Tuesday, December 3, 2013

All Those Years Ago - Mark Lewisohn's Tune In The Beatles: All These Years (Vol. 1)

Reading Philip Norman’s Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation in 1982, I was slightly disoriented, yet nonetheless taken, by its references to a British youth and Beatles fan named Mark Lewisohn—disoriented because I, like most Americans, hadn’t heard of him. First glimpsed as an eight-year-old in the summer of 1967, dancing in the back yard to Sgt. Pepper “while trying not to dislodge the cardboard mustache clenched under his nose,” he was last seen as “a serious young man of twenty-two who holds the title ‘Beatle Brain of Britain,’ so labyrinthine is his knowledge of their music and history.”

But within a decade of Norman’s book, the “serious young man” had achieved broad renown as the acknowledged world authority on All Things Beatle. Today, the mustache beneath Mark Lewisohn’s nose is all his own. Among his works of Fab Four scholarship—all venerated for their precision, depth, and integrity—are The Beatles Live! (1986); The Beatles Recording Sessions (1988); The Complete Beatles Chronicle (1992); and The Beatles’ London (1994). He’s written liner notes for numerous Beatles reissues, and was intimately involved in the 1994-95 Anthology project. His work on the Recording Sessions book alone—for which he listened to every piece of Beatles tape in their record company’s vault—gives him a depth of archival insight undreamt of by other fans or historians.

And his magnum opus is finally upon us. Close to a decade in preparation, its publication twice delayed, Tune In is the first installment of a three-volume Beatles biography with the corporate title All These Years. At around a thousand pages, the book both looks and weighs important, and the hefty mass-market version is dwarfed by the “Extended Special Edition”—two equally thick volumes in a box, with nearly twice the page count and many more photographs, incorporating quantities of ancillary research that must have been removed from the mass version with a shovel. Lewisohn tells us the project has not been authorized or in any way controlled by the surviving Beatles, the deceased Beatles’ estates, or the group’s joint company, Apple Corps. Unauthorized Tune In may be, but clearly Lewisohn earned the trust of at least three of his subjects (he never met John Lennon) over his decades of research into the Beatles’ daily lives and guarded archives; and it’s largely because Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr deign not to obstruct his work that we have this book, and the three-part whole it heralds.

Lewisohn’s ambition in undertaking the Beatles’ biography, he says, was to write “a history of deep-level inquiry where the information is tested accurate, and free of airbrushing, embellishment and guesswork, written with an open mind and even hands, one that unfolds lives and events in context and without hindsight.” That’s more or less what any historian would claim to be after, but it’s still a dauntingly tall order—especially that “without hindsight” sub-clause. Yet the order is filled, magnificently. In Mark Lewisohn, the Beatles, a great biographical subject, have found their great biographer—their Richard Ellman, Robert Caro, or Taylor Branch.

Mark Lewisohn.
Tune In takes the story from before the beginning—Irish antecedents, Liverpool legend—to December 31, 1962, by which time the Beatles have mutated from the Quarry Men; conquered Liverpool and survived a fiery German baptism; locked fates with manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin; absorbed and eliminated a dozen temporary members; jettisoned one drummer and gained another; released their first single, “Love Me Do,” and debuted on English radio and television. At book’s end, “Please Please Me,” their first #1, is in the can, but unreleased. They’re on the verge of a debut album and several UK tours, the response to which will set the sceptered isle alight, inspire the term “Beatlemania,” and ready the scene for larger manias to come. 

Tune In is, as it pretty much had to be, a watershed. No one who reads it will hear the Beatles the same way afterwards, nor think of them as the same people, nor emerge without a dazzled sense of the many quantum levels of chance and improbability underlying their standard narrative. It’s true that in its broadest possible outlines, that narrative remains in place. Stuart Sutcliffe still uses his painting proceeds to buy the bass guitar he doesn’t really care to play but the group needs; the Beatles still stomp a hole in the stage at Hamburg’s Kaiserkeller club; Raymond Jones still walks into Brian Epstein’s record store to ask for “My Bonnie”; George Martin still asks the Beatles on their first visit to EMI if there’s anything they don’t like, and George Harrison still replies, “Yeah, I don’t like your tie.” But it’s within those outlines and on those quantum levels that Tune In operates, reconstituting an old, old story from the atoms outward.

