What is truly authentic?
I was born in 1961. On Valentine’s day.
The Beatles were in their infancy, too. They started playing clubs in Liverpool in 1959. Most historians point to The Cavern Club as the pub where the band got its start.
But that’s not the whole story, I learned. In fact, it wasn’t a cavern, but a cellar where the magic started.
I was in Liverpool this past June performing Business of Story workshops with my now good friend, Bryan Adams, founder of PH Creative, one of the United Kingdom’s top digital agencies. On Monday, I did a walkabout in the city and dropped in to meet Bryan for the first time. We had become fast friends online over our mutual curiosity regarding the power of story in business. We co-produced three business storytelling workshops in his city and London.
I mentioned to Bryan that my next stop was The Cavern, which happened to be just around the corner from his agency. He said that if I was a Beatles’ fan that I should visit the Casbah Coffee Club.
“The what?” I asked.
“Oh, the Casbah. You have to see it, mate,” Bryan said as he was already dialing up someone on his telly.
“Hey, Roug. Bryan here. Giving tours today? Right. Half of 12 and half of 2. Got it. I’m sending a friend by… Park. Take care of him, ok?”
As Bryan pulled his phone down he looked at me and said, “The Casbah is just a short cab ride away, it’s charming and you’ll love it. Half of 12 or half of 2. Your choice, mate.”
“Twelve thirty?” I asked.
“Right,” Bryan smiled.
I never felt more the dull American than at that moment.
To be clear, I’m a Beatles fan but not a fanatic. I was nine when they broke up in 1970. Elton John was my first favorite British rocker. Caribou was my first purchased album. His 1976 performance at the Seattle Center Coliseum was my first concert.
I only knew the Beatles as the Shea Stadium Beatles, the Fab Four, Beatlemania. They were huge by the time my pubescent musical tastes pimpled to life.
One of the places I was eager to visit during my short stay in Liverpool was The Cavern. It not only gave birth to the Beatles, so I believed, but hosted many of my favorite British bands, including Elton John, The Who and Queen.
I’ve visited a lot of cathedrals in Europe, but this was my first one for music. It’s a living, breathing catacomb that entombs the relics of rock. Original show posters, photos, signed guitars and paraphernalia all propped behind glass. Signatures are Sharpied like spider webs across its red brick walls and curved ceiling. Even the dressing room had a scent of stale sweat from rockers gone by.
Sitting down at one of the pub benches, you feel like you’re in a large brick oven with the essence of rock baked into its walls. Or is it more like the womb of rock and roll? I’m mixing metaphors here like they mixed musical styles, from jazz to skiffle to beat to rock. There is something about this cave/gallery two stories below 10 Mathew Street that truly feels like the birthplace of rock and roll.
Or so I thought.
We all start in a cellar somewhere
My Uber driver had a hard time finding the Casbah Coffee Club. It’s not what you might picture as a quaint little coffee shop. The Casbah is the basement of a two-story home in the blue collar neighborhood of West Derby Village. We turned down a narrow street crowned by trees. We eased along slowing to the first couple of suspected addresses. They were just houses. He finally stopped in front of two iron gates that opened to a battered driveway.
“Are you sure this is it?” I asked.
“Yep, that’s what it says, Mate. ‘8 Haymans Green,'” pointing to his iPhone perched on his dash.
I got out, he pulled off, and I began sizing up the place. Peering about to make sure I wasn’t mistaken for a cat burglar, as there was no one else around this “tourist attraction,” I followed cautious feet down the drive.
“Where has Bryan sent me?”
The house was empty. But I was reassured when I saw the small Coca-Cola sign on the front that read “Casbah Coffee Club.” I went around back looking for someone. A couple of parked cars and a dozen white plastic chairs on a bark-covered patio were the only signs of life. I tugged on a few locked doors, then walked around to the far side of the house. I found a graveyard for old lawn mowers, tools, doors, siding and brick.
Right after I took this picture, two blokes in a gray sedan pulled up. The driver was a short, stocky guy in a bad ass leather jacket. He was a cross between a Harley rider and a drummer. The other guy sprang from the passenger door on the left side of the car. I was half expecting to be wrestled to the ground, my face pushed into the mud, and asked what in the hell was I doing there? I wouldn’t have blamed them either, because I felt like I was clearly trespassing.
