I don’t know why you say goodbye I say hello. Hello. Hela, heba helloa.
When we play, Starbuck and Wolfie gang up on me like raptors on a duckbilled plant eater. Together they’re less than half my weight, but recently I felt for the first time how it would be to go down. I sighed at the relief that would bring but eased them to the ground, ran my finger around in my mouth to check for chipped teeth, and promised if they’d just relax we’d read a book about prehistoric animals fighting to the death.
Mayhem was on every spread: Kronosaurus (“a monstrous 45 feet”) bit the wing off a pterosaur in flight; a giant kangaroo with bloody slashes on its flank staggered back from a lionlike predator with teeth “like chisels”; a baby mammoth seemed confused that it bristled with stone-tipped spears. I pointed to a dino chicken with a happy little smile. “He’s cute,” I said.
“That’s Gallimimus,” Starbuck said. “He’s a theropod.”
“He doesn’t have teeth, anyway,” I said in relief.
“No, he had a beak as sharp as scissors and could swallow little animals in one gulp. He was tall as you, Daddy. But he could run 30 miles an hour.”
“Raaaahr!” Wolfie yelled and beat me with his Playmobil pirate. “Get him!” Starbuck shouted, and it all started again.
Crazy Larry called after I’d gotten the boys into their pajamas and put them to work cobbling shoes for export. He said they’d resent me for that and imagined them grown to look like Dog the Bounty Hunter. For some reason, they chased me across vast frozen steppes on shaggy ponies buckling under their weight. “Daddy!” they bellowed over the wind. “We’re coming to get you, Daddy!”
For more than a year, Larry and I had been planning a trip to Abbey Road on the River in Louisville, Kentucky, which billed itself as “The Best Beatles® Tribute Festival in the World,” and as “Five Days of Peace / Love / Rock and Roll.” The Beatles were once part of a youth culture that at its best represented energy and hope, and we were eager to see if tribute and cover bands with names like Instant Karma, the Fab Five, the Rigbys, the Apples, the Blue Meanies, Yellow SubMorons, Revolution Pie, and Itchycoo Park could serve the same purpose.
Larry and his wife were nearly killed by a drunk driver three years ago. He wasn’t handsome to begin with, and he’d had another surgery to remove scar tissue from his eye muscles. I’d pity him, except I used to be mistaken for a grad student at this university and now people think I’m the janitor. We both needed some positive change.
“Evolution is dangerous,” Larry warned. He used an example from some sci-fi novel set on the surface of a neutron star. An organic being the size of a sesame seed evolves by growing a crystal cactus inside itself. At some point, the cactus pokes its way out, and its old body falls down around its feet. Other sesame seeds try it but shatter into millions of pieces.
“Give me a Wildness whose glance no civilization can endure,” Thoreau says, and “in wildness is the preservation of the world.” He’s talking about a mental state more than wilderness—though one supports the other—and most certainly not about what passes for wildness in our time, such as subprime home loans and tattoos on suburban undergrads.
I think the reason I became such a huge Beatles fan—it didn’t happen until my 30s—was that I heard in their music a genuine wildness that I equate with the best literature: daring, total presence, and committed energy in whatever mood or mode in effect. They allowed themselves to move past the discipline of craft to become innocent again, open to new forms, to humor, even to unintelligibility. Never mind the acid, the heroin, the “Satyricon on tour.” Where it really counted, the Beatles were as wild as that wild-ass Emily Dickinson. I had hopes Abbey Road on the River would let me experience that in a new way.
How Crazy Larry got his name: Years ago, we were having lunch with co-workers in a corporate cafeteria, and as a joke Larry told everybody to watch and stuck his thumb deep in my mashed potatoes and gravy. Then he smirked in my face. Later, our boss walked past my cubicle and saw me on the floor, red-faced, sweaty, with Larry in a headlock. Right then she realized poor Larry was completely crazy.