L. to r.: John Lennon, George Harrison, Pete Best, Paul McCartney, Stuart Sutcliffe.

It’s a little while before this takes hold. Lewisohn draws heavily in the book’s first quarter on such well-thumbed sources as Hunter Davies’s authorized 1968 biography and the Anthology coffee-table history, alternating with personal interviews that yield the sort of nice but essentially insignificant detail that has padded innumerable prior biographies without rattling anyone’s sense of who the Beatles were, where they came from, or what shaped them. Lewisohn enumerates the established sources of early Lennon-McCartney songs, notes guitar purchases already thoroughly researched in Andy Babiuk’s Beatle Gear (2001), and pushes things forward with sentences like “John Lennon was also feeling the effects of marital discord”—sentences we’ve already read in solo or collective Beatles biographies by Davies, Norman, Bob Spitz, Tim Riley, and others. If Lewisohn, whose bona fides and varieties of access are unprecedented, does not surpass those books by great distances, he fails. After a while it begins to appear that he will, in that sense, fail—that he will push out or fill in the conventional narrative only in conventional ways, and that his definitive, “deep-level” Beatles biography will prove really no more revelatory than the others.

O, ye of little faith. After a certain chronological point, the narrative begins to breathe on its own, and the book comes into its size. From the mid-1950s on, living witnesses with unrecorded or unplumbed stories—several dozens of them—are introduced; previously hidden documentation is mined from the files and lives of Epstein, Martin, EMI, and the BBC, from fan-club nooks and promoters’ pigeonholes and song-publishers’ cubbies. Soon these glimpses inside the vault of memory and the bolted office—bringing forth anything from a key piece of minutiae to an eye-popping revision—are accumulating a dozen to the page, and Lewisohn is conjuring the Beatles’ days and nights, their streets and rooms, their Liverpool, Hamburg, and London whole before our eyes. The caul of familiarity falls away, and we are eavesdropping like ghosts from the future on a strange, electric, contingent world of real surfaces, sounds, voices, processes. From there, the book simply flies all the way home.

The Bambi Kino.
Lewisohn has retraced the Beatles’ steps through their great grimy post-war metropolises more thoroughly, indeed obsessively, than anyone before him. Details that early on seem merely anal-retentive—the exact dimensions of the porch at John’s aunt’s home; the model of his adolescent typewriter (Imperial Good Companion Model T)—are actually the first tiles in a vast mosaic. Exact dates are discerned for familiar events: the traumatic separation of John’s parents (June 22, 1946); the start of England’s skiffle craze (February 1957); Paul’s debut with the Quarry Men (October 18, 1957); the birth of the Beatle haircut (October 12 or 13, 1961, at 29 rue de Baune, Paris). Beatle haunts whose names we’ve always known, and whose characteristics we thought we knew, are suddenly tactile, visual, odoriferous. “The Bambi [Kino] was a dump,” Lewisohn describes the Hamburg cinema where the Beatles roomed on their first German engagement:
They had two rooms that weren’t much more than storage spaces: a small one that could accommodate three and had an electric light, and—off the first one—a second, tiny room that could take two, without electricity. Both reeked of the adjacent toilets used by the cinema’s customers, which served as the Beatles’ washroom. There was no other plumbing, no heating and no decoration of any kind, just unpainted concrete walls thick with dust, and ceilings so low they had to duck their heads. There were no drawers, so they had to live out of suitcases, and only one small window set very high (overlooking a courtyard), so the rooms were dark.
The Beatles’ other storied dumps are drawn with equal specificity, as are the Liverpool streets, sprawling and brick-ridden, slashed with buslines and tramlines: “Getting to work [for Paul] was a two-bus journey, changing at Penny Lane before jumping off by Edge Hill, at the spaghetti-tangle of railway tracks. After skipping down the dark line-side slipway near the gasholders …” Lewisohn tells the Beatles’ story partly as an extension of Liverpool’s much longer story; he ferrets out the unique relationship that exists there between booze, music, and violence, and affectionately highlights the band’s original fan base—the Cavern Club regulars, mostly girls, who hung out with the Beatles between shows, ate at their houses, wrote them letters in Hamburg, and today describe with still-thrilled exactness the experience of catching a Beatles set over lunchtime. (Tune In is partially dedicated to “Liverpudlians everywhere, whose heritage this is,” and the Extended Edition has a great deal more prefatory material on Liverpool as landing pad for thousands of Irish fleeing the potato famine of the 1840s, among them several Beatle ancestors.)

