Jul 20, 2017, 05:56AM

When I Joined the Beatles

In a Hamburg basement.

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At my tryout Lennon wants me to play “Boney Maroney.” I say no. I guess they think I don’t like the way he asked, and in fact Lennon didn’t ask, not really. He’d drawled the name, and then massaged his forehead. “‘Boney Maroney,’” he said. “Just do ‘Boney Maroney.’” He’s sitting in a folding chair and has one foot up on a nightstand that stands there, abandoned, in a wasteland of cement. Above our heads there’s the Star-Club and a galloping, clopping, crashing sound that I identify as rows of tables being moved, one row then the next, so the floor can be mopped.

“Don’t know ‘Boney Maroney’?” Lennon says. I’m looking down at my guitar.

“Yeah, maybe,” says Paul, speaking up. He’d said hi at the door, big smile. “Tricky number,” he offers now. “It’s for the cogny-sentee.”

“You got the gitt-tar,” Lennon drawls. “The number usually comes along. You got a gitt-tar, it’s difficult not to play ‘Boney Maroney.’ That’s the trick, not to play it.”

“Well, he’s good at something,” Paul says. “He’s good at not playing ‘Boney Maroney.’” The remark lands like a dart in my neck. I hadn’t expected it of him. I don’t even know Paul, but even so. I hadn’t expected it of him.

“Our boy’s a talent,” Lennon says. “But he’s got to flaunt it, hasn’t he? He’ll show the world he can’t play ‘Boney Maroney.’”

The ceiling appears to cough. Something has hit it very hard, as if the waiters wanted to see what two tables and a bar stool could do together.

“Yeah,” I say. “How about… we just get this. I got to be somewhere and I want to see how you guys do as a band. You play, I play, we see how that goes.” I say this in a firm, steady voice, but I’m looking down at my guitar. “Okay?” I tell them. “Because I have to get crosstown pretty soon.” Now I’m looking up. “You got guitars, right?” I say. “I’m kind of curious.”

Lennon looks back at me. The look on his face is that now he has company. He doesn’t welcome me, but he recognizes a fellow presence in the room.

“Bet they’re not as pretty as yours,” Lennon says. He bats his eyes.

“I like the accent,” Paul says, but he’s no longer on my blind side. He’s come mooching into view and he’s winsome again, my old chum at the door. “Mr. Mitchum, you speak with great authority.”

“Yeah,” Lennon says. “You’re from film, aren’t you? The accent.”

“Robert Mitchum,” Paul says.

The waiters drop another table. There’s a pause. Lennon picks up. “Didn’t know—,” he says. Another table. Pause. “Didn’t know Mr. Mitchum was blond,” Lennon says.

“Jesus,” I say. “You’re staying with that? They just dropped two tables in a row, and you’re doing your thing about Mitchum. Move on.”

Paul laughs. I made him laugh at John.

“Look,” I say. “I got to get cross town. If you’ve got your guitars, we can play. I’m not going to do numbers.”

There’s a metal screech. It’s the door; someone’s pushing it open. “’Ullo,” a voice says. “We’re doing it here then?”

“Hello, Ritchie,” Paul says.

“Hi, Rich,” John says.

“Not upstairs? I see they got the place upside down.”

“Stains,” Paul says. “Remember? Last night during ‘Besame,’ the sailor that got laid out.”

“One of yours,” John says to me.

“Oh, they did him horrible,” says the newcomer. “’Ullo,” he says to me. He’s got a pair of drumsticks in one fist.

“Hey, good to meet you,” I say. None of the boys are big, but he’s the smallest. He’s got liquid brown eyes, and they seem to fight for space with his thatch of brown hair. The three of them have their hair like that.

“Don’t have me drums,” he says.

“I don’t know if they have guitars,” I say, shoulders up, my guitar bobbing. My elbow points sort of in the direction of Paul and John. “I may never find out,” I say. “They’re shy.”

“Come on, lads, get your guitars,” says Ritchie. “Let the chap give it a bash.” He looks around. “Let me see about that table,” he says. Meaning the one John has his foot on.

John gets up. His guitar is behind his chair. Paul has his guitar on a trestle table that stands behind him. Ritchie taps the night table with his drumsticks.

The ceiling screeches. I don’t know what they’re moving up there.

“This’ll do,” Ritchie says. He’s tapping on the tabletop and two of the legs, up and down. This produces a skittering, hustling sound that groups itself into a rhythm, then a beat. He stops. “Yeah,” he says. “That’s all right.”

“Right,” John says. “‘Boney Maroney.’” And we play.

—Follow C.T. May on Twitter: @CTMay3


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