Playing Stories — Chapter 17: Something

Chapter 17: Something
from the 1969 album “Abbey Road” by the Beatles
posted at 23:59, 1 March 2019

You’re asking me, will my love grow
I don’t know, oh, I don’t know
You stick around now, it may show…

Their faces peered up at me from the cover of the programme. They looked elegant and refined in their suits and ties, but their smiles were the thing that caught me. Their smiles were enigmatic. They looked as if they were hiding a thousand secrets and being completely honest at the same time. They looked like they didn’t care about a thing in the world — anything except me. And I found myself wondering: who were these people?

I’d seen the Ladders on television before, of course. Growing up, they and their music seemed to be everywhere: plastered on the face of records that came out every six months. We had them in the house all the time: bearded, clean-shaven; tired, bright as the desert sun. But they WERE all over the media in the summer of ‘76: “LADDERS REUNITE”, every newspaper in the country was saying. “SWEET SCENES AS ERIC AND BILLY HUG ON AIR”, and so on. My friends were all suddenly flocking in twos and threes into the record stores, all to buy the records of a band that hadn’t come up with a new song in seven years.

I mean, I liked what they’d done, and I knew some of their songs. But they were just that. A band that I knew something about. Nothing else — nothing to love, at least. But my sister adored them — she always liked to boast, to every new friend she made, how she had been the youngest person in the audience when they’d first appeared in America, and how her first memory was dancing along with the crowd despite not having a clue what was happening onstage. She sang them every day in the house, pored over their new records. It was almost annoying, to be honest, but my parents didn’t mind. They were probably relieved that she wasn’t forever doing drugs at her age anyway.

So it wasn’t that much of a shocker when she announced in the house one day that she was going to one of their concerts. They’d recently agreed to just two reunion concerts, and the world had exploded in unison upon the news. What WAS surprising was that she’d drag me in.

“Wait… but… I hardly know their songs… and I don’t like crowds.”

“I know, but, you know!” Her eyes were sparkling with excitement. “The chance to see them LIVE! The chance of a lifetime! You know how hard it is to get Carl on a stage these days? It’s AWESOME, the way he plays his guitar.”

Nobody really argued with Marianne Richards when it came to the Ladders. I tried my best. So I found myself sitting next to a bunch of girls. They were all slightly older than my sister — maybe a few years or a decade younger than my mother. Not much more. But all of them had that wide-eyed look, where they clutched their small purses and looked expectantly out onto the stage, a wasteland littered with metal and tape. I turned my head to look the other way: what was this? Next to me was another boy, slightly older than me. Maybe he was with his girlfriend. He beamed when he saw me.

“Hey. This your first time at a Ladders concert?” he smiled.

“Yup. You?”

“Nah. Saw their last concert in Oakland. Best day of my life so far.” He giggled softly. “Maybe it’ll change today… I snuck out for this, so this better be good!”

Huh. Another die-hard fan. Guess the place was full of these. I opened my mouth again. “So which songs of theirs do you remem—”

I never finished the sentence. My new friend’s eyes suddenly swivelled to the stage, and quick as a flash he was up on his feet. So was half the stadium. I stood up to get a better view: was it the Ladders? Our seats weren’t that far away, but everyone was screaming, everyone was clapping, I couldn’t see. Nope, just an old man, smiling uneasily as he faced a crowd a third his age.

“IT’S ED MICHAELS!” shouted my sister. “HE’S THE MAN WHO INTRODUCED THEM WHEN THEY CAME HERE! OHMYGOD THEY GOT HIM TO COME!”

Michaels looked at us. Waiting for us to stop shouting, waiting for us to “And now, here they are, ladies and gentlemen, the moment you’ve been waiting seven years for — Eric, Billy, Carl and Richie, please welcome THE LADDERS!”

I’d thought that it would be impossible for the people around me to scream even louder, but they did. The girls around me erupted into ecstasy, their faces streaked with angry tears. And then they arrived.

Billy bounded up onstage first, as if he’d been waiting for the go-ahead all along. His smile was infectious — he was so damn cute in all those pictures that Marianne put up, but a decade had passed and he still looked amazing. He smiled at the crowd, and for a moment his gaze alighted on me. My mouth dropped. He had looked at me.

The other three climbed up onstage a little later. For a moment you could see the faces on Carl and Eric: tired, a little taken back, their faces going “this shit again”? But they weren’t bored — they were laughing and chattering with each other. Richie high-fived Billy as he went behind the drums. “Can you believe this!” I saw him mouth to Billy, who simply chuckled. The crowd was still beside themselves. I realized, with a start, that deep down the members of the Ladders wanted this. They LIVED for this.