Paul McCartney and John Lennon, 1961.
There are many coups of research, some small and some great. Old biographical tidbits are disposed of and new ones presented, often with the word “private” enticingly attached. In a footnote, Lewisohn reveals the story Paul McCartney has been known to tell “in certain private company” about his true first meeting with John Lennon. (It wasn’t, as we have believed, on July 6, 1957, at a church garden party.) Excavation of record-shop stock-books and singles charts reveals that the Beatles didn’t get their American pop discs from “merchant seamen,” as Merrie Olde Myth has always had it, but from their hometown record bins. Lewisohn finds a bit of paper telling us that Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison, drummerless as they usually were, thought for a bit of calling themselves “Japage 3” (!). The Beatles almost certainly couldn’t have taken their name from The Wild One, as some sources (even their own Anthology) suggest, because the 1953 Marlon Brando film was banned in Britain and went unseen there until 1968. John Lennon’s heretofore unreported recollection of the last time he saw his doomed friend Stu Sutcliffe comes from a “reliable private source.” Lewisohn draws on unpublished letters, diaries, and manuscripts by Epstein, Lennon’s Aunt Mimi, and roadie Mal Evans, among others; he describes early recordings of fantastic rarity yet unheard outside Apple Corps, which owns them. “Please Please Me,” it’s inferred from circumstantial evidence, was recorded on speed. 

The Beatles, mid-1962, with Pete Best on drums.

Some of Lewisohn’s coups subtly but significantly alter our preconceived views of familiar players. At the age of 18, Neil Aspinall—the Beatles’ first road manager, most enduring confidante, and, until his death in 2008, majordomo of Apple Corps—began an affair with the much older Mona Best, mother of original Beatles drummer Pete Best; they even had a child together, and continued the affair after Pete was ignominiously dumped from the band. Completely new, historically rounded perspectives on figures of both first- and second-echelon importance are undergirded by a cast of minor characters and situational facilitators mostly or completely unknown up to now. Did you know the vital importance to the Beatles of people like Derek Hodkin, Rosa Hoffmann, Kim Bennett, or Roland Rennie? I didn’t.

Several of Lewisohn’s findings are so radically revisionist as to unmoor the conventional narrative altogether. Well-documented and soundly rationalized, they recharge the Beatles’ story with suspense, as if its outcome were still in doubt. For instance, the Beatles would never have been awarded their first real professional gig—a brief Scottish tour backing singer Johnny Gentle—were it not for an amazing series of happenstances, since they roundly failed the audition. And where most writers on the Beatles (myself included) have tended to broad-brush their formative phase as a more or less uninterrupted upward journey, Lewisohn, following his evidence, shows that many things threatened their seemingly inevitable ascent. Between 1957 and 1961, the bandmates drifted apart, reformed half-heartedly, flirted not entirely unseriously with straight jobs. Ringo would never have come into the fold without many strokes of luck. Lewisohn reckons that as far along as late 1961, just before Epstein appeared, the Beatles were in danger of dissolving from the sheer boredom of ruling a local scene that held no more challenges for them.

George Martin and The Beatles in Abbey Road.
Perhaps Tune In’s most dumbfounding revision bears on how the Beatles came to be EMI recording artists under the producership of George Martin. The accepted version, standing solid these several decades, has had Martin—unimpressed by the Beatles’ failed Decca Records test tape, yet charmed by some extra-musical element of humor or personality—offering them the personal audition that leads to their recording contract. Yet Lewisohn, unspooling testimonies, timelines, and tangled circuits of intercompany politics, concludes that Martin had in fact rejected the Beatles more than once, to the extent of having washed his hands of them; that, upon being forced by higher edicts to sign them, he planned to turn them over to a junior producer; that he had no faith in the success of “Love Me Do,” and did exactly nothing to assure its advancement through promotion; and that, indeed, the Beatles would likely never have been signed to EMI at all if Martin had not compromised his position within the company by engaging in an extramarital affair with his secretary. George Martin’s central role in the Beatles’ success remains unquestionable. But now it is infinitely more complicated.

