geoffrey, what happened to you? He didn't want to see the pleasure in Martha's twisted smile, so much like Hestia's when she told him he was a fraud.
Geoffrey fingered the tear in his blazer and scratched his armpit through his shirt. He felt sick and he was tired and he was no fan. He fingered his copy of The True Story of The Beatles and thought of tossing it into the wastebasket but instead plucked a page from inside, crumpling it in his hand. Was he a fraud after all? What did it matter anyhow? His commitment to Ringo had helped Geoffrey to stand out where others only followed. But he had missed The Beatles. And Ringo was out. Walking the canal back towards Vondel Straat and Central Station, Geoffrey stripped another page from the magazine and then another, each one tossed into the Amstel. The faces of Beatle John and Beatle Paul, wrinkled and spotted, bobbed like bright wobbly rafts in the swift water, and Beatle George was whisked away by the current. And Beatle Ringo, his face torn, a half-smile, a half-smirk, and one deep, dark, moody eye, fluttered to the murky water, and away from Geoffrey. As he reached to tear another page from the falling-apart magazine, he noticed an advertisement for a contest:
Tell us why you think The Beatles are better than The Rolling Stones
And Win! A Set of Beatles Coffee Mugs!
The picture had been crudely spliced to make it look as if The Beatles were standing on the backs of the Rolling Stones, who knelt like cheerleaders in group-formation. The Rolling Stones wore sport shirts and tight slacks, their faces quite serious. But Geoffrey's eyes were drawn to the skinny singer: his brown hair, messy on his head, flaring out over the ears; his nose normal to fat and rounded; his eyes, mysterious and sharp; and his lips, big, puffy things that pushed out in front of his face. What lips. Geoffrey carefully tore the page from the magazine, folded it and placed it in his shirt pocket, tossing the rest of the fanzine into the canal. He recalled the gritty voice he had turned off on the radio as recently as a week ago, the one singing Ringo's song. Perhaps they weren't so rattly. There was a raw energy to The Rolling Stones version Geoffrey was beginning to understand, a punch to the vocals he didn't hear in Ringo's voice. He glanced again at the puffy-lipped singer. And as he did a mock tightrope walk along the canal wall, Geoffrey licked his lips and pushed them out, a wet combination of a pucker and a pout, and mouthed the words to The Rolling Stones' first number one single.