In the beginning it was just that: Four kids standing in the garage beating on these pieces of wood that we’d stolen from a construction site, wood we’d pounded nails into and attached wire onto so they would at least look like guitars. My buddy Pete played the fake solo guitar with a serious face like George; my brother Jeremy beat on the trash cans like they were drums; I stood on the side pretending to play bass like Paul McCartney which meant, of course, that I had to take the high harmony while my buddy Joey took the melody, not because he sounded like John Lennon but because he was the oldest usually could remember the words. I was never much good at the words.
The one who really could sing was Jeremy. Jeremy was younger than me by two years and, I admit, I felt like I had to look out after him like big brothers are supposed to do. I would say that Jeremy sang like an angel but I’ve never heard what angels sing like. The nuns used to say that he had a gift from God and that he needed to use it for God’s glory. When he was young, the parish priest went into his 5th grade class and told him he had to sing in the choir—it wasn’t a request, he had to sing in the choir. Because I was older, I had to join too, not because I could sing—I always felt like I could barely carry a tune—but because Jeremy needed someone to walk him to school at 6:30 in the morning when the choir met. We would practice an hour and a half and then go to Mass at 8 a.m., and then to class.
Am I rambling? Listen, brother, you live as long as I have, do as many drugs and as much alcohol as I have, get hit upside the head as often as I have, and you tend to ramble. The brain synapses don’t quite fire like they should. Nothing, for that matter, fires like it should. Thank God I’m out of it all now or else I’d really embarrass myself.
So if you want to do this interview for your TV show, young man, you’re going to have to put up with me rambling. I don’t remember things in exactly as they happened. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has. So you’d better take notes as well as record this, because you’re going to have to keep me on track more or less. I promise not to get too upset with you, throw you out the window or anything like that.
So where was I? Choir? Okay, Choir. It was run by this priest named Father Baker, and he was a young guy, full of plans and rock and roll and all that. This is in the early Sixties, the Beatles were just starting their assault on popular culture and Jesus and all that. The nuns didn’t like rock and roll in general and the Beatles in particular. They hated Elvis, thought he was trained by the devil and all that. Who knows, maybe he was. You don’t get that kind of talent from the parents he had, that’s for sure.
The nuns, now, the only pop culture star they liked was the Singing Nun. You know. Dominique a nique a nique…I have no idea what that song is about, but they used to make us sing it in class. Hey, listen, for a Catholic nun to admit that the guitar could be used for something besides luring souls to Hell was a big concession. They were Irish. You’d think they’d have music in them. I suppose they did, just not rock.
Anyway, the nuns doted on Jeremy. Thought he was so gifted that he could sing in the Vatican someday. Thought that God had sent him down here to banish the evil music from young people’s souls as soon as they heard his angelic voice singing Kyrie.
To me, he was just my little brother. He didn’t seem that different. We played army together throughout the neighborhood, running through driveways and hiding behind bushes. Jeremy quite often was the first to get captured or killed. I knew he wouldn’t make much of a soldier, so maybe his singing voice truly was a Godsend to him. Kept him out of the war, that’s for sure.
Well, in Choir Jeremy was the star. I couldn’t believe it. The boy would open his mouth and this sound would come out, unearthly, pure as water, yet solid and warm. More often than not I would forget to sing my part because I was lost in hearing him. Of course, no one noticed when I forgot my part. I was only one of thirty boys singing. But everyone listened to Jeremy.
Thing is, he didn’t seem to notice. He just closed his eyes and bobbed his head and sang like it was the most natural thing in the world.
So when we got into the garage and played at being the Beatles, I thought for sure that Jeremy would be either John or Paul. But he got behind those trash cans and started beating and damned if that beating didn’t sound good. I mean, the kid had natural rhythm and he could even do drum rolls with the sticks he used—I’m trying to remember what he used for sticks. Not real drumsticks—we couldn’t even begin to afford real drum sticks. No, I think he used some wooden spoons he’d stolen from mom’s kitchen. Yeah, now that I remember it, mom beat his butt when she found out. I tried not to cry watching him. I hated watching any of us kids get beaten.
And Jeremy rarely was on the wrong end of the belt, either. But she was furious when she saw what he’d done to her wooden mixing spoons. The poor things were reduced to a pulp. “These things don’t grow on trees,” she screamed. “But doesn’t wood come from trees?” Jeremy asked innocently. I think she beat him more because of his logic than because of the spoons.
So Jeremy played the cans. He didn’t sing unless it was one of the Ringo songs, and at that he sang way better than Ringo. I actually got to meet Ringo years later and mentioned this to him. “Mate,” he said to me, “everyone can sing better than me. But I still get paid for it.” Actually a pretty nice guy, Ringo.
I’ll never forget the time we wandered down to the liquor store with our wooden guitars and Jeremy holding his beat up wooden spoons (which mom let him keep since they were no good for anything else anymore). The guy behind the counter looked at us, smiling like a Cheshire.
“Who are you?” he said.
“We’re the Beatles,” Joey said, always the brave one.
“The Beatles, eh?” he turned around and opened the intercom that went to the restaurant next door. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “here are the Beatles!”