He’s always had the delusion that his role is to provoke some wildness he thinks I’ve lost. When I picked him up for the drive to Louisville, he punched me painfully in the arm, then fiddled obsessively with his Palm Pilot for two hours. Though we’d eaten, he demanded fast food, and when I finally stopped he bought biscuits and gravy; sweet rolls with icing; a full-platter breakfast with eggs, pork chop, and pancakes; and a bowl of “breakfast chicken” in what looked like hollandaise sauce, shredded cheese, and corn. The eye he’d had surgery on was yellow, bloody, and fishlike, and he rolled it at me as he ate.
“I know what you’re trying to do,” I said. “It won’t work.”
“Pancakes,” he said happily.
Fields the color of absinthe gave way to weedy floodplains and the bridges and high rises of Louisville, and we parked the rental car under an overpass by the river. The festival was being held on several stages in a waterfront park and inside the Galt House Hotel. The first act we caught was Jimmy Pou, a George Harrison tribute musician, who played guitar and sang solo onstage for a couple of dozen people in the grass by a fountain. He was very good, better than I could have hoped, and we stuck around to the end of his set. Still, George was never my favorite, and I wanted to see a band. The Beatles were not merely the sum of four untrained, skiffle-loving lads from a depressed English port. The Beatles together were—and I know the dangers of overstating this, so I’ll be cool—the greatest fucking geniuses the world has ever known.
Between acts, we walked, past state-fair-style food stands, Porta-Pottis, credit-card booths, and T-shirt hawkers, up to a 20-foot bronze of George Rogers Clark, founder of Louisville and “conqueror of the Old Northwest.” Clark looked back at his city but pointed north across the Ohio River to the Illinois country, which not so long ago was wilderness but now is tamed, predictable, and my home. Larry stopped at one stand for a bratwurst, at another for a lemon shakeup, and for a pie mashed into frozen custard at the Cream-A-Lot. “Would you come on?” I said. “We’re going to miss everything.”
“Arrh,” he said, his open mouth full of melted ice cream and pie mush.
The two middle-aged women drunk out of their wigs and, dancing wildly on the main lawn that afternoon, wanted badly to be seen. There was no ignoring them, and everyone within 50 yards smiled grimly as if determined to support the spirit of the festival no matter what. A tribute band called the Return belted out early-Beatles pop tunes, and the women twisted, jerked, monkeyed, mashed-potatoed, and square-danced with each other, occasionally pointing fingers at strangers in the crowd and shouting things. One of their husbands stood up, took his wife’s elbow, and muttered in her ear. She pulled away confusedly and waved at Crazy Larry, who was taking her picture, and the husband sat back down.
The Return’s young musicians were note-for-note faithful to the recordings. Everything else about them that could have been managed had been, from their Ed Sullivan–era suits and boots to haircuts, accents, and mannerisms. Larry wondered if they’d been put together like a boy band. I tried hard to convince myself this was the real thing, and for a few seconds at a time I thought I had it. But when I walked up the lawn to the stage the illusion died for good. Paul was a little fat, George didn’t look like George, and John tried so hard to stay in character he was stuck in Lennon’s irritated gum-chewing mode. Other costumed impersonators stood in the audience in front of the stage, and I wondered if it was hard to be a young John singing “Twist and Shout” while older “Sgt. Pepper” and “Cold Turkey” Johns stared and judged.
The crowd was in the hundreds now—older couples, parents coaching toddlers, carbuncled teens, bikers in leathers with frozen pink drinks, a busload of the handicapped—and most sat on the lawn or on metal bleachers as quietly as rectors. But a few, like the drunk Southern ladies, were there to be a part of it, whatever that thing meant to them, and since I was increasingly uncertain what my own thing was, I was curious about theirs.