“HELLO EVERYONE! WELCOME TO CITYFIELD!” Billy bellowed into the mic. “BILLY! WE LOVE YOU!” I heard my sister scream in response. I turned to look at her: she was crying, her face red and splotchy. She had never looked like this in front of my parents. I looked at her, and back at the stage again. So THIS was why. Richie picked up his sticks, and we were off. So many songs, songs that I’d heard only through my sister’s phonograph, it all came flooding back in an instant.

I have no idea how it happened. Perhaps the screaming, too, was infectious. Perhaps it was the four Ladders themselves, larger than life and voices like angels. But something descended on me on that instant, a blinding glare, a connection between my soul and theirs. It was like seeing God — no, it was more than that. Christianity never left me standing there. Jesus never turned me inside out, not like the way Eric was doing, at least. Anyway, I’m pretty sure that by song number three — “This Diamond Ring”, maybe, or was it “Bluebird”? — I was up on my feet, screaming with the others.

“Yes,” I remember thinking. “This. This is my kind of thing now. This is my life in a nutshell.” I didn’t even know the words to most of the songs: I couldn’t even hear them over the screams and the hand-wringing that everyone was doing. But at every glimpse of the crowd, I felt Billy or Carl or Eric look at me, sing to me. This was for me, and I took in everything: their beautiful harmonies, the sound of the crowd screaming their adoration, the way Carl’s fingers dived in and out the strings. Everything. Everything that came from the musicians onstage. Just four boys grown slightly up — their charm still at full flow, still making everyone thirst after them.

It was getting late — they’d been playing for three hours, showing off all their group and solo hits — but almost everyone was still singing along, and as they bowed together for one last time, I found myself craving just one more song. They couldn’t be going. We weren’t satisfied yet. The crowd agreed with me, so the band smiled. Yes, they said. We’ll give you something to chew on. And Billy sat down at the piano, a smirk on his face. (He always did that, and he must have know just how damn charming he was when he did that.) Silence for fifteen seconds, thirty. Then — the first notes of “Hey Julia” came floating through the air.

It was like a mute button had been pressed on the whole stadium. Us screaming boys and girls — we who were still conscious — all quietened down. What was this song that he was singing? Sure, it was their biggest hit. Sure it had been around for longer than anyone could remember. But they’d never played it in concert. Could it be — could it be that they were playing it for us?

Billy was still smirking. Eric and Carl were doing it too: people said that the two of them hated the song, but none of their disdain showed here. They knew what it meant to us. And as Billy sang to his friend, how he could make it all better, a chill passed through all of us. Because we believed, all of us there, even if a lot of us, like me, didn’t need reassuring. We gave them our hearts, and they dutifully squeezed it dry. We surrendered ourselves, completely for the big chorus. Now “just the fellers” were singing. Now “the ladies”. “I FRICKIN LOVE THAT SOUND!” shouted Billy, and we believed him.

It felt like the sun rising on us, as we screamed out that chorus, again and again. It felt like God Himself had decided to grant us unlimited energy, or perhaps it was Billy with that verse, and we could have sung forever. Perhaps we did sing forever, and I’m now writing from beyond the void. But I can still hear that sound is still ringing in my ears, even after it was all over.

I went through the standard conversion process after that concert, checked out all of their albums with my sister’s help. Ladders for Sale. Shout. Plastic Soul. After Geography — a really atrocious pun on their rivals’ Aftermath, which I loved them even more for. And they kept on recording, for as long as they could, and I grew up with them, eighteen years behind. I ended up being even more fanatical than my sister, but that was because they were there. They were there as I learned to love on my own, telling me that I had it in me to find myself a girl, to pick myself up again, to lie back and watch the world. They knew me, better than I knew them. Even today — all those years after Eric died in a car crash, and Carl lost his battle with old age — I can still hear their voices from that concert, and from their music, giving me love, with me every step of the way.

“When I listen to the Beatles, I do not imagine being one of them: I fantasize about being the girl in the upper-balcony cheap seats, ripping out my hair and shrieking, tapping into a ruinous eternal gnosis that not even the boys in the band could ever know.”

— Rob Sheffield, “Dreaming the Beatles”


If you insist, but I’ll still be around anyway. Give me a shout if it goes at all downhill for you. You know how it is with all of us, and you’ve always been there for me. No need to be too cynical about it all, we’re not going anywhere soon. 🙂

Q

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