We gathered around that intercom and sang “I Saw Her Standing There,” complete with “ooo’s”, this time all four of us combining on a harmony. We sang the whole song and no one stopped us.
In fact when we were done, the guy behind the counter looked a lot more impressed than he should have been for a gaggle of 10 and 11 year old kids. “You guys need a manager,” he said. I thought he was kidding. I mean, this is fun and all, but who ever heard of a bunch of kids making music?
The only person who seemed to take the guy seriously was Joey. Joey always was full of plans. When we played Army, Joey almost always was the captain, the one who figured the strategy and kept most of us from getting caught or killed. Everyone except Jeremy, that is. But I already talked about how Jeremy was the worst Army player I ever saw. The boy had so much musical talent that he had to fail somewhere.
Anyway, Joey steps up to the guy and says, “Do you know someone?” Like he knows what a manager is and how they help you and what they do and all that. All I knew about a manager was that the Beatles had this guy named Brian Epstein and he was their manager and he did stuff for them but I had no idea what that “stuff” was.
The guy behind the counter rubbed his chin and said, “Well, you know, I just might have a line on a guy that can help you. What’s the name of your band?”
We sort of looked at each other. We’d just always assumed we were the Beatles but we knew we couldn’t use that name. And calling ourselves the Little Beatles was kind of sad.
But Joey wasn’t fazed, not at all. The boy hitched his fake guitar over his shoulder and said, “We’re the Dinosaurs. The Little Dinosaurs.”
I later asked him how he came up with the name.
“Dinosaurs are big. So I figured, if we were going into show business, we might as well tell everyone from the beginning that we intended to be noticed.”
That’s Joey for you. The boy was always thinking, even when he was eleven years old.
Me, I usually go along for the ride and feel happy to be there watching the talented guys do things.
On the way back to the garage with our ten cent sodas and five cent candy bars, Joey seemed like he was wired to the electric lines or something. He was all excited.
“We could get on TV. We can be famous. We can make money. We can quit school and become musicians,” he said, his eyes glowing even in the daylight.
“We can’t even play the guitar,” I pointed out, always the pragmatist. “We just pretend.”
“We can sing,” Joey said. “Someone else can play guitar until we learn.”
“You mean we pretend to play?” Jeremy said. He looked troubled.
“I heard that when you seen these guys singing on TV, they’re not really singing. They’re pretending to sing while the show plays a recording behind them. It’s called lip synching. All the big acts do it.”
“You liar,” Pete chimed in. “I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and they didn’t pretend to sing. I know they didn’t because John got the verses wrong.”
“Of course the Beatles don’t do it,” Joey said, his voice dripping with reasonableness. “They’re too big to lip synch. But lots of other bands do it. And anyway, I’m not saying we lip synch ourselves. We just get other people to play the guitars and stuff for us until we can learn.”
“How we gonna learn?” Pete said.
“Same as everyone else. We get some guitars and drums and work on it till we’re good.”
“Where we gonna get the money to buy that stuff?” I asked. “Those things cost a lot of money. It’s not like we’re gonna walk into Mr. Leo’s market and buy some guitars off his twenty five cent toy rack.”
“No, you dummy, you get your manager to buy that stuff for you. That’s one of the things a manager does. Anyway, we’re kids. No one will expect us to play instruments right away.”
So that’s what a manager does, I told myself. I didn’t say anything aloud because I didn’t want the others to think I was stupid.
“But one thing we gotta work on,” Joey continued, “is songs. We gotta write our own songs. All the big groups do it. Not just the Beatles. Herman’s Hermits, the Dave Clark Five, Gerry and the Pacemakers—they all write their own songs. We can’t go out there singing Beatles stuff all the time.”
“Why not?” Jeremy asked.
“Dummy, because the Beatles are already singing them. You think someone is gonna want to buy an album of kids singing Beatles songs? That’s just stupid.”
We all nodded at the wisdom of this. What none of us noticed, not for a second, is that no one was questioning any of this—not the fact that we were gonna actually be a band, not that we were gonna learn to play instruments, not even that Joey was suddenly the leader of the group. It sort of all fell into place.
And anyway, this was the time in the world when Rock and Roll—and particularly the British Invasion—ruled the world. Not just the radio, the whole world. People listened to them, their songs and the things they said. They were the most important people in the news. Their every move, their every utterance, was reported on breathlessly as if there were contained in their acts and words the secret to salvation. In other times it’s been generals or presidents or poets or baseball players or whatever the world was in the mood to admire and deify. In my childhood the kings were the rock stars. It was natural that every kid wanted to be one—that’s why we were pretending that our old garage was a stage (it faced to the street) and that’s why we had nailed together those fake guitars in the first place. And, looking back, I realized that we were actually putting our act together there, working on harmonies, sorting out the hierarchy of the band, figuring out who would play what.
By the time we got home, we had decided not to play at being the Beatles any more that day. We weren’t going to imitate them anymore, we all tacitly decided. Oh, we’d still sing a lot of their songs. We had to—those songs were the only ones we all knew. But from that day we had changed. We were no longer the Little Beatles.
We were the Little Dinosaurs. It felt like being ordained.