They showed up wherever we went: the hairy cheroot-smoker in a tie-dye tunic and his wife in her moonchild dress; the thick chick with hippie glasses and barefoot Woodstock moves; somebody’s mom in a worker’s cap disrupting acts with chatter and melodramatic fist-pumping. Although middle-aged, they were all too young to have been screamers in a Beatlemania audience or freaks in the Summer of Love, and some hadn’t even been born when the Beatles broke up. They weren’t re-enacting anything they’d been present for, and with their antics they were missing the music again. I shrank at what awful judgment John Lennon would have passed on us all.
At a long tin-roofed bazaar down one side of the lawn, vendors sold Beatles geedunk that reeked of garage sale: vintage T-shirts, pins, lunchboxes, key chains, humidity-wrinkled posters, faded Life magazines, thirdhand books, and 8-by-10 photos many generations from their negatives. Larry bought several bagfuls I couldn’t afford even if I’d wanted anything, which I didn’t. Did. For my sons. Behind his Edgar Allan Poe vulture eye, his pleasure at my rising bile was obvious.
Larry and I sat poolside in a raw wind off the river as a duo sang a mash-up of ‘60s tunes and bartenders in a Tahitian hut noisily peddled Coors. I was shivering so hard my muscles hurt, and the mesh in Larry’s head had contracted and given him a migraine. We agreed to take a break.
The Jockey Silks Bourbon Bar was all dark wood and oxblood leather. Oprah was on one wall-mounted TV, looking concerned that a drunk driver had killed a wedding party. Army recruitment videos looped on another. The waitress told us that since we were in Louisville we had to try bourbon sampler trays, but I said I’d really rather have a coffee, and she said they had 120 bourbons. I said no thanks, maybe just a beer, and she pulled out what she called a bourbon scorecard and showed us how to use it. Larry was all polite interest and flirtation. He’s an actor now.
He asked so many questions that the bartender, who’d been standing in that lounge 35 years, also came to our table. “This is more like my home than my house is,” she said in the baritone of the chain-smoker. Larry threw himself into the part by ordering three shots of expensive bourbon he didn’t want. I had to listen to the waitress’s explanation of their origins, and when they came Larry smacked his lips and exclaimed over them, shuddering a little, while the two women stood watching. Then they all discussed the liquors’ caramel notes and tones of vanilla. I leaned over to him. “I’m going to kill you,” I said. He laughed. “You have to try one of these,” he said.
After the women left, he asked for my car keys. I stared incredulously, but he said he just wanted to drop off his geedunk, he’d be right back. He made a “No, really” face, then a “Really, I’m serious” face. Against my better judgment, I gave him the keys.
That night, we stood a long time in a line outside the Grand Ballroom for a live concert of the soundtrack Love. We sensed this was what we had come for, but it was a weird concept. Musicians from various tribute bands would try to re-create music that the Beatles shaped obsessively in a studio, and that, decades later, George Martin and his son remastered in new combinations for a stage act in Vegas. Inside, 2,200 banquet chairs were lined up tightly, and we sat fifth-row center and watched people file in. By the time the event organizer welcomed us, the room was only a third full, and he told everyone to move forward into empty reserved seats.
“I’ve got it,” Larry said as people crawled over our laps. “If this were the real thing—let’s say once a year Paul and Ringo played a reunion, with Julian Lennon standing in for John, and Eric Clapton for George—these people, us included, wouldn’t be here. It would be the rich and famous instead. But there are no beautiful people here. The music is an imitation, so the audience is those forced to live on imitations.”
“Don’t say that,” I pleaded. “You’re making me ill.” I felt my fatigue, disappointments, and responsibilities like windburn on my face.
“This festival is no different from a Star Trek convention,” Larry said.
Half a dozen tribute musicians took the stage in front of a huge photomural of the Beatles in Rishikesh. They started, a cappella, with “Because” a little nervously but jumped right into Love’s trippy version of “Get Back,” which uses the opening guitar riff from “A Hard Day’s Night,” drum and guitar from “The End,” and the rising crescendo from “A Day in the Life.” They were backed by five strings, two horns, two trap sets, a Moog, a sound-effects guy, and two women who did many of the falsetto parts. Not every song was credible, and some studio tricks or special instruments couldn’t be matched, but the concert was very enjoyable. Hal Bruce, famous in this circle, did a spot-on “Yesterday” as Paul McCartney’s young face appeared on a Jumbotron to the side. The real Paul lip-synched to the fake.