Here and elsewhere, Lewisohn constructs new understandings of the Beatles’ embryonic stages, or recontextualizes old ones. He records how precipitately John, Paul, and George’s grades sank after rock ‘n’ roll appeared, and how consciously they foreclosed, through neglect, their own educational and professional options, thereby leaving themselves only two conceivable paths in life—either stardom or unskilled, probably itinerant, labor. He stresses the importance of England’s revocation, in 1960, of compulsory military service for young men. (To my knowledge, the only previous book to make much of this very salient fact is Christopher Booker’s 1970 The Neophiliacs.) Lewisohn also gives each Beatle guardian a personality and a face. Aunt Mimi took in lodgers, preferring veterinary students because they could see to her pets; inexplicably, she loved “My Bonnie” while disdaining everything else the Beatles did. Harry Graves, Ringo’s stepfather, bought young Richy a surprise drum kit from a dance band in Romford around Boxing Day 1956, then carted the whole cumbersome kit back to Liverpool 8 across several train changes, a taxi ride, and a tight squeeze up the staircase “into the lad’s freezing-cold back-bedroom overlooking the privies of the houses on Grinshill Street.” 

The Beatles onstage in Hamburg with Horst Fascher, fan and bouncer.
Surprisingly, other than a certain famous pissing-on-nuns story, the legendry of the Beatles’ Hamburg debauches—that secular gospel of whores, gangsters, she-males, brawling, and balling—is found by Lewisohn to be valid. He provides the names and sketches the figures of the prostitutes and stage-door groupies who helped the young Beatles sow their oats. (Sex is a major preoccupation in the book, as it was for the priapic lads themselves.) There’s a lot of low-down on the lurid nightlife of the St. Pauli red-light district and its Grosse Freiheit nerve center; on the violent criminals who frequented the rock clubs and, in at least one instance, were photographed in the Beatles’ audience; on the “little bespectacled 60-year-old” female toilet attendant who supplied the band with Preludin, their amphetamine of choice. Lewisohn’s Hamburg Beatles are rock ‘n’ roll animals in the flesh, their onstage lives a clamor of “nonstop stomping, nonstop four-in-the-bar, nonstop flat-out rock and roll, nonstop comedy, nonstop crips and hunchbacks and Sieg Heils and lying on the floor, nonstop piss-takes, nonstop joy, nonstop insane athleticism.”

John Lennon once praised American journalist Michael Braun’s Love Me Do! The Beatles’ Progress (1964) because Braun “wrote how we were, which was bastards. … Fuckin’ big bastards.” And so each time Lewisohn documented a particularly flagrant instance of abuse, adultery, or reneging, of perverse pettiness or self-sabotaging stupidity, I wrote the word BASTARD in the margin. There are a few dozen juicy BASTARD passages in the book, starting with John and Paul coldly expelling a school chum from the Quarry Men—which of course presages the more famous sacking of Pete Best, who, though he is recalled by witnesses (and evidenced in early tapes) as a “crap drummer,” had not only performed serviceably but worked hard to get the band gigs. (In both cases, they had their manager of the moment carry out the unsavory task.)

John and Paul at the Cavern Club, Christmas 1961.
Beatle bastardliness—sometimes the “Get outta my way” of aspiring stars, often merely the “Fuck off” of obnoxious schoolboys—also dictated the betrayal of Liverpool promoter Allan Williams, who, as their nominal manager, had secured the band’s first Hamburg stint. His contractual claims on the Beatles were disregarded, for no reason other than that they felt like moving on. Lewisohn describes the coup de grace: “There was no acknowledgement of what [Williams] had done for the Beatles, just a stiff swatting-away of his claim. The Beatles weren’t sentimental types.” By the time Brian Epstein came along, they’d blown off so many gigs and breached so many promises that, even though among fans they were Liverpool’s most popular band, among bookers they were its most reviled. (Cavern Club compere Bob Wooler said that Lennon and McCartney, in their near-sociopathic lack of regard for others, sometimes reminded him of child-killers Leopold and Loeb.)