Instead, two bright grins rang out when I told them Bryan had sent me.
“Ah, you must be Park,” Roag, the driver and the first to greet me, said. “This is Roag Junior,” pointing to his son. “We’re glad you made it. But we have some things to do, and the tour doesn’t start for another 30 minutes, so go walk around the village for awhile,” he directed.
“Uh, ok,” I said.
Like all European villages it seems, West Derby is anchored by a church. Around it was a Tesco quickie mart, flower shop, a few nondescript offices and stores, and a pub called The Hunt Club, that declared, “Only proper dress, no yoga pants or athletic suits are allowed.” Our version of “No shoes, no shirt, no service,” I suspected. I consider dropping in for a pint, but something inside me told me to stay out.
I surveyed the church, which was built in 18-something, and then made my way back to 8 Haymans Green.
When I returned I was relieved to find tourists: an older couple and two guys in their 60’s with their daughters from Van Nuys, California. One of the guys was a Fab Four devotee. He describe his visit as: “my pilgrimage to the birthplace of the Beatles.”
It started becoming more legit for me.
I think my initial distrust in this experience came from the lack of authenticity I’m used to in American museums and tourist traps. We print our authenticity on certificates as if to say, “Really, this is authentic. I swear.” And then we put everything in tables and behind glass removing our connection with the past and relying solely on our visual senses.
Standing in the backyard of a home whose landscape appeared to be groomed by a lazy teenager, and yet proclaiming itself to be the birthplace of the Beatles, was surreal to me. Why hadn’t our popular culture made more mention of this place?
But then again, why couldn’t this be real? How many great American bands started in their basements and garages? Just because the Beatles first found widespread fame in The Cavern that became a legendary venue doesn’t mean that it couldn’t have all begun right here.
We gathered like eager groupies at that back door on the right you see in the picture above. Roag Jr. led us into the Casbah Coffee Shop. “Duck your head, watch your step, this not a proper entry,” he chuckled. “The authorities would never allow this these days.”
A flood of gloss paint, cobwebs, dust and the detritus common to dank, forgotten basements clung to the walls and ceiling.
“We’re not in America,” he joked. “Feel free to touch anything you like.”
A dragon greets you at the entry of the Casbah. Mona Best, or “Mo” as she preferred, owner of the home and matriarch of the Casbah, painted this serpent to ward off evil spirits. Paul and John would rub the artwork for good luck every night they came to perform. Most of the patrons followed their lead, and we were encouraged to pat the magic dragon as well. As you’ll notice by the worn paint, and as Roag Jr. pointed out, it is original. Everything in the Casbah is original. Never been retouched, lacquered over or restored.
Take a left down the claustrophobic hallway, and you’ll enter the coffee club portion of the Casbah where only soda and tea were served. No drugs or alcohol permitted. On the wall is a silhouette of Paul McCartney jamming on his guitar painted by Cynthia Lennon, John’s first wife. (She is also pictured above transfixed on Paul).
Notice the ceiling. Paul, John and Neal Aspinall, Mo’s second husband and father to Roag, (Roag is Pete Best’s half brother) painted those silver stars. The famed auction house, Sotheby’s, was called in to appraise the contents of the Casbah. They estimated this ceiling, which is nothing more than plywood and paint, at more than one million pounds.
“I think it’s a good idea to let people know about the Casbah. They know about the Cavern, they know about some of those things, but the Casbah was the place where all that started. We helped paint it and stuff. We looked upon it as our personal club.” – Sir Paul McCartney.
Take a right down the hallway and you enter into the “expanded” stage they used once the Casbah really got hopping. The room can’t be larger than 20 feet by 20 feet with the ceiling not much taller than six feet. Notice the iron fence in front of the stage. John asked that it be installed because the crush of people in that tiny room would often push the players back against the wall.
You can see in the foreground where the Bests tore out the wall to expand the Casbah. Now imagine sitting behind the drums in this tiny room full of screaming, smoking fans.
From this position, if you look straight up, you will see where John etched his name into the ceiling announcing the band’s return from Hamburg, Germany.
