Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
Yesterday, I played a few of my songs for the crowd at the Cavern Club. Let me write that again because I still can’t believe it occurred. On Sunday, May 21, this 48-year-old fading modernist took the stage at the very place on Mathew Street in Liverpool where The Beatles were discovered and played a set at the International Pop Overthrow festival. It’s precisely 24 hours later as I write this and I haven’t slept yet; why sleep when you have a chance to live your dream?
Here’s how it happened.
A couple weeks ago, I bought a Gibson SG from Smoking Popes singer Josh Caterer. You can see Caterer playing it in the Smoking Popes video Punk Band. Did you ever see The Lilacs video of the song Very Last Time? That was directed by Bill Ward. A year of so later Ward directed the Popes in their breakthrough hit video Need You Around, a song that appeared in the movie Clueless. Just like The Lilacs, but to a much bigger degree, the Popes benefitted from the patronage of Joe Shanahan, the Cabaret Metro impresario who nurtured bands’ careers. I loved the Smoking Popes like crazy ever since I saw that video.
Toward Summer 1993, The Lilacs were facing an existential crisis as some of our members began to feel an intense tug toward religious observance. It’s hard to get that compatible with the punk rock road warrior lifestyle. I didn’t know the guys in the Popes then (and still don’t really) but man did I identify with Josh Caterer as he struggled to square his commitment to his religion with the fact that he is an excellent songwriter, a plus guitarist and one of the most distinctive singers Chicago rock ever produced. Caterer’s loungey crooning, mapped against this really aggressive music, just really spoke to me.
The pull exerted by G-d on Josh is beautifully captured in one of the best music pieces ever written, JR Jones’ cover story in the Reader called The Pope Who Found Jesus. At the peak of their fame, Josh completely left the Popes (who were his actual brothers, not just his musical brothers) to pursue his path. Only on his own terms, as a man who knew who he was and what he was about, was he able to come back and create more music. That music hasn’t quite achieved the commercial success of the hits and near hits they were starting to create right when he left, they are still pretty damn great.
Anyway, in my own life, after decades of missing music but not creating it so that I could focus on my career and family and all the rest, I found myself saying yes to things I would have said no to for 20 years. The day after the SG arrived, I got offered the opportunity to play at IPO Liverpool. The hand of hashem!!!
I was panicked that I’d look like a pathetic sub-Mick-Jagger rock retiree, a Rocky 6 situation. But that’s what it means to try, right?
So there I was, landing in Manchester and training it up to Liverpool.
For 15 years now, David Bash has been producing International Pop Overthrow. Named after the song and album by Chicago’s very much missed pop kings Material Issue, IPO has grown and thrived, appearing in a dozen cities over the course of the year (it’ll hit Brooklyn in November). But as Bash told me yesterday, the 8-day version in Liverpool, with its culture of all-day drinking, unmatched enthusiasm for live music and unrivaled roots as a pop mecca, is the best expression of the festival’s ideal.
Some 70 bands come from all over the world to pursue the elemental art form of jangly guitars, pulsating backbeats, tuneful melodies and sweet harmonies. Still works.
The Cavern—which really is way underground—opened its doors in 1957 and later that year a fellow called John Lennon led his skiffle band The Quarry Men through a set. In May 1960, the Cavern hosted its first rock n roll night—Rory Storm and the Hurricanes plowed through a set with Ringo Starr on drums. The first Beatles appearance occurred on February 9, 1961. The band played regular lunchtime sets—Brian Epstein discovered them there in November of that year. Having given up live performances entirely for the majority of their career, it’s maybe not generally understood what a fearsome live act The Beatles were. Between Feb. 1961 and their last gig there on Aug. 3, 1963, The Beatles played a mind-boggling 292 shows at the Cavern.
On Halloween 1965, The Who played in Liverpool for the first time, their Cavern appearance marking “the first Merseyside appearance of one of England’s top groups, the hit recorders of “Anytime, Anyhow, Anywhere” and “I can’t explain.” I’ve preserved the mistakes on the title of the first Who song and weird capitalization of the second because they’re just so impossibly charming. Exactly five years later, on Halloween 1970, the Cavern hosted the first-ever performance of an operatic quartet called Queen (Freddie Mercury lived in Penny Lane).
All these years later, the spirit of Merseybeat lives on and the International Pop Overthrow captures it. On Saturday night, the breakout band of the festival, B-Side from Bromsgrave, U.K., took the stage. I was already a fan from the appearance of several of their pop gems on IPO compilation CDs (which you should buy here), but what really startled me was the band’s ability to reproduce these lush and complex Beach Boys inflected harmonies onstage. Led by Sean Macreavy, the band has that rare ability to create songs that feel at once totally novel but still rooted in shared appreciation of genres past. And it doesn’t hurt that they have two authentic gems just screaming to be included in summer movies, “The Sun Brings Out the Girls” and “Sky Crying Rain.”
Because of the multiple stages, it’s literally impossible to see every band, and I couldn’t attend the entire festival anyway. But other highlights from my three days include Scotland’s The Fast Camels, a prog pop inheritor that looks like Slade and sounds like late Mott the Hoople; NYC’s four-girls-two-guys Slyboots (the female guitar player even gets a couple solos!); a Kinks tribute from Spain called The Village Green Experience fronted by the eponymous singer of Jose Casas y la pistola de Papá (I heard their drummer, who was wearing the t-shirt of their hometown Sevilla football team Betis, singing Dave’s great harmony from “Better Things” and it spoke to me); and The Dream Factory from Tamworth, who come with a full horn section and kill it. Late Saturday night, David Bash got down on one knee on the Beatles Stage and proposed to Rina Bardfield, his partner in running IPO. She accepted.
For me, the chance to warble a couple of my 90s tunes on this sacred ground—backed by a pretty killer impromptu combo—was a surreal experience, a fantasy baseball chance to pretend for a few moments that I belong among the greats. And that’s the transcendent power of rock ‘n’ roll, innit?
There’s a bittersweet coda here. This morning, I took the train back to Manchester from Liverpool. I walked around a bit before I headed to the airport, soaking in the still unreal feeling of just having experienced a lifetime memory of live music. Twelve hours later, some lunatic intentionally targeted teenagers who were trying to enjoy live music—a suicide bomber killed 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena.
Jim Ellison, the leader of Material Issue, was a friend of mine. He wrote “International Pop Overthrow,” with its killer hook and strangely great lyrics (“I don’t need a girlfriend, I need an accomplice”), before he himself became a rockstar. He willed it. Jim would have loved that there’s a festival named for his creation and as a huge Beatles fan—we saw a Beatles cover band at Cubby Bear, by the way—he would have particularly loved the Liverpool edition.
For me, the rock ship has sailed. I’m not destined to become a rockstar. But the spirit of Merseybeat—Rory Storm, The Undertakers, The Senators, The Fourmost, The Dominoes, The Hideaways, Remo Four and Beryl Marsden, and The Beatles themselves—these magical moments baked into the bricks of the original arches of the lovingly restored Cavern Club, they allow one to dream. And that’s what music is for.
One final funny coda to this story. When I asked Josh Caterer if buying his guitar would finally enable me to play the really tasty solo he’s got going in “Megan,” he told me that was like when people would take dance lessons from Fred Astaire Studios and then sue if they couldn’t suddenly move like the master.