The longer I sat there, crammed between Crazy Larry and a biker playing air drums, the more time unraveled. The Return came onstage in Shea-era suits to play with the older Beatles, and suddenly there were simultaneous Georges, young and old, singing harmonies off one another, simultaneous Ringos on two drum kits, and one Paul and two Johns with another guy who could sing either part. Meanwhile, real Beatles multiplied—4, 16, 64—on the Jumbotron, growing older and younger every few seconds. Grainy footage showed them singing songs other than the one being sung onstage, then ancient-looking London streets filled with prewar cars and Beatles striding along in pointy-toed hipster boots like visitations from the future. The computer running the videos generated awkward layers of images, strobe flashes, psychedelic swirls, and sometimes locked up altogether, freezing movement as a blur. I didn’t feel well.
The ballroom floor began to bounce up and down wildly. There had been recent earthquakes, but this was everybody jumping to their feet—it was getting very near the end—and I tapped my foot in syncopation to prevent the floor’s collapse from harmonic motion. It was thrilling. We all sang, “All you need is love, love,” and Paul, wearing a necklace of Indian chrysanthemums like a sacred cow, gazed down benevolently from the photomural. The bleach-blond girlfriend of the biker next to me screamed, “What an incredible adventure!”
The concert ended as suddenly as fireworks. There was thunderous applause, then silence, and somebody spoke and I went into a kind of dream. People came together to chat enthusiastically, but Larry was nowhere to be seen. Something was definitely wrong with me, but it didn’t feel like heart attack, panic attack, stroke, dehydration, or consumption. It felt like something else was about to happen. Dazed, I wandered downstairs and into the park, pausing by the grotesque statue that always pointed somewhere else. River barges splashed under the spinning stars, and I wondered what century it was. Once in a great while, I thought, artists come along who are so powerful that even their imitators have an effect.
I found myself at the main stage again, where a Japanese band called the Beattrips was playing in a weird red light. A man in the crowd with the multicolored shirt of a roadie said they spoke no English and had memorized the songs syllable by syllable. “Aren’t they fantastic?” he shouted. He sang over their amplified voices, “Aw ma ruvvin’, ah sen ho too whoo-oo-oo …” Three booths near the stage sold finely made and expensive Beatles suits. Aside from a few impersonators, who would buy them? I considered charging one to my credit card and wearing it home. I was so tired.
I finally gave up on Larry and trudged off the grounds and down Main Street, past the Convention Center, the Louisville Slugger factory, the Science Center empty now of children. I’d thought my sons too young for the festival, but they would have loved it, and I missed them …
A horn blared next to me on the street, and I jumped. My rental car rolled slowly past, Crazy Larry at the wheel and the back full of Ringos. Larry waved and instantaneously that thing I’d felt about to happen, did: Gallimimus, a 6-foot meat-eating dinosaur, began to claw its way free from its prison inside my body. The car’s brake lights came on, rubber screeched, and another car hit it from behind with a crunchbang. My car’s trunk lid groaned open, and Jimmy Pou, the well-known George impersonator, fell out. The last thing I saw was him staggering up the street, holding his mop-top.
The skin of the staid human-man fell around my feet like an empty birth sac. Inside one of the machines, the creature named Larry raised two thumbs to me. I bent and scissor-beaked through the loose flesh, pointed my nostrils to the moon, and gobbled with satisfaction—kak-kak-kak-kak—until it was down, done, gone, history. The cobblestones echoed with some hauntingly familiar strain and a voice asking me will my love grow. I don’t know, I trilled, but ran for the bridge span to the Illinois country, eager to show the ferocious little fledglings in my nest what wild really looked like.