This is probably a good place to stop and provide a quick history lesson on the Beatles to bring this all into context. This is where in the tour it all started to make sense for me.
- August 29, 1959, Mona Best decides to turn her basement into a coffee club where her teenage sons, Pete and Rory Best, could hang out with their friends listening to and playing music. It was her way to keep them off the streets. Sound familiar? We grew up in a similar basement with the same parental intentions.
- The Quarrymen—John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ken Brown—were friends with Pete and wanted to play the Casbah. Mona agreed, but said she needed to finish painting the club first. They all helped paint the walls with spiders, dragons, rainbows and stars.
- When The Quarrymen decided to go to Hamburg, Germany, to play a three year residency, they asked Pete to join the band. This is when, according to Malcom Gladwell in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, the Beatles honed their sound through 10,000 hours of playing.
- In Hamburg, they toured as the Silver Beatles. Pictured below are Pete Best, George, John, Paul and bassist Stuart Sutcliffe.
- The Beatles returned to the Casbah Coffee Club in 1962 with a refined sound and raging local fans. This is when John carved his name in the ceiling pictured above.
- The club became overwhelmed causing Mo to reach out to the Cavern.
- At the time, the Cavern was a jazz-only club. They initially declined Mona’s recommendation until she commented that they might enjoy having 200 raving fans in their audience rather than the 20 she witnessed one Saturday night. They agreed.
- When Brian Epstein took over as their manager, Best was replaced by Ringo Starr, who was also playing the Casbah, and the rest is history.
The epicenter of rock and roll
On the opening night of the Casbah Coffee Club, before they had expanded into the “larger” room, this was the pantry-sized stage where it all began.
Barely eight feet wide, it was the launching pad of the Beatles – the Fab Four – who would invade America and infect the world with Beatlemania, and forever change the course of rock and roll.
It wasn’t until the end of the tour that I mentioned to Roag Jr. how much I enjoyed the Casbah, especially after visiting the Cavern.
“You do know that is not the original Cavern, right?” Roag asked.
“Yeah, they demolished that building, kept the bricks and built a replica about 50 feet from where it used to be,” he said.
At once I felt betrayed by the experience. I was all in when I visited the Cavern. Even poured myself a pint at 10:30 am and sat there imagining what a show would be like. I thought I was sitting in the original.
Even though they remade it to appear exactly as it did, it now lost its authenticity for me.
The Casbah Coffee Club, on the other hand, is a time capsule that you can ingest. That you can touch. Where you can hang out in the squishy backyard when no one is around and feel the reverberation of rock and roll pulse at you like a subwoofer.
This, to me, was unbelievably authentic.
As I explored Liverpool and worked with business folks through my story workshops, I asked how many knew of and visited the Casbah Coffee Club. I was astonished to learn that roughly five percent of those I asked were aware of the West Derby club, and even fewer had ever visited the basement from which the Beatles emerged.
This surprising afternoon adventure underscored to me that there is no such thing as an overnight sensation. Rock and roll history books will tell us that the Beatles sprang onto the scene one Liverpool Saturday night in the Cavern. But they actually arrived as you and I might. Starting in a sweaty basement. Performing through sleepless nights. Following a passion. And working/playing our fingers to the bone.
Pete Best and his family not only created the petri dish that created the Beatles, but have preserved its authenticity by letting it live on as it is. As it was.
It’s so authentic, you can not only feel it, you can touch it.
In December, 2014, CBS hosted a TV special celebrating the 50 year anniversary of the Beatles appearing on the Ed Sullivan show. This time, our family played a minor part in their history. Our son, Parker, created the motion graphics that accompanied Imagine Dragon’s rendition of Revolution.
After the show, we rang Parker to congratulate him on his success.
“Yeah, it was okay,” he said.
“Ok? But you had Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and Yoko Ono sitting in the front row watching your work,” I said.
“Eh, you know, dad. The Beatles are kind of your and mom’s band. I’m already busy on my next project.”
It occurs to me now that Parker was lost somewhere in his 10,000 hours, toiling in his one-bedroom Hollywood apartment/studio, his version of the West Derby basement, doing his thing.
Will it make his work famous? Only time will tell. But one thing I know for sure is that realizing our dreams all starts in an uncelebrated cellar somewhere.