February 7, 2024

February 1964: New York and the Beatles, A Tale of Two Loves

By Stuart Mitchner

People who listen to the Beatles love them — what about that?

—Richard Poirier in The Performing Self (1971)

Remarkable, unspeakable New York!

—Henry James, in The American Scene

My mood at the moment is best expressed in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, which I was reading when the Beatles landed at JFK on February 7, 1964:

“I enter upon this part of my story in the most pensive and melancholy frame of mind that ever sympathetic breast was touched with…. Every line I write, I feel an abatement of the quickness of my pulse, and of that careless alacrity with it, which every day of my life prompts me to say and write a thousand things I should not.”

Truer words were never not spoken. Did I really care about the Fab Four? I had no choice since my transistor radio was permanently tuned to Top 40 servings on WINS from Murray the K, the DJ who liked to call himself the Fifth Beatle. My idea of musical bliss in those days was a moment in Sonny Rollins Vol. 2 on Blue Note, the change of pianists that occurs in Thelonius Monk’s “Mysterioso,” after Rollins delivers one of his boldest statements and Monk makes way for Horace Silver as J.J. Johnson’s trombone booms overhead. Never did it occur to me that a bunch of funny looking characters from the U.K. could compete with that.

At the time of The Great Arrival, I was living in a small front room of a brownstone at 33 West 87th Street, with a poster of Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles over my bed and one of Joan Miró’s The Farm on another wall above a portable stereo and a box of jazz LPs. My window looked across the street to No. 26, where Billie Holiday had been living at the time of her death in 1959. Lady Day’s “townhouse” sold for almost $14 million in 2022. In 1964 I was paying $120 a month. Most likely Billie had a couple of furnished rooms in 1959. She reportedly died with 70 cents to her name. It’s been four years since I felt like going into New York. The city I love is not the one where Billie Holiday’s townhouse sold for $14 million.

Pondering the Cover

In the foreword to his book 1964: Eyes of the Storm (W.W. Norton 2023), Paul McCartney says he shot the cover photo “after escaping” through a side entrance of the Plaza Hotel. Writing on February 7, 2024, I’m wondering how the guys running headlong down 58th Street on the cover, most of them men, can be equated with the crowds of adoring fans, most of them girls, that made McCartney “feel like we were the stars at the centre of a very exciting film. And the good thing was that there was never any malice. The people running after us just wanted to see us, just wanted to say hi, just wanted to touch us.”

Given what happened to John Lennon 14 blocks north of 58th on December 8, 1980, it’s wrenching to read this benign take on the “frenzied crowd.” Another explanation of the cover photo is that it “communicates the frenzy of the visit and the power of New York.” At the same time, McCartney  knows there’s something “seemingly dire about this need for flight or escape, as if we could end up trapped, though if you think about it, it was really pursuits like this one that put the Beatles in the middle of the storm.”

Still in the context of escape and pursuit, McCartney mentions how often his gaze was drawn to “policemen and their loaded guns,” including the cop in Miami who pulled up next to the car, “his guns and ammo right next to my camera lens.” The reference to guns inevitably leads to thoughts of “President Kennedy’s killing,” in case we forget that the Beatles’ first day in America began at an airport recently renamed for someone who was being cheered by “friendly crowds” in Dallas a little over two months before.

A Turning Point

Although New York City rates only 30 pages of a 324 page collection of McCartney photographs that includes chapters on Liverpool, London, Paris, Washington, D.C., and Miami, plus Jill Lepore’s introduction, the city remains the epicenter of the storm. As the Beatles’ then-manager Brian Epstein put it: “There was a turning point in their career, a specific date on which the breadth and scope of their future was to be altered and it was the day their Pan Am jet touched down at Kennedy International in New York to a welcome that has seldom been equaled anywhere.”