But as well as bastards, the Beatles come alive in Lewisohn as wild boys, a tiny tribe of fearless Vikings gorging on conquest and experience. John Lennon, wound up with rage, savaging his mates and abusing his girlfriends, ruling every realm he occupies by sheer force of presence, develops as part instinctive man and part calculating animal. Drawing on diabolically witty letters and cartoons, Lewisohn brings out more lividly than anyone before how funny, scary, fixated, and fixating was this creature Lennon—pure product of his time and place, but also as unaccountable, unstoppable, and world-beating an issue of woman’s womb as Lord Byron or Oscar Wilde. Paul McCartney was also singularly ambitious and serenely self-centered, brutal when he felt threatened, and suicidally resistant, in the beginning, to Epstein’s authority. George Harrison was into drinking and smoking, money and drugs, cars and women from the time he became conscious those things existed; his older bandmates often took his lead in things like hairstyle and clothing, not to mention the single-minded pursuit of the next, better guitar. And finally, Ringo. Desperately ill in childhood, living in the most violent and impoverished of Liverpool’s crumbling wards, Ringo survived on domestic warmth, metronomic drum skills, incipient alcoholism, and a refusal to buckle: “The boy was a born fighter,” Lewisohn writes, “[who] would not surrender”—good thing, too, because “nothing for this boy ever came easy.” All four Beatles emerge as complex, contradictory, subtle human organisms, and Lewisohn draws each fully enough to be understood apart from the others. “They were of one mind on life,” as he nicely puts it, “and all the stronger for arriving at their unanimity from individual perspectives.”

John and Paul at the Cavern with Gene Vincent, July 1, 1962.
Given that a love of music doesn’t guarantee the ability to write engagingly about it, it’s more than salutary that Lewisohn is excellent there as well. He provides solid critical histories of the Beatles’ founding influences—Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, the Everlys, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Smokey Robinson, the girl groups, the Brill Building songwriters (particularly Gerry Goffin and Carole King). He writes vividly of the Beatles’ experiences meeting two of those idols (Richard and Vincent), and tracks with transparent pleasure their discovery and integration into stage shows of obscure American rock and R&B sides. He understands the magical value the Beatles, like other fans of their generation, placed on the record—the vinyl 45-rpm disc—as the essential pop medium. While keenly insightful about what the Beatles took from these records, nowhere does Lewisohn exhibit the tendency of the Sixties-centric to belittle earlier artists and styles as mere artifacts of a pre-Beatles era. He is also wise and discerning on the band’s own early music, pinpointing why the Decca audition of New Year’s Day 1962 “was an instance when they signally failed to put across their magic,” and why the much-maligned Star-Club recording of December 1962 remains such a burning, vital document. This doesn’t mean a reader will agree with everything Lewisohn avers—only that the depth of his musical attention commands respect and excites the nerves, returning one to these raw sources with refreshed ears.

Tune In is a monumental achievement. It works in its parts, and it works in the whole; its guts and matter comprise not just unfamiliar facts, but also an atmosphere. We breathe the book as it breathes itself, because Lewisohn’s coup of style is to make the painstaking reconstruction and patient exposition of history seem as natural as that. Most biographies are boring, because the writer a) resists adopting a voice with anything less than the stentorian timbre of Authority, and b) fails to prevent the facts he or she has gathered from constipating, in their clusters and quantities, the flow of the narrative. Lewisohn has beaten both bugaboos, and I wish I knew exactly how. His voice—smart, skeptical, inquiring, personable, sometimes teasing or absurd, but always loving—lofts the reader easily through a 900-page forest of text (counting must-read endnotes), while almost never lapsing into hyperbole, bad puns, or fannish razzmatazz. He avoids rhythmic constipation by distributing his research tonnage in ways that are judicious and intuitive, each fact situated in a diorama of physical detail as action-packed and alive as Mr. Kite’s carnival. Who would have guessed, from Lewisohn’s previous collations of Beatlefact—irreproachable as scholarship, but as prose either encyclopedic or blandly descriptive—that he possessed mastery of this kind, deployable on this scale?

