WASHINGTON — Under the concrete ribs of the barrel-shell roof of a crumbling coliseum, the capital awaits the Beatles. Or, rather, the Beatles tribute band. The real thing is exactly 50 years gone on this Tuesday night, in this exact spot in Northeast Washington, and Washington must make do with imitation, with nostalgia, with the reverb of the past.
“I'm listening to the Supremes and then all of a sudden on my transistor radio: 'I sawww herrr staaan-ding there,' ” says Steve Daugherty, 59, who's in from Chantilly, Va. with his wife, Chris. They're wearing Lennon-esque spectacles and holding tall-boy beers, their breath fogging in the meat-locker air of the Washington Coliseum, the site of the Beatles' first North American concert, on Feb. 11, 1964. The Daughertys are here for the music, they say, but might they also be here to recapture a long-ago feeling?
“Oh, yeah,” he says.
Behind the stage, in a cramped trailer that's 40 degrees warmer an hour before showtime, four men from America spray their wigs, pencil their eyebrows and button themselves into black-lapelled gray suits until they are four mop-headed lads from Liverpool. Beatlemania Now, the expert imitators of that night 50 years ago, are being watched by a man who was there, opening for the Beatles: the singer Tommy Roe.
“It's kind of spooky,” says Roe, who will now open for an imitation, half a century later. Also, says Roe: “Surreal.”
“They're Lennon-colored but when you get older, they're not as bushy,” says Scot Arch, aka John, as he pencils away in front of a mirror.
“And I wonder how Paul and Ringo keep their hair so brown,” Roe says with a glint in his eye, his hair a distinguished and well-adjusted gray.
“Ringo definitely dyed it recently,” says Ringo, aka Eric Smith, 37, who adds that when he's on stage, “I'm not Eric Smith. It's not my interpretation. I'm trying to replicate. [Ringo's] mannerisms have become my own.”
Roe exits the trailer, lopes through the cold, black backstage area, mounts the stage and plays “Sheila,” as he did 50 years ago, when there was a thick vibe of anticipation.
Now, there are comb-overs in the audience, and Styrofoam cups of hot chocolate. The shrill hysteria over something new has been replaced by polite applause for something old. The national addiction to nostalgia continues, and the present stays bearable. The coliseum tonight is a physical place to hide away.
Oh we believe/
Reality intrudes occasionally. After Roe'sset, there is an AARP sweepstakes drawing.
There are indeed young people here, people who were born years after the Beatles broke up, years even after John died. Legal assistants Jon Campbell, 24, and Daria Kasparek, 23, are here because of their parents, whose musical touchstones became theirs.
“In a sense, it's nostalgia,” Kasparek says. The music “reminds me of driving to school in the morning and my mom playing the Beatles' greatest hits.”
The re-creation isn't total, of course. The boxing-ring stage from 1964 is gone. The audience capacity in 1964 (about 8,000) is now about half that. John, Paul, George and Ringo were between 20 and 23 years old at the time. At least two of the men of Beatlemania Now are older than 30. Seats in 1964 were $2 to $4. On this Tuesday night, that won't get you a drink ticket ($5), let alone a seat ($100).
A competing Beatles tribute band called the Fab Four is scheduled to perform at the same time at the Howard Theatre in Washington. The coliseum — originally used for hockey, these days for parking, and in between for roller derbies, rodeos and the Ice Capades — will soon undergo a $77 million renovation and revert to its original name, the Uline Arena, thanks to the D.C. Preservation League and Douglas Development.
Where once there were music-driven riots and teenagers losing their minds, there will soon be a boutique honeycomb of offices and retail. The future wins, always.
But on this night, for one night only again, the Beatles haunt the coliseum in shadows and echoes.
“What time is it?” asks George, aka Chris Colon, from the backstage steps.
“8:27,” says a stagehand. “No, 8:28.”
“I have 8:29,” Colon says.
They have to go on at 8:31, because that's when the Beatles went on.
And they do, as they did, and they bang out the hits that were banged out before. “I Saw Her Standing There,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You.” Ringo has that hangdog wince. Paul, aka Graham Alexander, is doing that guppy-mouth thing that Paul does, or did.
A lone redhead in the audience is standing and dancing during the first few songs. The rest of the crowd slowly joins her, until nearly everyone is shimmying upright for “Twist and Shout,” and wiping their runny noses in the cold.
With the theatrical fog hazing the tableau, with the golden spotlights blurring the hard edges, with the right amount of beer in your gut — you can almost believe it was then and not now.