The unprecedented worldwide attention lavished on the Beatles that day and throughout the year, combined with that summer’s release of A Hard Day’s Night, inspired the formation of generations of rock bands, the great “Groupquake” of the sixties, seventies, and eighties.

Columbus Circle

Captioned “a very mid-century New York scene,” the cityscape shown in McCartney’s photograph of Columbus Circle, a two-page spread that opens the New York chapter,  is centered on a super-sized Coca-Cola THIRST KNOWS NO SEASON barometer with the needle pointing to 40 degrees and RAIN and CLOUDY in the forecast slots for Tomorrow’s Weather. Crowded behind this contraption is a panorama of rooftops; a Heineken billboard; the big sign atop the Hotel Mayflower; and a marble statue of Christopher Columbus perched high atop his pillar with a skimpily dressed angel holding a globe at the bottom. This piece of “photographic art,” marred by a huge rear-view mirror and the head and shoulders of a pedestrian, means more to me than any other image in the book.

The music of the Beatles has changed and enriched my life, but hundreds of intimate photos of Paul, John, George, and Ringo can’t compare with memories of a year in Manhattan, of school day mornings walking up Central Park West from the subway at Columbus Circle and winter evenings when the big letters atop the Mayflower Hotel were aglow with neon and my homebound view of Central Park South was crowned by the giant floodlit MONY thermometer. Beyond the Circle, weather permitting, was a walk home to East 53rd by way of Broadway or 7th Avenue to 50th past the temples of the cinema, the Roxy and the Radio City Music Hall, and the Rockefeller Plaza skating rink where Holden Caulfield and his date Sally make fools of themselves in The Catcher in the Rye.

“People Everywhere”

I’m still pondering the implications of the two-page spread of the “frenzied crowd” chasing the Beatles limo and the fact  that it follows photos of Central Park, where fans are crowded behind DO NOT CROSS barricades and being “looked after by the NYPD,” while other photos showing the Beatles besieged by the press are headed “We were surrounded by people everywhere we went.” In Angus Wilson’s The World of Charles Dickens (Viking 1970), Dickens is quoted about his first visit to America, in the same month, mid-February 1842: “I can do nothing that I want to do, go nowhere where I want to go, and see nothing that I want to see. If I turn into the street, I am followed by a multitude.” Even without the New York connection, Dickens belongs here. He was born on February 7, 1812.

“Help” Paves the Way

A year and some months after the Beatles landed, I was in London walking among visibly exhilarated crowds near Piccadilly Circus. Something special was happening. It was like a reversal of Blake’s “London.” Instead of bearing “marks of weakness, marks of woe,” these faces were smiling because the Beatles were just around the corner attending the premiere of their second film, Help. What could one do but smile? The joy-givers were near and love and music were in the air.

On my way to India a month later, hitching out of Trieste, I got a lift from a small, rotund Iranian in a new VW he’s still learning how to drive; he’s going all the way to Tehran and seems to think he can make it on one tank of gas because he’s got a 45-rpm record player attachment under the dashboard and only one record to play on it, “Help” by the Beatles, which he asks me to keep putting in for him because his arm isn’t long enough even in a VW and he apparently doesn’t intend to stop again until Tehran, about 2000 kilometers to the east. Every time the song finishes, he says, “Playplay,” and after about the 20th time it dawns on me that the driver thinks that by keeping a record called “Help” constantly playing, he’s somehow adding fuel, as if there’s some kind of magic Beatles octane flowing.

A few days later I’m in Istanbul watching and loving A Hard Day’s Night for the ninth time. A few weeks later I’m in a Calcutta record shop listening booth with some friends loving the Beatles for Sale album and wondering how can it get any better than this. Six months later I’m with a girl I love finding out how much better it can get as we listen together to the entire Revolver album in a record shop listening booth in Salzburg. A few years later we’re married and doing graduate study in English at Rutgers thanks to “Learning from the Beatles,” an essay by Richard Poirier, the chairman of the Graduate English Department.