The Beatles with Ringo Starr, late 1962.

But if the feat is Lewisohn’s, the story is still—and more than ever—the Beatles’. Any number of happy accidents made it possible for Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr to find their destiny, but a far greater number of obstacles and challenges stood in their way. What Tune In makes us feel, in a fuller way than ever before, is that the Beatles, and those who believed in them, had to work like demons to surmount the one and vanquish the other. It is, for such a long book, an amazingly quick and vitalizing read, but the picture it draws is of exhaustion and slog, a desperate relentlessness—a mania—sustained by massive doses of speed, cellular immersion in rock ‘n’ roll, and a shared fanatical commitment to a level of popular breakthrough that seemed, at that time, quite literally mad. The Beatles’ story, the whole big ball of what the fuck?!, is a miracle—“a genuine ultimate,” in Lewisohn’s opening phrase—but it occurred in a world where no Beatles existed to show that such a miracle was possible, and it would never have happened without labor of a creatively demented and uniquely obsessed kind. As the Beatles learned, and as Lewisohn will not let us forget, there are no shortcuts to eternity.

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is devinmckinney.com.

7 comments:

  1. Having just finished TUNE IN and worked my way through a number of reviews, I must say Mr. McKinney's article- review feels too light a term- does as fine a job of understanding and projecting the value of the biography as Mr. Lewisohn did in treating his subject. I'm guessing Volume 2 will be called Turn On and Voume 3 will be Drop out, but...Here's hoping we don't have to wait decades to find out.

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    1. I just started TUNE IN
      Wish I could stay home with a pot of tea and the curtains drawn.
      Mr McKinney's article is spot on!

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  2. Great review. I recently finished the book , and I will never look at the band the same way.

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  3. Well now. It's 2014 and I'm just hearing about this book. And I thought I had read them all. I'll be looking for this one to devour! Great review, I was looking for more meat than Hey Dullblog gives and found it in your article/review, AND found a treasure to hunt as well! Thanks, Devin!

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  4. Excellent review. Having only just heard about the two volume "director's cut" of Tune In, I am somewhat torn. Part of me thinks, ok that's a bit long; maybe I don't need that much information. But part of me is disappointed. I just finished Tune In, and found it to be irresistibly fascinating. A great work, full of care, precision, enthusiasm and a living, breathing engine of sustained tension, that I wish I had known about the extended version before I'd read the single volume. Just a brilliant exposition of such an amazing story. I've also read numerous histories and memoirs over 40 years of interest, and thought, do we need another? But there's always been a mystery at the heart of the story which is: just what made them so different, so special, and how did it all happen? I always felt that in other books (even the great Shout), there was background and it would suddenly be "and then it was Beatlemania" and I just couldn't grasp the core. I suppose no one who wasn't there could (and perhaps even the Beatles themselves never quite understood it). But this book comes far the closest. How I wish I could start in on volume 2 right now. Hope it won't be too long...

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  5. I thought I knew all there was to know about the group but this book changed everything. Once you get past the ancestry stuff at the beginning (but in retrospect I'm glad I read that, too) the book goes deeply into places that I figured would never come to light. A MUST read for anyone who wants to understand how an almost unbelievable combination of fortuitous circumstances brought a core of music fanatics together and transformed them into a creative force that still affects Western Culture. There were dozens of stories I'd never heard before. One of my favorites was where literally the "worst band in Liverpool" comes back from Hamburg and somehow secures a headliner spot at a music hall even though nobody knew or cared who they were. They begin playing "Long Tall Sally" with the curtains closed and as they open, the entire venue becomes silent - fistfights stopping, girls quit chattering, and everyone turns and is drawn toward the stage in utter disbelief of the energy they are perceiving. It was the first night that everything they had been through seemingly fell into place. They stomped, shook, screamed, and rocked onstage harder than any band before or since. From that point on people followed them wherever they played. One of many key moments in a really good book.
    Not sure if anything like this phenomenon could ever happen again.

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